Tuesday, May 5, 2020. After that almost summer Sunday with the temp nearing 80 degrees, yesterday was considerably cooler in New York. Although pleasant in the low 60s, and then down into the low 40s, if you want something to complain about.
That’s certainly not the worst of it, is it? Oh, and the Sun was often out and the river was calm and shining, and there were numerous people walking on the Promenade and taking in the avenue where three blocks of roadway have been designated for walkers (and runners). The single sailboat heading out to Long Island Sound could make it look like a Sunday in New York. It felt like it. But it wasn’t.
Last Friday, May 1, was the birthdate of Jack Paar who died in his 87th year. If you’re 50 or over, most likely you never heard of Jack Paar. As the host of the Tonight Show in the late 1950s, early ‘60s, he was one of the most famous men in America. He was notable to me personally because when I was in college, I often went down to the television room of the fraternity house to watch. I’d sometimes watch imagining that I was his guest. Not on the show but personally at his dinner table. Coincidentally, it came to be that in the mid-70s the Paars and I were neighbors in Connecticut, and I had the great good fortune of being a frequent guest at luncheons or dinners with them.
He was a comedian by nature and pursuit. He’d had a middlin’ career in Show Business after the end of the Second World War where he performed throughout the South Pacific, entertaining the troops, and later worked in radio taking over the summer replacement for Jack Benny, and later signed by RKO — when Howard Hughes owned it — where Jack made a film playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in her first film.
In the mid-1950s he was hired to host CBS’ Morning Show replacing Walter Cronkite who went into the news division at CBS. During those very early national television years the Tonight Show began with Steve Allen, a popular writer and comedian. A late night — after 11 p.m. — show was something new. Television was not 24-7 in those years, and most local channels went off the air before midnight and returned on-air after 7 am. Americans also went to bed earlier in those days.
Allen and the Tonight Show were popular enough that he was offered a better gig on a network show and he took it. They brought Paar over from the morning show. He was a country boy with a sophisticated curiosity by age forty having seen the South Pacific, Hollywood, and now New York. There were all kinds of guests ranging from standup comics to Presidential candidates (JFK and Nixon) and interviewing Castro after he’s taken over Cuba. Paar’s strength was his native curiosity about people with a very strong dose of the “talent to amuse.”
His career on the show was relatively short. After seven years of it, he couldn’t take it anymore, and signed off — having recommended he be replaced by a younger television comic, Johnny Carson.
Jack Paar, now long forgotten as a television personality, is the granddad of the talk shows today, sixty years on. He was a pace-setter with a natural talent to draw attention to himself. His media influence was even greater than he was aware. Commercial television was still very new. One of his widely publicized forays that he created for his audience was related to another compelling character who was also the object of this boy’s interest and curiosity, Walter Winchell.
I was first aware of Walter Winchell when I was a kid growing up in a small Massachusetts town, and my father got the new York tabloids everyday. Hearst’s The Daily Mirror had Walter Winchell. They fascinated this kid because of the bold headlines and pages full of the grainy black and white photos of the world out there.
Really not even known today, Walter Winchell’s syndicated column had 30,000,000 readers a day all over America. Five days a week. Something like 20% of the American population from late 1920s thru 1950s read him daily. He served up a smorgasbord of gossip, over the backyard fence, the nightclub table, between the sheets, in dark corners. People were afraid of him because of What He Knew. And he didn’t mind poking them with it if they didn’t watch it with him.
I started reading Winchell when I was 8 or 10. Big eyes for the big town then. I didn’t know what I was reading most of the time unless it was a murder or a movie star. My father was a native New Yorker and could explain the details when I asked. When I was a kid, Winchell also had a weekly Sunday night radio show at nine o’clock which my father always listened to.
Winchell, who worked in vaudeville as a kid, had a Jimmy Cagney tone and delivery. He began every broadcast with: a jet staccato: “Good-evening-Mr.-and-Mrs.-North-and-South-America-and-all-the-ships-at-sea-let’s-go-to-press.”
And then he would drop the bombs, the dish. There was nobody like him. I didn’t know what he was talking about but I recognized that everybody was seriously listening. Nobody with the readership, the listenership and the inside info could stop traffic (literally) like Winchell. And in terms of style alone, not to mention political power, there never was anybody like Winchell again.
By the early 1960s, Jack Paar was another very famous media person garnering the kind of mass attention like Walter Winchell. The formula of The Tonight Show to this day is Paar’s contribution to the medium. Although, looking at old kinescopes of this man who had everybody across America staying up past their bedtimes and the next morning talking about the night before, I was surprised at how mild, almost toothless and sedate a lot of his shows seem today. It wasn’t Paar, of course, it was the times a-changing.
Walter Winchell and Paar did not know each other personally. But Paar was consequential on this matter, in his times. His talk show dealt in “gossip” on a newsy, and amusing entertainment level. One of his favorite guests was Judy Garland because she liked to gossip about her famous colleagues and was very funny. There was the gadfly curiosity in Paar that provoked it in guests who might share some morsel with his studio audience (and the millions watching at home), after which Paar would provide a sometimes hilarious reaction.
It happened that after Paar became the popular national figure of late-night television, Winchell had a little “go” with him. Walter Winchell was like that — goad a celebrity, start a feud. That is basically what he did with this boob-tube newcomer with the rapt audience. Paar’s personal life was home with his wife and daughter. Aside from their friends, his career was his life. After finishing a show, he got into his car and drove back to Bronxville where the lived in those days, and watched the taped show before retiring.
Eventually there came a time after Paar’s rise to fame that Winchell printed some items implying that maybe he wasn’t the devoted husband and family man that he represented on his show.
This outraged Paar although he was well aware of Winchell’s enormous power. People didn’t tussle with him but Jack Paar decided to tell the world how he felt about Winchell’s words. He did something that was a first, and remains to this day a rare event. Instead of opening a show at his desk or with some stand-up, he appeared center stage sitting on a tall stool, right in front of the camera where he proceeded to tell the world about Walter Winchell’s unkind, untrue and wicked words about a devoted father and husband.
He had invited everyone into his life, expressing his modesties and self-doubts; that was part of his ability to amuse. He was talking on camera to his audience out there, accusing Winchell of bending the truth, even ignoring it. Listen to me, America. In late 1950s America, truth was still a major moral issue.
He was the decent-hardworking man getting picked on by this gargantuan (implication: monster) Broadway columnist whom the whole world and even J. Edgar Hoover bowed to. The protest of the “injustice” became one of Paar’s brief publicity arias. It was written about everywhere, in all the major papers and discussed over the breakfast tables across the land.
The audience loved it. It was both intelligent and childish — very amusing on a grown man if you have the timing of a pro. It also marked the beginning of a change in media influence. Winchell’s readership which had been falling anyway, fell more precipitously. It was the technology coming to the fore. It was also at the end of a great career. But in retrospect it was a very early example of the power of this new medium over the old.
Up until then television had been mainly a novelty for the masses, used for entertainment and cultural purposes. Jack Paar retaliating against the (once) omnipotent Walter Winchell changed that playing field forever. Since Paar’s days, with the arrival of the internet, the field has been agasin changed even more radically, and probably would have been incomprehensible to Jack Paar.
He was a man who loved conversation and was always curious to learn and to be informed — also loved good gossip. When he was a television star he had access to it and, all those years later, getting to know him, he would sometimes share it — especially if it had a funny denouement — over his wife Miriam’s always hearty and delicious dinners or luncheons.
This old Winchell fan was naturally mesmerized by those recollections. Famous people became real. I recall those moments with great pleasure, although I have to say at this time in my life, the information down at Michael’s is often even more fascinating and comprehensive. I think Jack Paar would have thought so, too. Mainly I think it’s because the world today passes through Michael’s portals on its way to romps and whispers. And serious business, don’t forget.