Elwy Yost was such an unlikely TV star. With that big round head, bushy moustache and over-sized glasses, he looked more like a butcher or detective or some other character actor from one of his favourite films from the '30s or '40s.
The former host of TVO's Saturday Night at the Movies passed away Thursday in Vancouver. He was 86.
Yost was so well known in Toronto in the '70s and '80s his name was a way of proving citizenship, like knowing the Pizza-Pizza phone number or the location of Honest Ed's. He provided a window to classic films at a time when you couldn't just call up a Preston Sturges or Frank Capra title at Netflix or Rogers on-demand or even on video or DVD. There was no Turner Classic Movies 30 years ago; Elwy was it.
His genuine enthusiasm was so infectious he made you want to check out whatever black and white oldie TVO happened to snag for that week. Even better was the interviews Yost and a small crew used to shoot on film down in Hollywood each season. Conducted in the late '70s and '80s, Yost caught up with Capra himself as well as Greer Garson, David Niven, Chuck Jones, John Huston, George Stevens, George Cukor, Vincent Minnelli and many others.
Most of the stars, directors and writers were as taken with Yost's fan boy enthusiasm as were TVO viewers. When Yost completely retired from TVO in 1999, copies of the interviews were donated to the Motion Picture Academy. Many can be accessed here at TVO's "Public Access" website.
Back in the early '80s when I was involved in writing and performing on a Toronto community cable TV comedy called Etobichannel, I called him up out of the blue and asked if he would take part in a sketch. The man was parody on a silver platter, ever-purring about how this week's film or performances were "marrr-velous."
To my amazement, Yost drove himself out to what was then Maclean-Hunter Cable TV out near the airport, sat in our studio and read a few lines we had thrown together for him. Etobichannel player Pat Bullock, in a bald wig and glasses, then played opposite him as our fake Ely "Toast." It was worth a few laughs, but I'll never forget the unassuming generosity of the man, taking the time to pop into a nickle and dime little community cable deal just so we could goof on him.
Yost's own TVO studio at Yonge and Eglington probably helped keep him humble and modest. The place was a shoebox, just a tiny room down in the basement.
Former Toronto Star TV columnist Jim Bawden interviewed Elwy a million times and deserves a lot of credit for making Saturday Night at the Movies such a weekly habit for classic film fans throughout Ontario. Bawden shares a few insights and stories here at his blog. As he points out, Yost was pulling an audience of roughly half a million viewers a week at his peak -- about 10 times what the Ontario educational channel gets now on a Saturday night.
Condolences to Yost's family, including son Graham, who was making his dad proud these days directing episodes of The Pacific as well as writing and executive producing the Emmy-nominated FX series Justified.
This post previously appeared on Bill Brioux's blog www.tvfeedsmyfamily.blogspot.com.