Sunday, March 23

Pretty Woman

Patricia Jeanne Burns

If you live in Pittsburgh, there's probably not much I can tell you about Patti Burns that you don't already know. I can contribute one anecdote--but it's a good one!

For the rest of you, here's some background. Patti Burns was the daughter of legendary KDKA-TV anchor Bill Burns. These days local TV news seems to be of middling importance to most people: with so many sources for news your local TV newscast is just a small part of the mix. But there was a time when local news was a daily essential. And there were markets like Pittsburgh where everybody watched. And in some of those markets there were anchors who stood out, who became a vital part of teir viewers' live. And a tiny number of those anchors--if they were good, if they were lucky--almost approached the power Bill Burns had on Channel 2 in Pittsburgh.

He was the state's most-trusted and best-liked anchor, and KDKA's Eyewitness News was a part of everyone's daily routine. His sign-off, "Goodbye, good luck and good news tomorrow" was a Pittsburgh trademark.

Daughter Patti got into the business, earning her stripes at WFAA in Dallas. But when Pittsburgh's WTAE tried to lure her home, KDKA stepped in and made her an offer she couldn't refuse. In 1974 she went to work as a member of her father's TV news family.

Some months later, in late 1974, I went to work there, too, as a producer.

Some of you might know about my all-too-short KDKA tenure. It wasn't measured in years--or even months. Unfortunately it was measured in weeks.

Here's how it happened. I had been searching for work, KDKA made me an offer, and I gladly became a part of the Eyewitness News team. But just weeks later, and out of the blue, a former boss of mine at WJBK in Detroit put my name in as a candidate for news director at a sister station, WSPD in Toledo.

That boss, the late Dick Graf, called me up to tell me that I had a good shot at the job if I wanted it. "But Dick," I said, "I haven't even been here two months. How can I leave?"

And Dick said, basically, Listen kid, you wanna be a news director or dontcha?

Me, a top-fifty market news director at age 27? I took the job, and the folks at KDKA (especially my boss, Larry Manne) took it well. I felt guilt, but my overpowering ambition overpowered my sense of obligation.

So I worked with Patti and her father for just a few weeks. She was obviously "royalty," a sort of "news princess," but she never carried herself that way. She was just a hard-working junior member of the staff; smart, a go-getter and funny.

I wasn't in Pittsburgh when Bill and Patti were teamed as co-anchors in 1976. I wasn't there for what was quickly nicknamed "The Patti and Daddy Show." Nepotism? Sure. But what if it worked? It did. Together they were pheonmally popular. They anchored together until his retirement in 1989. He died in 1997 (at age 84); ironically, Patti left KDKA that same year after a contract dispute.

In 2001, Patti Burns fought cancer and lost. She was 49. That's not fair.

But on to my anecdote.

If you've guessed my identity, you'll know that I'm a big fat guy. "Orca fat" (to quote a movie line). For the last 40 years I've started every day on a diet, and ended most days off it. From time to time, though, I've had phenomonal success.

During my short time at KDKA I went on the so-called "Stillman Water Diet," a precurser to today's high-protein/no carb diets. And the pounds were dropping off, ten or more pounds a week! I was only mildly heavy at the time, but I was on my way to seriously skinny!

One day Patti and I were walking down a hallway with a young male anchor. I'm really embarassed that I can't remember his name. He was a good guy, GQ handsome, and a great dresser. Patti complimented me on my remarkable weight loss and asked me what my goal was. Being flippant, I turned to "Mr. X," and said, "X looks like he's gaining weight. My goal is to fit into those designer suits he's outgrowing."

And Patti said, "If you keep losing weight at this rate, you'll be in my pants soon."

That's my Patti Burns memory: three people standing in the hallway laughing so hard tears were streaming down their cheeks, laughing so hard they had to lean against the wall, laughing so hard they were doubled over.