Local news wasn't quite like this

But, Richard Sher says, `Anchorman' captures flavor, zest

July 09, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Outside a mega-movie theater at the White Marsh mall, people are whispering and staring at the man with white frizzy hair.

"You on Channel 13?" a young man asks as he takes a break from sweeping up litter. "What's your name?"

It's Richard Sher, former anchor and longtime reporter at Baltimore's WJZ-TV, and he is just emerging on this warm July night from a special screening of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

Starring Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell, the movie, which opens today, spoofs television news in the 1970s. The story unfolds at the fictional San Diego station KVWN where the on-air personalities behave like fifth-graders in adult bodies, fully absorbed in their looks and delicate egos.

Theirs is a sophomoric world in which the title character is a 30-something anchor who, before going on the air, gargles with Scotch while singing its virtues. A brawl among rival television teams involves one ironclad rule: "No touching of the hair or face." And members of the news crew trip up the station's first anchorwoman by distracting her while she reads headlines.

"This movie was so absurd and so silly," Sher says. "It didn't really happen like that."

Maybe not, but even in real life, local news provided its own mixture of inspiration and inanity, he acknowledges. Over the years, Sher has covered crime, natural disasters and politics. He was partnered with numerous hosts and anchors including Oprah Winfrey, one of the station's first women anchors. ("My Afro was as big as hers," he says proudly.)

Sher says he felt comfortable with his female co-hosts, befriending them rather than resorting to the competitive sabotage depicted in Anchorman.

Once he performed the Heimlich maneuver on Denise Koch, then known as "Daring Denise," who was choking on a Twinkie - though he concedes that she claims he did more harm than good.

Television in the '70s was a younger and lighter-hearted profession than it is now, he says. Focus groups didn't dictate every on-air move and news report. On-air banter felt fun, not forced, and terrorism occurred on other continents, far away. Stations were just beginning to create their now well-worn formats of Eyewitness or Action newscasts.

In one early scene in Anchorman, Burgundy introduces footage of a water-skiing squirrel. Sher reacts instantly. "I remember Nutty the Squirrel," Sher says. "Everybody ran him. I've done crab races, turtle derbies, Preakness party worm races."

Back then, when remote live shots were still novel, cameramen competed to see who could make their on-air colleagues laugh.

But that wasn't the only peril introduced by the new technology, Sher says.

Once in 1979, Sher - sitting in the studio - interviewed Bradley Bleefeld, then rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who was at home with his family.

As the men discussed the significance of Hanukkah candles, the rabbi's son began stretching his mouth apart with his fingers and sticking out his tongue. Although the camera veered to keep the boy off screen, viewers could see him knocking his younger brother's yarmulke off his head.

Sher's expression never changed, but WJZ's long beloved anchorman, the late Jerry Turner, could barely keep a straight face. "It was shown around the world," Sher says. "It became President Reagan's favorite TV moment."

Just like in the movie, all anchors kept small mirrors on hand to check how they looked just before hitting the airwaves, Sher says. People groomed their hair, their teeth, even their eyebrows.

"Jerry Turner had the great silver hair, he was known for that," Sher says wistfully. "Even 17 years after he died, people still call me Jerry Turner because they see the [white] hair.

"But Jerry wasn't vain like that," Sher adds. "What Ron Burgundy lacks in credibility - and charisma - Jerry was all of it and more."

Ferrell's Burgundy, a man devoid of self-awareness, has a signet ring with the station's logo on it. Sher owns cufflinks with television color bars - they were a gift, he explains - but decided to leave them at home this evening.

He just shakes his head and laughs when he thinks of the bell-bottomed, velour-suited attire mocked in the movie. "I never wore stuff like that," Sher says.

Then he catches himself: "I sometimes wore stuff like that."

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