Interview

With Max Ferguson

June 28 1976
Interview

With Max Ferguson

June 28 1976

With Max Ferguson

Interview

The jaunty notes of the Clarinet Polka fade for the last time this month, marking the end of a Canadian broadcasting legend: Max Ferguson, alias "Rawhide,” master of many voices, author of a thousand skits, is retiring. A little more than 50 years ago he came to Canada with his English father and Irish mother to settle in London, Ontario. Some experience in school radio led to a job in Halifax as a CBC staff announcer in 1946—and the rest is, as they say, history. Assigned to host a program of western music, which he hated, he assumed the voice of an old cowhand, thinking it would get him bounced. But the plan backfired, "Rawhide” was a runaway success, and by the time Ferguson stopped doing the show 1 7 years later he was known to millions from coasttocoast. His first book, And Now. .. Here’s Max, won the Stephen Leacock Award for humor in 1968, and recently he and his irreverent sidekick Allan McFee won the 1976 ACTRA Award for the best show in variety radio. At age 52, Max Ferguson is moving from Toronto to Cape Breton to pursue what he calls "creative stagnation.” He hates cocktail parties and groups of more than six. There were only five present for this interview: his airedale dog Buff and two canine friends, himself, and free-lance writer Casey Baldwin.

Maclean’s: What are some of the things that stick in your mind about the old days at CBC?

Ferguson: Well, the biggest event in my career with the CBC came when I was brought to Toronto. They wanted me to do Rawhide on the network. So in 1949, Valentine’s Day, the massacre day, I started out of Toronto. Now the Maritimes had by this time become inured to the program, but suddenly an Ontario audience had their favorite program, Musical March Past with Peter Dawson, which had been running for years, taken off the air—and without any warning. It was a Monday, and when the people tuned in, including the Ottawa civil service crowd, to get their marches, what they heard instead was “Howdy, this is old Rawhide.” Well, the roof fell in. I came in the next morning and there was De B. Holly, our morning announcer, saying, “Gee, Max, sorry about this.” I went down to the newsroom and read the teletype, watching these keys pounding out the story: “CBC’s Max Ferguson, who does the morning program of a westerner called Rawhide, came in for a severe tongue lashing in the House of

Commons, as Douglas Gooderham Ross, MP for the St. Paul’s riding in Toronto, stood up and asked, ‘Was he aware that this program was meaningless, trite, disguised in the poorest possible English...’ ” It went on and on, and I thought “Well, that’s the end of me.” It triggered the wildest set of letters to the editor. A. Davidson Dunton was our chairman at that time, and he wrote me a kind of a lighthearted little

CBC RADIO IS GOOD BECAUSE OF THE DECKHANDS, AND DESPITE THE BRASS

thing telling me to keep my holsters and six guns ready. The CBC brass called me in and said, “We’re going to watch the letters. If the pros outweigh the cons, then you’ll stay on. If the cons outweigh the pros, you’ll be taken off.” After about a week of seesawing back and forth, it all ended very nicely. We survived. They were exciting days. Maclean’s: When did you first meet Allan McFee?

Ferguson: When I was an announcer in Halifax, 1946-49, like all announcers down there—we’d been sent from different regions to be broken in and we're all waiting to get back up to the mecca, which was Toronto—I’d hear names like Allan McFee, Elwood Glover. We were all waiting our turn, waiting for the magic moment, and

finally the magic moment came. My farewell day in Halifax, I was called in by Captain W. E. S. Briggs, who was regional director for the Maritimes. In his clipped British naval speech he said, “Well, Ferguson, I want to wish you well in Toronto. I know the scene fairly well there. There are those to get to know and those to avoid. Stay clear of so and so, don’t go near this one, he’s a drunk, don't go near this one...” And then he said, “There’s one man up there who’s worth knowing and that’s Allan McFee.” That name didn’t mean that much to me, although I'd heard his voice from time to time, but when I got to Toronto I went looking for this great benefactor, Allan McFee. He gave me a scowling greeting and then just stomped off, and I thought, “What a boor, what a rotten guy.” Thatwas 1949. Ittook me alongtime, but I think I know him as well as anyone knows him now.

One of the first insights I had into his strange mind was coming down one morning to do the eight o’clock news and all over the CBC building were these obscene moist splotches on the wall, absolutely awful looking, with yellow streaks through them. They were all over all the windows in the studios. Finally about one o’clock I bumped into McFee. He was coming in to do the one o’clock news. And I said, “Have you seen these obscene things? It looks like someone has blown their nose on the walls.” He went over to one of the blobs on the wall and put his finger in it, licked his finger and said, “No it’s not that.” I almost threw up on the spot. Then he laughed and said, “Can you keep a secret?” And I said, “Why”? He told me he had been having breakfast that morning and he went to his refrigerator and there was a can of asparagus tips. He carried them to work because, as he said, they are so clean and yet look so awful on the wall. He took me upstairs to show me his triumph, which was on the wall of the director-general of programs, Ernie Bushnell. Allan reminds me of my school days—certain parts of his personality. Even to this day, on my program, McFee will take the morning paper and draw sex organs on every photograph. No one has done that since I left grade two. It’s so strange coming out of a man who can speak so well and who is so mature in his views.

Maclean’s: Many of your stories are real, shall we say, illustrations of the top-heavy CBC brass, as they are referred to. Ferguson: My credo at the CBC, my philosophy, came from a CBC executive that I did not like. He represented everything

rotten about CBC management. He was a cheat, bully, an alcoholic, bungler of his job, and when he was leaving they had a great big party for him. I didn't go. McFee went, and I got this report from McFee. He stood up there, and he didn’t even know where he was, and they stuck the briefcase in his hand, or the old traveling clock, and some roses for his wife, and one of the hosts of the celebration said, “Well now, we’ve gone through a lot of good times and bad times together Mr. X, but we’ve survived it all and we’ve got a lot of happy memories. Perhaps you’d like to say a few words.” Well, the birthday boy stood up and got out this line which became my credo: “I believe in national radio, but not the blank blank mess the CBC is making of it”—and with that he fell forward on his face, crushing the flowers and breaking the clock. But I believe in that line. I believe in national radio, but I don’t believe in the way it’s being run. Now you tell that to people, and they say, “Oh, thank God for the CBC, they do some great programs.” But that is missing the point of the whole thing. Those programs are done by creative people on the lower deck in spite of the handicaps that are put in their way. The only analogy I can use is the British army. You look back over some of the glorious victories of the British army, but they were achieved at an appalling cost of lives because of some idiot from an aristocratic family who had his position bought for him.

I finally got to say all this to Laurent Picard, who was CBC president when they unveiled that new CBC symbol in Ottawa. I was invited by the CBC to go down. They had invited all the Members of Parliament. It was a great big deal. I was determined not to go out of my way to say anything nasty about the symbol. I remember my daughter asking, “Well, why are you going down to this thing if you don’t believe in it?” I said, “I owe the CBC a very good living, they’ve invited me to go down, and I’ll go down. I’ll avoid the issue, but if anyone asks me point blank what I think of the new symbol I’m going to tell them.” Well it was a pleasant evening. I met some old friends. We were having drinks. I was about 15 minutes away from leaving to catch my plane back to Toronto, when this guy came up with the new symbol all over his tie, the guy that invented the symbol or was responsible for it. I was standing with Picard, Senator Keith Davey, Charles Lynch, and this guy uttered the sentence I’d tried to avoid all night. “Well Max, what do you think of it?” And I said, “One of the most obscenely stupid demoralizing moves the CBC has ever made.” Well that got Mr. Picard’s attention and he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “If you could come to the lower deck”—again using that expression—“and see what effect this has on an already low morale, the thousands that have been spent on this when our microphones don’t work, when our turntables break down, equipment

that has just about eroded my stomach walls, coming in with skits that I’ve spent a couple of frantic hours conceiving only to have them totally destroyed morning after morning because the mike won’t work or there are scratches on the sound effects records.” That got him opening up, and he said, “What would you do if you were president of the CBC?”

Maclean’s: What did you say?

Ferguson: I was never asked that before, but I’ve always had an answer for it. If I were president of the CBC I would get out of Ottawa. I would start in the regions, say Toronto, take the top man and follow him around all day asking him, “What is your job, what do you do, and what is this?” Then you go to his assistant and follow him around for a day to see how he helps that man. Then you go to several other juniors who help the assistant. And if you couldn’t

IF YOU COULDN’T GET RID OF 40% OF THE CBC DRONES, I’D BE VERY MUCH SURPRISED

get rid of, well, a very conservative estimate would be 40% of what I call the drones and put their salaries into equipment and into rewarding creative people, then I would be very much surprised. “Well,” he said, “who would be there then to face the parliamentary inquiries?” I said, “You’ve got at last count 14 vice-presidents who could do that relatively unimportant job while you yourself, a man who can make these decisions, should be out looking at what’s going on. Even if you were just seen around the studio, just to boost morale. Nobody comes near the studios, they’re physically removed from management.”

Just last night I ran into Harry Boyle and he confirmed a story I thought was impos-

sible. When the big upheaval came over This Hour Has Seven Days and the CBC was getting rid of its then president, Judy LaMarsh, who was Secretary of State, came to Harry Boyle and asked him if he would step in. Harry said, “I will under one condition.” He asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off about 40% of management and start from scratch. Of course, the money wasn’t available, but that would have been the great turning point, that would have solved the problem. That was the moment that was lost, because Harry Boyle knew where the dead wood was, the cheats, the drunks and the total incompetents, and he would have pensioned them off and started from scratch. We missed a great opportunity. Maclean’s: How did you feel about getting an ACTRA award?

Ferguson: It’s a terrible thing to say, but it embarrasses me. I like to get down into a quiet radio studio and get a program on the air. In my early years it would have meant much more to pie. Picking up an award, knowing that in that audience there were young performers as I was 30 years ago, I really felt guilty. But the greatest awards I’ve had are the letters that come in from people who say, “Mr. Ferguson, I remember going in to see my father during his last illness. He was going through a lot of pain in his hospital bed, but I’d find him laughing at your program.” Now that type of thing is the greatest, because in a studio you’re tempted to think that your voices are ending at the four walls. Suddenly you realize that there are flesh and blood human beings out there on the receiving end. A week ago in a restaurant in Toronto I almost hit a guy. He was making a scene in the restaurant, bullying the waitresses, and I got up to get a cigarette and as I went by him he looked up and said, “Well, if it isn’t the famous television and radio personality ...” I was up on the balls of my feet, the adrenaline was gushing in. And then he finished the sentence “. . . who made the last days of my mother’s illness so happy. Thank you.”

Maclean’s: You’re retiring at 52. Why? Ferguson: You know, it’s funny, people say, “You’re too young to retire.” Well, Cape Breton is such a physical country that it would be suicidal to go there at a normal retirement age and sit and look at that scenery from a wheelchair. You’ve got to be younger. I’m going to more physical stress than I’ve ever done in my life. Wall building, digging, gardening, chopping wood. I want to enjoy it while I’m still young enough to really get into the thing, and really live it down there.

Maclean’s: You used the term “creative stagnation” which you hope to practise in Neil’s Harbor, Cape Breton. What do you mean?

Ferguson: Right now, I don’t even want to write my name. I want a complete escape from what I’ve been doing for 30 years. I want to do things like working with my hands, keep chickens, keep goats, keep

bees, grow dwarf fruit trees. But after one year, two or three years, I don’t know when it is going to happen, it hasn’t happened for years, but when I was just starting out with the CBC I use to just love to sit down with a pen and paper and work out a skit. I’m hoping that I’ll get that feeling again down there in Cape Breton. But it’ll never lead me to get back on to the treadmill of five a week. The way I want to do it, if it comes to me, this “creative thrust,” would be to write on my own time. I did get great satisfaction out of that one book I wrote. I wrote it at Cape Breton at my cottage. Authors are supposed to agonize, but it was fun to do. If I wasn’t in the right mood, I’d

put it to one side. If I was in the mood, of course, I would go right through the small hours of the morning enjoying every minute of it.

Maclean’s: You’re a private man. Are you shy?

Ferguson: I don’t like human beings in groups over six. I can’t stand cocktail parties. Shy, is not the word. I’m a bit withdrawn, I think. I’m not gregarious, that’s the way to put it. I couldn’t join a service club. Maclean’s: You’ve done some extremely funny and uncannily accurate impressions of our political leaders. Could you tell me what you think of men such as Stanfield and Trudeau?

Ferguson: I’ll have to take Bob Stanfield first, because I feel more guilty about what I did to him than any other political character. Here is a man who unfortunately came on the political scene at a time when television demands instant impact. It worked beautifully for Trudeau, who works the medium. Stanfield, and I think the press knows it now, is a man with an IQ every bit as good as Trudeau’s and a sense of humor every bit as good as Trudeau’s, but unfortunately he had to make an instant image. I really felt guilty doing a characterization which unfortunately made him look mentally slow. I have great admiration for him. He’s got tremendous integrity and he is one of the few politicians that I really, really feel I like. Maclean’s: What about Trudeau? Ferguson: I’ll always give him credit for one thing-he’s probably the first prime minister who can represent us abroad, especially, say, in England where even though they are very suave, polite and gracious to you they still laugh at you for being a colonial. I don’t think that anyone over there would laugh at Trudeau, because he could carve up even the most urbane Englishman. But on the domestic scene, I don’t know. I resented greatly a remark he made a few years ago. At the time, the drug problem was at its worst, and kids were being picked up stoned on the streets. These kids were lost, no incentive in their life, and Trudeau came out and said, “Let them go up and build a new country in the North. This is what would put excitement in their life.” But he said it callously and flippantly. The kids today want some kind of direction. My daughter is in a kibbutz in Israel and I’ve never seen such glowing letters. She’s been looking for this all her life, a sense of adventure and pioneering that Canadian kids have never had, not in this generation certainly. I resented Trudeau being flip because it was a tragic time for young kids in Canada. They just had no direction, they were drifting they had no values of their own, and they simply weren’t going to accept the phony values of my generation.

Maclean’s: Do you think you should get McFee a farm in Cape Breton?

Ferguson: Oh, McFee just loves Cape Breton. He came down one summer and he used to get up at five in the morning—I get up around seven—and I would see him staring out to the sea, brushing his teeth in my 150 over-proof rum. He loves that life, too. I think it’s in everybody. It hits city people most of all. I just feel cramped and suffocated in the city, looking over roof tops from my apartment building. I said this to McFee, and he started laughing at me, but it’s got something to do with the very origins of life—in a saline solution, that’s where we start. Just the sight of the ocean has a therapeutic effect. The sound of surf coming in is one of the most therapeutic things I can think of, even if you don’t swim in the water, even if you just watch and listen to the water, v?