HOTTEST TONGUE IN THE WEST: JACK WEBSTAHR-R-R-R
He’s got all the gentle charm of an overheated pile driver—and listeners love it
WHAT IS A SOCIALLY oriented and politically interested Vancouver housewife supposed to do when it is 9 a.m. and Steve has finally gone to the office after never having taken his eyeballs off the sports pages of the Province the whole time he was eating his Froot Loops? Sitting there with his chin squashed down in three bulgy folds over a story on minorleague hockey or some stupid thing while national morality is at a low ebb and parliament is going to the dogs?
Well, Jack Webster will have something to say about that on his open-line show on CKNW-Radio-Top-Dog, and maybe this is the day that Patti can get through and tell Jack just what a wonderfully aware person he is, and make a viable comment on the mess they have got themselves into Back East.
So she turns on the radio and hears Jack say, “—lotte Whitton is a highly ir-r-r-r-responsible woman, but it is quite true that the sooner we get rid of Dief and Pearson the — and turns the sound down, and dials ML! 5-0495 for the seven hundredth time with trembling finger and, Lord, there is no busy signal, it is ringing, and then after an age there is a sort of hollowness in the line and this wet furry voice says, “Webstahr-r-r-r-r-r!”
“Am I on the air?”
(Lord!) “Well, 1 think you are a wonderfully aware person, Jack.”
“Yes-yes, but what do you want to talk about?”
“I just wanted to say that you are one man who can do something to stop this degrading fuss and scandal —
“Why stop it, my dear? If there’s dir-r-r-rty linen, let’s have it out.”
“Well, I think you are absolutely right — ”
Later, Patti can never remember what she said and what Jack said, but when somebody asks her if Jack was rude she says of course he wasn’t rude, he is not a rude person, he is just a little sharp with some of the twiggy-headed women who call in to say they have found a piece of glass in a sausage or some ridiculous thing, and even then it is probably just because his denture is —
“ — killing me,” Webster is saying. “God, it has been difficult with these bloody teeth.” We are walking, or rather running, downstairs from his studio on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Georgia to have coffee. This is Jack’s mor-r-r-r-rning coffee break, as he tells his audience, and one can imagine all the Greater Vancouver housewives thinking fondly of Jack trundling off to have his coffee. Dear man! Anyway, Webster has the most famous denture in the west. He had his teeth out in March, and talked about his experience on the air, so that it became part of his image, that of an irascible, lovable old muckraker and crotchety ombudsman. Webster's denture is supposed to have made his remarks more biting. They say
that, since he got it, the best thing he
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has had to say about anybody is that he is a gr-r-r-r-r-rade-A fink.
Webster himself is a grade-A newspaper reporter in the grand old muckraker tradition, who gave it up to become a . . . what, exactly? Radio-TV talker? He and Pierre Berton and Gordon Sinclair are the best known of a small group of Canadian writers who went over to broadcasting after making it as reporters. They went over because of the money, because it was something new, because they were hams, because it is easier to talk than to write, or maybe because in broadcasting it doesn’t matter much what one says as long as one says it with distinction. So here is Berton running you down on his white charger, pointing his lance at you and saying, in effect, “I am stronger than dirt.” Here is old Sine with the first radio newscast in living color, old Sine and his Hues of the News. Here is Webster, hard-nosed Scot and little mon’s avenger, whose accent may not be getting any thicker but sure as hell isn’t getting any thinner. The common qualities are absolute self-assurance, which is rarer than you might think, and abrasiveness, which gives them a prized amateur status among the happy-happy nothings of the broadcasting establishment, the guys who think good radio is dropping your voice about three tones at the end of every sentence.
Murder every Saturday
Webster is a born hustler. “Yeah,” he says, “what makes John Edgar Webster run? I had three jobs by the time I was fifteen.” In Scotland he covered gang fights and what he calls the r-r-r-regular Saturday-night murder for three Glasgow papers, snatching all available pictures of the deceased from wailing mothers and widows. He went to Vancouver in 1947 because, he says, “somebody said it was a temperate climate.” He pushed his way onto the Province, later onto the Sun, and started to expose things — bookie joints, illegal booze joints, bogus mutual health organizations, light - fingered and Commie unionists, all these big black exposés, always on the front page. “Any story I had I would wait until ten minutes before the page-one deadline, then sell
it loud. I was a noisy -. We
were great in those days. Now the Vancouver papers are lousy. What do you expect from that goddam Pacific Press? A goddam monopoly.”
Webster drifted into private radio in Vancouver in the early fifties and got the city by the ear during the 1955 Tupper Inquiry into police corruption. They wouldn’t let radio reporters with microphones into the chambers, so Webster took down everything, the entire testimony, in shorthand — he had picked it up on the rewrite desk of the Glasgow Evening Times — and reported two million juicy words to the radio audience. It made him famous, locally. Another time he went back to Scotland to work on Roy Thomson’s new television service. Thomson later described Scottish TV as a license to print money. The trouble was, none of it went to
jack Webster continued
“It would have been fun to clobber Sinclair...! could have”
Webster. “Thomson is a friendly old bean.” he says, “but you can’t do business with him.” He came back to Vancouver radio — “for the money, sure, for the goddam money.”
A Toronto radio station, CHUM, recently offered him more than forty thousand a year. “It would have been fun to clobber Sinclair in the ratings,”
he says. “I could have done it, too, but it would have taken a long time. The difference between us — I still consider myself a working reporter.” He turned down CHUM after squeezing more money out of CKNW. Altogether he is making about forty thousand in Vancouver.
Now. over coffee, he says, “I sup-
pose I am pr-r-r-rostituting myself. But I will not accept the charge that I am wasting my time talking to stupid women. They are not stupid. Even the stupid ones — I can teach them how to think. God, what a life, though. It’s much worse when it’s dull. Then it drives you batty.”
It is not dull this morning. The
Munsinger Affair is very big, and the calls are such that Webster’s right hand often has to float out and . . . hover . . . over the kill button on the tape deck, sometimes diving like a pale, pudgy bird of prey. It is a matter of some pride to him that he has only two and a half seconds to stop profane or libelous comment from getting on the air — the usual tape delay device permits eight seconds of decision. Webster has to be careful himself because off the air his speech is, well, colorful, as they say. “I have an automatic goddam kill button; I never slip,” he says. Oh, didn’t he say “bloody” on the show this morning? “Only inadver-r-r-rtently.”
We go back to the studio and meet Bert Hill, a Tommy Douglas lieutenant, who says that the leader of the NDP is ready to go on Webster’s show. Right now, though, he is in the men’s room on the mezzanine. “Come on!” shouts Webster. “This is great, gr-r-r-reat. It was set up but I didn’t know if he was coming.” We go through the mezzanine and Webster throws open a door and says, “I think Tommy Douglas is in there,” and he is, and we go back to the studio together. Douglas indicates that, yes, he is quite prepared to shaft the Old Line Parties over the Spencer Case and the Munsinger Affair. “Great, gr-r-r-reat!” Webster says. “We’ll muckrake everything!”
How many wined Ger-r-r-rda?
Back in the studio, a funny situation develops. We are all jammed in there: Webster, Douglas. Bert Hill and I. Douglas is sitting at Webster’s left elbow. There is about a minute to go until air time, and the radio is going (Top Dog News), the tape recorder is going (Webster is trying to find something he has pre-taped), the phone is going through a speaker (a woman is saying that her daughter brought home a book of dirty limericks from the library at a Burnaby junior high), and somebody is trying to get in the door but can’t make it. During all this, Webster is sitting at the microphone toying with his denture. Suddenly he whips around and makes a face at Douglas—sort of a mealtimein-Transylvania face — and Douglas grins, and Webster points at his teeth and shouts. “TEN THOUSAND NEW GODDAM TEETH.”
“NICE,” Douglas shouts hack.
The show goes well. Douglas is very sharp on the air. and during a commercial break Webster says, “This is great stuff, I love it. Does that make me a nasty sensation-monger?”
Douglas makes a sympathetic noise. "Come on now, Tommy,” Webster says, “how many of you were wining and dining Ger-r-r-rda?”
“Well,” Douglas says. “I’m sure I wasn’t and I’m sure Bert Herridge wasn't. That’s two.”
Webster tells Douglas he has just turned down a big Toronto job, and Douglas says. “I think you were wise. Yes, it would take a lot of compensations to live in Toronto.”
“It goddam well takes a lot to live here, with that goddam Social Credit government,” Webster says. “Ach, I’ve
given up trying to beat the -. I’m
just waiting for something big. Then I'll pull a Cardin.”
Jack Webster continued
“I couldn’t go to the U. S—they’d call me a Commie sure”
At noon Webster and I go down to the Newsmen’s Club, which is in the basement of the Hotel Georgia, and all the way down Webster is talking very fast. “That government business — I had [Premier] Bennett on before the last election. He is sharp, oh yeah. He had the advantage because I had to call him ‘sir.’ He's the only guy in the government I’d bother talking to. Oh. it’s a funny life. I couldn’t go to the U. S. — they’d call me a Commie sure. I’m forty-eight, been married twenty-six years. We’ve just bought a house back in Scotland, in Prestwick; it has central heating. My wife likes to go back. I like it here where I can read Hansard in the can for laughs. You can’t help liking that little Tommy Douglas — he has never been in power and has had no chance for hanky-panky. I love to ask old Dief questions — you can rile him so easy. Most people will talk to me. Paul Anka is coming on the show' tomorrow. I’m sure he will be a fink.” Webster was dragged by the heels into the open-line business a few' years ago by Pat Burns, a character w'ho conducted hate crusades and had half the female population of Greater Vancouver in some kind of nutty trance. One day Burns would say doctors were quacks, the next day he would say lawyers were four-flushers — all these spiteful generalizations in a marvelous sandpaper voice — and the ladies, well, they just ate it up. It was so much more fun than the old open-line formula, which amounted to a sort of forum for lost canaries. Burns — he gave ’em hell. And he was sexy. That wonderful voice! Well, when Burns hit the top, CKNW countered
with Webster, who had been doing straight news and interviews. But even Webster couldn’t make much of a dent in Burns’s ratings, and at one point CKNW tried to get Burns. Webster claims it was an attempt — successful, as it turned out — to price Burns right out of the market. Anyway. Burns has gone to Montreal, but
his legacy — gabble gabble gabble — lingers on. Webster is now' king of the open-line boys in Vancouver.
“This guy Burns was a maniac,” says Webster, “but he did open up a whole goddam new wor-r-r-rld to thousands of housewives. They don’t have the loyalty to me that they had to him. thank God. 1 couldn’t fill
Queen Elizabeth Theatre like that goddam Burns. I don’t want sycophants.” At this point — we are still walking down to the Newsmen’s Club — a blue-rinsed lady rushes up to Jack and says, “Jack, Jack, I’m a r-r-r-regular listener. I’ve always just idolized you.”
Webster gets back to the studio about three every afternoon to get ready for his 6.15 p.m. show and talk to the people who are always after him to solve their personal problems.
Jack Webster continued
“There are too many lickspittles and bootlickers around”
Today he meets a woman who claims her relatives are doing her out of her inheritance, partly by conspiring with her neighbors to keep their taps running all night. Webster gets a call from Toronto, from Ken Lefolii, a Seven Days producer, and he puts it over the studio speaker so I can hear. It seems that Lefolii wants Webster to fly to London or Munich. “We can get you to Gerda, Jack,” he says.
“I can’t do it," says Webster. “I’ve got all these new teeth.”
“Oh, nobody can argue with that.” “I go to the dentist every mor-r-r-rrning at eight. They might hurt me any time.”
“I wouldn’t have called if I’d known about the teeth thing.”
After the call Webster says, “Ach.
my teeth, my family. It's about time I stayed home for their sake. I cannot rise and go to goddam Innisfree. But I'd like to.”
Webster starts phoning bookstores to try and get a copy of Lots Of Limericks, by Louis Untermeyer. “It would be fun to read some of those dir-r-r-rty limericks on the show,” he says. He passes over a note from Peter C. Newman, the political reporter who wrote Renegade In Rower. The note says, “That was a brilliant and enormously tasteful interview you did with Spencer.” This refers to Webster’s biggest recent coup, an interview on radio and Seven Days with Victor Spencer, the postal clerk who was supposed to have been a spy. Webster says, “1 felt like a goddam heel bully-
ing the poor little guy. I’d been after him for months. I just kept dangling a bigger bait.” He won’t say how much he paid Spencer. “But a good guess would be more than a thousand dollars,” he says.
On the wall of Webster’s studio there is a letter from former Minister of Justice Davie Fulton, commending him for negotiating a truce with rioting prisoners at the New Westminster penitentiary in 1963. There is a picture of Webster at the inauguration of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos — a Webster interview with tycoon Harry Stonehill was shown seventeen times on Manila TV and probably got the reform-minded Marcos elected. There is a two-year-old clipping of a Webster story in the Scot-
land Sunday Mail. Webster’s lead says, “It’s great to be back in Scotland — but I think one week will be enough.” There is a card with the words, “QUIDNUNC: busybody” — a lady called him that once, and he was grudgingly impressed, he says, with her er-r-r-rudition.
Webster’s switchboard starts lighting up and he says to the people on the lines, “What do you want to talk about?” Then he says, “Well, hold on, you’ll be the (first, second, etc.) call.” After each conversation he says, “English, skinny, spinster, thirty-six,” or, “A sharp character,” or, “Watch this one — a nut.”
And later on the air a woman says, “I'd like to see the British come over and run the country,” and Webster says, “You sound like a political weirdo.”
A man calls and says, “I’m a Scotchman myself, but let me hear you mention Hees, dammit, instead of just the French-Canadian cabinet minister. Come on, let me hear you say Hees.” "HEES, HEES, HEES, HEES,” Webster says.
A woman calls and says, “I just wanted to say aloha to you.”
Webster says, “Have you been to Hawaii?”
“Yes, a year ago.”
"Well, are you still on the pineapple juice?”
During a commercial break a youivz man named Glyn Briscoe comes in to see Webster about this FBI agent, Alfie Gunn, who has been after him in Vancouver for allegedly dodging the U. S. draft. Webster is so taken with the story that he puts Briscoe right on the air. Webster keeps referring to “Mr. Gunn of the FBI.” He says, “And what did our Mr. Gunn of the FBI do next?” This is three weeks before the same story hits the front pages of the papers, and about a month before Webster does substantially the same interview on Seven Days.
More calls come in and go over the air. A man says, “How much money do you make for flying all the way to Toronto to appear on Front Page Challenge with your big fat belly?” Webster says, “My, aren’t you a fine fellow to meet at the end of the day. None of your business.”
Another man calls and says, “You are a TURNCOAT. Why, I knew ya in the days when you were a staunch Liberal. Now I hear ya being nice to that Tommy — ”
“I was never a staunch anything,” Webster cuts in. “There are too many lickspittles and bootlickers around. I don’t know you from a hole in the ground and don’t want to.”
The man says, “Oh, you know me all right. I can talk as long and as loud as you can too.”
Webster says, “Yeah, but I can cut you off,” and he does.
“Aaaah, my teeth are killing me,” Webster says at the end of the show. “1 wish I could go to Munich. They gave me an aptitude test once at the Sun. They told me about it years later. The conclusion of the goddam thing was, ‘For a quick slick superficial job. this man has no equal. Not recommended for anything r-r-r-requiring intense study. No musical or artistic appreciation.’ Ain’t it the truth?” ★