Sunday, June 02, 2013

past pieces of toronto: speakers corner

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 22, 2012.

They seemed like just another bunch of goofy guys crammed into the booth at the corner of Queen and John Streets. Paying a dollar destined for a charity gave them two minutes in the spotlight. As the camera clicked on that day in March 1991, they sang. The tune was about asking a girl to be their Yoko Ono, complete with Yoko-style shrieks. While other musicians earned little more than a brief appearance on CITY TV, a visit to Speakers Corner helped propel the career of the Barenaked Ladies.

Speakers Corner was installed sometime after CITY moved into the former Ryerson Press building in 1987 and was among the quirky innovations programmer Moses Znaimer developed at the station. The public’s views on virtually anything quickly proved a useful addition to the station’s newscasts. In 1990, producer Peter Whittington proposed a weekly half-hour show built around Speakers Corner, with clips linked by themes like politics and the battle of the sexes. Costing little to produce, the series debuted that September. The Star’s Antonia Zerbisias called Speakers Corner “a clever little show” which “covered everything from stupid tongue tricks to propositions to CITY personnel.”

In another article four years later, Zerbisias noted that in the Speakers Corner editing room, it didn’t “take long for an observer to conclude that the world is full of morons who don’t even have the sense to keep it to themselves…they want to let the world know.” Material left on the cutting room floor tended toward people left speechless once the camera clicked on, or those whose performances couldn’t be shown on television, such as a couple engaged in sexual activity in the booth who suffered from poor compositional skills. “The framing was bad,” Whittington noted. “They didn’t understand television.”

But many others understood the medium. After a game where he stomped on an opponent’s head, Argonauts wide receiver Rocket Ismail headed straight to Queen and John to record an apology asking forgiveness from football fans for his actions. He didn’t talk to the media until the following day. The booth also saw its share of poignant moments, such as a plea from one woman that led to her reunion with sisters she hadn’t seen since childhood.

The booth also attracted celebrities of varying degrees. Tuning in might have rewarded you with poet Irving Layton honouring former pupil Znaimer, Mike Myers testing out new material, Judge Reinhold improvising movie trailers, and cameo appearances ranging from Harrison Ford to Madonna. Prince was a fan during his Toronto residency—“I just love the idea of it,” he told the Canadian Press in 2004. “I am so tempted when I go by to stop the car and go into the booth and say what I have to say.” Alas, he never did.

Despite the avalanche of complaints directed at them, politicians latched onto Speakers Corner. Whether it was fringe council candidates outlining their platforms, then-prime minister Jean Chretien encouraging viewers to vote, or federal justice minister Kim Campbell promoting the Charlottetown Accord, the booth proved a satisfying pulpit. Campbell’s appearance, during which she was hugged by a young, robed bearded dude telling her how beautiful she was, prompted CITY reporter Colin Vaughan to remark “Now I’ve seen everything.”



But like many elements of the Znaimer era, Speakers Corner gradually fell by the wayside after he left the premises. When CTV purchased CITY in 2006, the booth was closed while the fate of the station was determined. After the CRTC forced the sale of CITY the following year, new owner Rogers temporarily installed a new Speakers Corner at the Rogers Centre, with the intention of permanently relocating it to the station’s new home at Yonge-Dundas Square. But that never happened: in June 2008, Rogers cancelled both the television show and the new booth.

The demise of Speakers Corner could be seen as just another example of corporate bean counting at work. It could also be viewed as a casualty in the rise of internet sites like YouTube, where anyone can post their own video rants and stories. What it allowed, and may be missed by some, is the opportunity to express your thoughts and talents in a public space with no guarantee that anyone other than an editor would watch your two minutes of fame.

Additional material from the October 16, 1992 edition of the Globe and Mail, the August 27, 1991 edition of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, and the September 21, 1990, September 24, 1992, September 10, 1994, and June 12, 2008 editions of the Toronto Star. Full episode of Speakers Corner from October 1990 posted on YouTube by Retrontario.

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