Brian Matuszak column: Dick Wallack was Duluth’s Lou GrantSo I’m not breaking any news here, but the older I get, the more names I recognize on the obituary page of people who have crossed my life path.
So I’m not breaking any news here, but the older I get, the more names I recognize on the obituary page of people who have crossed my life path.
Some of them made such an impression, they stay with me forever. Others, though our time together was brief, still manage to overwhelm me with smile-creating memories whenever the thought of them drifts into my head.
Such a person was Dick Wallack.
As I have chronicled in columns past, my wife and I used to work on the news crew at Channel 6 back in the late ‘80s while we were going to college. Sue mostly worked with Jack McKenna, preparing graphics for his weather forecasts, while I had a multitude of duties, including floor director (which was awesome because I got to tell Barbara Reyelts what to do), camera operator, and a job that is now obsolete because of technology: teleprompter.
The teleprompter’s job was to get the scripts from the producer, rip them apart, then tape them back together into one long roll which was then fed into a machine with a tiny camera mounted on top which projected the scripts into the studio cameras for the news anchors to read. This gives the illusion that news people are talking directly to you. (Sorry to burst your bubble, Diane Sawyer fans, but she still doesn’t know you exist.)
On the nights I ran the teleprompter, I would get the scripts from Dick, who produced all the newscasts back then. He was a bulldog of a guy, with the traditional gruff, hard-edged exterior of a veteran newsman — a local version of Lou Grant.
I once heard his voice booming off the wood paneling of KBJR’s cramped, basement-level newsroom on Michigan Street, demanding to know the location of a young reporter who had committed some miscue because Dick was going to generously provide him with a new posterior addition.
Once you got to know Dick, however, he was a teddy bear. One time, Sue asked him for help with some homework in her journalism class. He grabbed the papers, snickering, then proceeded to do the entire assignment for her between newscasts.
In preparing this week’s column, I also contacted Eric Holm, a friend and former co-worker who directed many of the newscasts that Dick produced. Here are a few of his stories:
Dick would frequently call up to the control room so we could tell him who was going to be the guest on “The Tonight Show,” which immediately followed the 10 p.m. newscast. We quickly learned who Dick’s favorite guests were, and if we wanted to wind him up we would tell him, “Pee Wee Herman!” This usually resulted in a few grumbles and often some bad language.
Dick had the reputation of being a tough taskmaster and was kind of a curmudgeon, but once you knew him you quickly realized he had a heart of gold. As a director, I spent the years 1985 through 1987 sitting next to Dick in the control booth. One evening during the 10 p.m. news, I noticed that Dick was running what was basically a fluff piece that had been provided by NBC News. Normally, there was no fooling around on Dick’s watch, but I took a chance: I pulled my headset mic to one side and said, “Slow news day, huh, Dick?” Immediately and without a pause, I received a very gruff “Shut up!” from the producer’s chair. From the silence of the control room crew, I could tell they were terrified at what was going to come next. The next second I heard a small chuckle and looked over to see Dick smiling as he was reading along in his script. He loved the chance to enhance his reputation.
Dick and Jack McKenna had a long-running argument over who was the first to appear on TV in Duluth. As far as I know, that was never resolved.
Me, again. Years after Sue and I left KBJR, we would occasionally run into Dick at the gym. A smile would curl up the bottom of that craggy face and light up the entire Center for Personal Fitness. He’d ask how we were doing and what our daughter was up to, and then listen to our replies with genuine interest.
I worked with many local television personalities over the years, but Dick was one of the few who took the time to get to know everyone on the floor crew. I suppose he knew that each person — from the attractive talent in front of the camera to the script-ripping schlub making minimum wage — was vital to the success of every newscast. And he was right.
OK, back to Eric for one last story.
Everyone who was anyone in Duluth knew Dick. When the chief of police died in a car accident, Dick was visibly shaken. During the on-air story, Dick turned to me and said “I knew him for 20 years ….” He was quiet for the rest of the newscast. We let him be with his silence.
I don’t imagine there are heavenly newscasts — but if there are, I have no doubt that Dick Wallack would be producing them with a scowl on his face and a giggle in his heart.
Unless Pee Wee Herman is on “The Tonight Show.”
Brian Matuszak is the founder and director of the local comedy troupe Rubber Chicken Theater.