A Waltz Down Memory Lane

Back in the city of his youth, Charles Osgood recalls the high and low notes of a 1940s Baltimore childhood.

Cover Story

May 02, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

CBS News Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood, looking slightly more rumpled than usual, was hamming it up with Peabody Institute Director Robert Sirota. The two were sharing a seat at the grand piano in Peabody's Goodwin Recital Hall, banging out bars from "The Blue Danube" waltz. Sirota called Osgood a "natural stride pianist" and admired his "big left hand."

"You can come back and play here anytime," Sirota offered.

It was a nicer reception than he'd had the last time he'd been on this very stage --more than 60 years before -- at a piano recital. He was 7 or 8 then, and in tears.

Little Charlie Osgood Wood (he's since dropped the last name) had been slated to play second-to-last that day. "When the last student sat down to play and I was still waiting, all I could think was that [my teacher] had done something wonderful: she had made me the grand finale," Osgood writes in his new book about his Charm City childhood, Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack.

"But suddenly, she was standing before the parents to thank them for coming. If I was to be a grand finale, it would be for some other concert."

As it turned out, he did end up playing -- but only after all the parents were called back in. The experience, though, did not put him off music -- or performing.

Now it would be hard to imagine an audience walking out on Osgood. At 71, he is a Radio Hall of Fame inductee, a three-time Emmy Award winner, three-time Peabody Award winner, an author, composer and a lyricist. He's written other books, including Funny Letters From Famous People and See You on the Radio. He's put out several CDs, including Christmas With Charles Osgood -- which features him performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

He was back in Baltimore on a recent cold and rainy day to tape a segment on his new book for his Sunday morning show. He lived here for only a few years -- from 1939 to 1946 -- but they were influential ones.

"I was here for my entire grammar school years -- those are pretty formative years," he said. Now he and his wife, Jean, live in New York -- they have an apartment in Manhattan near Carnegie Hall. But they like to vacation at their house in the French Rivera town of Saint Maxime. Their five children are grown.

Radio man at heart

For the television shoot, he wore his signature bow tie and overflowed with good humor -- becoming fast friends with Peabody staff members and laughing loudly as he reminisced about his boyhood days in the city. Everyone called him Charlie.

He inherited his position at CBS News Sunday Morning when television legend Charles Kuralt retired in 1994. Almost 5 million people tune in every week to see the positive, quirky, feel-good stories that the show is known for. A recent story featured the world's largest ball of paint -- a baseball that has been painted over tens of thousands of times -- in Alexandria, Ind. The show is Norman Rockwell in motion.

But in his heart, Osgood is still a radio man. "I think of myself as a radio guy who does television," he said. He records 20 spots a week for The Osgood File, a syndicated CBS radio program.

It makes sense. He's spent much of his 50-year broadcast career in this medium, starting as an announcer on Washington's WGMS -- a classical-music radio station. After working in Washington, and doing a brief stint in television as a station manager at WHCT in Connecticut, he landed a job in New York working for ABC Radio alongside another rising star: ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. Osgood jumped over to CBS Radio, but is still close with Koppel.

Taping the Sunday show segment at Peabody, Osgood had a chance to examine his old report card -- a yellowed 3-by-5-inch rectangle. It was from the community music program, showing he'd taken piano classes there for four terms from 1939 to 1941.

It turns out that Peabody's records are crisper than Osgood's memory. In his book, he tells of romping at the conservatory a bit later -- in 1942.

"Some of these things turn out to be not quite true," said Osgood between camera takes. "First of all, you remember something, and then what you remember is your memory of what happened. You will remember things wrong -- I remembered our neighborhood as Liberty Heights but it was really Ashburton."

The book makes no claim to be a precise history. It chronicles Osgood's family tales in the era they lived in Baltimore but condenses much into one year: 1942.

And it took Osgood took one year -- working sporadically -- to write the book. He had lots of help. "It was really based more on my sister's memories than mine," he said. "I was in touch with her every day about this thing."

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