On Process And Place - Letter #1 (Mark to Julie)
A Substack Letters series between Mark Dykeman (How About This) and Julie Falatko (Do The Work) about childhood influences on creative work as an adult, starting with local television for kids
I’d like to welcome you to a three part Substack Letters series between myself (Mark Dykeman) andof . Our series, On Process and Place, examines the impact of childhood experiences on the creative work that we do as adults, with a focus of the impact of living in smaller communities and their particular influences, also taking into account that we are both part of the Generation X cohort (born in the late 60s or 70s).
For example, everyone has heard of: New York; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Toronto; London; Paris; Jerusalem; Cairo; Buenos Aires; Beijing; and Sydney.
Global brands with a huge impact on our lives include Disney, WalMart, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Jack Daniels, champagne, tacos, Harley Davidsons, Apple products, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Facebook, Google, professional football (whichever version of football you know).
These are brands, people, food, music and technology that most people either know or have experienced, at least in their heads and often in person. If you believe in Pareto's Law, at least 80% of the world knows about the same 20% of geography, culture, technology, brands, etc.
Sounds a bit like many of our influences and experiences came from the same computer chip, no?1
While it's true that much of the world's population is concentrated in its urban areas and subject to the wide variety of experiences to be found in them, many of us don't. I've lived in Canada all my life and with the exception of the time I went to university and lived in a community of about 50,000 people, I've lived most of my life in communities of 5,000 people or much less. My family didn’t have cable or satellite TV until after I left for university. The Internet as we know it today did not exist. Cell phones were reserved for the rich and for traveling professionals. My little town has only had McDonalds and KFC for the past couple of decades.
None of the above was bad, by the way - it just meant that I grew up with different opportunities and experiences than my children, who have always known about the Internet and mobile computing, having screens that could virtually take them anywhere to almost endless collections of knowledge and culture. Even at university they have access to more knowledge on a little screen than the physical collections of their on-campus libraries.
It's seems like there's a lot of potential here for a Substack Letter series! I reached out to Julie Falatko who, like me, grew up in small towns, although she grew up in the US state of New Jersey and is now a long time resident of Maine. On a global scale we are practically neighbors as Maine borders New Brunswick, my home province. Our cultures are very similar yet there are differences worth examining. We're also both members of Generation X so we were probably exposed to similar foundational experiences (I'll never forget where I was when I learned about the Challenger explosion in 1986: the same is true for 9/11 in 2001).
We've hit upon the name (and theme) for our letter series to be called On Place and Process. We're both creative individuals: Julie is an author of children's books and while my day job is project management I've written online for years and startedas the latest version of my online writing in mid 2022. But we both live outside urban areas and we wanted to explore how that has affected how we express ourselves today.
Our Letters series is divided into three sets of letters: I (Mark) will write the first letter in each set and Julie will reply to it while adding her own thoughts. We're going to dive into some really specific experiences in this Letters series. Here are the three sets we're going to publish over the next three weeks:
Set 1: Childhood TV, with a local flavor: we're going to look back at the formative media that we experienced, with a special emphasis on local (or regional) children's TV programming, stuff that our Letters collaborator might not have been aware of
Set 2: Food and snacks, with a local flavor: similar to the above, we're going to remember the little foods, snacks, junk foods, whatever, that we grew up with that were local to our area.
Set 3: How did our places of origin influence our creative processes (and output)
You can track the progress of this Letters series here:
We hope you'll join us on this electronic trip down memory lane - maybe this will jog some forgotten memories of your own that may put a smile (or a temporary grimace) on your face and trigger your own creative processes.
And now I'll start with Set 1 and talk about a couple of local kids programming experiences from my youth.
Well Julie, where to start? TV was a defining staple of Gen X childhoods and the differences (and similarities) between the programming we grew up with left an indelible impact, on me anyway.
My family had at most 4 channels when I grew up and my brother and I made the most of them. When we were really young we were able to watch the North American children’s TV staples like Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and The Electric Company, with a side order of The Wonderful World of Disney on the weekends. But there were a few local programming exceptions, which is the point of this Substack Letter.
Julie, there were very few original children’s TV programs in Canada in those days and regional programming was even more scarce. The only one from my home province that I can remotely remember was Miss Anne. Miss Anne was the kind of show that belonged in an encyclopedia entry for wholesome 1970s children’s programming. Miss Anne herself, who in my memory is quite simple a grayish blur because a) she was a middle aged lady and b) we only had black and white TV at home, was a cultured lady who focused on stories and songs for children who were elementary school age or younger. Miss Anne would have fit in perfectly in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood - and she’d be watching closely to be sure that Fred was using perfect grammar, too.
It just occurred to me as I write this that I’m probably just as old today as Miss Anne was when she started her show. What’s that you’re whispering, Julie? That I’m probably OLDER than Miss Anne was at the time?
Yeah. Probably. But, um, that’s besides the point.
I wish I could say I had fond memories, or even any memories of the show, but while it was a high quality show, its earnestness was the kind of thing that kids started to sneer at as they got older because it wasn’t cool. So, while it might not have been hip to like Miss Anne at the time, I think the show and its host deserved some kudos for trying to create educational programming for children.
There’s always a Miss Anne somewhere, Julie: most of them don’t get a TV show, though.
The other semi-local kids TV show was part of a franchise of shows from the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation, like Canada’s version of the BBC). Switchback was aimed at a slightly older cohort than Miss Anne, mainly what we’d call tweens or young teens these days. Because CBC often dabbled in regional programming there were multiple shows under the Switchback banner: among others, there were versions from the West Coast of Canada, one from Ontario, and one from Atlantic Canada that was broadcasted from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Switchback Halifax is the one that became a Saturday morning staple for me.
An interactive youth variety show which aired on Sunday mornings, the series mixed music videos, celebrity interviews, cartoons, comedy and puppetry segments, and viewer contests.
Switchback Halifax was hosted by Stan “The Man” Johnson, a former reporter and somewhat larger than life character who interacted well with kids, carried out wild schemes and had a running gag making fun of “the Boss” his (supposedly) fictional manager. I believe that all Switchback hosts joked about having no budget for their shows and no doubt they were right! We’re talking local cable TV budgets, Julie.
[Interesting aside for Sloan fans: young Jay Ferguson was interviewed on Switchback about his job working at a Halifax record store: he started at age 12.]
Switchback was a highlight of my Saturday mornings. It was goofy and fun without going to extremes and Stan “The Man” was equal parts laid back, interested and goofy, a good mixture for young teens. Did you ever watch UHF, Julie, or maybe early David Letterman? Somewhat similar vibes but sanitized for kids watching the CBC.
It’s also important to note Switchback’s role in promoting music videos in Canada in the early 80s when MTV wasn’t available in my country and MuchMusic (Canada’s version of MTV) was only available if you had cable. It was one of the few sources of music videos that I could get. One of the other music video shows we could get, incidentally, was All Hit Videos, which I believe came from Bangor, Maine. Not that far from your current stomping grounds, Julie!
My favorite Switchback memory was a contest that my brother and I entered - the show had lots of contests, Julie. For this contest, kids had to write the show and say what they would do with 1000 Frisbees. Our answer was to melt them and turn them into a statue of the mysterious “Boss” that Stan kept complaining about. We didn’t win the contest but as consolation prizes we got two Frisbees autographed by Stan the Man himself.
Sadly, Julie, the Frizbees are long gone, like Switchback itself. This was long before eBay… man, I probably could have gotten at least $25 per Frisbee now.
Alan Cooke has a really great post where he dives into Switchback in detail, including the following summary of Stan’s antics, including Stan’s puppet sidekick Rufus:
No Switchback subplot or storyline was too ridiculous for Stan. His canine co-host Rufus, who began his life on the show as a puppet, was kidnapped on the first-season finale, with an actor playing Peter Falk’s Columbo showing up to find him before Stan asked viewers to submit their own possible “Who Took Rufus?” scenarios, saying “this is where our writers couldn’t figure out what to do.” Still missing by the second-season premiere, Rufus was reported to be involved in several bizarre scenarios (including “moving Grand Manan Island to the Bay of Fundy”) before the 1982 Hallowe’en episode, which saw Spider-Man make three attempts to return the little rascal before finally bringing him in shortly before the credits rolled. (Spidey also hauled in suspected Rufus-napper and Halifax Daily News columnist Tom Regan, in his first of many appearances on the series, which included a fill-in hosting stint in 1985 when Stan was given a brief winter vacation.)
Julie, I haven’t thought about Switchback for years! It was scrappy, corny, earnest and ridiculous in a way that appealed to a shy young kid in love with television. A lot of us wanted to be the irreverent and fun kind of guy that Stan was for us on Saturday mornings. While the closest I came to being like Stan was with my hair (I had quite a bushy bunch of hair as a kid, Julie), he managed to brighten our weekends, which was great indeed.
Thinking back, though, the idea of an upstart kids show in Atlantic Canada, competing with the big networks…is a little bit like that. Maybe it was an unconscious influence? Maybe.
So that’s my installment of Set 1, Julie. Can’t wait to read what you have to share!
Support a scrappy little newsletter from Atlantic Canada, eh?
We acknowledge that our experiences are shaped by being English speaking Caucasians living in North America and most of the brands and experiences we cite originate from North America. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.