Losing an original

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A chic couple on the Upper East Side. Photo: JH.

Monday, January 7, 2019. A mild, not very cold weekend just past in New York with some rains on Saturday and mostly sunshine on Sunday with temps in the low 50s to mid-40s in the day to high 30s in night time.

Sylvia Chase in 2015.

Today we are re-running a Diary first run five and a half years ago on a Monday in early June 2015 about a luncheon at Michael’s given in honor of Sylvia Chase who died this past Wednesday in Marin County from complications from a glioblastoma. The tumor was found during surgery in November and because of the severity, Sylvia chose not to pursue treatment beyond rehab.

Sylvia – whom I had never met until that luncheon day, was one of the original, and longtime, anchors, correspondents and producers on network television and most notably on the ABC News show 20/20. She had lived here in New York during those years and when she retired, she moved back to her hometown of Belvedere in Marin. She’d come to New York to attend a reunion/celebration of 20/20-the-first-ten-years.

She was a very intelligent woman with a kind and friendly personality and a huge sense of empathy, which made her a natural and well-respected member of her business. Her friend, filmmaker Joe Lovett described her thusly:

“I used to say that Sylvia would sit down with a subject, unzip her chest and pull out her heart and show it to the subject. Then put it back and zip it up and say ‘So….’ They gladly gave her whatever she wanted.” And she passed it to her audience.

First published Monday, June 8, 2015. Paige Peterson invited me to a lunch at Michael’s that she was giving for her friend Sylvia Chase who is a neighbor of Paige’s in Belvedere. I knew none of this until I looked it up. Belvedere means beautiful view. Wikipedia tells me that it is a small, very affluent city on two islands in Marin County, located a mile and a half from Sausalito. Judging from the photos on Google and knowing California as I do, I would agree, it is belvedere.

I mention that little detail, aside from just having acquired it, because at this lunch I was seated on the right of the guest of honor, a serene, yet immediate woman with a youthful energy that always reminds me of California life. Sunny and smart. It is so prominent an image that it could almost obfuscate the woman’s professional career which was noteworthy as one of the original, and longtime, anchors, correspondents and producers on network television and most notably on the ABC News show 20/20.

Sylvia Chase at Michael’s.

Sylvia, who is retired and now living in her home town of Belvedere – although she lived here in New York for years – was in New York to attend a reunion of 20/20-the-first-ten-years, a celebration at Columbia University.

The first presentation of this 37 year old ABC News program occurred in the summer of 1978. During those years, Sylvia said, “we were all tummeling and churning and just trying to get an hour of news on the air on time every week.”

Around that time, the late Roone Arledge, had been named president of not only Sports, but also News and he was intent on making ABC, ranked third back then in news programs, the winner that it became.

Sylvia said that “Roone’s fearless, competitive and controversial emphasis in news gave ABC a hipper, raw edge and 20/20 in those first years was a little like a bomber fleet softening up the competition;” that it made for round-the-clock writing and editing, a crazy kind of work atmosphere and a band of co-conspirators who couldn’t wait to see each other last Saturday at the 20/20 reunion at Columbia.

That’s the background I got from Paige before the lunch since I did not know Sylvia, nor had I heard of her. As it turned out, besides myself, I knew only four of the 12 guests – Liz Smith, Nancy Collins, Cynthia McFadden and our hostess. The other five whom I didn’t know were all very important, longtime contributors to the ABC News show 20/20.

Standing (l. to r.): DPC, Cynthia McFadden, Nancy Collins, Sylvia Chase, Rick Kaplan, David Zippel, and Jessica Velmans. Seated (l. to r.): Jesse Kornbluth, Karen Burnes, Joe Lovett, Liz Smith, and Paige Peterson. Photo by Steve Millington.

The group. Standing, beginning with me, next to Cynthia McFadden, Senior legal and investigative correspondent at NBC News formerly at ABC (reporting OJ Simpson trials), correspondent on Primetime, anchor on Nightline; Court TV anchor, lawyer, analyst who started in network news on ABC.

Next to Cynthia is Nancy Collins, writer, and feature reporter for ABC News; then the guest of honor Sylvia Chase.

Next to Sylvia is Rick Kaplan, winner of 46 (!) Emmys and also the Columbia Dupont and Peabody Awards, original producer on 20/20 who held top executive positions at ABC News, was later President of MSNBC, CNN , advisor to HBO series The Newsroom a (producer Aaron Sorkin, starring Jeff Daniels), founder Kaplan Media Partners.

Rick Kaplan, Cynthia McFadden, and Jesse Kornbluth.

Next: David Zippel, theatrical director, films — “Hercules,” “Mulan”; collaborator and lyricist with Cy Coleman (“City of Angels”), Larry Gelbart, Marvin Hamlisch, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

To David Zippel’s right, Jessica Velmans, Producer ABC News, Barbara Walters specials for Discovery; Senior producer, ABC World News Tonight, Senior producer, ABC News Primetime. NBC News producer, and most recently with the world watching, producer on the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce/Caitlin Jenner.

Seated at the table: our friend and colleague, Jesse Kornbluth (HeadButler.com), novelist, journalist and screenwriter; Karen Burnes, who has had a career of more than 30 years as an ABC writer/producer on World News Tonight, 20/20, Primetime. Burnes’ African famine reporter was an inspiration for “We Are The World”.

Next to Karen Burnes, her old friend Joe Lovett, President, Lovett Productions; producer Primetime, ABC 20/20, Barbara Walters special reports and CBS News producer.

Karen Burnes, Joe Lovett, and Nancy Collins.

Next to Joe is our intrepid Broadway/Hollywood and celebrity columnist Liz Smith, and next our hostess (whose photo coverage of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is always a feature on the NYSD) Paige Peterson, Executive Vice President of Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Sylvia Chase was with the show from the beginning, when her correspondents were Geraldo Rivera, Tom Hoving, Carl Sagan, and Dave Marash with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters as hosts for the show.

Rick Kaplan, who was Sylvia’s boss in those early days of 20/20 (and also seated next to her at the lunch) recalled an on-camera interview she had set up with a young veteran who was a double amputee, a casualty of some war we were involved in. Whatever the reason for the interview, whatever the story, the man’s loss was important to the point of the segment. However, he happened to be a “bad” interview because he seemed to have little to say and therefore unable to provide much insight to the matter under discussion.

Paige Peterson, David Zippel, and Liz Smith.

Kaplan recalled the moment thinking that Sylvia – whom he regarded as a great interviewer – really didn’t get her story this time, and wasn’t going to. He was about to call the interview quits.

Sylvia, in exasperation, going for one more try, turned and said to the soldier, something like (my version of her quote which I didn’t write down): “Okay, so from what you’re telling, you’ve got no reason to think anybody owes you anything, that everything’s just fine…”

To which the formerly silent soldier shot off into a strong verbal expression of his life, his experience, and his ability to provide a compelling interview for Sylvia Chase’s piece on “20/20”.

I’ve never been in the television news business. I don’t even watch television news anymore mainly because I rarely watch television and am out of the habit of turning it on for the news. Once upon a time – the late ’60s through the ’80s – I watched all the time.

I now get my news from mainly newspapers (British and American) and some web sites – particularly financial sites because that subject is behind almost every human endeavor that involves politics and warfare. A lot of contemporary news tailored for the masses is inadequate for my way of comprehending what’s going on. A good part of the problem is the limited time and space on the part of the producer/reporter and the viewer/reader.


Sylvia Chase talking about 20/20 at the reunion of “20/20 the first 10 years.” Geraldo Rivera, Stone Phillips, John Stossel, Lynn Sherr and Bob Brown were all there. Hugh Downs, on a cruise with his wife Ruth in Alaska, sent a video message, as did Barbara Walters.

Listening to Paige’s guests talk about their work experiences, exchanging anecdotes and observations from their memory, I got to see the challenges that must be met daily, even hourly or within minutes in producing not only a story but a story that will capture the imagination and curiosity of the viewer as well as potentially educate or enhance the consciousness of the viewer.

I don’t know that these guests would have described their work in quite that way, but that’s what it sounded like to me. They are all intensely dedicated, hardworking people who are impassioned about their work as well as excited by the challenges of learning and reporting and enhancing (as well as winning ratings wars).

I know or have met many people in the broadcasting business. It is a very demanding business, time-wise. It can own you and no doubt it comes with blocks of stress to carry around. Not everyone is imbued with superior talent or abilities. Nor is everyone as well informed as you might think those in the news business might be. However, at lunch on Thursday, just listening to the discussions about their works, their assignments, projects, experiences, as well as the pleasure and sometimes hilarity in their memories of it, I could only marvel at the savvy and commitment these people give and have given to their assignments informing the public of what they have learned and are learning.

It was a great day at Table One at Michael’s, and a great privilege to sit in with these former/and current colleagues discussing, recalling and regaling stories of their work together and for the show 20/20.

Sylvia last summer.

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