Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Milwaukee Boss Was Wrong

By the time I was starting middle school, or junior high as we called it back then, I knew what profession I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to work in television.  I wanted to work on television in New York City, like Jack Paar and Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson.  I wanted to entertain, to host, and I wanted to interview people from various fields of the arts. I didn't know exactly how I would get from 124th and Central Avenue in South Central L.A. to New York City. But I knew deep in my soul that I'd get there.  That's the degree of faith I had in making my dream come true.
The 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN is one of my all-time favorite films.  I love the performances, the screenplay, the awesome singing of Judy Garland and the direction of George Cukor.  A scene that always touches my heart and one that reveals the heart of the lead male character played by James Mason. Norman Maine secretly watched the unknown girl singer with a band belt out a torch sing in an after hours club.  It's a jam session.  Just her and the boys in the band.  But her galvanizing performance shows us -- and him -- that she is far more talented that she realizes.  It's her dream to, one day, have a hit record.  Norman Maine, the big Hollywood star, tenderly and sincerely tells her that the dream isn't big enough.  He motivates her to take a chance and quit the band. He offers help. He tells her, "Don't settle for the little dream. Go on to the big one."
Isn't that something many of us long for?  That one person who will believe in us and see something in us no one else ever did.  We long for someone who will believe in us as much as we believe in ourselves.

My TV executive boss when I worked at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee was no Norman Maine.

I attended college in Milwaukee and stayed there after my graduation.  My plan was to see if I could land local broadcast work and then have some experience on my resume so I could move on to a bigger market and eventually make it to New York.

I started at the weekly movie critic and lifestyles contributor on Milwaukee's edition of PM MAGAZINE.  Two years into that job, I starting getting national exposure with some of the celebrity interview features I did thanks to being invited to press junkets in New York City and Los Angeles. The PM MAGAZINE headquarters felt they were good enough for national airing on the syndicated show.  On PM MAGAZINE back then, in the early 80s, that made me the first black person seen nationally doing celebrity interviews.  One week brought me lots of national exposure.  It was the PM MAGAZINE countdown to the Oscars week.  I'd interviewed these talents who got Oscar nominations for 1982 work: Meryl Streep for SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Jessica Lange for TOOTSIE and FRANCES, Ben Kingsley for GANDHI and director Richard Attenborough for GANDHI.

In 1984, I left PM MAGAZINE and started full-time work on a new local project at the same station. I'd be co-host and associate producer of a live hour-long weekday magazine show with a studio audience.  We had a small, ragtag crew and the whole experience was terrific.  What a great crew. My co-host and I hit it off the moment we met. In those days, celebrities would be in Milwaukee on tour and also in nearby Chicago.  So, for Milwaukee, we were lucky enough to book some known live guests. Also, I still did the movie junkets which enabled us to have some big star presence on the show thanks to my taped interviews.

The show did well in its midday timeslot.  We were proud of our show.  Then, for some reason, the Vice President in charge of Programming decided to move it one hour later. We struggled some in that new timeslot but we kept doing our best and we continued to get good guests.  I was building up my resume.

I had vacation time coming.  I put in to take a week off in December.  It would be the week before Christmas because Christmas would be on a Tuesday.  We'd be pre-empted for a network special on Christmas Eve.  I'd have an extended holiday.  For that vacation, I didn't plan to fly off anywhere.  I wanted to take the train to Chicago and take in some theater.  Which I did.

I caught a Wednesday matinee of Angela Lansbury's brilliance in SWEENEY TODD, grabbed a bite and then caught the train back to Milwaukee. When I arrived, about 90 minutes later, I hit a pay phone in the train station to check my answering machine for messages before I headed to my apartment.

I had about 25 messages.  23 of them were our show's wonderful executive producer saying, "Bobby, it's Mary.  Where are you? Please call me."  The urgency in her voice tipped me that something was in critical condition.  I called her from the train station.

Our show had been cancelled by the V.P. of Programming.  He cancelled it that day, Wednesday, and told the staff that Friday's live show would be our final broadcast.  Fortunately, I had not flown out of town.  I'd be on the set for Thursday and Friday.  The next week, we were replaced with reruns of Angie Dickinson as POLICE WOMAN.

Merry Christmas, 1984.

My contract expired in June 1985.  In January, to keep our canceled crew busy until other contracts expired, we were assigned to do a local special on winter entertainment for families.  Our executive producer, whom I loved working with, told me that I still had money on my clothing allowance per my contract. If I needed a heavier coat for our outdoor shoots, get one with my clothing allowance. But, she warned, the VP was being a jerk about that money -- which my co-host and I were rightfully due per our contracts.

I went to his office and met with him.  Stan was his name. He bickered about the money for a coat but I said exactly what the executive producer told me to say and he gave in.  Then he added that, although my contract expired in June, he would not hold me to it if I found another job.  He'd let me go.

Then he added this:  "I know you want to work in New York City.  But, frankly, I don't think you have the talent."  I said nothing back.  I couldn't believe he said that to me, especially after I'd done good work there for years, after I'd gotten our local station national attention with my PM MAGAZINE features and especially after he put us out a work just a few days before Christmas. I turned and walked out of his office, speechless and angry, with my clothing allowance.

That was January 1985.  This is from June 1985.

There I was in front of Lincoln Center in New York City. A week or two after I left Stan's office, I sent some of the celebrity interview features -- that ones that had been picked up for PM MAGAZINE national airing -- to a New York City station.  I was flown out for a couple of meetings. Then the VP of Programming at WPIX/Channel 11 in New York City offered me employment and asked if I could be available to be on the air during the May ratings.  I said, "Yes."

I'll never forget the look on Stan's face when I told him I'd be leaving in April before the expiration of my contract. I'd be leaving because I got a TV job offer from New York City.

Don't give up on your dreams even when someone shoots them down.  Just pick them up again.  Three years after I did that local WPIX segment in front of Lincoln Center, I had a new job.  I was hosting my own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.  A national talk show. In New York City.

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