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All the News That Seemed Unfit to Print
"I have no shame," says Bob Lind, talking about his decade as a writer for the Weekly World News. "I make no apologies. It's not something I try to hide."
Bob Lind. Bob Lind. The name sounds familiar. Isn't he the guy who . . .
Yes. He's the guy wrote and sang "Elusive Butterfly," an achingly romantic folk-rock ballad. Across my dreams, with nets of wonder, / I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love. It was a huge hit in 1966.
By 1991, though, Lind was out of the music business and working as an Everglades guide, giving airboat rides to tourists. He also wrote short stories and screenplays but he couldn't sell them. A friend suggested he write for the tabloids. Lind hated celebrity gossip but he figured writing about aliens and Bigfoot might be fun. For months, he pestered Eddie Clontz for a job and finally Eddie gave him a two-week tryout. He passed the test and went on to write some WWN classics, including "SPACE ALIENS ATE MY LAUNDRY."
"I loved it," Lind says. "The music business is accountant dull compared to the creative fun we had."
They worked in an office in the back of the National Enquirer newsroom, behind a partition installed because Eddie Clontz's yelling disturbed the serious journalists at the Enquirer. Actually, everybody yelled. First, somebody would yell out an idea for a headline, then everybody else would yell out better ideas. The yelling was exceeded only by the laughing.
"There were days when I would leave work," Lind says, "with my stomach and my face hurting from laughing all day at the ideas being kicked around."
Lind witnessed the birth of Bat Boy, who became the tabloid's most beloved character and the subject of an off-Broadway musical. It happened in 1992, when Dick Kulpa, WWN's graphics genius, was playing around with Photoshop, trying to turn a picture of a baby into a picture of an alien baby. He gave the kid pointy Spocklike ears, big wide eyes and fangs. Ivone looked at it and said, "Bat Boy!" and Eddie Clontz turned to his brother Derek and said, "Do it!"
Derek concocted the story of a creature, half bat and half boy, captured in a cave in West Virginia. "BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!" was the headline on the first story. But there were more, many more as the little tyke escaped and was recaptured again and again, constantly fleeing from the FBI and a brutal bounty hunter named Jim "Deadeye" Slubbard, who vowed to stuff him and hang him over his fireplace.
"Eddie fell in love with Bat Boy," Lind says. "He was one of the most in-depth characters we dealt with. He could be mean, he could be spiteful, but he could also be kind. And every once in while, he would be captured by the FBI and held in an undisclosed location near Lexington, Kentucky."
One day -- Lind swears this is true -- Eddie Clontz got a call from an irate FBI agent complaining that the bureau's switchboard was swamped with calls demanding that they free Bat Boy.
"Eddie said, 'I'll never do it again,' " Lind says, "then he hung up the phone and went on to the next Bat Boy story."
In the spirit of Eddie Clontz, we won't risk ruining that story by fact-checking it with the FBI.
Lind was constantly amazed at the letters that came in from readers. "You can't believe what people will believe -- and what they won't," he says.
Back in the '90s, for example, WWN published "HILLARY CLINTON ADOPTS ALIEN BABY" and illustrated it with a Photoshop picture of a smiling Hillary cradling a hideous but cute alien baby.
"We got a letter," recalls Lind, "and it said: 'Do you think we're so stupid that we believe that's Hillary holding that alien baby? Hillary's too cold to adopt an alien baby. You put her face on somebody else's picture.' "
Lind pauses to let that sink in. "So you realize that this person accepted the idea of an alien baby being found, and that somebody was holding it," he says, "but she couldn't believe it was Hillary."
* * *
DEAD AT 28:
It sure was fun while it lasted. But then something happened.
"It turned to [bleep]," says Lind. "The guy who took over didn't understand what it was."
The guy who took over bears the delightfully Dickensian name of David Pecker. In 1999, Pecker bought American Media, which owned the National Enquirer, the Star and the Weekly World News. Changes were made and soon a lot of WWN's old-timers were gone -- Eddie Clontz, Ivone, Berger, Lind, Kulpa -- replaced by young comedy writers.
"He wanted to hire comedy writers," Ivone says. "But it's not just comedy. It's a different skill set."
Gradually, WWN changed. Bat Boy became a comic strip, one of several strips in the new WWN, none of them very comic. The new editors also added lame advice columns by "Lester the Typing Horse" and "Sammy the Chatting Chimp." Ed Anger remained and he was still "pig-biting mad" but he wasn't so funny anymore. Circulation plummeted.
"It was like seeing someone you love wither up and die," says Berger.
The old-timers say Pecker ruined the Weekly World News. What does Pecker say?
Nothing. He's not talking. Neither is anybody else at WWN. On July 24, the company issued a brief statement announcing that WWN was folding "due to the challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace."
"Unfortunately, we are not doing any interviews," says Richard Valvo, a PR man for the company. He says he knows of no plans for a party or a wake or even a greatest hits album.
Weekly World News, a tabloid that screamed in joyous horror for 28 years, is dying with barely a whimper.
The old-timers grumbled, but not for long. They were too busy telling old stories of old glories.
Derek Clontz remembered the time WWN ran a picture of a gorgeous British model -- "Top Model Jilly, we called her" -- who was desperately seeking a "regular guy" to be her boyfriend. Needless to say, plenty of WWN readers eagerly volunteered to help.
"A guy by the name of Norman sent a photograph of himself and asked us to forward it to Jilly," Clontz recalls. "It was a Polaroid and it showed him backed against a wall between hanging tragedy and comedy masks. There was a model of a '57 Chevy on the table beside him and three encyclopedias of the type you buy one a week from the supermarket for $1. He said he had a 'nerve problem' and was unemployed, but he would treat Jilly right if she would be his girl, to which he added, 'I don't smoke, drink or do drugs, either, Jilly, but I will if you want me to.' "
When WWN dies, what will Norman read? For that matter, what will Elvis read as he passes the long, lonely nights up there in Kalamazoo?