Hosts Johanna Schneller and Thom Ernst and others share memories of the TVO series and its longtime host, Elwy Yost.
This weekend, TVO’s venerable Saturday Night at the Movies airs its final program.
It began in 1974 after TVO employee Elwy Yost and manager Jim Hanley cooked up the idea of an educational series about movies, with Yost as its onscreen face. Its demise comes as a result of budget cuts at TVO.
In its nearly 40-year run, the show has presented some 1,500 films. The first was Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Fittingly, the series will end, Aug. 31 at 8 p.m., with two more recent foreign films, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others and Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book.
Yost, who died in 2011, retired as host in 1999, to be followed by Shelagh Rogers, Johanna Schneller and Thom Ernst. Two of those hosts, along with producers, researchers and writers, share their memories of a Saturday night tradition that was beloved to many thousands of Ontarians.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
The concept, the films and the conversation
Risa Shuman (researcher, executive producer 1974-2007): In 1965, Elwy had an after-school series on the CBC called Passport to Adventure and I would rush home to watch it.
Bruce Pittman (director, 1974-77): I had worked (at TVO) in 1970 and a few years later Elwy was on the corporate side of TVO. Jim Hanley, who was general manager of the educational media division, thought that was a waste.
Shuman: I was working in R&D. I met Elwy in an elevator and said, “Oh my God, you’re Elwy Yost. I used to run home from school when I was in Grade 11 and watch Passport.” The downside to his role was that nobody was talking to Elwy about movies and all he wanted to do was talk about movies.
Pittman: They acquired some documentaries and along with that came three Ingmar Bergman films.
Shuman: How do you broadcast a feature film and make it educational? Everybody takes credit for this, but it was Elwy’s idea. The films were spiritual, so he took a 16 mm projector to three different religious congregations and filmed the discussion. That was the first one: March 30, 1974.
Pittman: It worked out so well that Hanley said, “Let’s make a show out of this.”
Shuman: King Kong played early on and I watched it at home. It was missing a sequence and I wondered what happened to it. I wrote him a memo. I can still see him walking up into my cubicle and asking, “How long is your contract here? We need somebody who will watch our movies to make sure that the prints they’re sending us are complete.”
Rudy Buttignol (executive producer, 2000-2006): They really went out of their way to get the best prints they could find. All the other movies on television were commercial versions. There was a real attempt by the SNAM crew to find what was the closest version to the original.
Graham Yost (son of Elwy): If I didn’t have anything to do on a Saturday night, my dad would invariably say, “Oh well we’ve got a good one this week, so if you want to stay home . . . ” Unless it was that one night a year where he had musicals on, then he would basically encourage me to leave the house.
Shuman: Oh, he hated musicals.
THE DEFIANT ONES
Long before its cancellation, the show had its critics.
Pittman: We didn’t have a budget to afford new films, but that was OK; we concentrated on the older ones, which were cheaper. We had to go to the smaller distributors, where the copyright was sometimes murky. International Film Distributors, Inc. had that copy of King Kong.
Yost: He loved all movies. If they could have afforded it, my dad would have shown Raging Bull in 1981.
Pittman: When we started, there were all kinds of problems on keeping the show on the air. At the time, there were a lot of complaints to the CRTC, mostly from other networks, saying that movies aren’t educational: “What the hell is TVO doing?”
Shuman: In 1974, movies were only 79 years old. It was just entertainment to some, but Elwy believed in the McLuhan edict: “that which please teaches.” We looked at movies from either a historical perspective, creative, sociological, spiritual and just tried to show how movies have fit into the cultural fabric of one’s life. That was the philosophy.
Pittman: We were also grabbing a fairly sizable portion of the Saturday night audience.
Shuman: Once TVO put up transmitters around the province, people without cable could just put up rabbit ears and tune in. Suddenly viewers’ eyes were being taken away from Hockey Night in Canada and other commercial programs. They got really upset because they were losing consumers.
Toronto Star headline, February 24, 1975: “Educational TV — who needs it?”
Shuman: I can still see the headline. Dennis Braithwaite, in the Star, asking what is so educational about King Kong? I can tell you, Elwy responded. For the first time, we were showing the complete film.
Pittman: When we played Kong again, we found parts that were censored out. We reconstructed the film. We were the only ones that had the full version of King Kong.
Shuman: I don’t know how we got them, but we had four or five different prints, and not only did we put back the sequence that was missing the previous year, but we put back scenes that had been cut by the censors. Now when you see it on DVD, it’s all complete, but there was a scene where Kong peels Fay Wray’s dress like a banana. Audiences had not seen that until we showed it. That was important.
Pittman: It was really Jim Hanley who fought those battles. He put so many great shows on the air but really defended us.
Buttignol: I had been at TVO since 1993, and between 1996 and 2000 we were under privatization review from the Harris government. The show came under fire during those years.
Thom Ernst (researcher, host 1998-2013): Oh it was almost cancelled on several occasions.
Buttignol: Whenever critics wanted to slam TVO, they’d target SNAM, questioning the educational value. I offered to collaborate with the York film program in a way that would make it recommended viewing for some of their history courses. By the time an online course came along, they made it required viewing. The line I gave at the time was: Watch SNAM, get a university degree.
Alex Huls (researcher, 2008-2012): I was part of that first year at York and I adored it. There was a screening of Stagecoach and that’s where it really hit me: this wasn’t just a western; there was all this class stuff going on and all these deeper thematic issues. That was the moment where I decided to study film and felt so indebted to SNAM.
Taking it to Hollywood
Pittman: After the first season, I went to Elwy and said we should go to Hollywood to interview the people who made these movies. There was no money, so Elwy and I scraped together airfare. We stayed with friends and I just got on the phone and set up interviews.
Shuman: Hollywood was going through this great transition, but all those who’d gone through the studio system were still alive: Henry King, Mervyn LeRoy, Rudy Vallee, Dorothy Lamour.
Pittman: George Stevens Jr. helped us out to do a show about his dad. I went with him to his father’s storage space and it was fairly emotional for him. There were all these film cans, which were colour footage which George Stevens Sr. shot during World War II: the liberation of Paris, Dachau concentration camp. We went to a lab and footed the bill to preserve it. Now you see that footage everywhere.
Shuman: In Hollywood, people said they never met anybody like Elwy. Leonard Maltin would drop everything to be interviewed. We did a wonderful interview years ago with Roger Ebert, with Elwy and Roger imitating Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Michael Leo (writer, 1994-2000): Elwy was good with the mature beauties. Jacqueline Bisset was almost maternal with him.
Yost: I never went to Hollywood with him, but in 1979 they went to England for the first time and I went as a production assistant. Not a bad job, meeting Sir Richard Attenborough, John Justin, who was in The Thief of Bagdad, Hayley Mills, Jack Cardiff. That was a fun trip.
Pittman: In those days, some of the actors didn’t like being interviewed. Henry Fonda didn’t want to talk about himself. With Gregory Peck, we wanted to talk about the director Henry King, who was overlooked. And they all seemed to enjoy themselves, so once that was done we’d switch the reel and then they would talk about their own experiences.
Shuman: I didn’t go to Hollywood until 1982. I needed to stay here to screen the movies. When I was growing up, movies were very important to me because I had an invalid mother. My poor father didn’t know what to do, so he used to drop my sister and I off at the movies. In those days you could go in halfway through a film and it would play continuously. We went in at 1 p.m. to see A Shot in the Dark and stayed until 7 p.m. Years later, we interviewed Blake Edwards and I was able to thank him for giving me that day.
Impressions of Yost
Shuman: Elwy was the ultimate film buff. He knew more about these people than they did. I remember when we interviewed Dorothy McGuire, we had to prove to her she’d been in a particular movie. They were all studio contract people and didn’t keep track of it all.
Leo: I took over script writing when Elwy couldn’t do it anymore. Replicating his style wasn’t difficult because it was so established. He was never putting it on and that made it so easy. He was always supportive of my efforts, never wanted anything changed and when he did he was always very diplomatic.
Pittman: He was no different on air than he was in person. He was a man who loved the movies and knew everything. Sometimes he’d get overprepared in Hollywood and say, “Well, we should go look into this . . . ” and I’d say, “Elwy, you already know this stuff. It’s in your head.”
Ernst: I couldn’t believe that this rather jovial unassuming guy was going to Hollywood and interviewing all these celebrities. It introduced me to so many things, all these great movies that I never would’ve seen otherwise. His enthusiasm really did work on me.
Leo: One time a viewer phoned asking for Elwy. He had a faint recollection of a film starring Tyrone Power and was hoping Elwy would know it. That’s the level of comfort people had with him.
Johanna Schneller (host, 2004-2006): What I was especially fond of, which I’ve used a lot in my own career, is that he talked to not just the directors and stars, but he would also talk to the costumer, the lighting guy. He would draw such amazing interviews from everyone.
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW
In 1999, Yost retired, ushering in new hosts, new formats.
Shuman: He made the call to retire. His theory was that every good movie has an ending, as great as it is.
Leo: In his final year hosting the show, I never saw him get maudlin or dramatic about it.
Shuman: After Elwy retired I told them that I didn’t want a host. The geniuses I worked for said they were going to keep it the same. And then they turned poor Shelagh Rogers into Shelwy. I’m surprised she still talks to me.
Leo: Shelagh was the hands-down favourite, but they didn’t adapt the show according to who she was. She brought a level of enthusiasm to it, but it was tough to match Elwy.
Buttignol: When I inherited SNAM, the managing director of the network felt that Shelagh didn’t receive a fair break. When she went to the CBC, I decided to go hostless. The audience had changed, they were more educated about the movies now and I wanted to do it in a documentary format.
Shuman: Rudy came in and wanted everybody fired. I said, “I think we should keep Thom.” The one time Rudy listened to me.
Buttignol: The most successful thing about that period is that it saw two spinoffs, Film 101 and The Interviews. This was the advantage of also being head of network programming at the time: I opened up a couple of slots on a late Friday night, where all of a sudden you could reach a different audience.
Leo: I’m sure the documentary format streamlined production, but it really needed a host. Elwy kind of imprinted it so much that it needed a personal touch. There was a period before Johanna and Thom took the chair that you needed to know who was putting this together.
Schneller: It was incredibly daunting because not only were they mighty shoes to fill, I didn’t have a lot of on-camera experience. I also didn’t consider myself a film critic and that was intimidating because everyone at TVO knew so much about films, but I love that Rudy and Murray (Battle) gave me that chance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNST
Thom Ernst took over as host in 2010, but the show’s end was near.
Leo: Sometime in the ’80s, before we both worked for TVO, I asked Thom what he wanted to do for a living. He said, “I’d like to have a TV program that I could write and produce and host.”
Pittman: I talked to Thom Ernst once about taking over hosting duties. I sympathized with him and he said: “Oh you have no idea.”
Ernst: My mandate was to give the show a face again, to go out and do talks and interviews. It became very studious at one point. I wanted to keep showing the classics at first, because that’s what I knew and loved. Eventually I came to see the light. TVO’s instinct was right: the movie show had to progress and show contemporary films.
Shereen Ali (researcher, producer, 2001-2012): Thom should tell you about interviewing Gary Busey . . . who at one point pulled his mic and walked out.
Ernst: Gary Busey scared me. We got some great stories, but I began the interview wrong. My first question was, “Do you remember . . . ?” which he presumably took as a remark on his ability to recall. From that moment he decided he didn’t like me and challenged every question, every comment, every expression I made. Several times he tore off his mic announcing that, to my great relief, “this interview is over” only to change his mind and continue on.
Ali: It was probably Thom’s toughest interview.
Ernst: The next day we interviewed Gary’s son, Jake. I told him we had his father in the other day. His response? “Oh no. What did he do to you?” The highlight though was interviewing Peter Fonda. At 70 years old he was every bit as cool as he must have been in the ’60s. He wouldn’t do the interview unless I had a beer with him.
Buttignol: The cancellation was disappointing and kind of sad because I thought SNAM had the potential to become the longest-running show on TV.
Huls: You get the most out of film when you talk about them after. Without something like that on the air, there’s something to be missed.
Ernst: My friends used to say, “No government wants to be the one that cancels that show.” But I never quite believed that. I know that the CEO is a film lover. I will not be convinced that they were cavalier about cancelling it.