As part of my mis-spent youth I did radio and a little bit of television before I got an honest (?) job. At age 16 I had my own radio show – naturally it was ‘The Ross Hart Show’ on WPXI radio 910 AM dial in Roanoke. I also worked other stations.
But this story isn’t about radio. It’s about the 3 months in the Summer of ’72 when I worked at a Roanoke TV station. The TV was WRFT channel 27, in Roanoke. It was put together on a shoestring, which kept fraying as it struggled to survive. All the equipment was ‘used’ when we got it. Well used. And our studio cameras were black and white, not color – that’s a shoestring.
My job was primarily as ‘switcher’ meaning I was responsible for pushing the buttons to get what you were supposed to see on the air at the right second. Secondary was to point a camera at the ‘talent’ when we actually taped or broadcast something from our studio. And the studio was on the top of “Little Brushy Mountain” west of Salem. The good news is there were a lot of berry bushes to snack on; the bad news is that snakes liked the berries also.
One FCC requirement to keep a broadcast license in those days was to broadcast ‘public affairs’ stuff ‘to inform the public’. So our version of public affairs was an incarnation of an old Roanoke Area show called the “Eb and Andy” show. The original show was bluegrass; ours wasn’t.
What we did was have a host and his sidekick discuss stuff, have guests to discuss stuff, and when all else failed they’d introduce some public service film and then discuss it. The host/straight man was a great guy named Jeff Hunt (I also worked with Jeff at a radio station). The sidekick was Tom Hughes who dressed up as a hillbilly named ‘Uncle Looney” – red beard, confederate cap, overalls, sat in a rocking chair and affected a hillbilly drawl.
Our air conditioning system in the studio was broken and the station couldn’t afford to repair it. But we still had to produce the Eb and Andy show every day. In July. A hot July.
One day it was real nice outside – a little cooler, blue skies, gentle breeze. So the show producer decided to set up the show in the parking lot next to the studio doors. Everything was set up. Microphones were connected and tested; the cameras were ready and adjusted to the lighting. The show just before our live broadcast was ending so it was maybe 2 minutes before air time. Davis and I are chatting with the ‘talent’ and Davis mentioned that he killed a copperhead that Looney had seen a week earlier. Looney was already in character and expressed his appreciation about killing that ‘nasty ole' snake’ when another snake came out from under the studio building, slithered between Jeff and Looney and on down the side of the mountain.
There wasn’t time to move the set. So we had to open the show as is. Except Jeff and Looney had their feet on the table – soles of their shoes facing the cameras. Their introduction included comments about their mothers teaching them to keep their feet off the table, but they had a good excuse: the snake.
Then into the show.
After 10 minutes a loud round of laughter came over the headsets from the control room. Apparently, that very day a member of the crew had gone to Woolworth’s department store and bought their novelty of the summer: the rubber snake. The kind of rubber that jiggles when you touch it. Woolworths sold two sizes: the $1.95 (18 inch) size and the $3.95 (3 foot) size. Yep, he went whole hawg and got the big one. The director told him to ‘do it’ so I saw him sneak into the studio and toss the rubber snake smack dab in the middle of the table where it jiggled as if alive.
The Talent moved quickly. Very quickly. Would you believe instantaneously? Jeff was at the end of his microphone cord off one side of the set. And Uncle Looney? That’s the only time in my life I’ve seen anyone do a back flip out of a rocking chair. And he ended up at the end of his microphone cord off the other side of the set.
The amazing thing is that they – especially Looney - kept in character and nothing had to be bleeped (not that we could given the shoestring). Imagine an excited hillbilly drawl “Goodness gracious, what in Tarnation were Dat Thang?"
We went to commercial, came back live and the rest of the show was pretty much watching two guys laugh.