Remembering Tommy Banks, 1936–2018

Posted by on Jan 28, 2021 in Brian's Blog, CBC, Celebrities, Music, Politics | Comments Off on Remembering Tommy Banks, 1936–2018

At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to write something about Tommy Banks, who died of leukemia on Thursday at age eighty-one. I had interviewed him in March 1973 when he came to Prince George to play a concert gig with the Edmonton Symphony. But I no longer had the edition of the Prince George Citizen in which my article appeared. We had done the interview when he was thirty-six and I was twenty-nine, and I had long forgotten what we talked about.

Then, happily, the Prince George Newspapers Digitization project came to the rescue. A quick search of the site brought up my article, headlined “He’s the ‘stop-gap’ who made it.” The story revealed that our conversation was about The Tommy Banks Show he’d been hosting on CBC television for the previous five years.

The headline referred to a Banks quote, describing how he became host of the show. The program had started as a regional series produced in Edmonton, and CBC had planned initially to have a celebrity from Toronto hosting it with Banks as musical director.

“We looked around for a host and we couldn’t find anyone. So they put me in as a temporary, stop-gap host. And I’m still there.” No celebrity, it seemed, wanted to move from Toronto to Edmonton just to host a half-hour TV program.

But other celebrities were delighted to come to Edmonton to spend twelve minutes talking to Banks on air. That’s the amount of time he had with each interviewee. “If he’s going great at the end of the twelves minutes, it’s too bad because we have to cut him off.”

The time factor was a constant source of conflict with the network brass. Banks told the CBC bosses it was difficult for him to do an effective talk show in a half-hour format. “We only have 21 minutes of content after commercials. And after six minutes of music, we only have time for one talk guest. If that guest bombs, I’m stuck with it. But in an hour we would have time for three guests, and it would be easier to work it.”

As it turned out, not many guests bombed. There was some viewer outrage expressed when actor Peter Fonda admitted on the show that his outlook on life changed after he took drugs. “The reaction was horrendous,” said Banks. “But we were able to show that Dick Gregory had spoken out against drugs the previous week, so we could justify our position as being balanced.”

Other guests showed sides of themselves not previously revealed in public. Farley Mowat, for example, was expected to provide some comic relief for viewers because, said Banks, he had “two dozen stock jokes about Scotchmen and likes to do a little shtick.” Instead, viewers got to see the more serious side of Mowat, as a writer and conservationist.

The CBC bosses never gave him the extra half-hour he wanted. In fact, they cancelled the show the year after I talked to him. But Banks didn’t miss a beat. He moved the show over to Edmonton’s CITV, which put it into syndication. CBC then saw the error of its ways. It brought back the show for another four seasons, starting in 1980.

Aside from doing the talk show, Banks was active in Edmonton as a musician, arranger, composer, conductor, recording executive and (with his wife, Ida) a talent agency co-owner. Other musicians believed they would eventually graduate from Edmonton because they saw it as nothing more than a backwater. Banks believed it was a place of unlimited opportunity.

As he showed many years later, he also had what it took to become an effective Canadian senator. “One of the most impressive politicians I have ever spoken with,” wrote columnist Colby Cosh in the National Post on Friday. “Well-briefed, thoughtful, a man of forceful intelligence.”

That’s how I remember him, too. Well-briefed because he hired Edmonton broadcaster Colin MacLean to write and research The Tommy Banks Show. Thoughtful because he didn’t want the show to be a cheap imitation of what Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas did on the American networks. “We try not to do any banal interviews,” said Banks. “It doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to spend time on television.” Intelligent, because he was always learning.

Much of his learning came from the school of hard knocks, after he quit school at age fourteen to play piano in the touring band of jazz saxophonist Don Thompson. “I had nothing more to learn from school so I left,” he told me. “Now every school has a band or an orchestra, but twenty-two years ago there was nothing.”

He continued learning after Jean Chretien called him to the Canadian Senate in 2000. He served on dozens of parliamentary committees during his eleven years in the red chamber, and kept his followers up to date with a newsletter he titled “Bank Notes.”

He retired from the Senate in December 2011. Two months later, I heard him give a speech to the Canadian Club of Calgary, in which he listed all the important pieces of legislation that the Senate had reviewed and ratified during his time there. It served as a good reminder that the chamber of sober second thought is much more than an institution plagued with expense scandals.

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Copyright 2018 Brian Brennan - Author