Stars of local television reminisce at 'family' reunion

October 05, 1992|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

Baltimore television was so innocent back in the 1950s an '60s that nobody thought it odd that a puppet gave the weather forecast on a local news broadcast. "I was like the baby sitter for a lot of kids back then. People think back to those years of television with more fondness than they have for TV now," recalls Rhea Feiken of her "J.P. & Rhea" collaboration with puppeteer Cal Schumann on WBAL-TV.

A puppet still affixed to his hand as if by surgical procedure, Mr. Schumann blushes as Ms. Feiken mentions one of their more nerve-wracking moments on live TV. "Cal had been out a bit too late the night before and, looking beneath the puppet stage, I could see him down there saying to me, 'I gotta go.' He simply left the set and so I was stuck out there with no puppet and I had to completely improvise to get through the show."

Stories from the distant TV past filled the grounds of Friends School yesterday, as many local TV personalities held a reunion. It was part of a fund-raiser sponsored by the Mid-Town Churches Community Association Inc., which works with the homeless and needy. Its executive director, Esther R. Reaves, herself the widow of a WBAL-TV employee, says with a tinge of nostalgia that "people in local television were more of a family then."

It sure felt like a family reunion as Brent Gunts, the former WBAL executive who was instrumental in organizing the get-together, chortled "This is quite a reunion!" as he made the rounds dressed in a bright red jacket that would blaze even on a black-and-white screen.

Among the notables spotted at the reunion was Buddy Deane, who introduced a generation of Baltimore youths to rock and roll on his TV and radio shows. Now living in Pine Bluff, Ark., he sounded melancholic as he said, "Broadcasting, like rock and roll, was more innocent then."

But younger TV journalists in the crowd didn't necessarily feel squeezed out by a generation gap.

"We may have new technology, but there's still the same spirit in this profession," says Katie Couric, the "Today" show co-host who was there as a special guest. She mentioned that her program is among those now doing more segments live "to capture the nervous excitement there used to be on TV."

And many of the stories told by the old-timers did indeed have to do with everything that can go wrong on live TV. Arthur Watson, 77, the retired director of the Baltimore Zoo who now co-owns a stuffed animal store at Harborplace, first went on the air in 1949 with a show that educated kids about the animal kingdom via puppets and studio visits by zoo critters. He smilingly mentions the time a kangaroo escaped and ran through the streets of Baltimore.

Besides the spontaneity of live TV, local journalists agree they had to be jacks-of-all-trades back then.

"We did our own camera work in those days and also helped edit and write the stories. There was none of this specialty stuff back then," says Bob Matthews, 72, who as a WBAL reporter in the '60s was among the first blacks in the country to be hired for the position; he later worked for CBS and NBC and is retired as executive editor of the Afro-American.

Equally versatile was Jack Dawson, 63, who worked at WMAR-TV as a sports announcer and in other capacities from 1959 until his retirement last May. "As staff announcers, we had to do everything from selling hams for the A&P to interviewing visiting Iranians" who spoke virtually no English for a live public affairs show, he recalls.

Others at the reunion included Vince Bagli, David Brigham, Lu Calfee, Nancy Claster, Joe Croghan, Richard Dix, Nancy Lee Dix, Jed Duvall, Jay Grayson, Holly Gunts McFadden, Rolf Hertsgaard, Allan Herndon, Ann Hoffman, Bob Jones, Stu Kerr, Lary Lewman, Nancy Lewman, Spotty Lickle, Vernie Manzke, Jim McKay, John Owen, Bernie Paul, John Steadman, Dick Strader, Chuck Thompson, Judy Torme, Jim West and Ad Wienert.

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