Saturday, April 16, 2005


I’ve never given it much thought until now, but I strongly suspect that most people have never had a real Hero, someone they knew who inspired them to be more than they might otherwise have been, had they not met.

I had mine, it goes back a lot of years and, strangely enough, he’s been around as a reminder ever since. I’d to tell you about him.

Let’s back up here a bit. I spent the better part of 38 years in various phases of broadcasting, everything from selling time and being a deejay on local radio, to co-hosting a national satellite television series, which I also wrote, produced, and edited. If my role model/unintentional mentor not been where he was, WHEN he was, it might not have happened at all.

It used to be a cliché in the broadcasting industry that every radio station in the country had a bucktoothed, freckle-faced kid always hanging around, wanting to grow up and be an announcer. In 1950, that was me and, in my ignorance, I picked a doozy of a station in which to hang around: the (now-sadly-defunct) WMAQ, the NBC-owned station in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

I say “in my ignorance” because I was too young (not-quite-12) and dumb to realize that I was hanging around in The Big Leagues. Saturdays were mine around that joint, and what a wonderland it was. After a long “El” train ride from the west side of Chicago, my day started in the large PBX room up on the 21st floor. Normally, three operators manned the huge switchboard but, on Saturday mornings, there was just one. She seemed to look forward to my visits, and taught me how the board worked. It was very impressive, with direct lines to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other places.

At 9:30, it was sitting in the engineer’s booth while one of my two favorite disc jockeys, the legendary Norman Ross, came in to do his Saturday morning show. Later in the morning, it was NBC’s “National Farm and Home Hour” in the next studio over from Norman’s. This WAS a big production: a singing male quartet, a 30-piece orchestra, a live studio audience, and live feeds from around the country, plus a host/announcer who started each program by loudly declaiming, “It’s a BEAUTIFUL day in Chicago!” followed by a qualification, like “Oh, the snow is ass deep to a tall injun standing on a pine stump, but it’s warm inside and …..” which would lead into the opening march (you understand, now, don’t you, that that qualifier is not a direct quote?).

And then, if I was so inclined, it was over to the other side of the elevator shafts, to ABC territory, for “Junior Junction” which, again, featured a live studio audience and an orchestra (same guys who’d played the Farm & Home Hour a couple of hours earlier), this time under the baton of a tall, curvaceous blonde given to wearing tweed suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Her name was Mary Hartline, and she became famous/infamous for two things: one of them was her doffing the glasses and putting on a VERY abbreviated costume to lead the band on ABC-TV’s big hit (and first LIVE coast-to-coast program), “Super Circus,” jiggling her substantial behind in front of a few million people each Sunday afternoon as she lead the Super Circus Band (some of the same guys from Saturday).

Her other claim to fame was having the legendary Paul “Pops” Whiteman (the guy responsible for the public premiere of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”), the Musical Director for ABC, calling Mary after she did a trumpet solo on JJ one Saturday afternoon, to tell her that, if she ever put a trumpet to her lips in an ABC studio again, she was fired. I’m sorry I missed that show.

And, after awhile, on Saturday mornings, there was “Uncle Ned’s Squadron.”

Uncle Ned’s real name was Norb(ert) Locke, a genial “everyone’s favorite uncle”-looking guy (think Ned Beatty, without an attitude), and the Saturday morning NBC show was elaborate enough, with a live studio audience of kids, two sound men, a record spinner in another studio, Norb/Ned, a kid portraying “The Executive Officer,” and an announcer, who was an integral part of the program.

I was frequently The XO … and the announcer, for the first year and a half, was My Hero, My Mentor, My Role Model.

He was younger than most of the announcers there. He’d worked in his home state of Ohio, then in Detroit (Big Leagues: did you know the Lone Ranger, in its original radio form, originated from Detroit?) before going into the Army, from which he’d gotten out just a few months before I met him at WMAQ. When we first came into contact, his job consisted of primarily doing station breaks every half-hour-or-so, plus the occasional public service announcement, and later the occasional DJ stint.

He took me under his wing, coached me and encouraged me .. bought me coffee downstairs (and once saved one for me when I was late getting there from a remote I’d done earlier that morning at the Edgewater Beach Hotel quite some way away).

He was my Friend, my first true grownup friend, who never was too busy to share a few quiet minutes with me. At the same time, he was an excellent role model. He was always prepared, always pleasant to co-workers and strangers alike, a good example of professionalism and How To Be A Good Human Being.

He was not without a sense of humor, and it always showed up, if at no other time, at rehearsals, when he’d come to the line, “And this is your announcer …” and then he’d invent a name, a different one ever week, things on the order of “And this is your announcer, Malfinger Malingerer, saying ….” We’d all laugh, and I’d say (away from the others), “One of these days, you’re going to forget this ain’t rehearsal, and you’re going to use that name… ” but, of course, he never did. That wouldn’t have been professional.

Instead, every week, those round tones would say, “And this is your announcer, Hugh Downs, thanking you for being here, and inviting you to join us next week for .. Uncle Ned’s Squadron” (music up) (cue audience for applause).

Hugh Downs Posted by Hello

Hugh Downs, the single nicest and, simultaneously, most professional person I’ve ever known, in or out of broadcasting, the man who puts the lie to the old saw about “Nice guys finish last.”

I remember when he got tapped as the fill-in announcer, the voice who’d occasionally be heard saying, “Live, from the 8th Street Theatre in Chicago, it’s Your Show of Shows, with Jack Carter!” Bet you don’t remember that hour that preceded the 90 minute classic with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, but it was there, every week and, every four or five weeks, it was Hugh’s turn to Do His Thing.

And, when he wasn’t busy with his rapidly-building career (he now had his own record show), he’d do things like calm me down the first time I ever heard my own voice, on a show we’d pre-recorded against a day when weather or disaster cut our audience to near-zero. Well, that day came (a high-rise warehouse across the street burned down, making mini-squab out of the Hartz Mountain Canaries, coincident with fog and other Chicago-style weather crumminess), so we gathered the handful of kids who showed up into a smaller studio, passed out that week’s prizes (almost invariably, model airplanes), and then sat around listening to the show we’d done several months before. (Recorded on a 16” disc, if you want to know how long ago that was).

Remember, this was before my voice started changing: pure boy soprano. What I THOUGHT I sounded like, and what I DID sound like …. the difference almost made me quit broadcasting right there and then.

Hugh assured me that this, too, would change.

There were changes going on all over the place. Hugh moved on to other things at NBC Chicago, just about coincident with our being booted out of our studio so they could convert it to television (our successor in the studio was variety/comic pioneer Dave Garroway, who I still remember coming thru the lobby trying to crack a piece of rope stapled to a chunk of broomstick, while attempting to sing “Mule Train,” a la Frankie Laine).

And my voice started changing, while I almost simultaneously completed 8th grade and my family moved me to Arkansas, to my grandparents’.

When my sister and I went back at Christmas, for a visit, it was to find that Hugh now had his own five-day-a-week half-hour TV variety show, mornings, called “Coffee And …” with a music group (the Art Van Damme Quintet) and a girl singer. It was a mélange of interviews, commentary, and music, live (the only way TV was done in those days). Hugh, typically, invited sis and me to sit upstairs in The Fishbowl (a sponsor room) and watch the whole proceeding one morning, after showing us around the floor and introducing us. (I was really thrilled to meet Van Damme, a fellow accordionist .. although it was a little dismaying to realize that the reason for the soulful looks and close-ups of Art’s downlooking face during the feature solo was to disguise the fact that he was reading oversized sheet music laying on the floor at his feet).

Hugh and I exchanged several letters over the next few months, one of which was very deliberately crafted by Hugh as an entrée to our local radio station. Poor old Carl Dodd, the station owner, didn’t quite know what to do with a 14-year-old kid who walks into his 1000-watt Arkansas daytimer with a letter of introduction on NBC stationery.

Then, one late spring, Hugh apologized for the fact that his heretofore-always-dependable responses might get kind of spotty from now on since “I’ve got commitments that threaten to even invade my livingroom,” and he was being transferred to New York.

I thought that “invade my livingroom” was a nice turn of phrase … and then NBC-TV announced a new program in the fall daytime schedule: “The Home Show,” starring Arlene Francis and you-know-who. This was a five-day-a-week, hour-a-day gig that was most notable for the fact that the second half-hour was always done In Living Color, NBC’s first regularly-scheduled color show.

From that point, there was no stopping Hugh. He played Ed McMahan to Jack Paar’s Johnny Carson (the late show was, first, Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, THEN Johnny Carson and, finally, Jay Leno), including doing – with zero warning – most of the show the night Paar opened the show by saying he was sick of NBC’s censorship and he was quitting … and left. Somewhere in there he hosted a game show, too.

By the sixties, Hugh was the host of The Today Show, a very big deal in those days: it was tantamount to owning two morning hours of a few million families five-days-a-week.

Then the Republicans decided to hold their convention in Miami Beach, and I dropped Hugh a note saying that, if he was going to be doing his show from Miami Beach, we might have an opportunity to meet again since, by that time, I’d worked my way into TV, Program Director of a station in Miami.

The response from Hugh was a date and a time and a place to have lunch with him.

There were a lot of reasons not to like Richard Nixon. At the top of my list was the fact that the night before Hugh and I were to have lunch, Tricky Dick kept the entire news corps up all night while he pondered his choice of presidential running mate (that’s how we got the ill-fated Spiro Agnew). Now, Hugh had gotten up around 3 a.m. the preceding day, had done the show, spent the day pre-recording interviews and other host things, then had joined the crowd in the corridors of the presidential hotel all night, THEN had done his show, all sans sleep.

That was when I showed up for lunch, knowing none of this.

Instead of Hugh, I was greeted by a very attractive, very articulate redhead named Christina Ferrarri, Hugh’s assistant/secretary (and, later, host of her own Lifetime daytime show). She told me of the 36-hour debacle, and then told me that she was under orders from Hugh to feed me lunch – on him – and find out what I’d been up to.

That’s the one-and-only time I ever ate lunch at a Fontainebleu cabana, with a good-looking redhead, at that.

It’s also the last time I was ever any closer to Hugh than my TV set.

But he’s continued to inspire me over the years. For a long time, it seems like I was running his professional itinerary, but in reverse, including Phoenix, Arizona, and Detroit, where I finally exited the ole broadcast biz. (He also funded and founded a public communication school at Arizona State University).

By Hugh’s own admission, he had some ego problems early-on in his career. No shame in that, especially in light of the fact that, with the help of his lovely wife, Ruth, he got that in hand in short order, and has remained an exemplar to everyone but, especially, to me.

Thank you, Hugh, for being my mentor and my childhood friend – and for the information and insights you’ve given your millions of viewers and readers over these many, many years.

Thank you, Hugh, for being a damn good human being.


Post a Comment

<< Home