The McNea children’s father, Bill was an accountant for the liquor control board in the 30’s. Unfortunately, when the Conservative government lost power to the Liberals back then, he and several other employees lost their jobs.
No worries, Bill changed careers, becoming a professional milkman complete with a horse drawn wagon. One of the products he delivered for a dairy in town was a chocolate milk flavoured drink sold in miniature glass bottles called “Krim-Ko”. The dairy promoted the beverage by offering a prize for whoever saved the most bottle caps. Of course, the McNea kids had an advantage over the other collectors in town.
Not only did their dad quickly became the local #1 salesman for the Krim-Ko brand, but the kids acquired enough of the bottle caps to win top prize; a genuine hand cranked 16mm movie projector with focusing lens. T
The prize also included Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin’s 1914 silent film “Dough and Dynamite” in which Chaplin and Conklin work as bakers. One hilarious scene in particular stood out for the kids. Chaplin waddles into one of the “oven” scenes, hastily (yet delicately) removing his coat, brushing and neatly folding it. Suddenly he throws it on the floor and proceeds to wipe his shoes off on it. Decades later, Bob and his son Mike would use this film character as inspiration for developing “Billy Baker” on the TV show.
Well, word spread fast in St. Thomas that the McNea kids had won the Krim-Ko prize projector, with the neighborhood gang around Elizabeth Street wanting to see the film. After a bit of brainstorming, Bobby determined that it could be lucrative to turn the McNea basement into a movie house. He gathered up wooden orange crates from the neighbourhood, dragged them down the stairs, and created a seating area.
Getting to the basement was a challenge to say the least, since the entrance was through a trap door located on the pantry floor inside the house. Bobby knew that his mother Pearl wouldn’t think of allowing line-ups of kids to wander through her kitchen, so he had to figure out another way to get the audience into his “theatre”. As fate would have it, a mountain of coal, which was designated as furnace fuel, was delivered through the basement window creating a marvelous, albeit rocky, slide down to the dirt floor. After a few test runs, Bobby knew he could turn that coal into diamonds. Movie goers were sure to enjoy such a dramatic entrance!
Bobby announced to his chums that the movie would be shown on specific days for a one cent admission fee. Kids came in droves, shimmying down the filthy hill of coal onto the damp basement floor. Interesting that his parents never said anything negative about the enterprise, nor did the young audience members get into trouble from their parents for arriving home with head-to-toe dirty clothes. After a few film showings the coal heap dwindled in size and was eventually used up. Not to be discouraged, Bobby simply reconfigured the orange crates into a window staircase, but then they were used to start the furnace.
While recounting this childhood story decades later, Bob was asked what he did with the money he made from his first business venture. “The home theatre business was quite lucrative for a few weeks; until the neighborhood kids realized
that I only had one film, which they’d all seen. What did I do with the money? Why, I spent my hard earned cash on black ball candy and then stood in front of a mirror making faces while watching my tongue change colour after I popped them in my mouth!”