Garroway and `Today' changed morning television

Way Back When

January 12, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At 7 a.m. on a January morning in 1952, Baltimoreans flicking on WBAL-TV were greeted by the sound of Sentimental Journey softly playing in the background.

Then, NBC announcer Jack Lescoulie, standing in Studio 1-A on 49th Street in Manhattan, said, "Good morning. This is Today. January 14, 1952. We're trying something new on television this morning. And now, here is that man about town, our master communicator, Dave Garroway."

Wearing what would become his trademark style of dress (a hand-tied bow tie, conservatively cut suit and horned rimmed glasses), Garroway stared into the cameras from his place behind a kidney-shaped desk.

On the walls behind him were telephones, television screens, maps and wall-mounted clocks that recorded the time in foreign capitals. A spaghetti-like network of cables wound around and across the linoleum floor.

"Well here we are, and good morning to you," said Garroway. "The very first good morning of what I hope and suspect will be a great many good mornings between you and me. Here it is, January 14, 1952, when NBC begins a new program called Today and if it doesn't sound too revolutionary, I really believe this begins a new kind of television."

The two-hour show that has appeared some 13,000 times and has become the breakfast-table companion for millions, celebrates its 50th birthday Monday.

Today was the creation of NBC executive Sylvester L."Pat" Weaver, whose goal was to create a televised newspaper that combined the day's news with celebrity interviews, features, cooking segments, music and all enlivened with remote pick-ups from across the nation.

On the inaugural broadcast, Jim Fleming delivered the news. Frank Blair later took over the newscasting role, a job he held for 23 years until retiring in 1985.

Other members of the cast included Estelle Parsons, who later became a noted actress. Parsons was called the Today Girl, and her job was calling the U.S. Weather Bureau and passing along the forecast to Garroway. She later appeared in an on-air capacity doing the weather and interviewing guests.

Viewers watching that day heard reports that Winston Churchill would probably be England's top story of 1952. Mobile units in Washington and Chicago showed commuters hustling to work as a camera atop the RCA building in New York scanned the city's skyline. Another camera in Grand Central Terminal showed workers streaming across its concourse freshly arrived off New Haven and New York Central railroad commuter trains.

Guests in the studio included families whose sons were serving in Korea and were shown previously taped interviews with them. A newsreel clip showing Capt. Kurt Carlsen aboard his stricken freighter the Flying Enterprise wallowing in the Atlantic brought the dramatic rescue and attempted salvage event into the nation's living rooms.

Garroway later read headlines from New York newspapers to viewers, and later they listened to a recording of Les Paul and Mary Ford's "It's a Lonesome Town." For first-day viewers, this was certainly a novel show composed of a variety of parts.

And the task of keeping this eclectic mix of news, features, music, interviews and weather moving fell to the avuncular Garroway.

The show was not an instant success. "Excessively pretentious and unreasonably confusing and complex," wrote a critic in The New York Times.

The show lost nearly $2 million in its first year. In 1953 in order to pique interest, it added a chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs, to the cast. Children began turning on the show to watch the exploits of the famous chimp. It did the trick: Viewership increased and advertising revenues soared.

In 1954, a Today show remote from Baltimore's B & O Railroad Museum showed locomotives from its historic collection huffing and puffing for network TV cameras. By that same year, the show was airing on 51 network affiliates, had 90 sponsors and reached a daily audience of 6 million.

But John Crosby, TV critic for The New York Herald Tribune, gently knocked the show's widely varied format.

"Jack Lescoulie will mix up some Amazo, the fastest instant dessert mix in the world; the sight of which at 8 o'clock in the morning will make you a little ill. Then a girl on film palpitates at us to eat more Florida grapefruit if we want to avoid winter colds. And Steve, the Alka-Seltzer urchin, tells us how to get fast relief from headaches and Arlene Dahl blinks her pretty eyes and whispers the virtues of Pepsi Cola and Garroway sells toothbrushes and demonstrates a detergent and shows off a Polaroid Land Camera and -oh brother!"

No matter. It was Garroway who shaped and defined the show. "His talents-and eye for the unusual, a great deal of good taste, clever touch of phrase, a nose for the news and an ear for good music-have made Garroway into a money-making proposition," said The Sun.

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