Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembering Harry Purvis

There I was way back in 1971, my first week on the job at the Hamilton Spectator as the kid TV critic, unsure of myself and pounding out a column every day
Then the  phone rang and a voice said "Mr. Bawden in the Spec's TV listing yesterday you listed Gunga Din  as running 89 minutes. I always thought it ran 91 minutes. Good night."
The next night there was another call.
"Mr. Bawden referring to Boris Karloff as a former Hamiltonian may be a stretch. I know he farmed in Caledonia which is not part of Hamilton."
And so on and on.
"That's Harry Purvis," whispered Jim Clements from the next desk --he wrote the theater reviews. "Don't encourage him. He thinks he knows everything about old movies."
But Harry did know everything. Born in Hamilton in 1924 he'd resisted every attempt to dislodge him from his family. A very shy man it would take me years before I actually met him.
In his tight circle he was legendary --he'd written for Photoplay magazine starting in 1947, Mad Magazine and he wrote all the movie listings for TV Guide Canada off the top of his head. For American TV Guide he had the hysterically funny Flicker Snickers.
He'd started making cast lists when he was eight and a typical Purvis list had dozens of names not actually on the end credits.
Purvis became a movie maniac at a tender age. Because Hamilton was such a compact city he'd get in up to eight movies on a busy weekend of viewing.
When I asked him what he was doing that day in August 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Steel City he blushed and said "There was a triple bill at the Empire I couldn't give up. I could see the King another time."
His three rooms on the top floor of the family home were jam packed with yellowing newspapers, copies of every movie magazine around , thousands of books and more than 10,000 movie stills.
Now that I think of it Harry would have been a perfect subject for the currently running TV hit Hoarders.
Every once in a while he'd venture forth from his nostalgia aerie for a live confrontation with chat show host Bob Bratina on CHML Radio.
The topic was to try to beat Harry on old movies but I don't recall many people ever did.
So wide spread was his fame that actual old movie stars tried to contact him for information on their careers.
After an hour on the phone with Harry supplying hundreds of lines of dialogue she'd mouthed over the years Ida Lupino shouted into the phone "He's too smart, too smart."
On an open line 1972 show with Harry Ginger Rogers said how happy she was to finally play Hamilton and Purvis interrupted to say "Ginger, you were here in vaudeville in 1927."
I understand Ginger departed that interview in a real rage.
Half way through an interview with Harry, Milton Berle started taking notes.
Harry was a walking encyclopedia of Hamilton history. He knew the guy who has sold the hockey team Hamilton Tigers to New York city to become the New York Americans.
He had even met Evelyn Dick "but I didn't date her of course". He'd watched as a kid as the first building on McMaster's new campus went up.
What I remember about Harry was his niceness. In one epic contest with Elwy Yost for charity Harry was beating the TVO star so badly he later allowed "I let him win a couple of questions."
I set up a radio interview between Harry and Barbara Frum for CBC's As It Happens but Harry blew it when Barbara went off topic. She was supposed to be asking about movie lines that were never actually said.
I think the best article he ever wrote was for The Canadian magazine when he talked about all the awful movie lines relating to Canada. I wish I could find a copy of that story.
The Star's Clyde Gilmour wrote a series of luncheon interviews with Harry I've got to reread --they were hilarious in capturing Purvis's unbelievable memory.
I did survive my years as the kid TV critic for The Spec partly based on the kindness of a stranger named Harry Pirvis.
His death last week aged 89 shocked me --I thought his love of movies would keep him going forever.
One of the last DVD's I sent him was of the 1929 version of The Letter which he'd last seen on his mother's lap at The Century movie palace, aged four. He remembered ever line save for one part --and that happened when little Harry fell asleep for awhile.
In fact I suspect he's still watching his golden oldies up there which would certainly be his definition of heaven.

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