CKRC email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2005-05-07 published
George SALVERSON, Playwright: 1916-2005
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's first drama editor wrote a thousand radio plays, switched effortlessly to television and wrote a hit musical
By F.F. LANGAN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 7, 2005, Page S9
Toronto -- He was Canada's king of radio drama in its golden age. George SALVERSON wrote about a thousand radio plays in a career that began in 1945 and lasted until long after the arrival of television. He was a volume man who never kept count and, in fact, held few copies of his work. Week after week, Mr. SALVERSON generated a one-hour Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio play with a careful story line and perfect dialogue. The phrase "writer's block" didn't exist for him; he was a freelancer and he had to eat.
He did have a routine, though. For many years he worked for Stages, the main Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio drama of the week. His work week started on a Tuesday or a Wednesday with an idea. It could be something in the news, such as prison reform or mental health. Radio dramas were used to deal with social issues the same way television documentaries or long news items are today.
After the idea was nailed down, Mr. SALVERSON would write one act a day, with almost all his plays having three acts. That left him ready for the rehearsal, which took all day Saturday. During and after the rehearsal, he and the director, either Esse LJUNGH or Andrew ALLAN, would work polishing the script.
"The live performance was on Sunday," remembers Alfie SCOPP who was one of the actors. "We could come dressed casually for the rehearsal, but when we went live at 5 o'clock on Sunday we had to be dressed in a suit and a tie."
Studio G on Jarvis Street in Toronto would be filled with as many as 20 actors, including such well-known names as John DRAINIE, Aileen SEATON and Bud KNAPP. No matter how long their part, actors were all paid $45 a performance.
One example of the radio play as social commentary was a series called Return Journey, which Mr. SALVERSON wrote in 1951. It was based on research done at Kingston Penitentiary on how hard it was for a released prisoner to make it on the outside. The story tells how a prisoner was afraid of the outside world but also afraid of failure and a return to behind bars.
He did much of the research for that particular play while on his honeymoon in Kingston, Ontario His wife Olive SCOTT, went by the stage name of Sandra SCOTT, and acted in many of his productions. "George was always amazed that this glamorous actress married him," remembers his friend Mr. SCOPP.
The work on his honeymoon showed how an idea could be plucked from the headlines. In a recent e-mail to his daughter, Julie, he said the early Canadian Broadcasting Corporation almost invented documentary drama for radio. "Now it's routine in Law and Order."
Later when Mr. SALVERSON moved to television, he used the same techniques for coming up with story ideas. Once he met a man he knew who had been a successful advertising executive but could no longer find work because he was over 45. "The trouble is, I'm over-age and over qualified," the man told Mr. SALVERSON.
The same line came out of the mouth of Walter, the fictional version of the ad man in the television play, The Write-Off. Mr. SALVERSON spoke to people in the business world, talked to employment agencies and tried to find out just how many Walters there were in Canada. He figured there to be at least 500,000 under-employed older people.
"The real Walter attended one of the taping sessions and he walked into the control room as Rudi [director Rudi DORN] was directing the firing scene," recalled Mr. SALVERSON in a 1968 interview. "When I asked him was this anything like the way it really happened, he gave me a long look and remarked, 'Have you ever been through a nightmare twice?' "
George SALVERSON's early life read like an improbable script for a radio play. His father, the son of Scandinavian immigrants, worked for the Canadian National Railway and the family lived, at one time or another, in Port Arthur, Ontario, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Kamloops, British Columbia, Vancouver and Victoria. Fortunately, he spent enough time in Port Arthur to go to high school there. His mother, Laura Goodman SALVERSON, wrote and published 10 books. She won the Governor General's Award twice -- for her novel The Dark Weaver in 1937 and then for her autobiography Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter in1939.
Even so, George SALVERSON never wanted to be a playwright. He set out to be a newscaster and was headed in the right direction when he got his first job at CFAR in Flin Flon, Manitoba He performed every role at the tiny radio station, including writing and reading the news. The highlight of his newscasting career occurred on December 7, 1941, when he told the 7,000 people of Flin Flon of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he did it dressed in a suit.
His second job came along in what was then the biggest city in Western Canada -- Winnipeg. But at CKRC, they had other plans. He could read the occasional newscast if he liked, but it wasn't news readers they wanted. They had plenty, thanks. What they needed was a playwright, someone who could knock off a quickie radio drama and also take a part or two.
His first play was a success, and Mr. SALVERSON soon found himself doing the writing, acting, producing and sound effects. He resolved to perfect his dramas, drifting over to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to pick up pointers on how to write believable dialogue and interesting story ideas.
For a couple of years, Mr. SALVERSON wrote, produced and directed plays for Eaton's, when the department store used radio dramas to sell its wares. Then, in 1948, he was given work by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and moved to Toronto. Among his first shows was Paper Railroad, a play based on his father's work life.
From the time he arrived in Toronto he was never short of works or awards. He won a first in the Canadian Radio Awards of 1948 and, the following year, received another from Ohio State University. In 1949, he adapted Dracula for radio, a play that starred Lorne GREEN, Alan KING and Lister SINCLAIR.
When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation turned to television in the fall of 1952, Mr. SALVERSON was soon writing both radio and television plays and he became the network's first drama editor. One of his plays, The Discoverers, was performed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and on Kraft Theatre in the United States. The play was about Banting and Best's discovery of insulin.
Later on he wrote documentaries as well as dramas for television. Perhaps his most famous was Air of Death. "That changed the course of public affairs programming on television," said Jane CHALMERS, vice-president of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio. "In October of 1967, this documentary report, written by George, and dealing with air pollution in Canada, aired on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation-television, pre-empting the top-rated The Ed Sullivan Show."
His script laid the subject bare and resulted in a lawsuit.
"Dad worked for six months helping the lawyers and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with the lawsuit. They won their case," said Julie SALVERSON. "He used to joke it was the only time he had such steady work."
He wrote one production for the stage, the musical The Legend of the Dumbells, which was produced at the Charlottetown Festival in 1977. It was about a Canadian troupe of First World War entertainers and used songs from the era. It travelled to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and the Elgin Theatre in Toronto and continues to be staged.
When Studio G closed in July 1993, before the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation moved to its new Toronto headquarters, he wrote a 10-minute sketch for radio. It was called End Credits.
For many years, Mr. SALVERSON taught writing at Ryerson University in Toronto and, in the process, found that some people were unteachable. He told his daughter Julie, in one of their many e-mails, the story of a 50-year-old novelist who wanted to turn one of his books into a screenplay. He just couldn't do it.
"When I dramatized, I always went into the scene myself. I was sitting there doing the acting. And away went the characters, whooping it up. My writer friend remained a writer. He stood outside the scene and tried to tell you what was going on. And nobody felt anything."
As he grew older, George SALVERSON kept his mind in shape with mental exercises. One of them was memorizing The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He could recite any verse on command, and was working on memorizing it backwards. He also wrote a lot of limericks. On the Saturday before he died, he had a new one for Alfie SCOPP. It went like this:
A well-endowed woman from Brussels
Had a veritable plethora of muscles,
She said with some pride,
There are others I hide,
And bring them out only in tussles.
He also wrote a book called Around the World in 80 Limericks, with bits of doggerel for each of the world's major cities. He wrote until the end.
George SALVERSON was born in St. Catharines, Ont, on April 30, 1916. He died on April 9, 2005, after a fall at his apartment at the Performing Arts Lodge in Toronto. He was 88. A public memorial service will be held there at 6 p.m., Monday, May 9. He is survived by his daughter Julie and son Scott. His wife died in 2000.
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