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Letterman born of TV's '70s Hoosier heyday

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Letterman born of TV's '70s Hoosier heyday


It’s still vaguely disturbing to learn David Letterman is retiring, even though I haven’t watched him regularly in years and the news was regrettably overdue. Letterman has been a constant presence in Indianapolis media for more than 40 years and his leaving also closes of an era of broadcasting that started with his wacky weather forecasts on Channel 13 in the early 1970s and ended with the crazy currents of communication we find ourselves either swimming in or fighting.

Before the days of cheap satellite and broadband transmissions, the big three networks only provided a few hours of programming each day, in the early morning and primetime. The rest was filled with old movies, local sports and hours and hours of live talk shows.

There were discussion shows, fashion roundups and cooking shows as well as variety shows that combined all three of those things, along with singing and dancing. It created a system in which every city in the United States had its own unique superstars who were household names locally but completely unknown outside the 30 to 40-mile range of the station’s antennas.

Letterman was a big star in Indianapolis television but he was by far not the only one. WTTV-Channel 4 had the children’s hosts Cowboy Bob and Janie, who introduced cartoons and Sammy Terry, who hosted a scary movie show. Channel 6 had Howard Caldwell, the news anchor with the most gravitas, solemnly delivering the headlines. Channel 8 had a young reporter, Jane Pauley, who was also clearly headed for big things.

Channel 13 was owned and operated in those days by the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, a radio manufacturer which also owned the AM giant WLW 700 along with TV stations in Cincinnati and Dayton. Much of Channel 13’s programming came from WLWT in Cincinnati, most notably the 90-minute daily Paul Dixon Show.

Dixon was a comedian and host whose roots stretched back to 1940s radio and bawdy burlesque club MCs. For an hour and a half each weekday from 1955 until his death in 1974, Dixon hosted a show impossible to imagine airing now: Lechery and innuendo were Dixon’s trademarks and modern viewers would be enraged by his show unless it was presented as high camp. And high camp it definitely was, but it was also a towering presence for years, popular with housewives and other shut-ins who watched daytime TV in the 1960s.

One regular segment had young females line up as the cameras panned along their legs as Dixon made lewd comments about them. Other times he would host mini-pageants on his show for the young women with the longest legs or shortest hot pants, the winners getting a free groping by Dixon and a 12-inch salami provided by a Cincinnati meat-packing company, handed out with a trademark leering wink.

He was as successful as it was possible to be in Cincinnati, Dayton and Indianapolis, the cities where his show aired. His singing sidekicks moonlighted as regional nightclub acts, they cut records and every celebrity who passed through town with something to promote had to be on his show and kiss his ass to some extent, even Bob Hope.

This is the stuff I grew up watching on summer mornings at my grandmother’s house on Mann Road in Indy on summer mornings as I drank milk and ate peanut-butter sandwiches, marveling at the immense power they wielded, a power difficult to explain in today’s context. Everybody knew their names and respected their authority. Letterman’s later act, with the canned hams and the sarcastic rejoinders to studio audience members, owes more than a little bit to Paul Dixon, the king of Avco Broadcasting.

Letterman graduated from Ball State into this environment and took to it naturally. His work with Channel 13 was flashily and cheerfully subversive. He took all the work he could get, helping out with ABC’s Indy 500 coverage and whatever else was needed.

Letterman at the 1971 Indy 500:

He was tasked with hosting a community affairs show about the Marion County 4-H and turned it into a comedy show. Doing the weather, he would deliver one-liners and non sequiturs seen as outrageously scandalous for the time. Everything he did brought attention to himself and he was as big a presence as one could be in Indianapolis. Still, he was just one of many local media celebrities and was not on the level of Dixon or Sammy Terry in terms of renown.

For a time, he hosted an afternoon radio call-in show on WNTS, a tiny AM station at 1560 on the dial, so far to the right edge of the frequency on analog car radio dials that ads touted it as “next to your glove compartment.” He took calls from listeners, made wisecracks, chatted up visiting entertainers and sports stars and occasionally talked of his desire to move to California, where the action was. He was a star in Indianapolis but only in Indianapolis. The life of a local TV personality was filled with repetition, endlessly reading ad copy on the air and personal appearances at grocery stores and high school dances. The highest level of achievement Letterman could hope for at Channel 13 would be to host a daily variety show that aired on the Dayton and Cincinnati station, like The Bob Braun Show, another live variety show that entertained Ohio and Indiana housewives for 90 minutes every weekday.

There are no contemporary shows quite like the ones Dixon and Braun did, the closest being Jimmy Fallon’s recent revival of a variety format where the host sings and dances as well as interviews guest. They had to have been expensive to produce but were big money makers for them because regional businesses had few other options for advertising.

They aimed to please: Braun had a big band almost the size of Johnny Carson’s and employed several well-dressed and attractive sidekicks who sang Broadway tunes and hits of the day, danced and performed in comedy skits and read commercials for Cincinnati-based potato chip companies and grocery stores.

Dixon and Braun, along with a few others, did their shows for decades, proving you could make a career out of it, but regional stardom had a very low ceiling.

Letterman’s ambition burned through the camera lenses so it was little surprise when he announced he was leaving Indianapolis. There was a great deal of skepticism from the callers into his radio show about his move to Los Angeles. There were too many wannabe celebrities in California anyway, they said, why did Letterman think he would be any different? He didn’t really have an answer, if I recall correctly.

The day came when he left his budding local stardom behind and drove west on I-70 to California, like so many Hoosiers before and since have done, armed with not much more than an ambition to succeed. Channel 13 proudly announced on the news every time he had a small walk-on part on a network variety show or when he appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. By this time, Jane Pauley had also left the Channel 8 anchor Indianapolis for a long career with NBC, first at WMAQ in Chicago and then for the Today show in New York. The live local variety shows that had once reigned stopped being made as other programming became available and tastes changed. All of a sudden, there were no more local media celebrities or at least far fewer of them as radio stations replaced DJs with robots and local shows with syndicated ones.

Letterman got out at the right time, before his career options locally narrowed to the anchor’s desk or the disc jockey booth.

Under Carson’s beneficence, Letterman’s career started to really take off. At some point, he stopped belonging to Indianapolis and became New York’s property. Still, it’s difficult to encapsulate just how much pride his accomplishments brought to Indy in the late 1970s as the city itself struggled with its own aspirations to greatness with a reboot of downtown.

He is the last remaining link to Paul Dixon and Bob Braun and Johnny Carson, literally the last man standing from an era of broadcasting gone for generations now. Even if I haven’t watched him regularly in years, knowing Letterman was still on the air gave me comfort, like knowing the Beatles were still hanging out together and jamming or Tennessee Williams was still sitting in a hotel suite penning overwrought plays.

Letterman was such an innovator in television that it seems he came out of nowhere. But no matter what he did in later years, he always carried a little bit of Channel 13 and Paul Dixon along with him, recognized only by himself and the few remaining people who watched his beginnings in the chaotic world of hippie-era Indianapolis television. He has been one of us so long that it is unlikely, at this late date, he could ever be anything else.

Whenever there’s a mention of that subversive, ambitious time in the 1970s when Indianapolis believed it could dream big and possibly not fail, David Letterman’s name will have to be there as a living embodiment of the city’s successes.

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