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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Boys From Brickell

Nowhere was the talent of our employees more apparent than in our often vulgar, yet often poignant Christmas skit reels, which the public at large never had the privilege of seeing. If it was WCIX Channel 6's most creative product, it was also, for obvious reasons, its best-kept secret.

I was blown away by the first skit reel I saw, at our 1980 Christmas party. Whoomp, there it was: our serious and self-absorbed bosses making fun of themselves, and allowing us to make fun of THEM. Behind-the-scenes folks stepping in front of the camera, mixing comedy, music, and sardonic satire. And people who may have been underestimated, throughout the course of the year, stretching out and showing just what they’re capable of doing, given half a chance.

Caution: baseball metaphor ahead!

Let’s say you’re a catcher, and you’re trying to get your coach to give you a chance to get on the mound and pitch. But several others want to pitch as well, and nobody else wants to wear a mask and squat for nine innings. So no matter how hard you try, and no matter how well you play, your team needs you to don the “tools of ignorance”, and get out behind the plate. It’s not just your job, it’s your identity. It’s what you do, and because you’re a team player, you do it, even though you know you have a killer fastball and can do a lot, lot more to help your team win.

I was that catcher, but in my case, I was a potential producer stuck behind Chyron IV. Since I could type (call the pitches) and spell (block the plate), there were those who would have loved for me to be a lifer on that super-generating contraption. After two-and-a-half years of electronic graphics, I finally had a chance to produce something: two segments for the 1982 Christmas skit reel. It was also a chance for my videotape editor, Gary Slawitschka, to show that he had skills that had not yet been displayed. People were surprised. By the following Christmas, I was a news producer. A good thing, because the chest protector and shin guards were getting awfully heavy!

The video that follows is “The Boys From Brickell”. Some of the lines may seem outdated now, and some of the inside jokes probably won’t resonate with many. (“Tanger’d Up In Blue”, for example, spoofed General Cinema Vice President Al Tanger. Trust me, it was funny at the time.) Still, I hope you get a kick out of seeing this. I even had a chance to sing one of the songs (“Tainted Lunch”). You’ll hear Jim Hayek and Mike Medrano among the vocalists, along with the inimitable Keith Moore performing “The Theme From Taft”. Makes me want to send $11.11 to 1111 Brickell Avenue. Void where prohibited!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Really "Big" Show

It was almost like seeing Santa Claus. To see Big Wilson, all 320 pounds of him, laughing merrily in his red jacket could make anyone a believer. The WIOD disc jockey and WCIX late-night movie host did his one-man show from behind his keyboard, night after night, from our humble Channel 6 studio. It was camp. It was corny. It was addictive.

I was one of two people whose first day at WCIX was March 24, 1980. The other was Carlos Lima, who became Big’s camera operator. My shift lasted until 2AM, so if I wrapped up my work a little early, I would sometimes go into that 4th floor studio where Big and Carlos did their thing night after night. On nights when Big was showing “Ride The Wild Surf” or one of our many rock ‘n roll themed films, I would sometimes help him come up with trivia questions. But mostly, I just enjoyed sitting and talking to the veteran broadcaster, whose radio career had brought him from upstate New York, to Philadelphia, Cleveland, to New York City, and finally to Miami. (Click here to listen to a short excerpt of the Big Wilson Show on WNBC in New York, from March 1974.)

Big moved on to WIOD in Miami, and a few years later was hired to host Night Owl Movies on WCIX. The tinkling piano, the stuffed owls, and the hokey commercials for Franco’s Pizza, The Pink Pussycat, and Malibu Grand Prix all became synonymous with Channel 6 overnights. It was only natural that those of us who produced segments for the annual Christmas skit reels would enlist the help of this gentle giant. Big taped a segment for my 1983 K-Tel album spoof, The Brickell Hillbillies. He and his Night Owl Movies cohorts, Sonny Fox and Chuck Zink, lampooned themselves in several other memorable Christmas reel skits, including “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which was produced by Robin Plitt in 1983.

(For additional Christmas reel spoofs featuring Big Wilson and his Channel 6 colleagues, check out the SAY SIX! group on Facebook.)

Celebrities would sometimes pop in to visit Big. Grammy winner Henry Mancini (“The Pink Panther”, “Moon River”, “Peter Gunn”, “Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet”) stopped by one night, for a chat about some of his classic movie themes. Another time comedian Gallagher made himself at home, smashing watermelons and making an incredible mess in the studio. Big apparently didn’t know what he was in for that night, and was not very amused by the celebrity’s shenanigans!

In 1984, Big moved on to WDZL Channel 39, where he hosted the slightly retooled “Big Big Movie”. (Big exchanged his owls for teddy bears, more proof WDZL was just a cheap imitation of Channel 6!) You’ll see a lot of former WCIX staffers in this cheesy but fun video for “Club 39”, which aired during the Big Big Movie.

Big lost both his radio and TV jobs in 1987. He moved on to Channel 33, but the station ran out of money, and Big was out of a job once again. On August 15, 1989, he and his wife Jody sold their home in Miami, and left for a trip across the United States. Two weeks later, his health began to fail, and the couple briefly leased a home in North Carolina. The Wilsons wanted to return to Miami, but never made it. While staying overnight at a hotel in Salem, North Carolina, Big Wilson suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 65.

Younger viewers don’t remember Malcolm John Wilson Jr. But those who loved B-movies, or who craved a Franco’s Pizza at 4 in the morning, will never forget the big man and his piano. Neither will I.

Big Wilson hosting Night Owl Movies:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Far, Far Better Thing

I thought writing this blog would be therapeutic. I thought it would help to exorcise some ghosts that needed to “get going” (as Jeanne Antol-Krull would say). I thought it would help demystify the Charles Dickens “best of times, worst of times” paradox that had been my life for so long. I thought… well, I think too much.

Seriously, though, I’m overwhelmed by the response I’ve received. Yeah, I know, there are very few comments to my posts, and not a soul has signed up to “follow” this blog. But that’s the public stuff. Behind the scenes, I have heard from a lot of old friends, and I’ve watched the Sitemeter numbers grow by the day. People are watching, and that’s good. Because I know a lot of you, too, need to sort out your own Charles Darnay/Sydney Carton paradoxes. I know a lot of you, too, feel the WCIX years were the best of your life. And yet, like me, you couldn’t wait to move on, and so move on you did. Which is good. Real good. You know the story of Medusa and what happened to those who looked back, and you tell yourself you’re not going to risk turning to stone, but heck, Medusa was only a myth. And besides, you’ll never know where you’re going, if you don’t remember where you’ve been.

When I left WFOR (the former WCIX) on May 31, 1996, I thought it was for good. Just six weeks later, a hurricane named Bertha threatened, and the assistant news director gave me a call. They needed bodies in the newsroom, and since I needed no training, I was asked if I’d like to freelance for a few days. At first I said no. After all, my last day at the station was just six weeks earlier! I wasn’t ready to give back my going-away drinks at Tobacco Road, my adios ride in Chopper 4, or the very nice VO at the end of the show that Anne Roberts and Khambrel Marshall read. So Amy Feller sweetened the pot, offering me much more money than I’d ever seen as a full-timer. I’ll take the deal, Howie! So for a few days in the summer of 1996… I was back.

As more help was needed at the station, I got called in again. And again. For the next three years, it was almost as if I had not left… minus the benefits and paid vacation time. I loved seeing my great friends, but didn’t like having to write bogus stories about O.J. Simpson, Heidi Fleiss, and all the other bollocks. I continued to fight against airing 9-1-1 tapes (which exploit people in their most vulnerable moments). And I took a stand in favor of an anchor/reporter who I thought was being mistreated. I stepped on some toes, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. On May 28, 1999, I left the Channel 4 newsroom after a freelance shift. I would never see the inside of that building again.

In the nearly ten years that followed, I did everything possible to get TV news out of my system. I stopped watching. I cut off contact with just about everybody that I worked with. I immersed myself in projects ranging from EyeQRadio (now defunct) to The South Florida Baseball Museum (also now defunct). With each passing day, and year, the neurons that tied me to my former life as a TV producer turned into the ghosts of newsrooms past. Consciously, at least. Subconsciously, it was a different story.

The dreams began: one newsroom nightmare after another. You know the one about going to class, and not having done your homework? I had several newsroom variations, but instead of homework, I would be staring at a rundown, not having a bloody clue what any of the stories were about. I probably had 200 newsroom dreams over the past 9-and-a-half years. I hated them! I wanted them to stop! Until recently, that is.

Now that I’m out of Miami, and there’s no chance of my ever getting back to where I once belonged, the dreams don’t bother me. In fact, I kind of enjoy seeing the people who turn up in those nocturnal novelas. And for the first time since 1999, I wanted to reconnect with my old TV friends. I miss you guys, more than I could have ever imagined. As the late Miami clothier Austin Burke used to say, “I love you all!

(Austin Burke, "Little Old Burkie")

And so I started this blog, hoping I would hear from some of my old pals. And just last week I started a Say Six! group on Facebook. In just one week, 37 people have joined that group, and the number keeps growing. I’m having a blast sharing photographs, videos, and memories with you guys. I’m glad you’re back in my life, and hope you stay there for a long time.

If you enjoy this blog, or just want to reconnect with old friends, please stop by the Say Six! Facebook group, and join in. I promise not to bore the Dickens* out of you.

(*Counting the title, that’s five Dickens references in one post. My old English teacher, Mrs. Sirgany, would have been proud. So would her niece, future WFOR reporter Aleen Sirgany.

One additional note: Every time I post a new entry, an old entry disappears from this page. You can still access the older posts by clicking on the tab that reads… Older Posts. Is this a great country, or what?)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Toole Time (Film At Ten)

So the Hollywood Police Department says compulsive liar Ottis Toole did, in fact, kill 5-year-old Adam Walsh back in 1981. Even though Toole recanted his confession, is known to tell tall tales about his killing sprees, and even though the best evidence in the case has… ahem… disappeared, the book is closed on the case. Next!

That announcement last month reminded me of WCIX’s first live remote, and the days when the station not only had no live capabilities, but was all-film. There was no such thing as rushing a tape back to the station, cueing it, and getting it right on the air. Film had to be developed! Every other station in town had made the conversion to tape, but not Channel 6 – not until February 12, 1982, that is, when we finally left the ‘70s behind. (Channel 10, I believe, was the first to make the all-tape move. Who could forget the infamous “you don’t have to take the film and develop it” promos, back in the Ron Hunter years?)

So while everyone was putting crisp, clear pictures on the air, we had… film flutter! The young’uns in the news biz have never heard of film flutter… or super slides… or 35-millimeter key shots! And you know what? They’re lucky! We may not have been technologically advanced in those days, but we all worked very hard to try to put a decent hour-long newscast on the air. Very hard! And we had to be super-diligent. Just look at what the associate director, and the audio operator, had to deal with.

(Click images to view them full size)

The notations on the left side were the A-roll. On the other side was the B-roll. Somehow we had to hit the B-roll at just the right point. At 27 seconds in, the audio operator had to turn the pot up, for the sound on film (SOF), then turn the pot down, then up again. There was so much going on in this 1979 Harlan Levy reporter “wrap” (we didn’t call them “packages” back in those days. They weren’t really “packaged”, like they later were on videotape.) The associate director (usually Rod Kerrison or Bob Rossicone) really had to be on his toes.

The individual photographer/editor filled out the film cards, and their writing wasn’t always very legible. CT-SIL stood for cart (which contains the reporter track) over silent film. The audio operator had to alternate between sound on film, and the reporter’s track (on cart), which meant it was crucial to get the outcues just right. Missing it could mean a meltdown for the rest of the story, and likely an angry reporter.

This card was a little more straightforward, and easier to follow. This was a Jill Beach wrap, shot and edited by Ira Lazernik. Since Jill’s track was over silent file footage, there was no half track, and only a sound bite to worry about. There was also no reporter stand-up, leading me to believe this must have been a wire story, turned into a local wrap with nothing but a little file film and one sound bite. Instant news, quick and dirty.

Communication would have been very important with this reporter wrap. The associate director had to communicate that the audio was hot, and that there was no pad at the end of the piece. That means the director had to “punch out” of the film, the very second Harlan Levy did his sig-out. If not, the screen would go to black, and the producer (probably Don Adams) would get louder than a Potamkin car commercial. In the years to come, we would crack down on pieces that had no pad, even going as far as freezing the last shot. Going to black is a cardinal sin in TV news. You just don’t do it!

As I mentioned, we finally went all-tape in 1982, and it would be another year-and-a-half before we had live capabilities. Mayco “Mike” Villafana (the future FPL/Miami-Dade Schools/Convention & Visitor’s Bureau spokesman) was the producer, and John Turchin had the honors of doing the first WCIX remote. The occasion? A news conference by the Hollywood Police Department. The story? A suspect was being named in the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder. His name?

Ottis Toole.

25 years later, that classic line by the Talking Heads inevitably comes to mind.

“Same as it ever was.”