The Roar of Greasepaint, The Smell of Gunfire
“Hundreds of onlookers thought they were witnessing an actual bank holdup and police-desperado gun battle at Yonge and Grosvenor today as these phoney [sic] officers raced onto the scene as part of the filming of a TV drams.” Photo by Madison Sale. The Telegram, September 10, 1958.
Wednesday morning, downtown Toronto. As a bank robbery unfolds a desperate man, hiding his identity underneath clown makeup, threatens to blow up the financial institution and anyone within it if his demands are not met. Outside the police prepare to swoop in—their every step monitored by a television camera crew filming the scene for an upcoming police drama.
While such a scene wouldn’t faze citizens used to seeing crime shows like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue filmed on Toronto’s streets, the reaction from passers-by was far different during the first decade of local television production. When a CBC crew filmed Power to Destroy at the Bank of Montreal branch at Yonge and Grosvenor Streets (now an A&W) on September 10, 1958, some of those who gawked believed they were witnessing an actual crime scene. As the Telegram reported in that evening’s edition, “for a hectic hour today the corner was the scene of what will probably go down in history as the most confused bank robbery staged in downtown Toronto.”
Based on an incident that happened in Montreal, Power to Destroy was chosen to lead off a new season of CBC’s Sunday night drama showcase General Motors Theatre. The cast included Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey) as the clown-faced robber, John Drainie (veteran radio actor and an original co-host of This Hour Has Seven Days), and, as a cop, James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek). The bank robbery sequence shot on the morning of September 10 was to be mixed in with live studio performances when the program aired 11 days later.
Given how the shoot went, it’s a good thing the robbery wasn’t transmitted live.
“Despite the generous co-operation of real Metro officers, some of whom are seen here, director Paul Almond had to shoot the scene several times before he was satisfied. Traffic piled up and there was one collision as unknowing onlookers gaped.” Photo by Madison Sale. The Telegram, September 10, 1958.
Despite having genuine Metropolitan Toronto police direct traffic around the intersection of Yonge and Grosvenor, so that actor cops could rush into the bank, the outside world had a habit of interfering. One motorist who stopped to inspect the hubbub outside the bank blocked the way for a fake cop car, causing the actors inside the obstructed vehicle to stop 100 yards from the shoot. Filming resumed as an ever-increasing crowd of onlookers tried to figure out what was going on. The Telegram reported that “the shooting of the bank robbery scene had such authenticity that a crowd of more than 200 gathered open-mouthed on the street, waiting for the worst to happen.”
The “worst” turned out to be outside drivers and other bystanders:
A woman driver tried to turn the corner and watch the officers in action. Her car ran into the rear of a car driven by another woman. As both argued, a middle-aged woman suddenly screamed at her husband. “I told you not to stand there. He’s inside the bank armed. Get back, Henry, get back.” A drunk wobbled onto the scene and warned all who would listen: “I know the guy that’s in there and he means business. They won’t get him without some shooting.” An elderly man turned to his wife and said “I don’t think he can get out of there with all these officers around. But we’d better move on anyways.”
By this time, bystanders who clued in to what was going on teased anyone walking by who was unaware of the situation—when one woman asked what was up and was told a bank robber had been shot, she replied “heavens, oh heavens.” As the morning wore on, the Telegram noted that the actors playing police officers “were shot over and over again, but their only wounds were sore feet from continuous running outside the Bank of Montreal.” Their fatigue wasn’t helped by incidents like a re-shoot caused by a traffic jam on Yonge Street. When the final scene was shot at noon, “a confused little man, hobbling on a cane, got in the way of the cameras. Befuddled by shouts to move on he tried to move in all directions at once and almost fell in front of two ‘policemen’ sneaking up on a bank window.”
The finished product was reviewed by the Star’s Gordon Sinclair, who felt Power to Destroy “was no world beater but it had some merit.” He praised the way the filmed sequences were spliced into the live drama, but criticized the high volume of background noise in scenes set in the bank and police station.
Additional material from the September 10, 1958 edition of the Telegram and the September 22, 1958 edition of the Toronto Star.