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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

1992 News Bloopers… After Hurricane Andrew

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine, an adage that was proven time and time again at the old Channel 6… especially after the summer of 1992.

1992. Just the mention of that year brings trepidation to many South Floridians, who remember a visitor named Andrew who tore, uninvited, through the neighborhoods of South Miami-Dade. Newsroom employees were not immune.

It’s tough enough reporting a hurricane of that magnitude, which caused billions of dollars in damage and dozens of deaths. It was even tougher, considering so many of us – from our general manager and news director on down – lost possessions, even our homes in the storm. Andrew also blew down our tower in the Redland, meaning no one could see our newscasts for several days (unless they tuned in to low power Channel 27, which wasn’t very likely). For many at the station, nothing would ever be the same. It was tough enough just holding on, let alone having to report on all the misery, all the destruction, all the scars and traumas. Like the song from the musical Mame said, “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute.” What we needed… was laughter.

Enter WCIX videographer Mark Griffin, who assembled some of the best news bloopers from the year. The tape you’re about to see proves several things:

1. We had no luck with white Bengal tigers.
2. You never know when the moon will be coming out at a Ross Perot “victory” party.
3. Dan Rather doesn’t wait to celebrate Thanksgiving.
4. Judge Murray Meyerson is one calm guy.
5. Former U.M. quarterback Gino Torretta was a good player, but not good enough to inspire Beatlemania.

It’s great to see some of the faces from the past here on this tape. A word of warning, though: all news blooper tapes contain profanity, and material of a sexual nature. You might want to wait until the kids or the boss leave the room to play this, but by all means, DO play it. It’s sure to bring a smile.

Thank you, Mark, for sharing this, and reminding us of the importance of laughing – even if it’s at ourselves.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Look At Us, We're Walking

“Look at us, we’re walking!
Look at us, we’re talking!
We who’ve never walked or talked before…”

If you were anywhere near a television in the 1960s, you might have a vague recollection of those haunting lyrics from the ghost of telethons past. There are earworms, and there are earworms: songs that stick in our heads, and remain there for decades, somewhere in the mirror of our minds. You can dice ‘em, slice ‘em, and Shout ‘em out, but they remain like distant echoes from what seems like several lifetimes ago.

Telethons are almost an anachronism today. Yes, they still exist, but with so many channels to choose from, and so many entertainment options, who has time to sit through a weekend full of people begging for money? Back in TV’s so-called golden age, that was not the case. The annual telethons – Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy – were events. No matter how cool we were, we still tuned in to the Labor Day tradition, which at one time was also a WCIX tradition.

“Look at us, we’re laughing.
We’re happy and we’re laughing.
Thank you from our hearts, forever more.”

No one is more closely associated with those lyrics -- that earworm -- than Dennis James, for a long time the face of the annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon. James would be singing while the kids paraded around in wheelchairs and braces, some of them looking like they’re rather be on Mars than on that stage. That awkward but effective scene serves as a reminder of a time, before political correctness, when anyone who looked different was “them”, and the rest of us were… well, “us”--and yet once a year we reached out, and said “I’ll be there”, in the hope that a cure would be right around the corner.

“There are so many other children,
Who only speak with a silent prayer.
For those who haven’t been so lucky,
We hope and pray you will always care.”

I’m not sure how Vic Damone, a pop singer best-known for his recording of “On The Street Where You Live” (and this provocative, cleavage-heavy video from the early ‘60s), came to record the song… backed by the Barry College Choir. The Brooklyn-based entertainer made the recording for Art Records of Miami, a label whose roster through the years included a teen garage band (The Echoes), rockabilly artists, and even WCIX weatherman Don Franklin.

Of course the granddaddy of all TV fundraisers is Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which through the years has brought its share of surprises… and train wrecks. One year actress Joan Crawford showed up visibly sloshed, reading a rather inappropriate poem about clumsy children. Another year Jerry Lewis, exhausted and sleep-deprived, referred to somebody as a fag, a horrible choice of words that caused its share of controversy (rightfully so).

Somewhere along the way I lost interest in telethons, and simply stopped watching… as did many people around my age. But I bet there will be a larger than usual audience this year, when Jerry Lewis takes the stage one final time. The 85-year-old comedian, suffering from heart problems and chronic back pain, will call it quits after September’s telethon, having already helped to raise more than a billion dollars through the years. He plans to sing his signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, one last time -- for after all, it is music that moves us. It is music that calls us to action, and remains in our minds for decades and decades. For me, it’s that other song that refuses to let go; a call to action for the so-called TV Generation that has, time after time, responded in abundance.

“Someday they’ll be walking.
Someday they’ll be talking,
Imagine walking to the candy store.
But the fight has just begun.
Get behind us everyone,
Your dollars make our dreams come true.
Thanks to you.
Thanks to you.”*

*“Look At Us We’re Walking!” by Gettinger & Reed. An internet search turned up no current publisher or copyright information.

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** UPDATE August 4, 2011 **

Now it turns out Jerry Lewis has been "released" from his position as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association... and he will NOT be appearing on this year's telethon. No one is saying exactly what happened, but there's no doubt something did happen. This could not have been an easy decision for the MDA, since it will likely cost the organization millions in donations. Of course, somewhere some TV programmer is bemoaning all the additional viewers that have been lost, too.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ralph Renick's Final Years

The end of the line is a sad place to be. We’ve all seen it.

Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players ever, stumbling with the Mets in 1973… hitting only .211 with just six home runs.

Chuck Berry at age 84, going through the motions on stage, not really concerned about what he’s doing to those classic old songs he created.

Yet we cheer for them. Encourage them. Want so much to see them, be around them, and to share in their auras, for the performers they once were and will always represent.

I don’t know Willie Mays or Chuck Berry, but I did know a living legend. Even though he was just a shell of the giant he created, it was still an honor to know, and dare I say, help him.

If you’re under 30, don’t live in the U.S.A., or paid no attention to television news, then you might not know the name Ralph Renick. The rest of us, especially those who grew up in South Florida, know the image, the accomplishments, the legend.

Renick came into my life in 1988, when his agent – the man who ordered my firing from WNWS eight years earlier – negotiated a comeback deal for the veteran newsman. WCIX News Director Larry Wallenstein, who’d worked with Renick at WTVJ, had the idea to return Renick to the South Florida airwaves… as a commentator. It was a familiar role. Renick had pioneered the television editorial, nearly 40 years earlier. Heck, Renick had pioneered just about everything, when it came to TV news in South Florida.

It was hard not to feel intimidated by the man’s accomplishments, but the ego that I’d heard so much about was not on display. The Ralph Renick that went to work at Channel 6 was a lot more down-to-earth than we could have expected. When Renick was given the added task of hosting Insight, the Sunday morning public affairs show that I produced, I got the chance to work closely with him; to write his copy, and to help with questions for our guests. Renick had the final say in what topics we chose, which meant indulging him at times. (He earned that right. I didn’t.) Then, on January 23, 1989, Renick was called on to anchor one final newscast – the last he’d ever do. He insisted that I produce it. Surprisingly, he opted not to write any of his own copy, concentrating instead on the performance he’d need to give that night. Had I known it would be his last-ever newscast, I would have kept the aircheck. Unfortunately that show is lost forever. I’d be lying if I said it was one of his best, but it didn’t need to be. It was Ralph Freaking Renick! Like Willie Mays and Chuck Berry, this was a living legend, doing the thing that made him that way. Not all of Picasso’s etchings are aesthetically pleasing, but they’re still Picassos.

Memo from our bosses about Renick, dated August 29, 1990. Click image to view it full size.

Ralph Renick left WCIX in September 1990. To the casual observer, it might have appeared that he’d been coasting during his last few months at the station. Officially, he was moving on to devote more time to public broadcasting and his community work, but unofficially, there was something else brewing that just wasn’t talked about. Ralph Renick was ill.

It was one of Miami television’s best-kept secrets… to the general public… but we insiders knew that something was wrong. As the months passed, it became clear Renick was dying. Had it been any other local legend, the news reports would have been plentiful, but this was a colleague whose right to privacy we all respected. I’m not saying that was right or wrong, but again, he earned it. After all, where would any of us had been had Ralph Renick not taken to the airwaves back in 1949?

Renick’s battle with hepatitis and liver cancer ended on July 12, 1991. He was 62. We all wrote tributes to the man and his legend, but it was the station he put on the map – WTVJ Channel 4 – that captured his spirit the best. What follows is the first block of a 30-minute special that WTVJ aired that night. It was co-anchored by Bob Mayer, who was given his start in TV news, decades earlier, by none other than Ralph Renick. The audio is low, and there are a few video glitches, but still the pictures are priceless.

Renick had been chairman of the advisory board of the Louis Wolfson Media History Center. The footage that follows (about the blight on Miami Beach) is part of their archives, which stand as a tribute not only to him, but to all the other local broadcasting pioneers.

I still have the Christmas card that Renick sent me in December 1990 – less than 7 months before his death. In it, he wished me good luck on my forthcoming book, which he called “fascinating”. I consider that one of the greatest compliments I ever received.

Christmas card from Ralph Renick, December 1990. Click to view full size.

Ralph Renick might not have been the powerhouse he once was, but for those of us at the old Channel 6… he didn’t need to be. He just needed to be himself, and an important part of our team, as we slowly grew more competitive in the tough Miami news market. Twenty years after his death, he remains the single most important figure in Florida broadcasting history. None of us will ever forget him.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

1-11-11 (Remembering 1111 Brickell Avenue)

Anyone with even a passing interest in numerology is talking about this date (1-11-11). The internet is abuzz with theories about prophecies, new cycles of light, and spiritual awakenings.

I don't have a clue what it all means, but seeing all those 11's reminds me of a now-demolished, funky round building at 1111 Brickell Avenue in Miami. An office building behemoth now stands in the spot where we used to produce newscasts, The White Baron, To The Point!, Frankly Speaking, Duck Duck Goose, and so many other shows. The bankers and brokers that now occupy that building probably have no clue that at one time, it was our home away from home.

WCIX was a numerologist's dream in those days. Not only was our address 1111, but our phone number ended in 666! I got my start in television there, and many others did, too. A round building with a cement pond in the middle isn't exactly the ideal design for a TV station, but somehow we all made it work.

Most of us were anxious to move to a more functional location. When we made our exit to Doral in September 1985, I for one was thrilled. I remember saying I wanted to look forward, not back. I felt nothing when Cuyahoga Wrecking came in and demolished the rotunda blunda. Good riddance! I didn't think I would miss it one bit. Looks like I was wrong again.

I don't know much about new cycles of light or whatever. All I know is the number 1111 will always be significant to me. Maybe we should all meet on Brickell at 11:11, when 11/11/11 rolls around later this year. If only we could find a spot with an old cement pond...