By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 12:42 PM
Long-time observers of the local television sports broadcasting scene can easily identify Warner Wolf, Glenn Brenner and George Michael as the three most dominant figures in the Washington market over the past four decades. But what about one of the most influential innovators on the other side of the camera?
That would be Bethesda native Ernie Baur, now the executive producer at Comcast SportsNet who got his start in the business in 1967 as a $65 a week trainee at Channel 9, not long after finishing basic training at Fort Dix for National Guard duty.
He was soon moved up to stage manager status who also was responsible for moving the mouths of puppets named Oswald Rabbit, Marvin the Monkey and Dr. Fox on the popular Ranger Hal children's show. He also worked as an assistant director for weekend shows like "Mass for Shut-ins" or "The Jewish Community Hour."
"We had Dr. Isaac Frank for "The Jewish Community Hour," and the set consisted of Dr. Frank, a desk and a rubber plant," Baur recalled the other day. "He had an assistant, Selma Holtzman, and when the show started, she usually went to the control room and immediately fall asleep. One time we were rolling the credits at the end of the show with the rubber plant in the background. Selma wakes up, looks at the monitor and says, 'what is this, a jungle show?' I'll never forget it."
He also remembers the day on "Mass For Shut-ins" when it was time for the consecration, and Baur ordered one of the cameramen to get a tight shot of the host. Instead of focusing on the wafer, the camera zoomed in on the host of the broadcast.
"I'm thinking host," Baur said, "and he's thinking emcee."
In 1971, Baur got a huge career break when the fellow directing the station's nightly news shows got a better offer and went back home to his native Texas. Baur was assigned as his replacement, ostensibly on an interim basis while a national search was conducted to fill the job. But it didn't take long for station executives to realize the best man already was in the building, and Baur went on to direct the market's ratings juggernaut news shows at 6 and 11 for the next dozen years, among his many other news and sports roles at Channel 9.
When sportscaster Warner Wolf, a pioneer in the use of sports highlights, began uttering his signature line, "let's go to the videotape," he was actually talking to Baur. It happened one night on the 11 o'clock news when Wolf was leading in to a highlight of a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, with a marquee head-to-head match-up between future Hall of Fame centers Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Nate Thurmond.
Baur had been momentarily distracted and never heard Wolf give him the prompt to show the clip. Finally an exasperated Wolf yelled on the air, "Ernie, roll the Jabbar tape!!" After the show, Wolf and Baur discussed how to avoid similar awkward situations in the future, and that night, they decided from then on that Wolf would say "let's go to the videotape" to cue the next highlight.
Baur also developed, produced and directed the 30-minute "Warner Wolf Show." That later morphed into the "Redskins Sidelines" show, with Wolf co-hosting in the beginning with running back Larry Brown and defensive tackle Diron Talbert, complete with a live studio audience sitting on bleachers in the background.
When he was recruited by Channel 5 in 1983, Baur put together "Redskins Playbook," originally hosted by sportscaster Bernie Smilovitz, the first local sports roundtable talk show in the Washington market featuring a revolving cast of athletes and local journalists.
"I was always fascinated with the sportswriters in town, so one of the first guys we brought in was Tony Kornheiser," Baur said. "He'd been interested in doing some TV work, and we basically gave him his start."
Channel 5 secured the rights to the Redskins preseason scrimmages not long after Baur arrived, and for one broadcast, he was able to convince Joe Gibbs to allow his assistant coaches to be wired for sound during the action. In one scrimmage, running back Gerald Riggs ran out of bounds smack into a pick-up truck Channel 5 was using for its sideline view camera. Riggs wasn't hurt, but the truck needed a $950 body repair to fix the dent from the collision.
Baur has always been involved in the coverage of games and other live events wherever he's worked. A few days after the Redskins 1983 victory over Miami in Super Bowl XVII in the Rose Bowl, Baur directed the station's live coverage of the team's memorable victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, attended by over a million adoring fans. That morning, he got a frantic telephone call from John Riggins, who told him that he'd left his watch on California time and overslept.
Baur said he'd get him to the parade if Riggins would allow a Channel 5 reporter and a cameraman to go along with him. They picked him up, got an exclusive interview and, with a police escort Baur helped arrange, the game's MVP somehow managed to get through the crowd and help his teammates, and the town, celebrate the team's first Super Bowl triumph.
There were other improvisations. One year while he was still at Channel 9, the station decided to extend the highly rated "Redskins Sidelines" show into the offseason, calling it simply "Sidelines." The host was the incomparable Brenner, and one night the show was to focus on the Washington Capitals.
Brenner and Sonny Jurgensen were supposed to interview one of the players, but a traffic-snarling snowstorm that night prevented their guest from getting to the studio. The show went on anyway, with Brenner introducing an "exclusive interview" with a Venezulan hockey player named "Guy Le Guy," who bore a remarkable resemblance to Channel 9 news anchor Gordon Peterson.
Peterson somehow kept a mostly straight face as he explained to Brenner that it had been difficult to practice much hockey in his native land because the ice kept melting. Peterson often has said that night's hilarious skit will always rank up there with all of the great news stories he's ever covered over his brilliant career in Washington.
In 1999, Baur moved over to Home Team Sports, a local cable operation that televised games of the Capitals, Wizards and Orioles. He essentially handled all the game telecasts, and two years later, the operation was purchased by Comcast Sports and turned into a regional network. Baur helped put together the studio show component, including the recruitment of several of his old production colleagues at Channel 9 and Channel 5, and within months they were up and running with a wide variety of shows.
He still keeps his hand in game and event production, as well as directing various shows on the network's widely varied studio productions. Even after all these years, "I still absolutely love what I'm doing.
"I was born and raised in Bethesda," he said. "Our office is about three blocks from where I grew up. The television business has always been transient, but I went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Montgomery College and I'm still in the neighborhood. My whole life has been between Nebraska Avenue and Battery Lane. That makes it kind of cool, don't you think?"
No question. After all, as gifted producer, director and sports television innovator Ernie Baur knows better than most, it can often be a real jungle out there.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.