— Dave Garroway and I have something besides the TODAY show in common: The first host and I both owe our long careers on the program to a chimp.
Back in 1952, my family’s television set was a heavy piece of furniture in the living room. In those days, that’s where most TVs sat: proud possessions to be polished, not moved. Unfortunately, everyone was in the kitchen eating breakfast when the TODAY show came on. So despite its many cutting-edge attractions, the show almost faded in my house, and in many others.
Back then, watching morning television was considered somewhat decadent: Like dessert, TV was consumed after dinner. What changed all that was a baby chimp born two months to the day after the TODAY show premiered. A year later, he became Garroway’s co-host.
Kids like me loved J. Fred Muggs so much we persuaded our parents to leave the kitchen and watch the show with us. They enjoyed what they saw and stayed, even after Muggs moved on.
During the long musical breaks TODAY took back then, my dad would talk about his day at the optical store he owned — the one he hoped I would someday run. My grandfather wanted me to follow him into law. Nearly everyone in the family worried about my poor choice of careers: I started at the St. Louis Zoo, as an announcer for the chimpanzee show.
The Batman TV show was big that season, and trainers dressed one of the chimps, Little Pierre, like the Caped Crusader. The hairy little Batman entered high over the crowd on a wire between the announce booth and the stage.
Unfortunately, a big chimp called Captain Bozo wanted to escape show biz, and the wire, which was permanent, provided a tempting escape route. So the show’s director gave me a rifle that fired tiny sponges and told me to shoot Bozo every time he came close to that wire.
“You won’t hurt him,” he insisted, “but Bozo weighs 120 pounds. We can’t have him dropping on the kids.”
So all summer long I annoyed the big chimp, popping him with the sponge gun. One day late in the season, my sound engineer and I were playing a hand of poker as the show progressed. We knew the routine so well by then that we didn’t have to look. “How ‘bout a big hand for him, boys and girls!” I shouted into the microphone, slapping down a card.
Suddenly, the audience gasped. There was big ol’ Bozo, looking like King Kong, climbing the wire, halfway across the moat that separated the audience from the stage.
I grabbed the sponge gun and leaned out of the announce booth. Pow! Pow! Pow!
Bozo dropped into the water and the audience applauded, as if the popgun fire were part of the act. He bounced back on stage, unhurt, but I could picture the newspaper headline: “Zoo Announcer Shoots Beloved Chimp.”
Making the invisible visible
That’s when I started my long life on the road. Some days it seems I have worked on the TODAY show since the earth was cooling, crisscrossing this country, 4 million miles, practically nonstop for 40 years, searching for people who are practically invisible, the ones who change our lives, but don’t take time to tweet and tell us about it. They may not run for president or go on talk shows, but without their contribution, the kind of country we love would not exist. These are people with thoughtful solutions to problems we all face, incredible ideas that work, blueprints for our dreams, ways to make America better. The country survives and thrives because of all these names we don’t know: ordinary people who live life with passion, who succeed not just on talent and hard work, but curiosity and imagination.
I’ve spent my entire career coaxing such people in to the spotlight: The truck driver who taught microsurgery. The 14-year-old who invented television. The brothers who searched 60 years until they found what the Navy could not: their father’s lost submarine.
Most reporters focus on our frustrations: the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, middle-class jobs moving to China and India, hate-filled politics that prefers gridlock to compromise. What we know about America mostly comes from journalists who travel in herds, trailing politicians or camped out at big stories, pouncing on problems to repeat over and over. For solutions they turn to celebrity experts: people who spend their busy days spouting opinions to cameras, while others in the shadows quietly make America work.
Many of the people continually filling our newscasts know the business and its limitations better than the correspondents who cover them. If reporters are riding in a car and the right front tire goes flat, they hop out, glance at the tire, then start tweeting. Maybe they come back a few months later to lament that the tire is still flat.
I became determined to examine all the tires; try to find out why some are still rolling. To do that, I had to stop chasing headlines. That’s why I decided to start sticking stories to an address list of long overlooked names, seeking drama and dimension in the lives of ordinary Americans.
Thankfully, the folks who sign paychecks see some merit in that. They’ve put me in more motel rooms than the Gideon Bible. The TODAY show enables me to poke around in forgotten corners, tapping into people's hopes that their lives hold something of value. The full chronicle of this country is not in the news; it’s tucked away in our attics and basements waiting for someone to discover.
Perhaps memories are more precious to those who have more of them: People who have been around a while begin to realize that memories matter. They are who we are. That’s why the TODAY show’s 60th anniversary is so special. The taste of gum lasts longer than most TV shows, but TODAY survives and thrives because here you can still discover the people who live the values our country cherishes:
In this time of rapid change, rediscovering the constant values that built what’s best about America helps us find our own way. I have spent my life seeking solutions from people who are seldom asked, shining a light in neglected corners, revealing answers that others rush past. Nearly 1,500 ordinary Americans have shared their insights with me, people who see what we all see, but think what no one else has thought. Wisdom doesn’t always wear a suit.