Elwy Yost and a land where the shadows are always like magic

Elwy Yost turned generations of young people into film buffs through his groundbreaking television programs

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Michael TaubeIt’s amazing how a simple word, gesture or sound can instantly bring back a flood of memories.

That’s what happened to me recently. I saw a Facebook post in January by writer/blogger Kathy Shaidle containing a short YouTube clip and four little (albeit profound) words, “I still miss Elwy.”

For anyone who grew up (particularly in Ontario) during the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, this can only refer to one person: Elwy Yost.

Yost, who passed away in July 2011, was fascinated by the silver screen from an early age. As the Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow noted in an obituary, “his father would give him a dime every week to see a film and then have him recount the plot.”

By all accounts, that’s exactly what he did.

Although his life went in different directions, including a stint teaching English and history at Etobicoke’s Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute, the pull of Hollywood’s mystique was too strong for him to resist.

Yost’s first hosting role was for CBC TV’s Passport to Adventure (1965 to 1967), which broadcast classic movies in a serial format. He would later make a career-altering move to TVOntario (TVO) and host two further shows of classic movie serials that still endure: Magic Shadows (1974 to 1987) and Saturday Night at the Movies (1974 to 1999).

I was enamoured with Magic Shadows as a young lad. The old black-and-white films, broken up into 30-minute episodes, left you hungering for more. Meanwhile, the opening animation and wonderful, haunting theme song (which Shaidle included in her Facebook post) always bring back fond thoughts of my childhood.

I remembered that the music was written and composed by Harry Forbes. But the animation’s source was a complete mystery. The Internet didn’t provide any clues, either.

I decided to email TVO host Steve Paikin. He remembered Forbes, who wrote the “musical track” for a documentary, but wasn’t sure about the animation. He passed me on to producer manager Marilyn McGinn. She remembered sitting with Forbes “while he played some new pieces for possible openings, bridges, endings” on shows, but the animator’s name “escapes me.”

McGinn asked retired researcher/producer Risa Shuman. Here’s the answer: “The animation was done in L.A. by a couple of people including Herbert Klynn, but not as a favour to Elwy, but to our writer Ken Sobol who had worked with a group of animators on the series George of the Jungle.”

That’s not the end of this story, however.

Shuman was kind enough to email me. She’d worked with Yost for 25 years, including his entire run on both TVO programs. In fact, she was the one “who cut the movies into their daily segments.”

This was too good an opportunity for pass up. So I sent along some questions about her old boss, colleague and friend.

Here are three highlights:

• “Elwy was the one who named TVOntario TVOntario. The actual legal name of the organization is The Ontario Educational Communications Authority – OECA – which was on letterhead and on our copyright info on air. Up until the mid-’70s, we broadcast on Channel 19 on the UHF dial and so it was called Channel 19 on air. When transmitters started to be built around the province, we became a network … what to call it? There was an internal contest for all employees (no fancy-schmancy ad agencies!) and Elwy was the winner, for which he received a book on the films of Marilyn Monroe!”

• “Elwy loved the audience. The one story that I feel sums up how beloved he was in turn by viewers took place in a restaurant in Toronto. A group of us was having lunch near TVO’s studios at Yonge and Eglinton when Burt Reynolds, in town making a film, walked in and sat at a table close to us. As we were leaving, a woman shouted, ‘There he is, there he is!’ and we assumed she had just recognized the Hollywood star. Then she swooned, ‘There’s Elwy Yost!’”

• “Elwy loved taking the subway to work. He used to say it was because he liked the light to read (he was an avid reader in between his movie-going) but I think it was because he was always recognized, which he relished. I rode with him many times and the number of people who would tell him how much they loved the show, etc., was always humbly acknowledged … he (and I) were always so grateful for the support, which we never took for granted.”

When I asked Shuman to explain the long-lasting impact of Magic Shadows and Saturday Night at the Movies, her answer was intriguing. “As they say, it’s all about timing. There was nothing like it on the 10 channels at the time – no one aired movies uncut and uninterrupted and there’s been nothing like it since. It was ‘appointment viewing’ … how many households would say, ‘What’s on Elwy tonight?’”

Indeed, both shows were groundbreaking when it came to film appreciation. Yost’s love of the cinema was always visible in his short commentaries and longer interviews. He brought his subject matter magically to life (if you’ll pardon the pun), and that’s why it’s still fondly remembered by many.

I still miss Elwy, too.

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.


elwy yost, TVOntario

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