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Imperial's original pitchman

The cap with the gleaming bill came off for good more than four decades ago – its last known location a display case at an Esso retail site in Toronto.

There was no mistaking the friendly face, however; the one so many Canadians over the age of 45 still link so closely with Imperial.

The late, legendary Foster Hewitt had his nasal, tension-building trademark, “Hello, Canada–and hockey fans in the United States.”

Murray Westgate’s gravelly baritone soothed frazzled nerves between periods, his 90-second plugs for Imperial Esso, shot live in a studio across from Maple Leaf Gardens, always ending with his own special line: “Happy motoring. Always look to Imperial for the best” and years later, “Put a tiger in your tank. … Now it’s time to go back to the Gardens.”

A curious quest to locate the friendly neighbourhood Imperial Esso dealer began with a series of e-mails to Sally Fur, the helpful communications advisor at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. 

The result was a two-hour interview with the admittedly reclusive Westgate on a at Sunnybrook’s veteran’s residence, where the longtime stage and TV actor now lives.

For any English-speaking Canadian old enough to remember using the knob on a black-and-white TV to switch between two or three channels, the voice remains unmistakable.

The smile: still a beacon of honesty and trust. Fifty-years ago you’d have handed Westgate the keys to your brand new ’54 Corvette convertible and walked away without a thought.

Westgate, as a wool blanket of sorts for viewers of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) during 16 straight winters between 1952 and 1968, added a sense of warmth to the telecasts, telling Canadians Saturday after Saturday that HNIC was brought to them by Imperial Esso dealers, agents and distributors across the country.

“He knew what he as talking about,” Hall-of-Fame goalie and hockey historian Ken Dryden wrote back in 2000 in an essay that appeared in the Imperial Oil Review. “He wanted what was good for us.”

Even after all these years, Westgate remains somewhat uncomfortable with the renown that still raises the possibility a neighbour or visitor to Sunnybrook might tap him on the shoulder and offer that standard, familiar line: ‘Aren’t you ??…’

“I was crossing Yonge Street not that many years ago and there was a businessman all dressed up and carrying a cellphone,” Westgate recalled.

“And he shouts at me, ‘Hey, you! Come here!’ I’m saying to myself, ‘geez, what have I done, jaywalked? Am I in big trouble here?’ But he calls me over and says, ‘Listen, I’m talking to my wife. Would you be so kind and say ‘Happy motoring’ to her over the phone?”

Westgate played a key role alongside Hewitt as the CBC and Imperial (HNIC’s primary sponsor dating back to the birth of the radio broadcasts in 1936) took a calculated step and moved to the space-age new medium known as television in 1952.

Born and raised on Regina’s east side, Westgate was Canada’s original television pitchman, working alongside his French-speaking counterpart Philippe Robert, who played the same friendly Esso dealer role on the CBC telecasts in Quebec.

The early days of filming the live Esso spots were literally miscues waiting to happen, Westgate said. He earned $75 for each HNIC episode in 1952.

“No one had a clue what they were doing, including the actors and directors. So over the years, yes, there were a few boo-boos. I remember a fellow actor, who was also a good friend, came on as a guest to pitch Esso Marvelube motor oil and for the life of him, he just couldn’t get the ‘Marvelube’ word out – he couldn’t say it. There weren’t many miscues but they certainly did happen from time to time.”

It was wise in those days to have a backup plan. 

“We did in later years get a teleprompter but it kept breaking down, so I would take the script and tape it to the back of an oilcan that sat on set.”

Eventually, after the arrival of videotape, Imperial’s HNIC spots were pre-recorded at CBC studios elsewhere in Toronto. The only live filming remained Westgate’s introduction of the Hot Stove League segments between periods and then breaking away–sometimes courtesy of a polite interruption–when the game was about to start again.

Longtime Leafs owner Conn Smythe, a frequent Hot Stove League guest, used to give Westgate the gears.

“Connie Smythe would come in, not use the proper entrance and walk right across the set, spoiling the whole picture. Then he’d say, ‘Uh-oh, here comes the gas man. That means we’ve gotta go, doesn’t it?”

Westgate’s HNIC career ended in 1968. He later appeared on stage and in dozens of made-for-TV movies in Canada, receiving an Actra Award in 1979 for playing the lead role–a farmer–in a CBC movie called Tyler.

Westgate’s longevity and the roaring success of HNIC left him typecast at a time when serious actors shunned commercial work.

Still, “Imperial was very good to me. But it did prevent me from getting work as an actor. It wouldn’t have nowadays because (many actors) do commercials but back then, it was a shame for an actor to do a commercial.

“I have no idea what it was about me that Imperial liked. I just went out and read the lines and did my bit.”

Westgate even made a comeback for Imperial for a television commercial that aired in the late 1970s–the trademark cap and bow tie replaced with a baseball-style cap and black leather coat.

From his collection of memorabilia, photos alongside former Imperial CEO Bill Twaits with the likes of Hewitt, famous players of the day and other such snapshots in time, Westgate draws a neatly kept half-page from the Globe & Mail dated a day in 1987. It’s the paper’s crossword puzzle; the theme of the day is the CBC and the question: “What Murray Westgate plugged on Hockey Night in Canada?”

Four letters.

“Esso,” Westgate says. “Esso.”

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