March 27, 1984

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Flash from the Past: Big Al dominated kids’ TV in ’60s and ’70s

” … the cartoons are comin’ your way!”

That was the cue for 1960s and ’70s children to fixate on their television screens. Telephones could ring … mothers could yell … food could get cold on the plate but those cartoons introduced by a hefty extrovert in a white cowboy hat had their total attention.

Back in the days when TV stations had channel numbers and call letters instead of names; when rooftop antennas could be fine-tuned directionally; when there was live programming for children, if that channel knob was on 13, it featured Big Al. From the CKCO-TV studio on King West in Kitchener, he babysat generations of kids across southern Ontario, north past Muskoka and even into Michigan and New York states.

This March marks 35 years since Big Al died and, somewhat synchronistically, it is also the 65th anniversary of CKCO signing on as one of the first privately-owned Canadian television stations. Although he grew up in Saskatchewan, Elwood Jones was born Jan. 9, 1911 in Fort William, Ontario. He received the nickname Big Al in 1954, but it didn’t happen in Kitchener.

In the 1940s and early 1950s Elwood discovered he was meant to entertain: several dance bands that he joined toured Canada and parts of the United States. Eventually he led his own, self-named Phats Band featuring the already-hefty Elwood on drums. Leaving the grind of on-the-road gigs behind, he found a new career at radio stations in places such as Kirkland Lake, Peterborough and Kingston. As with many early radio people, he had on-air shifts (including sports play-by-play) then hit the streets selling advertising time the rest of the day.

Elwood moved from Kingston radio to Hamilton’s CHCH-TV in 1954 and there, the Big Al character first appeared. After just over a year he returned to radio, moving to Guelph’s CJOY. Kitchener-Waterloo beckoned in 1960 and the full Big Al persona came forth. For the next two decades-plus, including several early years when he was live on-air seven days a week, Big Al was the face of CKCO-TV for kids and, in many cases, their parents. Certainly, there were other early local television stars — such as Elaine Cole, Mrs. S (Vi Scriver), Joe Carlo, Tom Rafferty as Wally Walrus, and Grace Lawson — but Big Al seemed bigger than life.

Over the years his program titles, times and formats varied: “Cartoon Capers,” “Ranch Party” (live every day with children in the studio bleachers for games, special guests and birthday celebrations), and “Big Al’s Talent Showcase” on Sundays with youngsters from 4 to 18 singing, dancing and reciting. Today, four and five decades later, many “Showcase Stars” can still recall every second of their moment of fame.

Big Al’s remembered public image was fashioned by his glittering western suits and white cowboy hat (always white, like all good guys) but it was imprinted by his Ford Galaxie convertible with huge Texas Longhorn steer horns attached to the grill. It was seen all over town and at just about every parade and fall fair in the area.

As an entertainer, the lights, cameras and microphones didn’t faze Al. The only time he said he felt a bit nervous was just before visits to sick kids in hospitals. His own heartbreak at seeing the condition of some of the youngsters living a doomed life would, he knew, have to be kept internal. His game face both caused and reflected the joy each child showed when “their pal, Big Al” walked into the hospital ward.

Al retired from full-time TV work in 1976 but continued on a part-time basis until 1982. Two years later, sitting at home watching the six o’clock news on CKCO, he had a heart attack and died that evening in St. Mary’s Hospital.