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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter and me

When I was in college, I was a DJ and announcer on the closed-circuit campus radio station, and I did a fair amount of amateur production work in the school's informal training program for television broadcasting. The fellow who ran the program was a former creative type at CBS, whose world headquarters was just a few miles away across the Hudson River in the Big Apple.

All the equipment we worked with had been donated by CBS as a charitable write-off. The sound board through which we ran the radio station had previously been used to broadcast games on WCBS Radio from Yankee Stadium. Our Crosby Stills Nash & Young albums were played (in mono) through the same circuits that had once hosted Phil Rizzuto shouting "Holy cow!" at Mickey Mantle's latest exploits. I remember the day that our cast-off, lovingly rehabbed Ampex color videotape machine finally "synced up" (or "locked up") and started working. The magnetic tape was two inches wide, and the machine itself was the size of a Volkswagen. We superimposed words on the TV screen by printing them out, mounting them onto metal slides about a yard long, and inserting them into an eight-foot-tall contraption known as a "telop" machine. It was all relatively high tech at the time. (Computers used punch cards and had nothing to do with our operation.)

One night the CBS connection paid off far beyond the hardware realm, as I got a chance to head over to CBS Broadcast Center on the far west side of Manhattan and sit in on a broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The show was sent live into parts of the Eastern and Central Time Zones in those days, and so it was going to be pretty exciting to be in the room with Cronkite and crew as he read the night's top stories.

The Broadcast Center building was nothing like the network headquarters ("Black Rock," the latter was called) on 52nd Street. The Broadcast Center was a low-rise, warehouse affair over near the Hudson River. All brick along the exterior, as I recall, and a fairly serious security set-up at the front door. I drove over, probably in my mom's Dodge Polara, and miraculously found a place to park.

The hype about the Cronkite show was that it was broadcast from the actual newsroom, and that was true. But it was no ordinary newsroom. It was huge, and of course in the middle of it, on a big riser, was the impeccably lit, immaculate, lofty Cronkite throne. I got there a half-hour or more before air time, and the anchor was already in his seat. The rest of the room was a beehive of activity and noise.

I was shown to a seat at an empty desk a few rows back from the main set, with the control room behind me and Cronkite in front of me. I sat there and watched him preparing, ever so calmly. He was in constant communication with the booth through his earpiece and his microphone, and I was far enough away that I couldn't make out most of what was being said. As the start time of the broadcast approached, some additional lights came on, and everyone in the room gradually got quieter and quieter, without a word of coaxing from anyone. There were a few teletype machines chugging way faintly in the rear, but it dawned on me that the clackety-clack background sounds that you heard on TV were piped-in sound effects.

With a couple of minutes to go before the show began, you could hear a pin drop. There were few, if any, announcements to the group from the control room. Everyone knew what to do. I was about jumping out of my skin with excitement, but no one else seemed to be.

Finally, the entire crew assumed their battle stations, and soon thereafter, the stage manager pointed at Cronkite. He commenced to read the news to America and the world in his inimitable stentorian tones. "Good evening." A sublime thing to watch in the flesh.

Now, being a kid from Down Neck Newark, I always had a certain perspective on scenes like this. I couldn't help thinking, If I opened this desk drawer right now, took out a rubber band and shot a paper clip at Walter Cronkite, half the country would see him duck. And I would be expelled from college. So I sat still.

At one of the commercial breaks, after swearing me to be as unobtrusive as I could possibly be, my mentor took me back to the control room to see the show from that perspective. It was not a serene scene in there, to be sure. The director barked out cue after cue, and the technical director -- the guy with his hands on the actual switching equipment that determined which camera, tape machine, or remote feed was beaming out to the audience -- was an absolute bundle of nerves. This was live TV, people. But of course, everything went off without a hitch. It was the CBS Evening News, after all. They could do this in their sleep.

Were those guys smoking cigarettes in the booth? I can't remember. Some of them probably were.

Content-wise, the show is a complete blank to me these 35 to 40 years later. I can't even remember the precise year, although 1971 sounds about right. It was long after JFK, and years after the lunar mission that we're remembering this week (ironic that Walter should depart amidst that hoopla), and it was before Watergate. Probably a slow news night. Certainly Cronkite took whatever he was reporting in that broadcast in easy stride.

I was led back out to my assigned vantage point for the last segment, and when it was over, after telling America "That's the way it is," the main man walked by me with some of the CBS executives in charge of the show. They retired to a little booth to talk about the broadcast, ever so briefly. The boys in the control room would have a chance to tweak a few things for the West Coast tape-delayed version, but on that night, there didn't seem to be anything to mess with. The show was fine, every second of it.

For some reason I am thinking that it was a Friday evening, and that Walter was heading out to Cape Cod and his sailboat immediately after the broadcast. I have no confidence in that recollection, but for some reason it's there. He did seem like a nice guy, albeit a little old, by my standards back then. I will confess that I did not get a handshake.

I always thought that the halo over Cronkite's head was a little overblown. But he was unsurpassed at what he did, and he was part of an extremely capable organization at CBS News. The power that he and that network wielded over the ensuing couple of decades will never be matched by another media outlet. Now that the cable and internet genies are out of their bottles, there will never be another Walter Cronkite. Google has its place, but it will never take down a sitting President of the United States.

It must be something to be the most trusted man in the world, and Cronkite never betrayed that trust. Now it's up to us to ferret out our truths in a different way.

Comments (14)

Great post.

Great read, Jack.

I'm beginning to think you're Portland's own Forrest Gump (except for the talkin' funny part). For a kid from down neck, you've lived a life of amazing breadth.

Just as Helen Keller's politics have been sanitized away for public consumption, so too with Uncle Walter's, who spent his last years working against superstition dominating politics and other ills like that.

Taking the reader into the nerve center of
CBS News with Walter Chronkite? The New York connection with the soundboard from Yankee lore? Awesome stuff, man.
Jack, take the advice of a freelancer and send this some place. The New Yorker? The New York Times?
This is worthy of a bigger audience.

I waited in the ice cream cone line at Baskin-Robbins during a warm September weekend afternoon in Cambridge, that (alternate) year hosting the Harvard - Yale game ... or rather, Yale vs. Harvard (home team second).

As I was next up to the cone-scooping sodajerk, the broad-shouldered man ahead of me spun in place with his prize in-hand and there was only that ice cream cone in the eighteen inches between my astonished eyes and Walter Cronkite's face. He said, "pardon me," stepped aside and along the line and out the door. I jacked my jaw up off the floor, stepped forward and ordered an ice cream cone ... I suppose, I don't remember.

The years I lived in Cambridge/Boston and even worked in TV broadcasting and commercial production, there were many times I faced or met famous persons, (or nerd-melting gorgeous models, like the time Miss Massachusetts came to have me read her astrology chart), but none absolutely NO time I remember as vivid as Cronkite, out of the b&w TV tube, in full-color living speaking flesh right in front of me.

... such was the psychological effect of neural saturation from years of daily 30-minute exposure to an iconic voice and face.

- -

For the reeeeal oldtimers among us reminiscing here, before 'Uncle Walter' (1961) back then The Evening News was Douglas Edwards; and it was only 15 minutes, and the 'other' 15 minutes was local news ... the way TV began.

Was Cronkite ever young? He seemed old even in the 60s. Maybe he should have gotten a perm or something.

Nice piece

The transformation from a culture safeguarded by real journalists to a culture Parishiltonzed is now complete. We now live in a Paris state. It is like a police state but less informed.

That screen shot with Seattle, Portland, and Reno must've been pertaining to news about the DB Cooper hijacking, which was also in 1971.

That's fine writing. It's a little bit as if one were eulogizing the news itself.

Allan L. - With what the news has become.... Fox and all the others with their frenzied sound byte, scandal feeding, sensational seeking trivilization of the media, one might as well be eulogizing the news at least old school news sans this agenda or that or ratings being g-d.

As one of the reporters, I ran interference as the photographers backpedaled taking video of the Walter Cronkite as he came off the plane at PDX headed for a speaking engagement here in Portland. The Port folks took him off to a room to rest for a short time while we all gathered in the airport news conference room.

As he walked into the room he was followed by a young woman holding balloons. When he sat down she began to sing a welcome to “Uncle Walter” ostensibly from the mayor (Ivancie I believe). It clearly took him by surprise and with a little amusement he stopped and looked at all of us for some explanation. There was none coming. We were as surprised as he was. She finished with a flourish “And that’s the way it is!”

He took off his glasses.

He thanked us for coming.

Before he could finish a voice rang out from one of our colleagues: “I feel like a priest with Jesus Christ at the confessional.”


She repeated it. (She had obviously been practicing this for some time.)

Cronkite took off his glasses again.

When the pregnant pause ended, the rest of the reporters began asking him about the visit and his view of the media/politics/ science. He had several projects underway as usual. He worried about celebrity status versus real news on television and pushed for attention to the real issues of our time.

He asked about sailing in the area and then shook hands with most of the reporters as he walked out.

There was a sense that most of us had almost redeemed ourselves and the city by asking about real news… but only almost.

Walter was here on March 12, 2003, the draw speaker at a fundraiser for the Spruce Goose Museum.

I got a chance to talk to him. I asked if he had ever heard a joke I always liked about him.

The short version:
Two Idaho potatos had a daughter, Lil Spud. She was very smart and graduated at the top of her high school class, and won scholarships to Stanford, and later Harvard. She called her Dad just before Christmas, to announce that she was bringing home the man she planned to marry. Her parents waited anxiously on the tarmac at the Boise airport as the ramp was pushed up and the door opened. Out came Lil Spud, and behind her, Walter Cronkite. "Oh, no!" Mother Potato cried, "She is going to marry a common tater".

Have you heard the Idaho Potato joke?, I asked Walter.

Before I could begin telling it, Walter rolled his eyes, and with classic Cronkite inflection, exclaimed, "A Thousand Times!"

What a great story!
It reminds me of a field trip that a bunch of students from Madison and Milwaukie High Schools took in the summer of 1961. We went by train to Chicago, Washington, DC, Williamsburg, Jamestown, and New York City. It was a big deal in those days for a bunch of students to travel that far, and maybe that's how we got to sit in on the Chet Huntley, David Brinkley news broadcast in New York. I can remember how exciting it was, but unlike you and Walter Cronkite, I can't remember any of the details.
Thank you for sharing!

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