‘A dream in heaven’
INNIPEG was transfixed when Pope John Paul II arrived in September 1984, the first time a pontiff set foot on Canadian soil. Tens of thousands of Manitobans jammed the streets to watch him as he disembarked from the jet, visited a Ukrainian church and travelled through the city’s downtown in his motorcade.
Wherever the pope went, a beguiled flock of believers, journalists and camera crews followed, and Dave Waters, a longtime CBC producer, was watching it all unfold on a series of small screens, directing the network’s coverage of the visit with a surreal sense of calm.
If ever there was a person who understood the marriage of spectacle, deep faith and the glowing allure of a colour television screen, it was Waters, who died in April at the age of 78.
When the pope visited, Waters had been directing and producing the public broadcaster’s Hymn Sing, a Sunday choral-performance program, for nearly two decades. A 1966 review of theshowin Variety noted that with a low budget and practically no publicity, the CBC had a hit.
The show attracted an audience of nearly three million viewers each week.
“Hymn Sing isn’t much of a television production. It is much better suited to radio,” the review concluded. “But who can argue with ratings?”
Each week, a group of 16 young singers went into the CBC studios on Portage Avenue to record 10 hymns selected by the production team, often composed by musical director Eric Wild or pianist Mitch Parks with lyrics by Waters’ wife Deanna. Then, they’d record the video version.
For 28 of the show’s 30 seasons, Waters stood in the studio choreographing every element of production, working with staffers on arrangements, sets, lighting and camera work; when each episode reached the air, Waters’ fingerprints were everywhere.
The show had been devised by CBC executives as a seasonal replacement program, originally slated for a 13-week run. Producers knew it had a shot at success, but it’s unlikely they understood their program would rival the Canadian broadcast viewership of the hallowed National Hockey League.
“The show is as much a national institution as Hockey Night in Canada,” Faith Today magazine declared in 1978. A lot of that had to do with Dave Waters.
From the moment he caught a glimpse of television as a boy in Regina, Winnipeg-born Waters knew he wanted to create something for people to see, hear and experience. “He wanted to be in the world of performance and of television,” says Deanna, his wife of 56 years.
Waters took vocal lessons and became a talented soprano in church. He starred in school musicals such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance and, as a teen, sang for Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He and Deanna began dating after they performed as husband and wife in a school play. Before long, they both headed to Iowa State University to pursue degrees in radio, television and film studies.
WA tribute to those who left a mark in our province
Waters became his fraternity’s song director, and “the king of the music department,” recalls Barb Reisinger, a friend from college, whose husband was Waters’ frat brother.
Soon, though, Waters decided to craft scenes instead of stealing them. He and Deanna produced a version of Meredith Wilson’s smash musical The Music Man in 1963, a year after the film version was nominated for six Academy Awards. Lo and behold, Wilson was in the audience for a performance, and he later wrote to Dave and Deanna to express his affection for their production.
After graduation, the couple went to interviews at radio and television stations across the country. Dave was offered an assistant producer job with CBC in Vancouver, but the station wouldn’t hire a husband-wife production team, so Deanna took a job managing an Eaton’s store.
Next, Dave was offered a full-time producer job in Winnipeg, and Deanna became the editor of the Manitoba Business Journal and a producer in her own right. When Hymn Sing’s original producer left, Waters jumped.
“It was not just a job,” Deanna says. “It was a dream in heaven for him.”
Waters poured himself into the show, and eventually, he and his wife became dedicated to Christianity more than ever. He treated each singer with professionalism and respect. When the show’s first host left, Waters hired two women to share the duty; he ensured all women were paid the same as men — a rarity then and now.
Cynthia Dutton, who performed on Hymn Sing for 20 years, was one of the hosts, and says Waters reassured her she was capable in the job. “In the end, he showed me I could do something I never thought I could,” she says.
“He told me not to take my musical gift for granted,” says John Nelson, a Regina pastor who sang on the program from 1968 through 1974. “I never forgot that.”
Nelson said Waters never let on just how beautiful his own voice — a strong baritone — was, instead focusing on how everyone else sounded. His ear for music was so finely tuned, says former chorus member Lois Lyons, that throughout the show’s run, which ended in 1995, it always sounded the same.
With Waters’ health failing last year, the show’s alumni trudged toward a reunion show, which is set to happen in Winnipeg next month.
In April, several singers visited Waters in hospital; he had hopes of attending the reunion. Despite his illness, he was able to offer suggestions on how to make the event as grand, faithful and true to the ideals of Hymn Sing as possible.
Even at the end, Waters was producing.
Longtime Hymn Sing producer and director Dave Waters treated every singer with professionalism and respect.
Dave Waters (far right) during a CBC Hymn Sing production on the east coast of Canada in 1994.
Dave Waters (far right) with the Hymn Sing choir in 1979.
From left: Florence Faiers, assistant to the producer, Dave Waters, producer/director and Roman Stoyko, assistant to the producer