Read an Excerpt
Morning wasn't morning until McGowan came to town. This would have been the early autumn of 1950, that difficult corner year between then and now. He'd done well with his evening show in Chicago, but he was convinced that nighttime would be the slums of TV, and in any case his affairs had caught up with him and it was time to move on. New York, summoning him like that,
seemed the providential next step. Yes, he had done well in television. No,
he had not forgotten the great romance of his life. Yes, he still had lots left to prove. On that late September day when he got off the train in
Grand Central, tipped the porter to carry the one bag that was all he had,
walked up the ramp to daylight, stood there staring at the slick bronze of the skyscrapers, as awestruck as any rube, he teetered on that most appealing and vulnerable of points: a young man on the verge of making it in the big splashy American way.
For what was morning before he confronted it, seized it, spun it all around? An intermission between night and day, the neutral ground separating nightmares from daydreams, reality's launching pad, hope's fragile hour-the one moment in the day when if you felt courageous and energetic and hopeful the sun backed you up. It was a time when people went first thing to appraise the weather, suck in fresh air, stoop down to touch the dew, rise again and stretch. It was a time when chores were still performed before breakfast, cows milked, sidewalks shoveled, faces scrubbed behind the ears. Wives pulled on robes and went outside to cut flowers for the breakfast table, waved to neighbors doing the same, then went in to break eggs into cast-iron skillets with thick cuts of ham. Kids played outdoors, got shouted at to get ready for school, propped their bikes up with kickstands, ready to zoom off the moment they finished. Cats scratched at screendoors to get in or out. Dogs fetched newspapers. Roosters still crowed. The city, the town, the village came once again to light.
Morning was the cards you'd been dealt by fate. You woke up and felt lonely, circled your hand around on the sheets trying to summon up a genie who would rescue you, then forced yourself to plunge back into another day alone. You woke up beside someone you hated, bitterness a sandpaper collar around your neck, cutting off your breath. You woke up beside someone you loved, and reached for that familiar warmth and pulled it closer, no hurry now, content to linger in the sweet, lazy hollow of awakening. And yet even here you felt a little hunger, if you were lucky. Just enough vacancy in the heart for the day to fill.
There was radio, but it was only music, or farm reports, or weather,
nothing that stopped you, made you sit down. Seven now and you were showering. Seven-thirty and the first swallow of juice. Eight and the morning paper. Eight-thirty and outside to the car or the station or the tractor, joining the mainstream, everyone in lockstep, eyes squarely forward on the day. But until you left home all you wanted from the rest of the world was to know it was still there, and you could get that in those little sounds and rumors that leaked in from outside. Birdsong in elms.
School buses changing gears. The clink of milk bottles on the stoop. Sun edging through curtains. The soft summoning whistle of trains. Everyone did morning differently, and yet everywhere it was the same. You woke up to who you were in your narrow, most essential denomination, who you were when you were alone, the larger world for ninety minutes be damned.
All this was in morning until McGowan regarded it, sensed everything was not well there, turned it to his purpose. A morning so rich and textured and unbroken, and yet all it took was for the right man to come along at the critical moment, stare fixedly out into its depths, clear his throat to its deepest baritone, peer down those horn-rimmed glasses, talk, and it all shattered apart.
Hence this biography etc.
Explain here in intro how he's remembered, but barely now. Aging boomers mostly, the ones who as kids pressed close to the screen as they waited for breakfast, hoping the picture would stop rolling, squinting at the fuzziness to try and make it go sharp. They remember the chimpanzee, of course. They remember the clumsy sidekick, Chet Standish, and all the beautiful Morning girls, including Lee Palmer, prettiest of all. They remember the window on 49th Street, the people outside mugging, waving,
holding up little signs with the names of their hometowns. They remember how McGowan met his end. A good many claim they saw it happen, were actually watching that last morning, and there are those who still remember how it seemed to change everything from make-believe to all too real. The early shows weren't taped, so little did anyone regard them, and the later ones, on Electronicam or Kinescope, were either destroyed when more modern taping methods became available or dissolved into acid while in storage.
What survives is barely a thousand feet of film from four years of programming. As the film disappeared, as even smoother, more relaxed hosts succeeded him on the program, the memory of McGowan disappeared, too, and so only someone in their late fifties is old enough to actually remember what he looked like on the tube.
Alec McGowan? Sure, the one who started the Morning show, the man with glasses. Talent? Nothing obvious. Looks? Interesting, our mothers used to say, with a certain look in their eyes. There was all kinds of stuff. The chimp in diapers. That Chet guy stumbling into things, getting his words wrong. The clocks showing what time it was all over the world. The smart lady with the warm smile and the short hair, the one who was so obviously nuts about him. His slogan, the sign-off everyone imitated. A lot of educational stuff, too, though it's hard to say just what. Our dads put it on when they got up in the morning and our moms turned it off when it was time to go to school. Only when we left they turned it back on again,
because we caught her once and she blushed all red.
The fifty-year-olds grope, they squeeze their hands into fists and reach,
as if to pull from the ether what it was they found so compelling, and yet only the shrewder ones come close to pinning down the secret of his extraordinary success. A lot of people have spent their lives staring at a television screen, but Alec McGowan was the only one who devoted his life,
right down to its brutal last seconds, to staring intently back out.
Support this with quotes. Intro blending into first chapter. Starting with
Jay etcetera and so forth. Thumbnail bios or blend right in?
Barbara Jay (1922-). Came to KDKA in Pittsburgh after stint with radio ad agency in Evanston, then moved to New York with network. Head writer,
Morning, 1950-53. Later formed independent production company. Emmy for writing/producing documentary "Behind the Mask" exposing obstetricians without licenses, 1963. Adjunct professor Columbia Graduate School of
Journalism 1965-92. Interview of 5/9/99.
Living out on Long Island like so many from early days. Southampton, house built by bootlegger on bluff above pitch pine. Bright morning, wind bringing in sunshine with surf, tossing both across rocks. Tall woman as in pictures, only in pictures seems somehow older thanks to flouncy skirt/thick lipstick/high heels; 1950 in drag (save that line). Now jeans/leather vest/short hair, coming to door with boxer puppy in arms,
scolding it and kissing at same time.
Seventy-seven, she says right off. Horny as ever and backs this up with grin. Strong forehead and chin are what's left from picture, except everything in between has gone leathery. Voice burred by too many cigarettes-a voice that snaps/crackles/bangs like an old manual typewriter.
What you have to remember, she says, is that smooth didn't work in those days. The resolution was terrible, the matrix. Put on one of these pretty boys you have nowadays and it would have been like watching scrambled eggs.
Crude didn't work either. There was this big thing about how we were being allowed into people's homes and you had to look a certain way to pass muster. The educational function, too-we took that very seriously. If you go back you'll notice the first ones who made it big looked like professors with bow ties and hankies.
That's who Abramsky was searching for. A host who could be seen through the blur, someone handsome in an unusual way and more or less intellectual.
Namely, McGowan, who had made a big splash in Chicago. He had a forehead that would have done justice to Einstein, but below that his shoulders were wide as DiMaggio's, and no one, no one, ever looked better in a double-breasted suit. He had a sleepy expression-only a little more awake than you were yourself, and that went down easy.
His glasses were the big thing, of course. His trademark. He had horn-rims,
which must have been among the first pairs-everyone wore rimless before that-and it made him interesting right off the bat. He didn't need them. He needed them, but only tinted because the klieg lights were so strong. They were big with the audience right from the start. He put them on, it was like he was putting on the entire McGowan. In the Chicago days sometimes he took them off on camera, like he was thinking and the only way he could do that was suck on the earpieces. He was thinking, I can vouch for that, only in those days it was about whether to screw the script girl or the assistant grip. But it was the sexiest thing you ever saw, like he was taking his clothes off right there on camera. Those were the days when most TV sets were still in bars, and they claimed the moment he took them off youcould stand outside any dive on the Loop and hear dozens of women moaning simultaneously as they came. The same thing happened on Morning. Women loved him. Here was this sexy, intelligent, soft-spoken man appearing in their homes when they were all alone.
The show became-maybe it still is-the biggest grosser in show business history, and those glasses were a big part of why.
Study door opens, woman enters with tray. Black coffee, raspberry scones. A
younger woman, not by much. Spry in the old-fashioned way, vest just like
Jay's, only of velvet. Smiles as Jay rumples her hair. My partner, she says proudly. The coffee. The scones. The window open, breeze coming in. The iodine smell of seaweed and salt.
She talks on with her partner behind her. Explains how hard it was writing cues for him. He'd ad lib all over the place, go off on his own for five minutes at a stretch, and the writers would despair, throw their hands up,
but then he would wink and come out with it-how this new musical called
Guys and Dolls was opening on Broadway that night and they'd woken the chorus up early to do their final dress rehearsal right there in the studio. He always hit the cue, but it would drive them crazy the loops he took to get there.
But I'm wandering, she says. What I wanted to say about those glasses,
those horn-rims, was that they cut through the fuzziness. Watching out in
Peoria at the far end of the cable, using only rabbit ears, that's all you could see sometimes. It wasn't like there was a man on the screen at all,
only those square black frames and they centered and held the picture like nothing else could. He'd push them back on his nose, kind of tuck his head in like this and squint down through one lens. People picked up on that after a while, all the impersonators. "Well, old tiger." They picked up on that, too, though even the best of them never got his purr down, the way it came out.
People in the business were slow in taking him seriously, deciding whether he was a visionary or a huckster, but I think both were pretty evenly balanced. You know what grace means, in the old Latin sense? Gratia-favor.
Favored by the gods. He was favored all right, for those first years. You thought about Hemingway's grace under pressure, too, seeing what he had to deal with just in the way of getting the show on. Of course there was that telegenic quality-he was blessed with good bioelectricity. But I wasn't kidding before, what I said about his staring back out through the camera.
You wouldn't notice it sitting in the studio, but what I used to do was take sponsors or network bigshots and pull them around to the monitor,
which, don't ask me why, was located right next to the ladies' john. There it was obvious as soon as I pointed it out. Alec wasn't trying to see out of his glasses-they were just transparent glass. He wanted to see out through the camera, wanted to see who was watching and why, see right into their souls. He had this wonderful curiosity about people that wasn't fake at all, just as strong when he died as when he started. Look at me, that's what all the pretty boys are saying if you watch them today. Study Alec, if by some miracle you can find some tape, and you see it's just the opposite.
Look at you, he's saying, and that's why people responded to him right from the start. He wasn't just bringing the world into ordinary people's lives,
he was bringing ordinary lives out into the world, and that's what made him larger than life, a true hero, goddam his sexist soul to hell, even to me.
Michael Rinaldi (1924-2000). Deli clerk, Broadway Charlie's, 1948-54. Owner
Broadway Charlie's, 1956-82. Fast-food franchise owner, Fort Walton,
Florida. Interview of 6/18/99.
Tan, fit-looking, black T-shirt over plaid golf slacks. Sucks in what little he has for gut, punches to show how tight. Enough hair left to brush straight back from forehead, like bobbing crest of little bird. A contented man, pleased to be found.
Yeah, yeah, sure. People still come up to me, even down here. Mike the
Muffin Man! Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I don't. It was always Mike the Muffin, no man. I was short and plump in those days, my hair had kind of a raisin-bran color, and so it was Mike the Muffin almost from the start.