By Ryan Plax
At 299 Queen St. W. an old, mangled Citytv van appears to have crashed through the side of Bell Media Headquarters. The wheels of the van turn lazily and the occasional fake smoke rises from the wrecked hood of the vehicle. The image of this destroyed van dangling from the side of the headquarters is a stark contrast to its corporate setting. However, not many people know the origin of the van and the rich history it continues to carry with it.
“I thought it was a movie set or something…definitely not a headquarters”, says Ava Hamilton, a local of Queen St. West.
While this guess from Hamilton is not accurate, the site of the van, like movie studios, had been known as a ‘hub’ of culture. To fully grasp the van’s lore we have to go back another twenty years before the van’s thirty year mainstay as an exhibit.
Ed Conroy, a local Toronto historian and journalist, describes the early days of the van starting back in the late 70s. In fact, according to Conroy in an email, the van became the “city’s first mobile news vehicle which was then known as the Live Eye”.
In 1975, leading Toronto news network Citytv established a new program titled “City Pulse”. City Pulse was geared towards taking ‘news to the streets’ and opted for an emphasis on street interviews rather than in-studio. This type of ‘untraditional’ news casting would later become closely associated with City Pulse and their main appeal to viewers.
For the year 1977, City Pulse’s decision to purchase a 1975 Chevrolet G-Series Van equipped with a microwave transmitter was transformative. The transmitter allowed for news teams to mobily record and broadcast without the need to return to the studio.
Ed Conroy believed this to be a ‘game changer’ and created a higher demand for other news channels to replicate this style of ‘raw reporting’. The van would later be named the “Live Eye” by its operators due to its constant surveillance of occurrences throughout the city, which is explained in an aired 1985 Citytv segment titled “CITY PULSE: I AM THE LIVE EYE”.
“In the morning it might be down by the lake while the police dredged up a dead body, and in the evening it could be at the Exhibition Stadium covering a heavy metal concert,” says Conroy in an email.
During the 80s, under the guidance of Citytv co-founder Moses Znaimer, the van was synonymous with Citytv’s growing image. Video archives document Citytv creating and broadcasting an entire character around the Live Eye, which was voiced by prominent Canadian announcer Mark Dailey. The van was also included in a Christopher Ward music video and even had a song written in its honour by Toronto reggae band “The Booze Mothers”.
“The Live Eye became yet another character in the soap opera of Toronto,” says Conroy in an email.
The van represented a new era largely brought on by Znaimer. His approach to news broadcasts used a much more ‘casual’ format in comparison to his contemporaries. The image he aimed to present was something that could easily be identified with a ‘young and hip’ crowd rather than a general demographic.
“He was truly a pioneer of his field and created an esteemed legacy for himself and the network here in Toronto,” states Conroy.
Znaimer had come into the Toronto broadcasting business in the mid-1960s as a CBC host. Gradually, he was able to work his way into launching Citytv with his associates in 1972. This ownership gave him the ability to develop a new style that Citytv became synonymous with: reporting from beyond the desk. Znaimer’s ambition would direct him towards creating the popular music channel “MuchMusic ” in 1984, which became the Canadian response to the widespread success of American channel MTV. In the same year, MuchMusic moved to 299 Queen St., the same building that hosted Citytv and the Live Eye.
“…299, [was] at one time Canada’s greatest and busiest pop-culture incubator when Citytv and MuchMusic lived there,” says Ed Conroy.
The van experienced its ‘peak’ popularity during the 1980s, but by the early 1990s, technological advancements made the van outdated and eventually it was sent to the scrapyard. The microwave transmitter that had made the van unique from the beginning was considered ‘useless’ in favour of computerized dashboards.
Heath Jansen, a custodian at the Toronto Bell Media Headquarters for nearly a decade, shared an alleged story he had heard concerning the rescue mission of the van from its impending doom.
“[Moses] Znaimer got on the phone and saved it moments before they crushed it. Apparently it was moments after someone told him about it”, says Jansen in an in-person interview.
A representative for Znaimer was unable to comment on the subject matter.
After this alleged miraculous feat was pulled off by Znaimer, Znaimer contacted local artist Nigel Stanley, whose work he had seen throughout the Queen St. West neighborhood, according to Jansen.
The broadcast of the unveiling of the Live Eye’s exhibit occurred in 1993, which can still be found on YouTube to this day. Stanley entitled his work showcasing the ‘iconic’ van bursting through the wall “Breaking News”.
Years later, Rogers bought Citytv and moved Citytv’s headquartered to the Yonge-Dundas area. Citytv sold its Queen West property to Bell Media in 2008. Belldecided to paint over some aspects of the City Pulse logo, to replace it with Bell Media branding.
Although the van’s history still remains scarce to those who don’t seek it out, those who do know its past, like Ed Conroy, enjoy the history it holds.
“It’s good to know the original Live Eye is still there…watching over the city it helped mythologize.”
Ava Hamilton – firstname.lastname@example.org
RETRONTARIO & Ed Conroy – email@example.com
Heath Jansen – firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan Plax – email@example.com (Author)