Articles - Tommy Hunter Show, The (Series) (1965-1992)

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Tommy Hunter Show, The

From the Kelowna Teleguide, Sept 24, 1972

Ever since he was too poor to own a guitar case and had to hitch-hike a hundred miles in the cold with no overcoat to play a show with Gordie Tapp, TOM HUNTER, star of the CHBC Friday night Tommy Hunter Show, has worked hard to become the best.

Hunter is one of the few Canadian entertainers who can really be called a star. In the last twelve years, the tall and lanky singer has become known as Canada's Country Gentleman to millions of people on both sides of the border. Recognition in the U.S. was established when Tommy was awarded a special citation for his contribution to country and western music.

In Nashville, Tenn., he is considered the "King of Canadian Country Music" and everyone there knows his is the longest-running country music show in North American Television.

Born in London, Ontario, Tommy's interest in music was first sparked by the Grand 01' Opry radio broadcasts and, although he is still one of the best exponents of the Nashville sound, his work now includes just about every type of popular music.

Leaving school at the age of 16, he went on various tours in Canada and the United States. In 1956 he moved to Toronto, where he eventually landed a job on Country Hoedown. He soon became a featured singer and by 1960 had his own radio show, on which he was singing host for five years.

In 1966, Tommy was given his own 30-minute Television show, which was expanded to one hour at the start of the 1970 season.

Tommy is married to his home town sweetheart, the former Shirley Brush, and they live with their three children in a rambling ranch-type house outside of Toronto.


On Friday, September 22, The Tommy Hunter Show launched yet another season on CBC Television and CHBC. Over three million Canadians now watch his show every week and attest to the growing popularity of this friendly, easy-going young man and the talented people who surround him.

For the new season. Tommy is joined by a new group of regulars called the OK Chorale, four girls and four boys -ages 18 to 23 - who not only sing, but dance as well. In fact, two of them were once members of the excellent Calgary group. The Young Canadians.

About five years ago, before he gained fame and fortune, Glen Campbell was a guest on The Tommy Hunter Show. Recently, when Tom and producer Bill Lynn were down in Nashville to meet some performers and negotiate appearances with them, they spent considerable time with Campbell.

In Nashville, Tom was honored by being asked to contribute something to remember him by in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is only the second Canadian to be so honored. The first was Don Messer, who presented a violin.

From TV Guide Dec 10, 1977

Man From Mississauga
What is the secret behind Tommy Hunter's amazing career?
By Ron Base

Tommy Hunter is downstairs in his sitting room threading film through an 8-mm. movie projector. The take-up reel catches the slack of the film, and images begin to bounce up and down on the screen across the room.

Hunter is seated on a leatherette couch, dressed in a striped jersey, his long, awkwardly crooked legs pushed into an expensive-looking pair of yachting pants. His skin has been turned reddish brown by the sun. He looks more like a prosperous real-estate agent than a famous country singing star.

As the film begins, he leans forward expectantly. The excitement is burning on his face. His almond-shaped eyes, which can appear malevolent or glazed over from boredom, are clear and innocent—like a small boy's.

"There," he says, in the awed voice of a tour guide showing a pilgrim around Lourdes. "There it is."

In jittery motion on the screen, a tiny, red racing car moves around a track. "That," he says softly, "is A.J. Foyt's back-up car."

At this, the visitor shifts nervously. A. J. Foyt's back-up car?

These are the films Tommy Hunter shot at the Indianapolis 500, the small trophies of his latest enthusiasm—car racing. Not driving the cars himself, mind you. Watching them. Seeing suspensions move up and down, and engines turn. Rubbing shoulders with the good, old boys who race the cars. That's what Tommy likes.

Previously, he was wrapped up in a $50,000 motor home equipped with a citizens' band radio. He drove the motor home all over the country. Friends remember Hunter rushing home at night, gulping down his dinner, then clambering into his motor home to spend the evening happily driving up and down Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, talking with his CB buddies.

Now the motor home sits in his front drive, a for-sale sign propped in its window. Forgotten.

But that's Tommy for you. He is like a kid with a toy when it comes to his hobbies. When a hobby is all new and shining, he is consumed with it (he has also gone crazy over powerboating and golf). Then, when boredom sets in, he discards it completely. His lawyer and longtime friend, Sam Lerner, still says to him on occasion: "Tommy, you're a little boy from London, Ontario."

Except that the boy is 40 years old, and, whether you like the idea or not, one of Canada's biggest television stars. When Tommy Hunter Country went back on the air this season, it marked the beginning of Tommy's 22nd year on television—a longer continuous run than any other single performer. For nine seasons, he was a featured singer on CBC's Country Hoedown, followed by 13 years as the star of his own series, called The Tommy Hunter Show up until last season.

His show is often snidely referred to around the CBC as "the national joke." It is straitlaced, down-home stuff that most network executives would like to forget exists. Each week, Tommy's flat voice reaches for notes that are often beyond his grasp. An American guest star, like Mel Tillis or Wilf Carter, thumps out a couple of tunes on the guitar. The OK Chorale dances awkwardly around cardboard fences, while Al Cherney saws on a fiddle in the background.

The show attracts two-million viewers, making it one of the few top-10 shows on the CBC, and the mystery is what makes Tommy Hunter so popular. Jack McAndrew, the CBC's head of variety programming, thinks Hunter has been able to relate to the traditional values and conservative roots that are still a part of this country.

"He represents to his television audience certain fundamental values, and he is sensitive to those values," McAndrew says. "The Tommy Hunter audience is mostly rural and over 50. He has an acute perception of what it wants."

Long-time colleagues and former associates agree that it is Hunter's perception of his audience that keeps his show in the top 10. The show's awkwardness, its unrelenting, country corniness—the very things the critics sneer at—are what endear it to a large number of people.

Hunter knows this, and he keeps a careful eye on any city-slicking interloper who might want to tinker with the show's basic appeal.

"I don't want any hot-shot material," he says. "When a new writer comes along and says he wants to write comedy, I tell him he's gotta learn how to write 'Hello folks, how are you tonight?'"

"Tommy is very protective of his image," says a former colleague. "I think that has as much to do with his popularity as anything. He never does anything in private that he won't do on-camera. I think people sense this when they watch the show."

Says Hunter's producer, David Koyle: "There's a real family feeling behind the show. The people know Tommy, and they know what to expect. A lot of them will watch the show until they're about 14, and then we lose them to rock until they're about 35 or so, and then they come back to us. But country music has expanded in the last years from just Hank Snow and blue grass. It has embraced pop and rock, and we try to reflect that in the music we do on the show."

Tommy Hunter grew up in London, Ont., a city better known as a serene and conservative haven for insurance companies than a seeding ground for future country singers. But Hunter's father was a CN checker who was also a country-music fan. "By the time I was 9," Hunter remembers, "I wanted to play the guitar. I did all the typical childhood things, like raiding the neighbor's apple tree, but I mean when I got that guitar, I worked at it. I really got into it, following country-music performers and collecting their records. That's why I didn't do well in school."

He quit school at 16 to bounce around the country, performing at a succession of one-night stands. It was the closest he ever came to paying the sort of gritty dues most country performers take pride in paying. He landed a job on a music show at a Hamilton radio station, and by 1960, had graduated to a regular singing spot on Country Hoedown. At age 23, performing on Hoedown and starring in his own daily radio show, he was earning $1000 a week. He's never looked back.

Today, Hunter owns a rambling $200,000-plus ranch-style house in the western suburb of Mississauga. He has remained married to the same woman, a former Bell Telephone operator named Shirley, and raised three boys.

He likes the life style out on the manicured lawns of Mississauga—and little wonder. His income is estimated at $250,000 per year. He has various investments, including stock in two radio stations (he won't say what ones). Recently, he signed a lucrative contract to do cereal commercials.

His expenses are minimal—he employs no manager or press agent, as most stars do—and he is notorious for his tightness with a dollar.

Hunter used to spend his summers touring the country doing concerts, but he no longer needs that sort of aggravation. He was never a popular recording star, and has all but stopped making records. He also seems to have given up any hope of becoming a star in the U.S. "Besides," an acquaintance says, "he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond."

He will not tolerate any bumps in his road. He demands smoothness—and gets it. He does not do anything that he does not like to do.

For example: he will learn new tunes on his guitar because for him, that's fun. But learning new lyrics is no fun at all. So he doesn't learn them. Instead, they are written down for him and hidden around the set. After years of singing his theme song, "Travellin' Man," he still has the words taped to his guitar.

But that's part of the boy in Tommy. He prefers everything reduced to simplicity, even his religious philosophy. Ken Finkleman, a regular on 90 Minutes Live who worked as a writer for Hunter's show for two seasons, remembers Hunter approaching him one day, his eyes gleaming. "Ken," he said, "you'll understand this—you're Jewish." He pushed a pamphlet under Finkleman's nose. "This is the answer to everything," he said, with enthusiasm. The pamphlet was entitled: "You, Christ, Israel and the Bomb." All the lessons of life, collected in a few easily digested pages. For Hunter, it was a dream come true.

At the moment though, such things are far from his mind. On the screen, another racing car flickers around a turn in the track. "Look," Hunter says suddenly. He is sitting straight up. "See that spark down there? Down by the wheel of the car?" He stops the film, rewinds it. Sure enough, there is a dim flash, like the wink of a Christmas tree light.

"That's a real bang," he says excitedly. "The driver really backed off the car. That flash—that's the alcohol."

Tommy Hunter's eyes are riveted to the screen. He is a small boy immersed in his latest fantasy.

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For an in-depth look at CBC programs (1952-82),
Blaine Allan's directory