Friday, December 03, 2010

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"....and took me to lunch

I hosted a morning television show  in Washington for about 2 and a half years. It was fairly typical of local interview shows of that time, featuring celebrities, authors, musicians, playboy bunnies, whoever we could book that we thought might be half way interesting.

David French, Lee Shephard, Carol Clark
Just about every station had one. Many of those interviews were pretty lame and believe me, I had my share.

But one big advantage I had was that my show was in Washington DC...and love it or hate it, that’s where the “action” was.

Still, finding interesting guests to interview 5 days a week 52 weeks a year wasn’t easy.

The show had no budget, no staff, just me and a female co-host (Carol Clark) a newsman (David French) who up dated the headlines each morning, and a director plus a couple of floor crew workers....who were members of the “training program”.....young kid TV " wanna be’s".... just out of school who mostly moved furniture and sets around.

One morning after a particularly dull guest, the newest kid on the floor crew, Burt Wheeler was his name. came up to me and suggested that his uncle would make a good guest on the show.
After that morning’s “bomb,” I was willing to listen to any and all suggestions.

I’m glad I did.

After a little research I told Burt to go ahead and invite his uncle on the show.

Uncle Burt” (his nephew was named after him) called me a few days later and accepted the invitation, but insisted on taking me to lunch the day before the discuss his upcoming appearance. I agreed.

When I arrived at 2121 Mass Ave he was waiting for me.

I had a feeling that my next morning's show was going to be an interesting one, when he ushered me into the luxurious COSMOS club and we sat down for lunch.

The Cosmos Club
Since it’s founding in 1878. the COSMOS club has been the undisputed social headquarters fοr Washington’s intellectual elite.

(Every time I find myself in situations like this,  a vuvuzela horn goes off in my brain and I hear a little voice in my head that says, “What the Hell are you doing here?!)

Burton K. Wheeler told me about the time he ran for President In 1924. He and Robert LaFollette were the candidates of the Progressive Party. in that presidential election.

Burton K. Wheeler

 Returning to the Democratic Party, he was elected to the Senate in 1928, 1934 and 1940.

He told me that President Roosevelt asked him to run as his Vice President in 1944, but he turned him down.

But even more interesting than that was the fact that Senator Wheeler was .........Mr.Smith!

You know, the one in the Frank Capra movie.....who went to Washington!

This is what LIFE magazine said about that 1939 movie:

“Mr Smith stemmed from an original short story, The Gentleman from Montana,by Lewis R. Foster.
It was loosely based on the early career of Senator Burton K. Wheeler, who was attacked and falsely indicted when as a freshman Senator in the 1920’s, he fought corruption in the Presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.

The Hays office, mindful of pending Senate bills that would have adversely affected the movie industry, discouraged other studios from going ahead with the film.

But once it fell into Capra’s hands, his clout prevailed.’

The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and is considered one of the best films ever made.

Just about everybody loved it.

Except Congress!

For example Senator Alben Barkley (minority leader 1937-1947, later Vice President under Truman) said, .

"... it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record! At one place the picture shows the Senators walking out on Mr. Smith as a body when he is attacked by a corrupt member. The very idea of the Senate walking out at the behest of that old crook! It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Senate made up of crooks, led by crooks, listening to a crook . . ."

Jimmy Stewart as "Mr. Smith"

...and what did Mr.Smith,  I mean Senator Wheeler, (who was sitting next to Frank Capra at the premier showing of the movie,  think about it?.....)..

 He told me that  he walked out in disgust half way through the film.

Meanwhile, back at the Cosmos club. I stayed until after the dessert.

David French, Bunny #1, Lee Shephard, Bunny #2

And the following day, "The Uncle Burt" show was a big hit! It got almost as high ratings as the previous week's Playboy Bunny interviews.  -Ed