Al Johnson

That time when the Provincial lottery did blackface

Yesterday's toppling of the OLG house of cards, accompanied by the feint whiff of an oncoming category 5 scandal presents us with yet another blunder in a long line of embarrassing, OLG related palavers. Did you ever hear the one about the Al Jolson lottery commercial?

In 1978, Ontario based "The Provincial," a $5 ticket with five $1 million Jackpots, became the first lottery available coast to coast. It saturated the airwaves with catchy jingles and fun TV commercials, one of which even starred the mighty Billy Van, but one commercial from June of 1983 ran seismically afoul of all good taste and sense:

A light hearted play on classic Hollywood characters and charactures - Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong, W.C Fields et al - it's certainly no more or less misleading than any lottery commercial which asked you to "just imagine," or to picture yourself sitting on beach sipping champagne and lighting cigars with Million dollar bills. However, this commercial contained a snippet of Al Jolson doing his signature "Mammy" blackface shtick, and even by 1983's riotous punk standards, this was unacceptable.

Amazingly, around this time you could still see infomercials on TV for old Al Jolson record collections that showed clips even a decade earlier would have been considered mainstream. However, the 1980s was the decade when racially insensitive material from the unenlightened past finally began to get culled, by no means definitively, out of wide circulation (hence why Walt Disney's Song of the South VHS tapes sell for a small fortune on eBay).

Complaints about Al Jolson guesting in their commercial flooded into the Provincial and the OLG. CityTV's crusading crime reporter, JoJo Chintoh featured a story about a young 10 year-old local boy who was upset this grotesque parody of his race was the only time he saw anyone of colour on TV in prime-time. After getting a lot of negative coverage, especially on CityPulse, the offensive TV ad was re-edited to be made a little less "offensive":

In a moment of supreme un-ironic irony, Al Jolson had been white-faced in a weak sauce attempt to salvage the already submerged spot. As is always the case when something this monumentally stupid occurs, people got fired. The spots were pulled, replaced by something harmless, and the event was very quickly brushed under the carpet. We assume all copies of both spots were destroyed in a bonfire.

Thanks to the wonders of home VHS recordings from this Wild West era, both versions of this commercial were accidentally preserved on analogue tape and have now been placed on the internet where they can serve forever as reminders of a far less sensitive, less polished era in the OLG`s checkered history.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com


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