Phoning up Larry Solway’s open-line radio show could be an exercise in frustration and courage. There was a good chance he would hang up on callers with a gruff “sir, you’re a bigot” or “I’m running out of time and patience.” And an even better chance he would out-argue them. Solway was a great debater with a wealth of knowledge, self-schooled on a wide array of topics: current events, of course, but also classical music, jazz, film, sports, and especially history.
“He was a walking history book,” says his son Joe Solway. “He spent his whole life learning things, even though he was the most knowledgeable man I know.”
Larry Solway – talk radio pioneer, TV personality, author, actor, political candidate, sailor, doting grandfather, Toronto Maple Leafs fan, argument-winner – died Jan. 9 due to complications from bladder cancer, at Toronto General Hospital.
It’s the same hospital where Lawrence (Larry) Solway was born on March 13, 1928, to parents Joseph and Susan. Joseph, a violinist, died when Larry was 14, leaving Susan to raise him and his sister Nancy.
He was a small kid, not a great athlete, and this may have contributed, Joe muses, to Solway’s gravitation toward books – which years later would line the walls of his Forest Hill home.
“He always kidded me,” says long-time friend Brian Barker. “I had 4,000 books – way more than he had – but he used to say at least he had read his.”
School, however, was not for him. He left the University of Toronto after a year. He had been bitten with the radio bug at a radio drama workshop, and was anxious to get his career going.
He started off in Northern Ontario, with radio gigs in Timmins and North Bay, before landing a job in Oshawa.
That’s when he met Shirley. Fixed up by Solway’s cousin, they went out on a blind date: dinner and dancing. When Solway didn’t call after a few days, Shirley picked up the phone with a proposal: She had her father’s car, but didn’t know how to drive. Would he like to go out somewhere? Six months later, on Nov. 29, 1949, they were married. The honeymoon was a road trip to New Orleans, two days there, and the drive back. It was all they could afford.
They had two children: Joseph and, 10 years later, Beth.
“He cast a large shadow,” says Joe, who followed in his father’s footsteps and works at CBC Radio. “Everywhere I went; ‘Are you Larry’s son? Are you Larry’s son?’ He was a big tree. And he was wonderful to have as a dad.”
Early in his radio career, Solway held down various jobs to make ends meet: He drove a cab, worked on a lake freighter, sold storm windows and tropical fish. There were fish tanks all around the living room.
But things came together in the 1960s, at Toronto’s CHUM radio, where Solway’s jobs included running the copy department (and doing on-air shtick with Gary Ferrier called “Larry and Gary”) and programming music. Joe remembers him bringing home a 45 that he promised would be huge once it got played on the radio. It was The Beatles’ She Loves You.
But it was his evening call-in show, Speak Your Mind, that made Solway a legend. He quickly gained a reputation as an opinionated host; the irascible guy who hung up on people. The show became a regular stop on the circuit for visiting celebrities, from impressionist Rich Little to hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.
“It was because he gave them the time, he had a big audience, and he had a brain,” says Ruth- Ellen Soles, who became Solway’s call screener when the show moved into a daytime slot.
At the beginning of the 1970-71 season, following its most successful ratings year, the program became The Larry Solway Show.
But that November, Solway lost the show and his job after running a week-long series on human sexuality, an experience he wrote about in his 1971 book The Day I Invented Sex: “If I understood my audience, they indeed wanted to know or to reveal, to question. They would not be offended by explicit language. They were not tuning in to giggle.”
Solway himself got the last laugh.
There were plenty of open doors for a guy with his talent. He was a reporter for CBC TV, a panelist on the TV show This is the Law, a columnist for the Sunday Star. He made documentaries, including the eight-part Our Fellow Americans for the U.S. bicentennial. He hosted a TV interview show. There were stints at various Toronto-area radio stations. He co-owned and operated a dinner theatre in Whitby, Ont., the Marigold, and got the odd acting gig (including a small role in Meatballs).