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Tommy Hunter, photographed for The Globe in March, 1997. (Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail)
Tommy Hunter, photographed for The Globe in March, 1997. (Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail)

Television

Tommy Hunter hangs up his guitar Add to ...

The blue glow of the television set blends with the Naugahyde brown of the sofa and the dimmed living-room lights. Tommy Hunter is on the screen, his face reflecting in the glass of the framed family photos on the mantelpiece. Dinner is served, as likely as not on TV trays, as Canada's Country Gentleman tells another low-key story about the origin of the song he is about to sing.

Even now, almost two decades after The Tommy Hunter Show left the air following a 27-year run, Hunter can clearly imagine how that scene played out in the homes of fans across the country. "That was my biggest secret: I knew the audience I was performing to," the 73-year-old entertainer says. "TV-dinner time, TV tray, and 'Let's sit down and watch.' And they would sit down and eat turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes and peas and carrots, and watch that show."

Hunter has been hewing to the same format - albeit live and onstage - ever since leaving his CBC gig. "What I do is exactly like the television show, identical," he says. "There's the same familiar songs, the same feeling."

Now, even Hunter's stage act is facing its final curtain. Come March, the country singer will kick off what he vows will be his farewell cross-Canada tour. "When I say that I'm going to end it, I'm going to end it," he insists. "I'm not going to go back and do the second-annual and third-annual farewell tour."

To Hunter, it's all about ending his career with the same sincerity that he always drew on to sign off his TV program. "When I closed my show, I used to say, 'Be the good Lord willing, I'll see you next week.' And I meant it," Hunter says. "When you say those things on television, you can't wing it. You've got to take a deep breath, know where you're going, and then look straight into the camera. And if you don't mean it, they'll chew you up and spit you out."

It's an even tone he's proud to have held to. "I used to tell that to our writers: 'Start at the end of the show. Always look at what I say at the end, and then use that thread all the way through the show, right to the beginning. I know that sounds like a crazy way to write, but you have to keep that same thread."

Throughout our half-hour conversation, Hunter continually draws parallels between his show and his career. Not that there aren't lots of other things he wants to talk about. Two minutes before our interview began, his assistant came on the phone to plead that, no matter how much Hunter might like to wander into another story, would I please keep to the allotted interview time.

And he does have stories to tell. There's the time comedian Red Skelton missed a flight in Vancouver and happened to catch an episode of The Tommy Hunter Show,which years later led to a conversation between the two men about the ins and outs of the show's format. Or the time Hunter helped Canadian-born country singer Wilf Carter (a.k.a. Montana Slim, and a popular performer south of the border) record back in Canada, with Hunter telling the backup musicians to follow Carter's timing. "If he speeds up, you speed up, don't fight him," Hunter remembers saying. This, says Hunter, led to some of Carter's best recordings.

He talked, as well, about the prospect of taking his final tour of a country he's come to know intimately. "A lot of these theatres and venues I've played in for years and years and years," he says. "And it's going to be very emotional when you see familiar faces - faces that have been coming to your shows for a long time - and then walk out of that theatre and close the door, and get on the bus, and know that you're not coming back."

Still, he acknowledges there may be the occasional place that he visits once or twice down the line: At Casino Rama, in Orillia, Ont., he says, the backstage staff run things with the professionalism of a TV studio, allowing Hunter not only to know the audience he's performing to, but to have confidence that the production side of things will be up to snuff.

He acknowledges that he was a bit of a perfectionist during all those years on the CBC. "With television, there are a lot of elements that come together, and they have to be done correctly. Putting makeup on is one thing; putting makeup on correctly is another thing. So you have to weed through a lot of people before you get someone who has that extra patience and that extra care."

Adds Hunter, "Because it was a country-music show, there was this [attitude] 'Aw shucks, just throw up a couple of bales of hay and put up a barn in the background and put everybody in dungarees, and it'll be perfect.' And that was exactly the opposite of what I wanted."

Typical country imagery was never part of Hunter's look. Wearing a suit and tie, he didn't usually even have an ornamental flourish on his acoustic guitar. "What I did want was the best director I could get, the best writers I could get. My competition, I always felt, was The Perry Como Show and The Andy Williams Show. I was always hitting that kind of professionalism, the slick-looking show."

Does he miss all that: pulling the elements into place, perfecting a performance and a night's broadcast? Even as he prepares the farewell tour, does he secretly pine to continue on - or do it all again?

"No, you can't do it again," he says calmly. "You can't even attempt to."



The Tommy Hunter farewell tour kicks off March 22 in Cornwall, Ont. For more information, visit TommyHunter.com.

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