REMEMBERING “FAST AL” McNAUGHTON: A NEW ENGLAND TV NEWS LEGEND – Garry Armstrong

Those of you who don’t live in Massachusetts or a neighboring New England state won’t be familiar with Alan “Fast Al” McNaughton. He left us on Sunday, 80 plus years young and a legend in the TV News business for over 50 years at Boston’s Channel 7/WHDH.

“Fast Al” was a Damon Runyon-type character. He loved horse racing and was well known for spreading the green stuff on ponies he was sure would win. More importantly, Al was one of the last of his kind, a TV News photographer who began his career “souping film” in labs long before the advent of electronic newsgathering, tape, and digital editing.

The “Fast Al” label is lore from his “inside knowledge” and tips about horse races, local and national. He was also known for his uncanny ability to sniff out overtime and sweeten his salary. It’s an ability admired by all in the TV news biz.  I met Al when I joined Ch 7 in 1970.

To see a full-size picture and its full caption, click on the actual picture.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE RIZER,
BOSTON GLOBE, MEDIA OF BOSTON

I believe he was doing double duty as a film processor and a cameraman. Others filled me in about politicians, crime bosses, historical landmarks and geographical pronunciations. “Fast Al” told me about the local racetracks, the horse owners, trainers, jockeys and, of course, which pony would win at a certain racetrack.

Al was an advisor when I did a Walter Mitty type feature, living a fantasy as a jockey at a popular racetrack.  He made sure I looked the part even if I couldn’t ride well. I was a pilgrim when it came to horses and wagering. Fast Al told me not to worry when he tipped me about a favorite pony and insisted I put down good money on a daily double. Guess what?

The long-shot horse came in first — by a healthy margin. I bought the drinks that night!

Horses aside, Al McNaughton was witness to Massachusetts and New England history dating back over half a century. He was a familiar face at news conferences involving the likes of James Michael Curley, JFK, RFK, Ted Kennedy,  Albert “The Boston Strangler” DiSalvo, Whitey Bulger, Ted Williams, Bobby Orr, “Princess” Cheyenne and the ladies of Boston’s infamous “Combat Zone” and lots more. He frequently was on a first-name basis with many public figures who disdained talking to reporters. On many assignments, Al would break the ice with,  “Governor/ Senator/ Mayor. Garry is a fair reporter. He knows his stuff. You can trust him.”

Al’s word was gold. The lauded Armstrong report was possible only because Al McNaughton vouched for me. He also fed me background with perspective on stories that gave me credibility.

You can’t buy trust with a smile or handshake.

During Boston’s volatile court-ordered school busing years, the region was a tinder box. One errant picture or misquoted interview and the result was disastrous on the local, national, and international stages.  It was like walking on eggshells for those of us on the front line. Al McNaughton with that familiar smile and assurance helped many of us cope with the racial tension. He seemed to glide through angry groups to get the video we needed to tell the story fairly and accurately.

He was calm in the middle of agitated groups who were waiting for a reason to riot. When Al had the video he needed, he’d whisper to some of the community leaders who had no use for the news media. A few would allow us interviews, often looking to Al for assurance. He was a peace broker at a time the TV stations thrived on violent images. A lifetime of trust gave many of us street credibility. You rarely — if ever — heard that mentioned in our reports.

Alan was part of a small, elite group of Boston TV News photographers who would help reporters with words as well as video.  There’s nothing in their IBEW (Union) contract that says they need to do this. It’s an act of kindness, reaching out to those of us frequently praised for our on-camera reports.  Veterans like Al McNaughton were walking nuggets of history.  They were working when the so-called “talent” (mic holders) were in college or just getting started as novices in “the biz”.

I’ve become infamous for my stories about celebrities interviewed across the decades. Hey, it really was a hoot!  What’s not known is that many of those celebrity “sitdowns” only happened because of people behind the camera – local photojournalist legends like Jack Crowley, Nat Whittemore, John Premack, Richard Chase, Richie Suskin, and Al McNaughton to name a few. Frequently, the celebs trusted the people behind the camera more than reporters panting for their gilded time. I plead guilty to hanging on the coattails of the pros who rarely received credit.

Let’s rewind the tape or disc to 30 or 40 years ago. Mickey Rooney was starring in “Sugar Babies” in Boston’s theater district. All the entertainment reporters wanted “their time” with the legendary Hollywood star. I drew the Channel 7 assignment (begging the assignment editor may have helped) for the ‘Andy Hardy’ interview.

Mickey Rooney wasn’t in a cheery Andy Hardy mood when we showed up. As I pondered how to pander, Al McNaughton cornered Mickey Rooney and soon both were laughing like old friends. Mickey was taking notes as Al talked. Yes, Al was giving Mickey, a noted lover of the ponies, some tips on the local horse talent.

Presto! Rooney — smiling broadly — sat for the interview which was smooth and funny without any glitches or retakes. As I checked my notebook, I heard Rooney and Al making plans for an afternoon at one of the local racetracks.

I must’ve been pouting because Al smiled at Mickey, “Hey, Mickey –whadda ya say. Let’s bring the kid with us. He’s okay. Maybe we can educate him a bit.”

My cameraman and the Hollywood legend laughed at me with thumbs up.

All of Al’s ponies did well. Clearly, Rooney was impressed with Fast Al’s tips. Al had a catchphrase: “There goes swifty!” I believe it referred to the professional dog races and the ‘lead’ dog.  The “Swifty” refrain was almost simultaneous with Al’s arrival or exit from scenes. As we left the track that afternoon, Al and Mickey Rooney were yelling, “There Goes SWIFTY!” They were laughing and congratulating each other. I smiled to myself. A typical “Fast Al” day.

You can’t make this stuff up.

I received lots of praise for my Mickey Rooney interview which aired on several newscasts. Critics said I had a clear personal touch with Rooney and the interview avoided familiar, cliche questions. I beamed but knew the credit belonged to Al McNaughton. I have myriad similar stories on my resume.  The praise and awards are always appreciated. But I know I have them because of people like Al McNaughton and his colleagues. Most other veteran reporters would say the same.

“Talent” tends to get the applause and appreciation from viewers, but there’s no story or interview without the savvy and support from old school video newsies like Fast Al McNaughton.

This week we share the memories, the laughter, and awe of more than 50 years in the tumultuous TV News market of Boston. This is when we realize that “Fast Al” McNaughton was unique.  They don’t teach Al’s skills in journalism classes. It’s learned on the street where you need to know how to do the right thing.

Fast Al, here’s looking at you, kid.  May all your ponies come in first!


POSTSCRIPTAl McNaughton’s family requests that memorial contributions be made in Al’s name to The New England Equine Rescue Association.


 



Categories: Garry Armstrong, horses, New England, News, obituary, Photography, Television

Tags: , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Great story and wonderful tribute to Al, Garry!

    Like

  2. Tish, one more for you about celebrity and sharing credit. Prior to Ch 7/Boston – I worked a short stint at a tiny TV station in Hartford, Ct. It was such a minor league operation that there were only 2 people in the news department. The news director and me (The assistant news director). I wrote ALL the news copy. The other guy READ my copy, rarely acknowledged me even though I co-anchored the news with him. It, in retrospect, was a good lesson for me. Another colleague at the small station was kinder and helped me. He showed me how to load film into soiund and silent film cameras plus gave me some basic tips which I adopted. One funny incident. On my first assignment, shooting my own story, I scored a scoop. I returned to the station, telling everyone about my big scoop. I was so proud of myself. Alas, when we opened the camera to process the film, there was NO film. I neglected to put film in the camera before going out on the story. Lots of laughter in the little TV station that day.

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  3. A fine tribute to a great friend and colleague, Garry. In these days when we’re fixated on ‘stars’ and ‘the celebrity’ it’s good to be reminded that the best productions, in whatever field, happen when people collaborate creatively and generously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tish, you’re right. Yesterday, at Al’s wake, One of my former colleagues who worked at a competing TV station — reminded us “..we were like family in a cut throat business. We all wanted scoops — but we looked out for one another — always had each other’s backs”. It was a special era in TV News, likely not to be seen again. Yesterday, the laugher was mixed wih tears.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree a book is in order! A first-hand look at what was going on behind the scenes as well as your take on the feel and mood of the moment! You are a natural, just look at this piece!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Covert, thanks. The “Fast Al’ piece was straight from the heart. All true with vivid memories culled from decades of riotous events. Stories shared at yesteday’s wake elicited laughter in the normally staid funeral home. “Fast Al” could hold his own with the most ‘over the top’ characters, famous and infamous. I remember Shecky Greene just staring – quiet and gaping — as Al spun a few tales. He’ll have a place in the book, for sure.

      Like

  5. What’s the story behind Damon Runyon, Garry? I remember they always had funny names and “Fast Al” would be one of them. Another great story for your book.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leslie, Runyon was famous for writing about colorful characters who spoke “Brooklyneese” — Think “Guys And Dolls”. They frequented race tracks, bookie joints and, the old hack political saloons filled with cigar smoke and painted ladies with hearts of gold. Yes, I knew some of them. Fast Al McNaughton was a classic Runyon character — a GENUINE Runyon character.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Was there a tv series about them? I do remember the names some of the characters had.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Leslie, they’re “staple” characters on TV, in movies. They show up in the crime shows, sometimes comedies. There probably was a series but I just can’t put my finger on it right now. Again, the best example might be “Guys And Dolls”.
          Brando played “Sky” Masterson in a unique bit of casting. I never could quite buy Brando singing and playing it for laughs. That’s just me. If you recall the character actor, Sheldon Leonard (He was the bartender in “It’s A Wonderful Life”), he was a exhibit A of a Runyon type.

          Liked by 1 person

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