Saturday, 5 November 2011

Remember Andy Rooney

Who once said “There is no virgin land in California. It has all been slept on.”? Or “There is plenty of water in California, it’s just not where people want it.”?

If you said Harry Reasoner, you’d be right (and you’d have peeked at the internet to find out). But Reasoner didn’t write those words. Andy Rooney did, on ABC in 1971 during an era when all the networks were suddenly imbued with the idea of broadcasting whimsical documentaries.

Andy Rooney was television’s on-camera grump for so long, there’s at least one generation that can’t conceive of him as anything else. But his career went through several distinct phases. He was the humour writer for the Colgate University newspaper. Then the War got in the way and Rooney found himself overseas as both a sports and combat reporter for the daily Stars and Stripes. After the war, someone in Hollywood thought the story of the newspaper itself would make a good movie, and Rooney was hired to write the screenplay. Television came along and Rooney found himself writing for Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore. In the ‘60s, he teamed up with CBS’s Harry Reasoner for a number of documentaries (and won an Emmy in 1968 for ‘Of Black America’) and the two of them remained paired up when the network debuted ’60 Minutes,’ with Rooney still behind the scenes. His countenance showed up in living rooms thanks to PBS on an early ‘70s show called ‘The Great American Dream Machine’ (evidently, his contract permitted him to work on non-commercial television).

Despite all this, 40 years ago, he was still considered an unknown. And United Press International’s television writer decided to do something about it in a column on April 25, 1972. Reasoner had jumped to ABC by then and took his writer with him.

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—There are several words I’d like to say to you today, and they are: Andrew Rooney. Let me repeat that: Andrew Rooney.
You see, it’s like this: Mr. Andrew A. Rooney for years has been writing some of the wittiest, most delightful television essays around. Monday night, for instance, he produced and wrote a charming ABC-TV half-hour called “An Essay on Churches.”
But do you think that most viewers of the show are going to go out today and say, “Did you see Andy Rooney’s program on television?”
No—what they will say, if they say anything of the kind, is: “Did you see Harry Reasoner’s show about churches?”
Well, that’s the way it is for most writers in movies and television. You write the words, but everybody remembers the star if the show is good. If it isn’t, of course, you can always blame it on the writer.
Anyway, the show Monday night was good, and I think we can thank both the writer and the star, for by this time they have become one of video’s established standards of excellence, a happy blend of teamwork.
As I recall, they have done television essays on subjects ranging from doors to women (there’s a connection there somewhere), and Monday night’s half-hour was about church architecture, not religion.
Mr. Reasoner is surely one of the most popular television newsmen around, and one of my favorites, too, because of his perspective that leads to droll commentaries that are pungent because of their careful understatement.
This quality of drollness matches perfectly with Mr. Rooney’s writing, and the delivery to the audience goes down as smooth as a good Mexican beer.
“An Essay on Churches” looked at some beautiful structures and some awful ones, and, with sophistication, commented briefly on related matters such as public attendance (diminishing) and abandoned edifices.
It didn't go very deeply into matters like church tax exemption, which was handled a while back in an hour CBS-TV documentary, and even better in a book, “The Religion Business,” by my old college pal, Al Balk.
But “An Essay on Churches” was not in this very serious vein. Rather, it held quite nicely to the style we have come to expect from the Rooney-Reasoner tandem. The tipoff was when we heard the opening music: “Winchester Cathedral.” It was an inspired mood-setter.
Rooney’s words were also on target, as usual. Referring to the simple New England churches, he observed that their builders seemed less frantic to impress God than did those who constructed more ornate houses of worship. Of the New England churches, he also noted:
“There is a becoming sincerity to their simplicity, and you can’t help thinking that a down-to-earth God might prefer one of these to some of the stone monuments created in his honor elsewhere.”
Among other Rooney-Reasoner observations during the program was this: “In Peabody, Mass., a Carmelite order rented space for a chapel in a shopping center. The faithful can now add prayer to their grocery list. The operation was so successful that the monks have opened a branch in Paramus, N.J.”
Anyway, let’s remember the name Andrew Rooney. Harry Reasoner doesn’t need the publicity.

Du Brow uses the term “Rooney-Reasoner.” He wasn’t the only one. It appears CBS did so in what we can only imagine was an endless stream of publicity releases which inspired the muse of colleague Charles Kuralt, who penned this marvelous piece of verse published in a 1967 TV column:

The world runs, I admit, on Socony-Mobil gas
And Chase-Manhattan money, and Anchor-Hocking glass;
Wears a Franklin-Simon dress and a Cluett-Peabody shirt
And peruses Krafft-Ebbing when life begins to hurt.
And Rooney-Reasoner shows are fine, and Reasoner-Rooney wit,
And the kind of looney reason behind each Rooney-Reasoner hit.
But in the name of all that’s holy, I am warning you —
Something there is that doesn’t love a Reasoner-Rooney view.

Half of us were nurtured in a Sears-Roebuck crib.
And grew up devoted readers of the old Herald-Trib.
We followed Merrill-Lynch through all its downs and ups.
And drank our Coca-Cola from Lily-Tulip cups.
And painted our houses with Sherwin-Williams paints.
And made of Huntley-Brinkley communications saints.
And went to Baldwin-Wallace and Hardin-Simmons U. . . .
But we never thought we’d live to see a Reasoner-Rooney view.

We used Sperry-Rand machines and followed Harvard-Yale athletics.
And kept ourselves smelling good with Chesebrough-Pond cosmetics.
And voted for Johnson-Humphrey, and never quite got sated
Of a world so di-vi-ded, so over-hyphenated.
But bear in mind the fate of the Aero-Willys Motor Car,
Your present hyphenation really goes too far.
Collaborate blithely on, my friends, but let me tell you true—
The world will never-never buy a Reasoner-Rooney view.

Andy Rooney died last night at age 92. Were he still with us, he would no doubt be complaining Kuralt’s articulate humour is nowhere to be found on television today. And he’d know the reason why. Right below his obituary on my news feed is something deemed by news agencies to be a story—a girlish-looking boy denying he got a not-quite-as-girlish-looking woman pregnant. No doubt Rooney would be complaining about the news feed, too. And he’d have a point. Like he always did.

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