Tuesday, December 27, 2011

40 years ago this month ...

… I walked into the newsroom of the morning paper in my town and approached the copy desk.

It was early afternoon, so there was only one person there. The “desk” was actually a group of desks arranged in the shape of a right-angled horseshoe, and he sat in the center of it as the “slot,” or supervising copy editor.

When he saw me, he did a double take. To this day I don’t know whether it was a real double take or whether he was trying to be funny.

But given the ironic lack of communication among those who toil in the news business, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one had told Steve Mekeel that this high school student standing in front of him was supposed to spend an afternoon with him.

This had been arranged (or so I thought) by a guy named Dick Beaudet, who worked on the night desk of the evening paper, which was owned by the same company and had a separate staff that was literally walled off from their competitors on the morning paper. The company had recently launched a program in which young people with an interest in journalism could hang out at the papers to get an idea of what it was like.

Our group was part of the Exploring program, sponsored by the Boy Scouts, although I fortunately never had to wear a uniform and even more fortunately never had to try to cook anything over an open fire.

I’d joined after receiving a form letter from the publisher, inviting me aboard on the basis of a career questionnaire I’d filled out at school. The group met for the first time that fall and for the rest of the school year usually met every second Thursday night.

I’ll never forget our second meeting.

Dick had us all in the evening paper’s newsroom, seated at manual typewriters.

“All right,” I recall him saying with a bluster that would have done Perry White proud, “you’re all going to write a story tonight! You’re not going to have to do any reporting, because I’m going to give you the facts, and whoever writes the best story will get it in the paper!”

The “story” was about how, in the meeting room downstairs, someone from the local Boy Scout council was going to give a representative of the company the charter for our Explorer Post as our parents watched.

Dick rattled off the facts, and I put together a story. I’d never written a news story before, but I’d been reading the local papers for years – I was somehow able to read at a very early age and as a tot would sometimes beat my grandmother to the evening paper when it arrived – and I must have picked up the standard “inverted pyramid” newswriting format through some form of osmosis.

The next night when the paper arrived at my home, the top of the front of the second section featured a story “By Mark Murphy, Explorer Post Reporter.”

My first byline. (Nothing like it. Still have it somewhere.)

Some weeks later Dick tossed me a two- or three-page handout from a state senator and asked me to write a story from it.

Two weeks later, Dick, again in Perry White mode, came up to me. “You Mark Murphy?”

I indicated that I was.

“Here!” he said with no warmth whatsoever as he tossed a tearsheet at me. Then he walked away to handle some other onerous chore.

I looked at the tearsheet. It contained my rewrite of the handout. There was no byline on it, but it looked pretty much like what I’d written.

I realized I’d just been complimented.

I was less proud of my performance on another Thursday night, when there had been some local flooding and I was told to do a phone interview with one of the folks in charge of handling the disaster.

Nobody had warned me that the guy was going to talk so fast, and I struggled to keep up with him as I tried to jot down what he said. God knows what he thought of me.

(Well, actually, he probably thought I was a doofus the next day if he read the story and realized I’d gotten a minor fact wrong. Yes, that still stings a bit.)

As Christmas approached, Dick told us that we could come in during the holiday break and hang out with someone from one of the papers. I could have arranged to hang out with a reporter, but I’d been interested in what the folks on the evening paper’s copy desk were doing.

If Steve Mekeel was surprised by my appearance, he weathered the blow well. He had me sit down and gave me a few things to edit – harmless stuff, like a brief from the local museum or a military handout saying that Cpl. Whatsis, son of Mr. and Mrs. Whatsis of our fair city, had been promoted to something or other.

This was long before computers – hot type, though on its very last legs, was still the modus operandi – so I marked up the copy with a pen or pencil and tried to write the headlines to match the specifications on the copy.

At one point I proudly handed in the military handout, and Steve went over it.

“You did OK as far as you went,” I remember him saying, “but you didn’t really edit it.”

He handed it back, with all the changes he had made – tightening it, changing the wording to make it read better and conform to something called “style.”

Wow, I thought. I’d never thought to make those changes!

Yet I wasn’t dispirited. Somehow I knew two things:

1, I really liked this.

2. If I could learn to do it, I might have a real job someday – the very thought that was in my prayerful parents’ minds when they'd let me sign up for the program.

I did a few more stories and headlines. I think one of the headlines got in.

The Explorer meetings continued until the end of the school year. We’d started with a large group, but it had dwindled. I think the folks at the paper ran out of things for us to do. I once heard Dick grumble – well within earshot of me, though he plainly didn’t care – that his boss was supposed to be in charge of the program but had pretty much delegated it to Dick (not an uncommon occurrence, I was to learn years later), and how was Dick supposed to arrange things for us to do when he himself had his own work to do?

So a lot of kids lost interest. I especially remember one student who smoked a cigar in the meeting room and wanted to turn the program into a literary magazine. He walked out after Dick politely but firmly set him straight.

My high school career ended along with the program. I continued on to a hometown college where I worked three semesters as a “technical assistant” (typist and proofreader) on the paper, wrote freelance TV reviews for the alternative weekly and, in my last semester, worked as a PR intern.

During my college years I’d hoped to get summer work at the papers, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I’m sure that the fact that I misspelled Steve Mekeel’s last name in a letter to the managing editor didn’t help.

A few months before graduation, my PR boss, who’d worked for the morning paper, got me an interview with the managing editor.

Great, I thought, this is it!

It wasn’t. There were no openings.

I graduated and sat around like an idiot for several months before my PR boss called and said she’d heard of an opening at the morning paper. She said she hadn’t mentioned my name but that I should get down there ASAP.

Luckily for me, security at the papers was practically non-existent, so I was able to get into the newsroom and find the managing editor, who professed not to remember me. But I kept talking and, perhaps just to shut me up, he handed me an editing test.

I worked on it and handed it in.

He then told me to go to one of the electric typewriters and type up the test, which was two or three pages long.

I’d never used an electric typewriter.

I handed my work in about an hour later.

I’d raided the newsroom at 3 p.m. Now it was nearing 5, and the managing editor, having looked at my test and having sat me down, was telling me how there were a number of people in the newsroom who were around my age, and that he thought I might fit in well.

It occurred to me that without telling me he was hiring me, he was hiring me.

Oh my. (I’ve told a lot of people this story. They can hardly believe it. Years later, I just barely believe it myself.)

I started the next day, reporting to the managing editor, who escorted me to the copy desk and introduced me to the guy in the slot.

Steve Mekeel looked me over and said, "You've been here before, haven't you?"

I worked with him and learned from him -- and many others -- over the next few years and (in some cases) even beyond.

I spent 30 years there, mostly on the morning paper before it and the evening paper merged. If Dick Beaudet remembered me, he never mentioned it, though he always treated me as a fellow professional, and it was now obvious that his gruffness was (for the most part) a facade behind which lived a caring family man who over the years won the affection of those who worked for him.

I was too shy to bring up the Explorers with him until he retired some years later, and I sent him a card in which I mentioned my time with the group and thanked him.

I still remember him coming up to me at a company party and thanking me for the card; it had meant a lot to him.

That was the last time I saw him.

A few years ago I myself retired along with a few others, and the company threw us a little party.

Dick Beaudet wasn’t around to invite, but Steve Mekeel was.

During my farewell address, I mentioned that long-ago afternoon on the copy desk and introduced Steve to the staff, telling them he was the guy I was pretending to be all along.

I wasn’t looking, but a friend of mine told me Steve grinned from ear to ear when the room erupted in applause.

Within a few years, Steve, too, was gone.

There are others I could write about, and maybe I’ll do that someday, but this is long enough for now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Dodsworth'

Notes from another get-together of the local cinephile society…..

I first saw “Dodsworth” on cable TV some years ago.

I’d known nothing about it and hadn’t even read the Sinclair Lewis novel on which it was based. (Or any Sinclair Lewis novel, for that matter.)

But I knew that the 1936 film was directed by William Wyler and starred Walter Huston, so I suspected it might be worth watching.

Yet as I began watching it, I had a pretty good idea of where the plot was going.

It begins with Sam Dodsworth, a pioneer in the auto industry, selling his company and retiring – and planning to take a trip to Europe with his wife, who, unlike him, spent time overseas when she was younger.

Well, of course, I knew what was coming – a ham-handed satire in which Dodsworth, the American ignoramus, was going to make a fool of himself overseas and become an early embodiment of the Ugly American, or at least the Homely American.

So I sat back to watch this scenario play itself out.

But it never did.

Because I was wrong.

And when “The End” appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black, I was never so happy to be so wrong – once I was able to pick myself up off the floor.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I’m not going to discuss exactly how wrong I was because you should have the pleasure of seeing it for yourself.

But let’s just say that for its time, the movie is remarkably adult.

And by “adult” I don’t mean nudity or four-letter words.

I mean the kind of movie in which people behave and talk the way real people do.

So many of the older movie dramas, as wonderful as they are, had to make ridiculous compromises with the censors if they were to be released at all, and film buffs such as myself are used to just looking the other way.

But with “Dodsworth,” there’s no place to look but at the screen, at the performances: Huston, Ruth Chatterton as his wife, Mary Astor as a divorcee living overseas, and even David Niven, who was just starting out but who, even in a relatively small role, shows that he already deserves a place at the grown-ups’ table.

Huston, of course, is the standout – he’d played the role in the Broadway adaptation. He’s so good, you wish you could meet the guy and thank him afterward. (I rarely feel that way about performers; the only modern equivalent I can think of offhand is the late Jerry Orbach.)

But even though the whole film is wonderful, it’s the ending that knocked me out. It’s not the sort of ending you’d usually see in this kind of drama. Not that there’s anything censorable about it (although heaven knows the censors might have found some silly reason to object to it), but … well … without giving anything away, it’s the kind of ending that might well happen in real life as opposed to the way people usually behave in “domestic dramas.”

Then again, calling “Dodsworth” a domestic drama is like calling “Hamlet” a mere whodunit. (And as a card-carrying member of Mystery Writers of America, I feel obliged to add that there’s nothing wrong with that.)

It was obvious that many in the cinephile society’s audience had never seen the film, and it was great to see them paying such close attention to it. And afterward, after the lights came on, the audience members, who on other occasions usually get right up, put their coats on and leave, just sat in silence, almost an eerie silence, for a minute or two.

The president of the cinephile society later told me that some found the picture almost too intense and draining, comparing it to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I wouldn’t go that far; whenever I see "Dodsworth" I’m exhilarated, not enervated, by the total effect: the performances, the settings and camera work, and, perhaps most important, the writing.

Matter of fact, “Dodsworth” contains one of my favorite all-time lines of dialogue, spoken by Huston to Spring Byington, who is excellent as a family friend.

I believe the line is:

“That the way they write sevens in Europe.”

I know, I know – you’re scratching your head, wondering why this is such a great line.

Thing is, you have to hear it in context.

Which means you have to actually see the movie.

Which is something I hope you’ll want to do now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I won't write about Harry Morgan

Mind you, I was all set to write an appreciation of this fine character actor, whom I first saw as a kid on a sitcom called "December Bride," when I found that the Self-Styled Siren had already written the best possible tribute to him, which you can read here.

I added the Siren's blog to my blogroll a few weeks ago. Answer the Siren's call and you will easily see why.

Where have I been all her life?