This is it! This is the big time, baby! Drop the baggy pants. Peg the old blue blazer. Kill the eyeglasses. Shape up! Get a hairstyle. Get a facial. You want to be a player, don't you? Here's your chance. Slip into a Hugo Boss jacket, a Bill Robinson shirt, a Perry Ellis tie! Smile! And remember -- eye contact is everything.
I was sitting in front of a mirror, getting a pep talk from this red-haired makeup artist, when all of a sudden a woman with bouncing gold earrings, a midwinter tan and a hip-as-tomorrow perm danced through the dressing room door, stroked my pancaked chin with her hot-pink fingernails and puckered her lips, as if to say, "Poopsie Woopsie." I knew, right then, right there, that I was trapped. I was in Big-Time TV Land!
"They're going to looooove you," the woman cooed. She had a transcontinental Carly Simon mouth, big white teeth. "Just be yourself! They'll love you."
Love me? Was that the point? I guess it was. This was TV Land. First and foremost, they gotta love you!
Of course, they never mentioned this back in Baltimore. I had worked several years as a contributing feature reporter and commentator for WBAL-TV and never, in all that time, had a news executive said a word about hairstyle, facial hair, style of dress, contact lenses, or being loved. Though maybe someone should have.
The point is, the scene in Boston was entirely different.
I was auditioning at a TV station there, and the woman who had just squeezed my cheek was the one who had arranged it. Someone had told her to call me because she was producing a new, supposedly improved, midmorning talk show, and she needed a host.
"Host? Me?" was how I reacted. "I haven't hosted anything, except Italian theme parties."
At the time -- 1987 -- the thought had never occurred to me. Be the host of a TV talk show? I was skeptical.
"Are you sure you've got the right guy?" I asked a week before the audition. "I'm mostly a reporter. I write. I tell stories. I've never anchored or hosted. I'm interested in documentaries, maybe a news magazine show, like a local '60 Minutes' maybe."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "You're the newspaper guy. . . . But you've been working in television, too, haven't you?"
That is to say: Lighten up, Jack.
That is to say: Unsnap the buckles on the "serious journalist" truss for an adventure in show biz. After all, wasn't I the reporter who, on WBAL-TV's "Live at Five," had shown Baltimore viewers what to do with leftover turkey after Thanksgiving? Wasn't I the guy who produced a story on his addiction to peanut M&Ms? The guy who, for a story about the trauma of driver's license renewal, sat for a make-over and rented a tuxedo before getting his photograph taken? The guy who filed a story on the Nude Olympics, via satellite, from a Harford County cornfield?
Of course, it was all true. I had been producing sometimes serious, sometimes silly at-large features for WBAL. The station's moguls had propositioned me over lunch in Tio Pepe's in late 1979. They told me over shrimp in garlic sauce that, if I gave up my newspaper column and went into TV Land, I'd be a hit.
"I'm telling you," an executive producer once said, "you could be 5/8 5/8 TC a giant."
"A giant? Like who?"
"I'm talking Dan Rather-size giant."
Rather -- not!
I resisted the sweet talk -- and a contract -- and limited my TV work to free-lance assignments.
By the time of my audition in Boston, I still hadn't been the host of a thing.
"We want you to try it," the woman with the big earrings had said. She claimed the show would be a regional news magazine, not just another cheaply produced TV talk show that, in most American cities, passes for responsible local programming.
So there I was, in Big-Time TV Land, preparing for a 15-minute audition before a studio audience that had assembled at 7 a.m. and had already seen a dozen other would-be hosts and hostesses try for the part.
"The first interview is with a woman who is a Christian Scientist and whose child is dying from leukemia, but she refuses to allow the child to have medical treatment because it's against her religion," the producer said.
"It is?" I asked. "I mean, she won't? I mean, I don't know anything about this."
"It's a big case," the producer said. "A judge ordered the child to have medical treatment. You have five minutes."
"And I'm interviewing the mother?"
"Not really," the producer says.
"It's really an actress playing the mother."