HITTING THE WALL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

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.

Garry Armstrong, Yiddish cook, much like anchoring

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.



Categories: Anecdote, Garry Armstrong, Humor, Media, News, Photography, reporting

Tags: , , , ,

21 replies

  1. How fabulous you found your niche, and had the awareness and confidence to stay with it so could then excel

    Liked by 1 person

    • Becky, I consider myself so lucky. My parents (familiar story, I think) wanted me to do something solid. Lawyer, Doctor, etc. I had a chance in retail but didn’t really like it.

      Once I got a taste of radio in college, there was turning away from the biz. It was like being propelled forward by a magnet.

      Like

      • Love the idea of a magnet drawing you in.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Becky, I used that analogy because I was absolutely DRIVEN to succeed. I knew all the obstacles but my mind said — “Full speed ahead”. It’s something you have when when you’re young and haven’t dealt with all the real world mine fields. My pursuit of success took precedent over everything else in my life. That means you have little time for a personal life. It no doubt stymied my personal growth which is still a work in progress – half a century later.

          Like

          • Sounds to me as though you are an amazing work in progress and ahead of many of us. Don’t think any of us ever stop growing or developing in our personal lives, and nor should we.

            Like

  2. I think that I would have got so interested in your stories that I’d have been disappointed when the VP’s plane finally landed. Maybe you should be making podcasts! 🙂

    “Armstrong Unlimited” sounds like it was either lots of fun or scared the living daylights out of you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tas, it was mostly the former. Only, the reality I HAD to jump out of the plane scared me and that was a brief moment before I was floating through the sky on a beautiful day.

      The other stuff — I was treated like a star while doing stuff you fantasize about. Truly Walter Mitty.
      I think we have photos of me as a jockey and one of me — clearly scared – just before leaping out of the plane. I hope to find them amidst all the junk cluttering my “office”.

      Like

  3. Gar,

    I was working the receive center and we were placing our bets on a timeline for when you would tell us what you had for breakfast. The money pool was only a few bucks and i think Chris Allen won when you metioned the great sandwich you had eaton prior to going on…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Steverino, I truly was in my jabber element that day. Once I realized that I might have to go on for an eternity, I just kicked back and let the “stories” roll. It’s an opportunity that demented reporters like me always relished — limitless airtime with no producers yelling for a wrap. I cherish that day and, in retrospect, the “Prince’s” (anchor, John Henning) knowledge of my ability to dance on a dime. We laughed about that often during his tenure at Ch 7. He was such a great guy with a marvelous sense of humor.

      One night – on the set — during a commercial break – John mentioned the passing of Joan Crawford that day. I nodded to my fellow movie maven who seamlessly segued to “Casablanca”. We were riffing lines as Eli Turetsky (the director) yelled, “Guys, we’re doing a newscast here, if you don’t mind. Jesus Christ — this is an asylum”. The Prince and I giggled and switched back to anchor-reporter mode as we came out of the commercial bloc.
      Looney Tunes — all the way and I loved it.

      Like

  4. I’ve no doubt said it before but you’ve lived an AMAZING life sir! I suppose any stand up comedian knows how long 20 minutes actually is…you stepped up most admirably (obviously) and did your bit for your station! You were a pioneer in your field too, so admirable! A truly Impavid warrior!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melanie, THANK YOU! So kind.

      I have a friend who tried his hand at standup and did well. I was VERY impressed but he said it isn’t as easy as you might think. No, I’ve never tried.

      Many folks think that “live” reporting and/or anchoring is easy-peasy. You just look at the camera and read stuff. HAH! It takes years and years to hone the craft until you find YOUR way. As newbies, we often try to copy the greats and usually look like newbies copying the greats. Some people are naturals and have the gift from the beginning. I wasn’t a natural. Lots of terrible stuff on old tapes that I hope have died.

      I think it’s the same in most performing arts although old school reporters might blanch at the notion that we are performing. Yes, on television — we are reporters who, to some extent, are performing to deliver our stories. Give them “life” and believability. There’s a very THIN line between news reporting and theatrical hawking in the TV news biz. You see it in whatever YOU watch.

      Thanks again for the kind words.

      Good night and good luck!

      Like

    • Patricia, Ha-Ha — YOU know what I’m talking about. I am sure you’ve seen your share of the good, the bad and the ugly in the news biz. As I mentioned in my previous comment, it’s like most performing arts although Ed Murrow would probably give me the death stare for that comparison. C’mon, Ed. You, sitting on the couch or at the anchor desk — chain-smoking and staring balefully at the camera — cut us a little slack!

      This is no excuse for the airheads and prom queens who are on air news pretenders and embarrass the rest of us who’ve work our tushes off to get our air time.

      Does my hair look okay?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your “Armstrong Unlimited” sounds like fun. That 20 minute live improv about the VP, I’m sure it wasn’t as much fun as flying a jet, does make a great story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trent, yes, indeed!

      No gilding the lily in that 20 minute live shot anecdote. Trent, I couldn’t believe it when the anchor kept sending it back to me. The newsroom suit and managers KNEW the damn plane was circling the airport because of ground traffic. They could’ve continued the newscast or resumed “normal broadcast” and then cut back to me when the VEEP’s plane actually started its descent. (Later, the VEEP laughed at me when I shared my story after we’d wrapped the news conference. He said something like — “That’s what you guys do so well”. He was a good egg with a very wry sense of humor. I just didn’t enjoy being the butt of the joke).

      The industry was enthralled with LIVE shots back then in its relative infancy — as it is today when “Breaking News” is a bloody joke. (I once was rushed to breathlessly do a live report on an exploding manhole cover at 5am. By the time we got to the scene, there was just smoke. Still, the blazing “BREAKING NEWS”: music and graphics set me up for another ‘dance on a dime’ job. I barely kept a straight face as I delivered a terse report. Now, THAT was funny! AND — the station used the manhole explosion live shot in its highlights reel for the rest of the day. SWEET JESUS!

      Liked by 1 person

      • lol, the idea of the manhole explosion shots being used all day – but I’ve seen stuff like that before, so not surprised! I did hear a lot of good things about GHWB and the idea of a moderate Republican president sounds like sci-fi today…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Trent, as I said — he was a decent guy. Affable and straight with the media. I won’t comment on politics.

          BTW: That “Armstrong Unlimited” series was a hoot to do, especially the work out with the Sox and riding as a jockey at Suffolk Downs.

          The Sox had me for dinner in my efforts to hit. Carlton Fisk was a prospect who caught my AB’s and veteran Bob Veale, a mean Bob Gibson clone, showed no mercy.

          Yaz, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro and others gave me props for my weak efforts. I LOVED it.

          The sky-diving episode was the hit. We had cameras everywhere. On the plane and on the ground. Ambulances stood by in case I didn’t make it. I had instructions in the morning and we shot an hour later. The still pic of me being pushed out of the plane shows a scared guy – almost turning white with fear. The experience of floating through the air was exhilarating.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. what a great story and luckily you made the choice that was right for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Beth. You are right.

      It’s been a wonderful ride with so many stories to share. Usually, the stories behind the story — are the funniest. I just need to make sure I don’t repeat myself too many times and wind up like that Uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who holds court with a story told way too often and you can see everyone jaw dropping around the table.

      Marilyn tells people — “Garry never met a microphone he didn’t like”.

      You betcha!

      Liked by 1 person

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