by Kevin Allman
At WWL-TV, Dominic Massa is executive producer and special projects director of the station's newscast. In his spare time, he's a TV historian with a special focus on the indigenous programming of the Crescent City. And now he's collected all his research (and dozens of amazing archival photos) in a new book, New Orleans Television, which traces the local TV scene from its inception in 1948 until 1980. Morgus, Buddy D, Miss Linda and Romper Room...it's all here.
He answered Gambit's questions by email. (Disclosure: Clancy, as you probably know, appears on WWL as -- in his words -- "a political talking head case," but we decided that this book outweighed any conflict of interest.)
Dominic, when did you start working on the book? What was the impetus?
The book is really an extension of some of my previous television work, highlighting local broadcasting history. I had the honor of producing two documentaries for WYES-TV: New Orleans TV: The Golden Age (which premiered in 2003) and Stay Tuned: New Orleans Classic TV Commercials (which premiered in August 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina). In preparing those programs, I interviewed local broadcasting pioneers, gathered still photos and footage (some of which was later lost during Katrina), and researched early TV history.
Encouraged by the success of those programs, I began exploring the possibility of authoring a book on the subject. About a year ago, I came across Arcadia Publishings books on Birmingham Broadcasting and Cincinnati Television. Having seen Arcadias other local history titles, I contacted them about the possibility of doing this book and, fortunately for me, they agreed that it would be a worthwhile project. I began working on the book in earnest last fall.
What TV shows did you particularly enjoy when you were a kid? Do you have memories of watching with your family?
In terms of local shows, I was a huge fan of Morgus the Magnificent, particularly during his 1980s revival. I still watch nearly every episode I can, now that his experiments are back on Cox 10. I also watched Popeye and Pals and Varsity Star Quiz Bowl, both of which had roots in the early days of TV but continued into the 1980s and 1990s. On a national scale, I loved "The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I have childhood memories of watching those shows with my parents. And of course, newscasts were always on my radar, even as a kid, which I am sure helped push me into a career as a TV news executive producer!
Did you ever get to go to Romper Room or the John Pela show?
Unfortunately, Romper Room and The John Pela Show were both history by the time I was born, but over the years I have heard great stories from people who remember going on those shows, or just watching at home. In fact, my WWL colleague, Meg Farris, appeared on Romper Room at Channel 4 when Miss Ginny Hostetler was the schoolteacher-host. Meg was kind enough to lend me a classic photo of her and the other children on the set, which is included in my book. The John Pela Show in particular had a huge impact on New Orleans teenagers, who now of course are some of the movers and shakers of the city, who look back fondly on their 30 minutes of fame each Saturday afternoon on that dance show.
How much of this material exists on kinescope, and how much is lost?
Since most of the early television broadcasts were live, we are of course limited in what we can look back on now. There is raw film footage from news broadcasts and things like that, along with some kinescopes of shows. One of the most valuable to me was a WDSU kinescope of a sales pitch, narrated by Mel Leavitt, that highlights Midday (complete with Terry Flettrich, Alec Gifford, Nash Roberts and Wayne Mack) and Second Cup, the morning show which launched Bob and Jan Carrs TV career here. Thanks to the foresight of some TV pioneers like Paul Yacich, Joe Budde, Don Perry and others, there is some footage that still exists, but other shows, such as Popeye and Pals, The Great MacNutt, Mrs. Muffin, and even early Morgus shows, exist in memory only. Part of the problem is that television itself is a fleeting medium, that didnt always lend itself to preservation, since much of its early history came before the days of videotape. Also, since film was so expensive, it was more economical to scrap it than save it.
From the photos, it seems that New Orleans' black community was terribly unrepresented in the Golden Age of New Orleans TV. True? Were there any black personalities or shows geared toward the black community? And who were the people that broke the color barrier in local TV -- either in front of or behind the camera?
The book and its photos reflect local television of the time (1948 through roughly 1978), which means that African-Americans were not as prominent in the media as today. The earliest on-air appearances by black performers were in cooking shows (one of the most popular, Lena Richard, is included in a photo in the book, along with Marie Matthews, who had a long career at WDSU in front of and behind the camera).
During its history, The John Pela Show was successfully integrated, and Pela himself told me during an interview that the transition was made somewhat quietly and smoothly, without much fanfare something in which he took great pride. In terms of news, reporters Bill Rouselle, Furnell Chatman (now an anchor at KNBC Los Angeles) and Warren Bell, along with reporters Lea Stevenson and Sally-Ann Roberts and photographer Willie Wilson (with whom I am proud to work at WWL-TV) helped establish themselves as top-flight journalists in town.
In your interviews for the book, what surprised you most? Who touched you, and why?
I cant say that there were any real surprises, but I am constantly learning new things about local television, in particular the ingenuity and originality that people in the field here have exhibited over the years. I was touched by the fact that I was able to pursue such a project and spend time talking to and learning from people who I had come to respect and admire over the years for their work.
Last, and perhaps most important: What news shows inspired your adult career choice? Do you remember any specific broadcasts that stuck in your mind as a young man?
Growing up in New Orleans, I was always a huge fan of WWL-TVs newscasts, which dominated the local scene in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and (I am proud to say) continue to be the top-rated newscasts in the city today. I idolized the anchors and reporters, and could only dream that I would one day work alongside and learn from them. As a kid, I wrote fan letters to Bill Elder, Angela Hill, Phil Johnson, Eric Paulsen, Sally-Ann Roberts and others, asking for their autographs, which remain some of my most cherished keepsakes.
Dominic Massa will be signing his book New Orleans Television at these local bookshops:
Sat., August 16, 1-3pm
2727 Prytania St.
Sat., Aug. 23, 1-3 pm
7523 Maple St.
Fri., Sept. 5, 6-8pm
624 Pirate's Alley
Sat., Sept. 6, 2-4pm
1601-B Westbank Expy., Harvey