Leon Cole; 1940-2019
Our good friend, Halifax-based broadcaster Leon Cole recently passed away at the age of 79 with his loving family and friends by his side. Leon left an indelible impression upon a generation of Canadian radio lovers as the long-time host of CBC’s premier classical music program RSVP. Later, and with help from his wife Jacqui Good, he collected his on-air experiences, along with letters from listeners, into a warm and wonderful anthology called Dear RSVP. In 2012, he shared some of his thoughts with Arts East. Today, we are rerunning that piece in honour of "The Piano Man" and all of those who knew him.
What attracted you to radio in the first place?
When I was growing up in Halifax, radio was a very important part of my life. TV wasn't even an option until I was 15. So, the family gathered around the radio on Sunday evenings listening to shows like Our Miss Brooks and Amos and Andy. I avidly tuned into late night baseball games in my bedroom. That interest in sports led to me being interviewed at the age of 12 by Danny Gallivan from the gondola of the Halifax Forum – I suppose they thought it was amusing to have a junior colour commentator on the show. I also remember singing on a local radio program called "Your Children Sing" on CHNS – in my best boy soprano I warbled "I Whistle a Happy Tune". So, radio represented showbiz to me – and in my 20s, when I had a chance to audition for CBC, I was thrilled. It was exciting to be one of 'those' voices advising the audience that they were listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Over the years I got to read the news, deliver weather reports and sports scores, interview celebrities and, quite often, introduce classical music. I left announcing for several years to work as a producer and manager—but was relieved to find my way back to the microphone as host of two national radio shows, Soundtrack and RSVP, both originating from Winnipeg.
What were the challenges of the profession?
Performing 'live' was always the biggest challenge for me - when I could pre-tape a show, complete with a written script, I felt relaxed and comfortable. Put me in front of a live audience and things were much scarier…although oddly enough those were the most memorable shows. One time a wasp kept swooping around my microphone, terrifying me. Luckily an audience member stepped in and killed the beast. On another occasion we kept losing power to our cd players and, in desperation, a young guest and I actually sang his request for a tune from Gilbert and Sullivan. The spontaneity and interaction were always rewarding but I admit I was happy to get back to my studio cocoon.
What were the rewards?
The greatest reward was feeling connected to a community of music lovers, right across the country. People wrote to request music and often shared how the composition had affected their lives. They talked about memorable concerts and trips and important events in their lives. Some of these letters were very moving -- others extremely funny. In fact, after I retired, we put together a book of some of those letters (Dear RSVP). I felt privileged to be part of so many people's lives. And it is that contact -- the letters and calls - that I miss most about the job.
One of my favourite road trips was to the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, BC in 1994. RSVP had 'borrowed' my wife (arts journalist Jacqui Good) to be part of the production team -- and we had so much fun working together. I got out of the studio and tried my hand at 'calling' a race at the swimming pool and describing the arrival of Prince Edward by yacht. I toured the lieutenant-governor's extensive gardens and ate a salad full of edible flowers at legendary Sooke Harbour House. Another favourite broadcast was from the Broadcast Centre in Toronto with two of my children as special guests. Allen Cole is a composer and he was scheduled to play a number from one of his musicals with his sister Holly Cole as soloist. I was incredibly proud of them both -- but they nearly gave me a heart attack by not showing up on time. (Holly is notorious for this.) I had to keep improvising and filling time until they finally made it to the studio. People wrote to tell me that they stayed in their cars when they reached their destinations because they just had to find out if the kids got there! Another nerve-wracking event was co-presenting the classical music Junos on national television one year with daughter Holly. I got on stage and realized I couldn't read the teleprompter. So I made up something and we survived.
What are your thoughts on the state of radio today?
I think there are many fine programs still to be found on CBC - I admire hosts like Michael Enright. I am saddened by the erosion of classical music programming.
How did your passion for the Boston Red Sox come about?
My father took me to games at the Wanderer's Field and I fell in love with baseball's intricacies. My summer days were filled with pick-up games and, in the evenings, I listened to my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio. When the franchise moved to Los Angeles, I was heartbroken. So, I guess you could I saw I took up with the Red Sox on the rebound. They were the closest big-league team to Halifax and they had a storied history. So, I became one of the legion of Red Sox fans. And I could continue to hate the Yankees.