Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category
A tour of the old WXYZ radio studio, origin of the immortal ‘Lone Ranger’ and ‘Green Hornet’ programs
In the early spring of 2012, I was given a tour of the old WXYZ radio studio, which occupies the top floor of the Maccabees Building, in Detroit’s cultural center. A fraternal organization, the Maccabees provided low-cost insurance to members. The name derived from the Old Testament family, Maccabees, whose members showed invincible resolve against oppressors. The building by architect Albert Kahn features a splendid, vaulted entry lobby with marble and brass and tile.
Making my desire known, I was introduced to building engineer Bill Willard, whose office was about three levels underground. He took me up to the studio, which sat above the fourteenth floor, beyond the reach of the building’s elevators. We went through a locked door and climbed a staircase to reach the chamber.
Detroit movie theater impresarios George Washington Trendle and John Kunsky sold out to Paramount for $6 million before the depths of the Great Depression. In April of 1930, with a third partner, they purchased WGHP, a 1000-watt station, for $250,000. Radio at the time was still a rich man’s plaything and a risky venture; WGHP was losing $125,000 per year, according to Dick Osgood’s account in “Wyxie Wonderland: An Unauthorized 50-Year Diary of WXYZ Detroit.” After pulling some strings with the United States government, which had reserved the call letters WXYZ for the military, the station was renamed. Trendle was boss and James Jewell was dramatic director.
Rather than shell out fees for programming, it was decided to produce shows right here. At first, while the station was supporting sixty-five musicians for its live fare, the losses totaled as much as $4000 per week. Then a genius writer named Fran Striker, who lived in Buffalo, was retained for $100 per week. “The Lone Ranger” was an early collaborative effort. The first episode was broadcast on January 20, 1933. The Michigan Radio Network soon relayed the show in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Bay City, and Flint. After some episodes, at least partly owing to the suggestion of a boy who listened in Chicago, Tonto was added to the story. The name came from Tonto Basin, Arizona. His name for the Lone Ranger, Kimosabe, came from a camp near Cheboygan, Michigan. For some time Tonto and the Lone Ranger shared the same horse, Silver; Tonto’s Scout was introduced after a naming contest among listeners. New York’s WOR and Chicago’s WGN were soon carrying the show. Before long, The Lone Ranger was earning hundreds of thousands in fees for broadcast rights. Wanting the property for movie serials, Hollywood’s Republic Studios paid $60,000 for rights. “The Lone Ranger” and “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” thrilled national audiences in 1938 and 1939.
“The Green Hornet” made its debut on January 31, 1936. The formula remained constant: a right-thinking WASP, who spoke perfect English and evinced the utmost in personal propriety, was accompanied by a savvy man of color. The Hornet, who would sting crooked politicians, was aimed at civic-minded young people. Universal would soon serialize “The Green Hornet.”
Meanwhile, the mill kept churning atop the Maccabees Building. “Ned Jordan, Secret Agent” followed in 1938 and the next year “Challenge of the Yukon” offered the variation in the form of Sergeant Preston’s sidekick: a husky replaced Silver. Other WXYZ programs throughout the decade were “Warner Lester, Manhunter,” “Dr. Fang,” “Thrills of the Secret Service,” and “Covered Wagon Days.”
“It was an amazing period in Detroit broadcast history because ‘The Green Hornet’ and others were coming out of this little radio station,” Erik Smith, a long-time Detroit broadcaster who started at WXYZ Channel 7 in 1948, told me a couple of years ago in a telephone interview. “It was a national powerhouse.”
WXYZ co-owner John Kunsky renamed himself King, and in 1946, just before the advent of television, King-Trendle showed perfect timing once again, selling WXYZ to ABC for $3.65 million just before the television era began.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the shows were the basis for TV series, most notably “Ranger” and “Hornet.” More recently, in 2011, “Hornet” was a feature film. Starring Seth Rogen, it surpassed $225 million in box office revenues.
Audiences will sit down on May 31 to watch the new $250-million Disney production of “The Lone Ranger,” starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, and probably won’t have an inkling about the obscure origins of Tinseltown’s newest franchise. It all started in the minds of a few creative people who were locked up together fourteen stories above Detroit.
By Ronald Ahrens
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, General Motors was the most admired corporation in America. The company had received credit for single-handedly saving the national economy in 1955, when chairman and chief executive Red Curtice decided, despite the forecast of a recession, to go ahead with plant expansion worth $1 billion. Curtice was subsequently named Time’s man of the year; GM executive Ed Cole, the father of the Corvair, would appear on the cover of that magazine in 1959, and Curtice’s replacement Fred Donner also got a cover in 1962.
But all that good will was thrown away. On November 30, 1965, Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese-immigrant parents, published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. While Nader’s book is a sweeping exposé in the tradition of The Jungle, it might have made no mark whatsoever; some 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months. Not bad, but not quite a blockbuster. GM’s legal department assured otherwise, though. Led by chief counsel Aloysius Power and egged on by Eileen Murphy, GM’s first female attorney who was the department’s librarian, the company started spying on Nader. He received harassing calls at his unlisted number in northwest Washington, D.C., and was tailed as he traveled to TV appearances in February of 1966. One investigator interviewed Nader’s acquaintances to learn his political beliefs, whether he was anti-Semitic, and whether he was gay.
Standing at a drugstore newsstand on February 20, Nader was “leafing through an auto magazine when a woman apologized for being forward but asked if he would like to participate in a ‘foreign affairs discussion’ at her apartment,” according to the New York Times.
Three days later, Nader was choosing a package of cookies in a supermarket when “a young woman asked him for help in moving some heavy articles at her residence.” After he said no, the woman didn’t ask any of the other men in the store.
By March 10, the spying story had broken. Bunkie Knudsen, GM’s new executive vice president for overseas operations, was with Donner in Honolulu at the beginning of an around-the-world tour of company facilities. In the early 1960s Knudsen devoted some effort to critiquing Donner’s policies and his personal style, which was imperious, and his emphasis on long meetings that mired everybody in minutiae. Donner was also too involved in determining the particulars of individual car models. Nevertheless, Knudsen was clearly on the boss’s side, now, perhaps not in the least because he hoped his next promotion would be to GM president. He recorded the reaction to the Nader bust in his diary:
“Fred found out we—through our Legal Dept.—had been investigating Nader. We had to admit it after first denying it. Fred is very upset as he should be. I can’t understand why they would do such a thing.”
At a cocktail party the next evening, Knudsen found Donner feeling “blue” and questioning his own leadership ability. But he also said the legal department “got their just due since they have been continually lecturing on the need to be Simon Pure.”
Shock from Across the Dateline
On Saturday, March 19, the men were in Adelaide, South Australia, where the fall festival was in progress. Donner took a call from Roche and learned the “accusations relative to [the] investigation were true and Jim’s statement is one of eating crow. This whole thing will hurt us badly both with the public and with our competition.”
The next week, company president Jim Roche and the legal department were in Washington, separately appearing before Congress. Roche sweated out his auto-da-fé before Senator Abe Ribicoff’s traffic safety subcommittee, admitting guilt and accepting blame. But Power, making a basket with his fingers, Murphy, looking desperately bored, and Louis Bridenstine, assistant general counsel, frowning and reflecting great solemnity, also appeared before the subcommittee. Power said it was he who’d authorized the investigation of Nader—but not to harass him. And Power said Murphy handled the details.
In a WASP-y outfit like GM, it didn’t go unnoticed that the three guilty parties—Roche, Power, and Murphy—all happened to be Roman Catholics.
That Saturday, now in Sydney, Knudsen wrote, “It appears Fred has some questions in his mind vis-à-vis Jim. He can’t say. He keeps on feeling sorry for Jim. The Nader investigation has hurt Jim and Fred can’t be blamed in any way. Jim who is the most detailed man got caught with Power on the investigation—his buddy and a fellow churchman. This hurts Fred deeply and brings out the religious affiliation. Fred has never said this but it is very obvious.
Two weeks later, after stops in Singapore and Bangkok, they made their way to Beirut. After meeting with dealers and distributors, Donner and Knudsen went on an excursion to see the ruins of the Baalbek Valley. It was a “nerve-wracking” trip, Knudsen reported. “They pass on curves and going uphill and they drive very fast. They are reckless and have many accidents. I would suggest that Ralph Nader come to his hometown and see how they drive.”
In the Aftermath, Scorn for Corporations
Knudsen was right in predicting the incident would hurt GM.
“General Motors had been marked as arrogant and mendacious,” wrote Ed Cray in Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed later that year, and Congress wasn’t inclined to cut Detroit any slack on complying with new regulations.
Roche succeeded Donner as chairman and big cheese in 1967, and the next interval saw GM involved in a huge recall of Chevrolets with faulty engine mounts that could cause sticking throttles. The company showed additional insensitivity when Roche’s successor as president—not Knudsen, after all, but Ed Cole—was quoted in the New York Times saying, “There is no real danger and no reason a person shouldn’t drive the car in a normal manner. A person driving a car should be a skilled driver, and if he can’t manage a car under 25 miles per hour, he shouldn’t be driving.”
Cole—along with influential automotive editors like David E. Davis, Jr.—never quit defending the Corvair, either.
- How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever (blogs.reuters.com)
William Jean, Jr. was sitting on a bench outside the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum on April 21, the day of the Ford-Cobra-Shelby Reunion, when I noticed him. It was the regalia: a Hawaiian shirt with Carroll Shelby’s autograph, for one thing. A name tag hanging from a lanyard marked Mr. Jean as an original Shelby American employee.
When he was just out of Venice High School, he went to work for the company at 1042 Princeton Avenue, in L.A.’s Venice neighborhood. His father was a fabricator there—the man, according to his son, who welded the fender flares onto 427 Cobras.
The younger Mr. Jean worked as a detailer, preparing cars going on the transporter, a six-car trailer pulled by an old Ford cab-over tractor.
Now sixty-seven years old, he said he viewed the celebration as “a little bit of history.” I had him repeat the line when I took the picture. It didn’t make the cut with my report for the New York Times, so I thought I’d post it here.
On the same day as I finished reading “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” I saw in the newspaper that the estimate for North Dakota’s recoverable oil reserves is now 24 billion barrels–but that’s only a small fraction of the reserves under the Bakken Shale formation. North Dakota is now the number-three oil producing state, after Alaska and Texas.
Yergin, who’s a terrific writer (although this book desperately needed a copy editor), presents the case for a mixture of energy sources in the future. In this follow-up to his equally monstrous “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,” published twenty years ago, he devotes enormous care to explaining how nations like Kazakhstan and Brazil are helping to meet rising demand from China and elsewhere; how the study of climate science has exerted its influence; how renewable energy has developed to this point.
Yergin quotes Churchill: “Safety and security in oil lie in variety and variety alone.” But he would substitute “energy” for “oil.” The problem remains that none of these anointed alternatives matches the bang for the buck that oil provides. Greenies and politicos can mandate change, but ultimately it comes down to the consumer’s pocketbook. Having driven the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma–two plug-in electric cars that were heavily subsidized by the federal government–I’m unimpressed. OK, I love the Karma because it’s gorgeous. But it weighs about as much as a rhinoceros and achieves the equivalent of 20 mpg.
Meanwhile, Chevy just suspended operations at the Volt factory because people aren’t buying the car, not even after the $7500 tax kickback. Having also visited a wind farm and a solar-thermal generating station, I’m aware of the upside and the downside to renewables. The upside is that this type of heavily subsidized power generation helps to meet peak demand. The downside is that windmills routinely kill protected golden eagles and other birds. If this slaughter went on at an oil well, the greenies would wet their pants about it. And solar-thermal generation uses an awful lot of groundwater from the aquifer. In any event, renewables are impossible without governmental subsidies.
The other day, President Obama said, “Here is the truth. If we are going to control our energy future, then we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We’ve got to develop every source of American energy—not just oil and gas, but wind power and solar power, nuclear power, biofuels.”
Here are a couple of suggestions for the President. Stop taking credit for the increase in domestic oil and gas production; you have nothing to do with it. In fact, North Dakota wouldn’t have passed California for third place among producing states if the Golden State’s industry weren’t strangled by regulation. And Mr. Obama wants to end the $4 billion annual subsidies that oil and gas industries receive. Maybe he’s right. But in that case, he should also stop funding pet projects in renewables and stop bribing consumers to buy government-supported cars.
A final thing to take into account is that the improvement of the internal combustion engine isn’t finished. People tend not to think past 1973, to hold any hope of further gains in efficiency. Call me crazy, but I’d guess onboard carbon capture is more likely before there’s ever a truly practical battery-powered car.
After reading “The Quest,” I conclude that the rapid increase in oil and gas production should continue as our national priority, along with efficiency gains. The real and immediate prospect of North American energy independence is something we’ve dreamt of for several decades. We shouldn’t have qualms about exploiting the advantage.
The literary efforts of David E. Davis Jr. had a profound and beneficial effect on the American automobile industry and “did a great service to the United States in the one major manufacturing industry we have left.” So said retired General Motors product czar Bob Lutz, whose voice was among the many raised April 28 at the memorial service for the incomparable, bewhiskered editor, who died in March.
The service was in two parts, beginning at the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the city where Davis had moved Car and Driver from New York in 1978. About 200 people attended and heard his sister, Dr. Jane Makulski, say, “If I have one regret, it’s that no magazine will have a column where he critiques what God has offered him.”
“Your pals are still gathered about you for the sake of freedom and whiskey,” said his pal Ham Schirmer, ending the eulogy that emphasized the great man’s love of cars, dogs, clothes, his wife Jeannie, and all his pals.
Part two was held immediately afterward at the car guys’ warehouse, as it’s informally known, next door in Ypsilanti. This former industrial building along the Huron River is home to vintage and special-interest cars, some undergoing active restoration or repair. In recent years, about 2000 square feet of office area was reserved for Davis’s operations.
Enjoying the food, drinks, and live music were luminaries such as the actor Edward Herrmann, a friend from Pebble Beach, and the writer P.J. O’Rourke, whose sometimes hilarious essays followed Davis from title to title.
O’Rourke’s toast summed up Davis’s tastes in food, alcohol, and automobiles: “To suckling pig when you’re hungry, Sazeracs when you’re dry, all the cars you’ve ever wanted, and heaven when you die.”
Former Time journalist Charles Eisendrath lauded board member Davis’s work on behalf of the University of Michigan Journalism Fellowship.
Representatives of the Car and Driver fraternity included Davis’s peer Brock Yates, former editor-in-chief Csaba Csere and executive editors Rich Ceppos and Mark Gillies, current editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman, technical director Don Sherman, columnist John D. Phillips III, and staffers Darin Johnson, Tony Quiroga, Juli Burke, Michael Austin, and Erik Johnson. Aside from Yates and Csere, all of the former either started their careers or served intermediate stints under Davis at Automobile.
Davis left Car and Driver in 1985 and soon launched Automobile. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio and managing editor Amy Skogstrom represented the magazine. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, who unseated Davis in 2000, was not present, reportedly at the request of the Davis family. Automobile alumni included William Jeanes, Bill Sharfman, Ken Gross, and James Lee Ramsey, who were Davis’s soldiers during the ’80s and ’90s. Kevin Smith, the original Automobile co-executive editor with Jennings, traveled from California. So did Davis’s art director Larry Crane. Kathy Hamilton, former senior editor, flew in from New Jersey.
Motor Trend was represented by Todd Lasa, Frank Markus, and alum Jack Keebler.
Larry Webster waved the Popular Mechanics flag; spy photographer Jim Dunne also paid tribute. Kevin A. Wilson, former AutoWeek executive editor, did the same for Crain Communications.
Michael Jordan, Automobile’s West Coast editor for nearly 22 years, took time off from his position as Edmunds.com Inside Line executive editor to come to the rites, along with news editor Kelly Toepke, who started in the early 1990s as Davis’s assistant.
John Hilton, long-time editor of the alternative monthly Ann Arbor Observer, contributed to Car and Driver and Automobile in the 1980s. He lent his eminence to an assortment of locals ranging from Paul Eisenstein, of TheDetroitBureau.com—present dean of Detroit’s automotive journalism establishment—to Lindsay Brooke, senior editor at Automotive Engineering International, a publication of the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Davis’s long shadow fell across three generations of automotive journalists, who came together to honor his singular career during a memorable and often poignant afternoon.
The Davis family requests memorial gifts be sent to:
620 Oxford Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48104