“Send In The Clowns”, on its own merit, is a beautiful song from the show, “A Little Night Music.” Judy Collins’ cover has made it a popular favorite for decades. A Frank Sinatra version is especially poignant.
In the early 70’s, a seemingly more innocent period, I used “Send In The Clowns” as a musical wrap around a political TV piece. I was covering local Boston politics. A primary campaign. Those were the days of political and community icons like “Dapper,” “Fast Freddie,” Trixie, “Kevin From Heaven,” “Wacko,” and “Raybo.”
Those were influential folks, beloved by their constituents and bearers of much political clout. I was on “friendly” terms with most of these folks. There was less Sturm und Drang between the media and politicians in those days.
There was respect.
My piece was shot with silent black and white film. We were still in the pre-videotape and digital days. I chose silent film over sound because I wanted the music to have more presence, less competition from people talking.
We used a montage of candidates faces, posters and campaign slogans. The lyrics of “Send In The Clowns” soared as the video zoomed in on campaign slogans and candidates kissing babies and pressing the flesh.
I anticipated a flurry of angry calls from campaign directors. Nothing. Nada. One candidate, over happy hour drinks, praised the cleverness of my piece but said he would’ve preferred the Sinatra version of “Clowns”.
So much for being glib in those days.
Imagine using “Send In The Clowns” today. For the coming mid-terms. The ’20 Presidential race. How would the “Clowns” lyrics fare over the screaming POTUS? The ranting Rudy? The shouting Sean Hannity?
Should we intercut snippets of circus clowns with “breaking news” video and clips of all the President’s minions? Don’t forget those shots of the President’s supporters, the “People,” with their “Jail Her” signs and the racist banners flying over political bonfires.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother.
They’re already here.
I was a newbie newsie at ABC News. The kid reporter among guys who’d worked for Ed Murrow and shared tall tales about Mayor LaGuardia, Governor “Beau Jimmy” Walker, Tammany Hall grifters, speakeasies, Jazz and an era that had gone with the wind before I arrived.
I was plopped in the middle of middle and old-age, usually White guys who took no notice of my skin color unless they were talking about Joe Louis, Lena Horne, or Jackie Robinson. The jibes were about individuals — not marked by race, sexual preference or religion.
Sometimes they laughed about “pretty boys” but that usually was about fellas who were light on work effort and heavy on looking good on camera.
The bartender and owner who was usually an Irishman. He ran the local numbers game and was an off-the-books source of loans if you were short. He usually broke up the noise if the conversation bordered on trouble.
He nodded at me. It was an inference: “Hey, watch it. The kid is here.” Not sure if I appreciated being a greenhorn among the grizzled guys. Lots of famous faces came in, usually tired, looking for a little respite and no hassles.
I absorbed the stories which, years later, became woven into my own tales. Funny thing, most of the chatter, although fueled by booze, was intelligent, sharp, witty and observant of the times.
A decade later, I was in the world of Boston bars. I became a familiar face, popping up on the tube pretty much every day. Chasing bad weather and bad hombres. The conversations were animated — VERY animated if they concerned the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino”, and another pennant lost to those damn Yankees. There were rumors about lobbyists greasing the pockets of certain pols, queries about the availability of “Tommy, The Torch” and his crew
Whispers about “Whitey” and the latest bloodbath in territorial “hits.” Now, I knew who was who and played dumb when asked for the inside stuff. There was always a fresh drink to maybe loosen my tongue. No, there was never enough booze for that.
There were the lawyers in their rumpled suits, complaining about Judges they swore were in the pockets of people who went unnamed.
There was a bar near Fenway Park which gave me the greatest joy. Baseball players, sportswriters and sports wannabees came and went leaving us with a goldmine of baseball info. Once I was “in.” I was “golden.”
I loved kicking back the rounds, swapping stories with no fear of insulting anyone. Pesky “pilgrims” were quickly shown the door before they became the source of brawls. Many “tips” were turned into legit stories which solidified my notion that I was working.
It was a bar where religious leaders could bend elbows with wiseguys and, sometimes, you couldn’t tell who was who.
“Someday, I’m gonna walk down the street. People will look at me and say, “There he goes, the greatest there ever was!'”
It’s a familiar line. We’ve heard it from would be wonder boys across generations. It’s a line we hear now, used in admiration and derision, to describe the New England Patriots’ 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady.
Sports radio and television yakkers beat the controversy drums every day. Is Brady better than Joe Montana? Peyton Manning? Steve Young? Is he the greatest there ever was? Audiences foam at the mouth during the debate. It’s the stuff media executives dream about. Drives up ratings which in turn drives up prices for those who buy radio and TV time.
The greatest there ever was.
Robert Redford echoed the line as a young Roy Hobbs in the classic baseball film, “The Natural.” Hobbs was the young everyman who dreamed of greatness. Many of us pursued the same dream.
I grew up in a generation when there were still many doors to be opened. Many challenges to be faced and answered. The social divide was still very evident in the United States. Overt racism was on display for all to see, even in so-called cradles-of-liberty cities.
Women were seen, but not heard. Ogled and groped, but not respected. It’s the way we were — back in the day. It’s also why so many of us were inspired to succeed. We wanted to show our worth, our value. We wanted more than respect.
We seem to have regressed back to those days but I hope not permanently.
It was a clear road we walked — to be the greatest there ever was.
I remember a hot, muggy, September 1959 afternoon at the Parris Island U.S. Marine Corps training base. The base commander stopped to chat up a group of new Marines, just returned from a double-time forced march near the swamp infested grounds that lay outside the base.
The young Gyrenes were clearly tuckered out, cursing the sandflies who nestled in their bodies. The commander zeroed in one group, singling out a young recruit of color who had attitude written on his face. “Private, how do you like the Marines, now?”
The young man broadened his smile. “Sir, permission to speak freely, sir?
The commander nodded. Red-faced drill instructors familiar with the young man stiffened in their nearby posts braced for the worst. The recruit eyed the DI’s, smiled at them and responded to the commander. “Sir, Private Armstrong is PROUD to be a marine, sir.”
The commander smiled.
The D.I.’s seemed relieved as the recruit continued talking to the commander who could make stripes disappear quickly off a sergeant’s shoulder.
“Sir, I love the Marines. I want to be the greatest there ever was, sir”.
The commander’s stoicism was replaced with a big smile. The D.I’s chuckled softly while glaring at Private Armstrong.
I did want to be the greatest Marine ever. This wasn’t any John Wayne fanboy stuff. My brief stint had fueled aspirations for a career in the Marine Corps, perhaps in the communications division. My hearing difficulties would soon end my life as a Marine, but it was a time I still remember with pride. It also helped me plot the course for the rest of my professional life.
In the decades that followed, I never lost the fire in the belly from my Marine Corps days. Some thought the “glamour” of TV news kept me happy and satisfied over the years.
I remember catching up with old friends over the years. They would tell me how successful they were. I heard about how much money they were making. The fancy cars they were driving. Vacation homes, country clubs, and so on.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t play that game. I inevitably wound up repeating how much I enjoyed my work. I talked about excitement, interesting people, dramatic stories — and the chance to make a difference.
There usually was a pause from the friend. I would then tell them I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, I had awards, celebrity but there was something else.
I still wanted to be the best there ever was. Best replaced greatest somewhere over the years. No matter. The concept had not changed, just the wording.
I’ve been retired for more than 18 years after banking 40 plus years on the job. I think I’m satisfied with my body of work. Satisfied doesn’t do it.
Part of me still wants to be the greatest there ever was.
If you are a fan of John Ford’s movies, maybe you remember “Ditto” Boland (actor Edward Brophy), the funny character wearing a Hamburg hat in the “The Last Hurrah.” The real-life Ditto Boland, after the James Michael Curley years, became an elevator operator at the Massachusetts State House. He worked there during the 1970s, which is when I met him.
Our State House reporter had told me about him, “warning” me not to ask Ditto about his past because he’d launch into a long-winded conversation about his storied days with the legendary Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Okay, I was warned.
One day, I was the only person on the elevator with Ditto. It was an old elevator that groaned as it slowly went from floor to floor. Ditto said nothing until letting me off.
He smiled and said, “Hi, Mr. Armstrong. I know you’re new to Boston. If ever I can give you any help, just let me know.” That was all he said. Not a single James Michael Curley story.
Ditto did help me. As the new reporter in Boston, he pointed out key political players in the stories I was assigned to cover. Boston is a complicated town — especially politically. If you didn’t know who was who, you could be lost trying to correctly cover political events.
I was nervous when assigned to the State House because I didn’t know the backstories of the various Boston politicos. I felt I couldn’t do adequate justice to these assignments. Ditto and a couple of other old-timers rescued me many times over the years. Eventually, I was able to rescue others, too. One good turn deserves many more.
A few years after our first meeting, I ran into Ditto at “The Capital Dome,” a popular bar on Beacon Hill frequented by politicians, lobbyists, political reporters, and hangers-on. I was sitting in a corner – alone – because I really didn’t know that crowd.
Ditto approached, asked if he could join me and I nodded. I found his politeness charming because “polite” didn’t usually work well around the State House. We sat, nursing our drinks for long minutes.
Finally, Ditto told me he liked me because I was “friendly and polite.” I nodded. Then he said, “And, you never asked me about James Michael Curley.”
I laughed, longer and harder than I intended. Ditto just sat there, beaming broadly.
Tom Ellis was a pillar in the media community. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. In celebration of his life, we are hosting “Tom Ellis, A Tribute,” tomorrow at The Seaport Hotel, Plaza Ballroom from 2-4 pm. I hope you can join us in memorializing the man, the legend, and our dear friend, Tom Ellis.
Tom Ellis, A Tribute
Tom Ellis, a member of the Massachusetts Broadcasting Hall of Fame, lived the great American life – from working as a young roughneck in the Texas oil fields in the early 1950’s to recording one of President John F. Kennedy’s final television interviews, to the decades spent as a leading television news anchor in both Boston and New York City. Thomas Caswell Ellis died on April 29, 2019, at his home in East Sandwich, Massachusetts. He was 86 years old.
Ellis was born on September 22, 1932, in the Big Thicket area of East Texas, where hard work was valued and money was hard to come by. Ellis was put to work at the age of 13 in the construction trades in Carthage, Texas. While he enjoyed physical labor, Ellis loved the spotlight of theater and entertainment and found side jobs as a professional actor and a carnival barker in his teens.
During the Korean War, Ellis served as a cryptographer in the U.S Navy’s Security Service in Washington, DC. He graduated with honors from Arlington State College in 1955 and from the University of Texas in 1958.
His handsome appearance and commanding voice soon caught the attention of a small radio station in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was hired as a staff announcer for 50 cents per hour. Ellis then moved to San Antonio, where he broke into television news in as an anchor-reporter where he earned several awards for his reporting from the Associated Press and UPI.
He was among the local Texas reporters dispatched to Dallas, where he landed a brief interview with President John F. Kennedy on the day before he was assassinated. In 1968, Ellis moved to Boston after he was hired as a lead anchor for WBZ-TV where he covered major stories, including student protests against the war in Vietnam and the Chappaquiddick tragedy involving Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.
Ellis was lured away from Boston to New York City in 1975 to anchor the prime time news on WABC-TV where he earned New York Newscaster of the Year honors as well as the top ratings in the market. Also during this time, Ellis made a return to acting and landed a role in the big screen thriller Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Sir Lawrence Olivier. He played, of all things, an anchorman. Other movie roles would follow.
Ellis returned to Boston three years later to join the anchor team at Channel 5 that included Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson. During his tenure there, Ellis hosted a Peabody Award-winning documentary called Fed up. He then moved to WNEV-TV (now WHDH) where he co-anchored newscasts from 1982 to 1987.
Ellis’ career is distinguished also by the fact that he is the only journalist to have anchored top-rated newscasts at each of Boston’s network affiliates in the 1960s, 1970’s and 1980s. In the early 1990s, Tom Ellis became one of the first television anchors for NECN (New England Cable News) where he continued to cover major world events close to home, such as 9/11 and the plane crash that took the lives of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law. Tom Ellis anchored his last newscast in 2008.
Longtime friend George K. Regan, Jr remembered Ellis this way: “Tom Ellis was not just a great journalist, he was a great human being. I got to know Tom while working as the press secretary for Mayor Kevin White. My respect for him as a newsman grew from day one and we later became the closest of friends. Tom Ellis was family to me. There wasn’t a holiday or special event we didn’t spend time together or simply reach out to talk. My thoughts are with Tom’s lovely wife Arlene. I will miss my dear friend, ” Regan said.
He loved living on Cape Cod, surrounded by nature and also giving back to his community. He was also deeply involved with various charities, including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters. He had also served as Chairman of the United Way of Cape Cod. He predeceased by his mother, Mary Eunice Ellis, father Herbert Caswell Ellis, and sister Mary Grimes Ellis.
Tom Ellis is survived by his wife Arlene (Rubin) Ellis of East Sandwich, Massachusetts, Arlene’s sister Debbie Berger and her husband Michael of Newton, Ma., daughter Terri Susan Ellis of Freedom, CA., daughter Kathy Denise Cornett and husband Randy Cornett of Hamilton, OH, and son Thomas Christopher Ellis and wife Beverly Ellis of Cincinnati, Ohio. Ellis also leaves behind five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
All the best,
George K. Regan Jr., Chairman Regan Communications Group
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