At Mount Allison in 1948: A Unique Halloween Celebration

With the last day of October comes Halloween. In common with many other special days, the celebration is centuries old. Originally, the first of November marked the beginning of the New Year for the Celts, the ancient inhabitants of Britain. It was their belief that this was a time when witches and warlocks were on the loose.

The word itself may be traced to the calendar of the Christian Church and a decree of Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century. It’s simply a shortened version of All Hallows Eve (October 31) and goes back to All Hallows or All Saints Day, which falls on November 1. Halloween with its air of mystery, its costumes and its treats is a favorite time for many children. Adults too can be caught up in the magic of the night; but unfortunately, all too often, this leads to acts of pure vandalism. There are exceptions, as today’s Flashback will prove.

In 1948 Mount Allison University offered a special meal to mark Halloween. Students were looking forward, as one person remembered: to heaping plates of chicken, mashed potatoes smothered in rich brown gravy, with a generous helping of vegetables, all to be followed by pumpkin pie a la mode.

When the day arrived in October 1948, residents of Trueman House noted more than usual activity around the dining area then located in the basement of the building. A CBC truck was parked outside and technicians were scrambling, stringing cables and wires here and there. What was going on?

When the students assembled for dinner even more changes were in evidence. Several faculty members were present, so clearly something important was going to happen. There was a microphone at the head table and two amplifiers were mounted on the wall. Just before the meal began Dr. Donald MacLauchlin, the Dean of Men, rose to make an announcement.

In an apprehensive tone of voice, Dr. MacLaughlin indicated that at 7 PM sharp, a distinguished friend of Mount Allison was scheduled to speak by way of short wave. All this was possible through the miracle of radio and the courtesy of the manager of the CBC transmitter on the Tantramar, Mr. Moe Smith. The mystery was now solved and the special Halloween dinner soon disappeared.

Shortly before seven oclock the tables were cleared, all conversation ceased and an air of expectancy filled the room. Then an announcer with a distinctly English accent spoke: This is London calling in the overseas service of the BBC. Tonight we are speaking to Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. Are you receiving me Sackville? Just then there was a burst of static, typical of short wave reception. Immediately, one of the CBC technicians responded We hear you loud and dear, London.

Then came the voice of the English announcer: In five seconds we shall bring you the Right Honourable Winston Churchill who will speak to the students and faculty of Mount Allison University assembled for this broadcast. A short pause was followed by the unmistakable voice of Churchill, so well known to everyone in the room.

Churchill extended warm greetings to Canada and Mount Allison University. He then mentioned that he had met your distinguished President Dr. Ross Flemington, while he was Head Chaplain of the Canadian Army overseas during the war. He went on to comment on the importance of education and the extreme good fortune of the students who had the opportunity to attend this noble institution. As one of those present expressed it: we were totally awed by Churchill’s eloquence.

In concluding his remarks Churchill suggested that all assembled should rise and join him in singing the universitys alma mater song: Mount Allison so fair; beyond the marshes there, Above the peaceful scene, she sits enthroned a queen… To the surprise of almost everyone in the room, instead of the strains of the alma mater song, there came though the amplifiers the theme of a popular CBC program After Breakfast Breakdown hosted by the mischievous Max Ferguson, known affectionately as Rawhide.

For all readers under fifty, Ferguson was then at the beginning of his remarkable career in Canadian radio. A critic once commented that Fergusons imitation of Churchill was better than the old man himself The pauses, slurring of certain words and the accent were unmistakably Churchillian. Most certainly, on this occasion almost all, except those who were in the know, thought this to be a live broadcast.

The evening concluded with Rawhide taking his audience on an irreverent tour of the Mount Allison campus aided by a cast of his imaginary characters. Fortunately, there is this other side to the seasonal celebration. It can be a time for practical jokes, harmless pranks and inventive hoaxes. However, just to be on the safe side, I decided that a little verification of this incident was in order. Was there a chance that I was being misinformed by some of my sources?

During his long career, which ended as recently as 1996, Ferguson wrote several books describing his life with the CBC. A check of these revealed his close friendship with Moe Smith, long time director of the CBC facilities in Sackville. The latter figured prominently in Fergusons radio skits as Marconi Moe. Verification was easy as the late Marconi Moes wife, Fran Smith of Sackville, filled in several details of this celebrated Halloween hoax.

Significantly, Fergusons Churchillian broadcast at Mount Allison was but a dress rehearsal for a similar event the following year in Ottawa at the annual Press Gallery dinner. On this occasion, the chairman explained to those assembled (politicians and journalists) that efforts had been made to arrange for Churchill, then visiting in New York, to speak. Unfortunately he could not come; however, the CBC had arranged for Churchill to present his address over the radio.

The rest of the story is best told in Fergusons own words: I recognized this as my cue… I leaned into the microphone concealed in a closet, and sent booming into the room the best facsimile of Churchill’s voice that I could muster. You could hear a pin drop as the vocal hoax rolled out. I spoke of the great pleasure it afforded me to know that my voice was reaching that distinguished gathering whose collective hand rested on the helm of the Canadian ship of state. I larded the speech with every Churchillian expression I could think of and concluded by thanking two public figures for the assistance they had provided me.

Ferguson went on: Men such as your own Prime Minister, Loois Saynt Lorent, from whom I have learned much in the use of the Gallic idiom and your Leader of the Opposition, George Drew from whom Ive learned the power of invective. Ferguson concluded by stating Yet greater than any of these, as a teacher of that magnificent tongue that Shakespeare once spoke, is my pal ole Rawhide

Pandemonium broke loose and all Ferguson could see as he entered the room was the steely gaze of Viscount Alexander, then governor-general, who clearly was not amused. To the credit of the Press Gallery Max Ferguson was given the most exciting ovation he had ever received.

Perhaps the finest tribute paid to Ferguson came on the day of his retirement, December 7, 1996. Writing in the Globe & Mail Christopher Harris gave the following verdict: Max Ferguson helped pioneer a Canadian tradition in political satire that still thrives on CBC radio and television programs such as the Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Double Exposure.

Although no one could have predicted it, on that long ago Halloween in 1948, an enduring Canadian legend was being launched. If you listen carefully you may hear the seasonal ghosts, ghouls and goblins vigorously applauding.