One of my family’s most prized possessions throughout my childhood was definitely our VCR. I can’t specifically remember when we bought it, but as far back as I can remember we had a shelf of VHS tapes in our basement. Those tapes contained movies recorded off a variety of television stations – including a handful from a free preview of First Choice during the late-eighties. Many others though, were taped off CityTV.
For the uninitiated, CityTV is a Canadian television network in Toronto that is currently operating as a shell of its former self. You see, it used to be really awesome. Established in the early 70s, the channel racked up quite a bit of debt and changed hands a few times before it was sold to CHUM and moved to its current location on Queen Street in the late eighties. CityTV then became well-known for its original local content – like Speakers’ Corner and CityLine – as well as the late-night softcore programming block Baby Blue.
What made CityTV special during this era, was how it felt like television “by the viewer, for the viewer” – so to speak. On top of sneaking jokes and tidbits of information throughout bumper dialogue (provided by Mark Dailey), the channel used plenty of impromptu on-the-street shots of city dwellers and architecture. When coupled with the use of their Queen Street building’s image within animated logos, the channel had built something of its own character and atmosphere – one that felt decidedly authentic, as you can see in this compilation of Late Great Movies bits:
Which brings me to the Great Movies themselves. CityTV had multiple blocks of film programming: Great Movies mostly aired during prime-time slots throughout the week, Late Great Movies would play all through the night, and in later years More Great Movies would marathon up to five films in a row. Hell, they even had a block of programming at one point embracing b-grade schlock ‘n dreck called Not So Great Movies. For a kid like me who grew up on a steady diet of trash cinema, having it readily available right in my own home was incredible.
Spry VCR jockies could amass quite the collection of often unedited – but commercially interrupted – films if they had the time. As I mentioned, we had a stack of films taped off CityTV when I was a youngster, and I spent countless hours of my youth perched in front of the altar of CityTV’s film programming. I even kept a list of dates and times of upcoming films on the fridge, copied from the local newspaper or TV Guide.
From my first trips to camp with Ernest and Tripper Harrison, to altercations with the library ghost from Ghostbusters and underground Graboids from Tremors, much of my film fanaticism and taste can certainly be traced back to the dusty shelves in our old basement. So much so, that many of these films are forever inseparable from the era of City TV bumpers that adorned the beginning of each film.
The “Gargoyle and Desert” logo is synonymous with the aforementioned Tremors – in hindsight it’s particularly apt if you think about it. The “Queen Street Flying Disc” bumper will always pair with the 1992 film Stay Tuned – a film I rented so often I can almost hear the sigh of relief my parents (and subsequently their wallets) must have omitted when I finally programmed the VCR to tape it off CityTV one evening.
Unfortunately, all that’s left of the contents of that shelf is a single tape containing my favourite movie The Monster Squad taped off the First Choice preview channel. It comes bookended by Ernest Goes to Camp and Spaceballs, forming a powerful trifecta of horror, spoof and slapstick perfection capable of turning any impressionable young mind into a total film and comedy nut.
Maybe I’ll pass it along to a new, younger owner some day and introduce them to some of my childhood favourites – or maybe I’ll just pop it into the VCR next Saturday morning and press play. Who knows.