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The Fun Was Legendary: Remembering MuchMusic Video Dances

Editor’s Note ▼

If you have ever enjoyed a tribute show in Vallarta over the past decade or so, it’s quite likely my dear friend Merv Buchanan brought them from Canada to various venues including The Palm, Incanto, El Rio BBQ and, still happening in Bucerias at The Luna Lounge. Merv sent this wonderful musical memoir, which I thought Vallarta Mirror readers would love. Enjoy!

By Merv Buchanan, creator
MuchMusic Video Dances

Many adults today, some approaching the age of 50, fondly remember attending their first MuchMusic video dance at a local high school or community center somewhere in Canada.

For over three decades, MuchMusic video dances were ‘must have’ events that delivered popular entertainment to millions of young Canadians at thousands of dances nationwide. This is how it happened.

In the late 70s, after decades in the music and technology businesses, dance music could have greater impact if it had a more active visual element than flashing lights. So, while working as an instructor at Fanshawe College in London, ON, and running weekend dances, I began using a slide projector to turn images of rock stars into a huge backdrop as their songs were playing.

I also experimented with closed-circuit TV systems and reel-to-reel video recorders. But I wanted more.

While attending a trade show in Chicago in 1981, I happened into a hotel lounge, and there on a large wall-mounted screen were The Rolling Stones, performing “Honky Tonk Woman.” The manager explained that the projector mounted on the ceiling was connected to MTV, the new ‘music television network.’ Recalling my slide projector images, I saw that if this system could be made portable, these new ‘music videos’ could be a serious game changer for dance entertainment.

I soon found a company that made large, folding screens. I also discovered that the projector I had seen was the type that created the giant, wall-sized images used at NASA. I theorized this could be the way to bring giant music video images to dance halls. But, the estimated $50,000 cost to create a viable system was a major roadblock. So I put the project on hold until 1981 when, as marketing manager for a sound equipment manufacturer in Edmonton, I finally had the technology and resources I needed.

With help from my brother Phil, my friend Peter Traynor, and many others, my vision began to come to life.

To make the giant screen image at my planned ‘video dances’ look like a live television show, I built a TV control room, complete with a camera, microphone, audio, and video controls in a van. A long cable enabled an operator to control the picture, sound, and lights inside a dance hall and also appear on the giant screen to introduce videos and pump up the crowd.

A camera and microphone above the screen also made it possible to observe dancers and have two-way conversations with them. To create the illusion of a giant TV rather than a movie screen, I mounted the projector behind the screen.

Building a music video library to provide 4 hours of non-stop dance music was another challenge.

At the time, music videos weren’t commercially available. So with a satellite dish and a 3/4″ broadcast VCR, I spent months recording videos off the air. To create videos for the many ‘must have’ dance records, videos didn’t exist, so I combined movie or TV footage with CD audio. It was a slow process, but it was worth it.

The huge images and state-of-the-art sound provided a concert-like atmosphere not experienced at dances before. It was pure magic!

High Schools were the ideal market for ‘video dances.’ Their gymnasiums would easily
accommodate the giant video screen and bulky sound and lighting equipment required. And their large enrollments would enable schools to offer this new entertainment at an attractive admission price.

So in 1983, I introduced my new video dance service, which I named ‘Videomax,’ in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and BC. To promote the concept, I mailed a colorful poster, description, and sample contract to 100 high schools.

Within a month, I made 25 bookings. An unheard-of success rate for a mail-out program. Some student councils simply filled out the sample contract with the date they wanted and mailed it back. This confirmed what I already knew. Video dances were going to be huge!

Over the next 12 months, Videomax had 52 dance bookings. At first, I had to be the booking agent, technician, music director, and video jockey. It was a busy but exciting time!

Then, in 1984, serendipity kicked in. Mike Campbell, an events manager for MuchMusic, Canada’s new music television network, called to ask for help with a presentation at an Edmonton high school.

Mike was blown away by the Videomax unit which he described as ‘MuchMusic on wheels.’ Sensing an opportunity, I suggested it could be a perfect promotional vehicle for MuchMusic.

Mike agreed and set up a meeting for me with network management in Toronto. Marketer Dave Kirkwood immediately recognized that a MuchMusic-branded dance music service aimed at teenagers, their prime demographic, would be a perfect outreach program. Where better to reach teenagers than at high school dances?

Adding MuchMusic’s name to my existing infrastructure and securing a national sponsor to pay for the ads would create another income stream for the network with no major investment. It was an inspired plan!

Over the next few months, a first-of-its-kind agreement was worked out. Dance music history was about to be made.

In 1985, the MuchMusic Video Dance Party service, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was launched with the understanding that the service would be available wherever the MuchMusic network was available.

To handle bookings, a toll-free telephone number 1-800-461-MUCH was set up. MuchMusic, now advertised as ‘The Nation’s Music Station’ created a promotional campaign that included TV ads, event reports, and surprise appearances by MuchMusic personalities. This was exactly the kind of support I needed.

To provide a truly national service, I now needed a lot more equipment, vehicles, and people. Especially people!

It was a major undertaking. But with a lot of help, it was completed in 60 days. Booking agent Tim O’Donnell, talent manager Bill Siep, and accountant Dick Kuscsik soon joined me.

Six vans were leased. Six video dance systems were built. And six ‘party veejay’ teams were trained and moved to strategic locations across the country.

What happened next was a big shock. Even to an optimist like me.

The minute the first Video Dance Party ad appeared on MuchMusic, the phone rang and
continued to ring. 500 times per week.

The MuchMusic video dance service was a hit right out of the gate! I was suddenly reminded of the famous movie line, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

Sporting the slogan “the fun is legendary,” MuchMusic video dances soon captured the imagination of young people across Canada.

In 1985, the new video dance service was booked 545 times. In 1986 the demand reached 1,000 bookings for the year. Annual bookings remained at that level for more than 30
years.

To meet this incredible demand, the video dance fleet grew to 16 units working from bases in Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Peterborough, Montreal and Halifax.

The busy MuchMusic vans (MusiquePlus in Quebec) became a common sight, usually greeted with enthusiastic waving and horn blowing, on highways everywhere in the country.

The video dance concept was exactly in step with the times. Over its 34-year run, more than 30,000 MuchMusic video dances were hosted at schools, colleges, community centers, First Nations reserves, and military bases from St. Johns to Victoria, Dawson City to Windsor, and as far afield as Germany and Argentina.

During that time, the MuchMusic party veejays delivered dance entertainment to close to
10,000,000 fans. And the highly prized MuchMusic t-shirts, given away only at MuchMusic video dances, became a Canadian icon, proudly worn by travelers from Maui to Paris to Cabo San Lucas.

Bob Dylan’s 60s warning “The Times They Are A’changin'” eventually caught up with music television.

In the 21st century, the ‘smartphone generation’ abandoned TV for the Internet. MuchMusic evolved into a ‘lifestyle’ channel and wound down the video dance service in 2019. But there is no denying the impact MuchMusic video dances had on generations of Canadians. They were a unique, much-loved phenomenon.

For 34 years, the fun was legendary.

Author

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