A treasure trove of old CBC footage, hidden from the trash

The late Alf Spence worked at the CBC from 1948 to 1983

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When CBC moved into its current headquarters at 700 Hamilton St. in downtown Vancouver in 1973, Alf Spence heard that they were putting up old reel-to-reel tapes.

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“Bands were going out of fashion,” said Spence’s son Gary. “They take up (also) space, even more than records.”

But Spence believed that they had cultural value – and as a CBC recording engineer had recorded some of them themselves. So he went to the trash can, dug them out and took them home.

Spence retired from CBC in 1983 and died in 2014 at the age of 89. His tape has been stacked in a basement room of his small home in Burnaby along with some old coil-to-wheel recorders, amplifiers and speakers to play them.

His son Gary recently retired and has decided to go through and digitize them in memory of his father. He also hopes to arouse interest in CBC or an archive to take over the collection.

This may take a while. Retired CBC archivist Colin Preston and retired reporter Bob Nixon have helped him sort the tapes, and Preston has compiled a master list of 1,307 tapes in the collection.

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Many appear to be tapes of old LPs or radio programs, like an 1971 11-part BBC series about the Beatles.

But others appear to be unique live recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald at the Cave Nightclub in 1968, Jack Benny at PNE’s Exhibition Gardens in 1943, and jazz trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden at the Orpheum in 1958.

Of course, there are plenty of local artists, including five bands by jazz pianist Chris Gage, nine bands by local Dixieland bandleader Lance Harrison and even a band by the Kitsilano Boys Band in 1953.

Some were made for CBC, but others were probably recorded by Spence outside of work.

“His interests were so far scattered,” Preston said. “He did things on the specifications, he did things for his friends, he did things under contract, and he did things for CBC.”

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Spence’s great love was jazz – there are nine bands by the big band’s great Artie Shaw, including live concerts at the Hotel Lincoln in New York City in 1939 and at the Hollywood Palladium in 1941.

There are also 17 Louis Armstrong bands, including a couple of live Vancouver shows in the 1950s, and an Armstrong special by the legendary Vancouver disc jockey Jack Cullen.

But there are many other things. Spence’s main appearance on the CBC from 1948 to 1966 was to record “outside shows,” which could be anything from live music to documentaries to sounds to slip into radio programs.

Therefore, you get 16 bands labeled “bird sounds” as well as 17 labeled “train sounds.” And that does not include six more bands from the inauguration of BC’s own Pacific Great Eastern Railway from Prince George to North Vancouver in 1956.

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“The very first PGE train with the premiere (WAC Bennett) and all the journalists,” explains Gary Spence. “I think at one point he was sitting on the bumper (front) as it was driving down the road, he had his tape recorder and his microphone and just took ambient sounds from the train. He edited it in the program for the first PGE- train.”

Spence was a magician with tapes.

“His best ability at CBC was editing programs,” said Gary Spence. “He would be late if there had been an interview that was going to air (and clean up). We found some of his ‘yyyy’, ‘uhh’ and ‘yyyy’ tapes that he put together for laughs that he had taken out of interviews.

“People talk (like) shit half the time, but when you hear them on the radio, everyone sounds so smart. It was his job to make them sound smart. Especially politicians.

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“He was good at it, he could do it all at the pants seat, fast. It ended with perfect break and it all, (because of his) editing of the straps.”

Alf Spence was in electronics all his life. Born in Vancouver on May 5, 1925, he contracted polio as a baby.

“He lived his whole life with one leg the size of your forearm and the other maybe the size of your upper arm,” his son said.

“My dad couldn’t do a lot of physical stuff. But he was interested in electronics, so he built his own PA system and was a DJ right away when he was 14 years old.”

Making money was crucial to his working class family, who lived in Victoria and East 46th.

“His father had a clinical depression and he had to go out and make money,” Gary Spence explains. “So he quit 9th grade and it was one of his (jobs) to make parties on the weekends with his own set.

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“He had a friend on Victoria Drive, Neville Treacher, who had a record store, Treacher’s. He guided him for years and became one of his best friends.

“No, not only did they sell records, everyone had to have a turntable and a little amplifier and stuff (to play them). He repaired them so he taught my dad electronics, pipe electronics in the store. My dad was there every day.”

As a 15-year-old, Alf began working in local radio.

“His first job was CKMO. He made the night shift with the transmitter, ”he said. ‘He said he was almost fired because it was a little dark to read. So he put a fluorescent light next to something and it lit up so he read his book.

A few days later, the boss called up and said, ‘What the hell is going on down there? The transmitter does not turn off all its power! ‘ It was absorbed by my father’s fluorescent light. “

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In 1948, he moved to Toronto and got a job at CBC, where his boss’s secretary became his wife.

“She saw this young handsome guy come in and thought ‘Mmm,'” Gary Spence said. “She was only five feet and my dad was really short. So they went out for a show the next weekend in my dad’s Model-A (Ford) without floorboards.”

The couple moved back to the West Coast when CBC started a local FM station in 1953. He did all sorts of recording jobs over the years, but CBC changed, and in the 1970s he felt out of sorts.

“When they moved to the new building, everything was digitized and he took no courses,” his son said. “So he did not know how anything worked. He did not really enjoy the new CBC building in the 10 years he was there.”

In an age of digital recording and computers, Spence’s skills became a lost art. But his son is determined that some of his work will survive.

jmackie@postmedia.com

One of the Spence recordings is a table tape by Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in 1977.
One of the Spence recordings is a table tape by Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in 1977.
Several bands from the Spence collection.
Several bands from the Spence collection.
(From left) Gary Spence, Bob Nixon and Colin Preston with a collection of CBC audio tapes that Spence's late father Alf Spence, who worked for CBC radio, saved from destruction many years ago.
(From left) Gary Spence, Bob Nixon and Colin Preston with a collection of CBC audio tapes that Spence’s late father Alf Spence, who worked for CBC radio, saved from destruction many years ago. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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