Canada 1981: Why Stan Was ‘The Man’ For CBC’s Switchback

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Even before he landed the gig that still defines him for hundreds of thousands of Generation-X Atlantic Canadians, Stan Johnson was already raising eyebrows at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for his unorthodox approach to TV.

This was the budding reporter who interviewed a tree doomed to the axe in Winnipeg. This was the offbeat journalist who, when presented with a government PR hack who wouldn’t name names even though a high-ranking elected official was clearly involved in the story-du-jour, didn’t miss a beat and asked for the mystery man’s initials.

So when the native of Brantford, Ontario (“Proud Home of Wayne Gretzky“) learned that the public broadcaster was holding auditions in Halifax to find the host for an East Coast version of the weekly live youth/children’s show Switchback, which had debuted successfully in Vancouver in the winter of 1981, Johnson chose the only sensible means of applying. He found a leftover piece of CBC stationery, scrawled “I want that job” in crayon, and sent it eastward.

From that humble start, Stan Johnson became “Stan The Man,” and on November 1, 1981, he and the Halifax Switchback team launched one of the last great success stories in the history of CBC’s regional TV broadcasts – and, in doing so, pretty much changed my life.

Now, on paper, Switchback had a pretty straightforward formula, not unlike previous youth-oriented CBC efforts like Hobbledehoy: Basically, give preteens and teenagers 90 minutes’ worth of stuff they might find amusing and/or interesting, give them a sense of involvement and ownership in the show, have a charismatic and funny host tie the whole thing together, and hope for the best. Interviewed a year and a half after the Halifax edition’s debut, executive producer John Nowlan, who had previously headed up Prince Edward Island’s edition of CBC Radio’s Information Morning, recalled: “I had seen the Vancouver show and thought, ‘Hey, this could click in the Maritimes.'”

“Clicked” is putting it mildly.

By the second week on the air, Halifax’s Switchback required its own standalone phone number because over-eager viewers blew out the CBHT switchboard trying to participate in the first episode’s phone-in contests. The series was only broadcast to Nova Scotia and PEI in its first season, but expanded to New Brunswick in the second, chalking up 250,000 viewers during that time. In its third East Coast season, Switchback was available to TV watchers in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as eastern Northwest Territories communities such as Frobisher Bay; viewer mail even trickled in from eastern Maine, and audience numbers spiked at 350,000 by mid-1984.

If these numbers don’t seem like much to write home about, consider this: In the late ’80s, CBC was drawing only 500,000 viewers for its Thursday-night nation-wide comedy line-up of The Kids In The Hall and Codco – the latter show, incidentally, shared studio space with Switchback at CBHT during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Consider, also, that as a counter-programming move in the 1982-83 season, CBC’s main competitor in the Maritimes, ATV, ran The Smurfs on Sunday mornings; Switchback holds the distinction of being the only series in North America to beat the little blue buggers in any market or time slot.

(Above: Switchback swag, featuring various tag lines used regionally and nationally during the show’s decade on the air. My sister Colleen actually suggested the “Weekends Are For Switchback” slogan early in the Halifax show’s fourth season, and it landed on a new line of T-shirts only a few weeks later. They inexplicably dropped it the following season for the strangely-familiar-sounding catch-phrase depicted on the “phone” button.) 

There are many reasons for Switchback’s cross-generational success, in the Maritimes and six other regional markets across Canada.

  • It gave early-’80s viewers their initial exposure to the first wave of music videos, over three years before the launch of MuchMusic and such CBC fare as Video Hits and Good Rockin’ Tonite. (Fun fact: The latter show’s second host, Stu Jeffries, also became the Vancouver Switchback host in 1987; the proof is here. Also, here.)
  • The series was also far more interactive than any other youth-oriented programming, not only encouraging viewers to participate in mail-in and phone-in contests (largely forbidden at the CBC until that time) but also inviting them to suggest their own contests and other ideas for portions of the show.
  • Switchback hosts and camera crews also routinely visited schools in their broadcast area, either encouraging the kids to provide the laugh track for the “Joke of the Week” or getting them to come up with their own gag lines.
  • And, decades before eBay and Kijiji emerged as the World’s Biggest Online Swap Meets, Switchback viewers could write or phone the show to offer items to trade with other viewers, either through the series’ on-air Trading Post or the Switchback Magazine, which included trades, jokes, winners of art-oriented contests such as “Envelope of the Week,” and a regular newsletter from the series’ hosts and co-hosts.

But, as I mentioned earlier, none of these elements work within a 90-minute live show if you don’t have the right host to bring it all home and draw in the viewers. Which brings me back to Stan “The Man” Johnson.

The former news reporter hit the ground running in the Halifax Switchback’s first season, striking the nearly-impossible balance between two distinct personas: the cool, reliable, unflappable captain of the ship and the goofy uncle who was willing to do anything to get a laugh out of a kid. (Or their parents; in the show’s early years, Stan joked about everybody from then-PM Pierre Trudeau to Newfoundland-born Playboy Playmate and future Mrs. Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed. We weren’t exactly going to hear about those folks on Mr. Dress-Up or The Friendly Giant.)

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No Switchback subplot or storyline was too ridiculous for Stan. His canine co-host Rufus, who began his life on the show as a puppet, was kidnapped on the first-season finale, with an actor playing Peter Falk’s Columbo showing up to find him before Stan asked viewers to submit their own possible “Who Took Rufus?” scenarios, saying “this is where our writers couldn’t figure out what to do.” Still missing by the second-season premiere, Rufus was reported to be involved in several bizarre scenarios (including “moving Grand Manan Island to the Bay of Fundy”) before the 1982 Hallowe’en episode, which saw Spider-Man make three attempts to return the little rascal before finally bringing him in shortly before the credits rolled (along with suspected Rufus-napper and Halifax Daily News columnist Tom Regan, in his first of many appearances on the series, which included a fill-in hosting stint in 1985 when Stan was given a brief winter vacation).

Rufus had plenty of other Switchback adventures, including getting married and divorced within a six-month span in 1983, starring in his own viewer-written soap opera (“Dullus”), getting dolled-up (pun intended) as Michael Jackson and Boy George, and conducting his own live interview in 1985 with a pair of dog-oriented cartoonists. (Rufus’ voice was supplied by Halifax musician Mike Dmitri, who would later serve as producer for Stan’s only children’s album, Batteries Not Included.)

But the biggest adventure of all came in late 1986, as CBC – seeking a replacement for the formerly-unique dog puppet design that was mass-marketed under the Wrinkles name in late 1984 – worked out an arrangement that saw Stan and the entire Johnson family adopt a Shar-pei puppy that became the “new” Rufus midway through the Halifax Switchback’s sixth season. (Depicted by legendary Halifax cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon in the T-shirt design seen below, Rufus would stay a part of the Johnson household for the remaining 12 years of his life, well beyond his days of regional TV stardom.)

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Among the biggest reasons Stan The Man became one of my early mentors: His self-deprecating style of humour, rarely missing a chance to poke fun at himself, the show’s low budget or even his CBC employers. For one of my favourite Switchback TV ads, in 1986, Stan and frequent guest Doug Barron (in the guise of his Q104 Radio persona Hal Harbour) drove around Halifax, with Stan leaning out the window and hollering: “Buy a pencil and support the CBC!” Halifax supper-hour news hosts Jim Nunn and Susan Ormiston were frequently the butt of Stan’s jokes (the former took it in stride as a Switchback guest in early 1988, and I doubt the latter even remembers it as she looks back on her lengthy career as a national news correspondent for both CBC and CTV). And in early 1987, with Switchback having survived a few rounds of CBC budget cuts prompted by federal government funding reductions, Stan presented a live series of “Tips for Party-Goers” that included his slipping on a garish Brian Mulroney mask and quipping: “Once you wear this at a party, you can say anything you want, because nobody believes anything this guy says anyway!”

Through all of it, Stan The Man drove home a crucial lesson about my understanding of Canada that his remained with me to this day: A large part of our strength as a nation lies in our sense of humour, our ability to laugh at ourselves, and our refusal to take anything – even something as “sacred” as our public broadcaster – too seriously. In 1995, two years into my first full-time radio job, I wrote to Stan (then a morning DJ at KHJ AM Radio in Fredericton, New Brunswick) to thank him for inspiring my own fledgling broadcast career with his quick wit, his breezy but professional on-air delivery, and his ability to laugh at himself if something ever went wrong during a broadcast. His reply included this self-assessment: “I didn’t think I had ever influenced anybody that much, but when I re-read what you wrote, it sure sounds like me.”

You see, by that time, Stan had already had several years’ worth of breaking the fourth wall between himself and Switchback’s viewing audience. My family and I first met him in December 1982, when he came to Port Hawkesbury with a touring production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. (He played Linus.) An unexpected early-evening snowstorm meant we would have to leave town early and miss the play, but my mother, sensing my disappointment, made a couple of phone calls and determined that Stan was staying at the town’s Wandlyn Inn (now the Maritime Inn).

So we entered the front lobby, asked the front desk clerk if she could page Stan Johnson, and moments later, there was the tall, curly-haired fellow who I had only ever seen on our TV screens. Somehow, my 10-year-old voice squeaked out: “Are you Stan Johnson?” He smiled: “Yes, and who might you be?” “My name is Adam Cooke…” His eyes flew open: “Not Adam Cooke from St. Peter’s!” My mouth dropped open and Mom filled the resulting gap: “How did you know?” Stan: “Well, when you get a handwritten fan letter and several contest entries from a certain address every week, you tend to remember.”

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After this early encounter, my Mom, my younger sister Colleen and I were warmly welcomed at the CBHT studios for six visits to the Switchback studio audience – not just by Stan but other members of the production crew. These included prop man Paul Cormier, who wore a furry glove to play “The Gorilla” for six seasons as he handed Stan prizes from just off-camera and participated in all kinds of on-air silliness. (A few friends of mine from the Richmond County community of River Bourgeois still talk excitedly about Cormier’s “Switchback stories” and his modelling of the actual Gorilla Arm for star-struck youngsters during his visits to his summer home in the area.)

The aforementioned executive producer John Nowlan, frequently razzed on-air by Stan as “The Boss,” also became a presence in my life during the show’s run, often responding to my fan mail, phoning me at home with updates, sending various Switchback goodies and even filling out a hand-written “Viewer Questionnaire” that I sent him in 1984. (This delightful article by a fellow Switchback viewer in Saint John, New Brunswick shows that I wasn’t the only fan whose opinions and viewership Nowlan valued.)

After Nowlan left Switchback in 1986 to become CBC’s executive producer of children and youth programming – overseeing Halifax-produced segments for the Canadian edition of Sesame Street and eventually launching the long-running CBC youth consumer series Street Cents – series producer Alice Porter picked up the torch and sent me several amazingly-detailed letters over the course of the Halifax Switchback’s final four seasons. (I was heartbroken to learn of Alice’s far-too-young passing in late 1994.)

This personal approach by Stan and the Switchback team created a loyal fandom that still exists in pockets around Atlantic Canada. Many of these fans also joined “Stan’s Safety Team,” launched in 1984 by the daily Nova Scotia newspapers The Chronicle Herald and The Mail-Star to encourage impressionable young’uns to avoid smoking and wear bicycle helmets and other such things. I was a proud card-carrying S-Team member (above, left); so was well-travelled Nova Scotia magician David “Mister J” Johnston, who still has his own amazing stash of Switchback memorabilia and shared it with me during a visit to Port Hawkesbury in late 2011 (above, right), a few months after we met at the previous summer’s StanFest. (No, that’s not a Switchback convention, it’s the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia. But hey, dare to dream, right?)

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so did Switchback, losing three of its regional editions in 1988 (here’s a YouTube link to the Winnipeg edition’s surprisingly hilarious finale) with the remaining four – Halifax, Ottawa, Regina and Vancouver – cancelled in March 1990. It marked the end of an era for the CBC’s regional TV production – with the exception of supper-hour and late-night newscasts (many of which were also canned later that same year), the Mother Corp would no longer pour resources into TV programming for regional audiences, preferring instead to promote nationally-broadcast series produced at its regional studios. In Halifax, this meant Codco, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Street Cents; the half-hour documentary series Land and Sea has survived numerous cancellation attempts but is largely dependent on footage shot by independent filmmakers as opposed to CBC employees. So, in a bizarre twist of fate, Switchback, the wacky little Sunday-morning “kiddie show,” arguably became the last hurrah for regional CBC-TV programming, particularly in the Maritimes.

Apart from encouraging me to pursue media work as a career, Switchback’s reach beyond its projected youth audience may have also sparked another significant development in my life. You see, university students also enjoyed the series; in a 1984 interview, Stan Johnson recalled a Saturday night visit to Halifax’s venerable Misty Moon Cabaret in which he met a Dalhousie student who swore he was going to stay up all night and then watch Switchback on Sunday morning before going to bed. Similarly, early-’80s Acadia students gravitated to the Wolfville campus’ TV room to catch Stan and Rufus on Sunday mornings, with many of them considering it their “hangover show.”

One such Acadia student, a fetching young lass from Pictou County, noticed the frequency with which Stan The Man read letters and contest entries from “Adam from St. Peter’s.” Her heart went out to this poor 10-year-old boy who had nothing better to do than to write to a TV show every week, and she even went so far as to pray that this pitiful little fellow from a tiny Cape Breton community would eventually get himself a friend.

He did. You see, today, I call that Acadia grad “Mrs. Cooke.” 🙂

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This is the front cover for the “Switchback Just For Fun Book,” launched just before the Halifax edition’s second season kicked in. The art and puzzles were courtesy of Owen McCarron, a Halifax native whose work you might recognize from Stan Lee’s “Marvel Fun and Games” series of the ’70s and ’80s.

Other notable Switchback clips, links and chatter around the Web:
* Stan The Man, in costume for the Halifax edition’s 1984 Hallowe’en show, interviews Fredericton-based UFO expert Dr. Stanton Freidman – Part 1; Part 2
* Stan The Man interviews Degrassi Junior High stars Pat “Joey Jeremiah” Mastroianni and Angela “Erica Farrell” Deisach in early 1988 – click here
* Stan The Man starring in the title role for an “in-house” video for the 1988 Terry Kelly song “Mama Likes To Rock and Roll,” with pyrotechnics by frequent Switchback guest Fred Wadeclick here
* Two different call-outs for information and archival footage of the Halifax Switchback, here and here
* Link to The Lost Cod Clothing Company, a Halifax-based store selling T-shirts with Switchback logos (not my favourite of their logos, but anyway…)
* The best sample I could find of the original Switchback theme song, courtesy of the Winnipeg edition
* The best sample I could find of the second Switchback theme song, courtesy of a brief retrospective of the Winnipeg show (which also includes host Laurie Mustard, playing it on the kazoo!)
* The theme song for the final two seasons of the Halifax Switchback (as well as the Ottawa version)
* A 1989 commercial featuring Andrew Cochrane, who hosted the Vancouver Switchback from 1984-87 and the Halifax Switchback from 1988-90, following Stan’s departure. (But that’s a whole other blog post…)

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3 thoughts on “Canada 1981: Why Stan Was ‘The Man’ For CBC’s Switchback

  1. Fantastic article. Brings back a ton of memories. My sister and I never missed an episode.

    I met Stan a couple of times, back in the 80’s. Once he came to our school in Wolfville. He then hosted an event at the apple blossom parade.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Like

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