Monday, July 30

Remembering Tom Snyder (1936-2007)

Did I ever tell you about the time I was a guest on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show (or TOMorrow, as it apeared in the logo)?

Darn right I didn’t! One doesn’t speak of rope in the house of the hanged, and the only positive thing I can say about my guest shot on nationwide TV is that I didn’t faint or soil myself. More later.

First, some thoughts about Tom Snyder, who died yesterday at the age of 71 after battling leukemia. Tom was the greatest one-on-one communicator I ever worked with—the best I ever saw. Not just brilliant, not just forceful and dynamic, he was made for TV. He was bigger than life. He was boisterous. And unfortunately, most people today remember him only as a late-night talk show host. From 1973 (well before Nightline) until 1982, Tomorrow with Tom Snyder (more commonly known as The Tomorrow Show), followed Johnny Carson on NBC. Remember, for most of those years The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ran ninety minutes. Then, at 1:00 a.m. (Eastern) Tom Snyder took over for an hour of topical, insightful, opinionated, controversial talk. TV hadn’t seen anything like it since Mike Wallace’s old Night Beat program from the 1950s. Most nights, one guest—tough but fair questions—real information being exchanged. Here’s a YouTube link to a nice retrospective introduced by Conan O’Brien.

Forget Rush: THAT was “Talent on Loan from God.”

But…BUT…if you only new Tom Snyder as a larger-than-life interviewer and host, I can make a case you missed his best work. How many remember Tom as an anchor? I think he engineered what a current clichĂ© would call a “tipping point” in broadcast news. Before Tom Snyder, anchors had forceful, punchy deliveries: “Good EVE-ning, I’m DAY-vid BRINK-ley.” I’m convinced that a lot of it had to do with the technology. If you were David Brinkley, the camera was fifteen feet away and the microphone didn’t pick up your voice unless you pro-JECT-ed. Tom Snyder was among the first to understand that the camera was at arm’s length—or closer—and you could have a conversation with a single viewer.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him: April, 1970. I had been out of college for less than year, and went to Los Angeles to visit my old college roommate. I had heard about this terrific anchor on KNBC-TV, so I made it a point to tune in, not knowing of the Apollo 13 disaster playing out in deep space.

And there he was…leaning forward across the desk…looking me in the eye. And he spoke, one-on-one, directly to me, when he said in this low voice, “Good-evening-I’m-Tom-Snyder…three-American-astronauts-are-fighting-for-their-lives-tonight-as-they-head-for-the-far-side-of-the-moon.”

And I thought, “Omigod, I want it ALL…tell me EVERYTHING and TELL ME NOW!”

Tom had done TV talk while at KYW in Philadelphia. NBC started Tomorrow while he was anchoring at KNBC—and moved it to New York when he anchored at WNBC. Also in the Big Apple, he anchored weekend network newscasts for NBC. How many of you remember that there was talk he would succeed John Chancellor as NBC Nightly News anchor when Chancellor retired in 1981? How serious was the talk? It caused a huge schism in the ranks at NBC between the old guard that had grown up in print and switched to broadcast (like Chancellor) and the new generation, children of TV who believed in the power of the moving picture.

In the end, Chancellor did everything in his power to scuttle Tom’s chances—and NBC’s top anchor job went to a young contemporary of Snyder’s (and his former KNBC colleague), Tom Brokaw.

Tom Snyder, odd man out, left NBC and jumped back to full-time anchoring at WABC in 1981. That’s where I worked with him.

But that’s not where I met him, and here are the embarrassing details.

Back in 1978 I was working at WDIV in Detroit. I had just returned from a trip to Boston as field producer on a series of reports on a huge gathering of automakers being held there. Remember, in those days the conventional wisdom was “If Detroit (the auto industry) sneezes, the American economy catches a cold.” An important meeting, worthy of big-time coverage, and News Four Detroit was there.

When I got back I found out that Snyder was bringing his late-night show to our studios for a couple of nights of interviews with the auto industry’s movers and shakers. Great! I was at loose ends for a couple of days. Even though it was a closed set, I figured I could find a way to hang around until the doors were sealed, hide in the shadows and watch the taping.

What I didn’t know was that Snyder and his New York crew—practical jokers all—were looking for someone for their constant game of “gotcha” and that my WDIV co-workers had fingered me as a prime suspect. What I didn’t know was that they were all under orders to keep me in the studio at all costs! So about a half-hour before taping I was slinking behind the set when a WDIV director came up to me and said he needed my help: “You’re 6'3", Snyder’s 6'4", we need someone to sit in his chair so we can light the set.”

OK by me (heh-heh-heh!). Always happy to be of service (heh-heh-heh!).

Just before show time I left the set and tried to blend in as best I could, hoping no one would spot me.

The theme rolled, and I figured I was home free! Not so fast!

“Good evening, we’re coming to you tonight from Detroit, a city like many industrial cities in this country, and from WDIV-TV, a television station like most others in this country, with ONE NOTABLE EXCEPTION. Tonight, for the first time in my career, I have a stand-in. I’d like you to meet my personal stunt double…” and he called me out onto the set, sat me down, mic'd me up and started asking questions about my assignment to Boston.

I wasn't nervous. Not me. Why, then, did I answer his first question in a Vienna-Boys’-Choir soprano voice, “Well, Tom…” Not nervous, just petrified. My high-pitched voice cracked glass, had cats howling in several midwestern states, and activated certain brands of electronic garage door openers! Afterwards I called my parents to tell them to look for their sonny-boy on TV, and DIDN’T TELL ANYONE ELSE! I taped the segment--and never watched it!

I don’t think I’ve told more than 25 people in the 25 years since! Would you? "Hey, want to see the night I lost 35 pounds in flop sweat in ten minutes?"

Fast forward to 1981: I’m at WABC and so, now, is Tom Snyder. Several of us, Tom included, are having drinks across Columbus Avenue at Chip’s Pub when somehow the topic of embarrassing moments comes up. A “friend” nods in my direction and says, “Yeah, but then there’s the night he appeared on the Tomorrow show.” And Snyder hits me with his laser beam stare out from under those bushy eyebrows. “I know every guest I ever interviewed, and I don’t remember you!”

I let him buy a round before I told him, and we had a laugh. I don't remember what he was drinking that night, so I can't say for sure of it was one of the "colortinis" he often talked about on the air.

Here’s a Tom Snyder/Roger Grimsby story. I’ve mentioned that Roger was the straw that stirred the Eyewitness News drink. Absolutely! Remember that third grade science experiment with metal shavings when you were a kid? The teacher puts iron filings on a plate, runs a magnet underneath, and all the particles line up? That was Roger Grimsby at Channel 7. When he walked into the newsroom the energy level in the place shifted and he became the center of attention.

Roger had long since given up the 11:00 by the time Snyder came on board to do only the 11:00. They knew each other. Still, there was lots of hallway buzz about how Grimsby would ride Snyder like a 17-year-old Shetland pony in a Coney Island petting zoo. Roger was famous for driving out potential rivals he thought were pompous gas-bags.

Snyder’s first day, he’s in early for the obligatory picture taking and promotion. Then he adjourns to his office. He’s not incommunicado—far from it—lots of people go in to shake his hand—he’s just not out wandering up and down the halls.

3:00 p.m., Grimsby shows up and goes into his office. Snyder follows him and shuts the door for a half-hour—obviously paying his respects.

Now Snyder was, as I’ve said, larger than life. He knew how to work a room. His voice (and his laugh) carried for blocks. But from that day forward whenever Grimsby was in the station Snyder was in his office, not out playing to the cheap seats. He came out if necessary, but only if necessary. At night, once Roger was gone, Snyder had free reign over the place. But he was sensitive enough (and smart enough) to know whose turf he was on.

Roseanne Scamardella
Tom Snyder
Bill Beutel
Roger Grimsby
Kaity Tong
Storm Field (weather)
Spencer Christian (sports)

When he started, the station put up bus stop posters all over town: Tom and the “Circle 7” logo with a bunch of adjectives. If I remember, words like: OPINIONATED, CONTROVERSIAL, HARD-HITTING, CHARISMATIC, PERSUASIVE, UNCOMPROMISING, BRASH, PROVOCATIVE.

A couple of weeks later I was at an Emmy luncheon. CBS anchor Dan Rather spoke, then took questions. The first one was, “Mr. Rather, do you think an anchor should be opinionated, controversial, hard-hitting, charismatic, persuasive, uncompromising, brash and provocative?"

And Dan Rather, bless him, said: “Well, down in Texas we got a
sayin’, ‘I ain’t got no dog in that fight.””

One last story. It’s said Tom Snyder had a monumental ego. He did. But it was leavened with a terrific sense of humor and a sense of self. No one could laugh at himself longer or harder than Tom Snyder. In an earlier post I referred to the night poor Mara
Wolinsky got caught on camera flipping the bird to a floor director who had been giving her confusing hand signals. She was suspended for a week.

NOT TWO WEEKS LATER, Tom Snyder did the same thing under the same circumstances and (what else?) had to face the same penalty. Fair is fair, right? A precedent had been set.

I rant into Tom during his suspension and found him with his middle finger wrapped in a huge
bandage, a hunk of gauze bigger than Hulk Hogan’s big toe. “God, Tom,” I said, “What did you do to your finger?”

“I got it caught on a camera.”

Tom left
WABC in 1985. He kicked around a bit after that. He didn't have to worry about money, so he could take on only projects that challenged him or tickled his fancy or triggered his insatiable curiosity. For a time he did a nationwide radio talk show. He did a talk show on CNBC. And for a time David Letterman was his boss. Letterman idolized Snyder, and through his company Worldwide Pants hired Tom to do the Late Late Show following his own CBS program. Tom signed off in 1995.

Grimsby is long gone now...and Bill Beutel. Just a month ago I wrote about the passing of Joel Siegel. Now Tom Snyder. The broadcast princes I had the great good fortune to work with are leaving us. Today's cookie-cutter anchors and their let's-see-what-the-research-says-and-THEN-we'll lead-with-Lindsay-Lohan-anyway managers are trying to read from the old playbooks. Cheap imitators? Hell, even well-funded imitators are just knock-offs of the originals. I'm looking for communicators and not seeing them. Are they out there?

Couric aired a radio tribute to Tom Snyder, calling him a "broadcasting pioneer." I don't think that's quite accurate. There were anchors before him--and talk show hosts--and interviewers. It's just that none brought the energy, the dedication, the intelligence, the life, the humor, the verve that he brought to broadcasting. No one ever did TV better than Tom Snyder. When he shut down his web site, without warning in August of 2005 he left a white screen and the words, "Colortini is gone. Thanks for the Memories."

No, Tom; thank you.


OldZeb said...

Thank you for some warm memories of Tom Snyder, which triggered some of my own from the KNBC era:

While reading the copy for a wildfire, telecine failed to deliver the video and he just continued reading his copy flawlessly, while flicking his eyes up to see what was happening. After a few seconds his eyes fixated off camera and he bellowed, "I know the film is not running, quit waving your arms at me!" I believe there was an apology delivered the next evening.

Just before air at KNBC for the local evening news one of the suits demanded that he swap ties -- Snyder's tie was not appropriate. After finishing the broadcast just a touch early he carefully undid the tie while explaining to the greater LA viewers why he was a bit tense during the evening: he does not wear other people's clothing, and he did not want to wear someone else's tie while at work. When the tie was removed he crumpled it into a ball and lobbed it dead-on into the camera lens. (An easy shot considering the size of an RCA TK-42 camera of that era.

While it is easy to remember the zany moments, such as rolling ping-pong balls down the new newsdesk/set's maze-like structure or the "happy talk" he brought to the industry, he was the commensurate broadcast professional, skilled in his work, his art, his performance.

The only thing more sad than our loss of Tom Snyder, would be if he had never shared himself with us at all.

G's Mom said...

Well said.