Column

Like the CPR, Gzowski tied us together

Allan Fotheringham June 16 1997
Column

Like the CPR, Gzowski tied us together

Allan Fotheringham June 16 1997

Like the CPR, Gzowski tied us together

Allan Fotheringham

It was an entirely fitting coincidence. The Death of Gzowski and the worst election campaign within memory. Two sad events come together, and the nation is further fractured.

There was a feeling, as Peter Gzowski ended his 15 years at Morningside, that he could have been elected prime minister—such was the thin gruel offered to us at the polls. He was taking more farewell tours than Harry Lauder (or Karen Kain?). The best thing on the crippled Canadian Broadcorping Castration is radio and the best thing on radio was Morningside and the rumpled guy who can’t read a sentence without stumbling.

There has been all the usual de-Stalinization, mainly in the Toronto press, over the amazing discovery that Gzowski, off air, isn’t a terribly nice man. Who said he had to be? Some of us are saints at the typewriter, but somewhat less than that away from it Don Harron had several seasons as host of the show—as did Helen Hutchinson and Bruno Gerussi—and a senior staffer at Morningside once explained the difference between Don and Peter. Harron, a Shakespearean actor at Stratford before evolving into Charlie Farquharson, was a bit of a smart-ass on air with his quick wit. Off air, he is the most shy and quiet man you will ever find at a party.

Gzowski, she explained, has the on-air personality of an awkward innocent when in real life he is quite arrogant and abrupt with his staff. Who cares? All Barrymore had to do was be good onstage.

This scribbler has known Gzowski, sort of, for decades, since he was causing trouble at the University of Toronto student paper and your humble agent was doing the same at the University of British Columbia.

I did a semi-regular irregular gig on his ill-fated 90 Minutes Live venture in late-night TV. At the start of his second season, when I saw in an Edmonton studio that they had built a riser at the front of his desk to mask his shaking hands, I knew the end was nigh. They killed the show at Christmas.

All I know is that we’ve never once had a serious conversation over those decades. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we actually like each other. A female friend calls it “pecker-stretching”—her contemptuous phrase for male rivalry. My friend doesn’t listen to

Gzowski, doesn’t understand Gzowski. That’s because she’s from Toronto and Toronto isn’t a Canadian city. The Big Pickle enviously wants to be American.

Someone named Geoff Pevere, a graduate of Ryerson School of Journalism—you can no more teach journalism than you can teach sex—has written a book in which he says his idea of hell is having to listen to Morningside 24 hours a day. It’s a funny line, but meaningless. Pevere isn’t a Canadian either. He’s a product of Toronto.

That was the whole key to Morningside. It was an anti-Toronto program. It was perfectly appropriate that Gzowski’s farewell

show came from Moose Jaw, Sask., where he started as a youthful city editor between his on-and-off forays at the U of T, where he never did get a degree. That’s great! The guy who typifies all of Canada never did, well, uh, almost, get a university degree. Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.

Several weeks back, I went to Ottawa to appear on a “Save-the-CBC” benefit. There were to be six speakers, but 33 acts showed up—each allowed “two minutes.” Dawn was approaching when I approached the mike.

I told the throng that just as the CPR bound the nation together with a ribbon of steel, Gzowski and Morningside tied it together with “a ribbon of reason.” I recited a letter to the editor from an Alberta woman who had set out in her car for a new life in Nova Scotia where she knew no one. The yapping kids in the back demanded I usual junk rock until fiddling with the t dial in New Brunswick, she came up> on the deep-chocolate voice of Gzowski and—I choked up a bit about the sentiment—she knew she “was in Canada again.”

For days, close friends rushed up to gloat that they had heard me “crying” on national radio. It apparently is a criminal offence to show emotion in Canada. During the election, the Jean Charest jet landed in a place I had never heard of, Charlo, N.B. A man came up and said: “I heard you on the radio. It was great.” I allowed to him that my 47 best friends were guffawing over it. “Screw your friends!” he shouted. “That was great.” In fact, what it was, was Gzowski. The ribbon of reason.

Several months back I saw him at a party and said, meaning to be playful, that I had finally figured why he stumbled and fumbled over his words: female listeners loved that little-boy-lost helplessness. He looked at me with a stunned look, as if he were the only person in all of Canada who didn’t know he stumbled. I asked his senior producer. “Oh sure,” she said. “It’s an involuntary voluntary act.”

What they should teach in journalism schools is how to listen, the greatest world shortage being good listeners. Gzowski has explained, learning it from Pat Watson’s days on This Hour Has Seven Days, that remaining silent is the greatest weapon an interviewer has. “It’s acting,” he confessed.

He’s a great actor, and a treasure.