Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Personal Aside: Thoughts While Shaving…1. Spielman and Higgins…2. No TV Personalities to Match Yesteryear’s: Why Not?


1. Spielman & Higgins.

The Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman and cartoonist Jack Higgins are worth the whole paper. I know I’ve criticized the tabloid…justifiably, I feel…for trashiness but its indomitable city hall reporter and the brilliant artist with the acid pen make it all worthwhile. Her story last Tuesday is a good case in point. “Daley’s tale hard to take,” is the headline with the subhead “Mayor says he was uninformed, ignored on the Vanecko deal—that seems unlikely.” Higgins’ drawing of Daley as a giant sow being suckled by piglets labeled Sewer Cleaner Contract…Pension Investment Deals…City Jobs…Hired Trucks…is priceless. I’ve been around journalism since the hey-day of the great writers and cartoonists and while I can lament the cultural decline of the tabloid, I must say that Spielman and Higgins reach the topmost of their professions.

I put Spielman as among the very best of city hall reporters. Higgins rates with the greatest cartoonists who ever drew in this city… John T. McCutcheon, Cary Orr and Joe Parrish of the “Tribune”—Vaughn Shoemaker, creator of John Q. Public and Cecil Jensen, both of the “Daily News” (Jensen mocking the paper’s adversary Robert R. McCormick by creating a figure with a tin World War I helmet called “Col. McCosmic.” If you gathered Spielman, Higgins and John Kass in one room you would have the crème de la crème of all-time journalism—a fitting reminder that while so often we oldsters complain about the new times, these new times have bought up these outstandingly courageous defenders of the public good—which is really what journalism is all about.

2. Yesteryear’s TV Commentators.

What is there about today’s TV in contrast to yesteryear’s that makes it impossible to project any commentary at all on the local news? In the 1950s Channel 5 NBC projected 15 minutes of news with Clifton Utley that squeezed in an amazing amount of information plus commentary. Utley was a real phenomenon. My father who was a dynamic salesman for the old North German Lloyd, a German steamship company which featured what were the fastest vessels afloat, the sister ships “Bremen” and “Europa,” booked Utley and his wife Frayn in the `30s when they made their honeymoon voyage to Europe. Utley was truly a marvel as was his wife. Toward the end of his life when he suffered a stroke, she filled in for him with news and crisp, authoritative comment. She died just a few years ago…in 2001…at age 98.

In one 15 minute segment on Channel 5, Utley did the local news and national-international, finishing up with a concise, brilliant one- or two-minute segment of commentary that rated with anything you could read from the typewriters of Walter Lippmann or Dorothy Thompson, two of the sagest foreign policy experts in the country.

Not only that, after his show, NBC had sports with Tom Duggan. If you never heard of Tom Duggan you have really missed something. He was a rogue, a scamp, a boulevardier, a youthful playboy who would get into scrapes in the late-late nights and still be bright and feisty for evening sports. I never followed sports all that thoroughly but I did with Duggan who ridiculed what was then big-time Outfit connections with boxing. Finally there was five minutes or so with Dorsey Connors, then a willowy sophisticate who would instruct you on household projects, devising 110 ways to use coat-hangars. She was a limp-eyed woman-of-the-world whom you thought was reared in the poshest suburb…probably Lake Forest…but who in reality was the daughter of State Sen. Tom (Botchy) Connors who in addition to his legislative interests was deigned the rackets master of the north side. In the early morning NBC fitted in Len O’Connor commentary on the first “Today” shows as well as using him for different topics in the evening. He would always conclude his 2-minute pieces of sublime irony with “,…and I am Len O’Connor.”

I don’t know how many people remember this now but I was watching one night at 10 p.m. after I returned from evening grad school at DePaul and Len O’Connor came on to present a scathing review of something that happened in City Hall…when he interrupted it with the most vivid cursing I have ever seen that went on and on “@#$%%^&*(#!” and the program faded into black. The announcer came on red-faced (or I imagine he was red-faced since video was black-and-white). He apologized and said that what we saw was something new—video tape. O’Connor had started the commentary on video tape and goofed up the pronunciation of a word…so rather than stop talking he spat out the most colorful litany of semi-porno obscenities anyone ever heard. Then he did an alternate tape. Of course…and you know what happened…the studio didn’t destroy the first tape and obligingly put it on at 10:22 p.m. Well, I’ll tell you it really woke everyone up.

The weather was projected on Channel 5 by a guy named Clint Yule whose wife was often on hand to talk from her simulated kitchen about Bisquick. When Yule finished with his weather wrap-up he would stroll over to the kitchen set and ask his wife (I can’t remember her name now) what she was doing. One night when he finished his weather…painting the oncoming of snow with white sludge which he applied to a glass map of the U. S., he sauntered over to the kitchen set where his wife was busily stirring up a batch of biscuits. On cue he asked her what she was doing. She said airily, “Oh, I’m making a batch of bitches…bitches, er biscuits!” This was on live and both of them doubled up with laughter so the announcer had to say that Clint and his wife will be back tomorrow night but can’t continue now (and while he was saying this you could hear both of them screaming hysterically in the background).

Clint and his wife divorced (not because of this episode, I hope) and in 1964 when the state House had to run candidates at large across the state, both parties picked well known names: the Dems choosing a young Adlai Stevenson III, the Republicans Earl Eisenhower the ne’er do well brother of Dwight, the Republicans also picking Mrs. Hope McCormick the society maven who had married the heir of the McCormick Reaper fortune, the Democrats young Rich Daley and a red-haired kid named Mike Madigan.

Leading the pack on the Republican side on that huge orange ballot with 140 or so names forty-five years ago was Republican Clint Youle who stayed in the legislature quite some time until he took a top-rated broker’s job on LaSalle street.

Does it take an octogenarian to suggest that returning colorful, vivid, irreverent protagonists to the evening news might just work out at this time when broadcast news is in the doldrums? If so, regard this as a major suggestion.

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