Sunday, August 11, 2013


I had just started work for a film company in Washington around 1985 or so, when the boss asked me to try to arrange to have lunch with a man named Leo Willette, who had a lot of influence in government circles among fellow filmmakers. He was a nationally recognized expert in the field of television PSA (Public Service Announcement) production.  

Well, Leo and I hit it off immediately. He was originally from New Jersey, served in the Navy in WW2 then went to the University of Alabama on the GI bill. After that he began his career in journalism beginning as a newspaper reporter in New Orleans, then switching from hard news to sports because he said that he "hated surprises."  And, "as a sports reporter," he added, "you never get a call in the middle of the night telling you to go right down to the stadium because a football game has just broken out."

He went into Television news in New Orleans, and later was an anchor and News Director
in Asheville, NC. The highlight of his journalism career came when he was elected  President of the National TV News Directors Association.

Leo Willette the day we met
  Washington was still basically a "suit and tie" town back then, so you didn't have to be a genius to know immediately that Leo was "his own man."  I had recently purchased one of the first of the extremely small, full frame 35mm cameras that looked like a toy, but produced professional quality photos that never failed to amaze my subjects.

Minox sub miniature camera
He let me snap a picture, but like most others at the time, Leo gave a "thumbs down" to my tiny camera which I had told him was going to produce a great quality picture! In fact I promised to deliver a great big (11X14) quality picture!

He remained sceptical.

We both knew many of the same people and by the time that lunch was over, we were best friends...and remained so until his death.

Unfortunately, as far as a "free-spending" client for my film company was concerned, he was a dud!
He spent his agency's money like it was his own...and he knew every shortcut in the film makers manual. Having Leo and his agency for a client was nice, but we made very little money from that account.

But as a friend, I never had one whose company I enjoyed more!

 Leo had realized a few years before I did that “marrying” the radio/TV business could be hazardous to one's health. She was a fickle bride. That's why he had chosen to abandon TV and go into government; for security.

That's the beauty of working for the government. You always have a job, whether there's anything for you to do or not, or even if you screw up.

However, I did hear of one exception to that rule. In fact, it happened to a guy Leo and I both knew. He was working for one of the agencies on a film about railroads. He had assigned himself the task of nailing down the author, or at least the person who owned the copyright to the song, “I've been working on the railroad.”

He traveled all over Europe in his quest, but after two years returned to this country empty handed.
Not long afterward he found himself neither working on the railroad nor for his former agency.
So, it is possible to get fired from the government, but it's not easy.

When he was in New Orleans, Leo wrote the very first book on “Shooting News Film for
Leo's book on TV Film
Television.” It became the “bible” for TV newsrooms in those early days.  I remember seeing it when I was anchoring WSOC-TV's 11pm newscasts in the late 1950's.

An event he didn't include in the book, but told me about later, was when he was shooting film of a stock car race and had gone down to the infield to get crowd shots of the activity down there. However, he stayed too long and the race started before he and his crew could leave, trapping  them there til the race was over. He missed that evening's broadcast.

Leo always had some kind of “sideline” going.  Mostly for the fun of it. He wrote several books; his most successful was the "shooting news film for TV" and his second one that sold the most copies was a humorous one titled "Leo G. Willette's Cliche Clinic."

He never made much money from his “moonlighting,” but he didn't care; he was just having fun. One idea he had was to print up a bunch of bumper sized stickers made, not for cars, but for the side of homes. The sticker had a picture of a gun and said “Creeps Be Gone!”

Leo and Lee at WW2 Video Headquarters
 Leo and I remained close friends long after I left the film business. He had the greatest sense of humor of anyone I have ever known.  Just sitting down and having a cup of coffee with him was like being at a party. He knew every joke ever told and could entertain an entire room at the drop of a hat.

It was one Saturday morning when we were having coffee at the Roy Rogers Restaurant in Arlington when he and I decided to start a business venture that surely would make us both video moguls.

This was in the middle to late 80's and home video players had only recently come on the scene. VHS and Sony's Betamax machines were still battling it out. Leo and I thought it would be a great idea to purchase copies of a few successful government films (government films were in the public domain), duplicate them and offer them to the pubic for sale.  The films we chose were those made by the great Hollywood Director, Frank Capra, during WW2 called "WHY WE FIGHT."

They were propaganda films, but they were OUR country's
propaganda, and they were historical.

It seemed to us that the idea had a lot of merit.  There were millions of  those new fangled video machines in American homes and people were clamoring for shows to watch on them, so how could we fail? Even if only one percent of homes with video players bought our tapes....or even a half percent....

Talk about sure things.

The Roy Rogers restaurant became our corporate headquarters; The Home of WORLD WAR TWO VIDEO. We met every Saturday morning to discuss strategy  We bought the Frank Capra Masters and 4 or 5 VHS and BETA machines for duplicating purposes; placed small ads in several magazines we considered likely to appeal to people who would be interested in WORLD WAR TWO VIDEOS.

It was time now to sit back...and wait for the money to come rolling in!

And wait.

Finally, our first order "rolled" in.  We thought about framing that first check...and as it turned out we might as well have, because it bounced.

After a few more weeks of disappointment at the mailbox we finally realized that the public didn't want to BUY shows to watch on those new home machines, they wanted to RENT them. Furthermore, they wanted Hollywood Movies.

Before World War Two Video finally bit the dust we had probably cleared a total of $100.
But, just because WW2 Video no longer existed was no reason for the Board of Directors (Leo and Me) to stop meeting at Roy's every Saturday morning. No indeed.

Like I said, having a cup of coffee with Leo was like being at a fun party.  We kept this ritual up for
about 3 more years. It finally ended when he retired and moved to the peaceful mountains of Tryon, North Carolina.

Leo Willette in 2004 with the "toy camera" picture I took in 1985
Had he not, I have no doubt that there would have been a book written titled, HOW WE MADE $100 IN THE VIDEO BIZ!

Leo passed away in 2006 at age 78.

It was purely coincidental, of course, but the Roy Rogers in Arlington, home of WW2 Video was torn down around that same time.

RIP, Leo.