Somehow it was as if D.W. Griffith were attending the dedication of an automated movie theater in a suburban shopping center. Certainly the time-warp contrasts of the event were emphasized by the staging, with Dave Garroway and other members of the original cast of the NBC studio, and their squeky-clean, hair-sprayed, 1977 counterparts on the other side.
It was like a face-off, with a battery of fat color cameras forming a lone between them.
"Good morning," said Jack Lescoulie to about 6 million TV viewers. "This is 'Today', January 14, 1952." It wasn't, of-course. It was 'Today' yesterday, celebrating its 25th anniversary on the air by inviting its founding fathers to participate in the show and in a party thrown right there in Studio 3-K when the show was over.
Only in televsion would they serve champagne and Bloody Marys at 9 a.m.
Garroway looked portly, benign, baronial. Lescoulie seemed puffy but spirited. Newsman Frank Blair, who didn't leave the show until 1975, was the live wire in the room throughout and after the show. During a commercial, Blair, who was previously expressed his dislike for former "Today" host Barbara Walters, put his arm around current co-host Jane Panley, 26, and laughed "Eat your heart out, Barbara! Look what I've got!"
Walters was not invited to the reunion. That would be little awkward, since she left NBC last summer to make her fabled $5 million pilgrimmage to ABC. "Let's just say the problem didn't arise," said executive producer Paul Freidman. "We decided only to invite the people who were there on the first day."
But also conspicious by absence was J. Fred Muggs, the once famous chimpanzee who co-starred with Garroway and company for five harrowing years. "His handlers called us from Florida and wanted to know why we hadn't invited him back," said Freidman. "He's down there doing an act that ends with him playing "The Bells of St. Mary's."
Then he paused. "You want me to say it? Okay, I'll say it: I didn't want that damn monkey on the program."
Freidman said at the party after the show that he thought certain things about the original "Today" show were "embarrassing" and he wouldn't do them today. But then during the program, an old chip of Garroway prankishly observing "National Donut Week" was shown and this broke up everybody in the place. Television may have been silly or crude or make-shift in the '50s, but there was something civilized and humane about it too, at lesat on shows like Garroway's.
The man credited with the invention of the "Today" shows - and with the "Tonight" show, "Wide, Wide, World," and other innovative concepts - was at yesterday's silver anniversary: Sylvester L. "Patt" Weaver, a former NBC president who looks as tall and drapper as William Powell in a "Thin Man" movie and now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"What's lacking in television today, mainly, is that network managements have no real design, no real plan," said Weaver at the party. "I had a grand design - a system of programs to reach and influence and enlighten and entertain the people at home. You've got to care. The great communications entities of the world were always made by people who cared. If they cared, they made them great, and when you ran a great anything, you made money."
A veteran ameraman spotted Weaver talking and muttered toa colleague, "We had ouir highest ratings under him. This company was number one. We need him back again." In recent years. NBC's ratings have dropped, the "Today" shwo now excluded.
Naturally, reminiscences shot through the early morning air. Former news and features editor Lee Lawrence, now with the White Houe Conference on Handicapped Individuals, recalled the time she installed four Cessnas on the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink to illustrate a piece on aeronautics and the time a space capsule was sawed in half to get it into the studio. "And remember when the teleprompter boys threw me into that fountain in Rome(" she asked another "Today" alumnus.
Garroway said he still watches the "Today" show. Sometimes. But he also watches the ABC competition that gave the program its first serious challenge. "Oh yes, I watch "Good Morning, America," too. In fact, I like it better. It's looser."
By and large, the two "Today" show casts, past and present, kept their distance on and off camera. Freidman seemed amazed that that show hadn't exploded right in his face. Maybe he thought the oldtimes would fall apart, but they're the ones who showed the most life. During a discussion of social change in the past 25 years, Pauley, off-camera, gave a long and uninterested yawn, but Garroway, Over on his side of the room, stood up from his desk andlistened intently.
"I think," historian Daniel Boorstin was saying, "The fact that mankind has survived television is an encourging sign." Not too much later, Garroway raised his right, hand to the TV camera and said, "Peace," and that, years ago, was the way "Today" ended and the day began.