Places and times and people.
This is it. This is the anniversary of one of the defining “Tying My Shoes” moments. December 8th.
You think you’ve got a career. You think you’re making a difference. You start thinking of yourself as—just maybe—important. Then in a heartbeat you realize you’re just occupying space on the planet—barely.
I’ve heard it said, “Want to know how important you are? Stick your foot in a bucket of water. Then pull it out quickly. The hole you leave in the water is how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.” I learned that once and for all 27 years ago today.
December 8th, 1980 was the day John Lennon was murdered, gunned down in front of “The Dakota,” his New York apartment, by a crazy kid, Mark David Chapman. Many will pause today to remember his music, his life and his death. I’ll also remember it as a moment when I felt useless and helpless.
In those days I slept more soundly than I do today. I was such a heavy sleeper that I always set my clock radio for an hour before I actually wanted to get up. The radio would rouse me, I’d listen to a top-of-the-hour newscast, get up and splash a little water on my face, and return to bed for some lighter sleep until I had to get up.
On that December 8th I had been working as Director of News Operations (a loftier title than Assignment Manager) for WABC in New York for all of three weeks. I was the manager in charge of all news gathering for the #1 station in the #1 market. The long years of apprenticeship were over. Sinatra sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” That’s how I felt about WABC.
That morning at 5:00 the radio went off, and the announcer on all-news WCBS said, “The world is mourning the death of Beatle John Lennon, gunned down last night at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.”
I was instantly awake, and pulling on jeans and a shirt. I was also cursing out our overnight desk kid.
That’s what he was—a kid—just barely out of college. You see, in the days before full-fledged morning newscasts, newsrooms—even the one at the mighty WABC Eyewitness News—were all but deserted overnight. The way the union contracts read the New York stations could employ “stringers” to shoot what was called “non-scheduled news events” overnight. That meant a handful of independent photographers hit the streets every night running from fire to shooting to stabbing to train derailment. WABC’s overnight desk assistant was there as protection only, to call for help if World War III broke out.
But why hadn’t he called me? He must have heard the Lennon shooting calls on the two-way. Or a stringer must have gotten the film and tipped him off. As I jumped into a cab all I could do was pray that we weren’t playing catch-up.
Why did I jump into a cab rather than call the station? Because I lived only twelve blocks away, at 56th and Broadway. It took me less than ten minutes to get out of bed and to the WABC studios at 67th & Columbus.
I rushed up to the newsroom and found…
...and found…about half the news staff already there and working on the story. Roughly 100 people—with more on the way, including pretty much the entire assignment desk staff. I rushed up to the night assignment editor (whose shift normally would have ended five hours earlier) and asked—demanded—to know why I hadn’t been called.
The editor—I think it was Neil Goldstein, but it could have been Fred Chieco, I forget which—looked sheepish. “I guess we just forgot about you.”
My face flushed. Or maybe I was on the verge of tears. The story of the year and I was superfluous, an afterthought. Ouch!
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m not sure everyone on the staff even knew my name yet. I was just too new to have had an impact—too new to be thought of as a go-to newsroom decision maker—too new to have earned trust and respect. And let’s face it, WABC had been working without me just fine for decades, thank you. Matter of fact, I think I was the station’s first assignment manager. Channel 7 had EPs for early news and late news and special projects: but of the seven or eight line managers running the place, no one had sole responsibility for the desk until News Director Jim Topping hired me away from Detroit. The Eyewitness News machine (the best in town, which meant the best in the world) was well-oiled and primed to rise to meet any emergency.
In fact, when I got to the station I learned that WABC was first with the news of Lennon’s death. We (OK, they—I wasn’t a part of the we yet) broke the news to the world.
And here’s the story behind the story.
December 8th, 1980 was an amazingly warm December night in the Big Apple. WABC’s 6:00 p.m. news producer, Alan Weiss, was taking his motorcycle for a spin through Central Park when he collided with a taxi. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital with what they feared might be a broken hip.
It was a quiet night in the ER, Alan said later. Quiet until the ambulance bay doors slammed open and a slew of cops rushed in with a gunshot victim on a stretcher. Alan said the attention shifted from him to the wounded man. And even though he was in terrible pain he couldn’t miss Yoko Ono being escorted in by an officer. The man on the stretcher was John Lennon.
Using his gurney like a walker, after a lot of finagling Alan was able to get to a pay phone and alert the assignment desk. The desk was able to confirm a shooting at the Dakota Apartments. It was a Monday night—ABC was carrying Monday Night Football. Word was relayed to Howard Cosell, and he told the world.
Riding his motorcycle on a balmy night gave Alan Weiss the scoop of his lifetime—one which he, of course, would rather not have had. After calling in the tip Alan watched through the trauma room door as doctors and nurses tried—in vain—to save John Lennon. He watched a sobbing Yoko Ono being escorted out of Roosevelt Hospital. It was small consolation that his hip wasn’t broken after all. As a Beatles fan, his heart was broken. As a news professional, though, he was at the top of his game.
The next few days are, from this distance, a blur. Crowds of weeping fans surrounded The Dakota for an impromptu candlelight vigil that lasted for days. It seemed we were live non-stop.
I was finally able to really get into the game when WABC decided to carry the Central Park memorial service the following Sunday. Alan Weiss was, of course, picked to produce the live tribute. The logistics fell to me. With the engineering Department we surveyed the area around the Central Park bandshell, and determined that there was roughly a forty-foot stretch of curbside where a microwave truck could “see” the Empire State Building. Without a straight shot to Empire—what was and is called “line of sight”--there would be no live coverage (no one in New York had a satellite truck in those days). That meant our live broadcast hinged on a parking spot!
I arranged with ABC security to put the truck in place on Friday and have it guarded 24/7 until the telecast.
New York is a tough town. How tough? The security guards would only agree to go in teams of three. So we had uniformed men shuttled in and out of Central Park for 48 hours.
On the day of the memorial, Eyewitness News was live in Central Park, live at The Dakota, and live overhead froim a helicopter. The broadcast was meaningful and moving; and Alan Weiss won several awards for it.
YouTube has excerpts from that coverage: that's Roger Grimsby at the anchor desk and Ernie Anastos is in Central Park, standing atop the WABC live truck.
Alan Weiss now runs his own production company in New York. He works with Al Primo, the man who gave birth to Eyewitness News way back when, on Teen Kids News.
Neil Goldstein has gone on to a successful career as a news director: as a matter of fact he was my successor, twice removed, at the CBS O-and-O in Miami. Most recently he was news director at WDIV in Detroit.
Fred Chieco still works for WABC. He started there as a kid, and has worked there for something like 35 years. He was part of the phenomenal growth of television news, and he’s lived through the downsizing of the last few years. He‘s still one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He recently wrote me that he hasn’t lost an ounce of enthusiasm for his work.
Mark David Chapman, the gunman, has been denied parole four times, most recently at a 16-minute hearing in October, 2006. His next chance for freedom will be in October, 2008. He’ll be 53 then. There are reports he has become an evangelical Christian while serving his time in Attica State Prison.
Yoko Ono remains a controversial figure in the worlds of art, music and film. She still lives in the Dakota which, now more than ever, is the most famous apartment building in the world.
From The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, you can see “Strawberry Fields,” the 2 ½ acre section of Central Park Yoko Ono sponsored as a tribute to her late husband. It was dedicated on October 9, 1985—what would have been Lennon’s 45th Birthday. Every October 9th—and every December 8th—people come together at its centerpiece, the “Imagine” mosaic, to sing songs and remember.
I remember, too.