Each step that Gord Atkinson takes is slowly and carefully placed on the carpeted stairs that lead to his basement. His left hand clutches his black cane as the right grasps the banister that guides him.
The trip takes longer than it used to but when he reaches the bottom, Atkinson’s eyes light up, taking in the wall of pictures and accolades from his time in radio. The sight fills him with memories of a time now past when he used to work among the stars of show business.
Atkinson is 89 but while his body is catching up with his age, his voice still has the same strength and warmth that made him a staple of Ottawa radio for almost 50 years. In those 50 years of experience, Atkinson has interviewed some of the biggest stars Hollywood and stardom have to offer, ranging from Sinatra to Elvis.
“I’ve been really fortunate,” Atkinson said. “Very often it’s been a case of being in the right place at the right time.”
One of these situations was Ottawa in 1956. Atkinson was at the start of his broadcasting career. He hosted a radio show called Campus Corner on CFRA radio that was focused on youth entertainment. It was here that he first met Rich Little, a now famous impersonator and Hollywood star.
“I was teamed up with a guy named Geoff Scott,” said Little. “Gord put us on the air almost every week.”
Campus Corner was Little’s show business debut, and served as a launching pad for his career. Atkinson and Little became best friends, and when Little left for Hollywood that didn’t change.
“Because of our mutual interest in the entertainment business and his friendship with the stars, he often puts me in contact with them,” writes Atkinson in his first book Showbill.
This friendship led to interviews with the likes of Mel Blanc, Vincent Price and many more. Atkinson did these interviews on his long-lasting radio show, Showbill and later collected them in a pair of books named after the show. Showbill saw lots of success over its run, introducing some of the most popular stars of the day to the local Ottawa community.
Atkinson’s biggest success was not a single interview, but a series he did called The Crosby Years profiling his childhood idol and superstar Bing Crosby.
Bing Crosby can be considered one of the most influential figures in Hollywood history. He was the best-selling musician of the 20th century, having sold over one billion copies of his music. He inspired musicians such as Frank Sinatra and heavily influenced their styles.
“I was in California and I was lucky to get on some of the studio sets,” said Atkinson, recalling the first time he met Crosby. This was in 1945, and served as the starting point for a lasting friendship.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Atkinson would record The Crosby Years as a commemoration of Crosby’s 50 years in show business. It aired in 1975 and was showered with awards and acclaim, winning him the Armstrong Award from Columbia University as well as a U.S. National Radio Award.
Atkinson had a long and impressive career in radio, but Crosby was his best work. “Crosby is tops for many reasons,” he said. “I did the most in depth interviewing with Bing at his home in San Francisco, California.”
This process involved a series of three visits to Crosby’s house and many hours of recording. Atkinson looks back fondly on the time, proud of the work he did and the friendship he built with Crosby.
He still laments over the joy of his boyhood hero living up to the person he had created in his mind.
“He was really the idol of my life,” Atkinson said, with a chuckle. “It’s great when somebody that you’re very fond of and look up to turns out to be the kind of person you really thought and hoped that they would be.”
However what Atkinson values most is not the critical acclaim or the awards, but his friendships and family. No matter how much success he saw in his career, family stayed the number one priority.
“Dad usually was very good at balancing family life and his work,” said his son Paul Atkinson. “He is first and foremost a family man, he’s always managed to put family and his marriage in front of any work that he’s done.”
The commitment Atkinson has to family is clearly seen in his relationship with his wife Elaine. They have been married for 65 years, and Atkinson can still clearly recall how they met.
It’s a story that sounds like it was taken straight out of a movie.
“She lived across the street from me,” said Atkinson fondly. “Being more than four years older than she I was hardly aware of her growing up.”
But an invitation to Elaine’s 16th birthday party brought them together.
He went across the street to her house to tell her he wouldn’t be attending and that was the start.
“My knock on the door was answered by the prettiest girl I had ever seen,” he writes in his book Showbill. “It was love at first sight! Four years later on Sept. 3, 1951, we were married.”
That love hasn’t faded over the years, and is clear to anyone who observes the two together. Partners in everything, Elaine helped Atkinson write his two books. “Elaine did all the inputting for me!” Atkinson said with a chuckle.
The Atkinsons have a large family of seven kids, with two daughters and five sons. Atkinson is very proud of his kids, and loves to talk about them.
Normally a very humble person, some of that disappears when he talks about his kids and he’ll boast about them in a way he won’t with anything else.
“Our youngest son John is quite successful,” Atkinson said with a broad smile across his face. “He’s a graphic artist. He’s in Time magazine, they’ve never had cartoons in Time and he’s the one who broke the barrier.”
His children feel the same pride in their father as he does in them. The importance of family is something that Atkinson has managed to pass on to all seven of his children.
“When our first son was born, he was the first grandchild and my parents were at the hospital,” Paul said, recounting his favourite memory of his dad. “I got to hand the baby to my dad to hold.”
Almost as much as his kids, Atkinson’s closest friends are a part of his family. Rich Little in particular is so much considered family that Atkinson’s kids and grandkids lovingly call him “Uncle Rich.”
Since the days of Showbill and Atkinson’s time as station manager of CFMO radio, radio has changed. Television has taken over as the primary source of entertainment, and for a lot of people radio is now something to listen to in the car on a commute. Because of this, radio stations have had to adapt.
“I don’t think radio today has near the opportunities that it did back in my era,” Atkinson said. “One of the reasons is there are so many radio stations now.”
When Atkinson was first starting his career working for CHUM in Toronto there were seven radio stations. All the people working in the industry knew each other and helped one another. Now there are too many stations to count, each with a specialization. There are stations dedicated to pop, stations dedicated to rap, where as in Atkinson’s day each station did everything.
Just as how radio has changed and moulded into something completely different since Atkinson retired, so too has life changed. One of the hardest parts of living to a very old age is being forced to adapt and let things go.
Walking was one of Atkinson’s favourite past time but after a particularly bad fall a few years ago, it’s become a lot harder. More and more time is also taken up by visits to the hospital, dealing with a variety of different issues. It’s better than the alternative though. A lot of the stars Atkinson interviewed weren’t gifted with as long of a life.
“Many of the people he talked to are gone,” Little writes in the foreword of Showbill. “But they are not forgotten.”
Thanks to Atkinson’s work, some of the stories of the stars of Hollywood’s golden age are preserved, allowing for future generations to experience their significance.
But it’s Atkinson’s own story in the pages of his books and the recordings of his radio show that can teach valuable lessons to future generations.
Be kind to one another. Treat people with respect. Be courteous and polite. Never curb your ambition. Don’t be afraid to go after what you want. Remember what’s truly important to you in your life. Above all, just be a good person.
These are some of the ideals Atkinson has lived by for 89 years, and they have taken him farther than anyone could have imagined.