As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, August 1972
It's Carl Stokes up there at the microphone at the Royal Box of the Americana Hotel. Sipping from a martini held in his left hand and gesturing broadly with his right, he's telling the white, successful-looki ng audience that no one's going to beat Tricky Dick in the fall because "you cannot out Nixon Nixon."
A few gasps and some whispered protests. ("How can he say that?") With a Cheshire cat grin Stokes continues, "He's a natural-born demagogue, and how can you beat that, hear?" Laughter, relieved laughter: maybe ol' Carl is putting us on after all....
Suddenly Stokes points an accusatory finger, sweeping it back and forth like a machine gun burst, and in his best hell-fire-and-damnation preacher's voice, he lets them have it: "Come on now! Ninety percent of you in this room don't want a black or poor person living next door to you, do you? You really don't want your children bused over to some school with black kids or poor kids, do you? Mr. Nixon understands this. He's talking to you."
Had this been on the comics page instead of at a luncheon given by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (those wonderful people who bring you the Emmys), there would have been a huge "SQUIRM!" written above all the heads. O1' Carl had them where it hurt, and they loved it.
In all, he talked for an hour, off the cuff, answering questions about himself, his new job as TV anchor man, and, naturally, politics. He was informative, he was urbane, he was entertaining and witty. He was even, let it be said, charismatic.
Afterwards, Syd Eiges, NBC vice president for public information, stuck out his hand to Stokes and beamed, "It makes me proud to work for a company that has Carl Stokes." Chuckling, he quickly added, "And myself. In that order."
"You've got another fan in me, Carl," chimed in Al Slep, publicity director at WNBC-TV, the NBC-owned station for which Stokes does the 6 o'clock news. "I'd never seen you in action before, but boy!" Turning to another person at his table, he bubbled on, "He should be down at the conventions. He'd be great! Gee, it's a shame the way we sometimes don't put our talent to best use."Dr. Pepper's ad in New York City warns, "You gotta be good to make it in this town." A velvet hammer announcer-voice pounds on, "And Dr. Pepper is making it." But how far will being the great-grandson of a slave and first-black-mayor-of-a-major-American-city, retired, get you in the Big Apple? By itself, nowhere.
So Carl Burton Stokes is chomping down hard. On camera he has progressed from torturous to at least adequate and, at times, better than that. Off camera he works diligently to master the nuts and bolts of television journalism.
Three months into his new life in New York, however, he still finds himself with a mouthful of tough and sometimes bitter fruit. The press is hounding him, his colleagues are hounding him -- there is bad feeling even in his own newsroom -- and his ratings are poor.
"I know I've got a ways to go before I'm earning my keep," admitted Stokes to the Americana audience. Later, back in his office on the fifth floor of the RCA Building, he assured a questioner, "if only they give me the time, I can make it ... I can make it."
When Stokes and his co-anchor man Paul Udell launched the Sixth Hour, which is what their hour-long program is called, a large chart was posted just inside the WNBC-TV newsroom. It has a column for each of the three network stations. Each morning the preceding day's ratings for their respective news shows were to be logged in red grease pencil. (There are six commercial stations in the city, but only the networks have local news at 6 p.m.) The record stops with June 9. By that time the downward cascade of the Sixth Hour's ratings had become fit only for a DeSade's eyes.
Perhaps out of pride or maybe stubbornness the chart was left on the wall, where it hangs still, for all to see the descent: from a first-night high of eight per cent of all viewing households in the New York area to 4.7 per cent by June 9. What it does not show is that the percentage later dropped to less than three. There are some 5,182,000 television households in the metropolitan area, but most of them leave their sets dark until prime time; fewer than a third usually watch the 6 o'clock news. Even with so little of the audience pie to divvy up, it's obvious that with an average rating of five percent of the market during its first month and a half that the Sixth Hour is going to bed hungry. It's also obvious that promotional pledges of "tremendous and immediate tune-in" from the "bold pairing" of Stokes and Udell have not materialized.
"To be fair," suggests a Nielsen spokesman, "it's still too early to evaluate the numbers. It usually takes a long time for a news program to either gain or lose an audience." And in the weekly ratings more recently some gains have been made. Similar gains, however, were won by the Sixth Hour's competitors, indicating primarily an across-the-board boost in audience size due to interest in Presidential political campaigning, according to the Nielsen spokesman.
If opening night, Monday, May 15, were taken as a sign of how long Carl Stokes would stay afloat on choppy Manhattan seas, the augury was bad. The Sixth Hour was, from the start, beset with misfortune.
On launch morn, heavy-duty advertising gave promise of a new man o' war: full-page ads in city, Long Island, and New Jersey newspapers proclaimed, "Finally, New York gets a news team that cuts through the garbage."
But no garbage was cut through that night because the governor of Alabama was toppled by gunshots at a shopping center in Maryland in early afternoon. What should have played to the TV critics as well rehearsed as a Broadway opening suddenly transmogrified into a happening and a trial by fire. Carl Stokes-the-Newscaster opened his mouth to read, and the words boomed out offensively, like shouts in a public library. Before saying goodnight, his sidekick Udell told the first-night audience they were sorry it had had to begin like that.
Although New York's critics do not grant indulgences for shell shock, the first feedback, in the Daily News of the following morning was a disarming lull; its reviewer in fact gave Stokes's performance an unqualified rave: "an intelligent, professional addition to the NBC News department . . . we can expect depth and even occasional wit from the former Cleveland mayor . . . obvious charisma." Then over the next two weeks came the so-so-sayers and the oh-no-sayers. A sampling:
The Times: "nowhere to go but up ... (Stokes) is a warm and ingratiating personality . . . the comments (on news items by the anchor men) have been at best awkward and useless, at worst banal and pretentious . . . basic content (of the program) is moving in the right direction."
The Post: "Carl Stokes, the former Cleveland mayor, is settling down rather comfortably and authoritatively."
The Village Voice: "pretentious 'team' of newsniks. . . ."
Variety: "On-air talents couldn't have been more uptight if they'd suddenly been thrust into the cast of 'Oh, Calcutta'. . . under the preem jitters, it became apparent that it will take a major effort by an attractive and professional Paul Udell to hold it all together ... a loose hour that trailed off into downright boredom."
Time: "Stokes read the news as if he were practicing for an elocution lesson ... strained humor, by definition, is no humor at all."
Newsweek: "the star (Stokes) will probably survive ... show itself appears to be in need of some emergency doctoring."
At the end of June, a reviewer for Life said Stokes looked "angry and authoritative," but he dismissed the program as "entertainment at best, psychodrama at worst and information minimal."
So much for the show. The critics also didn't like the set which NBC had designed and built at great expense, but nobody liked the disturbing numbers of technical slipups in the beginning, just when it was most hoped an upward momentum in ratings would be gained. When film failed to work or when the wrong one came on the screen or when "dead air" between live and taped portions of a "voice-over" film was embarrassingly lengthy, snide remarks began about "know-nothings behind the camera, too."
An official of the National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians (NABET), which represents most employees at NBC, says, "Management thinks we're sabotaging." He denies the charge.Nevertheless, undoubtedly the worst blunder of all had nothing to do with the set or wrong buttons pushed. It is the thud with which the ballyhooed gimmick of "cross-talk" has fallen flat. Touted as an alternative to the wise cracking approach that has become de rigueur in TV newscasting, "cross-talk" was to be brief, gutsy ad-libbing about the significance of particular stories in the night's news. In these exchanges of perhaps a minute, Stokes was to draw upon his expertise as a big city mayor and politician, as was Udell upon his years of reporting on the West Coast. In practice the results seemed almost al ways threadbare and often plain boring.
By the end of June "cross-talk" as a free-form rap was quietly killed after a staff meeting at which sentiment was virtually unanimous in calling it a mistake. Since then, prepared commentaries by the anchor men, with a sign flashed across the screen denoting them as such, have been used instead. "They'll keep tinkering with the format, and pretty soon we'll be right back to the same old style TV news that has always been done," mutters a Sixth Hour staffer.
By no means can all of these problems be laid at Stokes's door. Unlike local news operations at the other two network "Oand O" (owned and operated) stations in Manhattan, WNBC's newsroom is a vassal of the network -- "just that many more bosses to get through," in the words of a soured ex-employee. And in recent years the bosses have played a non-stop game of Now-You-See-Him-Now-You-Don't with local news personnel. The 6-o'clock show, for instance, has had five producers in two years. Stokes and Udell are anchor men numbers seven and eight of the past five years.
Newsroom morale at WNBC was at an ebb even before the hiring of Stokes and Udell. It was hardly improved among the veterans when the announcement brought with it more personnel sleight-of-hand: nearly half the news writers, for example, were replaced, as some quit and others were transferred to different jobs. "When we heard Stokes was coming," says 27-year-old Lisa Feiner, an assistant to reporter Gabe Pressman, "most of us just shrugged our shoulders, as if to say, what are they trying to pull now?"
One more indicator of the depth of discontent was the eventual defection of Pressman himself. Less than a month after the Sixth Hour had gone on the air, at a time when the program was certainly an hour of need, Pressman, a 17-year man at the station, signed on with WNEW-TV. In a letter of resignation both cordial and critical, he wrote: "I believe strongly in hard news coverage as the essence of television journalism. I believe, too, in the need for more profound investigative reporting. I do not believe that NBC is the best milieu for the kind of local journalism that I think the times call for." Pressman's reputation was won by sticking a microphone under people's noses and asking hard-nosed questions.
It was into these troubled waters that Stokes waded when he checked into the red-carpeted and crystal-chandeliered Essex House, next door to the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South. And despite the dangerous currents and uncertain footing he was met with, if he sinks the post-mortem will blame him. As one observer with 20 years in New York television put it, "Sure he's in the middle, but he's also the talent out front; if a show flops, it's always the talent who gets it in the neck."
The main reason for all the handwringing and shell game switcheroo at WNBC, Channel Four, is WABC's Channel Seven. Their Eyewitness News is giving once-puny ABC the solid brass ring in news competition among the local "Oand O's." Called everything from "happy talk" (other newsmen) to "vaudenews" (Variety) to "laughing hyenas" (Life), WABC's 6-o'clock news just keeps on yukking it up into more "Nielsen households" than anyone else. Before the Sixth Hour debuted, Eyewitness News held a slim but consistent lead over WCBS-TV and a margin of four or five percentage points over WNBC. Now its lead over WCBS has been maintained and the gap against Channel Four has widened.
Beginning four years ago, well behind the pack, its anchormen Roger Grimsby and Bill Deutel gradually developed their present rapid-fire, jibe-trading format -- and with it, their title as ratings King of the Mountain. Together with their "news team," which includes a $110,000-a-year weather man named Tex Antoine and Jim Bouton, kiss-and-tell baseball pitcher, Grimsby and Beutel have become prototypes of news programs across the country, including those in Cleveland.
The strength of Eyewitness News was enough to set in motion all the substitutions over at WNBC. In February, though, a dire message was dispatched from Nielsen to corporate headquarters at NBC: with the muscular "lead-in" of Eyewitness News, the ABC network news at 7 o'clock was beating Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor for the first time in New York. That meant the mighty peacock was number three. And that meant more than a'loss of face. Potentially at stake were the millions budgeted for NBC News and millions more taken in from ratings-conscious advertisers.
Little wonder, then, that Chancellor cast an apprehensive eye at the novitiate in his lead-in program. "I thought he was kidding," mused a WNBC oldtimer about Chancellor's statement that he was "dead set" against the hiring of Stokes, "but he really meant it." The NBC Nightly News anchor man also warned Stokes, "I'm going to needle you until you turn blue." Others share his resentment. "Here we in journalism are supposed to keep our eyes on politicians, and what happens?" Pressman glowers. "All of a sudden one of the guys we're supposed to be watching is sitting there broadcasting news himself." Stokes confesses, "I'm catching hell from white newsmen, and I'm catching hell from black newsmen."
Even in his own newsroom, you don't have to listen long to hear a disaffected voice, although it is usually directed at those under whose guidance Stokes has put himself. "I think when Stokes came in," says a news writer, "that the bosses told him, 'You have enemies on your staff.' They poisoned relations between us and the anchor men." He claims this was one reason why Stokes and Udell, instead of being put in the newsroom "where they belong," were given an office to share two doors away. "Why, a day may go by, and I won't even see them. I write their copy, someone grabs it, and it's gone -- what kind of a working relationship is that?"
Stokes, nevertheless, claims he enjoys complete cooperation from his staff, and he emphatically denies any antistaff machinations between management and himself. "That man," he says of the news writer, "must be working an angle of his own."
Among newsmen at other New York stations the one most publicly outspoken in opposition to Stokes is Ted Kavanau, news director of WNEW. His successful news program, anchored by former Clevelander Bill Jorgensen, airs at 10 p.m.; thus Kavanau insists his objections go "beyond competition." He says Stokes's entry into television newscasting could "set us back 20 years." He continues: "We've been trying to escape the old image of pulling a guy out of the announcing booth and making him anchor man. Now NBC pulls a politician out of a hat. That sets us all back in our self-esteem. I see it as nothing but a cynical grab for ratings, and if it works, look out. My ratings begin to tail off, and you can bet the station manager will be in my office screaming, 'Let's get Lindsay or Bella Abzug to do the news!"' Flashing a voodoo grin, Kavanau concludes, "Stokes may be a charming guy, but I wish him a great lack of success."
Inevitably, there are also those who believe Carl Stokes is not really serious about his new job. Some newsmen and not a few politicians in the city think -- or fear -- that the newscasting thing is but a ruse. They smell a devilishly clever way for a politician to be paid to sell himself to New York's voters. So what, they say, if Stokes does not tell you what the Lindsays, Rockefellers, and Nixons "really mean": as Kavanau puts it, "Carl has to worry about a future to fall back on, and that means politics, not newscasting; he can't afford to upset too many powerful people."
To such talk His Former Honor continues to say, Rubbish. "You have to understand the ego of this man," Robert G. McGruder, a long-time Stokes watcher at the Plain Dealer, advises. "He wants to be good in everything he does, and if he is doing newscasting, he'll keep at it until he makes it." McGruder, who covered city hall during the Stokes years, has written how the mayor "fenced and sometimes verbally cut off my head and those of other reporters." It is no secret, either, what Stokes thought of most of Cleveland's media bosses.
"Don't ask him about Cleveland -- he's sick of it," Al Slep, the WNBC publicity man, had warned before the luncheon at the Americana Hotel. But Stokes was more than willing to talk about Cleveland journalism that overcast afternoon in late June.
"When I was mayor, no one gave the media more hell than I did. Reporters at the Plain Dealer, a paper which has extraordinary impact in Ohio, were notoriously lazy, I found. As a morning paper, they had all day to write their stories; so they just naturally had more information than the afternoon daily.
"In the electronic media in my town, and I say this to you honestly, there were only three reporters for whom I had respect: Becky Bell, Steve Delaney, and Jim Coxe. When any of them asked me a question, I knew they already knew the answer."
He continued: "Journalists in general are plain lazy. One guy writes that the mayor of Cleveland wears alligator shoes -- I owned one pair but didn't wear them as mayor -- and pretty soon, in every story that's written, it says, 'Stokes wears alligator shoes.' This country is full of 'me-too' reporters."
Then there was Stokes's reply to the expected question about his political future: "I've gone to the top. I've served as mayor of a tough town at a tough time. I've made governors and senators. There's only one step above that, and that's the Presidency." Smiling broadly, he added, "As you know, I've turned down the Presidency."
But why give up politics for a business you have severely criticized? "Because I'm tired." After a moment or two, he continued: "If I were not black, there wouldn't be all this concern about my leaving politics. The mayor of Baltimore, who is white, announced he was quitting the same week I did -- and nobody is pounding on his door to ask if he means it."
That points up yet another aspect of Carl Stokes's position in New York. His is a kind of Horatio Alger story: great grandson of a slave, son of a laundry worker and a domestic, onetime dropout from East Technical High School, a man who worked weekends as a waiter on a railroad dining car to help pay for law school, then went on to become an Ohio state legislator -- the first Negro Democrat and the first black man to be elected mayor in a major city with a white majority. His own statement, repeated often, is "I proved the system, creaky as it is, does work."
Now he is the first black man to anchor a week-night news program in New York, a city that likes to think its example radiates out to the provinces. To criticisms that he has robbed established black newsmen of that distinction, he rightly scoffs, "If they didn't hire me, they still weren't going to hire them."
In subtle but important ways Stokes's presence as a black man has already begun to make a difference. Of the three-man camera crew that works the Sixth Hour broadcasts, for instance, two are black men -- and they see the occurrence as no coincidence. Neither is classified as a permanent NBC employee, however, and they say they expect to be laid off in the fall. Stokes thinks otherwise. "By then my status here will be more secure," he says with a wink.Watching him through his day, one is at least convinced he is working hard. It is 2:30, and Stokes and Udell sit in shirtsleeves at their typewriters in the cramped, cluttered office they share. Udell, wavy-haired and square-jawed, is agonizing over a "commentary" he will deliver that evening. Whistling softly to himself, meanwhile, Stokes is slowly punching out a rewrite job on a wire service story. Every so often he stops typing to read aloud what he has written.
Above Stokes's head, taped to the wall, is a large photo of him, in a devil grin, with his arm around Ralph Perk, who looks sheepish. A cartoon balloon from Stokes's mouth reads: "Ralph, where the hell did you get those clothes?"
Sounds of activity drift down the short corridor leading to the newsroom, where some 25 people are working.
A couple more rewrites and a long telephone conversation with his family back in Cleveland, and he begins work on his own "commentary." "Why do they have to put that sign up if I want to say something? The newspapers don't do it, and I'm a hell of a lot more reliable than Evans and Novak." It is 4 o'clock.
Stokes had filled several pages of a yellow legal pad with notes. Earlier that day the credentials committee of the Democratic party voted to split up George McGovern's California delegates to the convention, and that's what he planned to talk about. At 5 p.m. he is on the phone to his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, in Washington. He asks a few questions, then puts him on "hold" and calls someone named "Al" whose number he has looked up in a well-thumbed little black book; then he pushes the "hold" button again and goes back to his brother. He keeps on punching the phone buttons to switch back and forth between the two callers, like some teenager hunting for the right sound on his car radio, asking questions, jotting occasional notes, and doodling lines and circles on the margins of his pad.
"Lou, can you find out how the black vote went in this California thing? How's this fit in with jockeying for vice president? Terry Sanford's people? Interesting....
"Al, does this mean that McGovern can be denied the nomination? I don't think
so either. It's the old story -- if you've got the votes, you keep things the
same; if you don't, you reform....
"I may use that, Lou . . . What? No, I'll say it's my own information....
For these brief minutes, Carl Stokes's tiny cubicle high above the Avenue of the Americas became filled with talk of votes and caucuses and political deals. The feeling was inescapable: Give this man a microphone and let him talk and he can teach us all something of how the world works.
It is almost 5:20, and today his job is to read more than talk; so he grabs his jacket to go down to the studio to rehearse his lines. "People used to understand me. Now I have to worry about my double-yews and final tees." (He has worked with a voice coach.) By 5:35 both Stokes and Udell, in light make-up, sit at their desks in the "environment" of Studio 3-A, practicing their stories simultaneously like two competing liturgists. Downstairs in the green-and-black-marbled lobby a guide who conducts tourists around NBC's studios for $1.85 a head had warned that "Stokes is nervous, very nervous; you can't go on the set." At the moment, though, he seems loose. Sifting through his pile of copy, he finds that, as usual, he has all tonight's "kickers," the frothy stories. "You're known as the funny man around here," says Udell.
As air time approaches, reporters wander onto the set. Dr. Frank Field, the one Johnny Carson calls "NBC's crack meteorologist," can't find the black tape to make his lines and arrows. Stokes continues to scan his stories while sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup."Fifteen seconds, quiet please."
Leaning forward in his chair, his legs crossed, Stokes positions the sheaf of blue papers in his right hand.
The red camera light flashes on.
"Good evening, I'm Carl Stokes. . . .
For the next hour he is a man intent and serious, despite his on-camera smiles. As film and commercials roll, he stares at his next lines, looking up only seconds before the camera is back on him. This time, thankfully, everything is running smoothly.
Finally it is time for his "commentary." He begins: "Most seasoned observers agree that McGovern will still get the nomination. However, it is easy to see why most people can't figure out who's on first base in politics. Here we have the reformers in the peculiar spot of opposing reform in California delegate selection. . . ." For about a minute, so it went: but nothing of the black vote, nothing of Terry Sanford; nothing, in fact, of the back-room shoptalk he had left in his office minutes ago.
"He's just being misused," several luncheoners had decided as they left the Americana. "He should have a talk show."
"We have great things planned for Carl," said an NBC executive. "He just has to learn the ropes first."
A Sixth Hour staffer said, "The thinking here is Stokes will probably be gone by spring. Management feels, well, ratings are low in summer anyway and besides, the top brass is tied up with the political conventions and then the election. That means they'll get around to deciding what to do by Christmas."The Sixth Hour ends at 7 o'clock. Fifteen minutes later, Carl Stokes emerges from the ground-floor NBC elevators and walks quickly and unnoticed through the echoing corridors of the RCA Building into the New York evening. Out on the sidewalk he is just another pedestrian. Only rarely comes a stare of recognition or a blurted greeting, to which he blazes a 24-carat smile and walks on. As always, his gait is sure. Occasionally he swings his arms up into a peppy little clap, like a thirdbase coach who's urging on his baserunners. He doesn't look like a man who can't walk the streets of Cleveland without a following.
Three months after he had arrived in New York, Stokes still lived in the Essex House and commuted back to Cleveland on weekends. "I don't see much of this city except the office and my hotel room," he said. By then, though, he had obtained a bank loan and was buying a house in Upper Montclair, N.J., a wealthy, integrated suburb a short hop from the city. Some say he bought in New Jersey to quash speculation about his political ambitions in New York. In any case, it indicates that Carl Stokes intends to make it on New York television. He plans to stay around for awhile.