I made reference the other day to NBC's 1960 Election Night coverage, and the goofy bulletin slide/Play Your Hunch mixup. Last night I spent some time getting some screen grabs. My initial intent was to get just the bulletin slide, but I got a little happy with the screen capture program. So, here you go.
Here's what started the whole discussion. Note that, even though NBC was well into use of the "snake" logo, the "chimes" logo of a few years back is what you see here. There's something primitive, but effective, about this bulletin slide, and it's so 1950s-ish. So much of the "special effects" of back then were so crude it makes us laugh today (for instance, the oft-told story about Don Hewitt, then a young television director for CBS's fledgling television news operation, buying a sandwich board with interchangeable letters from a concession stand at one of the 1952 conventions, thus providing the first changeable "supers" to identify people being shown on camera.)
Now here's where it started to get out of hand, and I got a little too happy with the capture software. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley anchored the coverage in New York, and it's a great panoply of vintage broadcasters and the television know-how of yesterday. Here's Brinkley as the evening began, sitting at the X-shaped desk in Studio 8H. Below him and Huntley was a busy floor full of desks, tables, cameras, toteboards, you name it.
Chet Huntley was across the desk from Brinkley up on that gallery platform, and behind him you can see more of that big sweeping board, carrying the results from each state. Look over Huntley's shoulder and you'll see one of those big RCA television cameras that look like a refrigerator on a pedestal. (I'm not going to embarrass myself by taking a guess as to precisely which model camera that was.)
This is a really low-tech, poorly-assembled panoramic view of the floor below from the gallery of 8H. This is the same famous studio where Toscanini once conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra and from which Saturday Night Live has originated most of its life. However, 8H has frequently been used by NBC News for big events, like elections and particularly historic spaceshots.
This panorama doesn't begin to include everything (I think it's probably only one half of the studio you can see from here), but if you look at about the 11, 12 and 1-o'clock positions you can see the regional anchor desks, which you can distinguish by the regional state maps behind the correspondents. From time to time, Huntley and Brinkley checked in with these regional desks for results from specific states. Some of the men (yes, they were all men back then) that anchored these desks were pretty notable in themselves, though some of them have been lost to history. Let me take some time (and web space) to give them the attention they deserve:
Sander Vanocur, covering the Northeast. One of those guys whose face and voice you know from years and years of seeing and hearing him on NBC (and later ABC), a real workhorse of a correspondent most connected with political stories. Later a White House correspondent. He was 32 on Election Night 1960, came to television after a stint as a newspaper reporter. You may remember his cameo in the Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver movie Dave.
Frank McGee covering the Southeast. If there's an unsung iron horse in early television news, it's Frank McGee. The Cronkites and the Brinkleys get all the press, but for the long-haul stuff there's something reassuring about a steady voice on the television like Frank McGee. Born in Louisiana, grew up in Oklahoma, covered the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, and his coverage caught the attention of NBC. McGee became a fixture in the News department, and pretty much did it all -- not only filing reports and doing some anchor work of his own but also serving as a Communicator on NBC Radio's Monitor program. Later co-hosted Today with Barbara Walters; set what now seem like arbitrary and chauvinistic rules for his sharing co-hosting duties with Walters on the program. Ill with cancer during the later portions of his three-year Today stint and succumbed to the disease in 1974.
Frank McGee did a lot of special-events coverage -- if you remember space shots from the 1960s, he appeared on a lot of those, and according to some sources Huntley and Brinkley were content to hand the more technical aspects over to McGee. But perhaps his virtuoso performance came on the weekend of President Kennedy's assassination and funeral. McGee was in the studio a few minutes after the initial bulletin moved a little before 2 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and remained on duty until NBC signed off after midnight, taking time out (of course) for reports from other correspondents and other programming. But through it all, he remained steady, calm, keeping a handle on his emotions. NBC immortalized the weekend's coverage in a trim volume called Seventy Hours and Thirty Minutes; by some figures I've seen, Frank McGee was on the air for 45 of them.
That made what happened shortly before sign-off all the more moving. Steadily, McGee read a commentary about the various tragedies that had befallen the Kennedy family -- Joe Jr.'s death in World War II, Kathleen's death in a plane crash, Rosemary's institutionalization, the death of Jack and Jackie's infant son Patrick, and how John's assassination had brought more grief to a family that had already endured a great deal. Then McGee's voice began to falter as he began the second sentence of his tailpiece:
There is no way of calculating the millions of words that have been uttered in the course of this day in all countries of the world as human beings fumble for words to express their offended senses as to what has happened in the United States. I seriously doubt that any words uttered by anyone anywhere have succeeded in expressing what you feel yourself. I would suppose that the answer for that is... (pause, cough) ...only to be found in the hearts of each of us.
This concludes NBC's coverage for today. We will resume our coverage tomorrow at 7 o'clock with the NBC Today Show. Today will continue until ten. At that time, the NBC News team that has manned this desk today will return, and we will continue our coverage until 2:30 tomorrow afternoon. At that time, NBC's local affiliates will continue with their coverage of the events as they continue to unfold. At five o'clock NBC will return to the air tomorrow afternoon and bring you coverage throughout the evening.
This is Frank McGee, NBC News, speaking for Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Herb Kaplow, Peter Hackes, Robert MacNeil, and the literally hundreds of other technicians and newsmen who have worked throughout the day to bring you this sad story. November the 22nd enters the history books stamped forever with the blackness of this day. We thank you, and good night.
John Chancellor, Middle West desk: Not quite as obscure, partly because Chancellor was the lead anchor of the NBC Nightly News before the Tom Brokaw era. Like McGee, Chancellor had covered the Civil Rights movement in the South, had seen the fire hoses and police dogs in action, knew the fear that comes with being on the front lines of that kind of story. Had a brief tenure as host of Today; his hard-news orientation (and his refusal to do commercials) didn't work well with Today's more casual format. Served a stint as a foreign correspondent, including some time in West Berlin. Younger viewers probably know his voice as the narrator of Ken Burns' documentary series Baseball. I'll remember Chancellor, though, as a consummate newsman.
Merrill Mueller, Western states desk. Another all-around journalist who's forgotten, Mueller was another of NBC's utility infielders, and by this time had seen a lot of stories. Mueller covered World War II, and on the morning of June 6, 1944 filed reports from Eisenhower's headquarters. Another of those guys like Bill Downs (kids, if you don't know that name, it's worth your while to look it up) who was a workhorse.
Here's how the results were displayed, on these toteboards with numbers that flicked over. When NBC called a state, a "V" was stuck up on the board. Here you see just how that was done, as California is (erroneously, it turned out) called for Kennedy. (I'll thank you for drawing no comparisons to the 2000 election and the similar faulty calls involving Florida. Having lived through that, since I was a voter in Broward County at the time, I have done just everything I can in the ensuing eight years to flush those memories from my mind.)
And here's the national results. You can see one of the numbers flipping over in Nixon's "leading" column. These numbers had to flip back and forth through sequence, one at a time, and I think that was an "8" that was being flipped back to a "6." Funny to watch by today's standards. That black backdrop, by the way, wasn't by chance; it made it that much easier to superimpose the white letters against another picture, which was frequently done.
Another NBC veteran was on duty that night, Richard Harkness. While Mueller was at SHAEF headquarters on D-Day, Harkness was anchoring (a term that hadn't yet been invented) in Washington. It's strange that, on Election Night 1960, NBC's link to its radio past should be presenting the projected election results predicted by the RCA 501 computer, in a nice piece of what would later be called "corporate synergy." (Somewhere, a young Jack Donaghy saw this and made a mental note.) Harkness, to his credit, seems to be taking it all in really good humor, smiling and easygoing, in a manner like your grandfather agreeing to play Nintendo with the kids. (Dig, by the way, that huge earpiece cable.)
Here's Ray Scherer in Hyannis Port at Kennedy headquarters. Scherer, with his low, steady voice, was another guy like Vanocur who could cover any beat but is often remembered covering politics and Washington, especially the White House. Big, strapping guy with an easy screen presence, remembered as a gentle man. Later became an RCA executive. Died a few years back.
Herb Kaplow at Nixon's headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The Ambassador is often remembered for the Robert Kennedy story, but many other historic moments took place here (contrary to something I wrote earlier, though, the "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more" speech two years later took place in the Cadoro Room of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and not here). Kaplow was another guy who covered it all -- civil rights, space, you name it. Well into his seventies he was still sharp and sharing his wisdom with future journalists.
Bill Ryan at Henry Cabot Lodge's headquarters in New York. (Lodge, later famously the ambassador to South Vietnam, was Nixon's running mate in 1960.) Bill Ryan was part of the staff of WNBC-TV in New York and frequently helped cover events for the network, sort of the way Chicago's Floyd Kalber often took part in NBC network programs. Part of the team that held the air for the first few hours after Kennedy's assassination, and shortly before he died he said that's what most people remembered him for. There was more to him than that, though.
A young Robert Abernethy at Lyndon Johnson's headquarters in Texas. Handsome enough to have been an actor, Abernethy was another guy who did most everything: domestic affairs, foreign correspondent, you name it. Still filed reports for NBC into the 1990s; also later hosted a show on religious and ethical issues for PBS, and did a lot of documentary narration.
And those of you who wake up with Matt and Meredith and Al: Do you recognize these guys? It's the staff of Today as of 1960. From left, Jack Lescoulie, Frank Blair and Dave Garroway. When the election results went into the next morning, these three came into the studio at their appointed hour and chatted with Huntley and Brinkley. This was shortly before Garroway's departure from Today. Someday I intend to write more about Garroway, an amazing communicator whose life took a sad turn.
The lady standing next to Lyndon Johnson wasn't with NBC, not at the time, but she deserves mention. That's Nancy Hanschman of CBS, who later joined NBC and who, after marriage, was known as Nancy Dickerson. She was one of the first female journalists to play a prominent on-camera role in broadcasting. Here she's laughing because, in response to a question she asked about how Johnson was going to spend the rest of the evening, Johnson (who knew her and, according to some accounts, was smitten with her) has said he's going to get something to eat and "watch some more of you, Nancy."
Her son John, who is a reporter for Slate.com these days, wrote a wonderful book a few years back called On Her Trail about his mother and their complex relationship, and about his journey in finding out just who his mother really was. I highly recommend it, and I won't say too much here about it because I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of the book. Nancy Dickerson set a new path for women in broadcasting and journalism, and too soon she was gone from the networks. But she deserves to be remembered as no less of a pioneer. I keep a picture of her in my office, and outside my office in the hallway beside my office door. Sometimes somebody will ask who that is, and I'm only too happy to share her story.
Finally (whew!), the last frame I captured shows something that really made me take notice. After Nixon conceded the next day, Kennedy and his family went to the armory for the victory speech. I couldn't help noticing what he rode there in: a brand-new 1961 Lincoln Continental. (You can just barely see that familiar face through the passenger's side of the windshield.) If you know anything about how clunky automobile styling looked about 1960, you already know about what a new leap forward the 1961 Continental was. But it really struck me as odd because, as we know too well, Kennedy's presidency came to its end while he was riding in another 1961 Lincoln Continental. A sad bit of symmetry that no one could foresee that joyous afternoon, that.