Friday, September 16, 2011

An Interview with Murray Westgate

Murray Westgate: I got into a little theater work in Regina, my home town. After the War I joined a company in Vancouver called Everyman Theater. It was starting up a repertory, a touring thing. It was run by a man named Sidney Risk who was putting up the money for it. We all went on tour to Winnipeg and back. We did two or three plays. I joined the company for ten dollars a week and they looked after us. It was quite an experience, but it was all quite new for me.

All I had done was a little bit of theater work in Regina and I saw this write-up in Maclean's Magazine about the acting crowd on radio in Toronto and about this company that was forming in Vancouver. So I wrote them a letter and told them I had done a few things here in Saskatchewan and they invited me to join.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did that transition into your getting into television? Did you start working in radio first?

Murray Westgate: Oh, sure. After that tour finished with the Everyman Theater, I stayed in Vancouver and I was introduced to the radio people there at CBC. I got a few small parts in the CBC Radio drama department. I was there two or three years and did some stage work as well. Summer theater. The Everyman Theater sort of folded. Some friends of mine had left Vancouver and gone to Toronto. Everybody sort of started in Vancouver and they ended up in Toronto.

So I was told that what I should do is head to Toronto because there was a great deal of work going on there. If you want to grow strawberries, you've got to go where they grow them. So, I got on a bus and went to Toronto and looked up my friend Ed McCurdy and a few people I had known in Vancouver. They took me around and introduced me to a few of the crowd that was working there and I started getting small parts. To make a living I did a little photo advertising for various things as a model. I got a few small parts with Andrew Allen on the Stage series on radio. It just went on from there. Then television came along.

Kliph Nesteroff: You acted in a lot of 1950s television drama. You worked with a lot of people who went on to bigger things and acted in several dramas written by Arthur Hailey...

Murray Westgate: Yes, I was in a couple of those. Yeah, sure. I met him when he'd be down at the rehearsals.

Kliph Nesteroff: People like Paul Kligman and Ed McNamara who were some of the tried and true Canadian character actors for years and years...

Murray Westgate: Paul Kligman was a very close friend of mine. A really close friend. I saw a lot of the Kligmans. Ed and I started out in Vancouver at the Everyman Theater. He was from Chicago. He came up to Vancouver and was going to make a name for himself. I did summer stock in Vancouver out at Bowen Island for a man called Wan Root. Ed came to Toronto about the same time I did and we did a lot of shows together.

Kliph Nesteroff: Kligman and McNamara did voices in a ton of cartoons...

Murray Westgate: Yes, that's right. They even started a series of their own. I've forgotten the name of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get involved in the cartoon stuff?

Murray Wetsgate: I did one for a man named Allen. Yes, I played the part of an elephant and I had to sing (laughs). I also was on [the Canadian] Howdy Doody and all those kids shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Canadian variety show icon Juliette...

Murray Westgate: Yes, I did. I met her every Saturday night in the make-up room. She was a bit of a... tough cookie at times. Yeah, she could be quite bossy, that's for sure. I guested on her show one night after a hockey broadcast. I went over and I made an appearance on her show. I did the same thing with Wayne and Shuster. I came over and was a guest, appeared on the show, after appearing on the hockey show. I don't know how I fit it all in the scheme of things, but I did. Kligman worked with Wayne and Shuster regularly. So did a friend of mine named Tom Harvey.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you become the spokesman for Imperial Oil?

Murray Westgate: I was introduced by George Murray to an advertising manager at Imperial Oil. They were thinking of doing some sale films. I was going to be the good [gasoline] dealer and the bad dealer would work across the street. I was the clean cut one. I made their films for them for a while and we did quite a few. At the same time I was getting these small parts in radio. I got in to some fairly large, major roles in radio. Television comes along and nobody knew what they were doing - how it was going to work or anything. Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants.

Anyway, there was MacLaren Advertising who handled all the Imperial Oil ads. They were doing Hockey Night in Canada. They were looking for a dealer. They had auditioned quite a few people and everything. Then Imperial Oil said, "Well, why don't we use this bird that we've been using in our films?" They said, "That might be a pretty good idea." So they took me down and gave me a little screen test and decided I was the guy to do the job. I started out in the very early days of television doing Hockey Night in Canada... doing the commercials and hosting.

Kliph Nesteroff: Live commercials.

Murray Westgate: They were done live in the beginning, but eventually we went to using a teleprompter and then videotape came along and we did them on tape. I was there for sixteen years and it evolved.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where were they filmed? Were they done in the arena or was there a studio nearby?

Murray Westgate: The studios were set up for doing them. We didn't do them in the hockey arena. I was present in the arena, but the original commercials were done in the CBC studios across the street from Maple Leaf Gardens. All the guests would come over near the end of the first period. We'd do the commercials in the CBC studio. We did them all there. Then they built a small studio in the Gardens itself.

Eventually I didn't do any commercials in there, but I was present at all the games. I was present at the interviews in the intermission and I introduced people that were going to be on what we called The Hot Stove League. As a matter of fact, we built a little hot stove [set piece]. A corner store type of thing with this stove over at the CBC. The Hot Stove League was the intermission segment. Let's see, well, then it settled down with video tape.

In those days, every Saturday night the network would carry the [Toronto] Maple Leafs, but every second Saturday we'd go to Montreal when the Canadiens games were played on the national network. Every second Saturday I'd go up to Montreal and do the English commercials.

Kliph Nesteroff: And there was a little studio set up in the Montreal Forum?

Murray Westgate: No, we had a proper recording studio, but they were done not too far from the Forum. I was present at the Forum during the game, but the commercials would be done away from the Forum.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your relationship like with MacLaren Advertising? Did you have to deal with the man in charge of the hockey account - Ted Hough?

Murray Westgate: Yes, Ted was our boss. He was our boss. He'd supply us with tickets for our friends if we ever wanted to bring our friends to the games (laughs). Yes, he was my boss for broadcasts here in Toronto.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a hands off approach?

Murray Westgate: Pretty hands off. We had, what the hell did they call it? Ted was the boss, but we had a MacLaren representative in charge of stuff and they would arrange commercials for everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the legendary man in charge of the play-by-play during that era - Foster Hewitt...

Murray Westgate: Yes. He was a very nice guy, but he was somewhat of an enigma. I got along quite well with him, [but he was] very private.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get to know Foster's son, Bill Hewitt?

Murray Westgate: Oh, yeah, he was a bit of a... he was a pretty good guy, but I think he drank a lot. I think there was some problem there. But he did a good job of broadcasting.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the eventual Vice President of MacLaren's hockey operations - Frank Selke Jr?

Murray Westgate: Selke was a nice guy too. I didn't know him terribly well. It was a common thing [for me] to do public appearances and he would be around.

Kliph Nesteroff: You got paid extra for that?

Murray Westgate: No. No, I never had a contract. Never! They would phone me up in September and say, "Well, it's Hockey Night in Canada - are you coming down?" (laughs) "I'll be there," I said. Let's see, I was paid for my very first broadcast - CBC had control of it - I was a steward on the show. I had to keep track of everyone that was involved in the production itself. I wasn't paid very much money, but it went up as the years went on. Started out at seventy-two dollars, I think. We had trouble. We worried about the teleprompter working or not working. 

We didn't have cue cards. We waited for teleprompters to come along, but their teleprompter would go on the fritz and we were worried about it. It did go occasionally. In the meantime, what I would do was cut my script up and paste it to a Marvalute Motor Oil can and sit it on the counter. If I got stuck I'd pick up the can and I'd read it off the can. The audience wouldn't know.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your role in the Hot Stove League intermission segment?

Murray Westgate: Nothing other than introducing the guests. We had a little makeshift hot stove corner store thing and I would have to break in for a commercial or to say, "We're going back to the Gardens now for the rest of the game." Little things like that, but that only happened for a short time. [Toronto Maple Leafs owner] Conn Smythe was on the show one night. We had a door going into the Hot Stove set and a doorbell would ring. Normally the doorbell would ring and the guest would come through the door and I would usher them in. They'd sit around and chew the fat about the game. Connie Smythe came in and he wouldn't go through the door! He just walked around it. Walked around the flats (laughs). He came in and after the interview he sees me and says [on air], "Here comes the gas man. I guess we have to go."

Kliph Nesteroff: Didn't have much respect for the illusions of showbiz.

Murray Westgate: Not a bit!

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Hockey Night in Canada personality Brian McFarlane?

Murray Westgate: Yeah! Saw him not too long ago. Brian was - I like Brian. I worked for his father as an actor in the National Film Board. His father was a producer and director [named] Les McFarlane. I worked for him in Film Board films. I worked in the Canadian National Exhibition every summer for several years and Imperial Oil had a booth in the automotive building and we would interview hockey players. Brian used to come and emcee some of those shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: What brought you to your end on Hockey Night in Canada?

Murray Westgate: I have no idea. I think it was because the sponsorship went to other companies. Who took it over? Molson and somebody else. So, Imperial Oil was pretty much... It was all Imperial Oil when I did it, but when that changed the league expanded. I was eased out. No problem. I had a long run. Things change, you know? It just was a wonderful... what do they call it - trip? (laughs). In show business things don't last that long. Many shows do, but many shows disappear. Many wonderful actors just disappear - they could have been fabulous had they stayed with the game, but they drift away.

Kliph Nesteroff: You hosted a kids show in the early sixties called Junior Roundup.

Murray Westgate: Junior Roundup. I enjoyed that for a year and then they replaced me with a not-too-likable guy in the business. He's now married to Suzanne Sommers... if you know who I mean.

Kliph Nesteroff: Alan Hamel.

Murray Westgate: That's right. Oh, you know all that stuff! Yeah, he replaced me. I was sitting in the canteen one day and an announcer - a CBC announcer came up to me. Alan Hamel was an announcer on my Junior Roundup show. I was sitting in the canteen having coffee and this other announcer came up to me and said, "How are you getting along with Al Hamel?" I said, "Oh, he seems all right." He said, "You watch that guy. He'll have your job." By God, he had my job the next year!

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow, did you get any sense of that before it happened?

Murray Westgate: No, none whatsoever. I didn't know he was a son of a bitch.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you were bit by a monkey on Junior Roundup.

Murray Westgate: Yeah, we had the monkey on the show one day. I don't know what happened (laughs). The trainer was there and I went over and tried to be nice to the monkey. I said, "Can I touch him?" He said, "Oh, I think so." He took a bite out of my thumb or my wrist. Anyway, I went down and had to get a shot for rabies!

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you think it was Alan Hamel that sent the monkey after you?

Murray Westgate: (laughs) Wouldn't put it past him!

Hockey Night in Canada - Esso Commercials featuring Murray Westgate (1953-1966)