Elizabeth Mitchell is one of only a handful of kids who took part in YCDTOTV as well as Whatever Turns You On. Even though she was only on the 1979 seasons of both shows, she certainly has many fond memories, as you will see in our in-depth interview with one of the flagship members of the show we all love.
How did you get the job on You Can't Do That On Television?
I was involved in a drama club at my school when I was eleven years old. Carole Hay was our instructor. One day Carole asked us if we'd like to tour a TV station and see soundstages where TV shows are made. Several of us met at CJOH studios that Sunday for our "field trip". We met Roger Price that day and saw videotapes of the kids' shows he had produced in England. I think Roger and his associates wanted to screen test us without making us self-conscious, because no one told us we were auditioning for anything, they just asked us to do different things in front of a camera, like talking about ourselves and answering questions. There may have been an improv skit or two, I don't remember. I tried to shrink out of the room, but Roger insisted that everyone in the room participate. It wound up being very easy and fun. A couple of days later, Carole approached me at school and said that the interviews etc. I'd done on camera were in fact a screen test, and that Roger was interested in having me as a cast member on a new kids' show he would be launching in Ottawa. I remember being pretty shocked, because I was the prime female geek of the school and I found it hard to believe anyone would want to put me on television.
Describe what it was like to be involved in such a popular TV show?
Because I was on the first season, which was local only, I didn't experience the same high-profile exposure that people on the show discovered once it was broadcast on Nickelodeon. But even in the first season, we would get recognized a lot around town and it escalated when we did the Canada-wide pilot for "Whatever Turns You On" towards the end of that season. Kids on the street or in shopping malls would ask us for autographs, or ask us how we liked being on television. I was on-air a lot that first season, so I did get recognized from time to time. Lisa Ruddy, Kevin Schenk, Iain Fingler and I all went to the same school so YCDTOTV was a conversation topic among our classmates. Most of the girls in my class had huge crushes on Jono, Kevin Somers, and Marc so they were always asking me what they were like or if they had girlfriends. As I mentioned, I was an object of ridicule at my school and the show didn't really help, because none of my classmates really appreciated the fact that the school jerk was on television. It sounds melodramatic, but it was a bit of a "Carrie" situation! To complicate matters, my family were never that enthusiastic about my acting either, so it was a bit of a battle for me sometimes. I can laugh now, but I took a lot of abuse from people about YCDTOTV back then, and the only consolation was that I loved what I was doing on the show. I really lived for it, and that made it easier to ignore the flak I caught outside the studio.
What is your first memory of YCDTOTV? Your best? Your worst? Your funniest?
The first scene I ever shot was one of the locker scenes, where we would pop out of the locker door to tell each other jokes. The first locker set was some green industrial looking lockers, and after one or two shows they painted them in rainbow colours and added the show's name in bright yellow paint. It took awhile to tape the half-dozen or so jokes for the scene, and Jono kept asking me between takes if I thought he'd have enough time to rush to the bathroom and back -- eventually he did, and was back in place for his cue.
I'd been assigned a fairly large part for that show, and wound up with laryngitis before we finished taping so Christine had to fill in the rest of my scenes. That locker shot turned out to be my only appearance in my first show!
Best memory: Hard to choose. I loved acting more than I'd loved anything else I'd done at that point. And the people were so great and fun to be around, just the opposite of what I encountered at school. I got to interview some interesting people, and met fascinating people I wouldn't have met otherwise. If I had to choose, I guess one of my favourite scenes was when I was in Dracula's tomb in the "Whatever Turns You On" pilot. I was a snotty little girl in a frilly dress...I pounded on a dusty coffin to wake up Dracula (Les of course) and nag at him for sleeping late. I really wound it up for that scene, and it was pretty incongruous...but it was fun to rip on an adult (a vampire no less) and get praised for it! My other favourite memory would have to be the first slime scene, where Lisa got the inaugural bucket of green goo. The expression on her face after she said "I don't know" is priceless.
Worst memory: The scenes I screwed up. Twenty years later I can still remember every flub.
Funniest memory: Again, hard to choose. We were encouraged to let our wild sides have some breathing room, so very funny things happened off the set as well as on. Tim Douglas (another first season regular) was an incredibly funny person, and at fifteen was one of the "older kids" on the show. Tim was very quick witted and loved being in character. He took me under his wing a bit, recognizing that-- even though I was a complete naif--I would say or do ANYTHING if it would get a laugh or build a good scene. Tim taught me to swear and not to be afraid of boys ( which I desperately was at that age). He was a member of some choral group or other, that performed gun drills and did elaborate Scottish style military drills in uniform - meaning kilts, etc. Roger Price thought it would be a good idea to film the group's performance and include it as a local interest feature in the show one week. Tim had been bragging about how his drill unit, in authentic Scottish tradition, never wore anything under their kilts even when drilling outside in the snow. Roger therefore had the unit perform outdoors in the February snow, and persuaded the rest of Tim's unit to "snowbank"Tim after the cameras stopped rolling. That was pretty classic.
As for scenes I was personally in, a favourite would be one I shot with Les, who was in character as a flambuoyant wardrobe Monsieur. He wore a rainbow afro wig and had an outrageously gay accent. The theme of that show was that I was always getting upset over people calling me a "little boy" all the time. I reasoned that the show would be much better if the cast could wear glitzy rhinestone outfits and peform musical numbers. The wardrobe guy blindfolds me and dresses me in a Montreal Canadiens hockey outfit, complete with stick (of course, Les is making a running commentary about the "charming pantalettes" and "piquant sweater" during the dressing process) and I had to beat him with the hockey stick after I opened my eyes.
I'm curious to know how specific actors on the show were in real life, so let's try some name association. What comes to mind (in relation to the show) when I mention: Christine McGlade? Les Lye? Jono Gebert? Rodney Helal? Ruth Buzzi? Lisa Ruddy? Kevin Schenk?
Christine McGlade: We called her "Moose" back then, because she was very petite. She had been very involved in gymnastics before joining the cast, but because of the amount of time necessary to commit to the show, she had to give it up. Christine was sixteen when I met her, so there was quite a difference in our ages, but even other adults said that she was very focused and mature for her age. I idolized her a bit, I think...I thought she was perfect. She was very warm and easy to be around. I think some of the sillier things she had to do on the show made her feel a bit uncomfortable, whereas for us younger kids we didn't feel as self-conscious. The fact that she was so confident and personable made her eventual role as "host" of the show a natural process. Roger and the directors used to say that Christine never "acted", she was just herself in front of the camera. When I read on the Web site that Christine moved into a career in production, I wasn't surprised - she is probably fantastic at it.
Les Lye: Consummate actor. It's hard to discuss him as a person without focusing on his craft. Brilliant man, he could adapt himself to so many different characters that a lot of people thought we had a roster of bit actors doing the roles of Ross, the cook, the dad, the teacher, the dungeon master...but they were all Les and his fantastic array of makeup, props, disguises, and his amazing ability to create new voices out of thin air. Really a talented man. I did a lot of improv theatre later in life, and much of what I learned from Les came through there. It surprised me that he took to us kids as easily as he did, because I'd seen him for years on "Willy and Floyd" and figured he was an old man who wouldn't want to be bothered with us, but he treated us like fellow actors and nothing less. Les would often come up with impromptu lines during read-throughs or even at a taping, that would smoke what the writers had done, and it would get added into the script right there. He is a great comic and a great actor.
Jono Gebert: Jono was very easygoing and confident. He was naturally a very funny person, and he was close with Kevin Somers who was also quite a comedian in real life - they were natural mates. Jono was given many embarrassing things to do on-air, and I don't recall him ever flinching. A memorable scene is where he's wearing a white sweatshirt and jeans for a shoot, and Ross Ewidge tells him he can't wear white on TV because it causes the cameras to 'strobe' too much. Jono winds up peeling down to his briefs which - of course - are also white - and Ross gives his underpants a snap as he runs offstage. Jono was maybe 14 at the time, so wearing his underpants on TV took a bit of moxie. He just did the scene and carried on being Jono.
Rodney Helal: Rodney was only ten years old when he started on the show. He was a fireball. Rodney was completely enthusiastic about the show, and everything else. He nearly always ran everywhere. He was very intense, and was game for anything. There was a frankness about Rodney, I don't know if it was his age or just his inquiring nature, but he never hesitated to ask questions and never balked at giving answers. Rodney loved acting.
Ruth Buzzi: We were all delighted when we found out she'd be working with us. I had of course been watching Ruth Buzzi on TV and movies all my life, but I didn't recognize the name, so when Roger told us who our new co-star would be I embarrassed myself by blurting out "Isn't that the drummer from KISS?" When they showed me her picture I got excited because I'd seen her in so many shows. I only worked with her on the "Whatever Turns You On" pilot, so I didn't know her for very long. Ruth honestly liked working with kids, and socializing with them as well. She treated us like people, the same as Les did. She had a very contagious laugh, it came right from the heels and was completely unrestrained. All of us learned techniques from her during the filming of the pilot; Carole Hay told us to watch Ruth carefully and we all did, and after the pilot was complete we had a cast session where we discussed all Ruth had taught us. Ruth and Kevin Schenk became really good friends and used to visit one another during vacations.
Lisa Ruddy: Lisa and I knew each other long before the show, in a general way, because we lived in the same neighbourhood and attended the same school. Her nickname was "Squeaky" because her voice was sort of high-pitched. Lisa was very brave and if she was ever embarrassed, she rarely showed it. Her mind was very quick and she was very inventive as far as minor mischief-making or testing the limits went. [Lisa showed me how you could set off the alarm bells in the studio elevator by taking a big jump just as the elevator was about to stop on the top floor]. Because we were similar in age and height that season, Lisa and I were usually assigned "little girl" roles where we would wear frilly dresses and do bratty things. In real life she was very friendly and vivacious, and easy to like.
Kevin Schenk: Kevin was another schoolmate, and he and Lisa and Iain and I would carpool to the studio together ( our mothers took turns driving us). Kevin was quieter than a lot of the other kids, and was very artistic. He drew really good cartoons and caricatures, and had witty stories that went with the drawings. Kevin was really excited the week that we had Jim Unger (the creator of "Herman" ) on the show. He and Unger really hit it off. I remember Kevin saying many times that he would rather be a cartoonist than an actor. Now he owns his own graphic design company, so I guess he meant it!
If you could, please describe the process for taping a show. How many days? How long were the shoots, etc?
If I recall correctly, I would get a phone call at home on a Friday, saying I had been written in to the next week's script. That meant I was required to show up on Tuesday at the studio after school, for a read-through. Roger Price, Geoffrey Darby ( the director), all the cast and often Carole Hay would be supplied with scripts in the CJOH Boardroom. We'd sit around the table and literally read through the scenes. Sometimes we'd discuss blocking , costumes and props. But mainly Roger would coach us on delivery and how we should approach the scenes. I'd take the script home and start memorizing dialogue (not too hard because all the scenes were quite short). The show would be taped over the next few evenings, and then Saturday it would be broadcast. We'd have to be at the studio early on Saturday because part of the show was broadcast live...usually only a few segments interspersed with the previously taped segments. It was a one-hour show, so there was a fair amount of material to cover. All of us worked pretty hard on our scripts and we were coached by Carole Hay a lot during biweekly drama classes, so the pre-taped segments were usually shot quite fast. We were all very professional about it, and I don't recall anyone ever not knowing their lines properly.
Often if we were shooting at a special event, or an outdoor location, we'd have to shoot on a Saturday or Sunday. It made for a long week for Roger and Geoffrey, because sometimes they'd be working on segments of the show seven days a week. Once in a while we'd have to shoot late at night but they tried to keep those situations to weekends so it didn't interfere with the kids' school schedules.
Compare and contrast YCDTOTV and Whatever Turns You On. Did you prefer working on one more than another? What other differences were there?
Whatever Turns You On was more high-profile, and we had access to better props, sets, costumes, and co-stars. It's hard to recall, but I think some of the pilot might have been filmed during March break so we were able to spend more time on it. Also, I don't think any of it was done live, so there was a bit more control over what we could do. We got more attention, for sure. But I loved working on YCDTOTV just as much as I did the pilot.
What was it like working with Roger Price?
I had never met anyone like Roger before. He was so inspired and so driven...I'd never seen someone who had a dream and brought it into being the way he did. He expected us to be professionals as far as our work went, but he didn't want us to be anything other than what we were - which was kids. He had several children at home in England, and missed them very much. Roger was vehement about kids needing television for entertainment, not education, and had a very British approach to humour which some Canadians found a little hard to take. Literally, it was anything for a laugh.
What astonished me most about Roger was that he really liked what I did. When I met him, I was a bit of a goody-goody and used to doing what I was told, but never with such flattering results. I had never received this much approbation from an adult before, and I reveled in it...so making Roger laugh became my goal in life. I still found it hard to realize that doing what came so naturally was actually "work". I remember talking to Roger about acting one day, and I said "You know, if I don't become an actor when I grow up, I guess I'll be a musician." Roger looked me in the eye and said "You ARE ALREADY an actor."
When you look at the entire cast of the show's run, how do you rate the cast that you had to work with?
I think the "Genesis" cast that I worked with was pretty fantastic, but the show wouldn't have continued as long as it did without strong talent throughout. Christine and Lisa really managed the show through most of its run, which probably made a big difference to people who joined the show through the years.
Who was your favorite cast member (acting-wise and to work with)? What was your favorite episode?
Favourite cast member: Hard to say. I adored working with Christine, I knew I was always on stable ground there. Acting wise, I loved watching Lisa's scenes because her voice and facial expressions were always a scream . And Les played really well against the Jono and Kevin Somers team...the two boys were always trying to get under Ross's skin, or the chef's skin, or the Dad's skin.
Favourite episode would have to be the inaugural slime scene where Lisa got the green stuff. The wardrobe mistress made seven or eight of those flowered smocks for Lisa for that show, because she got the bucket so many times there wouldn't have been enough time to clean the dress.
Did you hate the slime scenes?
They WERE pretty gross. The noise it would make when it hit the plastic (there would be tons of Saran on the floor during a slime scene) was really nauseating, and seeing green chunks all over the place could be pretty icky. Also, it SMELLED! There was a lot of lime Jell-o in the mixture, so it smelled very lime-y after someone got slimed. I personally never got slimed, but I slimed other people...and I did catch several pies in the face. Cream pie filling is hard to wash out of your hair, and depending on how hard you get pied, the cream can clog your nostrils for quite awhile.
Why do you suppose the show had such a small Canadian following being that it was produced in Canada?
Good question! I think it all amounts to the typical Canadian tendency to talk down its home talent. Not many Canadians say nice things about Alanis, or Tom Green...yet they are huge hits across the border. Canadians have a tendency to look down their noses at talent who succeed outside the country. Too bad, because if there were more artistic opportunities within Canada, we could keep more artists here.
What have you been doing since your time with YCDTOTV?
Many different things. I did pursue acting in theatre and film for awhile, but haven't done much with that in recent years. I have been performing in bands off and on since I was seventeen, and that's my ruling passion at the moment. Most recently, I've been performing with a band called Absynthe and we are currently recording our second CD of original material.
Was there anything else worth nothing that we wouldn't know about? Any good stories that you would like to tell about your time on the show?
Too many to recount in one e-mail! With a group of people like the ones I worked with, it was pretty much a blast from start to finish. I hope the ones recounted above have given you another insight to what the show and the people were like. It definitely brought back a lot of memories for me!