THE HASSELLS OF EARLY RADIO - PT. 1, CH. 3

Stories and info about those no longer involved in the industry

THE HASSELLS OF EARLY RADIO - PT. 1, CH. 3

Postby cart_machine » Sat Dec 22, 2007 11:24 pm

CHAPTER 3

Mart Kenney knew almost everyone who was anyone in the entertainment industry in Canada. Lunching with him in 1991, I was astounded by the octagenarian’s almost total recall of the Vancouver scene of the 30’s.

“The heyday of radio was the heyday of the big bands,” Mart observes “because it was the SOUND of the music that counted, and listeners could imagine themselves waltzing around the ballroom.”

Kenney laments that the popularity of music videos today means that visual appeal is paramount .. the sound is almost incidental.

Dwight Johnson and his orchestra came up from Portland in the 20’s to play in the Indian Grill of the old Hotel Vancouver, on Granville. Mart recalls how, as a boy, he used to sneak into a chair in the nearby shoe-shine stand, to listen to the band music. Len Chamberlain’s band succeeded Johnson at the Indian Grill, and Mart Kenney got his first job playing with Len in 1928 .. at age 18! They later moved to the west side of the hotel for a few weeks while the classic Spanish Grill was completed downstairs, in the former billiard hall. The Indian Grill was then converted into a beer parlour. Mart later left to work on the prairies until 1930, when he returned to substitute for Chamberlain at the Alma Academy.

When Art Hallman joined him as vocalist and pianist in 1932, they were ensconced at the Alexandra Ballroom, and their music was carried by remote control on CKCD, CJOR and I believe one other local station.

Mart Kenney went to the spacious ballroom in Waterton Parks, Alberta, in 1934, whence the dances were broadcast nationally. The ‘feed’ went by telephone wires 90 miles to CJOH Lethbridge, and from there to other CBC stations and affiliates across the country. Mart also emceed the show. He spoke no French, but recalls memorizing “Ce programme vous est presentes par la Commission Canadienne de la Radio Diffusion”.

Mart chose his unforgettable theme, “The West, a Nest and You, Dear”, a song he remembers seeing as sheet music on his mother’s piano, partly because they wanted listeners allover the country to be able to relate to the orchestra away up in the rockies. The music for the song was composed by Billy Hill, who also wrote “The Last Roundup”, “The Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlour” and other old favourites.

The band's name, “Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen” was chosen for similiar reasons. Despite some four decades in Toronto, the name never changed.

Horace Stovin was the producer at Waterton Parks, and he wanted a much more rousing sound for the start of the broadcast – so they decided to open with “Jungle Fever” .. tom-toms and all .. and then slide into “The West, a Nest and You Dear”. The latter proved a great theme for broadcast, because it played so well as background for the announcer’s voice-over. Mart recalls intoning “Rugged rhythms from the land of rugged peaks, and peaceful melodies and harmonies picturing placid lakes and quiet mountain trails...”. That winter, the Kenney band played at the CPR’s Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina, and later at Lake Louise, before they were booked into the CPR’s showplace, the new Hotel Vancouver.

“I think they wanted to be sure we were ready!” Mart Kenney grins today.

Later, on the Home Oil programs, Mart added strings for the classier tone that program was seeking. Isobel McEwen and Ernest J. Colton both sang on these local semi-classical broadcasts.

Kenney always appreciated the value of publicity, and in the early days he retained a fledgling reporter at the Vancouver Sun to write a short entertainment column to run weekly under Mart’s byline. They distributed this, with a photo (or mat) of Kenney, or Hallman, or thrush Georgia Day, to newspapers across the country. The reporter made twenty dollars a week at the Sun; Mart paid him another five. The cub reporter’s name was Stu Keate! The future westcoast publisher became a lifelong friend of Kenney.

Mart watched the control of broadcasting pass from the dedicated radio pioneers into the hands of financial people. The emphasis on profit led to a trend away from live talent toward chiefly recorded music, so Mart turned to other things. He moved on to the Royal York Hotel, Toronto, and formed his own booking office in that city. He soon had a stable of bands, which dominated music there for decades. Art Hallman started his own band first, then along came Stan Paton, Bobby Gimby et al.

Mart's vocalist, the late Norma Locke, became his wife and they were together nearly forty years until her recent death. Norma was the driving force behind the establishment of the Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission, B.C. A beautiful rustic log building now named, appropriately, “Norma Kenney House” welcomes vistors to this delightful park.

Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen played the Calgary Stampede in 1990 and again in 1991. Fittingly, the dances were held in a huge tent nostalgically named “Penley’s Academy” ... after that city's popular ballroom of the early thirties.

When Mart and his band went east in 1940, they left a giant void in Vancouver music circles, into which Dal Richards soon stepped. Much earlier, Art Hallman and his British Columbians had left a great void at CKCD. Like nature, Uncle Billy abhorred a vacuum. Enter: the Calangis.
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