Fortunately, both for Garroway and for us, there's someone out there seeking to rectify that: Jodie Peeler, the keeper of the Garroway at Large website ("A Tribute to the Master Communicator") and co-author of an upcoming book about Dave Garroway. Jodie's been interested in broadcast history as long as she can remember. After stints in radio and in newspaper reporting, Jodie is now a communications professor at Newberry College in South Carolina. She's also a brave woman, becoming the latest to agree to step into the It’s About TV interview spotlight.
It's About TV: I don’t know if you've read the novel Morning by W.D. Wetherell that came out about 15 years or so ago.
Jodie Peeler: I have! I liked it a lot.
The main character in the book was a morning show host that was obviously based on Garroway, and though we weren’t meant to draw any parallels between what happens to this character in the book and the life that Garroway lived in real life, it was just a fascinating look at the early days of television, and the kind of impact that a man of Garroway’s ingenuity and ability would have been able to have. And although I knew about Garroway, had seen and read about him, it made me want to know more about him and the impact he’d had on TV history.
Wetherell very nicely captured the feel of those early days of television and that’s why I enjoyed the book so much. Alec McGowan differed a great deal from Garroway but if you know where to look, you can catch little glimpses of him. I also liked how well Wetherell re-created what live television was like, and again if you know about the early days of Today you know what he borrowed from that. It’s kind of like how My Favorite Year gave you a fictionalized peek into putting on Your Show of Shows. I’d imagine Wetherell gave Robert Metz’s The Today Show a close read, and that’s a terrific book for anybody who wants to know about the early years of the program.
Without giving anything away for either of us, you’re younger than I am.
And believe it or not, my collaborator on this project is younger than I am!
Which is wonderful, because there’s this feeling that the only people are into classic television are those who were around when it was originally on, and here’s someone whose interest in Garroway starts closer to the time of his death than it does when he was making television history, which gives me hope that the history of television can continue to be passed down from generation to generation. So what drew you to Garroway in the first place?
Well, for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by history in general, and along with it television and radio from yesteryear, and any time there was a retrospective program with clips from old television programs, it fascinated me. I’m not sure why, but from an early age I loved the stuff. I grew up listening to old radio cassettes, and taping programs about television history on the family VCR. Even if my parents didn’t understand it, they went along with it and sometimes would buy me books or tapes that fed my interest. (Since I ended up teaching in the communications field, I hope my folks now look at such things as having made an investment in my future.)
I was nine when Dave Garroway died, and I didn’t know that much about him in the moment aside from knowing he was the first host of Today, and from that clip we’ve all seen a hundred times from January 14, 1952, Dave at the desk wearing that big microphone. Even in that, though, there’s something about how easygoing he is, that purring voice and easy manner, that makes you realize he was something special. The more I read about him, and the more clips I got to see in retrospective shows, the more I wanted to know. But no one had ever done a proper book about him, so there was only so much I could learn. And the narratives about him vary and it can be difficult to separate the gas from the gospel.
When the Internet came along it opened up a few more sources of information, and eventually I found out the draft of an uncompleted autobiography and some other papers were in a collection at the University of Maryland. Part of me wanted to take that on, but I know from experience that writing a book is a huge project, and I’d have to squeeze everything in among other obligations. About a year or so back, I started thinking about the project again. And I happened upon another Garroway researcher, Brandon Hollingsworth, who’d not only considered the same project but had conducted research in the papers at UMD. So we’re sharing research findings with one another and combining our efforts, via e-mail and postal mail, to make this overdue biography a reality. The college where I work granted me a sabbatical for the Fall term, so that gives me time to work on the Garroway project and another biography I’m trying to get published, about author and journalist Ben Robertson.
In Morning there’s a scene where McGowan, the Garroway character, decides on wearing these black horn-rimmed glasses because they’ll make him stand out on the static-y pictures that weren’t always so clear in the B&W days. Any evidence that Garroway ever did anything like that?
There are pictures of Garroway wearing horn-rimmed glasses as a disc jockey after World War II, so the owlish look came with him to television, rather than something he did for television. That said, those glasses and the bow tie became his visual trademark. There’s a very sweet clip from a 1950 episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie where Garroway presents Kukla with a tiny pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and Kukla is so tickled to have glasses like Dave’s. They’re so much a part of the Garroway image that when you see him in his post-Today years wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a necktie, he looks like someone else.
We're back in the early days of television, when you often made a name for yourself in local TV, which acted kind of like a farm system, often producing shows for the networks, and I think Dave got his start in Chicago before heading to New York. Was that always his objective, to head for New York? Was it that he had a vision for what television could be that he wanted to see fulfilled?
Garroway and Chicago went back a little way. He’d started with NBC as a page at 30 Rock – and how he got that job is a great story in itself – and through a lot of determination he parlayed that into a gig as an announcer for KDKA in Pittsburgh. He was at WMAQ in Chicago when World War II broke out, then got inducted into the Navy, commissioned as an officer, and assigned to a minesweeper. Unfortunately, he got incredibly seasick, even when his ship was pierside. When his ship was sent from California to Pearl Harbor he spent most of the voyage ill in his bunk. Obviously, he wasn’t much use aboard a ship, so he was put in the officers’ pool and ended up running the Pacific Fleet Yeoman and Stenography School, which turned out to be an easy job for him.
In the evenings Garroway got bored with hanging out at the officers’ club, and one day he dropped by radio station KGU to see if they needed help. When the station manager learned of Dave’s NBC pedigree, he hired him on the spot for an evening program and gave him free rein. That’s really where Dave honed his style, playing jazz and symphony music from the station’s library and taking listeners on imaginary walks through cities he knew well stateside, using that remarkable, very personal style of his. It was a huge hit with homesick service personnel.
That style was adapted for television when Garroway at Large came along. You not only had Dave’s wonderful person-to-person style, but you had a brilliant creative team that wasn’t afraid to have fun with the conventions of the medium. They weren’t afraid, for instance, to just walk from one set to another on the program, or to work some of the crew into a bit, or even have a duet with a boom microphone. And in the middle of it all was Garroway, this genial guy with a whimsical air about the whole proceeding. NBC picked up Garroway at Large for the network and the brass in New York didn’t quite know what to make of it. The Chicago style was at odds with this very proper New York style. But it was unusual and brilliant. When David Letterman goofed around with his stage crew or showed that a set piece was phony, it seemed fresh to me in the 1980s. But Garroway was doing some of those things, minus Letterman’s irony, in 1949.
I think Garroway always wished he could go back to how it was in Chicago during those postwar years, when it was fun and he had the freedom he had at WMAQ. Even with the success of Today and all that it brought him, it wasn’t the same. Of course, the Chicago School was running out of time. But in his recollections, Garroway speaks so warmly of those days, and I really think that’s when he was happiest.
And so Garroway winds up as host of Today, this revolutionary program that's on at 7:00 in the morning. How does this transition from Garroway at Large to Today happen? And with this blank canvas, so to speak, what does he hope to do with it?
That’s another instance of the luck or kismet or whatever it was that you sometimes see in his story. For instance, he got hired by NBC in 1935 because he happened to be at a card game and the hostess mentioned she was in charge of hiring and firing the network’s pages, and he was hired the next day, and the rest is history. And that kind of fate was at work in 1951. Garroway at Large lost its sponsorship and time slot, and Dave was trying to figure out what was next for him. One day that September he was having breakfast at the Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel and somebody had left a copy of Variety behind, and he started leafing through it. About 30 pages in, he found a piece about this new early-morning concept Pat Weaver at NBC had put together. And Dave was transfixed, because this new show sounded tailor-made for him. So he told his agent, Biggie Levin, that he wanted that job, and meetings with the higher-ups at NBC soon followed.
There’s an interesting memo in the NBC papers at the Wisconsin Historical Center. It was written by Tom McAvity, who was then in charge of talent for NBC, to Pat Weaver in November 1951. McAvity was presenting all the numbers and other factors Weaver should consider in making an offer to Garroway. The last paragraph had a very interesting passage. “We think he is equally as interested in his career as in money,” McAvity wrote. “The fact that Dave in this project would be, as in other projects, a pioneer, should appeal to him.”
Was he happy with morning television, or did he hope to transition to evening TV with it?
Whether Dave came in with the intent to parlay that into evening television, I don’t really know. It did come to pass when NBC revived the Garroway at Large format in 1953 as an evening program called The Dave Garroway Show, and there were rumors a year or two into Today that Garroway would leave the early-morning show and focus on an evening program. But Dave stuck with Today for its first nine years, and he also did other projects like The Dave Garroway Show and Wide Wide World. And on the radio side, he kept Dial Dave Garroway for a few years, did a weekly long-form prerecorded show, and had a slot on Monitor each week for a while. He was a very busy man in those years. He made a lot of money and he had fame and influence. He had a daily platform not only for news and interviews, but he could also talk about what he was interested in or what was on his mind. He had sponsors who begged for that Garroway touch in selling their products. From a show-business perspective, it was a bonanza. But on a personal level, it took a terrible toll on him.
Muggs came about because a writer on the show had seen a New Yorker cartoon that involved a chimpanzee newscaster, and they had the idea of a visual gag of cutting to a chimp dressed as a newspaperman banging away at a typewriter. They had been looking for a chimp for the role, and one day a couple of men had brought a baby chimp into the building for some other reason. So they hired that chimp for the show, and he turned into the program’s resident comic relief and ended up with the name J. Fred Muggs. And Muggs became very popular, especially with children. Parents wanted to hear the news and weather, but the kids wanted to see what Muggs was up to. It even got to the point where some elementary schools brought in television sets so children could watch Muggs before classes started. One of the producers, Richard Pinkham, figured that having Muggs on the show made around $100 million for NBC. Muggs got a lot of fan mail and even a little bit of hate mail, and they sent him on a round-the-world trip, and he generated a lot of publicity for the program. All this was cute when Muggs was little, but as he grew up he became harder to manage, and increasingly the producers sent him out on trips or did segments where Muggs wouldn’t be in the studio. In 1957 the producers let Muggs go, and Muggs (or, more properly, his owners) promptly filed suit against NBC, the producer who fired Muggs, and also against Jack Lescoulie and Dave Garroway.
Garroway played along with Muggs on the air, but Robert Metz characterized the off-camera relationship with Muggs as “on-again, off-again.” Dave had compassion for Muggs, but I also think he got tired of his antics and was relieved when he no longer had to worry about Muggs biting him. Muggs was replaced by a chimp named Kokomo Jr., who was of sweeter temperament and adorable in a baby-ish way. But Muggs was too tough an act to follow, and Kokomo didn’t last very long.
There was also something called "The Today Girls." It seems sexist to talk about them now; what was Garroway’s position on them? Did he have anything to do with them?
Well, women were vital to Today from the very beginning, even in the planning stages. There were women like the incredible Mary Kelly, who was a very determined and hard-working staff member who did just about everything from writing for the show and conducting prerecorded interviews to rounding up hard-to-get guests and even minding J. Fred Muggs on his travels, and she ended up as a producer before it was all over. Estelle Parsons was another. She was hired on as a production assistant, and did that as her day job while trying to get her performing career started. She ended up having more on-camera roles, and you’d see her update the weather or talking to Dave, and eased into doing interviews and filing stories for the program. And I think the “Today Girl” concept adapted from that. When Estelle Parsons left was when that role changed into the sidekick who added light and beauty to the show, could handle segments about household matters or fashion, but was a featured player rather than a star. It was kind of a grown-up sister or a “girl next door,” not an Arlene Francis or Betty Furness type who could have been a co-host.
Garroway was comfortable with women working on the show, even with Faye Emerson filling in for him when he was on vacation. I think he believed in opportunity for anyone who could do a job well. And he seems to have gotten along well with the Today Girls. They posed no threat to his role, and they gave him someone different to interact with. Of course, recollections vary depending on when they were on the show with him. Lee Meriwether, who replaced Estelle Parsons, said she had fond memories of working on Today and that Garroway was protective of her. Betsy Palmer said she felt she was loved when she was on the show. Florence Henderson said Garroway was always very nice to her and that he was amazingly brilliant. By that point, though, his Dexedrine use and his relentless schedule were getting to him, and she got to see some of that, and remembered that he could be a control freak. Those tendencies clouded his late tenure on Today, and he was constantly requesting new producers and staffers and writers, and the Today Girls were no exception. Beryl Pfizer, who went from being a writer to a Today Girl, wrote that Garroway would request a new Girl if ratings dropped or even if he just got restless with the program. She wrote that’s what happened to her, but Garroway hated to be the bad guy and couldn’t say he’d done it, instead saying it was somebody else’s decision.
One side note: Not long before he left Today, he approved the hiring of a young writer named Barbara Walters. And we know the great career she built from that big break, and how many opportunities she opened for women in the television business. At the Emmy Awards in 1982, she delivered a heartfelt tribute to Garroway and spoke with gratitude about the opportunity he gave her all those years before.
You mentioned Monitor, the legendary weekend radio program which was also the brainchild of Pat Weaver, I believe. Aside from introducing the inaugural episode, did Dave have much to do with that?
Garroway was not only on that inaugural Monitor broadcast, but he held down a Sunday night slot until 1961. Just the fact Garroway was a host - or, in Pat Weaver-ese, a Monitor Communicator - made people really take the program seriously when it was trying to get established. He was popular with listeners, but Dennis Hart's marvelous book about Monitor includes some stories about how Garroway could be difficult, if not maddening, to work with.
It took a Dave Garroway to shape the program into what we’ve come to expect in the morning, and the role of the host as we come to expect it. The initial concept was a form of televised radio, meant more to be listened to than seen, so when you’re getting ready to go to work or doing chores around the house your ear takes in the important content.
Garroway wasn’t the first name to come up when the concept was being thrown around – and the morning concept wasn’t the only idea for Today, because there was also a proposal to do it as a midday 15-minute program, and there were various proposals to have singers and a resident comedian and to do a lot of other things, a concept that sounded akin to Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, and thankfully all of that was thrown out in favor of a simpler format. Pat Weaver had thought about getting Russ Hughes, who was nicknamed “Rush Hughes” because he had a rapid-fire delivery, and I don’t know about you but I don’t want rapid-fire delivery that early in the morning! And in one of the 1951 proposal memos producer Mort Werner recommended hiring Johnny Olson – yes, the same Johnny Olson you’re thinking of. But Garroway sold NBC on hiring him, and I think he’s what made the difference. At the very least, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing it, because that program was so much Garroway’s.
Today tried a lot of things in its first years. If you watch segments from the really early days of Today – and there aren’t many kinescopes, and in fact only 45 minutes from that very first morning exist because in all the run-up, they forgot to order a kinescope – it really tries to do a little of everything. It’s like the first episodes of Saturday Night Live, when the program was trying to figure out what it wanted to be. And there were a lot of people who worked to make the show successful, but as the face of the program Garroway was excellent. His cool, droll demeanor went down really easy first thing in the morning, friendly and informed and just irreverent enough, and his “just you and me” style was perfect. Here was a friendly and reassuring face and voice welcoming you to the day you were about to live. And it was a formula no one else could match. CBS threw numerous efforts against Garroway in the 1950s, with Walter Cronkite or Jack Paar or Will Rogers Jr. And though some of those efforts got good reviews and sometimes offered a ratings challenge, none of them took hold. I think they just couldn’t match the most special element Today had. But no one could.
Jack Lescoulie, who was, I don’t know – would you kind of describe him as Dave’s sidekick on Today, or was there more to him than that?
Jack Lescoulie was a number of things to Today: announcer, sidekick, gave the sports rundowns, filled in for Dave when he was away. But Dave also called Jack his “saver.” Dave told him, “If you ever feel that I’m getting dull or that an interview isn’t going right, just walk in, Jack.” That’s an incredible amount of trust to have in your sidekick. In 1953 Garroway gave Lescoulie a gold ring that was a duplicate of a silver ring Dave wore. Inside it was inscribed, “To Jack from Dave, for being just what you are by the dawn’s early light.” Lescoulie wore it the rest of his life.
I recall in an interview in TV Guide, Lescoulie says that there were only two great commercial pitchmen on television, and he says this after watching a commercial that was just terrific, very creative, but at the end he can’t remember what the product was, which should be the whole point of the commercial, and those two pitchmen were Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway. Considering how good Garroway was at reaching through the tube to his audience, I don’t suppose we should be so surprised that he’d be so effective.
It’s interesting that Lescoulie cited Garroway in the same breath as Arthur Godfrey. They were very different people, but they had some parallels. Both specialized in that kind of “just you and me” style of communicating over radio and television. Their most productive years were the 1940s and 1950s, and they both enjoyed periods when they seemed to be everywhere. They were coveted by advertisers because they were such excellent salesmen who could sell anything. And by the early 1960s, they were yesterday’s news. Godfrey held on with his daily radio show until 1972 (and oddly enough, Garroway subbed for Godfrey a few times in the post-Today era) and some television projects, but he wasn’t what he once had been. Garroway tried several things after leaving Today, but between his personal circumstances and the way the medium was changing, nothing took.
Incidentally, a side note – does it say something about the kinds of skills that are needed to sell products that these two great salesmen both worked in morning television, or is that just because morning viewers back then – primarily women – were the ones who held the purse strings?
I’m inclined to think it’s a good salesman is a good salesman, and a good salesman’s going to bring the magic regardless of the time of day or the product. Dave could do commercials for any number of things on both daytime and nighttime programs and the same magic was there. He could pitch for General Motors just as well as he could for Saran Wrap, just as Godfrey’s magic was there regardless of the product being Lipton Tea, Chesterfield cigarettes, or Eastern Air Lines. And considering the variety of sponsors Today had, for just about every kind of product you can imagine, he had to know how to sell anything.
There’s a moment captured in a 1959 New Yorker profile, and it’s a testament to the Garroway style of selling. When they did Today from Paris via videotape, there was a segment where Dave was on the second level of the Eiffel Tower with Charles Van Doren, who had been hired as the show’s culture-and-arts specialist, and they were showing the sights from up there. When the camera panned to Napoleon’s tomb, Garroway entered the picture. “Ah, yes, a magnificent monument.” And from that, Garroway gently segued into a commercial for tombstones made by one of the show’s sponsors! As Jack Lescoulie said, “When you can sell tombstones to people at breakfast time, you’ve got to be good!”
Speaking of Charles Van Doren, I've always been interested in him. He was, of course, a big winner on Twenty One, which led to Today, and then in the wake of the Quiz Show Scandals lost the job, along with everything else. How did Garroway feel about having Van Doren on the show, and what was the relationship like between the two of them?
Even if Van Doren had been hired on by NBC as a way to continue deriving value from the stardom he'd achieved on Twenty One, I think Garroway enjoyed the intellect he brought to Today, and felt his segments added a little grace and class to the program. Dave was generous to Van Doren on Today, and also let him do segments on Wide Wide World. They grew close, as you will when you work together under pressure and on a strange schedule, and Van Doren's sudden suspension upset and saddened him. Maybe it's not a shock to us now, when we know what we know about Garroway, to think about him weeping on the air (during a segment that had been taped the previous afternoon, no less), but in 1959 it surprised viewers.
Garroway said in his on-air comments that he'd come to know Charles very well, considered him part of the little family they had on the program, had traveled with him and worked with him so much and so often, had watched the Van Dorens' little girl grow up. I think anybody who's had to deal with an awful truth about someone you deeply care for can understand why Dave wept and said "I can only say I'm heartsick."
When Van Doren - who kept a low profile for more than 40 years after the quiz show scandals - finally broke his silence on the quiz show scandal about a decade ago, he wrote that he and Garroway wrote to one another after Van Doren left the show, but fell out of touch.
Is there a point during Garroway's time on Today that you see as the epitome of where he wants the show to be, what he envisioned it to be, or was that never a consideration for him, in other words did he see it as in a consistent state of evolution?
That's a good question. I haven't come across any hard-and-fast evidence, at least from the early years, that Garroway had some grand vision for what the program should become. As his tenure continued and as he gained more control over the broadcast (to the point that it was officially renamed The Dave Garroway Today Show late in his tenure), his preferences for what the program should be and how it should run did gain more power, and of course in the back half he had enough clout to make personnel changes if he didn't get quite what he wanted, or if he got bored with how things were going.
Whether Dave had a clear vision of what he wanted to be, or if he saw it as an evolution, I'm not quite sure. There are some memos in some archives we have yet to get to, and I hope they'll shed some light on what Dave's vision was for Today.
You've alluded to the troubled personal life which Garroway had away from the camera, and how it affected his television career. Tell us a little more about that.
Dave had two major issues dogging his life. One was chronic depression, which from about 1945 on caused him trouble, and he spent a lot of time with mental health professionals trying to get a handle on it. The other was Dexedrine. Garroway had a habit of staying up late that went back years. He’d go to these all-night card games, or as an NBC page he’d stay late and go into empty studios to work on his announcing skills, and of course he was a tinkerer and loved to stay up late working on his cars. His son, Dave Jr., told an author that at a card game after World War II, a physician told Garroway about Dexedrine, and Dave got hooked and laid in a supply of it. You hear stories about Dave using some liquid called “The Doctor” to keep him going, and that was a preparation of Dexedrine and vitamins.
We know things now about Dexedrine and Benzedrine that we didn’t know in 1945, and we know what they can do to the body and mind with continued use. It’s like what we know about smoking that we didn’t know then. But back then Benzedrine was talked about in sort of the same way we now talk about those little 5-Hour Energy shots, and it had been used to keep troops alert in battle during the recent war, so it was something people were aware of. There’s a great Esquire piece from 1953 about Garroway and the early days of Today, and The Doctor is talked about in there – and not in the context of Dave using it, but members of the crew using it to stay awake and alert against the strange hours they had to keep at this demanding job.
Garroway kept strange hours not just because of Today and all the obligations that came with it, but he had other things going on with other programs, sponsor commitments, guest appearances, so many other things. Or he’d go out for an evening, or go to an all-night card game, or even come home in the early evening and then work past midnight on one of his cars, only to have to be up again at 3:30 or 4:00 to do the program at 7:00. So he’d take sleeping pills to help him rest and Dexedrine to get going, surviving on very little sleep as it was, but with these drugs working on him.
The other thing is, from what I’ve researched – and I’m not a physician, so take this for what it’s worth - the more you use of something like Dexedrine, the more you need of it to get the same effect, and it does strange things. I think the stories of Dave’s paranoia, like putting microphones in the gargoyles outside his doorstep because he insisted people were going to break in, or his preoccupation with bomb shelters, have foundation in his Dexedrine use. Some of Dave’s unhappiness with things behind the scenes may also be related. Florence Henderson told of seeing Dave one day after he’d pulled a lot of skin off his thumb, and that’s consistent with the skin-picking that can come with heavy Dexedrine use. I also wonder if the heart troubles he had later in life were connected to all the Dexedrine he’d used back in the day, because it can have an effect on the heart. Dave eventually kicked the Dexedrine habit and got that part of his life in order, but the depression never left him.
Off-camera there were signs that Dave’s life was in bad shape. Lindsey Nelson, the sportscaster, wrote of being on the program with Garroway, and when they cut away to a 60-second filmed commercial Dave sat silently as tears rolled down his face. He told Nelson, “I’ve got to quit crying on the show. People can’t understand what I’m saying.” There was a day when Dave passed out in Betsy Palmer’s arms just before the show was to begin. There were tales of behind-the-scenes intrigue, of Garroway ordering the firings of producers and other personnel, and you’ll read in showbiz columns these little hints of “turmoil behind the scenes at the Garroway show.” There was also a shift to videotaping the program the afternoon before, in an effort to ease the burden on Garroway.
What’s amazing, though, is how little of this came across on the air. Certainly if you compare the sunny Garroway of 1952 with the serious Garroway of 1960 or 1961 you can see a difference. But Garroway had this way of compartmentalizing. Whatever was going on in his mind or behind the scenes did not really show to the home viewer when the tally light came on. There were moments when it slipped, such as his teary monologue after Van Doren was suspended, and another where he’s said to have blown up on the air at a crewman to the point where NBC had to issue an apology. But those moments were exceptions.
There were a lot of things going on about that time. For one, Dave’s drug use was really getting to him, and it was wearing him out. There was also turbulence behind the scenes at Today, with a revolving door of staffers and producers who either got tired of dealing with Garroway or were fired at his request. By 1961 there are items just about every other week in the entertainment columns about turmoil at Today. Dave’s contract was going to expire later that year and he was seeking new one. On top of that, his marriage was under strain and his wife was having her own problems, and in late April she was found dead of an overdose. Things really caught up with him that year in an incredibly sad way.
Dave insisted he was forced out because the news department wanted control of the show and insisted he wasn’t a newsman. He said as much in interviews years later, and Dave Jr. told an author his dad said he’d have just been a talking head if he’d stayed. Dave didn’t fit with what the network wanted Today to become, and his recent behavior probably soured the network too. So Garroway left and the show was retooled with John Chancellor and Frank Blair and Edwin Newman, which turned Today into what somebody called “the evening news in the morning,” and that didn’t work well at all. Garroway lamented what the network did to Today after he left. But even if none of that had happened, I wonder how long it would have been before the strain of everything – the drugs, the depression, his busy schedule, his wife’s death – would have caught up with him. He was on course for a breakdown as it was. To me the wonder is that with everything he faced, he held it together that long, and for the most part kept it off the program.
I think you just answered this, but what did Garroway think of Today with John Chancellor and then Hugh Downs in charge? I'd think that the hard-news approach of Chancellor would have been the opposite of what he wanted for the show.
Oh, he hated what resulted when NBC gave control of Today to the news division. He hated what News did to Today and really felt they'd taken out what made the program special. It didn't help that, according to Garroway, NBC News had insisted Garroway was not a newsman, and that NBC wouldn't have let him keep his same role or any of the power he held over the program. He knew they wanted to change the program, and he didn't like it. I don't think Garroway blamed the hosts after him for what happened to the program. I think what upset Garroway was what TV Tropes calls "executive meddling." Especially since he had invested so much of himself into carving Today out of the wilderness and into a very popular and well-regarded program.
Be that as it may, whether it was his feelings of hurt or if it was genuine concern, Garroway did have a point. The Chancellor-hosted version of Today was a legendary misfire. Chancellor himself didn't feel it was his field, Frank Blair didn't feel comfortable as the sidekick instead of the newsman, and the whole thing was just too hard-news for early morning. When Hugh Downs took over in 1962 the program kind of went back to its roots a little, but in Garroway's eyes Today was never again as good as it was when he was hosting.
What was Dave's career, and his life, like post-Today?
Dave tried a number of things in the years after Today. He invested in a broadcasting magazine, but that went bust and turned into a serious financial nightmare, and he did some work in radio. He did a science series for National Educational Television, the forerunner of PBS. He moved to Boston later in the 1960s and hosted a talk show that he tried to get nationally syndicated, but that didn’t come through. After that, he moved to Los Angeles and worked in radio there, and hosted a summer replacement show for CBS called The Newcomers, showcasing up-and-coming talent, and he had fun doing that. He tried pitching some television series to the networks, but none of them worked out. He did commercials, and even took acting lessons and had a few bit parts on programs like Alias Smith and Jones.
I remember that episode - my wife said, "Isn't that Dave Garroway?"
His personal life settled down somewhat, and he could devote time to his many interests, to his car collection and his golf game. He had long been fascinated with astronomy and telescopes, and even knew how to grind his own lenses, and he’d travel to see eclipses in Africa or go take tours of great telescopes. He was on a tour of Soviet telescopes in the mid-1970s when he befriended an astronomy professor named Sarah Lippincott, and their friendship grew to the point where they got married. I think he found in her an ideal partner, and she really loved him too. And at some point Dave kicked his addictions. Unfortunately, his health started to go in the 1970s, and he had to have some heart procedures performed. One of them left complications, and he was in and out of hospitals a good bit toward the end. And, of course, depression was never far away, and one of his associates who talked to him via phone at least twice a week noted his affect was up some days and down some others.
But he managed to show up for the Today 30th anniversary special in 1982, and that’s poignant to watch. The producer built the show around Dave, and he delivered. He looked 78 and not 68, but being back on the air and surrounded by old friends energized him. On the 25th anniversary show he had kind of rambled, but this time around he was sharp and his tone was light. The segments he did, reminiscing with Jack Lescoulie and Frank Blair and Pat Weaver, had the old Garroway magic. Lescoulie and Garroway kidded around like they did in the old days. At the end of the program, before they sliced this huge birthday cake, Bryant Gumbel invited Dave to have the last word. “Sentimental Journey” comes up in the background and eyes are misting up. Dave raises his hand and says “I’m Dave Garroway...and peace.” Everybody applauds. As the show’s going off, Dave is standing with his wife and Lee Meriwether and Betsy Palmer and Florence Henderson, and he’s given a piece of cake. He tells them, “I said ‘peace’ and I got one!” And everyone laughs. It was the perfect end to a wonderful reunion. Dave enjoyed the morning so much, and wrote this gracious thank-you to the show’s producer that ended with the words, “Now let’s talk about 1987.”
And six months later, he was dead. I think his health issues had just become too much, between the lingering aftereffects from his heart surgery, and his depression. His family made the study of depression a cause in the years after his death, and helped the University of Pennsylvania set up a laboratory program in his honor.
You mention that at one point he said to his friends that “I’m old hat, old shoe. Nobody wants old Dave any more.” Did he ever feel that it had been a mistake to leave Today, that perhaps if he’d done things differently it might have worked out better, or would that kind of second-guessing just have been a natural part of his depression?
From what Garroway himself said in interviews and what Dave Jr. has said, Today was going to change regardless of how Garroway felt, so even if he could have stayed the program was not going to be the same, he’d have had to cede a good deal of control, and he probably would not have been happy with what ensued.
I think so much of what Garroway was up against in any comeback was that the industry had changed. In 1972 he talked about the kinds of interviews he once could conduct, of things he could do in the old Chicago days, and mourned that you couldn’t get away with that any more. He said “Maybe I belong in another, long-gone era when people had time for nonsense,” and I think that captures what he was facing. Depression may have been a factor in that, but I think he was also dealing with a cold reality that many of his contemporaries also faced, that his style of broadcasting was no longer in demand. One review of The Newcomers compared Garroway to an uncle who tells predictable jokes and does little sleight-of-hand tricks at cocktail parties.
As someone who’s struggled with depression from time to time myself, I have a great deal of compassion for anyone who feels that kind of blackness envelop them to that extent – far more than I’ve ever experienced.
Oh, yeah. I’ve dealt with it too. Never to the extent Garroway had to, but enough that I would never wish it on even my worst enemy. Mine was bad enough, and I cannot imagine what Dave had to deal with.
Do you think there was a time, post-Today, when there was a chance for him to put it all back together, a project that might have been able to bring him back or something that could have given his life meaning, or was it just a combination of things that became too much for him to overcome?
I think there were things in his own life that interfered, but the medium also changed too much. Television has a way of devouring its own, as happened with Milton Berle and Arthur Godfrey, two others who were inescapable back in the day but had trouble finding gigs in a new age because they just didn’t fit any longer. And tastes change, and networks change. Garroway tried pitching a couple ideas to the networks in the early ‘70s and got polite refusals. I think by that point the time had passed, and he acknowledged as much in several interviews.
What would Garroway say about television today, do you think? Would he be pleased by the direction it’s gone in since his time? Would he feel it’s stagnated, that it’s gone in the wrong direction, that it needs to go in a different direction? Would he think that the personalities on TV connect with audiences the way he was able to, even given the fact that he had an extraordinary ability to do so?
There’s no doubt he would be fascinated by the technical aspects of what can be done these days. But I don’t think he would be very happy with what it’s being used for. Even in the 1970s he was outspoken about it. If he was sad about what television was like then, I know he would hate what it’s now become. I think he’d be unhappy with how we’ve lost the ability to give time to ideas, how there’s so little time for genuine conversation and exploration. And if he thought the 1976 version of Today had become “so cut up” and without humanity or empathy, I hate to think what he’d say about it now!
To put this in a more positive light, what can I see Dave Garroway enjoying in 2017? He’d have certainly enjoyed the new version of Cosmos that was done a few years ago; having science celebrated in prime time on network television, accessible to the lay viewer, would have made him very happy. Sunday Morning on CBS, with its relaxed pace and occasional bits of whimsy, might be in there too. I think he’d also enjoy the kinds of interviews Charlie Rose does, with one person for an extended conversation. He’d probably enjoy the science and culture programs on PBS. The news and interview programs on NPR, with their longer formats and more time for exploration, would probably be up his alley too. And, of course, he’d love the jazz programs NPR still presents.
Looking back on his career, I know it might be hard to answer the cliché kind of question about what was the single most important contribution that Dave Garroway made to television history, so let me put it this way: as a visionary, what was the vision that Garroway had that made him different, that made him a pioneer of television, and how did it change the direction of television? And if you were able to isolate one contribution that he made, what would it be?
It took someone with the vision of Pat Weaver to imagine broadcasting as it could be, and to think of a host being more than a host, but a “communicator,” someone who could not only tell you what mattered but why it mattered. But it took someone with the talent and ability of Dave Garroway to turn the “communicator” concept into a reality. It’s that ability to take all the knowledge and information and convey it to the average person in a way that’s appealing and accessible – and do it in a way that feels like it’s for you alone. That’s no small order, when you think about it.
Think about hosting a show like Today, where you had two hours to cover anything and everything under the sun, and needed the ability to talk about anything. Or Wide Wide World, where you’d have all these live remotes from all these different locations, and the host has to be a tour guide as much as anything. It would be really easy for Wide Wide World to be like one of those stilted “as the sun sinks slowly in the west….” travelogues. But going places via television with Garroway was fun, like going with a friend who always had some neat bit of information or some kind of insight or inspiration. All of that stuff was written for him, of course, but having compared the script pages with how Dave delivered those words on the air, it’s night and day. I use the word “magic” a lot, but that’s what Dave had, this great ability to make it seem spontaneous and personal.
And we don’t get to see that so much these days when so many programs see the host as someone who hands off to other people, instead of somebody who is your companion through the whole program. And maybe that’s a good way to think of the Garroway style at its best, as someone who is your wise and enjoyable companion in whatever journey the program takes you through.
Finally, Dave’s famous gesture that he’d make at the end of each show, which at least for me takes on an added poignancy given the lack of peace he had in his own life. What was the meaning behind that?
Dave’s favorite writer and best friend, Charlie Andrews, remembered that there was a preacher in Philadelphia who had a radio show and gave these really high-energy messages, and would end his oration with “Peace...it’s wonderful.” Garroway fell in love with that and adopted “peace” for himself, and had that written in as his benediction at the end of each program. Andrews said that Garroway would also use it in conversation when he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Peace” was a nifty sign-off, and people read a lot into it, especially with the tenor of the times. But it’s telling that after he left Today he switched his sign-off to “Courage.” It came from a poem Amelia Earhart wrote, which ended with “Courage is the price which each of us must pay for peace.” And Dave rationalized the switch by saying “peace” was supplicating for peace while “courage” was a way to find it, and when you put all that together with what he faced in his own life it makes sense. Beryl Pfizer, who saw some of Garroway’s problems up close, wrote that she often saw “peace” as more a personal plea than a political one, and I tend to agree. He did worry about the state of the world, but he also sought peace in a life that was complicated by so many things.
Once again, a big thank you to Jodie for her generosity with her time, and sharing her passion and knowledge of Dave Garroway. I'm very much looking forward to reading this book and learning more about this remarkable man and his place in television history, and I hope you are as well.