John Cameron Swayze has seen better days, and many of them. John Cameron Swayze's lapel has seen better carnations.But with a few quick adjustments of the old John Cameron Swayze throat, he can teleport himself back to the best days, when he was anchorman of the first nightly newscast in television, NBC's "Camel News Caravan."
"Pardon me while I clear up." he says first. Ahem. AH-HEM. Then he brightens to the task. "When I opened up it was, 'Ladies and gentlemen, a good evening to you!' and then later I'd say, 'Hopscothing the world for headlines!' And then I'd say at the close, 'Well, that's the story, folks! This is John Cameron Swayze, and I'm glad we could get together!'"
When a long, long time ago it was. Before Pampers, before Pringles, before "That's the way it is" and before Nixon was not a crook. Captain Video and his Video Rangers were still chasing Mook the Moon Man around the universe with their trusty Optician Scillometers and nobody in the news biz ever talked about "the media."
In fact John Cameron Swayze had yet to begin his 23-year career as a torturer of watches for the Timex Corp. After "Camel News Caravan" folded in 1956 - and one of its correspondents, cheeky young David Brinkley, proceeded on its successor, "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" - Swayze became a pitchman for Timex in commercials that put the poor watch through various forms of trial by injury only to have Swayze exclaim when the timepiece pulled through that it "takes licking but keeps on ticking."
Now 73 - "You don't believe it, huh?" - Swayze is still a Timex spokesman, although he can't quiteremember when he made his last commercial for the company.
He can remeber vividly, though, the most fabled of the Timex ads, when three watches were strapped to three blades of an outboard motor and subjected to a merciless whirring in a tankful of water. Unfortunately, only two survived. the other one took a licking and disappeared.
"Oh my God, that one!" Swayze laughs. "Well, these were the days of the live commercials, and this was on "The Steve Allen Show." Steve was over here in the theater where I couldn't see him, but he could see me. So here we are, dunk the motor in, dunk it out and so forth, and the camera zooms in to where the watch was supposed to be. First blade, perfect. Second blade, perfect. Third blade disaster.
"I stood there and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to tell you, that watch is on the bottom of the tank right now. We'll show it to you next time.' Then they switched to Allen and he said, 'You think there'll be a next time, John?' The junkheaded boob! God almighty, what a line to hand me."
It would be years before the watch company would agree to spoofing its own commercials in an ad Swayze did with an elephant, who stepped on thewatch and crushed it to bits, after which Swayze told the audience, "Gee, it worked in rehearsal." This rib-tickler was shown on the air only a few times. "I'll bet we used up at least a briefcase full of watches the day we shot that one," Swayze says.
Swayze started out as an actor in 1929, using all three names professionally in deference to his mother's Scotish background. He drifted into radio and then was miffed when NBC wanted to send him to Philadelphia in 1948 to cover a presidential convention. "I resented it. I thought, why should I go down there and fool around with this thing with a camera? The next year of course they started television news and here I was an anchorman, and doing pretty well. Of course when we started, we only had four stations: Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia. That was the NBC Television Network."
The nightly 15-minute newscast wasn't very fancy and it wasn't very instantaneous. Film would arrive from Europe two or three days after the fact. But occasionally Swayze would be handed bulletins from off-camera while he was on the air, and if he had yet to read them himself, he would say to his viewers, "We'll go through it together."
Because he sat behind a desk and was visible only from the coat-button up, a rumor circulated, and still circulates, that John Cameron Swayze did the news in his underpants, just to be comfortable under the hot studio lights. "That's not quite true but it does have some foundation," Swayze says professorially. "I would do the news wearing a pair of old sailing pants or anything else, for comfort, and one time, the Reynolds Tobacco Co. wanted me to hand out cartons of Camels to the crew, which meant I would have to get up from behind the desk. And only two minutes before air time did I realize that I looked like hell from the waist down. I rushed out, changed my trousers, and passed out the camels. It was a murderous experience."
On another night, Swayze made probably his most illustrious contribution to the blooper hall of fame when instead of saying "Dorothy Dix, a famous woman columnist," he said, "Dorthy Dix, a famous woollen Communist."
In those days, television newsmen did not try to be everybody's kid brother and sit in viewer's laps. there was still the formal tradition of the staff announcer to uphold. Swayze adopted a carnation-in-the-lapel tradesmark as a way of making himself visually distinctive and made it a point never to wear the same tie two nights in a row on the air.
"Yeah, I changed the ties and ladies used to write in and say, 'Give me that tie you wore last night; I want it for my husband.' I'd say, 'I'll wear it again.' It was all the result of a horrible press agent who said, 'He only wears them once.' I did have 300 or 400 ties in my closet, though."
Swayze certainly did not run around covering stories, but it would be a mistake to say he just sat there and "read" the news.
"Wait a minute!" he says. "I never 'read the news' in my whole life. I wrote my news and delivered my news. This is one of my sore points. Furthermore, I didn't trust the TelepromTers in those days, so I memorized the news. You bet your life I did."
Although he had a script on his desk in case of emergency, Swayze says he never held it in his hand or pretended to be reading from it the way John Chancellor does on the "Camel News Caravan" of the '70s, "NBC Nightly News."
"I don't like Chancellor anyway," Swayze grumps. "He always impressed me as some guy about to drop off for a nap. The hell with him! But I'll tell you something. These people who do pretend to read the news off a script are trying to fool the public, but they're not fooling the public because everybody knows there's a 'prompter on the camera."
In its infancy, television was the pimply little brother of radio, and journalists only went to work in it if they couldn't get a job somewhere else. They would literally tell one another about "a thing called television" that needed writers over on such-and-such street. Swayze of course was ensconced in the RBC Building at Rockefeller Center, but it was still primitive by today's standards. And, says Swayze, by today's standards, it was also a pleasure.
"We had a lot of fun in those days. I enjoyed every minute of it, believe me. I think that in the pioneering days of anything, you can have more fun than when the money moves in and you get streamlined and you can't do this and you can't do that.
"Television today is a bust, and that's the truth. Except for news and sports, I think that TV, which has the greatest potential for communication in the world, is a sorry lot. My God, the slop we see, and the money they spend, and for crap! It's inexcusable. I could go on for hours."
Besides, Swayze says, he's afraid he hasn't talked enough about Timex, which still employs him. But he has, he has.
With his wife Beulah Mae - the other half of a 50-year marriage - Swayze often leaves his Greenwich, Conn., home for world travelling. He enjoys trap shooting and golfing and he has written a paperback book, "The Art of Living," about his recipe for success. In those better days, Swayze had an audience estimated at 15 million nightly and was once acclaimed as "Mighty Monarch of the Air."
He remembers it well, including the night that a stagehand had carelessly placed a lighted Pall Mall in the ashtray that was to be the closing shot of the "Camel News Caravan." Swayze, who had given up smoking Camels or anything else just as the series started, grabbed the offending ciggie and threw it out of camera range just in time.
"I told the guys in the crew, 'Boys, I saved the show tonight. The hell with you! If I never do it again, this is it,'" laughs John Cameron Swayze. He settles back in the chair. "Oh God," he says again. "Those were great days.". CAPTION: Picture 1, John Cameron Swayze today; by Ellsworth Davis; Picture 2, Swayze in 1955; Picture 3, John Cameron Swayze in 1951