Eccentrics in the Newsroom
Thursday, March 18, 2010
TALL IN THE SADDLE: It’s often lamented that newspaper city rooms, once populated by eccentrics, tipplers, colorful characters and iron-fisted martinet city editors, have become lands of the bland.
Not so at the Santa Barbara News-Press in the early 1960s, when I arrived.
Stanley Elliott, tall, laconic to the extreme, and with schoolmasterish ideas about proper grammar and newspaper style, presided like a lord over the copy desk. As we sat grouped around a rectangular desk, working from a spinning wheel from which we plucked stories to be edited, sized, and headlined, Stan reigned silently.
Not only did he have little to say, but he disliked any of us doing much chatting. Not that we couldn’t edit and make wisecracks at the same time, and we did. Inevitably, Stan would have enough. “There’s entirely too much levity going on here,” he would warn, coming as close as he could to a smile. We felt like schoolboys.
If you made what he considered a disgraceful grammatical boo-boo, Stan would pass down a note on the tip of his incredibly long scissors. Silence fell on the desk. The correction, typewritten on a small piece of brown copy paper, was signed with his trademark crayon “E.”
I spent my first year at the News-Press at that desk, leaving my Goleta tract house, wife, and children in early morning, often before dawn, to help get the paper out. I worked mostly with older men who feared Stan Elliott’s notes of recrimination almost as much as being called into legendary owner Thomas M. Storke’s office.
One of the most lovable eccentrics was “society” columnist Litti Paulding, relic of a small-town era that was fast disappearing. She attended parties, chronicled the doings of noted names around town, and was widely adored. Her desk overflowed with all manner of newspapers, copy paper, letters, and junk, which kept slipping to the floor as she tossed on new contributions.
It wouldn’t be much of a morning if we didn’t hear Litti screech, “Who’s got my Chronicle?” The San Francisco paper was to Litti the Bible of all West Coast social news, and she just had to keep up. I always suspected that young practical jokers hid the paper just to hear Litti howl.
Litti was always late with her copy, batted out on sheets of yellowed copy paper that looked as though she found them on the bottom layer of her desk. I always seemed to get stuck trying to make sense of her stories—partly due to the fact that the sentences ran on and on because when she got to the bottom of the page, with only a sliver of space left, she didn’t want to quit. So she would take out a pencil and continue the sentence up one side of the page, over the top, and down the other side.
As the older generation began an exodus from the newsroom in the ’60s, a new irreverent youth movement took its place. One young scoundrel liked to glue a senior citizen’s phone to her desk. Glue was a necessary tool in those days, used to attach pages of copy together. A cubbyhole room at the back of the newsroom held jars of glue, the floor so imbued with the goo that one left with sticky feet. I always suspected that certain members of the staff found their way there for forbidden grapplings, if not couplings.
In those days, civic cheerleader Pearl Chase was likely to come stomping up the hall in her sensible shoes, banging her cane and calling to City Editor John Ball, “Mr. Ball, Mr. Ball!” Reporters scattered like chickens, for fear of being summoned to take down Pearl’s latest tirade against some assault on proper municipal governance.
After I became a reporter, I was caught all too often. We all were under the impression that Pearl had just come from Storke’s office and Pearl’s word was T.M.’s command. In reality, he was probably just glad to get her out of his office and into ours. But taken together, they were a mighty force in those days.
When I first arrived, I heard about a book called Too Near the Sun, said to be a scandalous roman à clef in which certain local citizens were held up to ridicule, or worse. “Never mention that book here,” one of the copy desk gang warned me. It seemed that Storke’s son Charles was one of the victims of Gordon Forbes’s novel. Charles, apparently having despaired that his father would ever retire and turn the News-Press’s reins over to him, had recently decamped to Mexico City and the advertising game. So, unknown to me, things were pretty tense. I got a copy and found it tame, but the Storkes apparently didn’t.
The book is out of print and so are those 1960s days in the newsroom.
HURTIN’: Founder Adrian Spence’s Camerata Pacifica gave a lovely performance Friday night, March 12, but he pointed out that Camerata, like many S.B. nonprofits, is hurting from the recession. So there’ll be an April 27 concert and fundraiser at the Music Academy of the West. L.A. Phil pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and Martin Chalifour, Phil concertmaster, will play. Then dinner. (884-8410).
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.