Thursday, February 24, 2011

An anchorman, a flagpole and TV memories

One of my favorite stories from Larry Roberts a guy who worked in Columbus for a number of years as a television news anchorman at channel 4 and who is himself a broadcasting historian concerns his father and the early days of television.
Larry's dad owned one of the first television stores in Chillicothe back in 1949 when the medium was still new and he would leave one turned on in the window after hours for passer-bys to see, even rigging an outside speaker so viewers could hear what they were watching. Some would bring lawn chairs and sit on the sidewalk to marvel at it.
It’s funny how when we look back on things like this we can sometimes relate and say to ourselves "I did that too." What Mr. Roberts was doing in Ross County was being done on East Whittier Street here on the south side of Columbus at a small electronics store called Buckeye Radio Lab when I was a kid in the early 1960s.
Although by 1961 and ‘62 most people had television sets in their homes few in this area had color sets. In fact, I did not know anyone who owned one and we didn’t get our first color TV until 1964. Color television was something just a little short of amazing in those days and the programs broadcasted in "Living Color" were few and far between.
It was so new that stations would announce at the beginning of programs the fact that they were in color much like today when they make a big deal if it is in High Definition.
HDTV is nothing compared to the phenomenon that color television was when compared to black and white. Going from black & white to color vs. going from color to better color doesn’t even come close.
So to experience the thrill of it some of us would trickle over to Buckeye Radio Lab and stand on the sidewalk, sometimes in the cold and watch a few minutes of programs that we would not otherwise bother with but to see what they looked like in color.
One morning my fascination and appreciation of the sets left on in the window there got me in trouble at school. I was in the fifth grade at Siebert Elementary School and I was a patrol boy assigned to that corner. My responsibility was to hold other kids back from crossing until the street was clear of traffic and then hold out my flag to signal safe passage.
I had leaned my flagpole against the side of the building and walked over to see something on television and when I turned around a woman, probably someone’s mother was using my flag to help kids cross the street. The incident was reported to the school and as a reprimand I was reassigned to a less busy corner.
Nevertheless, this story has a successful conclusion for me.
After performing so well on a corner that might have seen just two or three cars during my shift I was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. That equated to doing nothing but walking the district to check up on, and tell on the other patrol boys if they were caught goofing off or misbehaving. Within a month of that promotion I was elevated to the rank of lieutenant when ours withdrew from school and moved away.
To be in the right place at the right time! Like standing on the corner of East Whittier and Bruck Street in 1962 watching the wonders of color television. Or much later in life to meet the county sheriff at a time he was looking for a mouth-piece.
Who we watched...
Those of us who grew up on such innovative television programming such as Casper the Camel might remember the piano player for that show, Bill Palmer. Bill also had his own early morning talk show on channel 6 at 8:00 that featured interviews with the popular celebrities of the day including the best of them all Johnny Carson, fitness guru Jack LaLanne and Virginia Graham among them.
I also remember the Virginia Graham talk program that like Spook Beckman’s "Coffee Club" was one of the most popular of them all among the day time offerings.
I have vivid memories of one particular show she did when Columbus Mayor Maynard Sensenbrenner was her only guest. The Mayor might best be remembered by his signature slogan, "Columbus is the most dynamic city in America."
Our mayor made many television appearances not only on the local channels but on a few nationally broadcasted programs. I met Bill Palmer’s daughter through the internet and I learned that he, like so many others in early live television got his start in radio. He began his radio career in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
My own heritage, the Minerd family migrated this way from there. A web site authored and managed by a distant cousin, Mark Miner called details some amazing historical facts about that side of my earliest roots including a strange family bond with the infamous General George Armstrong Custer.
Bill Palmer would have also known one of my favorite early TV personalities, Chuck Nuzum, a guy I had met when I began my radio career at WTVN. In fact I am sure he knew all the local TV people… those guys were a close fraternity.
His daughter Pam told me that following his television days he returned to radio at WHOK in Lancaster, Ohio another station that has sent many well-known announcers in and out of television here in Columbus.
Not surprising to me that these guys who made names for themselves on the video box made their moves back into radio later in their careers. I remember Spook Beckman saying often that after his long run on local TV that it was good to return to what he called, “the theatre of the mind," when he returned to radio. It was in radio he said that one could really be themselves, be more creative and leave more to the audience’s imagination.
Pam talked about her own childhood with a famous Dad and of what it was like when she was out in the public with him and how people would approach him for an autograph and what it was like to meet other great "stars" of the era such as Gene Fullen. I had totally forgotten Gene's days of playing Santa Claus for the kids at Christmas (she reminded me of that) but not of his days of hosting “Bowling for Dollars."
For anyone who remembers him, who else but Gene could have hosted that kind of show except maybe his TV partner Sally Flowers? Who in today’s TV world could make something like a local bowling show be as popular as it was then? As boring as something like that now sounds I think I would prefer reruns of it over just about everything on day time television now.
So who is Larry Roberts?
Ex WBEX radio man Larry Roberts whose father was introducing Chillicothe to televison back in the 1940s was that city's version of our Doctor Bop, (who I will also discuss in great detail later) the famous DJ who launched a radio revolution in Columbus back in the 1950s.
Like Doc, Larry was introducing Chillicothe to rock & roll back then. He played the first rock & roll record on the radio down there about the same time it was being introduced in Columbus.
Had I known about his past when I used to watch him anchor the news here on channel 4 I would have paid closer attention to his news-casts. This guy's resume makes my own look empty.
Reading his abbreviated bio I have learned that he hung out with some of the people I met along my own journey, like Roy Orbison, Gary Lewis and the Playboy's, the Turtles, Rick Derringer and others, but he met these guys when they were in their prime. I caught up with a few of them during their nostalgic tours.
Then of course there was The Beatles.
Larry interviewed them three times and was there for the Toronto interview with Lennon over the Jesus controversy when John commented that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
I was only seven years old in the late 1950s when Larry was doing his thing but I am hoping some of his radio past is locked somewhere in my sub-conscience. I’m sure I heard him on those trips to Ross County that I mentioned earlier. I hope to someday unlock that thing and review what might be stored in it. Then I’ll really get serious with my book writing adventures.
When I talk to Larry now he mentions people like Maurice Jackson, the long-ago morning voice at WTVN, Johnny Dollar who I knew as Jim Pidcock the sales manager when I worked there in the early and mid 1970s. Roberts knew them all including my old friend Dave Logan, another WBEX alumnus.
It is strange to think of the many connections I have to former WBEX personalities who have made their way up north. Strange for example to think of the smooth talking, laid back Logan playing rock music down there years before I knew him when he was playing Striesand songs at WTVN..
Larry has been a good source of information for this book, sharing personal stories of those he knew, including the late Jim Runyon from WTVN, Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Jonathan Winters who both worked at WBNS.
Nick Clooney from WLWC who brought his young son George to work with him when he was just a toddler. George Clooney may have looked up at Larry one day and wondered to himself…“Gee, maybe when I grow up I can be like him…”
Spook Beckman, one of the most remembered personalities in Columbus broadcast history was another of Larry’s friends, (mine too) and if Spook were alive I would love to be in the same room with the two of them and listen to them exchange stories.
I would love to ask him about the circumstances when he and Roberts met each other for the first time. When Larry walked up to where Spook was sitting at a table having dinner and as he leaned over to shake his hand he dumped his drink into Spooks lap.
I would rather have seen that up close and heard the Spook’s reaction!

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