I already had a pretty good handle on the basic concept of a TV game show by the time I entered the third grade, thanks to Canadian-made efforts like Definition, Headline Hunters and The Mad Dash, not to mention the usual American suspects like The Price Is Right and Let’s Make A Deal.
But as the ’80s got under way, I was about to get an eyeful of a very different kind of game show, one that would hit close to home on several levels over the years to come and even give some friends of mine a chance at the limelight. And much to my surprise and delight, that high-school quiz program – Reach For The Top – is still very much alive and making an impact all across Canada to this very day.
By the time I discovered the Nova Scotia edition of Reach For The Top, which pitted high schools from across the province against each other en route to a national competition, the format had already been running in several different parts of Canada for nearly two decades. Launched in 1961 at Vancouver CBC-TV affiliate station CBUT, the series soon spread to such locations as Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, London, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and, eventually, Halifax, with the first Reach For The Top national championships held in Montreal in 1965. CBC and its various affiliate stations would continue to carry the provincial and national editions for the next two decades, and the public broadcaster even joined forces with the BBC for the British-Canadian joint production Trans-World Top Team in 1968.
With thousands of Canadians participating each year, it’s not surprising to find some notable alumni on either side of the Reach For The Top microphones. Long-time CBC Radio voice Shelagh Rogers competed in the Vancouver edition, and two former Prime Ministers – Kim Campbell and Stephen Harper – were also contestants. (Campbell describes Reach For The Top as “fun,” a word that she likely won’t use to characterise her troubled five-month run as PM in 1993; much like any question from the actual quiz show’s rapid-fire section, that reign of error could be accurately described as a “short snapper.”)
Notable faces also populated the regional host’s chairs, particularly that of Sudbury, Ontario native Alex Trebek. As you can see from this footage, Trebek’s time as front man of the Toronto edition of Reach For The Top prepped him nicely for his 37 years (and counting) as the Emmy-winning host of Jeopardy! The latter show’s writers recently saluted Trebek with a category entitled “Reach For The Top,” even though it was stuffed with mountain-climbing questions. (All things being equal, that’s still a nicer tribute than the short-tempered “Alex Trebel” character Eugene Levy created for several SCTV sketches that zinged the Reach For The Top competing-students format in the early ’80s.)
Here in Nova Scotia, Reach For The Top was hosted by veteran Atlantic Canadian broadcaster Les Stoodley (above), whose deliberate, deep-voiced style was a sharp contrast to the hyperactive approach taken by many of his American game-show counterparts (and their Sesame Street Muppet caricature, Guy Smiley). The face we saw most frequently, however, was that of long-running Nova Scotia sportscaster Gerry Fogarty, who served as the Halifax edition’s quiz-master. (In 1993, Fogarty entered provincial politics, becoming the Liberal MLA for the riding of Halifax-Bedford Basin and subsequently winding up as Nova Scotia’s Speaker of the House. I’m glad I wasn’t working in the Nova Scotia legislature at the time; I would have been the guy peppering Fogarty with witticisms like, “Mr. Quiz-Master, instead of asking a supplementary question, could we go straight to the Bonus Round?”)
Because I started watching Reach For The Top in 1980, I had the excitement of seeing a team from my own school, Ecole L’Ardoise (which was a Grades Primary-to-12 facility at the time), compete on a real TV game show, which was about the most exciting thing my eight-year-old mind could conceive. However, because I wasn’t watching in the ’70s, I missed seeing a student from West Pictou District High School, Danny MacKenzie, crack up Fogarty by giving the answer “bitch” in response to a question from the “Synonyms” category. That earnest young man went on to become, among other things, my brother-in-law.
While CBC sadly discontinued its Reach For The Top broadcasts in 1985 (depriving us of the kind of excitement seen here and here), a variety of private Canadian TV networks picked up the regional and national contests and broadcast them in various forms for another 24 years. Also in 1985, producer Sandy Stewart, who developed the show’s first national championship in the mid-’60s, created Reach For The Top Incorporated, which kept the regional and national quiz format going in both a televised format and an off-camera incarnation. These efforts continue today through the work of the Reach For The Top Foundation, which is still running its Schoolreach program to encourage a new generation of high-school geniuses.
Apart from the 1989 CBC-TV movie Pray For Me Paul Henderson, which depicts a fictional Reach For The Top championship against the backdrop of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series (as I’ve discussed here, in one of my earliest blog posts), my favourite memory of the competition actually involves a team I didn’t even see on TV.
Five years after the end of the CBC broadcasts, a six-member club from Memorial High School in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton won the 1990 Reach For The Top national title and earned the right to play in the Texaco Star Atlantic Championship in Houston, Texas. Led by staff advisers Pat Smith and Pat Lewis, the six-member Memorial High team dropped a club from Richmond, Virginia in the finals by a score of 305-to-280. (Yes, they did. It’s right here, in the official minutes of a provincial legislature session that included a special salute from their local MLA, Brian Young. And that was BEFORE Gerry Fogarty became Speaker of the House!)
I would have found this all extremely exciting even if one of my best friends from a Christian youth camp that I was attending at the time, Patrick Sutton, wasn’t on that Memorial High team. Or if the team’s only female student, Jen Morawiecki, didn’t wind up attending the University of King’s College in Halifax with me later that year. Or if I hadn’t written a goofy western-themed tribute to that victory, “The Ballad of Memorial High,” sung in a Texan drawl and saluting Patrick, Jen, and teammates Anthony Serroul, Jay Boutilier, Carl White and Robert MacDonald.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, you also know someone who once got a leg up from a Reach From The Top competition. (I also wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t challenging them to a game of Trivial Pursuit anytime soon.)