Bob Taylor was a sports reporter for both WBTV and WBT radio and a cohost with Jim Patterson on WBTV's early morning show.
Bob Taylor was a sports reporter for both WBTV and WBT radio and a cohost with Jim Patterson on WBTV's early morning show.
In the fall of 1979, Charlotte awoke to a surprise announcement - a full page newspaper ad with our competition announcing the coming of "Chopper 9 - the only news helicopter in the Carolinas." In two days, their helicopter would arrive and forever change local news. By the time I got to work the newsroom was buzzing over the revelation.
I was hanging out in the photographer lounge that morning when Ken Middleton, the assignment editor told me to get an early lunch so that I could go out and get some aerials around noon. No big deal - it wasn't unusual for the station to charter a small helicopter for a couple of hours when we needed footage of a brush fire, large event or some such news story. This day, I came back from lunch and they were clearing out a large area in the parking lot. The assignment editor said to be ready with my gear when the helicopter landed. In the past we always went out to the airport. I don't think we'd ever had a helicopter actually land at the station. I didn't know what was going on; I was simply a pawn on the chessboard of local broadcasting. When a small bubble-type chopper appeared in the sky and set down in the parking lot, I readied my equipment. But that one was not for me. I found out that it was for another camera guy from the creative services department. Then I heard the distinctive sound of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter coming from above.
The gleaming chopper made a perfect landing right about where I usually parked my car. As the blades wound down, a guy from the art department approached the chopper with a giant, stick-on vinyl "3" and applied it on the side of the craft. "Let's go shoot some aerials" Ken said. For the next hour, we flew all over town shooting the skyline and local landmarks. While I was perilously hanging out the door with my camera rolling, the creative services cameraman was in the bubble helicopter shooting us in the Jet Ranger with the giant "3" on the side. By 5:00 pm the promo was on the air; WBTV News had its own helicopter. The competition was scooped by at least a day, taking the wind out of the sails of their boastful announcement but a new battle of the airways had begun.
In 1980, reporter Ken Koontz and I joined a hundred or so area residents on the first trip of the Charlotte Friendship Force. It was a two week adventure in Brazil which began in the host town of Campinas, Sao Paulo. Ken and I documented all sorts of activities around town then joined the group for a three day excursion to Rio de Janeiro. It was in Rio that we went to a soccer game at Maracana the world's largest stadium and home to Pele, the most famous soccer player of his time. I spent the first half on the field with the other photographers and, where I was instructed to keep low at all times. So I stayed mostly in the prone position because if you blocked the view of someone in the rowdy crowd you were likely to be bonked by bottles or rocks. Thankfully we spent the second half in the safety of the stands.
At the end of the game, Ken and I were approached by a small man who was pointing at my camera and speaking very fast in Portuguese. Our interpreter excitedly informed us that we were in the presence of Brazil's famous "mad kisser" who, just for the notoriety would slip through security to plant a kiss on the forehead of famous people (men and women) – then he was usually taken into custody but quickly released. His most recent conquest was Frank Sinatra. His next mark was to be Pope John Paul II who had an upcoming visit to Rio. Just so we wouldn't forget him, he smacked a big one on Ken's head then on mine. Several months later I was reading the Charlotte Observer when I noticed a small article amongst the international news on page two: "Mad Kisser Gets Pope." Ken and I became minor celebrities around the station for a few days.
When you're in a foreign country sometimes you never get the full story on things but just shrug your shoulders and go on. A group from our hotel climbed aboard a tour bus for a trip around Rio. One stop turned out to be a voodoo hut. I wasn't too keen on the voodoo activity so I opted to just stay on the bus. After a few minutes, the bus driver, who spoke no English, kept trying to tell me something. With neither of us making much progress, he turned on the engine and began what became an hour-long odyssey – lost in Rio with a bus driver from Sao Paulo - and me as the only passenger in the coach. We finally ended up back at the hotel. I kept saying something like, "What about the others?" The driver didn't understand but made it clear I should disembark.
The next morning when I came down to the hotel lobby, I saw some of my fellow travelers. "Thank God you're safe!" they said. The group had come out of the voodoo hut and there was no bus, and no Rob – we had just vanished without explanation. The frightened Charlotteans had to take taxis back to the hotel. No one ever found out what happened. Unscathed by our brush with voodoo, Ken and I enjoyed the rest of our time in Brazil before returning home to the mundane life of local journalists.
When I came to WBTV as a news photographer in 1977, Doug Mayes was producing a weekly feature called "On the Square." Each Tuesday, Doug and a cameraman traveled to a small town in the viewing area to let ordinary citizens speak their minds about current topics. I had been at the station only a few weeks when the assignment editor sent me out to shoot On the Square in Granite Quarry one Tuesday at noon.
As we made our way up I-85, Doug apprised me of the On the Square routine: A person would step up to the camera, Doug would tell me to roll, then he'd say something like, "What's on your mind today?" It could be any subject ... the weather, the president, the economy. Doug was always gracious and polite. His conversations with the local folk were filled with, "Well bless your heart" and "I'll be doggone." If someone went on too long, rather than cut them off, Doug gently waved the microphone back and forth which was my cue to cut the camera while he continued to nod his head and act interested. We were shooting on film in those days and had to be conservative because a 400' reel of film was only good for about ten minutes' worth of footage.
I was a little uncomfortable since I had never used this particular camera before and was relieved when the film came up from the photo lab down in the basement. The picture quality was good but the sound was not. I edited the first set of interviews and presented them to the guy assembling the "reel" with the evening's stories. When John Wilson introduced On the Square I held my breath. The film rolled and you could barely understand what the first guy was saying. Over the intercom, the director said, "This stuff's not airworthy, I'm gonna pull it." And with that, it came back to the anchorman who did one of those "Well, we seem to be having some technical difficulties" and moved on to the next story. I felt sick.
Doug tracked me down the next day to find out what happened. I didn't have a good excuse other than inexperience. He was forgiving and we went on to shoot many an On the Square together over the next few years. Some of the best were when we traveled by helicopter. We were treated like royalty when we landed in those small towns. Often a mayor showed up or maybe the chief of police or a local beauty queen. And people even brought gifts, like homegrown produce or baked goods. Sometimes we'd be written up in the local newspaper. It was a big day in places like Chester or Lincolnton or Newton when the crew from WBTV showed up to feature local folks on the 6:00 news.
The company used to have an apartment in New York City. I suppose it was used by executives who went there for business but, although not widely publicized, it was also available to vacationing employees when it was not being used for official purposes. One of my buddies and I decided to take advantage of the free accommodations in Manhattan and planned a weekend trip for the fall of 1978. Little did I know when I made the reservation that the Yankees would make it to the World Series and face the Dodgers for three games at Yankee Stadium that weekend. When sports reporter Bob Taylor found out I was going to New York, he asked if he could stay in the apartment and said he'd get us press credentials for a game if I'd shoot film for him there. Sounded fine to me – a free trip to the World Series and Bob would even bring the camera (the sports department's oft-abused CP-16). A day or so later I got a call from some guy at BT radio who said that a couple of the announcers (who shall remain nameless) wanted to stay in the apartment that same weekend and asked if I would forfeit my reservation. I explained that I already bought plane tickets and that now I was going to shoot something for the sports department but since it was a three bedroom apartment there was probably enough room to accommodate everybody. I was a hero. Everyone was happy.
Nothing particularly fancy, it was just a well-appointed apartment in midtown not far from CBS's headquarters on West 52nd Street – a great base for exploring the city. The radio guys came up with a friend or two on Saturday but we didn't see much of them. On Saturday afternoon, Bob and I took the subway out to Yankee Stadium. We filmed interviews in the clubhouse with people like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, went down on the field to shoot some batting practice then took our place in the press box for the rest of the game. After a little more sightseeing, my buddy and I flew back home on Sunday afternoon.
Later that week, back at the station, I got a surprise call from Human Resources. They wanted me to explain how the company apartment got trashed over the weekend and said I would be responsible for the damages. "What!" I innocently exclaimed. I was informed that when the maid came in on Monday the place was a wreck. Unfortunately, my name was the only one on the reservation. I quickly recommended that HR call my friends in the radio department because the place was clean when I left. After a little investigation, my name was cleared but soon the apartment in New York became one less perk for employees of Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting.
I was young and ambitious in the fall of 1977 when I made my first cross-country trip. My boss, Ron Harrington was going to a couple of workshops in Los Angeles. When I expressed interest in going too, Ron offered to share his hotel room if I paid all my own travel expenses. I went there ostensibly to attend a maintenance seminar at Cinema Products which manufactured the workhorse CP-16 camera in the days just prior to the explosion of Electronic News Gathering. They also made an exciting new piece of gear known as the Steadicam that was about to revolutionize filmmaking. On the second day we gathered in an auditorium at Twentieth Century Fox where the Steadicam's inventor gave a demonstration and a hands-on seminar. On our break, and with permission from the security guard, Ron and I wandered the Twentieth Century Fox back lot like kids in a candy store, walking through all the sets and backdrops where hundreds of movies had been made.
That evening we rented a car at the hotel so that Ron and I, along with the chief photographer from WBTV's sister station in Richmond could venture out to Hollywood. We three bumpkins decided to have dinner at the famous Hollywood Brown Derby. This landmark restaurant was past its heyday but still held an old glamour, its walls covered with caricatures of Hollywood stars past and present. Their famous Cobb salad was about the only thing on the menu I could afford so I was grateful when Ron offered to pick up the tab. The salad was okay but the service was terrible. So bad in fact that Ron left only a dollar bill on the table for a tip. As we walked toward the door our waiter came up and waved the dollar in Ron's face. "I'm a waiter not a beggar." Ron had the presence of mind to say something like, "Well, you're not much of a waiter either." So he took the bill back, shoved it in his pocket and we walked briskly out the door.
Before the NBA and NFL hit town, perhaps Charlotte's highest profile sporting event was the big race every May at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the World 600. I didn't know much about NASCAR but we photographers got paid a hundred bucks for working on Race Day – probably worked out to about $5.00 an hour but it seemed like good money back then. Races were not broadcast live and in their entirety until the 1990s so fans who weren't at the race had to be content watching highlights on the evening news. WBTV usually had at least three or four cameras there to capture the action.
I loved being the cameraman in the pit area. That's where the excitement was. I had to wear ear plugs and lug the heavy camera gear around in the blazing sun for several hours but it was fun for a guy in his early twenties. Being in the pit also meant being the cameraman who did all the interviews with drivers and also capturing the start of the race. In 1978 Zsa Zsa Gabor was the celebrity starter. She rode around the track in a pace car then took her place in the infield where she would make the official pronouncement. I jockeyed for position to get a good shot of the glamorous Hollywood star for our special report that would air later in the week. The sports reporter grabbed my microphone and shoved it at her just as she got the cue. She held tightly to the mic that was tethered to my camera and shouted "Geentlemen start jour eengines" but 125,000 people in the stands couldn't hear. "That's not the right microphone!" one of the technicians yelled. They quickly grabbed my mic out of her hand and gave her the one for the public address system.If memory serves me correctly, this was also the day in which our engineers mounted a live camera inside Buddy Baker's race car. These days it's common to have all sorts of cameras mounted in cars but, as WBTV notes, this was the first time it had ever been done, anywhere. Ron Harrington and the engineers worked all week to secure a TK-76 in the car and transmit the signal through a series of microwave relays. Unfortunately the technicians failed to white balance the camera after their final preparations so the footage was a little blue and was largely unusable but sports broadcasting history was made nonetheless.
One thing we photographers liked about "On the Square" was that it usually involved traveling outside Mecklenburg County. It was not so much that we liked the surrounding communities better than our own but that the company paid for lunch if a job took us across county borders – quite a perk at the time. We particularly liked to find a Western Steer steakhouse with its salad bar, sirloin tips, hot rolls and dessert.
One day, with another round of comments from local citizens in the can, I packed up the camera with visions of baked potato and beef tips for lunch. Then I heard Doug Mayes call out to me, "Rob, Mr. so and so over here invited us to his house for lunch. That's okay with you isn't it?" Of course it wasn't but I had to say it was.
So we followed the farmer's pickup truck in our white Malibu sedan with WBTV News emblazoned on the side, down a few country roads and up a long dusty driveway to his old farm house. This, of course, was long before cell phones so the farmer's wife had no idea he was bringing company home for "dinner" but I imagine this wasn't the first time.
With a giant grin he led us through the back door into the kitchen and announced to his wife, "You'll never believe who I brought home with me ... Doug Mayes!" The woman was simply beside herself. She would not have been more excited if it had been Ed McMahon with a check for a million dollars. "Doug Mayes in my kitchen! I can't believe it." she said over and over.
Of course she apologized for the messy house and the unworthy food as we all sat down at the kitchen table to partake. I don't remember the farmer's words when he said grace before the meal but I'm sure they included his appreciation for the opportunity to host a big-city celebrity in his home that day. So we didn't get our salad bar and sirloin tips but we made some new friends and forever insured the loyalty of a couple of rural viewers.