CFCF-TV's Like Young Kept Host Jim McKenna Thinking on his Feet While Others DancedLive Show Was Foundation for his Career in Entertainment Biz
By Ian Howarth, August 2019
Soothing Sammi’s Psyche
It’s a post-major snow storm Saturday afternoon in Montreal and the host of the popular CFCF-TV teen dance show Jim McKenna is in the dressing room trying to put out a fire. It’s a miracle the production crew, McKenna and guest artist Sammi Smith even got to the studios in Montreal’s Park Extension area of the city (now referred to as the Plateau) given that nothing much was moving in the city after a storm dropped 42.8 cm of snow (at the time, with metrication in its infancy, the aftermath of the storm would have been measured in inches; in this case almost 17 inches. In terms of snow, the Metric measurement has more impact.)
Smith, riding the popularity of her smash cross-over hit, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, a country music song written by Kris Kristofferson that was at the top of the country charts and peaked at #8 on the February, 1971 Billboard charts in the US, was having a major meltdown just hours before Like Young was to go live at 6 pm. Smith it seems, was feeling the full weight of that closed-in feeling – almost claustrophobic – of her very first snow storm. Basically stuck in a city she probably couldn’t find on a map, Smith was in tears after her record label PR guy dropped her off at the studio and said he’d be back to pick her up – hopefully. It’s understandable that a wicked snow storm made her feel as if she would never get out of Montreal, ever. Married at 15, divorced eight years later after having three children, Smith, now 27, was in the midst of some pretty significant success and attention and the Orange County, California native must have been feeling like she’d landed on Mars. So what to do but cry. Fortunately, McKenna, only in his mid-20s, was a TV veteran after six years of live TV as host of Like Young. He learned on the go and was a handy and sympathetic shoulder to cry on as Smith expressed her ennui, topped off by jet lag and a woman almost alone on the road lip-synching the same song from coast-to- coast and continent-to-continent.
Working Like Young Solo: From Folk Dancing to Syndication
McKenna was firmly at the helm of Like Young by 1968, since his original co-hosts; first June Mack (who left the show for an opportunity to do a teen show of her own on CBC which lasted one year), then Joan Clarkson and finally Diane Dickinson left the show and management at CFCF dropped any pretence that they needed a female co-host to support the gender dynamics of a teen-oriented TV show. McKenna stepped up into the role with ease, which included soothing the psyche of artists like Sammi Smith, who he assured that Montreal knew how to handle snow storms and she’d be on a plane out of town soon enough for her next gig.
These were heady times for a young guy who was 18 years-old when CFCF hired him to be a host on the station’s first live show from their barely-completed studios in 1961. He had a summer job at radio station CJAD and had for a short time been involved with a weekly 15-minute radio show at the CBC, but he was hardly road-tested when CFCF management went with their gut feeling and chose him over other aspirants who showed up to audition. He was the first to audition and the producer Allen Shellack told him, “As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got the job.” Along for the ride – for just the first year as it turned out – was the clean-cut and camera-friendly CFCF DJ Bob Gillies with whom McKenna had great chemistry. (Gillies, one of the featured DJs in my book Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves, died last year at the age of 85 in Atlanta where for a time he had worked for Ted Turner in CNN’s pioneer days.)
(Photos, except for Tommy James and the Shondelles courtesy of Jim McKenna)
Like Young host Jim McKenna (left) with co-host June Mack, who was number two of three female co-hosts for the show, and contributor Bob Gillies, whose day job was as a DJ on CFCF-AM and CKGM-AM from ’61-’67. McKenna and Gillies had good chemistry and remained friends over the years, despite the fact that Gillies was on the show for only one year.
Like Young started out modestly as a kind of variety/music show aimed at the teen market, a live show that tried to please everyone, with music not necessarily being the sole focus. But the show took a major turn in 1968 when Dick Clark called. Clark had made himself a force in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and was now the host of the hit teen TV show, Dick Clark’s Bandstand on ABC-TV and CEO of Dick Clark Productions, a company he had formed in 1957. Clark was to rock music what Jack Warner was for the Hollywood film biz. Clark gave Like Young a supreme compliment when he told CFCF he wanted to syndicate the show in the US. This opened a big, brand new tap for U.S. rock artists and groups – artists like Sammi Smith who was admittedly a one-hit wonder but hot for a time – who would be accessible and appear live or taped video on McKenna’s show. Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, Tommy James (without the Shondelles), the Doobie Brothers and more either dropped by to lip synch their big hit song and get interviewed or appeared on video-taped interviews and performances. The show now was all about the music and less about teen fashion and cultural profiles.
Do the Locomotion With Me
The show had a devoted following which grew over the years to the point where its audience often topped French and English-language shows combined in the Saturday, 6-7 pm time slot. “We even beat Jeunesse d’aujourdhui (a popular French-language teen variety show hosted by Quebec’s Bobby Vinton, Pierre Lalonde),” said McKenna. “Sure Quebec had some stars, but we had the big American rock names the kids wanted to see. In the early days, we’d get singers like Ben E. King and Joe Tex, who came to town to perform at The Esquire Show Bar. Montreal became the Motown of the North and Like Young was more than happy to help boost their careers. Montreal embraced R&B like no other Canadian city.” On the studio dance floor kids were up strutting their stuff, busting out moves they’d practiced at home in front of the mirror. The ’60s was almost a full decade of new dances that popped up in songs; the Twist, the Pony (both Chubby Checker songs), the Watusi (the Orlons), the Loco Motion (Little Eva), the Swim (Bobby Freeman) and the Mashed Potato (James Brown.) Kids from all over Montreal lined up to become part of the live studio audience, all shined and primped up for the cameras. When the British Invasion arrived, the kids pretty much freelanced it on the floor. One regular I remember, who often got more than his share of close-ups on Like Young, was a dead ringer for Ringo Star, replete in his Edwardian suit, part of the early Beatles’ on-stage wardrobe. Word got to McKenna that viewers were curious about this Ringo look-alike, and as he often did, waded into the crowd to do a quick meet and greet with some of the dancers. The Beatle illusion was shattered when McKenna asked him where he was from and he responded with a heavily Québcois-accented English. Meanwhile, McKenna’s own evolution on the show is a timeline of fashions from 1961-1973. By the time the late ’60s rolled around, the blazer and tie had disappeared, replaced with the requisite long ‘burns, longer hair, a leather vest with fringes, bell-bottom pants and the big collar shirts of the day. And likewise the rock ‘n’ roll artists of the late ’50s and early ’60s had to move with the times as well or risk becoming irrelevant. Some just disappeared from the charts.
By the late ’60s, Like Young moved with the styles of the day as did McKenna. Gone was his buttoned-down look; in was the longer hair, serious sideburns, leather-suede vest, big-collar shirts and bell bottom pants with boots, the uniform of the well-kempt, stylish teen TV host. Looking like a suave version of a young Stephen Stills of CSN&Y.
Frank Too Cool
While Like Young supported local talent like JB & the Playboys, MG & the Escorts, The Haunted, The Bells, and Andy Kim, it was the big names in rock that brought in the viewers, especially after syndication through Dick Clark in 1968. Whenever a group or solo artist was riding the success of a hit song and Clark and McKenna could pull the right strings to get a Like Young appearance, local bands found themselves on the outside looking in if they hadn’t come up with successful new material. Not every rock artist embraced the light ‘n’ lively vibe of the show. Frank Zappa, who had a zealous following in Montreal and often played local clubs before moving up to the Forum, was in a feisty mood when McKenna asked him a few questions. “It was as if Zappa was doing us a big favour by coming on the show,” was the way McKenna remembers that encounter. “Mostly he gave me attitude putting down both me and the show as lightweight. Frank was just too cool for Like Young.” Though he looked the part of the counterculture hiptser, McKenna heard through the local record company promo rep that when Zappa got off the plane in Montreal, the first thing he asked about was record sales. Which is not surprising, given Zappa reputation as a taskmaster with musicians he had in his band. Any whiff of drug use and they would be gone. Today, Zappa’s musical legacy is strictly controlled by The Zappa Family Trust, directed by his wife Gail until her death in 2015. After her death, a dispute between Zappa four children (Dweezil, Ahmet, Diva and Moon Unit) temporarily derailed the Family Trust, but a few years later peace was restored. And Zappa’s musical catalogues, copyrights and distribution of new work is in their hands alone. You won’t find a Zappa cut on a K-tel-like compilation hits album in Walmart.
Montreal-born Andy Kim was one of many successful Canadian pop/rock artists who appeared on Like Young. Kim was one of four sons born to his Lebanese immigrants parents. Like a lot of people up front in the entertainment biz, a surname change was called for from his given surname, Youakim, conveniently sanitizing his name by dropping a few letters. With hits like “Rock Me Gently” and “Baby, I Love You” and a hand in the writing of “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, Kim was doing quite well. Here, in something of a reflective pose (and with similar tastes in ’70s fashion), McKenna interviewed Kim poolside where Like Young was “on location,” a summer concept that gave the show a seasonal look.
The Bells on the set of Like Young in 1971 with singer Jackie Ralph (with Jim McKenna, top left.) With a couple of hits on their Top 40 CV (“Moody Manitoba Morning” and “Fly Little White Dove”), the Bells scored big in ’71 with “Stay With Me”, a song whispered in her sexiest come-hither voice by Ralph. With lines like: “Into my room he creeps” and “She drops her robe to the floor”, “Stay Awhile” was the closest thing to rock porn ever to come out of the staid Canadian pop/rock world. The song hit #1 in Canada, while peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 for that year.
Country Joe Rains on Peace and Love Parade
After appearing at Woodstock in 1969, Joe McDonald of Country Joe & The Fish had their moment in the sun with their counter-culture anti-war song, “The I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” usually followed by their “F-I-S-H” cheer, originally meant as an opportunity for the audience to spell out a part of the group’s name. “Fixin’ to Die” resonated with the nascent anti-Viet Nam war movement in the US. At Woodstock, Country Joe changed the “F-I-S-H” cheer to the “F-U-C-K” cheer sending 400,000 kids into a sing-along frenzy. McDonald used part of his interview time on Like Young to make some poignant commentary on the state of the music business and its capitalistic leanings – the uneasy relationship between its pursuit of the almighty dollar and the sentiments of the lyrics of peace-now-back-to-the- Earth rock groups who were making some good dough in the name of peace. His band started out playing in the San Francisco area in the mid-to-late-60s and after a recent trip to the Bay City area, McDonald saw the whole free love, peace-on- Earth mantra was disintegrating, the streets around the famous Haight-Ashbury area transformed into a wasteland of the wasted, desperate and homeless young idealists, runaways and thieves and addicts – the dream of a New World was badly faded and distorted. “Joe told me the Woodstock dream had come true, but not for the kids,” says McKenna. ” More for big record companies like Warner Brothers. I was shaken by that comment.” That so-called Summer of Love in ’68 wore out quickly like a one-hit wonder. McDonald’s observation was a sobering moment on a show that usually shied away from any controversy. Like Top 40 radio, Like Young was all about the hits.
Tommy James in Confessional Mood…Almost
Inside every TV interviewer is a journalist yearning for a moment of fresh honesty, a revelatory insight – hell, a scoop is the goal. For a show such as Like Young, which knew its mandate was to provide light entertainment, not do a 60 Minutes-style dig and expose; that opportunity rarely, if ever, came along. So when McKenna had Tommy James (of Tommy James and the Shondelles fame), on the set, pumped up from the success of his 1969 hit, Crimson and Clover, he thought that moment had serendipitously presented itself. In a casual conversation with McKenna before going live, James admitted he had struggled with drug addiction and had gotten clean and sober – without any apparent therapeutic intervention – on a farm he’d bought in Upper New York state, the town famous for peace and love, Woodstock. Moreover, he was prepared to admit this on camera to McKenna. The journalist’s juices in him started flowing. McKenna thought he had something serious to bite down on and with 110 U.S. stations – including the all-important NYC and L.A. markets, all part of the Dick Clark syndication deal – the story would make a huge splash south of the border.
James had got his start in the music biz at the age of 12 in 1959, but hit pay dirt seven years later with a song he’d recorded but forgotten about, resurrected by a Top 40 DJ.
As simple a rock song as there ever was, “Hanky Panky”, layered with the repressed sexuality of the pre-free-love days of rock, was a huge hit for Tommy James (bottom right) and the Shondelles in 1966 when it reached #1.
The song was “Hanky Panky.” Tommy was off to the rock ‘n’ roll races and with a revolving door of musicians who would serve as his Shondelles, he had several songs that made the Top 40 after “Hanky Panky” , including “Mony Mony”, “I Think We’re Alone Now” and his 1969 hit “Crimson and Clover, a song that took James out of the bubblegum rock sound and into the throes of psychedelia. It was the year of “Crimson and Clover” that had James in the CFCF studios. And, apparently in a reflective mood, he was looking to unload some very personal stuff on Like Young.
‘Crimson’ Confession Dénouement
McKenna thought he’d struck interview gold. James had told no one – as far as he knew – about his problem with drugs and made sure his production crew was in on the mission, telling them that Tommy James was willing to open up a vein on their show! But just hours before James was about to come on to the set, the show’s talent coordinator rushed up to McKenna and asked for a private moment. “I was just in the dressing room where our next rock group is and one of them told me Tommy James was running around trying to score some drugs.” he told McKenna. And, in the time it takes to say Hanky Panky, the scoop went up in smoke, vaporized. While McKenna re-grouped, his interview strategy he’d been running through his head had to change course back to the soft ball questions every musician could knock out of the park with his eyes closed. It was the kind of disappointment only fellow TV, radio and print interviewers could really understand, another “what-if” story he’d tell for years to come.
And if we are to believe the Tommy James timeline bio on Wikipedia, about a year after his Like Young non-disclosure interview, he collapsed after a concert and was apparently declared DOA, presumably in a nearby hospital. I’m going to assume they revived him, since in his 2010 memoir, Me, the Mob and Music, James admits to having had a serious pill habit (some claim it was a heroin addiction) but the details are sketchy. It would take James many more years after Like Young before he confronted his demons. When James retreated to Woodstock, NY in 1970, McKenna struck up a friendship with James’s manager Bill King and when he had the occasion to visit New York, he would drop in to see how James was doing. It was on these casual visits, off camera, that James admitted that he had a serious drug problem. “He told me that his brain was totally fried,” says McKenna. “He said he could hardly remember how to play guitar or the lyrics to songs he had written.” James was understandably anxious about his mental and physical health. And though I haven’t read his book, I assume he got help and is back in the right lane, still touring, though not packing in arena-sized venues. James’s web site outlines his touring and it seems he can thank the proliferation of US casinos for the prolongation of his career, though he did have a chance to shine brightly when he and the current iteration of the Shondelles played a big concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20 in San Francisco. It seems that Tommy James and the Shondelles is Buzz Aldrin’s favourite ’60s band.
Lickin’ the Pie Off his Face and Movin’ On
TV is not a safe place; there are no safety nets, no pension plans, at least not for the non-union card-carrying live TV show host who hadn’t become a member of ACTRA (The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.) As were the cameramen and other assorted production crew members, McKenna was a member in good standing, an investment that would eventually pay off down the road. Like Young had more than a good run. Twelve years on air is some kind of a record, especially for a show that is on when the cameras roll. Aside from the newscasts, Like Young remains the longest-running locally produced show in the almost 60 years that CFCF-TV has been on the air. It was 1973 when CFCF management pulled the plug on Like Young. Ratings were plateau-ing and as far a live dance shows on TV were concerned, the future was in disco. It was the Donna Summer and K.C. and The Sunshine Band era of popular music, a decade that spawned the film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta-esque dance floor moves as well as re-booting the Bee Gees career. The album, Saturday Night Fever, remains the best-selling album of all time and was #1 on the Billboard album charts for the first 24 weeks of 1978. As much of us rock purists cringe at the memory of disco as some kind of annoying aberration, that Bee Gee’s album wound up in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, keeping company with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Elvis and Bob Dylan. And though disco flamed out in the ’80s, today you can still see people of a certain age pulling some Travolta-like dance moves – ironically, of course. Montreal embraced disco in a big way and a couple of years after Like Young was cancelled, CFCF premiered Feel Like Dancin, a live dance show that – like disco – didn’t have the staying power of Like Young. “I was always amazed my show got renewed,” admits McKenna. “But I was getting restless, anyhow. It was time to move on, though that wasn’t my decision.” CFCF, like other independent TV stations across Canada, was under pressure to unite under the CTV banner. The TV landscape was changing and as his syndication deal with Dick Clark about to end, McKenna saw the writing on the wall. CTV was consolidating and local programming was taking a direct hit – including Like Young.
His last Like Young show had Montreal group the Wackers as guests, a band led by American Randy Bishop and singer/songwriter Bob Segarini that didn’t take themselves very seriously but had a loyal, cult-like following in Montreal. As McKenna was signing off, and before he had an opportunity to thank his staff, the live studio audience and viewers for their long time support, Bishop came up from behind and jammed a lemon meringue pie in his face. After 13 years, that was a wrap, live TV at its best. McKenna licked pie off his face as the credits rolled down the screen, an inglorious end to a glorious show. Being cancelled tasted, well, like lemons. But McKenna, now just 31 years-old, was just getting started.
Behind the Camera: Spread the Wings and Fly
McKenna had established a lot of contacts in the TV business over the years and he was well respected as a guy who could handle the pressure and knew the job from both sides of the camera. He’d already checked out the Hollywood scene when he visited his good Like Young buddy Bob Gillies, who had found a measure of success writing for TV shows like the Sonny & Cher Show and Laugh-In. Gillies showed him around, but it was the manipulative modus operandi of the Hollywood hustle that threw McKenna off. “There were Jags and Mercedes parked out front of where this party was that Bob took me to, “he recalls. “Turns out most of them were rentals of wannabe actors, directors, writers and producers all putting up a front as if they were successful. Bob said to me at one point, ‘Look around the room. You’re probably the only guy here who has his own show on the air.’ ” Then McKenna got a lunch invitation from someone he had met at the party who had a pitch for him to hear. “It turned out the guy’s pitch included me getting Dick Clark in on it,” McKenna recalls. “He was using me to get to Dick Clark. For me, it was a snapshot of the way Hollywood worked and it wasn’t for me.”
So, it was back home with the bright lights of Hollywood behind him that McKenna jump-started his second career as a writer, TV producer and director that, with more than a thimble full of irony that had him producing a show for CBC-TV at the CFCF-TV studios, a pop magazine show he hosted called The Flipside. Then Jim McKenna & Associates, his first production company, was born.
His TV production, direction and writing resume over the almost four post-Like Young decades includes shows for CBC, CTV and TVA, Dick Clark Productions, a show hosted by country legend Buck Owens that led to specials in Nashville for CBS at the Grand Ole Opry with stars like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Then it was on to a bit of comedy TV out of CBC Vancouver, Downtown Saturday Night followed by a TV special for the Comedy Network that would go on to become such a major force in turning out comedy shows and breaking out new comics and its biggest show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When variety shows on TV were on the wane, McKenna more to more serious shows, one a documentary on the black underground railway called Sing Out Freedom Train produced for Global TV. “I’m particularly proud of that show,” he says. “It’s still used by educators during Black History Month.” His last big production, which he wrote, produced and directed, was, appropriately enough his “giving back gift” to TV, a two-hour documentary that took a look at the history of live TV in Canada, with guests like director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Moonraker), Leslie Neilson (Airplane!) and Robert (Camelot) Goulet, Juliette (Our Pet) of CBC’s long time lead-in to Hockey Night in Canada and a slew of other early live Canadian TV entertainment professionals who remembered the pioneer days when almost every show was a one-take business.
For a guy who eschewed the glitter, glamour and cutthroat culture of LA, McKenna did very well indeed. “With my two production companies, we had a lot of work come our way. To think I could have been a game show host,” said McKenna, reflecting on an offer he got from CTV after Like Young was cancelled. “I wasn’t the type of guy who yelled through the sound stage speaker,” he says of his directing style. “I just wanted to quietly get the best performance out of the people I worked with because I knew very well what is like on the other side of the camera.”
Maybe it was when he pitched a travel/drama idea to a network, who wanted to turn it into a reality TV show instead that gave McKenna pause. The TV market was changing and he found himself in that place Ted Ziegler had warned him about so many years ago. “I remembered his advice about putting away some ‘fuck you’ money and now was my ‘fuck you’ moment,” he explained. “I was comfortable. I had made some good money and investments and I wasn’t about to go down the reality TV show road.” He’d had a good run and with his ACTRA RRSP pension he’d paid into for almost four decades, it was not going to be grilled cheese sandwiches for the rest of his life. McKenna and his second wife Suzanne have been living in the Toronto area since the mid-’70s, the beginning of the exodus of thousands of disillusioned anglo-Montrealers worried about their place in Canada. Besides, like it or not, Toronto was – and still is- the center for the English-language television production business. Like Young gave McKenna the foundation he needed to work in international markets, playing the role of producer/writer and sometimes director simultaneously. His son Alan has show biz in his blood. After graduation from Ryerson, he now works as an assistant film director in Toronto.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, then McKenna can congratulate himself on being a shining example of professionalism and perseverance. Even without the cool that Frank Zappa thought was lacking, Like Young with McKenna at the helm had a great run, providing memories for a generation of teens who, now in their 60s and 70s, can still sing the lyrics to pretty much every Beatles song. Like those lyrics, Like Young made a serious imprint on the part of the brain that’s responsible for long term memory. Montreal teens who grew up with the show as part of their adolescent education, watched its host grow up in front of them every Saturday for 13 years.