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Original Issue

A Piece of Cake

This past baseball season I was persuaded to resume my career as a major television personality. I say "resume" because, though it is not common knowledge, I was, along with Ed Murrow, Uncle Miltie, Dagmar and that crowd, a true pioneer on the tube. More about that in a minute. Anyway, last spring I was asked by representatives of Sports Channel in San Francisco to be the host of a weekly program called, logically enough, Bay Area Baseball Weekly. My job would be to introduce the show's film segments—highlights from the previous week's Giants and Athletics games, interviews, features on local players past and present, etc.—in a witty and charming manner. No problem. Indeed, as I so modestly mentioned earlier, I had been there before. In 1949, to be exact.

I was a sophomore back then, at the University of California and was somewhat torn between a career in journalism and a life in the theater. To anyone who has seen me stand in stammering petrifaction before even the smallest luncheon audience today, those old show-business aspirations must seem nothing short of preposterous. But for reasons I can no longer comprehend, I was fearless before audiences in those days. In fact, I was an incorrigible ham, ready to perform at the drop of a rim shot, likely even to impose my Al Jolson and Edward G. Robinson impersonations on hapless campus passersby. Therefore, in '49, I was both a rookie reporter on The Daily Californian student newspaper and a thespian in the university's Radio and Television Workshop. Television was in its intriguing infancy then, a mecca for the stage-struck, and so when our workshop was asked to prepare an Ed Sullivan-type variety show for the new San Francisco station, KRON, I was among the first to volunteer my talent.

Actually, I already had my act together. Accompanied on piano by my fraternity brother Joe Caine, I talk-sang the popular song Laura in the maniacal voice of the movies' Peter Lorre, interposing grotesque screams and cackles among the otherwise lovely lyrics. This was sure-fire material at frat parties, and I was convinced the routine would win me premature fame and fortune and perhaps even the love of my dream woman, Gene Tierney.

Well, as you can imagine, our student show on KRON was fairly primitive, but it did win some generous praise from the San Francisco Chronicle's television critic, Terrence O'Flaherty, quite possibly because KRON was owned by the Chronicle. The critic called my act "hambone," which I took as high praise. O'Flaherty, now retired, eventually became one of the nation's most respected TV columnists, and though he never said as much, I like to think that his critical acumen was first honed appraising that hilarious Peter Lorre takeoff.

But my show-business career never did take off. As my college years rolled by, I found myself much more absorbed with chronicling the successes of the sturdy Golden Bears football team than with polishing my impersonations. And it was only a few years later that I developed, to my horror, a case of stage fright so acute that I could scarcely mutter a birthday-party toast without keeling over in a dead faint. I fought gamely to overcome this affliction, and by the time the SportsChannel people approached me, I thought I had it at least partly licked. Besides, Bay Area Baseball Weekly would be taped in a studio, and no one would be there with me but the producer/writer David Koppett, the cameraman and the teleprompter operator. Piece of cake. When the lights went up, I would be there. Roll 'em!

But my comeback was not without pitfalls. First off I discovered, while glancing at the studio monitor before our opening show, that some profound changes had taken place in my physical appearance in the years between my TV debut and this gig. I don't know why this should have startled me so. After all, none of us are what we were 41 years ago, if, for that matter, we even were 41 years ago. Yet I had remained physically vigorous, playing an erratic second base for the Washington Square Bar & Grill softball team, swatting racquetballs once or twice a week, and walking the dog every day. My stamina, particularly at luncheon engagements, is unquestioned. And while I may no longer be the night owl of legend, I can still hang in there long enough to drive even the most tolerant of hostesses to incoherent rage.

Alas, thinking yourself young and looking and being young are not the same thing, and I was ill-prepared for the exhausted-looking middle-aged gentleman I saw staring back at me from beneath a thatch of unruly gray hair on that television monitor. Good lord, I thought to myself, I've become Peter Lorre!

I considered this a setback. There were more to come. I have been wearing eyeglasses off and on since I was eight years old; today they are on only when I find it necessary to see something. Otherwise, I am vanity's myopic plaything. The fact is, I cannot even read a billboard without my specs. So I quickly donned them when I was informed that I should read my Bay Area Baseball Weekly witticisms from a TelePrompTer. The trouble was that with my glasses on, I looked even more sinister and decrepit than I had before. This would never do. The glasses were pocketed. As a stopgap measure, the TelePrompTer operator experimented with writing the script in letters the approximate size of the E on an eye chart. I could, with some effort, make out these king-sized words as they speedily rolled by, but since only one or two of them could be fitted onto the TelePrompTer at the same time, my reading necessarily took on a staccato delivery reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney addressing a holdup victim. This, too, would never do.

It was finally decided that I should try to memorize my lines on the spot and use the TelePrompTer as a glorified cue card. This seemed to work well enough, except that countless "takes" were required before I could achieve an acceptable on-screen recitation. Lines were blown. Names forgotten. Coughing fits would overwhelm me in mid-sentence. I developed peculiar facial tics. Unaccountably, I began hunching my shoulders in the manner of Humphrey Bogart. My inflection seemed odd.

All of these difficulties tended to detract from the happy-go-lucky atmosphere I had hoped to create on the air. Instead of seeing a jovial television emcee, Bay Area Baseball Weekly viewers were confronted with a glowering old-timer squinting myopically at a TelePrompTer he could not read. "Why don't you try smiling just once," my wife implored me.

"I see nothing funny about staring into a damn machine," I replied.

My wife even suggested I bring our very amusing yellow Labrador, Bessie, into the studio, because, as she pointed out, "Bessie makes you laugh." I wouldn't have wished that experience on a dog.

Lord knows, I tried hard enough to reach some level of bonhomie. Too hard, I suspect. Each week I would stride into that studio grimly resolved to open the show with a big wide happy grin. Then the camera would start, and the face on the screen would make Beethoven's seem giddy by comparison. With me setting the tone, Bay Area Baseball Weekly became, I fear, one of the more serious shows on the air, the sort you would expect to find in midafternoon on public television.

Somehow we muddled through the whole of the baseball season. There were fine shows among the 26, some snappy interviews and entertaining writing by Koppett. When we finally called it a "wrap" in October, we all departed friends. I did observe, however, that there was no talk in my presence of a "next year."

If there is one, however, I'll be better prepared. Why, just the other day I dusted off some old material that, with a little tinkering, ought to be as good as new. Goes like this: "Laura is the face in the misty light.... Aaargh! That face! That horrible face.... Footsteps that you hear down the hall.... Clump! Clump! Clump!" What's that, you say? Well, it worked once.