For five years in the 1950s, Larry Henderson owned the most famous face in Canada. As the first regular anchor of CBC's national television news from 1954 to 1959, his steep brow and distinctive mustache were known from coast to coast. He later went to work for other broadcast outlets, including CTV News, then switched careers by becoming a conservative and outspoken editor of The Catholic Register.
But it was on early TV that he made his mark. "There isn't much doubt that, in Canada, the name Henderson means television news," said Maclean's in September of 1957. Twice a day, at 6:45 p.m. and 11 p.m., he would read the national news on the CBC, which was then the only TV network in Canada.
His newscasts left a lasting impression on a young Peter Mansbridge growing up in Ottawa. "We bought our first TV in 1956 and all I remember is Patti Page and Larry Henderson," said Mr. Mansbridge, now the lead anchor on The National. "He was my introduction to TV news. There was a lot of Larry Henderson reading, and the odd picture back then."
At the time, all TV announcers had started out in radio, with the information coming from wire services and the front pages of newspapers. The first newscasts were more like bulletins rather than today's glitzy programs. To ensure that viewers paid attention to the news and not to a single face, the CBC distributed the job among a roster of announcers. Newscasts were only five minutes long and seldom incorporated any film. If footage could be found, it was usually presented in the style of a Movietone newsreel without sound, except for what might later be added in the studio.
That all changed with the arrival of Larry Henderson. He had come to the CBC with a background in theatre and music. Raised in Montreal, he was educated in the city's Protestant school board system. His father was a wool merchant, and his mother was an artist who encouraged her son's musical and acting talents.
As a boy, he put on plays, wrote scripts and played the piano. He won a scholarship to McGill University, where he studied music. After graduating, he decided to try his luck on the English stage and took a freighter across the Atlantic. He arrived in Britain with $50 in his pocket and fetched up in Birmingham, where he worked in a factory before landing a job in local theatre. One of the highlights of his acting career was to perform with a young Alec Guinness in Romeo and Juliet in Perth, Scotland. Then the Second World War broke out and the theatre closed, forcing him to return to Canada.
He used his theatrical training to work as an announcer for the CBC, studied electrical engineering and joined the Officer Training Corps. In 1943, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Canadian Army signal corps and served as a signals officer in Italy and northwest Europe.
In 1945, with the war almost over, he was recalled to direct the CBC's shortwave International Service that was broadcast to the troops. Shortly after that, he returned to an announcer's job at the CBC.
He left the CBC in the late 1940s and worked for radio station CFRB, producing a program called Headliners, 10-minute radio items from overseas that ran five times a week on 24 Canadian radio stations.
In 1949, he married Joan Annand, whom he had met at the CBC. Two years later, they set out for Europe. Armed with a recording machine, they retraced the steps of the Canadian army through Italy and produced segments for Headliners. An admirer of American broadcaster Edward R. Morrow, Mr. Henderson patterned his broadcasts on that style.
In 1950, he spent six weeks in Korea. As the first Canadian broadcaster sent to cover the Korean War, he was accredited to U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters and toured Japan, Hong Kong, Indochina, India and Yugoslavia, all the while filing reports. He also turned out a similar international series for CBC Radio called Passports to Adventure.
In 1954, Mr. Henderson returned to the CBC to pitch an idea to Mavor Moore, CBC-TV's program director. An accomplished photographer, Mr. Henderson's scheme was to run his slides on air with commentary. Mr. Moore heard him out but had other ideas. Instead of the travelogue, he decided to hire Mr. Henderson as the first permanent reader of national TV news in Canada.
The policy of using a herd of announcers had not worked, and the CBC was looking for someone permanent to anchor the news. At the same time, though, the corporation was nervous about allowing a TV personality to develop, and it discouraged Mr. Henderson from doing much more than present the news. The newscast was expanded to 15 minutes, and Mr. Henderson began reading his scripts over film. His role grew and he became one of the CBC's first TV correspondents to report from the field.
Mr. Henderson made several visits to the Middle East, including one to Egypt in April of 1956. That summer, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and soon Britain, France and Israel went to war against Cairo. The camera equipment of the day was bulky. Mr. Henderson travelled with CBC cameraman Bob Crone and all the necessary gear they needed to record interviews.
Like many announcers of the time, Mr. Henderson's background was more theatrical than journalistic. This was before the era of the teleprompter. Mr. Henderson would memorize a script for at least an hour before the broadcast. That way, he would seldom have to look down at it.
It wasn't long before he was being recognized on the street, and soon developed ideas of his own. His plan was to work exclusively on The National. For its part, the CBC continued to distrust anyone who resembled a broadcast star and made every effort to discourage him. Somewhat short-tempered by nature, and perhaps feeling constrained by CBC policy, Mr. Henderson became the enfant terrible of Canadian TV. He had a reputation for swearing on air, and for speaking so quickly when prompted to speed up that the audience heard only gibberish. He once stormed off the set when a piece of footage failed to roll.
In 1959, he left the CBC after a dispute over his contract. Mr. Henderson had proposed that he anchor only the National; the CBC wanted him to do other things as well. "CBC star Henderson dropped," read the headline in The Toronto Telegram.
He went to work for radio station CHFI in Toronto and TV station CHCH in Hamilton. Later, he joined CTV National News as a commentator on international affairs, and the weekend newsreader. It was during this period that he became interested in Catholicism.
"My father met a priest in Ottawa in the late 1960s and started talking to him about his faith," said Graham Henderson, who lives in Toronto. "When he converted to Catholicism, the whole family was shocked. My mother brought us up as Presbyterians [and]he had been an atheist."
After he left broadcasting full time, Mr. Henderson ran a school for broadcasting and did other work, including going to Africa for the Canadian International Development Agency to help set up Tanzania's broadcasting system.
In 1973, Mr. Henderson began writing articles for The Catholic Register, a Toronto-based publication that ranked among the oldest English-language Catholic weekly newspapers in Canada. He became editor the following year and steered the newspaper to a prominent role in the Canadian anti-abortion movement.
In 1981, he raised a furor by directing the Register to accept paid advertisements from an anti-abortion group recommending that voters reject Tory candidates in the Ontario election. Campaign Life had placed ads to say Conservative candidates were poor choices for voters and blamed then-premier William Davis for supporting Pierre Trudeau's constitutional package, including a Charter of Rights. Entrenchment of the Charter, it warned, would lead to abortion on demand, homosexual marriages, adoptions by homosexuals, and the loss by women of financial support from their husbands.
In 1985, the Register urged Ontario voters to spoil ballots in that year's provincial election. It was an attitude not supported by the Archdiocese of Toronto, and the writing was on the wall. Mr. Henderson left the paper the next year after having increased subscriptions from 30,000 to 60,000, replaced by an editor with more moderate views.
Mr. Henderson had the satisfaction of seeing his replacement, Peter Howell, resign in little more than a year. By all accounts, readers did not find favour with what they perceived as new liberal views and wrote to tell him so. "Nobody likes getting hate mail, but that's what it amounts to," Mr. Howell said.
In contrast, many of the letters had praised Mr. Henderson for upholding traditional church views.
Mr. Henderson was not finished. He joined Challenge, a Catholic monthly magazine, as managing editor and retired in 2002.
Larry Henderson was born in Montreal on Sept. 4, 1917. He died in Toronto of unspecified causes on Nov. 26, 2006. He was 89. He leaves his sons Graham and Ross. His wife, Joan, died in 1980.
Special to The Globe and Mail; Globe and Mail archives