Wednesday, February 13, 2013

RIP - Johnny Zee

Today's Province contained a small obituary today: John Zwolak, aged 68. To the Victoria radio community, he was Johnny Zee, one of those behind-the-scenes guys who make a radio station work. There are personalities who may be the spirit of a station, but Johnny was one of those fellows who was the heartbeat and muscle of the operation.

I worked with Johnny during all my years at C-FAX -- 1988-2001. He did the occasional on-air turn, but most of his work during the time I knew him was in the production studio, producing and voicing commercials and public service announcements.

He was a great guy: good to be around, and a good example of a professional in the craft. But when I think of him, two incidents stand out. Oddly enough, both happened before I got to C-FAX.

Grey Cup time was particularly notable around C-FAX because the sports director, Ken Dobson, would go to the game, and generally take Johnny with him to do their own brand of "coverage", which sportswriter Jim Taylor described as "some of the zaniest hours in radio". That description -- and the following story -- come from my book, My Shattered Nerves! A Souvenir Program of The Dobber.*

[Ken Dobson narrating] When I first came to Victoria, one of the first C-FAX employees I met was Johnny Zee -- Johnny Zwolak. He is an expert producer,especially when it comes to editing tape. I've met some of the best across the country, and Johnny ranks right there with them. I swear, if Jose Carreras or Pavarotti ever sang a sour note, Johnny could edit that one note out and splice in a good one -- that's how adept I think Johnny is.

We've had our fun times. When we did our first Grey Cup broadcast -- not play-by-play, but a special talk show from Montreal -- Terry Spence was supposed to go, but he couldn't make it,so they took a l-o-o-o-n-g chance on one Ken "Dobber" Dobson. The uestion was, was it safe to send both Dobson and Zee, both well-known imbibers of Labatt Blue and Kokanee, to Montreal? Worse, we were to broadcast from my favourite watering-hole, the original Irish pub, The Hunter's Horn on Peel Street, owned by my good friend, Martin Conroy.

We arrived in Montreal on a Thursday night to get ready for our broadcast fromthe Hunter's Horn on the Friday. We had lined up as our guests Jean Beliveau -- we had thought -- Jim Fanning, then manager of the Montreal Expos, and Danny Gallivan.

Apart from our two-hour broadcast, we had fifteen "cut-ins" that we had to do, talking with people from all over town. Well, in one particular case, Johnny suggested that, even though we were recording them all inthe Hunter's Horn, we should say we're at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, to make it seem like we're not always at this tavern. So I did that: I said, "This is Ken Dobson with Johnny Zee at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel."

A chap at the bar heard me say, "Queen Elizabeth Hotel", looked around the room, got up, went outside, called a cab and said, "take me to the Hunter's Horn". Thought he was in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. And being a Montreal cab driver, he drove him all around about five blocks and brought him back to the Hunter's Horn!


Here's a photo of Johnny with Ken Dobson in another sports-related incident: Dobber was a big baseball fan and for Opening Day 1977, C-FAX station owner Mel Cooper promised Dobber to get him two Yankee Stadium seats for opening day. Dobber thought it was a cruel joke, but indeed, Mel came through. He never actually said they would be seats at Yankee Stadium: he had gone out and bought two of the old seats that were taken out when The House That Ruth Built was renovated and presented them to Ken -- on air.

Dialogue balloons (provided by Ken's and Johnny's longtime friend, John Bate): Johnny: These old Yankee Stadium seats are great! Dobber: And they come with old Yankee Stadium hot dogs!


But those two stories are more about Johnny with someone else: the big story I remember of Johnny Zee was his, and his alone. He pulled a Sunday morning shift in May, 1980. In between records, he gave a shout-out to a local black-powder club. In case you're not familiar with them, these are gun enthusiasts who specialize in old-style, load-through-the-muzzle, pour-in-the-gunpowder and tamp it down with the ramrod kind of shooting. They tend to be a rowdy bunch, dressing up in Daniel Boone-style buckskins and coonskin caps.

So Johnny was doing the shout-out when he heard several loud reports -- loud enough to be heard through the studio window and picked up by the on-air mic. He said, "wow ... sounds like they're getting started early!"

Except it wasn't the black-powder club that made the noises. The noises came from Mount St Helen's, some 300 miles away, blowing up.


It's always tough to say goodbye to a friend and colleague. I hope Johnny knew how much he was appreciated by those who worked with him -- and how much he'll be missed.

My Shattered Nerves! was a "non-biography" of Ken Dobson that was written when we knew he was dying of cancer. It's a collection of anecdotes both by and about him, which sold fairly well in Victoria, where he had a lot of fans. The experience also taught me the meaning of that dreadful word, "remaindered" -- the term given to books that a bookstore hasn't been able to sell and sends back to the publisher -- in this case, me. If you're interested in getting a copy, there are a few available on Amazon.

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