Monday, July 31, 2006

Flashback: The Experiment with Live TV is a Disaster but I Couldn’t Stop My Hysterical Laughter Because the “Cerebral Palsy” Issue Arose

[More remembrances from50 years past for my kids and grandchildren].

The plan was to air a 1958-style (black and white: color was still being worked on at RCA and in other labs) live TV (video tape not having been invented yet) interview with our Republican nominee for 1st district Congress, Al Quie, interviewed by his campaign manager (and former radio-TV celebrity) Ed Viehman. Accordingly the idea was for Quie, who had never been on live TV before, to rehearse with Viehman for five hours prior to our preempting the Huntley-Brinkley NBC News on Rochester’s KROC-TV. Quie reluctantly agreed but wanted to keep one campaign date in the morning, in the tiny town of Nerstrand, near his farm home, because the coffee had been planned by his minister’s wife. We said o.k. but he’d have to be back by noon. It seemed o.k. since Nerstrand was about only fifty miles away.

But the night before, an avalanche of snow started falling in accordance with Minnesota winters—and fell so heavily throughout the morning that I called Quie Rochester very early in the AM to tell him he’d better scrub the coffee and start heading our way for the rehearsal because the snow drifts were outracing the snowplows. Too late: I missed him: he had left super-early just to traverse the fifteen miles of so to Nerstrand. Viehman and I fretted in the studio throughout the morning, looking over the shoulders of the news tickers received by the scant news staff (many had not been able to show up for work) as the AP and the local Rochester weatherman announced that the snowfall was the heaviest in x-number years.

Then we got frantic when the news announced that the State Highway patrol wanted all non-essential traffic off the highways. The KROC weatherman said, “Tell you, boys. Quie can’t come. You’d better decide whether or not to cancel the show. I would, if I were you.” But the station manager told us, we paid for it and the show would (a) go on without Quie or (b) we’d get Huntley-Brinkley although we paid for the preemption, and to negate that we’d have to talk to their lawyer. The lawyer was unavailable, stuck in the snow in the middle of Rochester.

We panicked when the newsmen said at noon that a couple of Greyhound buses had run off the slippery roads but no one was seriously hurt. We tried to call Quie (that was long, long before cell phones). The minister’s wife said the coffee was held and that Quie and his driver Lindy Lindroos had begun the heroic, foolhardy fifty mile trip to Rochester against the protestations of the coffee crowd. As they started off from the house where the coffee was held, they waved goodbye and the crowd shouted “re-think it, Al! You can’t make it!”

The noontime TV news said that all traffic had mandatorily been halted in southern Minnesota. No word. Quie’s wife, at home at their farm, hadn’t seen or heard from him since early morning when he left with Lindroos, attired in arctic wear complete with hood, for the campaign meeting. She said she knew her man and that she was sure (a) he would try to make Rochester and (b) that he would make it. By 2 p.m. state highway helicopters were reported scanning the roads to rescue stranded drivers. We anxiously looked at the film to see he was one of them. No luck. By 3 p.m. Viehman was determined to report him missing to the State Highway Patrol but I desisted. Knowing Quie better than Viehman, I thought he’d make it—but too late for the telecast. By 4 p.m. we made a decision not to cancel the preemption although the station manager wanted us to and said he would promise to give us back our money: he said Rochester would be number one on Huntley-Brinkley and he sorely regretted giving us the preemption.

At 5 p.m. Viehman went into makeup himself, deciding to do what he was fully competent of doing: running the show himself which would have a mandatory audience throughout the snowbound 1st district. As a top performer (with a hidden, as yet un-confessed aspiration to run for office later) he was thrilled at the opportunity: not thrilled that Quie couldn’t be with him because his super-boss, mega-multimillionaire Dan Gainey was the type to hold his top sales employee responsible if Quie didn’t get elected, but thrilled that he, Viehman, would be able to make the case for Quie to the district with news of the telecast done heroically in a snowstorm communicated to the entire state. I personally thought Viehman alone on TV was a good idea: possibly better than with Quie. It was like having, putting it in reasonably modern terms, having Rush Limbaugh sell your candidate’s wares without the candidate: certainly the second-best option to the candidate…but considering the candidate had never been on TV before and by now had no chance to rehearse on a teleprompter, definitely the best option.

Viehman was seated at the desk on a lighted stage minutes before the countdown reading the script to himself, inwardly exultant that he would have the half-hour to himself, professionally making all the mental notes how to adapt the teleprompter script done in Q and A fashion to his own patter, honed after twenty years of radio and TV. The television studio crew, thrilled to see a real professional at work, snapped to, straining to see how he would take the script written for two and improvise. The regular announcers watched him and worked with him at the editing in order to get tips. It was to be the stunning Ed Viehman show, live and brilliantly orchestrated by Minnesota’s best announcer and showman. But alas. Reputations were shattered that night.

One and one half minutes before airtime, the studio rear door opened emitting a blast of snow so strong that two men raced over to force the door closed—but not before two tottering abominable snowmen stumbled in, ice and slush from head to toe. We literally couldn’t identify them at first. Initially, I thought the storm had blown open the door and the two mounds of snow that tumbled in had piled up next to the door. No, as it quickly developed as the studio janitors with brooms beat the snow away, the two mounds were Quie and Lindroos.

Both men slowly appeared to be recognizable as thick sheets of ice were pulled from their noses and mouths. They looked like Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd as pictured in our high school geography books after he waved stiffly to a camera having reached the South Pole. Their car had twice run off the road and both men like Hercules rocked it to and fro to push it back to the highway. Viehman, all set to go on, groaned. Quie was clearly becoming recognizable as studio men unwrapped unwrapped him as one would pull off the layers from a frozen-stiff onion…while Lindroos stumbled into an anteroom where the station manager found him some whiskey. He wasn’t as strong as Quie who, it seemed, with help from passing farmers twice pulled the car back on the highway. Lindroos hobbled to a couch in the rear of the studio and immediately fell asleep.

Removed of his overcoat, Quie, crimson-faced, blowing on his clenched fists to unlimber his fingers from stiffness, bounded, all six feet two of him with melting ice running down his face from his frozen crew-cut, to the table across from Viehman as the floor manager intoned, “We going live, gentlemen. Five-four-three-two…” For once in his professional life, Viehman was petrified since he was on a TV set with a wild, un-caged animal who had not the faintest understanding of the script and had utterly no stage presence or experience in improvisation. Viehman grinned in bogus joviality, signaled Quie to look at the teleprompter, told him to wait for the studio announcement, then watch the teleprompter which would move upward like a piano roller. Both waited.

The booth announcer said, “The regular program, Huntley-Brinkley and the NBC News has been preempted by the Quie for Congress Committee. Here is the Quie for Congress Campaign Chairman, Ed Viehman!” Then the floor director threw the signal that they were on live.

Before Viehman could begin, Quie, having been blinded by the snow glare all day was looking at the rising piano-roll-like script in huge letters for the very first time with narrowed, uncomprehending eyes shouted “Good evening!” in a voice that had been attuned to shouting to helpers over the storm. The sound man sprang up holding his ears as the booming voice exploded in his earphones. “Tonight…” Quie said, his head jerking down to upward as he inexpertly read the rising words on the piano roll of the teleprompter, “tonight you are to meet Al Quie!” Realizing he had just read Viehman’s introductory line, sank in his chair, momentarily defeated.

“Yes,” said Viehman recovering smoothly but interiorly ready to kill our candidate. “Tonight we are to meet you, Al Quie the Republican nominee for Congress in the 1st district” and he rolled on dispassionately while Quie’s eyes were rooted to the rising piano roll, moving his lips silently as he silently read to himself Viehman’s lines. So there were two talking heads, one actually pronouncing the words and the other moving his lips silently in perfect time, jerking his head from down to up as he read, in order to catch the words quickly as they rose on the piano roller of the telepromper, occasionally wiping his nose which had started to run in sudden reaction to the warmth after having endured hours of cold, squinting at the teleprompter as his head jerked up and down spasmodically. Viehman initially hadn’t noticed the compulsive head-jerking, but quickly did. Watching it, I thought it could be an ideal screen-test for an uproarious comedy on how a television show could be destroyed…ideal for Abbott and Costello who were then thriving.

“Tell you what…” Viehman said, poking Quie whose eyes were mesmerized by the piano-roller script, “let’s just talk, okay, Al?” and with the other hand tried to signal the teleprompter operator to cease—but the operator didn’t understand and kept the piano roll moving upward. The action mesmerized Quie, still reading to himself and not evidently hearing Viehman.

By this time they were taking me out in the rear of the studio as I was collapsing with mixed hysterics and near-sobs. Then Viehman almost grabbed his chin, turning Quie’s face to his and roared:


At the end of the telecast, the crew didn’t know what to do so it watched in a silent stupor. Viehman’s reputation as the best, most unruffled, announcer in Twin Cities history evaporated among the crew which shuffled embarrassedly away. There had never, ever been a television show like it—in Rochester or anywhere else since the medium had been invented. After it concluded, Viehman and Quie went into a private conference. As they conferred, the phone calls started coming in. One old lady said, “What is wrong with that young man who is running for Congress? Has he had a stroke?” After answering a few, I decided to go back to the hotel and caught a ride with a snow-plow operator in the cab of his heavy machine as he shoved the mounds of snow aside.

“So how did the Quie show go?” the driver shouted over the noise. “Sorry I couldn’t watch it!”

That’s okay, I said, thinking of the reaction of the national press, holed in at the Kahler which was watching the show since there was nothing else to do. I prayed they wouldn’t be in the bar. And they weren’t.

It turned out the bar was all but empty, the media having gathered for sandwiches, drinks and TV viewing in a hotel suite courtesy of the Rochester Post-Bulletin. A few salesmen were in the bar and also, sitting alone, Congressman Eugene McCarthy, dark-haired, age 42, who was nursing a nightcap after addressing a Foley rally at the hotel. I joined him and became wary because his greeting to me was so effusive.

“I think,” he said to the bartender in a voice distinct enough for me and others to overhear, “the Republicans ought to be saluted for running a victim of cerebral palsy for Congress at this serious time in our nation’s history and for having the originality of putting him on live television, don’t you?”

The bartender, very impressed to be asked a question by a member of Congress agreed but was startled. His eyes widened. “Huh? Cerebral palsy? Quie? I didn’t know that Quie had cerebral palsy!”

“The sight of Quie,” drolled McCarthy with the seriousness of a theologian, “his head jerking up and down”—and here he imitated it perfectly—“gave us a newfound admiration for the Republicans’ decision to nominate him despite this lamentable condition.”

“Gee,” said the bartender. “Cerebral palsy, huh?”

His eyes twinkling at me, the Congressman arose, paid for his drink and mine and prepared to leave saying, “I imagine you’ll want to be alone anyhow.” After I straightened out the bartender that this was McCarthy’s weird brand of humor, I wasn’t alone very long. Viehman came in, ordered more, much more for us, and we sat together. When the bartender came back with our fresh drinks, he said, now excited to be serving ex-radio star Ed Viehman: “So Quie doesn’t have cerebral palsy?” Viehman eyed him with hostility. I collapsed in hysterics one more time. Viehman quickly pieced the scenario together, having just seen McCarthy exit, figuring that calumny was McCarthy’s.

“We just did a screen test to give him a part in a new film that’s coming out—a sequel--called `Around the Block in 80 Days with the Cerebral Palsy Marching Band.” “Around the World in 80 Days” had been an award winner in 1956.

The bartender frowned and said, “You know, I don’t understand anything you guys have been saying tonight. McCarthy comes in here, has a drink and tells me Quie has cerebral palsy. One of you said it’s not true and when the next guy comes in says Quie’s done a promo for a new movie. I figure all of you have been pulling my leg. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter to me `cause I’m voting for Foley. With that said, gentlemen, the house is now buying until we close at 1 a.m.”

As we drank, I speculated that possibly very few watched the show what with the need to shovel their walks and all. Viehman would not be assuaged. “My boss, Dan Gainey watched,” he said mournfully. “I told him to.” He was thinking about the industrialist’s irascible temper which made for a long, long evening.

And the election would be held in just 10 days.

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