Sneaking into The Grammys!
KYW-TV3 – Philadelphia was a training ground for top talk show producers working today. I worked for Ed Glavin (The Ellen DeGeneres Show), Glenn Davish (The View), Lynn MacCauley (Ricki Lake) and others.
I was originally assigned to a Saturday morning teen show called “Check It Out” with executive producer, Janet King Johnson. Slim, flat topped Afro, African American woman probably in her 30s, and she scared the piss out of me. Janet made no qualms of her displeasure of my presence. She told me numerous times in the first week that I was a 17-year-old high school kid with no education in television when there are countless college students majoring in the field. “You being assigned to me makes my job harder, not easier.” she’d say.
She was right. After all I didn’t know terms or technology. She would turn to me and rattle off 10 things to be done. I’d say OK, get out of her sight, then ask someone, ANYone do decipher the list. It was usually an engineer that took pity on me.
One time she asked for time coded, blacked out, blank tapes for the next taping. It turned out they weren’t time coded so when she went to editing, she couldn’t find anything without viewing the entire tape of raw footage back and forth. I’m sure it gave her an extra three hours of work. She loathed me.
Another time I was carrying a pile of videotapes past the bulk tape eraser machine. It’s the size of huge office copier. Instead of taping over shows over and over, you put the videotapes on the machine, flip the switch and the magnetizing erases the tapes clean. The machine was on as I walked by and ruined my tapes.
I got into the groove eventually. It was mostly if not all grunt work for months. Month three I asked Janet if my name would ever be on the credits. She said if and when she felt I earned it, my name would be in the credits. A month later after I brought back dinner for a late night taping for everyone, she called me into the editing room and showed me my name scrolling by. We hugged. After that I was an equal.
I had my own desk and handled many of the shows responsibilities. When things were slow, I would sneak off to other shows to help and learn.
One of the tough things was recognizing that while I loved the technical side of production, the performance side was something I wanted very much. I’d watch the hosts of all these shows and knew that personality was inside me. But my quiet, shy nature was still holding me back.
Until one day I was opening the mail at my desk when I read a notice from the Grammy Awards press department informing us that if our station wanted press passes to cover the show, to contact them by mail with our producer, camera man and host names.
Janet had no interest in covering the show … but I did. I wanted to be a host or reporter and I need to show someone I could do it. I knew nothing about music but I knew someone who did. Mark Doctrow was a guy I knew from a youth group I was in. He was older than me, and MTV crazy. Madonna especially. He knew and followed everything. He was from Harrisburg and it was clear his obsession was based on getting out of his small town life once he was old enough.
I called him up and told him he’d be my producer and feed me relevant questions as the stars came by. He agreed and got his father’s tuxedo shop to supply our wares. The cameraman was an a/v teacher at another friend’s high school. In retrospect it probably looked out of place having a home video camera next to professional television cams. But I dressed the camera in NBC peacock logos from the KYW art department and a news logo cube to go around my microphone.
Then the passes came in the mail. I couldn’t believe it! We got our train tickets, went up together, walked over to Radio City, checked in and stepped behind the barricades onto the red carpet. Most of the big names came in through the back door but we saw Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Jodi Watley and I interviewed Howard Stern who was so incredibly nice to me. He even pushed other reporters aside and moved me to the front of the velvet ropes. This was also going to be Michael Jackson’s first television appearance in four years performing “Man in the Mirror”.
They then moved everyone inside to the press room. It was the first time the Grammy’s had returned to New York in several years, and now I could see why. Radio City Music Hall was a death trap. The press rooms are in the upper levels of the building and the press was squeezed into very old, very small, very warm, creaky elevators. Total fire hazard. I honestly don’t know how the fire marshals allowed it.
Upon exiting the lift we were given official programs, formats and network/satellite feed packets. Individual cameras weren’t allowed due to space, so all news outlets patched their recorders into one pool camera system provided by the Grammys. Mike, our cam guy sat in the back while Mark and I sat only three or four rows back from the “step and repeat” platform and microphone.
I sat next to Rob Garrett from ABC News, across from Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight and behind Rhonna Barrett, famed entertainment reporter who was probably in her late sixties now, more glammed up than some stars and became the thorn in every journalist’s side that evening.
You see, once the presenters and winners exit the stage, they go upstairs to each pressroom (print, TV or radio). The press only gets three to five questions with the talent before they are rushed off. So asking a bad question fucks everyone else in the room for getting picked by the moderator to ask their question. I didn’t realize this until an hour in.
Ms. Barrett’s first question was to a Grammy winner with, “You didn’t win last year, but you won this year. How does that make you feel?” Ok – the room without a blink accepted that.
Her next time picked, she asked a presenter, “You get to see these people win. How does that make you feel?” There is a grumbling and fidgeting around me. I get an eye roll from Rob Garrett.
Her next opportunity was for a winning producer with, “How are you feeling tonight?” Now I, a 17 year old high school student has joined the angry mob in asking the moderator to stop talking to Rhonna Barrett. Somehow I was now one of the boys.
Eventually I needed to go stretch my legs. I get up and walk to the back of the room and into a dark hallway. I look down and I cannot believe what I see … a box full of Grammys. Apparently back then, the awards were dummy awards and not inscribed until later. After the stars came through the press rooms they dumped them into this cardboard box! I was alone for a good minute. I was in a panic. Do I steal a Grammy? Walking by a random, unsecured pile of anything, I’d question taking one. There’s a pile of Grammys right there! Finally my ethical dilemma was interrupted by traffic.
I returned to the room right before they brought a few of us down group by group to sit in the theatre for a segment or two. I interviewed Liza Minnelli, Patrick Swayze and a handful of others. It was a good night.
Mark Doctrow later moved to New York, got a job at MTV and became Madonna’s go-to producer request.
Janet King Johnson was rumored to later work on the Oprah show.
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