The Littlest Hobo

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CraigBaird

The concept of a dog saving people and helping those in danger is not new. It is something that dates back to long before The Littlest Hobo first ever graced Canadian television screens in the 1960s. There were the movies and television shows centered around Lassie and Rin Tin Tin but for Canadians, The Littlest Hobo reigns supreme above them all. Each week, Canadians would watch to see who Hobo would help and watch him, as the lyrics state, just keep moving on.

Today, the episodes can seem cheesy and often times unbelievable in the scenarios but they scratch that nostalgic itch for many and even today, you can hum that theme song and a majority of Canadians will know exactly what you are thinking of.

It is such an important part of our cultural heritage that another great Canadian show, Corner Gas, did an episode around a mistaken belief by Hank that the German Shepard helping people in Dog River was the titular Hobo from television. The episode was called, fittingly, The Littlest Yarbo.

So, let’s look at the history of this uniquely Canadian show.

The first incarnation of The Littlest Hobo appeared not on Canadian television, but as part of a 1958 American film of the same name. The movie was created by Dorrell McGowan, directed in California by Charles Randeau and distributed by Allied Artists to generally good reviews. In the movie, the Littlest Hobo arrives in California in a box car, like hobos of days past. In the movie, he assists in trash removal, helps a blind man across the downtown section of a community, spares a boy’s pet lamb from slaughter and is pursued by police responding to a “mad dog” report. He takes the lamb to the estate of the Governor of California, whose daughter befriends the lamb as her pet.

A few years later, The Littlest Hobo debuted on Canadian television screens running for 61 episodes from 1964 to 1967. One interesting aspect of the series was that it was produced in colour, but the series was broadcast in black and white and completely shot in British Columbia.

The main character of the show was of course the German Shepard, which was not given a name but typically referred to as Hobo through popular media about the show. Hobo was typically portrayed by London, who was owned and trained by Charles Eisenmann. On occasion, relatives of London including dogs named Toro, Litlon and Thorn would act in scenes of the show. London would appear in 48 episodes total in the series, with the other dogs appearing in the other episodes. As for why the main dog was named London, that comes from Eisenmann and his time in England during the Second World War when he survived a German bombing in the capital city. At the time, he was serving with the US Army when in July 1944 he was blown through the wall in his office in London by an exploding V1 buzz bomb. He would say later:

“That bomb didn’t make the slightest preliminary buzz and the only warning I had was when I heard a guard on the roof shout Jump. I instinctively did and was actually in the air when the explosion came. It blew me backward right through the wall of the room. Fortunately, the wall was crumbling with that explosion, however.”

He would spend seven days in hospital with an injured hip and back and he almost lost his index finger, which was important for him as he made a living as a semi-professional baseball player in the United States, specifically as a pitcher.

After he returned back to the United States he would continue to play baseball and in 1956 he joined the Bismarck Barons. It was there he would have his dog London with him. On Aug. 17, 1956, the Bismarck Tribune would write, quote:

“Before the game, Chuck Eisenmann sent his German Shepherd dog London through his paces. The dog brought keys from Eisenmann’s car, bowed to the crowd, brough a bat and a broom to the pitcher, ran the bases, brought a ball bag from the mount, told how old he is, imitated a kangaroo, closed a door, turned out a light, played dead, untied a boy and did a little typewriting.”

It was because of London that he moved from baseball to dog training. He would say quote:

“I had a nightclub and the dog started showing signs of greatness. When I was with San Diego and Los Angeles, instead of flying with the team, I would drive with the dog. Then Life magazine did a three-page spread so I moved from baseball to the dog even though I was still a decent pitcher.”

That spread would be what got London cast in The Littlest Hobo movie, and then the television show.

Eisenmann would use his own training methods on the dogs, which taught them to think and understand very specific directions, to recognize colors and to understand English, French and German commands. Widely celebrated in the dog training world for his methods, he would take the dogs on tour to offer live demonstrations. In interviews he stated he was proud that he never read a book about dog training but wrote four of them.

One aspect of both the 1960s and 1980s versions of the shows is the number of well-known actors who would appear on them. One of the most prominent was Chief Dan George, who appeared in a 1964 episode. Half a decade later, he would become the first Indigenous person to be nominated for an Academy Award. He was also a celebrated Indigenous writer, activist and poet when he appeared on the show. Another famous actor was Pat Harrington, who came to fame as Dwayne Schneider on One Day At A Time, for which he won a Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award.

After the series ended, Eisenmann would write a dog training book in 1968 called Stop! Sit! And Think!, which recounted stories from filming the first series as well. He would also write other books that included update training material through the years.

The series that most Canadians remember though is the second one, which became a part of the Canadian television landscape during the early 1980s.

The show likely would have continued on longer in this first version if not for a lawsuit that halted production. The lawsuit centred on ownership of The Littlest Hobo concept, fought between the creators of the movie and the producers of the new show. The case would go through the courts for seven years and go in favour of the creators of the movie. By this point through, they were not interested in the show. It would fall to a young man named Christopher Dew, who had worked as an editor on the original series and thought the show could be revived. Dew was able to get the rights from the owners, a contract with Eisenmann and told CTV he would be the producer. They said that he didn’t know how to do that job, so he said, quote:

“Get me a line producer and I’ll learn on the job and make sure the show is as true to the original series. We went into production and it lasted 114 episodes and six years.”

In 1979, CTV revived the series, under the title The New Littlest Hobo. This series would run for six years and again would feature a dog trained by Eisenmann and in honour of the first series from the 1960s, the dog used in the new series was also named London. Eisenmann would also appear in the first season episode Stand-In as a dog trainer, and then as a dog kennel operator in the sixth season episode Voyageurs.

The first episode of the new series, called Smoke aired on Oct. 11, 1979 and centered on Hobo arriving in a small town hit by a forest fire where he helps save animals from the fire. As was often seen with the series, it had some unique storylines, including in this first episode. A local storekeeper in the town has been selling poison to ward off homeless animals in town. A child eats the poisoned meat outside of the store and a doctor can’t come in by plane because of a thunderstorm. Hobo is parachuted into town with the antidote to save the child’s life.

The series, which was filmed in the Toronto region for the most part instead of British Columbia, would air on Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m. and would actually remain in syndicated reruns on CTV and other national networks for the next 30 years. It also appeared on the BBC, which aired the first three seasons on repeat from 1982 to 1989. When filming in Toronto, the Hobo appeared at Union Station, the CNE, the Science Centre, China Town, Kensington Market, the Zoo and even on the subway.

Typically, each episode would follow a similar format. A person is in danger, Hobo saves the day. Sometimes the stories would take on a more secret-agent type of story.  

One example of the somewhat odd series of events that would take place on the show comes from Hidden Room, an episode that aired in 1981. The synopsis states, quote:

“Hobo comes across an old farmhouse where a young nonverbal girl and her father are being blackmailed into conducting fake seances. By cleverly investigating and manipulating the mechanics of the ruse, Hobo is able to break the blackmailers’ hold, stop the fraud and free the father and daughter.”

Other examples include Hobo saving a girl from a poisonous snake and an earthquake in the same episode, help a supermodel under a hypnotic spell, steal a painting from a criminal’s safe and help a woman lost in the woods and about to give birth.

For many, the outlandish plots are what makes it a show so fondly remembered by Canadians.

The first season was geared more to American audiences and featured more American guest stars and a higher level of violence, including some murders. From season 2 onwards, the show had more of a Canadian feel, with most of its settings being outdoors, in small towns or rural areas rather than the inner city, and the violence was mostly limited to threats only.

As with the original series, Eisenmann used several dogs to portray the role of Hobo, identified as London in the credits. The dogs were chosen based on their appearance to each other and each dog often had a set of skills that was used in an episode. An example of this is one dog may have been better at jumping into a car and moving throughout the seats, or another may have been better at catching objects. An interesting bit of trivia for the new series is that one of the dogs used in some episodes was the grandson of the original Hobo, London, from the 1960s version of the show.

Rob Garrison, a writer on The Littlest Hobo, would describe his first interaction with Eisenmann in an interview with Beach Metro, stating quote:

“A big gruff man came into the office with four look-alike shepherds. Where’s that story guy? That writer? I see what’s in that typewriter. Put it in the garbage! One dog jumped on the desk, pulled the paper out of the typewriter and tossed it in the wastebasket. His owner yelled Hi there I’m Chuck. The rest was history.”

For those who worked on the show, it is a time they remember fondly. Allan Eastman, who directed 42 episodes of the series would say in a Vice interview, quote:

“It was a great gig for me. You look back at those things and you think, oh yeah a dog show, but it was this really great action-adventure show that was shot in the woods. It was a five day shoot for a half hour show. We were just off in nature having a good time, all the time. Its only years later when you realize those were golden years.”

In regards to the dogs, Eastman was always impressed by the ability of Eisenmann to train the dogs. In that Vice interview, he says quote:

“There were five dogs always. Chuck’s training method was based on teaching the dogs language. He maintained that he could train a dog at about the comprehension level of an eight-year-old. He instructed the dog by basically talking to them. That was interesting and effective.”

While the first series featured some notable actors, the second series had some big names, or soon to be big names in film and television. There are a few, but I will go through the biggest names that appeared on the show.

Al Waxman, better known as the King of Kensington, not only appeared in two episodes of the series in 1983 and 1984, but he also directed three episodes in 1984. Waxman would become a Canadian icon and a statue of him exists in Kensington Market in Toronto, where his iconic show took place.

John Ireland, a former Oscar nominee, would appear in one episode in 1981. Another Oscar nominee, Jack Gilfrord, appeared in an episode in 1980.

DeForest Kelley, best known as Dr. Leonard Bones McCoy, appeared as Professor Hal Schaffer in an episode in 1981.

Future Hollywood character actor, who has appeared in many different films, Michael Ironside, appeared in one episode in 1979.

Abe Vigoda, best known as Phil Fish on Barney Miller, a role he was nominated for three Emmys for, would appear in a 1980 episode.

Daniel Macnee, who came to fame in British show The Avengers and then appeared in other movies such as A View to A Kill and This Is Spinal Tap, also appeared in an episode in 1980.

Canadian comedy icon Leslie Nielsen appeared in an episode in 1980, just as his career was about to take off thanks to his role in the comedy classic Airplane!

By far, the biggest name to appear on the show was Mike Myers, who appeared as Tommy in an episode of the show called Boy on Wheels. Myers would of course go on to reach international fame thanks to his time on Saturday Night Live and his roles in Wayne’s World, Austin Powers and Shrek.

Jim Henshaw, an actor who appeared on the in two episodes in 1981 and 1982, would say of the show, quote:

“I was the kind of thing where every actor in Toronto was on the show at some point in time. They would bring actors back every season or two because they needed so many people.”

The last episode of the series would air on March 7, 1985. Called Pandora, it centered on Hobo finding an undetonated Second World War bomb.

Over the course of both series, the dogs of The Littlest Hobo and Eisenmann would appear across the United States and Canada, including on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, Betty White’s Pet Set and the Wide World of Entertainment. The show often did very well in the ratings as well. In an analysis of its viewers, it was found that 62 per cent of the audience was over 18, which showed that parents and their children were sitting down to watch the show, which was a demographic advertisers loved to get airtime on.

Of course, if we are going to talk about The Littlest Hobo, we have to talk about Maybe Tomorrow. The song, sung by Terry Bush, is arguably the most iconic part of the show. Bush would get the gig thanks to Dew, who said in a Vice interview, quote:

“I’d known Terry’s work from the commercial business and I thought his idiom, his contemporary country and western style was what I felt was perfectly appropriate for this character.”

Since the show aired, the song has been featured in a Dulux paint advertisement and in a Co-op stores advertisement in 2017 that was Canada 150 themed and featured a dog that looked like Hobo from the original shows.

Along with Corner Gas, the show has appeared in another iconic Canadian show, The Trailer Park Boys, in this clip when Ricky watches The Littlest Hobo in his car.

While the show is off the air, many episodes still exist on YouTube and if you start humming Maybe Tomorrow anywhere in Canada, chances are someone around you is going to remember exactly where that song comes from and the little show that found its way into Canadian’s hearts.

Information comes from Vice, Wikipedia, IMDB, TRNTO, KevinMcCorrytv.ca, BlogTO, BeachMetro, Baseball In Wartime,

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