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Today, on a gray, damp and cool morning, I heard Oasis play “Hey Now!” and it got me thinking about The Larry Sanders Show. On that great program about a fictional talk show Jeffrey Tambor played Hank Kingsley, Larry Sanders’ Ed McMahon-like sidekick. His catchphrase was “Hey Now.” As Hank explained on one episode, he wasn’t the first person to say “Hey” or “Now,” but he did put the two words together.

Tambor was brilliant in that show, just a mass of ego, insincerity and insecurity. Rip Torn as producer Artie and Gary Shandling as Larry were superb, too, as were the rest of the cast. Larry Sanders was an often devastating look at Hollywood, made even more realistic because real stars played somewhat off-kilter versions of themselves. Few TV shows reached that level of steady brilliance. I just wish Oasis had appeared on Larry Sanders so Hank could have performed “Hey Now!” with them.

As Oasis bounced my mind to Sanders, Sanders got me thinking about my own brush with showbiz, and the memories started tumbling like dominos, taking me back to 1982 when I worked as an associate editor at The Hollywood Reporter. Published five days a week, the Reporter was one of the “trades” that covered show business, mainly movies. I got the gig in 1982 through an internship program at the USC film school. It was something of a consolation prize—the internship I really wanted was at Columbia Studios but I didn’t get it.

The assistant editor at the Reporter was a USC film school graduate, so he set up an interview with the editor. He was a fairly young guy, somewhat dapper, slim and with a short-cropped red beard. He interviewed me briefly. “We can’t pay very much,” he told me. “Only $5 an hour.”

I was under the impression that internships were unpaid, so I kept a poker face. “That’s okay,” I replied.

That’s how I got my job at the Hollywood Reporter. I think I worked three mornings a week, driving across the freeways from USC in my trusty 1975 Toyota Celica. The paper was housed in a low, dumpy building on Sunset Boulevard, just down the street from Hollywood High School. There was a tiny reception area, with not even enough room for a chair, just inside the front door. Two receptionists sat behind a glass partition and controlled access to the guts of the operation, which lay behind a small wooden door in a barrier wall that only extended about head high. Right beyond the door was the advertising department but Hank Grant, who compiled a daily column called The Rambling Reporter, had a little cubicle in the corner and the music editor had her desk in this room for some reason.

Beyond the advertising department was editorial, a single windowless room that was brightly lit by fluorescent lights. It smelled strongly of printer’s ink, because the paper was printed right on the premises. The typesetting room was off to the right.

The executive offices were upstairs. The owner and publisher was a woman by the name of Tichi Wilkerson. I thought she had been a showgirl when she met the Hollywood Reporter’s founder, Billy Wilkerson, but it appears she was the daughter of his maid. In any event, she married him and took over the paper after he died. During my eight months there I never set eyes on her. She remained an unseen presence who would occasionally dispatch a minion to deliver messages to the newsroom. Tichi’s daughter was, I think, the assistant publisher. She had a desk in the advertising room.

I sat at a group of four desks pushed together at one side of the newsroom. The editor sat across from me, the assistant editor next to him. The editor’s assistant–at least I think that was her title–sat next to me. Other reporters had their desks around the room. They all worked on battered manual typewriters, the kind of things you’d pick up at garage sales. Even in the world before word processors these typewriters seemed like museum pieces. The explanation I heard blamed their presence on the movie version of The Front Page. According to this story, the reporters once had new IBM Selectric typewriters, and then Tichi Wilkerson attended a screening of the classic Ben Hecht newspaper comedy and decided that a real newsroom sounded like the one in the movie, a symphony of clack-clacking manual typewriters. She ordered all the electric typewriters removed and had them replaced with machines that were probably old when Hecht wrote the original play. Only the music editor managed to dodge the edict and keep her IBM. Maybe that’s why she was out in the other room.

It was a great job—even better because I was getting paid for it. I’d come in each morning, drink in that unique smell of ink and coffee, and find, neatly folded on my desk, a freshly printed copy of the day’s Reporter and a copy of our rival, Daily Variety. I’d sit down, peruse the trades, and then do whatever was asked of me. I wrote some headlines, edited press releases, and wrote reviews. I got to write a few news stories. I wrote one about the death of Randi Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, who died when his plane tried to buzz Ozzy’s tour bus. Another time I checked the AP printout one Friday morning and saw that Vic Morrow and two children had been killed by a helicopter on location for The Twilight Zone. The Reporter didn’t publish on weekends, so by the time Monday’s edition came out the story would be old news, which is why the editor let me report it. I dutifully called the offices of director John Landis and producer Steven Spielberg for comments. I’m still waiting for them to call me back.

Once I fielded a phone call from Radie Harris, our Broadway correspondent. Like Hank Grant she was a throwback from the days of columnists like Walter Winchell or Louella Parsons. You could sense her status as a relic by the title of her column—“Broadway Ballyhoo.” (Ballyhoo! There’s a word that’s ripe for a comeback.) All I knew about Radie was that she had lost a leg at some point, and I cracked up the newsroom one day when I intoned, in my best Henny Youngman voice, “So I turned to Radie Harris and I said, ‘Peg . . .’”

Anyway, on this day Radie called with a big scoop. “Betty Buckley has been cast as the lead in That’s!” she rasped, in a voice that sounded like it enjoyed more than a nodding acquaintance with cigarettes.

The connection wasn’t very good and I wasn’t sure what she had said. I knew That’s was a stupid name for a Broadway show. “Could you spell it, please?” I asked.

“How many ways can you spell ‘That’s’?” she growled indignantly.

“Just one, I guess,” I replied, and I filed the story. Turned out she said “Cats.” She was furious when the story appeared in print, ruining her scoop, but no one in the office seemed to care.

I was also the obituaries editor. One day the receptionists buzzed me because a man had arrived with an obituary about his acting teacher. I went out to meet him. He had a long Old Testament Prophet beard. He handed me the write up and looked at me quizzically, as though he expected some kind of reaction. I just thanked him and had the receptionists buzz me back into the office. Only after I read the obit did I realize who the bearded man was—it was Kent McCord, from TV’s Adam 12!

Another time I noticed one of the reporters in the newsroom talking to a small man with a briefcase. After he left she came over. “Guess who that was,” she said. I confessed my ignorance. “That was Bill Griffith, the guy who created Zippy the Pinhead!” Being a huge Zippy fan, I was very disappointed not to have met him.

I had another brush with underground comics greatness while working at the Reporter. I had found a comic book called Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman at some bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard. The comic, by a Canadian named David Boswell, was brilliant stuff and an unending fount of great catch phrases. “I thought I told you to shut up!” “78 cents or I piss on your flowers!” “Make him drink coffee ’til it runs out his ears!” “He drinks, you know.” Reid was one tough mailman, that’s for sure. He kept his truck stocked with a case of rye, which he swilled straight from the bottle as he made his deliveries. One day at work I called Boswell up. I can’t remember why. Maybe he had called the paper and I intercepted the message. We chatted and he told me some Hollywood types had approached him about a possible movie adaptation and he had no idea what to ask or expect. Could I use my connections to find out for him? “Absolutely!” I said. “Glad to.” And then I hung up the phone and never called him back. I was as ignorant about things as he was.

It’s too bad they never made a movie. I read that Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis were interested at one point. Peter Boyle would have made a perfect Reid Fleming, too.

Everyone on the staff got to write reviews. I reviewed a lot of plays because there were Actor’s Equity productions all over town. One of my first reviews was for a thing called Monsieur Le Duck, which starred Dick Wilson, the man who played Mr. Whipple in the Charmin commercials.

Another time I reviewed a local production of Grease, which starred Eve Plumb from The Brady Bunch and included supporting appearances by Jerry Mathers (the Beaver!) and Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis and the Playboys fame (and son of Jerry—Lewis, not Mathers). The producer of the play called me several times to make sure I was going to be there. I got two tickets so I invited my friend Steve—who worked on The Dukes of Hazzard as a stunt man—to come with me. Before the show we unwound with a bunch of beers, so I was pretty well lubricated when I arrived at the performance—to find the producer waiting at the door to greet all the reviewers personally. “Hi, I’m Fran Drescher,” she said, in the nasally Long Island accent that would later cause animals to flee the room whenever The Nanny played on television. “We talked on the phone.” At that point I really couldn’t remember, and I told her so. Little did I know that one day she would play Spinal Tap’s Bobbi Fleckman. It was a brush with, if not greatness, at least something. But despite her personal attention I panned the production, writing that poor Eve Plumb had all the stage presence of a brick.

I did music reviews, too, despite my often stunning ignorance of the bands I wrote about. After I reviewed Split Enz at the Greek Theater I received a polite letter from a fan who pointed out that the band was from New Zealand, not Australia, and that their best known song was called “I Got You,” not “Sometimes I Get Frightened.” At least I gave them a good review. I also reviewed Sammy Hagar (with Quarterflash), Heart (with John Cougar), John Waite, and others of that ilk. And I reviewed a big arena show at Angel Stadium headlined by Foreigner, Loverboy, and Iron Maiden. Unfortunately, I got stuck in traffic and missed the opening act, the Scorpions, which was the band the music editor sent me to review. She was not pleased.

There were two highlights to that show, neither of which involved the bands. The first took place as I was walking through the stadium and a college-age kid suddenly burst through the crowd, with a couple of burly cops clinging to him like wolves trying to bring down a moose. He slammed to the ground in front of me and the impact knocked something loose from his hand. It was a glass vial filled with white powder—laundry detergent perhaps—and I watched as it rolled across the floor to gently bump against my foot. Then the cops swooped down and grabbed it before hauling the kid away in handcuffs.

The second thing took place between bands. I went to the show with a metalhead named Mark, who was living in the same group house that summer. He was a good guy but had such terrible taste in music that he was excited about the day’s lineup. We were standing down on the playing field when all of a sudden Mark whipped around like a ninja and raised his hands. Whump! Just in time he caught a grapefruit that someone had hurled from the upper decks, stopping the big citrus missile just inches before it smacked into his skull. It was an amazing display of reflexes. As for the music? Not so amazing. I didn’t even remember that Foreigner and Iron Maiden were on the bill until just now when I looked it up on the web.

I worked at the Hollywood Reporter through the last semester of my senior year. After I graduated I simply started coming in five days a week and filled out my time card accordingly. “Are you working full time now?” the editor asked me one day.

“Yes,” I said. And that was that. I have no idea how I got away with it. Looking back it seems an act of extraordinary chutzpah, but it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time.

I did almost get fired once. I had a truly nasty cold or flu, so I called in sick. But I also had a pass for an advance screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, so I went to the film that night, bottle of cough medicine in hand, and returned to my sick-bed. The next morning the editor’s assistant called me at home. “You aren’t sick,” she said. “I saw you at the movie last night.” “I am sick,” I replied. “I was guzzling cough medicine straight from the bottle the whole time.” When I went in the next morning she pulled me aside. “I told the editor you were at the movie and he said, ‘Well, fire him then,’ but I stood up for you.” In other words, after she put the knife in my back she was kind enough to extricate it.

Other people did get fired. I was there as Hank Grant was being ushered out, not without acrimony. The editor became furious whenever Hank used his column to give a birthday greeting to someone who was no longer among the living. Hank resented the criticisms. At one point they had a screaming match in the newsroom with Hank saying disparaging things about the editor’s ability. “Well, at least I don’t say happy birthday to dead people!” the editor yelled back.

I’m sure Hank realized he was on his way out. When he was on vacation, the man who filled in was one of the paper’s reviewers, a guy named Robert Osborne (no relation to Ozzy). He was not only a good reviewer, but when he subbed for Hank he filled his columns with genuine news and avoided salutations to the non-living. Eventually Hank Grant did retire and Osborne took over his column. Today he’s the host of Turner Classic Movies. I always found him to be a very pleasant man. He even expressed amazement—real or feigned I don’t know, but it seemed genuine—that I was able to do my job at the Reporter while being a full-time student.

The editor was the next to go. He saw the writing on the wall when a new guy showed up in the newsroom, serving as some kind of editorial advisor. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way that wind was blowing. The editor knew his days were numbered. One day he forgot to include the ending for an article that was supposed to jump from page one to the back. For a week or so the forgotten paragraphs remained pinned to the cork board where we tacked up items that didn’t make the paper. One afternoon the editor decided to use it. “Let’s jump that story we forgot,” he said. The assistant editor looked at him oddly “Just add,” the editor said, “‘continued from page 1, July 22’.” And that’s the way it appeared in the paper the next day. Before long the advisor had become the editor.

The new editor didn’t seem like a bad guy, actually, but I sensed my days were numbered, too. Summer was winding down, I needed to find a new place to stay, and my brother was getting married that fall back in Maine, so I figured it was time to pull up stakes and head back east. I had always felt like a fish out of water in California—a dour New England Puritan in the land of excess. The Golden State was strange and exotic—even the sunlight felt different—but it wasn’t where I belonged. So at the end of the summer I gave notice, packed all my things into my Celica, and headed east into the rising sun.


It’s time to refresh the iPod. I’m getting a little tired of the selections I have now. The other day I just couldn’t find a song that would get my blood moving—and then George Jones began to tell me stories of misery distilled from heartbreak and suitable for decanting into a broken bottle with a black ribbon tied around it. 

The song that convinced me to spend the rest of the morning walk listening to George Jones was “The Grand Tour.” In that piece of musical misery, the heartbroken narrator shows folks around his house while pointing out all the things he associates with his wife, who has just up and left, taking only the baby with her. (He doesn’t tell us why she suddenly hit the road, but I suspect the co-respondent in this case might have been a whiskey bottle.) 

I never had this album, but I admire the cover art. I think this is what you see in your rear-view mirror when you have the DTs.

Jones is particularly adept at that form of passive-aggressive country and western. Take, for instance, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The reason he stopped loving her is (SPOILER ALERT) because he’s dead. Now he’s lying in his coffin with a smile finally on his lips, and I figure that smile is there in part because his last thought was, “Now she’ll understand what she’s done to me.” And how about those love letters from his past, on which he’s underlined every “I love you” in red? Then there’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” where the humble narrator insists that he doesn’t care at all, but you can tell he wants everyone to know how much he’s hurting. Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here alone with my whiskey and cry quietly to myself until I pass out on the floor. Wouldn’t want to be a bother. 

These songs could have been maudlin tear jerkers, except it’s George Jones who sings them. The man’s voice is an absolutely unique instrument. It cries and chokes and sobs and soars and just packs a whole lot of tortured humanity into the tales of woe that Jones relates. Years ago Frank Sinatra said that George Jones was the second best singer in America (I think he reserved the top slot for Jerry Garcia), and Frank was on to something. He might have also recognized a kindred spirit. He and George both specialized in songs that are best appreciated when one slumps over a bar and gazes dismally into a glass full of a potent beverage. It’s a pity that Frank and George never recorded a duet. Picture the two of them together on “My Way,” or “I Gotta Get Drunk.” 

Jones also sings what is probably my favorite country song of all time, “These Days I Barely Get By.” It’s a classic, mainly because in this one I get the sense that George is poking fun at his own moroseness. “I woke up this morning aching with pain,” he begins, and it’s all downhill from there. His dog died, he’s going to lose his job, and the horse on which he bet his last two bucks lost by a nose. Not only did his wife leave him, she first placed all the unpaid bills on the desk in the hall. Now that’s cold. 

Of course, Jones himself knew a lot about barely getting by. I read some biographies of him some time ago and boy, oh, boy, he was out there—shooting out TVs, arguing with himself in a weird Donald Duck voice, and earning a reputation for skipping performances that got him the nickname “No Show Jones.” The absolute topper is the story of how then-wife Tammy Wynette once took his car keys to keep him from going out and boozing, so George just drove down to the local liquor store on his riding lawnmower. That’s hardcore! 

I understand that Mr. Jones has cleaned up his act since then, but he’s left traces of his wild years behind in all his songs. I walked around the neighborhood listening to his stories of misery and heartache, and by the time I got home I felt pretty good.


May 2010
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