Garroway’s light shined in `Today’

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Dave Garroway invented television. Not the contraption itself, but what you do with it and how you behave when you’re on it. Generations have grown to adulthood without ever having seen this man whose seminal, pioneering work on television was so influential that its impact continues now, 20 years after his death.
If you try to tell someone studying TV that Garroway personified the Chicago school of broadcasting, you will probably get a look of baffled disbelief. But there was a Chicago school once, and it was a thriving production center that gave television Mike Douglas, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and, best of all, Dave Garroway, a man of class and taste and intelligence. He was also unpretentious and honest and as comforting and welcome as a letter from home.
He looked out at you through the camera lens and the added filter of his own large eyeglasses and escorted you on journeys of the mind and body. It was a local Chicago show, “Garroway at Large,” that got him noticed by young NBC executive Mort Werner and eventually landed Garroway the job as the first anchorman (though the term had not yet been born) on a new NBC program to be called the “Today” show.
Next year, it celebrates its 50th anniversary. Imagine. Garroway was there, wearing a huge lavalier microphone, to get it under way that first morning so many mornings ago:
“And good morning to you,” he said, “the very first good morning of what I hope and suspect will be a great many good mornings between you and I,” thus committing a rare grammatical error.
“Here it is … January 14, 1952, when NBC begins a new program called `Today’ and-if it doesn’t sound too revolutionary-I really believe begins a new kind of television.”
Of course most kinds of television were still new then, but “Today” was pure television, nothing just transferred over from radio. It was the bold vision of a bold visionary, NBC’s Sylvester J. “Pat” Weaver, and Garroway was the perfect man to bring it off, mainly because he absolutely personified cool. A lover of jazz, a man of tireless curiosity, a squinter at stars through his telescope, Garroway instinctively knew how to communicate through this mysterious new machine. In fact he was originally called Today’s “communicator,” not its host or emcee.
He succeeded partly by holding back, by making the audience come to him, by never seeming to push or prod and by always maintaining a laid-back, conversational tone that made each viewer his confidante. To this day there has never been a man who has seemed more to the medium born.
In 1977, Garroway was invited to 30 Rock in New York to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the “Today” show. I was there watching him watch the proceedings. While historian Daniel Boorstin was being interviewed on camera, and even though hardly anyone else in the studio was paying any attention, Garroway stood in the wings listening intently to every word. He was still learning.
Incredibly bright and well-read though he was, Garroway never tried to “teach” or lecture the audience at home. Instead, interviewing the great and the ordinary on “Today,” he learned along with them. Dave Garroway was an education.
“Today” didn’t set the world afire that first year and in fact didn’t really become a hit until a monkey, J. Fred Muggs, was added to the cast. Kids had been controlling the one TV set in each American home at that hour, and the monkey lured them away from cartoons. The rest of the family started watching, too.
How Garroway hated that chimp. It bit him more than once, he told me during a 1975 interview. Garroway would conceal a bloody finger from the camera so the folks at home wouldn’t be alarmed. In fact, actress Kim Novak, who returned to the public eye a few years ago to celebrate the rerelease of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” told me Muggs bit her breast while she was being interviewed on the show.
Garroway said that an author he was interviewing blurted out a then-verboten four-letter word during their little chat. What did Garroway do? He ignored it, he said, ended the interview and walked over to another part of the studio as the show continued. By not reacting, he said, he helped camouflage the word, and most viewers apparently either didn’t hear it or didn’t believe it had actually been said.
Garroway left “Today” in 1961 after the death of his wife. There were many rumors in the industry about his mental health, tales that he was so paranoid that his New York townhouse was outfitted with dozens of anti-burglary devices. He was a new kind of celebrity: a TV star. Members of the public looked upon him as a friend they knew well enough to call by his first name. The fame frightened him. He wasn’t that comfortable dealing with people. But oh he was comfortable dealing with the TV camera.
“It was the funniest thing about looking into that camera,” he told me. “I didn’t have any idea what it would be like that first time. But when we got on the air, I felt very warm and comfortable-strangely so-instead of being frightened. The lens seemed to be so direct and friendly, really, almost as if I could see somebody there. It was a black channel to the people, a neutron star.”
“Today” ended each day with Garroway’s old theme song from Chicago, “Sentimental Journey,” under the credits-after Garroway bid the audience goodbye by raising his hand to the camera and saying, simply, “Peace.” No one on television ever found a more elegant way of signing off.
He hosted other NBC shows in addition to “Today”-most notably, on Sunday afternoons, “Wide Wide World,” another of Weaver’s brainstorms, one that celebrated television’s ability to take viewers-live-to virtually any remote location.
Of course, there were no communications satellites yet and no really portable equipment, but it still seemed thrilling when they strapped a big fat four-turret RCA camera to the seat of a roller coaster, or just planted one at the Grand Canyon so it could pan the canyon’s grandness.
You can get a glimpse of “Wide Wide World” now-and hear a bit of its haunting theme song-on the DVD release of William Wyler’s film “Friendly Persuasion.” There’s Garroway in his bow tie and glasses, sitting on a stool and escorting us to a spot 30 miles outside Hollywood as “live TV cameras for the first time visit a live movie set.” It was Nov. 27, 1955, the fourth edition of “World.”
Garroway had a distinctive way of signing off that show, too-a few lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay: “The world stands out on either side, no wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky, no higher than the soul is high.” Watching Dave Garroway, you felt as though all things were possible through television and that, in time, it would prove to be a magic ray, The Light That Saved the World.
If he’d had his way, it might have been.
Tom Shales is a regular columnist for Electronic Media. He received a Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work in The Washington Post.