The Beatles, Dylan Thomas and the CBC

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The Beatles, Dylan Thomas and the CBC

Posted on: June 27th, 2014 by tommyj

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The Beatles, Dylan Thomas and the CBC
CBC Archivist Colin Preston holds a vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas at CBC Vancouver,

CBC Archivist Colin Preston holds a vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas at CBC Vancouver,

Photograph by: Ric Ernst , VANCOUVER SUN

Librarians are supposed to be shy. Quiet. Reserved.

Colin Preston is none of these things.

The CBC’s Vancouver librarian and archivist is outgoing, funny, even a tad opinionated. And after more than a quarter century at the CBC, he has accumulated a few stories to tell.

On Friday, the 66-year-old retires. So we decided to visit Preston in his lair, three storeys underground in the CBC’s bunker on Hamilton Street.

Let’s start off with an infamous story. On Aug. 22, 1964, a CBC crew covered the Beatles concert at Empire Stadium, with multiple cameras.

Unfortunately the footage was never seen, because the tape was accidentally erased, the same night.

What happened?

“We had just gotten this new two-inch mobile recording setup,” relates Preston, who wasn’t with CBC at the time.

“The trucks were set up out there at Empire. (A producer) came back, wanted to show the girlfriend of the moment all this cool stuff, and pressed play and record (at the same time). Done.

“I got all of this from Franz Lindner, the photographer, because they were just s—ing bricks the next day to put some news coverage of the concert together, and they’d blown away everything. So they were using a lot of his stills from the concert.

“It sounds right. ‘Come on dear, I’ve got to show you something really special.’ (The producer) was operating something he shouldn’t have been operating. Remember those kind of jurisdictions, back in the day? ‘Don’t you touch those buttons!’

“That’s why they had all those jurisdictions.”

The Beatles footage may have been lost, but the CBC Vancouver archive has no shortage of gems. On the film side, there are about 30,000 canisters in the basement archive filled with local news reports, documentaries, dramas, music shows, specials and what-have-you.

“It’s the living history of this city, and this province,” says Preston.

“It’s great to see images of Cariboo ranches, (or) the Thomas Crosby Mission boat going up the coast, delivering things to lighthouses. Guys in logging camps, (or poet) Irving Layton being interviewed in a bar in Vancouver and having a beer.”

CBC Vancouver has chronicled the major events around the province since it went on air in 1953. But what really gets Preston going are the snippets of real life that were captured, almost accidentally.

“There’s the (1957) doc Skid Row by Allan King, and it’s great, with the alkies,” he says.

“But what gets me is when the packet boat comes and docks at the Carroll Street pier (which no longer exists). They walk right off with their caulk boots and rucksacks and there they are at the Lamplighter or some place to have a beer. I just love that stuff.”

He is quite passionate about the CBC archive, which he has spent decades cataloguing, with the help of numerous contract employees.

“When I was really fed up with this place in the mid-‘90s, I thought: if we can get 100,000 records into the catalogue, assets, then that’s it, I’ve had it, we move on,” he says,

“But now, several years later, we’re at 310,000. And now I’m movin’ on.”

Cataloguing things correctly is key, because that’s how future generations will be able to discover what’s in the archive. Preston knows, because when he started at CBC it took a while to get used to the quirks of an earlier archivist.

“For instance, now we’re doing (TV reports) on Douglas Channel and Kitimat,” he said.

“Where would you look for things about tankers and pipelines? T? P? No! It’s under F, for fuel.”

He laughs. “But here it is, it’s workin’. Oil. There’s (a listing for) Cherry Point tankers in ‘77. Remember, the first pipeline (proposal) was to take American oil from Valdez in at Kitimat, to pipe down to America.”

Preston is a walking encyclopedia of B.C. news and history. Which is perhaps surprising given that he was born and grew up in the United States.

“I was born in Youngstown, Ohio,” he says.

“A steel mill town, right on a diagonal straight line between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, on the polluted Mahoning River. I totally grew up with the smokestack economy, and a thriving European ethnic community.

“At nine we moved to California — Saratoga, San Jose. The next high school to me? Stephen Spielberg. He made it, I didn’t.

“I graduated from the University of California (at Davis), the agg (agricultural) school, and kept moving north. Just like Obama, I did community organizing, in rural Northern California.”

Preston came of age during the Vietnam War, but was lucky enough to draw a high number in the draft lottery.

“Nixon’s lottery,” he laughs.

“I won that lottery — I had a high number and I wasn’t called. But I had a lot of friends who were (draft) dodgin’ and they were already here. So I had a little bit of a toehold (in B.C.).”

He wound up going to university here, got married, had kids, and became a Canadian. He graduated from library school at UBC in 1983, and after shuffling around a bit landed a job at the CBC.

“I had a classmate who was here, Jeannette Kopak, who got promoted to Toronto,” he says. “She said ‘You should apply, you might like it. You like news.’ And I did, and got the job.

“(Then) they said: ‘Besides cataloguing all the news, we just laid off everybody, you also get the film library.’ So that’s when I had to figure out this stuff. I had no idea (what to do) — there was no manual.”

But he soon fell in love with the collection. Where else would you find film footage of the August, 1966 Vancouver visit of b-movie bombshell Jayne Mansfield?

“She’s got her two little Chihuahuas held right here for the camera,” he laughs, mimicking how Mansfield held her dogs in front of her plunging neckline.

“The lawyer that she died with (in a grisly 1967 car crash) shows up on set with this real obvious Ozark hillbilly fake beard on, he’s standing at the edge of the frame.”

Another time he came across a card labelled “Junior TV Club.”

“It was a summer replacement children’s show (in 1957),” he relates. “There was a little (10 year old) host there in a little pinafore in the West End, interviewing Alberta Slim and his circus elephant.

“She said ‘Hi, this is Aril Campbell.’ With that stuttering, halting speech, you knew right away it was (future Prime Minister) Kim Campbell.”

Some of the CBC material has been digitally transferred and put online, including the Campbell clip.

But there’s no shortage of cool stuff waiting to be rediscovered. Preston loaded a Let’s Go show from Oct. 30, 1967 into a projector for a photo, and up popped a local singer covering Just One Look by the Hollies.

It was probably the first TV appearance of Donnie McDougall, later of Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck and the Guess Who.

The CBC has been slow to put archival material online, citing expensive royalty payments in old contracts. But Preston said the BBC had a similar issue in Britain, and solved it by negotiating pension fund payments to various unions.

What will happen to the collection is unclear — Preston is not being replaced, at least in the short term. But the uncertainty hasn’t dimmed Preston’s enthusiasm for the collection. Three days before he was set to retire, he was proudly showing off the CBC radio archive, an improvisation assembled from old shows that were saved by staff.

The radio archive includes a unique collection of transcription discs, giant 16-inch platters that go as far back as 1938. This was how sound was recorded, before the introduction of recording tape.

“We have a 1950 recording of Dylan Thomas reciting poetry at the Hotel Vancouver, because that was where the CBC studio was,” he says.

“There was a recording engineer who had a big transcription disc recorder. They called it a lathe, because the lathe cut the groove (to make the recording).

“And while he was sitting there in his tie and coat, he’s got a little camel hair brush, flicking away those little swirls of vinyl that are coming up. Fantastic, eh?”

The Thomas recording came from former CBC executive Peter McDonald, a “wordsmith” who took it with him all across North America.

“He did lots of radio dramas (in Vancouver),” says Preston.

“He became the head of English language network television in the 50s, went back to Toronto. Got fed up with the CBC and went to work for United Artists in L.A. Came back (to Ottawa) in the ‘80s to work with the CTRC, then came back to the West Coast when he retired. (The disc) ended up with his daughter (when he died), and came back here, 64 years later.”

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