February 14, 2018
by Jodie Peeler
couple years ago as I was starting to get serious about the Dave Garroway book project, a friend gave me a telephone number and an e-mail address. "Get in touch with this man," my friend said. "Frank worked with Garroway." It took a little courage for me to give him a call (the telephone is not my favorite thing in the world), but the result was more than worth it. Not only was Frank on one of the camera crews for the very first Today program in January 1952, but he worked with Garroway on other television programs, and decades later his memories remained vivid.
During that conversation Frank, who is one of the kindest people you could ever meet, invited me to his home in Florida. A couple weeks later I drove down to see him. What I'd planned as a two-hour interview went even longer, as story after story of days gone by transfixed me. Frank told me not only about working with Garroway, but about working with Wally Cox and Bob Hope and Steve Allen and Johnny Carson and so many others, a couple of encounters with Thomas E. Dewey during his 1948 run for the Presidency, a great story about a Robert Montgomery Presents that went slightly awry. He told stories of General Sarnoff and Pat Weaver and Mike Dann and others from the executive suites. I had brought my own list of questions, but the more I listened the more I felt Frank's recollections were by far more interesting, so I kept listening, taking notes as I could (I didn't record the interview, and will spend the rest of my days wishing I had). It was an incredible experience to hear these stories from someone who was there, who interacted with so many people whose names are legendary.
Like so many who had a hand in turning television into a truly national medium, Frank was a World War II veteran. He had worked with electronics during his time in the Army Air Force, joined RCA after the war, and ended up in a group of 60 that RCA assembled to get television going in the postwar era. For so much of what we consider iconic about the early days of television, Frank was there: working on Howdy Doody, the first days of Today, the Milton Berle show, the dawn of color. After he left RCA, Frank went on to other ventures in television, and even in his 90s was helping pioneer new broadcast technologies. His love for the medium, and his pride in being part of it, was unmistakable.
But time is now the enemy. As the members of the Greatest Generation leave us, we are losing countless stories. For the military historian, it's the little stories of units and battles that add up to the big story of winning a war. And for the media historian, it's the stories of carving a medium out of the wilderness, spreading it across the country, and giving it color. Now we're also losing the next generation, as the Baby Boomers who built on that foundation are passing away - those who were there as cable and satellite changed the landscape, who formed sports broadcasting into what we now take for granted, who worked for the networks when the networks still were giants. Their stories matter, too, and we're just as surely losing them, as the retirees associations' websites chronicle on a sadly routine basis.
There have been efforts to record stories from these pioneers. Jeff Kisseloff interviewed dozens upon dozens of people who played roles in television history; from those interviews he formed his oral history The Box, essential reading for anybody who loves the medium. The Archive of American Television (www.emmytvlegends.org) has recorded lengthy interviews with hundreds of broadcasting figures, everyone from legendary performers and respected executives to producers, directors, writers, stage managers, technical directors, set designers...you name it. And, better still, they're available online for anyone to watch. They're not only essential sources for authors and historians, but also great viewing for their own sake.
But for every one of those interviews, there's a broadcast industry veteran whose stories have been forever lost because no one got to them in time. Or no one knew just what that person did, or appreciated what it meant, and never asked them. Or sometimes that person didn't think there was anything special about what they did. The problem is, it really was special, and those stories matter too. They are a glimpse not only into a time gone by, but into how the future began.
Some of these stories will be captured by the professional historians, but not all of them will. We can take this as something to be mourned – or, perhaps, we can take it as a challenge. Those of us who are passionate about television history probably know at least one person who's worked in the business at some level. It doesn't have to be someone who worked for the networks. Even the stories at the local level matter. The stories from the kids' show host, the local anchor, the camera operator, the director, the master control operator are just as significant a contribution to our medium's history. And more often than not, there are great stories to be had - of big stories that had to be covered, of moments that went hilariously wrong, of unexpected grace, of brushes with greatness. Those stories matter, and they need to be saved, too. So why don't we each do our part, and help save them?
The morning I spent with Frank is still one of my favorite things from this research project, and every time I look over my notes I still find things that amaze and amuse. I remember how his eyes lit up as he recounted those moments from yesteryear. The memories Frank shared will add detail and warmth to the Garroway book, and my experience with him has me looking forward to all the interviews yet to come for this project, and all the stories I’ll get to hear. And yet I wonder whose now-stilled voices could have contributed to this project if only I'd started even a few years earlier. Whose now-lost stories could have added even more detail and insight? And what other great stories from broadcasting’s rich history are still out there, waiting to be preserved?