The Last Stage Manager Standing
From Behind the Camera Lens, A TV Vet Tells All
Editor’s Note: Television is one of the most significant inventions of our lifetime. It’s an integral part of most people’s daily routines. From the morning news to soap operas, children’s shows to live sporting events, prime time dramas and comedies to late night talk shows, the TV is always on, shaping our culture–for better or worse.
But what goes on behind the camera? Daniel Morgan spent more than half a century as a stage manager in New York City, working on both a local and national level for ABC, CBS, PBS and others. Stage-managing is one of the unsung jobs in the business, yet stage managers are essential to the complicated, fast-paced and stressful process of live television.
In his just-published memoir, Last Stage Manager Standing, Morgan shares hundreds of anecdotes, detailing all the drama and shenanigans from the shadows of the sets he worked on—the indecisions of producers, the egos of on-air talent, and the inner workings of the television industry.
In these exclusive excerpts Morgan shares with The Reporters Inc., he isn’t afraid to name names or pull punches in his first-person account. From Diane Sawyer to Bill O’Reilly to Martha Stewart, he paints the stars he’s worked with as regular people, warts and all.
Excerpts from the Introduction, written by Connie Chung
I have always had great admiration for those who work on the technical side of the news business—those behind the camera. They aren’t as overbearingly self-absorbed and egotistical as my esteemed colleagues in front of the camera!
In the studio, my lifeline was always the stage manager—the only live human being an anchor can vividly see in the studio. It is the stage manager who shouts “Quiet on the Set!” and “Standby!” and then motions me to begin the news. He or she hears those instructions from the director.
But bear in mind, the director is uttering instructions to the technical director, audio person, camera one, camera two, camera three and the list is endless—and faster than an auctioneer. The stage manager sifts through all of that, takes the cue—and then passes it along to me.
Stage managers often have a more one-on-one relationship with the so-called “talent” (the person on the tube) than others. They not only see their strengths but their foibles. Danny Morgan, with whom I’ve worked at CBS News, has culled stories from his career and those of his long-time colleagues and friends in the business to bring us inside the Golden Age of Television, behind the cameras.
You may not have heard these stories before because they rarely emerge from memoirs of those on-air folks. So read on—as I will—as you learn about a view of television that is different than the one you are used to…from someone who remembers.
Mr. Magoo Stumbles into Television
One day, I walked into a building at West 66th Street, ABC Production services, and told them I was looking for work. They said, “Fine, come back tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. You’re hired!” I said to myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” since I had no idea what I was doing, and even today, there are many who would confirm this.
It was July 21, 1969. Star Trek had been on the air for two years, and my new TV career was about to take flight. Like Mr. Magoo, I stumbled into an historic moment of my burgeoning career, complete with an incredible soundtrack. I’m standing in TV studios 1 and 2 along with six or seven fellow stage managers, waiting for a man to walk on the moon.
In the wisdom of the ABC producers, they had built anchor Frank Reynolds a platform high above the floor of the studio, a good 20 to 25 feet above the stage floor, thus bypassing the stage managers so they had little or nothing to do, which I always excelled at.
It took three and a half days to get to the moon and two and a half hours for the first walk. Shortly before 2:56 a.m., the lunar module Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility. Commander Neil Armstrong exited the lunar craft and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The only thing missing for me was Commander Kirk and First Officer Spock.
Two parts of the evening that were memorable to me even now were:
1) When Armstrong’s first tentative steps on the moon’s surface kicked up some moon dust, that then covered the camera lens and blurred the picture and obscured the view from the moon. Rigid Frank had a hissy fit. He couldn’t understand why the commander wouldn’t go and clean the lens off.
2) When I ended up working with Duke Ellington in the wee hours of the morning while Duke accompanied himself as he sang “Moon Maiden,” which he had composed in honor of the moon walk.
A Wry Dan Rather
I wasn’t permitted to work on The Evening News with Dan Rather (office politics), but I was allowed to spend 18 hours with the show when major news stories broke. The Special Events unit would take over the airwaves, and each time, I would be called at home. Then in a moment’s notice, I would jump in a cab for the 15- minute ride to the studio, where I worked for hours on end.
I was in the studio when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, and that news flashed on the air and around the globe. I was there again in 1983 when the Marine barracks were blown up in Beirut, Lebanon, with a loss of 241 Marines. I was in the studio in 1987 when the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after it launched, live on the air. After the explosion, a continuous loop from Mission Control in Houston pointed out with redundant understatement that there had been a “malfunction.” After hearing the tape on several occasions, Rather wryly proclaimed, “It’s more like this is a catastrophic disaster.”
A Toast to Bill O’Reilly
It was New Year’s Eve and Bill O’Reilly was anchoring at WCBS-TV, the local affiliate in New York City. One of the producers came out onto the studio floor and invited the entire crew to have a glass of champagne before New Year’s struck.
After the newscast, the crew was wandering into the newsroom. Bill was beside himself. He didn’t think that the crew was “worthy” enough to have a glass of cheap-ass champagne with the producers or himself. Bill’s panties were really in a knot, and he was muttering to himself as he walked around the newsroom. While he had not bought the champagne with his money, he was put out at having to share the holiday with the underlings who made it possible for him to be on the air. Happy Holidays, Bill. Not.
My 60 Moments with Mike Wallace
I was called to come in on a Sunday to do a live 60 Minutes. To the best of my knowledge, this may have been done only five or six times over some 25 years. So there I am, in a large studio with Mike Wallace, sitting in a chair. This was a strange assignment at best. 60 Minutes’ long-time executive producer Don Hewitt was directing the show from his home in East Hampton, Long Island. I guess he was directing the show with mental telepathy because his home was some 150 miles from the 57th Street studio. The director on the record was Arte Bloom, and he was being as quiet as a church mouse.
I learned early on that when Mike starts calling Don “Donny” and Don starts calling Mike “Mikey,” this assignment is heading south quickly. There was a verbal fisticuffs starting about ten minutes before the program aired. The problem was that Donny did not think Mikey was spelling an oil sheik’s name properly. The argument finally ended when Mikey told Donny, “I was with the sheik in Saudi Arabia, and you were not.” It was a long hour.
Miss America in the News
One of Phyllis George’s “best” interviews during her stint on CBS’ daily morning news show, was with an alleged rape victim who had recanted her story after the defendant had done some jail time. What a mess, especially because at the very end of the interview, Phyllis encouraged the woman and the alleged rapist to hug and make up.
This former Miss America would never become a Barbara Walters. Phyllis once wanted to interview Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India. The only problem was Mrs. Gandhi had been dead . . . for some time! (Don’t let that stop you.) Her co-anchor, Bill Kurtis, was not a happy camper.
Maybe Phyllis should’ve stayed where she started: in sports. I’m sure she could let us know at any point what inning the football game was in.
“We will miss her,” stated her boss, then news president Ed Joyce, when he ended her morning show tenure. He seemed to be in the minority. Phyllis had the last laugh though–she was paid several million dollars to stay home.
A Snooze of a Debate at PBS
I got assigned to the New York State Gubernatorial Debate. The participants consisted of Governor Hugh Carey, Lieutenant Governor Mary Anne Krupsak and a real dud, State Assemblyman/Minority Leader and Former Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea. Even though Governor Carey once said, “The days of wine and roses are over,” I tried to keep the days of wine going as long as I could. The Governor was credited with the “I Love NY” campaign. In spite of these platitudes, this was not the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and somehow, I nodded off.
The moderator of the debate, author/journalist Ken Auletta, wrote in this email: “I know Danny is wracked by guilt because he fell asleep during a gubernatorial debate. He shouldn’t be burdened with guilt. First, it was a boring debate. Think of the audience members who dozed off. (But they weren’t fired.) Second, since (we ran) no commercials, as moderator I didn’t require many prompts. (So there was not much for me to do.) And finally, Danny, I wish I could justify your angst by saying I still hold a grudge. In truth, I barely remember what happened. What I do more vividly remember is that it was always a pleasure to work with you.”
Peter Jennings, the Ladies Man
Peter Jennings, looking like The Cheshire Cat, told his make-up artist Charlotte Taylor that singer Barbara Mandrell was “naughty.” I wonder what that meant.
I did know what this meant: during a two-minute commercial break, during which Peter was on the phone with his wife, I informed him that there were ten seconds left before we had to start shucking again (be back on the air), and he hurriedly ended his heated phone conversation by barking, “I’ll get back to you later, Madame!” I surmise that he wasn’t speaking to Barbara Mandrell.
I wonder what happened to the photographs that Sheena Easton sent him.
Talk about hazard pay. Since Nightline was not being done consistently at 11:30 p.m., I ended up doing a double header (single paycheck) on one particular night. I had to manage Peter at his anchor desk preparing for World News Tonight, and simultaneously in the transmission room, I had to manage Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke (a Nightline guest), who just happened to have been married to one of Peter’s ex-wives. They were literally 30 feet apart, with a thin door separating them. To avoid daggers flying, I had stagehand Don Van Praagh tape a piece of cardboard over the window to create a no man’s land.
Diane Sawyer, Football, and War
I believe it was 1990 when the New York Giants beat “Da” Bills of Buffalo. I was assigned to Diane Sawyer that Super Bowl XXV Sunday. Incidentally, there was a little war going on in the Middle East. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, but on Super Bowl XXV Sunday not that many knew or cared. For millions of fans the entire world was in Tampa, Florida.
Journalist Diane was concerned because she thought the Super Bowl should have been cancelled for the news coverage she assumed there was to be . . . Earth to Diane, Earth to Diane . . . Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe says this is not Smith vs. Wesleyan, your alma mater; this is the Super Bowl! It really is Super, and it helps to pay your colossal salary. She may not have realized that even the Armed Forces Radio (now Television) broadcasts the Super Bowl to troops around the world. It broadcasts to our proud men and women who serve our country in Gitmo, Guam, Okinawa, South Korea, and Afghanistan. Stagehand Kevin Moore assured us both that in spite of a pesky war, nothing was going to pre-empt the Super Bowl XXV.
Life on the set of the iconic children’s show Captain Kangaroo was fraught with stress on a good day. Bob Keeshan, the Captain, frequently would get ticked off and would leave the set for the rest of the day. That meant an added overtime tape day. Great for the crew, but upsetting to the many members of management. Bob was very temperamental; the slightest thing would set him off . . . and did.
The best indication that the day was over even though we may have only completed a half hour’s worth of work was when Bob would rip off his wig and pout back to his dressing room.
A Salty (and Peppery) Martha Stewart
I spent a long week with Martha Stewart in her Westport, Connecticut, studio, and of course, she brought her menagerie into the studio every day. A week with Martha was a month without sunshine. The first two days, you rehearsed only with the producers, who stood in for Martha. The prop sheet lists were vast.
Martha had three female assistants under the age of 30. At any given point, one would be in tears.
The big day, Wednesday, arrives. The director introduced me to Martha and said, “Dan works with Peter Jennings.” Martha responded, “Oh, I think I’ve heard of him.”
Then the director informed me what my priority was to be. “Make sure Martha knows where her salt and pepper are at all times.”
There was little or no space to keep all the props. I was setting up the proper cutlery for the turkey dinner (and keeping a vigilant eye on the salt and pepper), and as my large butt and I were sashaying around the set, I KO’d one of her precious Christmas tree ornaments. If looks could kill . . .
Last Stage Manager Standing is published by New York City-based Page Publishing. It’s available at bookstores or online at the Apple iTunes store, Amazon, Google Play and Barnes and Noble. Daniel Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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