He was the Fred Astaire of broadcasting. He was the Bing Crosby of news anchors. He was the Perry Como of local news.
All of these reference points are of bygone years and now, alas, our Mac has passed away.
If you lived in the San Francisco Bay area anytime in the latter half of the 20th century, you knew Mac, with the twinkle in his voice and the twinkle in his eyes.
They say that during his long reign on national TV that Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America.
It was during his 50 years of broadcasting in the Bay Area that Oakland-born Dave McElhatton became the most beloved, most trusted newscaster there.
They say one of the characteristics that made the Golden Age of Hollywood golden is that they had faces back then. It was seemingly before the cookie-cutter was invented.
McElhatton was of that era. With his round, balding face and a bit of a stomach paunch before paunch was in style, to say Mac looked like the guy-next-door might have been generous.
All you knew is that it was the friendliest of faces. Instantly familiar. The term avuncular was routinely used to describe Cronkite, but if anyone resembled your favorite uncle, both in looks and spirit, it was Mac.
In fact, if he reminded you of anyone on the national news scene, it wasn’t Cronkite, it was the soothing folkstyle of Charles Kuralt.
In a long career that was split almost equally on radio followed by TV, Mac’s persona came over much the same way as those reference points I mentioned: Astaire, Crosby and Como. They made everything they did seem brilliantly simple, as if singing and dancing really was just second nature for them.
So it was with McElhatton. He delivered the news simply and straight-forwardly, in his indelible easy-to-take manner.
Not only did he seem to be a nice guy, he actually was one. He was self-effacing almost to a fault.
When I was the TV reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle back in the late 1980s, I remember doing a story about the shifting of some local news anchors. It was said that one of the anchors lacked energy, that another seemed uncomfortable most of time. But for McElhatton, no one had anything but praise. So I asked him what is it that makes a really good anchor. His reply was pure Mac. “Heck if I know. I’m just glad that people seem to like what I do.”
Mac retired 10 years ago. He died yesterday, August, 23, 2010, of complications from a stroke. He was 81.
I want to close with these two anecdotes that I read this morning in Peter Hartlaub’s piece about Mac in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
The stories are told by two primary co-anchors Mac had at KPIX, Wendy Tokuda and Kate Kelly.
“Tokuda and Kelly…tell similar stories of being put at ease on their first days anchoring with Mr. McElhatton. Kelly said she was so nervous she was shaking, and botched one of her first lines, referring to ‘Nightcast’ as ‘Nicecast.’
" ‘He came back (after the break) and said ‘Good evening, Wendy Tokuda is off, Kate Kelly is sitting in. And topping Nicecast …’ ‘ Kelly said. ‘He said it on purpose with a twinkle in his eye – to put me at ease and kind of acknowledge that I had misspoken but he was there with me. He just had that kind of empathy for you. He was a very special man.’
“Tokuda remembers when one new young employee complimented Mr. McElhatton’s tie, which was designed by Jerry Garcia. The next day the employee found two of the ties, with no note, on his desk.”
I can see Mac this morning up at the Pearly Gates, laughing and joking with Jerry Garcia about their great memories of living and having fun in and around the Golden Gate.