I arrived in Huntsville on July 4, 1979, and started working at WAAY-TV after the holiday weekend. Of course, I had interviewed with M.D. in June and found him to be friendly and easy to talk to. So, eagerly, I began planning a complete reorganization of the Production Department and was confident I could adapt systems successful in California to this new position. M.D. was very supportive, but cautioned me that his father, the C.E.O., would have final approval. I was a bit apprehensive because I'd heard Mr. Smith III was a tough manager from the "old school." Well, the man wasn't overjoyed at my radical proposals and summoned me to a meeting at The House. (What everyone called the corporate headquarters, the executive mansion.) M.D. accompanied me one sunny morning down Monte Sano, off Governor's Drive south onto DeRussey Road (as I recall) to The House. We sat in a paneled meeting room and I was allowed to make my case for 15-20 minutes without interruption. Then the questions began. I couldn't tell if I was making any progress, but when it was all over, there was a moment of silence, then Mr. Smith III stuck out his hand and said, "Go ahead with your plans." . . . . . . . That willingness to listen and change his mind made a great impression on me. I've never forgotten it and have tried to follow his example over the years.
Although M.D. made the decision to hire me and was gracious throughout the interview process, flying me out from California, I've always felt that that Bettie Higgins (Administrative Assistant at the time and, later, Program Director) was influential in my moving to Huntsville. We seemed to hit it off at first because we'd both been raised in Louisville, Ky. and we had a lot in common. e.g. She graduated from the rival high school, Manual. I went to Male. The annual Thanksgiving football slugfest was every bit as intense as Ala./Auburn. Also, she knew about Herbie Koch, my uncle, and for years a star performer at WHAS, the historic clear-channel A.M. station. He was an organist (once employed by Parmount to perform around the country for silent movies). His radio, and later TV shows were popular (he beat out Pee Wee King for #1 local TV program one year). In fact, after being his guest at the studio one Sunday night I decided to switch my ambitions from journalism to broadcasting production.
One afternoon in mid-December, 1980, when, obviously, I had time on my hands, tongue firmly in cheek, I sent the following memo to Bettie regarding a Production Department upgrade:
"What I need is total organizational capability in order to integrate reciprocal options. If we are to have functional management concepts, it stands to reason we also need compatible incremental projection. That is precisely why I'm recommending a balanced monitored contingency to give us the synchronized logic mobility Rocket City Television is known for. I'm sure you'll agree that a responsive digital time-phase using the new computer optical third-generation hardware will eventually give us the blop so necessary for success. Do you agree with this position?"
Bettie responsed tersely: "Sure, same place as the last time. This time just remember not to use your credit card!"
And M.D. added: "Lew, I read your recent memo to Bettie. I was impressed. I, too, have been thinking of learning a foreign language . . . . but then I wouldn't know what I was saying."
Ah, those were the good old days.
SWEPT AWAY BY MRS. SMITH III
This is a story I heard about. It seems that a WAAY-TV staff member reported to O.S.H.A that the wiring in master control was a mess, a fire hazard, and needed checking out. Promptly, an agency rep paid a visit atop Monte Sano, was shocked by what he saw, and headed down to corporate headquarters where he was chased from the premises by Mrs. Smith III wielding a broom, and never heard from again.
SNL--HUNTSVILLE STYLE: WAAY TOO LATE
I guess it was in the late 80's or early 90's that I was approached by several staff members with a radical idea. They proposed producing a weekly half-hour TV program with a comedy sketch format. It would be produced after sign-off, on their own time, and without any cost to the company.
Armed with a midnight time slot provided by our enthusiastic Program Director, Debbie Benson (Bradford), I convinced M.D. of the benefits to the company if he gave an OK to such an experimental project. We would have our own "Saturday Night Live." M.D., much to his credit, approved the project if I would act as executive producer (later joined by Debbie) to guard against objectional material. Soon, an eager troupe of about eight regulars started production of the series.
Now I know I'm going to leave out some folks, but I recall those involved initially as Kip Cole, Lisa Waugh, Chris Homsley, Tom Barker, Jeff Rosado, Stan Williams, plus many others--a few from News--and special guests.
Although a few conservative department heads were concerned that bold satire might offend viewers and clients, the series developed a faithful late night audience, served as a fantastic morale builder for the Production staff, and won numerous ad club awards. Not only did this series breathe new life into the regulars and guest participants, but the company also benefitted from new skills acquired at no cost. e.g. Writing, shooting, acting, editing, set design, makeup, blocking, etc.
At The House:
Yes, those early summer picnics were staged at The House, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Smith III. It was informal, of course, but we were elegantly served a delicious lunch inside the mansion, and then we congregated around the pool or on the various patio levels to enjoy good food and conversation. One image I'll never forget is Tom Barker serenading Mr. Smith III and Cactus with his harmonica. There were always kids splashing in the pool and using the slide.
At Ditto Landing:
Bettie Higgins and I were partners on my first try at the egg toss. Guess what? We won! Other years I was not so lucky. The year Brent Smith won there were rumors he substitued a hardboiled egg, but Brent was a Production guy, so I knew he would never do such a thing! . . . . And I'm still chuckling over the time I introduced two celebrities to each other. Now these picnics were great opportunities for me to impress new lady friends. One year, when the Bushes, George Sr. and Barb, were in the White House, my date was a brunette beauty named, you guessed it, Barbara Bush. Cactus was accompanied by the woman he later married, Joan Collins. So, with great glee, I introduced the two ladies, "Barbara Bush, I'd like you to meet Joan Collins!" Well, I thought it was funny. . . . . I recall Cliff Windom patiently calling out those bingo numbers. Most everyone played because the prizes were first-class . . . . . . . And some of you may remember that scene out of a Fellini film on a sunny afternoon, folks spread out on the green lawn playing games (sack racing, treasure hunt, tossing a football), when out on the water we discovered a river boat, a paddle-wheeler, enriching the picture.
I inherited M.D.'s old office when he moved to more spacious surroundings. He left behind a landscape he painted of a sailboat on a lake. It stayed on my wall for 20 years and is now in my home. (Yes, M.D. knows about it!) I don't know how M.D. managed all those years cooped up in an office without a window. I felt so confined, especially, in such beautiful surroundings outdoors. After a number of years passed, I decided to approach M.D. about this depressing state of affairs.
So I scheduled a meeting and pleaded my case. He listened quietly and didn't speak until I had finished. Then all he said was, "OK." I must have looked flabbergasted. "OK? That's it? OK? I've been putting off asking you for years and all you can say is OK?"
He smiled and suggested I find someone cheap to knock a hole in the wall. I did, a former clown, who most definitely knocked a big hole in the wall, then took off and was never seen again. I found someone else to finish the job.
Over the years, through that magic window I have observed bluebirds, dogs, snakes, rabbits, cats, etc. and, undoubtedly, my quality of worklife improved.
THE JOYS OF MONTE SANO
What a great environment in which to drive to work every morning! Coming up the "back way" in spring with the sunroof open was a pleasant way to start the day; and if I drove down at sunset the southern route, or at dusk, glancing quickly to the right as the lights twinkled below, well, that was relaxing after a stressful day. I've seen coyote on the mountain and the rare Pileated woodpecker in the park; I've enjoyed many lunches at a parkbench after a short hike, or on the lawn at the Burrett Museum. I've always said the WAAY-TV parking lot was the most difficult place to be when winter ice formed, not only underfoot or tire, but from above, from the towers.
My first day in Huntsville was on a holiday, July 4. I was alone, had been driving for three days and somewhat depressed by the Five Points area where I found myself. I drove to the station not knowing what to expect. For some reason, Elaine Smith was at the front desk that day and greeted me with a smile. She lived with her daughter on the mountain in a small cabin at the entrance to Monte Sano State Park. She recognized the state I was in and suggested I rent a cabin in the park and just wind down over the weekend. Some of the best advice I've ever received. Elaine became a good friend over the years and I am still saddened by her untimely death in Kentucky.
SENIOR SWINGER: JOHNNY EVANS
During a long stretch in '92, WAAY-TV produced a country music program called "A Country Affair." It was hosted and produced by Johnny Evans, and directed on tape by Tracy Slayton on location at The Hop, a local club. As I recall, James Hessler worked the roving handheld camera, and I was executive producer of the show. This was quite a production with a live audience sitting at tables enjoying the music and dancing out in front of the stage. Between acts, Johnny would interview the performers while sitting behind a small table covered by what appeared to be a skinned cowhide (black splotches on white). Johnny brought in some famous country acts (though somewhat past their prime), and some less famous which I'll get to in a moment. On stage during the series were Little Jimmy Dickens, Patsy Montana, William Lee Golden, and Mr. Dobro himself, Tom Swatzell, who died late last year.
I'll never forget the March 15 show because my folk trio, "Legends of The Past," sang two numbers. This was only our second year (out of a 10 year run) together, and I feel we did OK, but the kicker was our interview with Johnny. I still get a laugh every time I views the tape. After introducing and briefly interviewing each of us, Johnny proceeded to give a lecture about the state of country music. For example, he spoke of "music blending together," and that "rock and roll of the 60's and 70's is the country music of today," and that he could "forego heavy metal and some opera--though not Grand Old Opry!" It was a classic discourse. Eventually, he got back to the three of us sitting beside him. "Is there anything in particular you want to talk about?" he asked me, winding up the interview. I just smiled and said, "We work cheap."
Remember that long, wooden stairway that M.D. had built down to the lower parking lot? For a time, I was the only one who parked down there so I would be forced to exercise building up my wind and leg muscles (I played a lot of tennis.). I used to know the exact number of planks on the stairs, and if I found repair necessary, I would report the number to Junior Morris who would take care of the problem. To encourage more folks to use the lower parking lot and relieve the congestion outside the station, M.D. would offer prizes in a drawing for those who parked down there. . . . . . .
WAAY-TV offered many opportunities to women in television. One of my favorite courses in grad school was Women In Film, so I was especially interested in seeing equal opportunity. Now I KNOW I'm going to leave out a lot of super staff members, but to name a few outstanding achievers in this category, there was LIZ WEBB, the first lady switcher at 31; Location Supervisors (photog/editor, etc.) DEBRA NAPOLITANO & KATRINA BOVEY; Art Directors LEE BAKER & KYLE JESS; Operations Coordinators JAN MILLER (I still have video copies of PSA spots she and I appeared in) & LINDA POPE; creatives such as LISA WAUGH, so instrumental in producing the WAAY TOO LATE shows (and, privately, she directed my one and only music video in a downtown graffiti-alley on a cold fall day); Commercial Producers, for example, the multi-talented PRISCILLA COWING, etc. Those are just a FEW names of women at 31 who also staffed studio cameras, weathergraphics, audio, and chyron. . . . .
I would like to spend some time on Commercial Producers and Newscast Directors, especially the GUYS, but I gotta wind this down. . . . Here's a final tidbit. I once hired a commercial producer out of South Carolina named Kelly Cauthen. His long-range ambition was to attend the American Film Institue in L.A. and, by gosh, one day, that's just what he did. A few years later, I was reading at home, the TV set was on, tuned to Showtime. I happened to look up and noticed the credits read "Kelly Cauthen, editor." The program was not family-oriented, but a R-rated you know what. The phone rang. It was Priscilla. "Did you see that?" she asked. "Kelly has a knack for body parts!" (I'm paraphrasing here.) After hanging up I was amused that Priscilla thought I would be watching that particular program! It wasn't long afterward that I "accidently" caught Kelly's name as "Director," then "Producer." . . . . .
Quite a long list of former Production staffers have done very well in the outside world and the list goes on and on and on. . . . . I've left off stories about the Addys, the telethons, the E.O.M's, the Fall Color Cruise . . . . . Maybe another time.
lk May 18, 2003
While nostalgia is still in the air you might want to check out the website of a former commercial producer I hired in the early 90s I believe. As I recall Gigi was not the most successful producer, Sales did not like her. I felt she was talented, but just couldn't adapt to a 30 second format. Anyway, she's had quite a career in L.A. along with Kelly Cauthen.
Last night, Scott McCauley and Kip suggested I check her out and I did. When she worked at 31 (with Tracy), her last name wasn't Erneta and I can't recall what it was.
www.gigierneta.com is her web site. Great photos.