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July 30, 2011

  • Fascinating, Fascinating
  • When we were teenagers, even well into our twenties, my friend Rob and I used to develop comedy routines between ourselves. It would usually start as a single joke and we’d spin it out into comedy gold—or at least something that amused us greatly. I don’t know why we didn’t write them down and go into sketch comedy (probably because it amused only us). We still could. All the material is thoroughly etched in our memories. It only takes one of us to say “Heartbreak high” to set us off for hours…

    One of my favourite was our Elwy Yost routine, where we lampooned the sort of interviews Elwy did on TVOntario shows like Saturday Night at the Movies and Magic Shadows. I would play Elwy Yost and Rob would pay the interviewee and it would go something like this:

    Elwy: Ernest Shlabotnik, tell us… what led you to take up a career as an axe murderer?

    Ernest: Well, Elwy, it was watching you on Magic Shadows.

    Elwy: Fascinating, fascinating. What were you watching at the time?

    Ernest: I was watching Nortorious.

    Elwy: (with excitement) Oh? With Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman?

    Ernest: And Reinhold Schünzel.

    Elwy: Was he in that too? Oh my land! I did not know that.

    The routine went further than that, occasionally leading to an actual conclusion. Mostly, though, we didn’t get past the exclamation of “Oh my land!” which we thought was hilarious because Elwy did that all the time.

    imageIf you grew up in Ontario in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Elwy Yost was thoroughly so ingrained in our popular culture that two teenagers in Oakville made goofy fun of him. On TVOntario, the provincial public television station, Elwy hosted Magic Shadows, which showed a film in serialized format every night at 7:30, and Saturday Night at the Movies, TVO’s flagship program about film.

    TVO was, and still is, mandated with an educational remit and Saturday Night at the Movies didn’t just show a classic film on TV—they tried to enhance people’s knowledge of the films. Elwy Yost was at the forefront of that. TVOntario was full of unlikely hosts in the 1970s, and Elwy was the most unlikely host of them all. Short, pudgy, balding, he spoke in superlatives and punched his sentences with gusto and bonhomie. His language was full of polite, Canadian, expletive-free eclamations like “gosh” and “oh my land!”. He had done television in the 1960s on CBC. Before then he had been a teacher and a PR flack for A.V. Roe when the Avro Arrow was scrapped. But it was coming to TVO where he became a pop culture icon in the province of Ontario.

    He interviewed anyone and everyone connected with the films shown on Saturday Night at the Movies both in studio in Toronto, and during two decades worth of visits to Los Angeles. He interviewed the great stars of Hollywood and the actors who had gone into obscurity. He interviewed directors who had largely been ignored. Guys who worked on the lot. It was an age before DVD special features, much less specialty cable stations like TCM, and Saturday Night at the Movies was the only game in town in terms of getting to know how the great—and not so great—treasures of cinema were made.

    Elwy, shrewdly, owned the content and sold them to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There have been several Oscar nights which have used Elwy’s interview footage—once or twice I’ve even heard Elwy’s voice, now being watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

    But it wasn’t who Elwy Yost interviewd that made them so great. It was Elwy himself. When he said, as he often did, “fascinating”, he meant it. On camera he would never hide the fact that he was an enthusiast. (He would never let an interview subject simply finish their thought.. He would jump in, exclaiming, enthusing and thus became impossible to completely edit out of Oscar night clips.) He loved learning new things. He loved films—loved everything about them.

    Yes, there was something unbelievably goofy watching this middle-aged, pudgy bald man with glasses gushing in an interview with Dorothy Lamour. And let’s be honest, when it came to fawning, Elwy Yost made it a full contact sport. But here’s the thing. Elwy’s enthusiasm was infectious. There are all sorts of things about film and its history that came from the remarks that opened an episode of Saturday Night at the Movies or from an enthusiastic question to an actor or director or screenwriter.

    A few months ago, Patton Oswalt wrote an article in Wired about how nowadays there is no need for any geek to master a subject anymore because virtually anything in popular culture can be immediately obtained. But in the days before that, I learned about film from Elwy Yost. Elwy was a giant film geek. And every week on Saturday Night at the Movies he got to geek out for the entire province of Ontario not watching the hockey game (the ones watching the hockey game usually tuned in during the summer repeats). Elwy was an educator and the thing that good teachers have is enthusiasm. If you have it, people will listen. Elwy Yost had it. And I learned from him as a result.

    Elwy Yost died a few weeks ago at the age of 81. I never got to meet him (I saw him once, talking to someone at the corner Bloor and Yonge in Toronto in 1988. I was genuinely starstruck and didn’t approach). But over the past 20 years when I’ve had to interview people for various projects, I’ve always tried to carry the ethic that Elwy did: there’s always something to be excited about, and if you really care about the subject matter of the interviews the interviewee will as well.

    The older I get, the more I think Elwy had it right: it’s a good thing to be excited and enthusiastic about something (it’s something Saturday Night at the Movies’ current host, Thom Ernst gets. Thom is the successor Elwy deserved) and there’s no shame in it whatosever.

    Sometime soon, I’ll call my friend Rob, who now lives in Vancouver, and we’ll have Elwy interview axe murderer Ernest Shlabotnik again. Gosh, wouldn’t that be fun? Oh my land, yes.

    A few clips of Elwy… Here he is introducing an episode in the late 1980s

    And a bit of Elwy interviewing Greer Garson from the early ‘80s I think

    And not really film related, but the opening of a 1979 episode of Magic Shadows, featuring Elwy on location

    And let me just say that the Magic Shadows titles are some of the most haunting ever…

    Posted by graeme | (2) Comments | Permalink

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    Thom Ernst  on  08/22  at  05:36 AM

    Thanks Graeme,

    A thoughtful and unique approach to remembering Elwy.  I often wondered why none of the local comedy troupes - Kids in the Hall, Canadian Air Farce, Second City never did an Elwy sketch.  He would have loved it.

    Also…I truly appreciate the kind words about standing in as Elwy’s successor.  His are big shoes to fill - but I believe he taught me a lot while I was his researcher - and his enthusiasm, I hope, proved to be contagious.

    Rob Jones  on  08/29  at  03:37 PM

    *doubles over with laughter*

    Fantastic, Graeme. grin

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