BOB SIMON - Last night's horrendous accident which ended his life was another reminder of how fragile and unpredictable life is. Bob Simon was truly worthy of all the plaudits and kudos uttered about him since last night's tragedy. Why that limo was traveling at twice the speed limit has raised conspiracy theorist's eyebrows. Hopefully no conspiracy to end his life was the reason for what happened.
I never met Bob Simon, but I did have the good fortune to know his former boss and 60 MINUTES creator, Don Hewitt, as well as Don's ex-wife, Frankie, who ran Ford's Theater in D.C. during the years I was on television in that city (1974 through1977). Don always acccepted my phone calls when I had a story idea. He was a giant, but not above taking phone calls and listening to ideas. I also knew, as did some of you, one of Bob's fellow 60 MINUTES correspondents, i.e., the late and great Harry Reasoner, who cut his broadcasting eye-teeth here in the Twin Cities.
In my opinion, and the opinion of so many, Bob's untimely death will certainly leave a gaping hole in the CBS firmament. Broadcasters from all the networks echoed their genuine sadness at the loss of one of the best in the business.
BRIAN WILLIAMS - I never met Brian either, but whatever possessed him to utter what he uttered, from the Iraqi story to the apparent fiction about what he saw during his Hurricane Katrina coverage, perhaps no one except Brian will ever know. He was perpetually at the top of the television news ratings "mountain" and certainly didn't need to embellish any story to get more ratings, which create more and higher revenues, and of course, about what the commercial media business is, allowing that element of the business to exist and flourish. As the adage states, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Brian didn't need to fix anything. Nothing was broken, but sadly, he chose to "fix it" and may have broken his career as a respected anchor. Without melodrama, but I think true, he also broke a lot of viewership trust, which could obviously adversely impact the television news business for a very long time. Just as so many of us were shaking our heads when Pete Carroll made the call for the Seattle Seahawks to throw a pass instead of running the ball to easily win another Super Bowl, I think a lot of us are shaking our heads regarding Mr. Williams's decisions. As Jon Stewart said a few nights ago, "Why, Bri? Why?". Another head-shaker.
JON STEWART AND LIZZ WINSTEAD - Leaving for different pastures later this year, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both owe their big breaks to Minneapolis comedienne, writer and THE DAILY SHOW creator, Lizz Winstead. Lizz is a longtime friend to me. We share the same birthday, August 5th, although I'm eons older than Lizz (and everyone). Thanks to Lizz, THE DAILY SHOW did a four-minute satirical reflection about my career (which she wrote) when Craig Kilborn was hosting the show. (Craig wasn't born in Minnesota, but called Hastings his home prior to getting his big break into the television business, also thanks to Lizz) With all the attention Stewart's departure is getting, I thought it might be good to remember the person who created the vehicle that made his name a household one, justifiably. Kudos to Lizz. (BTW, her brother is Bloomngton, Minnesota's Mayor. Quite a family.) Brava, Lizz.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my geezer thoughts.
I'm sure many in the Twin Cities who saw the words, "Je suis Charlie" emblazoned in bright white lights just below the top of Paris's Arc de Triomphe the night of the Charlie Hebdo massacre may have developed lumps in their throats, but obviously for very bittersweet reasons. For those unaware, the founders of the magazine Charlie Hebdo named the Charlie part of the magazine name after Charlie Brown, created, as the world knows, by Saint Paul. Minnesota, native Charles Schulz for his iconic comic strip, PEANUTS.
I have a feeling Mr. Schulz, had he still been alive, would have had mixed emotions about everything connected with the horrific massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff. One can only surmise he might have been glad the founders chose to acknowledge Charlie Brown, albeit for a magazine that juxtaposed the wholesomeness of Mr. Schulz's primary strip character with a lot that was less wholesome, but also, of course, aghast at the audacious attack on free speech and freedom of the press that resounded around the world with Charlie's name attached, sadly taking journalistic lives in the process.
I think it's sometimes good to reflect that occasionally, from humble beginnings, giant respected oak trees grow from the acorns planted by their fertile minds. Such, in my opinion, was (and is) the case for Charles Schulz and all his universally-beloved characters.
Although it's miniscule compared to last week's atrocities, my wife and I felt the sting of radicals when I was robbed in broad daylight on the Paris subway in the summer of 1996. We were staying at a hotel near La Madeleine, an impressive Catholic church in the Fifth Arrondissement. Around noon during one of the days of our stay, I suggested we visit The Louvre, just one subway (metro) stop away from our hotel. My wife had never been to The Louvre. I'd been there several times throughout the years and knew she would enjoy the experience. When we got into the subway car, because it was only one stop until we'd exit, I decided to stand holding a pole in the center of the car, but adjacent to the door. From out of nowhere, I felt someone grabbing my right ankle, laying on the subway car floor and pounding on my leg. He was dressed in white coveralls and obviously looking for a leg-wallet to steal. I looked at my wife on the other side of the car and she was being held in abeyance by another man also dressed in white coveralls. We were both distracted, to say the least, and everyone standing and seated just looked at what was happening, all with serious faces, but no one attempting to stop the insanity. When the buzzer sounded to signal the closing of the doors, the man holding my wife at bay ran across the car and got out, but the fellow who had been pounding my ankle just barely made it out through the closing doors, being pulled to the platform by yet another fellow in white coveralls. I thought, "What was that?", then, as the train began to move, I felt my right front pants pocket, where I always keep my wallet, and the pocket was empty. Obviously, the thieves' distraction worked. Luckily, I had also worn a tummy-wallet, in which I had stored my passport, driver's license, all my cash and a couple extra credit cards. The thieves only got away with other credit cards.
Needless to say, my wife and I got off at The Louvre stop and never went to The Louvre that day, but instead got on the next train back to our original stop and searched for the stolen wallet. Because of fear of bombs being placed in the subway stations then (and now) all the waste receptacle boxes had been sealed shut, thus we looked everywhere else...even looking down onto the tracks...but no wallet.
We went to the subway station kiosk and told the person in the booth what had happened. He said he was sorry and guided us to the U.S. Consulate, just two blocks away. During the seven hours it took to call the credit card companies (including also walking to the nearby American Express office to get a replacement card immediately), one of the ladies working at the Consulate told us the following: She was a French national but said she was so embarrassed by the fact that occurrences such as ours were happening in Paris at least a hundred times a day. I described those who had robbed us and she said they were North Africans, from Tunisia or Algeria, who actually attended schools teaching their students how to lift wallets without being discovered. She said they wore little bells on their wrists while in thievery school and if the bells rang while stealing a practice wallet, they would fail the test. Lovely (not).
Regardless, we continued on our trip the next day, away from Paris. When we returned to the U;S. a few days later, I was told only one of the credit cards stolen had been attempted to be used and immediately swallowed by the machine into which it was inserted by the thief.
Possible moral of this story, in my opinion: Unjustified violence and unspeakable occurrences perpetrated against the innocent have been going on for eons, regardless of country or century. The Charlie Hebdo maniacy was an ugly reminder, triggering the unpleasant personal memories above-described, but, stated by one who is of half-French descent, enveloped within a city that is still among the world's most special.
Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read these geezer thoughts, et, vraiment, je suis Charlie, aussi.
New Year's Eve, for many of us who remember Guy Lombardo's orchestra's annual iconic rendition of "Auld Lang Syne", first on radio, then on television from the late 1940s onward, this evening most always conjures a mix of melancholy and mirth. In my opinion, and the opinions of many of us living in advanced years, the melancholy of New Year's Eve is being reminded yet another year has passed, along with many of our friends and some relatives. The mirth arises when that ball drops atop the former Times Building at the south end of Times Square and optimism for a fresh start in a new year reigns. Having written in this space once (last year) about my two New Year's Eve's among those in the crowd in Times Square, circa 1953 and 1954, at ages 16 and 17, respectively, I can assure you survival was more on one's mind than mirth, but it was, let's face it, bizarre fun, at the very least.
REMEMBERING: To add to this day's melancholy, the literally millions of listeners, including yours truly, who looked forward to Joyce Lamont's first-class radio broadcasts on WCCO, and then KLBB, learned the sad news of her passing two days ago, at age 98. She was broadcasting quality and warmth personified. Her reassuring voice and delivery, from the heart, without ego, were perpetual reminders there was still dignity afloat, deservedly propelling Joyce to the top of the popularity charts. Not bad for a girl who was a radio commercial and promotional writer and didn't ever want to be on the air, but we're so glad her WCCO bosses recognized the warmth and charm in her voice and convinced her to convey that to millions of listeners for decades. I met Joyce in person only once, very briefly, but for all of us who had the joy to experience the quality of her on-air work, I think it would be safe to surmise she was considered a personal friend of every listener. Blessings to one who blessed us with her talents.
HOLIDAY COMMERCIALS: Mirth might not accurately describe the fact several of this year's television commercials were once again relying on older music "standards" as either a direct part of the message or in the background, and, if not mirth, they brought smiles. Target chose "It's A Marshmallow World" for their holiday theme. The first spots this year stuck to the original sound and tempo. Subsequent spots were "jazzed-up" to the degree one could barely understand the words or legitimately identify the music. Regardless, those latter "jazzed up" choices obviously didn't hurt Target's bottom line, garnering their highest share prices ever, announced yesterday, happily vindicating the locally-based corporation's temporarily-damaged image the past few months.
One commercial that struck close to "home" for me was Apple's brilliant choice (in my opinion) to use the last song George Gershwin composed, i.e., "Our Love Is Here To Stay". For over 30 years, I had the honor and privilege to share social and professional times with Frances Gershwin, George, Ira and Arthur Gershwin's sister. She allowed me to interview her for a documentary I co-produced in 1998. I still have the videotape. When I entered her apartment in the upper 70s just east of Madison Avenue, the music playing on the stereo was "Our Love Is Here To Stay". I told Frankie (that's what she liked to be called) I knew that was George's final composition. She told it was her favorite because of that sad fact. Hearing and seeing the song so tenderly presented on the Apple commercial brought even more warmth and dignity to this holiday season for many of us who still remember gentler times in the midst of these times less gentle. "Frankie" passed away in 1999, but had she been alive this season, she would have appreciated that lovely commercial, too. as well as those who had the class to conceive it.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read these geezer thoughts. I hope you and yours have the best year ever, starting tomorrow.
Once again, whether a curse or blessing, my memory bank has recently been triggered regarding very special people I've been blessed to know and with whom I was blessed to share personal times, thus motivating me to want to share those times with you, once again. Hopefully, those memories will continue to activate a pleasant reaction or two during these very unpleasant times.
I LOVE LUCY's CANDY FACTORY SCENE - Among those I was blessed to get to know during my more active documentary production years were I LOVE LUCY's co-writers, Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. They had written several sitcoms before and after their long tenure with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Madelyn and Bob agreed to have me interview them for a documentary I wrote and produced in 1998-99, entitled TELEVISION: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS. One of the questions I asked was how they conceived the idea to have Lucy and Ethel (the latter portrayed by actress Vivian Vance, of course) work at a candy factory. They told me Desi decided Lucy and Ethel should have a job for the following week's episode, so whatever Madelyn and Bob decided it would be would be the job Lucy and Ethel would have. Madelyn and Bob told me they had to come up with an idea rapidly, thus decided they'd look in the Yellow Pages and whatever category appeared on the page to which they first turned would be the determining factor for the "job" Lucy and Ethel would have. They said the first page to which they turned showed CANDY MANUFACTURING and that's how Lucy and Ethel personed that assembly line, later voted television's all-time most memorable scene. Bob and Madelyn also told me they contacted a well-known candy factory based near LAX to advise how to manufacture and stage the conveyor belt's movement. Knowing what they'd told me about the birth of that classic scene always makes watching it even more special. As many of you may know, WCCO-TV aired it again last night as part of CBS-TV's annual Christmas tribute to LUCY.
A CHRISTMAS STORY", BEFORE IT WAS COMPLETED: One of the more memorable breakfasts of my life involved re-connecting with writer, raconteur, radio personality and all 'round genius Jean Shepherd, writer and narrator of the classic holiday film, A CHRISTMAS STORY (now adapted as a stage play entitled A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL, as Twin Cities theatre-goers are currently aware). The re-connection took place in the dining room of Cleveland's Bond Court Hotel in the summer of 1981. I was there as a delegate to one of our broadcast union's annual national conventions, as First Vice President of the Detroit Local of AFTRA, a year before I moved back to the Twin Cities. When I entered the dining room, I recognized Jean Shepherd sitting alone at a table near the entrance. I had the privilege to meet and get to know Jean during one of my teenage years, i.e., 1956, when I was honing some broadcasting skills at WOR in New York, thanks to one of that station's great radio personalities named Phil Tonken, a mentor and friend to me for many years hence. Regardless, I re-introduced myself to Jean and he invited me to sit with him for breakfast. He asked me how the broadcast career was going and I told him. Then I asked what he was doing. He said he was writing a screenplay about his youth in that part of the country, and was thinking of entitling it A CHRISTMAS STORY or CHRISTMAS MEMORIES. I said it sounded like a great premise, and that was that. I'm glad he chose to entitle it A CHRISTMAS STORY. When it hit the theaters in 1983, it was fun to remember being with him during its creation. (Jean was born in Chicago, but spent most of his youth in nearby Hammond, Indiana. Hammond was home to more than one well-known broadcaster, another whose friendship I was blessed to have during my D.C. television days, named Frank Reynolds. Frank's wife's name was Henrietta, and at social events, even as serious-minded as Frank was, he always enjoyed identifying themselves as Frank and "Hank" Reynolds.)
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read these geezer memories, with best thoughts to you and yours, always.