Television really has a history now -- broadcasting nostalgia will replace movie nostalgia as the dominant sentimentality in the '80s -- and NBC's "Today" show is a big part of it. Watching the "Today" show's 30th anniversary celebration on NBC yesterday, I couldn't help wondering again why anybody would tune in anything else early in the morning.
"Today" is the first and still the best of the network morning news and talk shows, and at the moment it is in better hands than it has been in years, particularly because the ingenuous and likable Bryant Gumbel and the awesomely jovial Willard Scott have been added to the cast to warm things up. They, along with Jane Pauley and Gene Shalit, are a very hospitable crowd with which to share some of the day's most delicate minutes. The "Today" show is a lively and vital and cherishable American institution.
For the 30th anniversary, many of the program's previous hosts, co-hosts and personalities were lured back from beyond "Today," and the assemblage was so formidible and heart tugging that pudgy producer Steve Friedman -- who was 4 years old when "Today" went on the air in 1952 -- was still in a state of high thrall after the telecast ended.
"It was history! It was history!" shouted Friedman from his office at Rockefeller Center. "Everybody we wanted came." Reporter Chris Wallace, another new addition to the show, had gone to New York to be part of the celebration, checked into a hotel, then checked out again and returned to Washington to anchor second-day coverage of the airline tragedy here.
"You know what the 'Today' show is like?" Friedman says. "When you work on it, it kills you. Once you leave it, you realize what a great thing it is. Bryant asked Jack Lescoulie and Frank Blair if they had any regrets about doing it. They said, 'Not one.' "
One conspicuous absentee, however, was J. Fred Muggs, a founding father from the dawn of man and, during his tenure on the "Today" show, the most famous chimpanzee in America. It is widely believed that J. Fred, like poor old Bonzo, kicked the bucket some time ago, but "Today" spokesman Bill McAndrew said yesterday, "Some people claim he's alive. We talked to the Bronx Zoo and they said it's possible for a monkey to live that long."
But Dave Garroway, the original "Today" show host -- a born communicator of such grace and style that he really has no equal in TV to this day -- was probably cheered that Muggs didn't show up, because, he has said, J. Fred once mistook his arm for a banana and took a nasty chunk out of it right there on the air in front of millions of people. He also says the monkey later sued the network for defamation of character, and NBC settled out of court.
In addition to Garroway, Lescoulie and Blair, the reunion brought together John Chancellor, Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola, Tom Brokaw, Lee Meriwether, Betsy Palmer, Estelle Parsons, Jim Hartz with a touching tribute to the late Frank McGee, and that illustrious alumna Barbara Walters, who managed the neat trick of appearing on the first hour of "Today" and on the second hour of its competition, ABC's "Good Morning America."
Walters was not among the guests at the "Today" show's 25th anniversary. "There was some unpleasantness at NBC then over her leaving," says Friedman, "and some dope who shall remain nameless said not to invite her. How can you do a celebration of the 'Today' show without Barbara Walters?" Shalit called her personally and asked her to attend; she looked right at home on NBC.
She recalled how in the early days on "Today," women were relegated to subservient positions on the air -- mainly as decorative twinklers (this was until she came along and broke down a few barriers, though other women helped in that). The odd thing is, the old policy still seems to be in effect on the dreadful "Good Morning America," where the furtively folksy David Hartman plays rooster and one little chickadee after another joins and subsequently leaves the show.
Recently, I tuned in "GMA" because Hartman was promising a look at the future of television -- cable, satellites, video discs and all that. Instead, he hosted a tedious discussion of the current season until, with about 20 seconds left, Hartman hurriedly asked for perfunctory predictions about TV's future. What a lousy show "Good Morning America" is.
Nevertheless, it often, if narrowly, beats "Today" in the ratings. Why? Friedman has numerous explanations: "ABC is stronger the night before, ABC is stronger in daytime," and many viewers presumably just don't turn their little dials to catch "Today." Also, Friedman says, "Today" lost momentum in the late '70s while "GMA" was new and strong and attracting the top guests.
Garroway once said himself he preferred "GMA" to "Today," but that was in the pre-Gumbel, pre-Scott days when the show was stuffier and less friendly.
Friedman says Gumbel's term started recently with a 5.7 rating and 29 share for the week "and we're thrilled with that. With this kind of team, we can win. We're the new kids on the block now. 'GMA' is a very successful show, but let me tell you, Gumbel, Pauley, Shalit, Scott and Wallace are going to be hard to beat." Friedman, whose contract with "Today" is up next year, says, "I always like to leave a winner. I want to go out on top. I want to beat those people. I really do."
But this was not a day for tough talk. This was a day to end the show with a reprise of Garroway's theme song "Sentimental Journey" and the old master performing his trademark sign-off: a raised right hand and the benediction "peace." Friedman says, "When Garroway did 'peace' at the end, a lot of people in the studio broke up." A lot of people at home probably broke up, too.