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Advertise on the Tentacle

June 2, 2006

Who's Dave Garroway?

Roy Meachum

One Baltimore Sun columnist remarked all the praise pouring forth on NBC the other morning would have been suitable for Mother Theresa, the saintly nun who literally saved lives by the thousands.

But the ceremonies and paeans of praise were aimed at "Today" host Katie Couric, leaving the show after some 15 years and headed for the rival "eye" network. Come fall she will solo anchor the CBS Evening News.

At her elbows, beaming, were the early morning program's weathermen, present and past. Al Roker and I worked together in the basement of a Wisconsin Avenue building. The former teacher had broken into television in upstate New York. His big break came with an NBC contract planting his chubby, sunny personality on the network's Cleveland station.

Hindsight provides zilch compensation, but I should have known, while giving colleague Roker warm congratulations, that he had been hired to replace my long-time buddy, Willard "Joy Boy" Scott.

In television's dawning days, Willard and the even more remarkable Ed Walker had made their media names on WRC-radio. After hearing the show, I found myself flabbergasted to discover Ed was vision-impaired; he said blind. By way of compensation he had developed extraordinary talents, beyond belief; he instantly recognized people solely by their voices.

Not so long ago, after many years apart, we bumped into each other on the street; at the first word through my mouth, he smiled and chirped: "How ya doing, Roy?" Their program's theme was "We are the Joy Boys of radio," a razzamatazz number that harkened back to vaudeville and demanded lots of drum riffs and rolls.

Channel Four's weatherperson at the time was Tippy Stringer; that's how she was known professionally. In real life she answered to Mrs. Chet Huntley. They had what might be called "an office romance." Together with David Brinkley, her husband formed the team that dominated television news, until Walter Cronkite came along.

Anyway, that's how the bigger Joy Boy wound up in television, drawing lines on weather charts and pitting him against Louis Allen, a bona fide, genuine, certified meteorologist. Louis was the established dean of Washington's TV weather world; he deployed cartoons and ran rings around his competitors, including Ms. Gore/Mrs. Brinkley. But he never really fazed the Joy Boy.

Willard brought along to his new chores the same brand of wonderment and awe, rambunctiousness and cheer that had made the radio show a hit, although stuck in a very bad programming slot. He was paid as a staff announcer; the talent fees didn't begin to accumulate until the move onto the tube.

In those days, NBC was owned by RCA, better known for manufacturing TV sets, whose millions in sales funded the new medium's growth. ABC was no competition. CBS barely fought back, deploying as its not-so-secret weapons, the comedic genius of Lucille "I Love Lucy" Ball and the great gravitas and Armageddon vocal tones of Edward R. Murrow.

Mr. Murrow brought his "boys" along; sartorially splendid Charles Collingwood, whose Seville Row suits, ties and suspenders amazed me, on his visits from New York. Eric Sevareid was permanently in Washington and best known for loosening his belt and unzipping, to relieve tensions before doing his weighty commentaries. Not known for his easy wit, I could get Eric to smile by singing the Norwegian national anthem, in Norwegian. I had learned the words from a step father born on the Oslo fjord.

For several years, Mr. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly provided much of what passed for substance on CBS' prime evening time; the rest came from Sunday afternoons' "cultural hour" that featured "Omnibus," starring BBC correspondent Alistair Cook.

As part of the struggle, The Washington Post was allowed to buy a substantial share of WOIC-TV and WTOP radio, then owned by CBS that used the money to play catch up. The television station letters became WTOP-TV. But NBC, the older and better financed network, kept ahead by pioneering such breakthroughs as early morning programming.

Dave Garroway provided the first muscle for the "Today" show when it debuted in 1952, five years before Katie Couric was born! He brought to the time slot a reputation for humor and gentleness that he extended by closing each show with an extended palm and a very calm farewell delivered as a blessing: "Peace."

Seven months after "Today" started, I transferred from my slot on The Washington Post's copy desk to the paper's television station where I was expected to knock heads with Mr. Garroway. The move was not that simple. During my time in the Army, I had been the American Forces Network's chosen host for celebrity visitors to Germany. Before turning 21, I had shared the microphone with Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Rita Hayworth, among others. Still I entered the new medium only after a highly competitive audition with other TV wannabes.

As a framed Post ad atop my stairs on North Market Street has it: my initial venture into television was called "Roy Meachum in the Morning." Tony Sylvester read the news, Peter Vincent O'Reilly sports and Don Gaynor put on a very bad wig to do weather when he was not in the announce booth, handling introductions and an occasional commercial. Don detested the toupee, treating it frequently like a dead skunk; at each program's end he brutally tossed the thing into a paper bag where it stayed until the next morning.

Those of us who worked in television in that era were not altogether an especially happy band of brothers: few women were involved. In the first place, radio income supported the fledging medium, which made TV paychecks on the low side. Not every home possessed a tube in a corner, which was part of the economic problem. We also suffered a sense that we were primarily playing for each other, especially on the morning shows. On a trip to New York I found myself cheerily recognized by Frank Blair who presented the news for Dave Garroway.

Our production budgets conformed to the old saying about being low enough to have to reach up to touch a snake's belly. That's why when the decision was made to get a puppet act to "cover" playing records I hired a student named Jim Henson, who came both eager and cheap. As I recall, his first TV check was $25.

In all, my time competing against "Today" lasted slightly less than a year. CBS decided not to use local affiliates to challenge NBC. Bill Paley, the "man" at New York's 485 Madison Avenue, reached down to Washington for Walter Cronkite to anchor the new two-hour program based on "hard news."

While somewhat devastated about losing a show, I was at least comforted by the fact the time was going to a man I liked: Walter had worked in the CBS News bureau that used the station's facilities. And while Ms. Couric did not bring the subject up, she must be relieved at the prospect of staying in bed past every weekday dawn. Although she had a chauffer, she must still remember how her world looked in the deep night right before the first sun rays awake. Even with afternoon naps, every program's close left me scrambling to adjust to the world that had only awakened while I worked; I can't imagine her experience was so much different.

By way of compensation, Ms. Couric enjoyed wealth beyond my TV generation's reckoning and the adulation of millions represented by the thousands who showed up in New York this week for her last "Today." I was especially satisfied to see my former colleagues there. I was very happy to note Al Roker found the magic means to shed those surplus pounds that bothered him in the old basement digs.

While I wish her every success sitting this fall in Walter Cronkite's former chair, Kate Couric came along long after I started my Frederick columns. But the original Washington Joy Boy and I waged those early TV wars on the same side. To him I want to say: Willard, you're looking good.

In closing, did anyone hear Dave Garroway's name mentioned? I didn't catch the entire show but I didn't. He started the whole thing.

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