King of Popcorn

Eric Neville, host of the iconic and wildly successful kids variety show Popcorn Playhouse, came upon the gig that would make “Klondike Eric” a household name quite by accident.

Back in the days of the two-channel universe in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was no such thing as Simpsons reruns or Oprah, Edmonton had its very own TV stars.

On Edmonton’s first TV station, CFRN (now CTV Edmonton), staff announcers were local celebrities. Everybody knew the likes of Ed Kay, Norris MacLean and George Kidd – and every kid in town knew Eric Neville.

For a remarkable run from 1961 to 1978 – 4,000 episodes, 140,000 kids, up to two hours a day, three to five days a week, for 52 weeks a year – Popcorn Playhouse was appointment viewing for Edmonton kids.

And Neville, in his guise as Klondike Eric, ran the show.

Popcorn Playhouse made Neville one of Edmonton’s most familiar faces. But hosting a kids’ TV show in the afternoon was not a position he originally sought. “When I was hired at CFRN-TV, no one mentioned Popcorn Playhouse,” says Neville, now 72 and living in central Alberta. “There were three announcers on staff, and I didn’t know it at the time, but seems the rule was last guy hired got nailed for the show. That would be me.”

Prior to coming to CFRN, the Turner Valley-raised Neville served TV and radio stints in Peace River, Calgary (where he met his wife, Barbara, to whom he has been married now for 51 years), Lethbridge and Red Deer. In between, he tried farming. He moved to Hays, Alta. where he “tried operating a quarter section of irrigated weeds, badger holes and a small nasty herd of sheep whose sole purpose was to escape and disappear into the nearest coulee.”

With a second child on the way, Neville landed a job at CFRN, expecting to return to farming in the spring. He ended up staying at CFRN for 28 years.

Neville wasn’t CFRN’s first Popcorn Playhouse host. For the show’s first couple of seasons, there were different hosts and different themes. There was a nautical set hosted by a “captain,” then another with a jungle theme, where the host “dressed up in short pants, pith helmet, pistol in a holster and a monkey he picked up at a pet store each day,” Neville says.

“The most exciting part of that show was when the monkey got loose, scrambled up into the light grid and peed and pooped on anyone unlucky enough to be underneath.

“The kids were plainly freaked out by him, and would all squish to the far side of the set to avoid his interviews … Then when he went around they would all slide back to the other end.”

When Neville was tagged to do the kids’ show, he spent some “horrifying afternoons” watching the train wreck that was then Popcorn Playhouse. He made two crucial decisions that would lead to a 15-year run as host – he would be as unobtrusive as possible and he’d let the kids be kids.

While other hosts played characters, he decided just to be himself, albeit with the “Klondike” nickname, originally clad in “blue jeans, big boots, leather belt, plaid shirt and a toque.”

Klondike Days was just getting underway in Edmonton, so the revamped program featured a “gold mine” set, a shaker box full of sand salted with “nuggets” (actually foil-wrapped nickels), and a leftover prop from another CFRN show, The Noon Show – a giant, papier mch moose head nicknamed Muskeg. In between Looney Toons and Popeye cartoons, Neville gave kids their 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame with an interview.

“I came up with a simple system that worked out fine. I would ask simple questions and really listen to the answer. I would watch the body language and the reaction of the kids’ friends around them, and that was all it took to take the interviews to a special place every afternoon,” says Neville. “I loved them. I was genuinely interested in what the kids had to say and sort of tuned out the rest of the activity going on all around me.

“I set the shots up to make me invisible for the most part. Extreme close-ups of the kids during this part of the show, and making sure they were heard at home, was the key. Nothing better on TV than a close-up of a child in brand new clothes, hair done, big silly smile – front teeth optional – and having fun on their birthday,” says Neville.

A highlight of the show – and the most nerve-wracking, in that the show was live – was the daily segment where kids would ask Muskeg a riddle. (Neville also voiced Muskeg, pulling a string under its jaw to make it “talk.” The string broke one day, leaving Muskeg literally slack-jawed and forcing Neville to do a muffled Muskeg voice.)

Most of the riddles were harmless, G-rated stuff, but double-entendre riddles would present Neville with a real challenge. “Whatever was said, lame or shame, got on the air.”

For example, one child asked Muskeg why a fire engine was red. Muskeg, said, “Oh that’s easy … so people can see it better.”

“Nope,” came the innocent child’s reply. “It’s ’cause you’d be red, too, if someone pulled your hose for 13 feet.”

Then there was the child who asked why a woman is like a frying pan.

“I knew at the time I heard the riddle that it wasn’t going to be good,” Neville says. He tried to divert the kid away from the answer, “but the kid stood his ground.”

The answer, which went out live into thousands of Edmonton homes: Because you have to heat them up before you put in the meat.

“You wouldn’t even tell that riddle in mixed company in a bar, and there it was on Popcorn Playhouse,” says Neville.

With Neville running the show, Popcorn Playhouse became a “juggernaut” – must-see TV for Edmonton kids and their parents that ran for up to two hours a day, every day except for Christmas, New Year’s Day and maybe Good Friday.

“It was a cash cow for CFRN. The national sponsors – General Foods, Mattel – bought out the show months ahead of time,” Neville remembers.

Tickets were at a premium, and only about one out of 10 ticket requests was successful. If you got an invite to the show, you went.

“We had kids who showed up who were so sick they were passing out.”

Even healthy kids found it too much sometimes. The excitement of being on the show, combined with the white-hot lights required for TV, meant some kids wet themselves or threw up – all live, on air.

The beginning of the end for Popcorn Playhouse came when ITV (now Global Edmonton) went on the air in 1974. Suddenly, CFRN didn’t have 4 to 6 p.m. to itself. (Neville says CBC Edmonton wasn’t a factor because it was “running crap” against Popcorn). ITV began airing reruns of the original Star Trek from 4 to 5 p.m. and reruns of Love American Style from 5 to 6. Star Trek hadn’t been seen in Edmonton since it went off the air in 1969, and it was a formidable foe to Playhouse.

“Even I wanted to watch it,” Neville laughs. “I loved that show.”

Star Trek ground down the Playhouse audience so that toward the show’s end, it was down to 30 minutes. “Captain Kirk basically set his phaser on destruct and blew Popcorn Playhouse off the air,” Neville laments.

While Popcorn Playhouse’s on-air run faded to black in 1978, it continued to live in the fond memories of thousands of Edmontonians.

David Fisher, current advertising and promo tions manager for CTV Edmonton, isn’t one of those who grew up watching the show, but he finds himself acting as the unofficial archivist for Popcorn Playhouse memorabilia – what there is of it. He often gets requests for tapes of the show, which do not exist. Neville says it was only taped on a few occasions to show potential sponsors what the show was all about, but the tapes – which were very expensive at the time – were reused. It appears the only existing tape is of the show in its truncated form in 1978, taken on a VCR.

Fisher figures there are three types of people in Edmonton – those who have been on Popcorn Playhouse, those who wish they had and those who’ve heard of it and wonder what it was all about.

Fisher was the executive producer of CFRN’s 50th anniversary show in October 2004, which included a recreation of the famous gold mine set. While most of the set was pretty accurate, Muskeg was rather feebly represented by a plush moose, which raises the question – whatever happened to Muskeg?

Neville has heard variously that the moose head is hanging over a bar in Paddy’s Pub in Lethbridge and in The Moosehead Lounge in Waterton Lakes.

Fisher, however, knows otherwise.

“Muskeg was just thrown into a bin,” he says. “It’s a sad end to the mystery.”

Playhouse and Muskeg live on in the memories of thousands who cherished the show – and on the Facebook page, Fans of Popcorn Playhouse, which has more than 1,200 members. Klondike Eric himself answers queries.

Feel free to join, but please … no dirty riddles.

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