Friday, October 31, 2008

I have Patty Hearst on my Voicemail

I have Patty Hearst on my voicemail. Most people can't say that. *

One of the perks of being a journalist is occasionally shaking hands with people who have been burned into my consciousness as larger-than-life characters.

I've talked to Mickey Rooney about the IRS and Jimmy Carter about his daughter's arrest record. I've discussed the Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg espionage case with their son and granddaughter. I've spoken with James Irwin about walking on the moon and looking for Noah's Ark.

Last year Patty Hearst flew into town to promote a small independent movie at the Sundance Film Festival. She's made an unmemorable acting career appearing in campy John Waters films. This was her foray into serious cinema.

What I do remember is her media metamorphosis from Hearst heiress to Symbionese Liberation Army kidnap victim to machine-gun toting bank robber. I was an oblivious 13 year old at the time, but even I couldn't forget that.

Hearst was not able make her scheduled interview with KUTV and called and left a message. And I didn't erase it.

Coincidentally, Hearst was also involuntarily appearing in another Sundance entry, Robert Stone's "Neverland," about the S.L.A. And she agreed to do publicity interviews for the documentary. She told us that, while the subject of a nationwide manhunt, her captors took her out to the movies.

It was slightly surreal talking to her about this 30 years after the fact.

And so, as a memento, I keep Patty Hearst on my voicemail.

*Recently, the Patty Hearst voicemail along with my job, vanished into the ether. It is a sad day.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kurt Smith, Pig Hunter

Sometimes the best part of the story is something you don’t see on TV.

There were reports of a fugitive on the loose in West Valley City. 130 pounds, dark complexion, probably a little smelly. A large pot bellied pig. Several months prior, Animal Control had confiscated several pets from a home and this was the one that got away.

But now the pig had reemerged from hiding. Residents saw it sleeping in the hay and playing with the dogs. Dog food was disappearing. Chickens were vanishing.
But so far, the swift and nimble pig had eluded the authorities.

Acting on a tip, photographer Kurt Smith and I scouted a neighborhood just off Highway 201. There, in a field behind a small ranch, was our pig.

Slowly, cautiously, we approached.

Slowly, cautiously, it sauntered in the opposite direction.

“He sees any people,” animal control officer Milton Buker said, “And he kinda knows what the game is.”

Kurt grabbed a few shots using a tripod and his telephoto lense. Then he decided to employ his crack tracking skills and give the pig a run for its money.

He took off on foot, the pig took off on its tiny little pig’s feet, and the race was on.

An Earl Scruggs soundtrack was playing in my head.

Kurt held the camera at pig butt level and raced through the brush. The pig almost galloped, slowing only to cast nervous glances back in the direction of the fast-approaching news media.

Eventually it disappeared into the trees.

He never got within cow pie tossing distance of the animal.

It was Kurt Smith versus the pig. And the pig won.

I wish I’d had a camera.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Play Something Simple

Some people collect stamps. I collect moments. Those poignant, startling, quirky, just-darn-funny moments that make life worth retelling.

Several years ago we profiled 91-year-old Merle Shupe, matriarch of the musical Shupes of Ogden. Merle came from pioneer fiddler stock. In Mountain Green, she played piano in a dance band to support her family. She taught music to her children, who taught their children and, at the time, of 20 Shupes, there were 16 fiddlers. Ryan Shupe, the popular fiddler with the Rubberband, is her grandson.

For the benefit of the TV camera, Merle's sons had arranged an informal concert at the nursing home where she lived. Her kids and grandkids played fiddles and bass. And Merle, despite a stroke that disable her left hand, played the piano. She was old and frail, but still had that mix of spunk and cantankerousness.

Toward the end of our interview, she asked "Do you play?" I told her yes, I do play piano. "Play me a tune."

I sat down at piano.

"Don't play one of these modern sounding things with a lot of stupid sounding notes in it. Play a tune that I can understand."

I realized later, "modern" meant something after the 1930's

I played a little Ellington. Trying to impress a woman who's probably heard it all, I threw in jazzy flourishes and blue notes.

Merle looked disgusted. "Play something simple. Something that everbody enjoys, not the hair long stuff." I suppose she thought I was trying to emulate New Orleans bluesman Professor Longhair.

I played Gershwin. Soft and sweet. And then I couldn't help myself. I hit a seventh. (Might've been a major seventh, the worst kind.) One of those jazzy notes.

"You hit a wrong note," she told me.

After I finished, the piano teacher in her chastised me again, "Don't hit those sour notes."

"Those are jazz notes," I told her.

"Yeah I know. Crazy." I think musical dissonance turned her stomach. "Nothing in melody or anything else. Trash."

Her son, Jim, walked over. "You like Rachmaninoff," he told her. "He changed music quite a bit from what Bach and Mendelssohn did."

"As long as it's in melody," she replied, "but he hit a note that wasn't in harmony with anything on the piano."

Merle and I made up and played three-handed "Chopsticks."

The episode had me laughing for a week.

I was told that after the broadcast, she watched a tape of the story nine times. And when she died not long afterward, they played the story one more time at her funeral.

No, Really. I'm a TV reporter.

What do you think you're doing, holding up the building?"
-- A police officer in “A Night in Casablanca" reprimanding Harpo Marx a few seconds before the silent Marx brother stops leaning against a building and walks away. The building then collapses

I was leaning against the side of Main Street’s Kearns building and shooting a standup.* An acoustic guitar in my hands and one leg bent beneath me, I was attempting to strike a troubadour-like stance and lip-sync to a preproduced musical soundtrack.

A security guard approached and ordered me to stop leaning against the building. Panhandling, or busking, he said was not allowed.

I explained that I was actually shooting a segment for the news but not even the presence of photographer Mike Sadowski or his video camera a few feet away dissuaded him. Neither did the fact that I wasn't really singing and couldn't play guitar to save my life.

The truth was I was singing (I use that term loosely) a news story (I use that term loosely, too) about Ken Saxton, a barefoot long-distance runner from California. The Forest Gump look-alike was in town to run the Deseret News Marathon.

The Ballad of the Barefoot Runner

He says he doesn't mind the sticks and stones
and doesn't mind the heat
and running without padding
is really better for the feet.

Ken was pretty passionate about the subject and felt we would all be much better off if we removed our shoes more often. For whatever reason, it seemed like the right thing to write a song about Ken Saxton and talk my way through it.

He's a barefoot crusader
with anti-sneaker views.
He's a rebel...without a pair of shoes

The security guard didn’t appear to be in the mood to hear any of this.

No, I was not a pedestrian-harassing musical panhandler. I was a tone-deaf, guitar-faking television feature reporter.

And they’re even worse.

*Standup: The obligatory 15 seconds of videotape, edited within the body of a TV news story, of a reporter attempting to say something intelligent.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bigfoot at the Frisbee Park

Truth and accuracy are very important to me. I have never made things up. I have never invented a story. Never. Ever. OK, well, I did just once.

April 1st, 2004. I produced a story about a large, ape-like creature. It had been "sighted" around the Salt Lake metropolitan area. In parks, on Main Street, in the Pioneer Day Parade, near Bar X, at a 7-11 and at the zoo. We consulted (actual) experts in their fields. An anthropologist, psychologist, forensic investigator and a local Bigfoot "expert." (He said he didn't believe it. Said he thought it was a fake.)

This creature looked surprisingly In an ape suit.

Earlier that spring, while Frisbee golfers were playing 18 holes at Creekside Park, photographer Mike Sadowski and I were hidden in the nearby woods creating our own Patterson footage on 8mm Kodachrome.

The creature was also "caught" strolling past Mr. Pawn on State Street. The barber next door poked his head out of his shop door.

"Is it safe around here?" he asked. We assured him that it was.

And Bigfoot visited his monkey cousins at the Hogle zoo.

Accompanied by a public relations representative and an animal caretaker, we went to the monkey house.

When we arrived, the monkeys were hidden indoors. That was unfortunate, since we had low-speed film and no lights. Just put the ape suit on, the zookeeper told me. I did and the monkeys magically appeared in their outdoor enclosure.

Quickly, we took our places. Mike shot no more than 30 seconds of footage. Then the zookeeper told me to immediately take off the costume. Turned out I was (literally) scaring the...monkey droppings...out of one of the older females. A visit from a large hairy primate many times her size was just a little too much excitement for her.

The public relations woman asked if I wanted to go visit the gorillas next. I declined.

In the end, the project turned into quite a production. Finding 8mm cameras and projectors that actually worked. Making multiple Plaster of Paris pours to recreate Bigfoot foot casts. Convincing local producer Gib Berry to cut the lawn, seesaw with his niece and smoke a cigarette...while wearing a gorilla suit. (Thanks, Gib.)

Maybe that's why I don't make up the news more often. It's too much work. It's much easier to tell it like it is.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

When Hummingbirds Attack!

What's a five letter slang term for chutzpah*? Something that won't violate FCC community standards for television news. Something to describe a hummingbird.

They dart above your head and buzz behind your back,
so you never really notice
when Hummingbirds Attack!

A few years ago, my wife and I strung up our first hummingbird feeder. I was expecting it to attract a lighthearted ballet of winged iridescent gems. Instead, we got dogfights.

It flew into town from Canada, in an airborne herd.
It's a jewel in the sky and one ruthless little bird.

Every evening birds from the neighborhood would fly in for dinner. And one little flying tiger would chase them off.

Our local ornithologist Mark Stackhouse explained that this was no docile Utah hummingbird. This was a rufous. A Selasphorus rufus. A real scrapper. Three grams of pure guts and grit that I began videotaping for television.**

So don't dismiss the miniscule.
Don't judge nature by its size.
It's not a shrinking violet.
It's a pit bull in disguise.

Bird guides use the word "feisty." I was looking for another word. To describe how vigorously it defended its stash of sugar water.

And how it out flew other hummingbirds. Like an F-16 outmaneuvering a Piper Cub.

The solution to the word puzzle...was to not use the word.

It dives and chases hawks.
It buzzes, kicks and brawls.
Do not be mistaken.
This little bird has...

My wife and I discovered we might have been responsible for some of the hummingbird violence.

I'd asked Stackhouse how much sugar we should be using in our hummingbird feeder. One part sugar to four parts water, he said, although we could use a little more, one to three parts, if we wanted to steal birds away from our neighbors' feeders.

The hummingbird novices we were, we had been mixing one part sugar to only two parts water.

We weren't feeding the birds artificial flower nectar. We were giving them hummingbird crack. (And, indeed, our neighbors across the street had remarked that we had so many birds on our porch and they had so few. We just shrugged our shoulders.)

We've since diluted our homemade nectar. This summer the hummingbirds are back. But not with quite a vengeance.

*Yiddish for audacity.

**Home video by me. Professional photography by Mike Sadowski.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bart, the Tomato King

The scent of funnel cakes is in the air.

Must be the State Fair.

My favorite fair attraction isn't the butter cow, the world's largest steer, or the magnificent hot tub diplays.

It's the stocky, fast-talking tomato farmer in Promontory Hall.

The one with the overalls, John Deer cap...and the toothpick.

"How long you had that toothpick in your mouth?"

"27 Years."

Bart Anderson oversees the agriculture exhibits. Entries by the state's best competitive gardeners.

He registers the towering sunflowers and oversized Armenian cumcumbers.

He makes sure people don't eat the grapes. (Even though they’re sprayed with laquer, people do, Bart says. "They do the Rocky Mountain Quickstep when they come home.”)

But I know Bart as The Tomato Man.*

Only two things money can't buy and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Since he was a seedling, Anderson's been growing tomatoes. For almost 50 years, in the same backyard.

When we videotaped his garden a few years ago, he had 70 plants.

Brandywine. Sweet Chelsea. Sun Cherry.

And his own personal favorite, Bart's Best. Officially named after his truly.

It produced big, thick, meaty fruit as sweet as candy.

"Probably the best 'mater you’ve laid a lip on," he said.

His legacy.

One hundred years from now people will say, 'Who the heck was Bart?'

"Yeah, they'll say, 'Who?' but they'll say but the tomato sure was good."

Turned out the day we visited was Bart's birthday. His 70th. So I baked him a cake.
A tomato cake. Garnished with fresh slices.

Bart laughed. ("You're alright Peter Spraynozzel.") He does that a lot.

And spouts tomato wisdom.

You plant em in the spring and eat em in the summer and all the time without em's a culinary bummer.

So what does Bart do with all his tomatoes?

Gives them away.

"I probably gave thirty bushels of tomatoes away last year," he said. "Tomatos make the best friends in the world."

I forget all about the sweating and diggin' every time I pick me a 'big-un.'

*You might also remember Bart as the “chicken farmer” in our April Fool’s Day Bigfoot story.

Bigfoot broke into a hen house. And Bart gave a first-hand account.

“Oh he must've been pretty big. He just kicked the door down and got my biggest rooster,” he said. “The hens are all in mourning cuz he's gone.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

Flick Lives

The other day I got call from a KUTV viewer in Minneapolis.

John Gross, award-winning KSTP photojournalist and NFL Films cameraman, watched some web videos and, no doubt in a fit of severe boredom, read my web page bio. He noted that I blamed my career choice on the late humorist and broadcaster Jean Shepherd.

Had I been born a few years earlier, I might have followed Mark Twain's lecture tour.

Instead I listened to Jean Shepherd.

Thursdays my parents let me stay up late. Actually past 9 pm.

Just before broadcast, 9:15 I think, I turned the lights out, the radio on, and jumped into bed.

And then Jean Shepherd would talk.

Just talk.

For 45 minutes, on WOR, the NYC news/talk station that, at night, roamed the east coast, he would tell stories. Small dramas he made you think were from his childhood. Or from a New York street corner just last week.

No guest interviews, no musical performances (not counting the kazoo or jaw harp). Just Shepherd. Just one long monologue that meandered its way through multiple topics of conversation -- from Halloween costumes to Abby Hoffman's Eldorado -- and somehow, 45 minutes later, managed to find its destination and make its point.

And now I read that Shepherd worked without a net. There was no script or outline. Just a scrap of paper with a few notes. (Earlier in his broadcasting career he would extemporize for five hours.)

Some people may remember Jean Shepherd as the screenwriter of, "A Christmas Story," a movie that's become as much a part of the December TV landscape as "A Wonderful Life." (A fan who's been selling leg lamps online, just bought Ralphie's original Cleveland movie set house off Ebay and this November is opening it as a "Christmas Story" museum.)

When he died seven years ago, the Associated Press wrote that Shepherd likely inspired a big scene in "Network." He sometimes told listeners to crank up their radios and, along with him, scream things like, "Drop the tools, we've got you covered!"

But I remember Jean Shepherd as the guy who, when I was ten years old, entertained me with the tale of the camel that ate his sheepskin coat.

So Minnesotan John Gross called to tell me that Shepherd is off the air but on the web. On sites like Flick Lives.

So I bought myself a cheap MP3 player and began to rediscover to Jean Shepherd.

Maybe I'll listen to a few shows with the lights off.

Just for old time's sake.