50 years later, Art Steeves recalls first Christmas Daddies show

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Art Steeves

Fifty years ago Art Steeves was a new hire from vocational school, young and inexperienced but trying to make himself useful at the initial Christmas Daddies show. Today he is a grey-haired grandfather, the only member of the original crew who is still part of the show.  

The Christmas Daddies story, which harkens back to a time long before computers or colour television, was dramatically re-enacted for this year’s CTV Christmas Daddies Telethon in early December.

“Jim Hill Jr. called me in to see it in advance and I’m glad he did because I found it very emotional,” said Steeves.

Jim Hill Sr. and Jack Dalton, both dead now, were working in television and radio when they got together for a drink and a bite to eat on a cold November evening in 1964. A little boy, about eight years old, entered the tavern and began circulating, asking for spare change. He was quickly escorted out but he returned and was removed a second time. When the child, shivering, and with the toes out of his shoes, entered a third time, Jack Dalton wanted to know what problem made him so persistent.

When the tavern patrons learned he had a mother and younger sister at home with neither bread nor milk, they collected the princely sum of $15 and sent the boy happily on his way. Hill and Dalton wondered what kind of Christmas the little boy and his family could possibly have and they recognized that the little boy’s family was but one of many. They pledged to see what they could do to provide a Christmas for needy children. They talked to their employers at CJCH radio and television, and came up with a plan for a telethon.

“It was quite a project to take on and in very little time. The only air time they could get was at midnight but it was donated and co-workers offered their help. I’d only been at CJCH a few months so I didn’t play a big role but I was happy to do anything I could,” said Steeves.

The hastily organized show raised $1,500. It struck a chord in the community and a year later the second show raised $5,000. To date more than $27 million has been raised. 

“You have to remember what wages were in those days. I was making $40 a week in 1964 so it took a lot of donations to bring in a thousand dollars. People were generous, they just didn’t have a lot of money,” said Steeves.

By the second year he was heavily involved and his father, a carpenter-electrician at the television station, was making wooden stands for the 25 or 30 trees required. When Steeves married, his wife, Verna, took on a variety of roles from decorating the set to feeding volunteers.

“I remember the first show after our daughter Carol was born. We carried her in a basket and she was there for many years after that. It was a real family event and I guess it still is because there are a few families that are into their third generation,” said Steeves.

For many years Steeves worked on the technical side of the production and he marvels at the changes that came during the 50 years.

“I’d say the changes in camera equipment have been amazing. When we started cameras were big, bulky and very heavy. It took several people to get a camera in place so it was quite a development when we moved to shoulder cameras.”

Colour brought another dramatic change.

“Colour was so exciting but it meant a lot more work to put on the show. Things we never worried about in black and white were important in colour. In the early days you could not count on the colour being right. Some days the skin tones might be lime green which was pretty challenging for the engineers.”

Steeves retired after 37 years in television, later moving to Sinclairs Island where his family had a summer place since he was a boy, but he has no plans to take his leave from Christmas Daddies.

“I had a bout of cancer a few years ago but I was pretty determined to get to the show and my stubbornness worked for me. “

He is also inspired by the heartfelt stories that have come to him through the years.

“It is not unusual to get a cheque from someone who was helped years ago. They often want to tell the old, grey-haired fellow because he was around then. It makes me feel great to hear from them, to know they are now able and willing to help somebody else.”

Steeves goes to Halifax three days in advance of the show each year and performs “light duties” as required.

“It is a busy time, looking after this and that, meeting the people who help with events all through the year. When I’m driving home, about the time I get to Mount Thom, it always hits me hard. It is sad that we’re still needed as much as in 1964 but it feels good that we’re able to answer the need.”

Knowing that the Salvation Army has dispersed the proceeds from the show, providing toys for children and food for families, makes Christmas all the sweeter for Steeves who shares the holidays with his wife, daughter, Carol, and her husband, Pictou East MLA Tim Houston, and their two children, Paget and Zachary.

“Our family will enjoy our Christmas and thanks to Christmas Daddies, so will many children and families who otherwise might not have much to mark the season,” he said.

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca

 

Organizations: CTV Christmas Daddies Telethon, Salvation Army

Geographic location: Sinclairs Island, Stellarton

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