Anchoring was my Achilles heel. I was never good at it. I shared my grief with the late Tom Ellis who was a good friend and a wonderful anchor. Tom allowed, “You gotta be yourself and go with the flow.”
Tom got a lot of criticism for being ‘Texas Tom” and larger than life. In truth, he was a fine newsman and did the anchorman thing naturally. We swapped reporter and anchorman tips and laughed at our vanity.
ANCHORING: WHEN I REALIZED I COULDN’T DO IT ALL
I was subbing for the usual anchor on one forgettable Saturday night on Urban Update’s (colloquially known as Black News) anchor desk. I was nervous.
I was always nervous before an anchor stint. I’d had a few “beverages” with the Chinese food during the pre-show dinner, so all was right in the world. The toys in my attic were doing Busby Berkley numbers throughout the evening. I had maybe a couple of verbal miscues during the show but I smiled a lot. Too much.
Ironically, Steve Shepherd and I premiered the first Morning newscast on then WNAC-TV in the early 70’s. We were the hotshot, young anchor duo for “Daybreak” which followed the network’s “Lamp Unto My Feet” for those seeking daily spiritual redemption at minimal cost.
I believe the station was trying to see if their young reporter of color had enough ‘legs’ to boost ratings. That’s when I began wearing contacts which gave me holy hell, but they enabled me to read the spanking new teleprompter the station brought for their dynamic duo.
My morning anchor gig was mercifully brief. The News Director, Mel Bernstein – a Garry Armstrong mentor-supporter – moved me over into glamour reporter gigs including my Walter Mitty series which had me doing sky-diving, riding as a jockey at Suffolk Downs, working out with the Red Sox, spending a week in the millionaire’s suite at the Copley Plaza and flying my own jet airplane. They called it “Armstrong Unlimited” and promoted the hell out of it, including big, splashing ads in the Boston Herald. It was top of the world.
My anchor chores would be few and far between. Nothing lost. I blossomed under “breaking news” with electronic news gathering. Dancing on a dime while ad-libbing live. My favorite “dancing on a dime” live shot was when VP “Papa” Bush’s plane was circling Logan, ready to descend.
Anchor John Henning tossed it to me at Logan, “…the Vice President’s plane is descending at Logan and will land shortly. Our Garry Armstrong is there with a closeup view…Garry”.
I get the “GO” over my IFB and start jabbering. But the plane was not descending. It was hovering over Logan because all the runways were busy and would stay busy for 20 endless minutes. Every time I sent it back to Henning, he’d do thirty seconds and send it back to “Our always reliable Garry Armstrong who is very close to the Vice President right now.”
The plane kept hovering. I went into my grab bag of Garry Armstrong anecdotes. My crew was laughing while I was jabbering non-stop with Veep “stories”. My stories were so good I was beginning to believe them, so I segued into more stories.
I noticed my sound guy was staring at me in disbelief as I continued yakking, barely pausing for breath. It was like I had my own story-board or teleprompter — but there was nothing in front of me except the mic and a clear and urgent need to continue talking until I got the “cut” signal.
For 20 minutes, I heard nothing until the plane angled and began its downward descent. Finally, the blessed word – “CUT” – came over my IFB. I also heard muted applause. My crew was grinning, giving me thumbs up. How long is twenty minutes? When you are live on camera with nothing happening and no script? It is a very long time. I was prouder of that live shot than any ill-fortuned anchor effort.
I was a good reporter but not an anchor. It was good I knew this because I got several juicy offers to anchor. Despite the quality of these offers – much more money and moving to wonderful markets like New York or San Diego – I knew I couldn’t do it. Sometimes, you hit a wall and no amount of trying hard is going to make it work. It’s good to recognize when it happens. It only hurts for a little while.