“What’s going on here?” – Louis Lyons and the News

From David Sloss

Louis Lyons used to do a 15-minute newscast every night. Louis was a salty old New Englander who said whatever was on his mind. His show was as simple as could be – just one camera on Louis. All the director had to do was cue the opening slide and announcer, and then dissolve to the camera on Louis. Novice directors were given the show as a first assignment.

05-P-P-Louis-Lyons-1One night a newbie was directing for the first time. Everything was ready to go; camera 2 was set up on Louis. Then, just before they went on the air, the engineers decided something wasn’t right with camera 2, and substituted camera 3. The director didn’t notice the change, and said, “dissolve to 2”. The switcher dutifully did as he was told, and what went on the air was a lens cap.

Louis started to talk, and then he noticed that the little red light on his camera wasn’t on. He knew very little about the technical stuff, but he knew that wasn’t right. He stopped in mid-sentence, not sure if he was on the air or not. In the control room, people are screaming “Three! Three!” at the novice director, who’s paralyzed. Finally someone reaches over and punches the button for 3. Louis appears on the air, just as he’s saying, “What the hell is going on here?”

Two days later we got a note from a viewer, who said “Thanks for the refreshing start to the news. I’m a farmer. We’ve been asking that question for years!”

20 thoughts on ““What’s going on here?” – Louis Lyons and the News

  1. Great memory from John Henning who told me a great Louis Lyons story when he was floor manager at ‘GBH.

    The guest that night was Harry Belafonte and Louis opening intro was … “Welcome Mr. Belafonte, I understand you sing?”

    One of the true early legends of public broadcasting and a sweet gentleman when you got to know him off the air.

  2. In 1965 I had the heart-pounding privilege of meeting Louis Lyons, (having been introduced to ‘The Dean’ by my first boss and mentor, Mike Ambrosino).

    I was astounded at the apparent ease with which he covered news stories “hot off the wire,” and delivered them with utter aplomb.

    When it came to preparing a daily weather report, he simply walked out the station’s front door, gazed up at the sky, then raised a finger to gauge wind direction — and got it right every single time!

  3. I’ll remind everyone that the schedule was as follows: Louis Lyons News and Comment aired Monday through Friday for fifteen minutes followed by Mr. Lyons’s interview program, Backgrounds and, on alternate nights, Robert Baram followed with a program called New England Views. Robert Baram taught at Northeastern University.

    I will also point out that, as Skip Wareham and others will attest, a newbie camera operator, assigned to this show, was running a camera which was mounted on 1. a Houston Fearless rocker head (very hard to control smoothly under any circumstances) and 2. that head was mounted on a primitive pedestal which was a “survivor” of the fire at 84 Mass. Ave. Warped by the heat, it wobbled and rocked when moved like the rolling equivalent of a John Cleese silly-walk. And despite the instincts of the cautious, this contraption was to be dollied in toward Louis at the beginning of the show, and dollied out away from him at the conclusion of it.

    And SMOOTHLY.

    And IN FOCUS.

    Focus? Easy. Smoothly? In your dreams.

    Despite the trials and tribulations of this rickety set-up, here were sown the seeds of some long careers in television, mine included. We might laugh now; we might even wince, but honestly, as beginners, we took this assignment and its challenges very seriously … because we were asked to, and because we were willing to. That was the difference between making a career in the television business, or, as Bill Cosel would say, being a “tourist in the industry” and having a short stint in the biz.

  4. I, too, remember Louis unflappably preparing the news in front of 125 Western Ave. during a bomb scare. It wasn’t occasionally; it was almost every night at 5:45 pm! My favorite moment was the night Channel 2 went on the air, when Bill Pierce’s stentorian voice declared “and now, Louis M. Larson and the News”
    (Bob Larson was the director that night).

  5. As part of the BU crew in 1962, I was floor manager for Louis’ news show. I was always scared when I showed him the time left because he would either ignore it or comment on the air that he wasn’t finished or I showed him the wrong time.

    However one night he ran out of news early. He looked around, opened the desk drawer, and remarked, “Well, there’s no news in here.”

  6. Love this thread … so many memories. I remember the constant fighting over who was going to run camera, do video and sound … :) only kidding of course. But I do remember enjoying both Louis and Bob’s broadcasts very much.

  7. Another Newbie story.

    I volunteered (was chosen) one evening to direct Louis Lyons. This was late 1966. I was thrilled because my dad was a news junkie and as a young kid I would sit in his lap and watch Louis Lyons and the News every night from our home in Fitchburg. Louie looked old even then. Now here I am 19 years old about to direct this icon.

    I was scared to death. Then came the cue from Master Control … “Studio C, you’ve got it”. Louie’s slide was already up. I cued Bill Pierce, who did the one-line intro live from the announce booth down the hall. “From Boston, Louie Lyons and the news. Mr. Lyons.”

    “Camera 2” I said pretty confidently to the switcher. However, instead of punching the button for Camera 2, the button for one of the film chains was hit. It was a slide depicting a dinosaur.

    The switcher immediately hit the Camera 2 button. The dinosaur was probably on-screen for no more than a second or two. It seemed like an eternity. All I could hear from the control room was laughter.

    It would be another 40 years before my next directing gig.

  8. Louis was a quick study for his “Backgrounds” interviews which immediately followed his newcast, when he was presented with guests not yet familiar to him. I had only a few minutes to brief him on Harry Belafonte, who was, in 1960, just beginning his long career in civil rights activism. And Louis rose to the occasion.

  9. …and, looking at that picture, you might think, “he chuckled?”

    However, when Mark Stevens and I did the video for a staff party celebrating the new building, we suggested that Louis doff his serious news hat and do a Julia segment on how to prepare, “Pan au Peanut Butter et Jellee.”

    He loved it and pitched right in.

  10. I directed “Louis Lyons News & Comment” toward the end of his run. Could he be a curmudgeon? Sure; but always a gentleman! When there was a set redo and the LLN&C lettering was headed to the dumpster, I grabbed the “&” and still have it. It brings back good memories!

  11. Back in 1957/1958 when WGBH-TV was broadcasting from a former roller rink directly across from MIT, Louis Lyons did the news from a glass enclosed FM radio studio at the TV station. The one camera shot through the glass as Louis sat and delivered the news.

    Back then, it was normal to keep a neophyte “stage manager” huddled on the floor near Louis’ desk. The director would then tell the newbie to advise Louis that he had two minutes left.

    Louis wold turn to the kid and snarl, “Young man, I go off the air when I’m good and ready. Not before.” Then he just went on with the news as the “stage manager” huddled even further into a corner.

  12. I remember when the great Sears storage area on Western Ave, just across the street from WGBH, 125 Western, caught on fire. Every news station rushed their people down to this big fire. Outside WGBH, Louie and Toddy were right at it.

    They would weed the little bushes and grass that grew outside the front door. I don’t even remember them looking up to see what was going on. Ah, those were the days.

    In the same area, I saw Bobby Wilson, camera over his shoulder getting into a car to go cover a story. I asked where he was going. “To cover yesterday’s fire.”

  13. Some may recall that his broadcast was originated from the old Studio C — the small studio just beyond the first floor staircase. It included a large picture window so visitors could observe a program in progress. The control room was at the rear of master control.

    This space became the first home of the Ampex MM1000 audio tape recorder. This was a sixteen track recorder, using two inch tape, and was a derivative of the videotape recorder. I believe it was serial number two and was acquired to be a tool in the production of the Boston Pops. Various tracks could be independently edited and ultimately mixed down to stereo on tracks reserved for the mix. These stereo mixes were then broadcast on WGBH FM to provide Channel 2 viewers with the Pops in stereo via simulcast. And this was the beginning of stereo sound for television. Another WGBH pioneering effort.

  14. You might know it was Louis Lyons who started a WGBH tradition of sorts.

    Sorry to say I don’t remember her name, but just as her mic was turned on, a reporter/host during a live feed of the revived late-1970’s ADVOCATES, standing on the balcony at Harvard’s JFK School, said, “What the fuck is going on.” (Note the generational shift in diction.)

    We got letters, also mostly positive as I remember it.

  15. I was one of the lucky novices who ‘directed’ Louis Lyons and the News along with New England Views (if I remember accurately) with Robert Barem. I remember one evening when there was a bomb scare. I sweated the schedule as Louis sat on the sidewalk in front of 125 Western with his typewriter, unflappably getting ready for anything.

  16. There’s also legend that during the 10 O’clock News (or perhaps it was the Evening Compass) days when Louis was doing his commentary that a floor manager started giving him the cut sign since the show was running long. Louis supposedly stopped mid-sentence and started lecturing the floor manager on the air that David Ives had promised him a certain amount of time on each show, and damn it, he was going to use it.

    I had the pleasure of producing his radio segments and still remembering his wife, Toddy, bringing in updated wire.

    The founding Curator of Nieman Fellows, Louis was a great journalist. Would love to get his take on Donald Trump today.

  17. Ah, Louis Lyons! I remember his insistence on pronouncing Viet Nam (and everything else) with his version of the Boston accent.

    Also, as floor manager, I remember getting the distressed squeaks from the video engineer about the glint off his water glass and crawling under the shot to reach up on the desk and pull the offending glass off to the side – and Louis, without missing a beat, reaching out, grabbing the glass and pulling it back in.

    I wasn’t the only one who had that opportunity and, looking back, maybe Louis was just having his own inner chuckle over our consternation.

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