World’s Fair: A Family Affair

Many important things happened on April 22nd. The New York Yankees wore pinstriped uniforms for the first time (1915). The first Earth Day was celebrated (1970). Barbara Walters became the first female evening news anchor (1976). Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show (1991). My sister was born (not telling). And, exactly 50 years ago (1964), the World’s Fair opened in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.

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While not on the scale of my sister’s birth, I generally think of the Fair as a family event as well. For one thing, my brother was married there (I’ll explain). But the real connection comes from my mother. She couldn’t wait to take us! She was so excited! You see, it was going to be her second World’s Fair. When she was little, she attended the 1939 World’s Fair (this year marks its 75th anniversary), built on virtually the same piece of Queens, New York real estate, just a short walk from her childhood home. Time and again she would tell us about seeing the “Trylon and Perisphere,” the 2 iconic structures that together formed the ’39 Fair’s signature image.

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25 years later Mom looked forward to sharing that same thrilling experience with her own children, not to mention getting a few updated goosebumps of her own, at the sight of the T&P’s futuristic descendant, the Unisphere.

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As soon as we arrived, my brother Martin fired up his Ansco camera and started snapping:

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I loved the World’s Fair the way any grade school kid loves something  big, broad, fun, fascinating and totally different than anything he’s ever seen before (Disneyland in California was too far away and the Orlando version was yet to be built.) Two of my favorite souveniers were the bright red “Official Guide” to the Fair, which I kept, and re-read so many times, for years, and the one-of-a-kind World’s Fair Sunglasses (the lenses were shaped like twin Unispheres. You looked ridiculous, but who cared?) I marveled at the exhibits we were able to get into (a push-button telephone?! Wow!) and watched longingly the endless lines of people waiting to enter the popular spots like GM’s Futurama.

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I remember the giant ferris wheel sponsored by a tire company and shaped like… well, what do you think?

I recall Mom’s terrified expression when the cable car we kids talked her into boarding slowly began to climb (I think she was afraid of heights). Everything looked so pretty, so perfect, and even though the Fair was a temporary affair (a few months in ’64 and again in ’65) New Yorkers were promised that this new facility, constructed largely on swamp and landfill, would become a permanent City park, with some of its buildings re-purposed for future public use.

Those promises were kept, up to a point. The New York City Pavilion became the Queens Museum of Art. The Heliport was transformed into a popular catering hall, Terrace On The Park (where Martin’s wedding took place six years later). The Unisphere still stands. Everything else, though, was demolished, with one sad exception: The New York State Pavilion.

I say “sad” because this facility received neither a facelift nor a decent burial.

During the Fair it was one of the more noteworthy sites, with its three towers and circular, multicolored tent-like base, a perfect gathering place and an ideal spot for the best aerial view of the entire fairground.

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Today the pavilion is a stripped, cracked, rusted, decrepit shadow of its old self. Padlocked. Unused. Falling apart. The City says tearing it down would cost $14 million. Renovating it… twice that, at least. Hardly anyone wants to spend the money to do either.

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On this coming April 22nd, a small ceremony will be held there. The padlocks will come off. Hardhats will be issued to visitors, and it’ll be possible once again, to stroll through the New York State Pavilion and remember what it was like, back in the day. Perhaps the event will motivate more people to care about what happens to the building, perhaps not. I don’t attach too much sentimentality to it, and I think public money is more urgently needed elsewhere. It would be nice to see some kind of conservancy formed to raise private funds to either preserve and modernize the site, or quietly take it down, so the space can find a new life unfettered by tons of oddly-shaped, rapidly crumbling concrete and steel.

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Either way, I’m fine. Buildings come and go. Memories stay.

One more thing. Happy Birthday, Laya. We miss you.

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In The Blink Of An Eye

Jerry-Denton

Journalists, perhaps more than others, seethe inside, whenever an evil regime co-opts the tools of mass media – instruments intended to help uncover the truth – and uses them to lie, mislead, and inflict harm. Certainly civilians look at these propaganda efforts with general skepticism and disgust. But for newspeople it’s personal, as if someone snatched the microphone out of our hands and crushed a victim’s skull with it.

So when a hero outwits the propagandists and gets the truth out, of course everybody feels good. Newspeople stand up and cheer.

Propaganda has a long and ugly history, not necessary to recount here. Instead, it’s fitting to tell the story of one man who found a way, under the most horrible of circumstances, to face down his tormentors and use their propaganda tools against them.

And he did it, literally in the blink of an eye.

Jeremiah Denton was an American POW in Vietnam. He was flying missions for the Navy when his plane was shot down in 1965. He would spend nearly 8 years in various prison camps, where he was repeatedly beaten, abused and threatened with death.

A few months into his captivity Denton was paraded before television cameras for a North Vietnamese propaganda film. He was asked about his treatment at the hands of his captors. As he sat there, he did something extraordinary. Watch:

There was nothing wrong with Denton’s eyes. He was blinking in Morse Code.

In his memoir, When Hell Was In Session, Denton explains:

“The blinding floodlights made me blink and suddenly I realized that they were playing right into my hands. I looked directly into the camera and blinked my eyes once, slowly, then three more times, slowly. A dash and three more dashes. A quick blink, slow blink, quick blink … .”

The word Denton spelled out, over and over again:

T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

It was the first real confirmation that North Vietnam was mistreating the POW’s. Of course everyone had suspected it. Now we knew, thanks to that silent message heard loud and clear around the world.

In that same film Denton defied his captors’ demands that he denounce the U.S. He clearly and proudly expressed his support for America. North Vietnam didn’t try using him again.

When the POW’s began to come home in 1973, Denton was among the first to emerge, and he spoke on behalf of his fellow freed prisoners:

In 1980 Denton was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Alabama. He was a staunch Conservative and Reagan loyalist, and in his 1982 State Of The Union address, the President pointed him out:

Denton passed away Friday, March 28th, about 41 years after getting off that plane and saying, “God Bless America.” He was 89. Whatever your politics, he’s worth remembering.

JeremiahDenton

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After The “Vote” In Crimea

Everybody knows a version of the old joke about Election Day in the Soviet Union:

Ivan enters the polling place, is handed a folded piece of paper, and instead of simply dropping it into the ballot box, he opens the paper, and is promptly scolded by a Communist Party official:

“What are you doing, comrade?”

Ivan replies, “I want to see who I’m voting for.”

“You fool!” retorts the official, “Don’t you know this is a secret ballot!

Funny, yes. But aren’t you also just a wee bit sad for the millions of Soviet citizens who had to live this for real?

Well, Crimea river.

Admit it. You’re impressed by RT’s production values. State-of-the-art studios. High Definition graphics. Cosmopolitan-accented anchors and reporters. Live remotes! As slick as anything you’ll see in the US.

Until you listen carefully to what’s actually being said.

What’s amazing is how they do it with a straight face. Actually, with a smiling face, exuding such enthusiasm for a “Join Russia” vote of 97 percent, in a region that’s only 60% ethnic Russian (what happened to all the ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars?) with a ballot that did not include an option to retain the status quo (critics described the choice offered as, “Join Russia Now” or “Join Russia Later”). Descriptions of celebrations, citizens talking about “the best day of my life,” and hand-picked “International Observers” (Google their names. Interesting reading) proclaiming how fair this election was. No mention of 20,000 troops in blank uniforms (Ukraine’s constitution forbids Russian soldiers based in Ukraine from leaving their barracks) suddenly everywhere, including polling places.

If it had happened in the US, no one would be smiling. Every reporter on camera and every politician and pundit who could find a microphone would be talking… probably shouting about voter fraud, ballot box stuffing, intimidation and corruption. 97 percent doesn’t happen in a democracy.

Strip away RT’s high-tech trappings, and what do you get?

Well… you get this:

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un’s party got 100 percent of the vote, with a 99.9 percent turnout. Proof, says North Korea, that theirs is the most popular government in the world.

By the way, in his last election, Saddam Hussein also received 100 percent of the vote. Other regimes that have benefited from similar lopsided tallies (thanks to Slate and William Saletan for the numbers): Azerbaijan (85 percent), Kazakhstan (91 percent), Belorussia (93 percent), Turkmenistan (97 percent), Syria (98 percent), and Chechnya (99 percent).

Much has been written about the reasons dictatorships even bother with elections. Ego plays a role. So do more sinister motives. Pyongyang is said to use elections as a kind of unofficial census, keeping tabs on the population, making sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be, and not trying to defect.

What fascinates me, a media guy, is how some regimes try so hard to make the rest of the world believe their manufactured version of events. One wonders how clueless to Western sensitivities they must be. Some are more tone deaf than others. The English language North Korean video is plain silly.

But the RT piece on Crimea is scary.

RT, part of state-owned Russian television, is aimed squarely at Americans, and their agenda is clear. Contrast the happy, upbeat tone of their Crimea story with their take on our 2012 Presidential election. It sneaks up on you, about a minute-and-a-half in:

Like I said, scary. That piece clearly took a lot of time and effort to produce. And certainly, it’s possible to point to flaws in the US system and find vocal critics only too happy to appear on camera.  But let’s always remember the fundamental difference between US elections covered by US media, and Russian elections covered by RT.

Warts and all, ours are for real.

 

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Quitting On The Air

Forget “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Let’s talk about “Three Ways To Leave Your Job.”

I’m guessing you’re just like me when it comes to resigning. Making the decision to quit can be painful, but once you’re there,  you start thinking about the best way to go about it. “Never Burn A Bridge” echoes in your head. Very carefully, you try to orchestrate a quiet, private session with the boss, laying out your reasons, hoping to exit on at least civil, if not entirely pleasant terms. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not.

Things can get complicated, however, when matters of conscience are involved; if, for example, you feel your employer is doing something improper or at odds with your personal values. Here’s where many folks decide they need to do more than just leave. They endeavor to send a message.

Then, of course, there is a third category. That’s when you cultivate such an outsized self-image that you seriously believe your newly-unemployed status is major news, and with enablers like YouTube readily available, it’s pretty easy to indulge that ego of yours:

So, what should we make of Liz Wahl? (and Abby Martin, but I’ll get to her in a minute).

Ever since Ms. Wahl resigned on the air at Russia Today to protest the invasion of Crimea and RT’s handling of the story, a debate has raged over her real motivations, her state of mind, her politics, her knowledge of Ukraine or lack thereof, RT’s true nature, and on and on. No need to rehash most of that now. For the record, though, here’s how she did it:

Whether you believe this is a Category 2 (conscience/message) or a Category 3 (ego indulging) or some combination of both, the episode started me thinking about other times a public figure, or someone with access to a public forum, has made a deliberate decision to not go quietly.. and why they do it.

Turns out, it happens a lot. Jack Paar walking off The Tonight Show in 1960 is perhaps the best-known example. He was upset with NBC and with some newspaper columnists:

Another late night leave-taking happened in 1968 when Regis Philbin exited The Joey Bishop Show, only to return a week later. Philbin now says it was a stunt engineered by Bishop, but for a long time, Reege kept up the charade:

By the way, sometimes it’s the boss who finds the mic or the camera first. Or the phone. Like AOL’s Tim Armstrong firing Patch’s creative director, right in the middle of a conference call, for taking a picture. Or, more famously, radio icon Arthur Godfrey canning singer Julius La Rosa, after a song:

Lower down the media food chain, the aforementioned YouTube is chock full of, in my opinion, very juvenile on-air personalities waiting for the mic to go hot and the camera to roll before giving a verbal middle finger to the media company/snake-in-a-suit/clueless boss who put them on TV or on the radio in the first place. Anchors. Disc Jockeys. Sportscasters. Most of them predictably allude to a litany of mistreatments, slights, contract impasses, followed by heartfelt goodbyes and thank-you’s to the loyal viewers/listeners, etc. etc. There are even a handful of folks who get up out of their anchor chairs, walk off the set, and never come back. I won’t repost those videos. Those guys are just crybabies and not very interesting.

Probably my favorite public exit based on principle took place away from the cameras, even though the perpetrator could have easily found a few reporters only too happy to record him (and it wasn’t long before they did).

When President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, Ford’s brand new press secretary and friend of 25 years, Jerald terHorst, quit. He wrote a letter. Not exactly a private heart-to-heart with the boss, but on the other hand he didn’t call a full-blown news conference, either.

Look, I’m willing to concede that ego very likely figures in even the most noble and principled public resignations, and that the biggest egotists may also sincerely believe they’re doing something high-minded and right. We humans are multidimensional creatures and there’s a lot going on in our incredibly complicated minds.

So when Liz Wahl quits on camera, I’m glad she exposed RT for what it is, but not so glad she immediately became the cable news flavor of the month, appearing on one talking head show after another. I have decidedly less warmth for, and am considerably more wary of her colleague Abby Martin, who criticized Vladimir Putin but stayed on the job. Martin’s previous pronouncements on everything from 9/11 to Israel make one take anything she says or does with several grains of salt.

And speaking of staying on the job, I have to address the 800-pound pair of suspenders in the room: Larry King.

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Did you know Larry has two shows on RT? And, at least so far, he has no intention of leaving? He explains it this way:

“I don’t work for RT. It’s a deal made between the companies (RT and OraTV in which King has an equity stake). “They just license our shows.”

“It would be bad if they tried to edit out things– I wouldn’t put up with it. As long as they don’t, as long as they’re carrying stuff critical of them, I’ve got no problem with it.”

King is splitting hairs. He makes money by appearing on RT, he’s a big part of their PR campaign, and the fact that they haven’t censored him yet is hardly justification for contributing to an entity most observers agree is a state-run propaganda machine.

After he left CNN but before his shows began airing on Russia Today, King gave this interview to an RT reporter:

 

King’s “It” guy has invaded a neighboring country, lied about it, and brought the world to the brink of a new Cold War. King should sever his relationship with RT, yesterday.

 

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Putin, Sochi and Ukraine: The Cossack Has No Clothes

I just can’t get the juxtaposition out of my mind.

First we have Vladimir Putin, in all his glory, basking in the $50 billion glow of a successful Winter Olympics in Sochi. He pulled it off! The world came to the manmade snow palace he built from scratch and by fiat. The games were great. The opening and closing ceremonies, spectacular. All those young, fresh-faced folks sang and celebrated. Feared terrorist attacks never happened. Putin, it could be argued, deftly positioned Russia as a proud member of the global community and himself as a visionary leader.

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Then, a few days later, he throws it all away.

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It’s too early to know what’s going to happen in Ukraine. I’m neither scholar nor historian, and the complicated story of Crimea is, well… complicated! I sincerely hope, for everyone’s sake, that this is resolved without bloodshed, but at this moment it’s difficult to be optimistic.

I’m not qualified to comment on the events on the ground, but there are images, sounds and quotes that don’t make sense to me, starting with the Russian president himself, standing there on the final night in Sochi, stone-faced as thousands joyfully sing the re-worded Russian national anthem:

“Be glorious, our free Fatherland… Eternal union of fraternal peoples…Common wisdom given by our forebears…Be glorious, our country! We are proud of you!”

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It takes time to plan an invasion, and Ukraine has been simmering for a long while, so Putin undoubtedly had set things in motion, even as he put on his Sochi game face for all of us watching. It’s no secret Putin prefers the old ways, so perhaps he also favored the anthem’s old lyrics:

“In the victory of Communism’s immortal ideal…We see the future of our dear land…And to her fluttering scarlet banner…Selflessly true we always shall stand!”

But how could he not see the disconnect? Did he not realize how his military maneuvering, his “chessboard” thinking would, in a heartbeat, wipe out every last ounce of prestige and goodwill he craved? As shrewd and ruthless a dictator as he is, is he that clueless about the rest of the world? Does he simply not care? Did he really think the big show in Sochi would fool us? What is clear is that, in most minds, P.T. Barnum has morphed into Saddam Hussein before our eyes. The Cossack has no clothes.

More questions. Why must the self-important pundits rush to line up in such predictable ways? Already we have neocons calling for an increased U.S. Naval presence in the Black Sea. Really? Are we going to war with Russia? (Happily some conservatives, so far at least, are calling this a bad idea.) They’re also blaming the crisis on President Obama’s “weakness.” As surely as the sun rises in the east, the UN condemns Israel and the hawks push for permanent war, it’s always Obama’s fault. Agree or disagree with the President, but this is getting old.

Finally, once and for all, will Moscow ever drop its Kremlin doublespeak about how, no, this is not an invasion… we were “asked” to come in to “protect” people! About how all of this is “in keeping” with existing agreements. Regardless of what the Crimean parliament did or did not say, we’ve heard this nonsense too many times before. It’s not a justification. It’s a pretense. Pardon the levity, but it’s just as ridiculous as this:

One last thing, a bit personal.

The people of Chabad in Ukraine are in serious trouble.  They’ve spent many years carefully building a cozy relationship with Putin, and it has paid off, with unprecedented freedom and growth unimaginable in Soviet days. But right now, as chaos persists, Jewish institutions are being firebombed.  Let’s keep those folks in mind and pray that peace comes soon.

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Flying Blind

I like Charles Osgood and had the privilege of writing for him for a very short while, a very long time ago. But I think a recent edition of The Osgood File on CBS Radio misses the point:

 

Sound exciting? Sure it does. Supersonic travel returns! A chance to “See The World!” (a phrase used by Osgood as well as the company CEO.)

Just one thing. In flight, nobody onboard is going to see ANY of the world. The plane has no windows!

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Instead of actual windows, tiny cameras mounted on the exterior will beam images onto giant, panoramic display screens in the cabin.

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The viewscreens will be fully adjustable. You won’t HAVE to look at clouds if you don’t want to. Users can flip to other images as they prefer (perhaps better-looking clouds from a different flight? Or how about a cabin-wide display of Bugs Bunny cartoons… or FOX News?) or just turn the whole dang thing off and catch some Z’s.

Yeah, now you’re a little less excited and just a bit creeped-out, aren’t you?

Flying blind in a windowless tube at twice the speed of sound is not exactly many people’s idea of a good time, and several news stories pointed that out. Curiously, Osgood never mentions it, choosing instead to go on and on about how cool it’ll be to fly from New York to London in three hours. Three hours with your eyes closed.

On its website, Spike Aerospace explains its radical design decision:

“It has long been known that the windows cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage. They require addition structural support, add to the parts count and add weight to the aircraft. But until recently, it has not been possible to do without them…With the micro-cameras and flat displays now available, Spike Aerospace can eliminate the structural issues with windows and reduce the aircraft weight.”

Now wait a minute. Windows cause “significant challenges?” Well, so do passengers! So do their suitcases! So does all the champagne and paté you’ll be stuffing into that ultra-first-class galley! Besides, haven’t we already overcome those “significant challenges” with the Concorde, which flew for 27 years, complete with plenty of windows? (Yes, they were small windows, a concession to the aforementioned “challenges.”)

Not to belabor this point, but windows matter, because humans need them. I worked at a radio station that spent thousands of extra dollars to cut a hole through the building’s exterior wall and install a specially-designed soundproof studio window, just so the weatherman could actually look outside and make sure it really was raining! The first Mercury astronauts complained when their capsule was built with tiny portholes instead of real windows. NASA changed it. And who could forget how a window helped Apollo 13 get home, when the crew needed to do a “manual burn” while keeping the Earth IN THE WINDOW as a reference point. Remember the movie clip?

Of course, it is assumed the pilot of the new supersonic pleasure jet will peer out of an actual glass windshield, Star Trek fantasies not withstanding (yes, the Enterprise bridge had a viewscreen but there were windows all over that 24th century ship. Imagine Ten Forward with just big-screen TV’s.)

Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 (Star Trek 365)

I predict the windowless plane will never get built, and if somehow it does appear, it’ll be a flop, until windows are added. Even the wealthiest, most sophisticated business travelers remember when they were kids, taking their first flight, staring out that window in total wonder, looking for landmarks, seeing approaching mountains, gazing at cities and farms below, marveling at cars, homes and streets that looked so tiny, people who looked even tinier! It was magical. And you don’t get that on TV.

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Jimmy, 6B And Me

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This week Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show, returning it to New York City after 42 years in Burbank.

I wish him well, and I’m looking forward to seeing the re-birth of the show’s new/old home: NBC’s Studio 6B inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jack Paar did the show from there, as did Johnny Carson before heading west.

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I have a few personal memories of 6B, because I worked there too.

After Carson left, WNBC-TV used the studio for its local news, first called “NewsCenter4″ and later “News 4 New York.” It was also the home of “Live At Five,” once dubbed “The Hottest Show on TV” by New York Magazine. The sets had a beautiful, sleek, classy look which I think outshone all  competitors.

I got there in 1985, working as a newswriter and producer. But years earlier I would find ways to get into the building and wander around, looking for famous people and watching all the cool “behind the scenes” stuff. More than once I sneaked into 6B where a friendly cameraman named Zack (way before the age of robotic cameras) taught me how to operate the equipment. I zoomed. I panned. I focused. I was in heaven. So it was an extra thrill to actually get a job there, and spend 7 years walking in and out of 6B because I belonged there!

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Mostly I stayed in the newsroom, one flight above the studio, but from time to time, like on Election Night, we writers would be moved right into 6B and work from there, to add to the “look” and “immediacy” of the show. Very cool.

Everybody knew the rich entertainment history of 6B, but even as a news set, the place had its moments, partly because of our next door neighbor. David Letterman was across the hall in 6A, doing Late Night. The proximity of the two facilities proved an irresistible lure for both staffs, and they took full advantage, like when Letterman “interrupted” Live At Five:”

I put “interrupted” in quote marks because TV shows are about as “spontaneous” as Space Shuttle missions. Letterman’s visit to Live At Five was carefully planned down to the tiniest detail, including split-second coordination to make sure both shows were in a commercial break at the same time. I was Live At Five’s associate producer that day. Alan Beck was producing, and I’m pretty sure his beard sprouted a few more gray hairs that evening.

I had exciting times in and around 6B. I was posted in that hallway the night Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. All these big-name politicians and celebrities were coming in to be live guests. My job was to record quickie interviews with them for the next morning’s show. I remember Rush Limbaugh being very friendly off-camera, then going on and on about “Clinton the LIBERAL!!” once we started rolling. In that same hallway a few years earlier I had to ask Mike Wallace about his colleague Charles Collingwood, who had just died. Wallace was there for a Letterman taping. We caught him on the way out. He graciously gave us a beautiful soundbite, then gave it to us a second time, because our camera had malfunctioned.

But my favorite 6A/6B moment happened completely unexpectedly. Perhaps you remember this stunt on Letterman:

OK, I’m in that hallway again, getting ready to go home, when a positively panic-stricken young woman holding two Dalmatians sees me, thrusts the leashes in my hand and says, “Here!!” while she runs up a nearby staircase to chase down a third dog that’s gotten loose. Suddenly I’m standing there with the two dogs… waiting… waiting…. finally figuring out why the Dalmatians are there in the first place. And I shudder. When the woman returns with the third dog I nervously point to the Letterman studio and ask, “You don’t really have 101 Dalmatians in there, do you?” “No,” she replies, totally serious. “Only 50!”

So, good luck, Mr. Fallon. I hope you do great, and I know you’ll take good care of one of my all time favorite places.

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Beatles: The Things You Remember

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By now, there’s little left to say about the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. 50 years ago. We’ve heard all of it:

It was a phenomenon!

It was historic!

It changed music forever!

It changed America forever!

Okay already.

Since this is NEWSWRITING.COM I should probably discuss how the media handled this life-changing, country-altering historic phenomenon 50 years ago. Nah. You can look up most of the good stuff. Let me just share a few snapshots.

In 1964 I was an 8-year-old sheltered, clueless kid in New York City, watching too much TV and carrying my transistor radio everywhere. Of course I watched those Sullivan appearances (3 of them, on consecutive Sundays. What act today would get that kind of play?) You couldn’t hear the band. All those screaming girls. Paul would go, “Hooooooooo!” and the kids would explode. At the time I was too naive to understand what that was about, but this piece in the LA Times is a great reminder.

When you could hear the music it sounded, well, a little off. It didn’t match the records, which we’d all been playing incessantly. It was possibly my first insight into the significant differences between a live performance and a polished studio recording (and George Martin knew how to polish!) I have always taken note of those differences ever since, especially when a performer appears to be singing live but is really just lip-syncing to a recording. I’ve never liked it. To me, it’s just as bad as someone wearing a bad hairpiece. Or a good one for that matter. Who do you think you’re fooling?

One more Sullivan snapshot. I loved the camera work and set design. That “ultra-modern” look with the band in the center. Ringo up on a platform. (I distinctly remember him jumping off it at the end.) And those close-up shots of each Beatle with his name and, in John’s case, a little information:

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As gaga as we all were, watching the Beatles on television, it was radio that truly drove the frenzy, especially in New York. Long before the band arrived at JFK, WABC had dubbed itself, “W-A-BEATLE-C” and pretty much turned its entire air product into nonstop Beatles promotion. They weren’t alone. Arch rival WMCA was right there with them, and WINS disc jockey Murray the K  became known as the “fifth” Beatle, when he managed to get into the Plaza Hotel and interview the Fab Four on his radio show.

But he couldn’t top what the “A-BEATLE-C” jocks pulled off.

“Cousin” Bruce Morrow (catch him on SiriusXM. He’s still spinning oldies!) and Scot Muni got into a room above the Beatles’ digs in the Delmonico Hotel, on the band’s second visit. Not only did they land exclusive interviews, they did something we’ll probably never see in quite the same way again. Thousands of amped-up kids were outside on the street, listening to WABC on those transistor radios. So the jocks, broadcasting live, started talking to the crowd! And getting a response! Then they kicked it up a notch, asking 10,000 kids to sing the WABC jingles! And they did! They were flash-mobbing 50 years ago! Listen to the DJ’s remembering what happened:

 

As for that Grammy salute on CBS, some of it was terrific, the stuff with Paul and Ringo at the end, unforgettable. But some of the performances were just lukewarm. And we could do without all those actors reading poorly-written introductions. A musical tribute should be all music, like Motown 25 way back in 1983, or the Madison Square Garden tribute to Bob Dylan a decade later. Sunday’s show looked and felt like Grammys Lite, which is not surprising since it was produced and recorded by the same folks, during the same weekend as the Grammy Awards themselves. In other words, it took place in Los Angeles in January, NOT on February 9th in New York City at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where it should have been, technical and logistical limitations be damned.

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

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Patty Hearst

Hard to believe this happened 40 years ago.

The kidnapping, the parents’ frantic and expensive efforts to placate Patty’s Symbionese Liberation Army abductors (a multimillion dollar food distribution program called “People In Need”) followed by Hearst’s announcement that she was joining her kidnappers’ cause, the subsequent robberies, those photos of a gun-toting “Tania” and finally her arrest, her trial, conviction, jail sentence commuted by President Carter…. all of it mesmerized the media and dominated TV news night after night.

I came across an interesting summary of the story by George Vreeland Hill. It’s essentially a collection of still photographs and newspaper covers…. narrated, in a way, by Patty Hearst herself, in a recording sent to the media about a week after her abduction. She describes the conditions of her captivity.

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Take Good Care Of My Bobby

This story is either very sad, or very sweet. Maybe both.

On February 3rd, 1959 a plane crash killed three young stars from the early days of Rock ‘n Roll: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. They were the headliners of a tour called the Winter Dance Party. The plane went down on its way to Moorhead, Minnesota for the troupe’s next gig. The tragedy became known as “The Day The Music Died.”

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The February 3 accident, which ended three bright careers, also indirectly launched one. To keep the show going, promoters rushed a 15-year-old singer named Robert Velline to Moorhead to fill in. That was how Velline, later known to all of us as Bobby Vee, got his start. He went on to record 38 Billboard hits, including this one that reached Number One:

55 years later Vee’s career comes full circle this week with the Feb. 3 release of his latest album, The Adobe Sessions. Why “full circle?” Because this could very likely be Vee’s final recording. In 2011 Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He doesn’t tour anymore. Some of his faculties have begun their inevitable decline. But for now, his voice and guitar skills appear to be pretty much intact, along with his desire to share them:

No, he’s not the Bobby Vee of old, and that’s probably uncomfortable for some folks. It was for me. There has always been a part of me… an ugly part… that would silently scream, “Geez, why don’t those old-timers get off the stage? Don’t they realize they’re not kids anymore? Don’t they know how weird this makes us feel?” It is, perhaps, similar to the impatience I’d sometimes feel if I was stuck behind an elderly person, slowly, gingerly trying to make his way down a staircase, holding up everyone else. Then one day, it hit me in the head: Imagine what it must be like to be that guy. My thinking changed.

It can be sobering, awkward, even a little scary to watch performers we want to remember as young and vibrant, soldier on in the face of age and serious illness, ripping us out of our nostalgic reverie, forcing us to contemplate their uncertain future… and ours.

But it can also be inspiring.

No one would fault a person with Alzheimer’s or another debilitating illness for choosing  to step back, dial down, and live quietly and privately.

But think of the sheer will and guts it must take to realize what’s happening to you, acknowledge it in public, and keep going, whatever level of ability you may possess at the moment.

In 2012 Glen Campbell, also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, embarked on a “farewell tour,” accompanied by his daughter Ashley. She was really there to keep an eye on him, help him stay on track. But guess what… the Guitar Man kept Ashley on her toes! Here they are at the Hollywood Bowl:

Unfortunately, the disease progressed, and the tour had to be cut short. But Campbell wasn’t done. He released one more album, See You There: 

In the last months of his life, Johnny Cash was so ravaged by diabetes and the nerve damage it caused, his appearance was, well, shocking. Did he hide? He shot a video of Hurt, the Nine Inch Nails hit he’d covered a few years earlier. It gives you chills.

Two entirely different artists, setting very different tones, with one thing in common: The courage to get out there and do it.

We should applaud people like that. We should be grateful for the opportunity to continue enjoying their work and learning new things about them. Even the painful things.

And, in those happy instances where a performer is blessed with longevity AND full alertness AND full abilities, we should run out and buy tickets. Don’t miss a chance to see Tony Bennett. He’s 87 and amazing. Next month Angela Lansbury returns to the London stage in Blithe Spirit. She’s 88. And check out this recording of Country legend Hank Locklin, who lived to the ripe old age of 91, and did this gig when he was 88! Enjoy!

 

And keep a good thought for Bobby Vee.

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