Personal History

Working Cronkite’s Anchor Desk, June/July 1969

With a yellow-mesh bag in hand, marked “CBS News Urgent,” a courier arrived at the temporary newsroom inside Studio 41. He caught sight of executive news editor Sanford Socolow standing near the CBS News internal teletype machine at the other end of the crowded noise-filled space with forty news staff at work.

Socolow opened the package, peeked inside, and said to me: “Take this newspaper upstairs and fast!”

On the two-story stage-set, I ascended a dozen steps, and in a circular motion, left to right, to reach the anchor desk and the chair of producer Joan Richman.

Seated below the range of the TV cameras and glancing at the headline, she placed the “bulldog” edition of the New York Times in the downward gaze of Walter Cronkite.

In what remains an iconic image, the anchorman held up to the cameras the newspaper with its banner: “Men Land on Moon.” After the many launches from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, and his years of reporting on the space program, Cronkite gasped: “What a day!”

Looking at the studio monitors, and the sight of the astronauts transmitted from the surface of the moon, Cronkite was almost speechless, and with eyeglasses in hand, he confirmed:

“Armstrong is on the moon! Neil Armstrong, a thirty-eight-year-old American is standing on the surface of the moon! On this July twentieth, nineteen hundred and sixty-nine.”

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Years later in his memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” Cronkite recalled: “That first landing on the moon was, indeed, the most extraordinary story of our time and almost as remarkable a feat for television as the space flight itself.”

Ninety million Americans watched the special events broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, and according to estimates, one-half were viewing CBS News.

By 1969 Cronkite was a national figure, and perhaps more famous than the astronauts themselves. His anchoring the launch of Apollo 11 was his twenty-first broadcast of a manned space flight. In virtually every recounting of the moon landing, in films such as “First Man,” and Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11,” there is the tenor of Cronkite’s voice. He remains a central feature of our collective memory, a stage manager or the “directeur de scene.”

For network news anchors of today, there are no such pretensions. Nor is there a single authoritative figure in journalism like a Cronkite who might challenge the disparate voices of social media, right-wing ideology on cable TV, or the rapid ascendency of online TV networks.

The day of the lunar landing, the thirty-two-hour television broadcast was the longest continuous live-origination news broadcast. Throughout the coverage, Cronkite conveyed to viewers: “Stop everything and watch us make history!”

In a memo to the CBS Organization, Frank Stanton, its president wrote: “July 20 belonged to everyone. I mean history no injustice in saying that, in a very real way, it belonged to you.”

At the time of the broadcast, I was twenty-three years old and Walter Cronkite’s desk assistant. It was an extraordinary day: up and down those stairs delivering scripts, file packs, cue cards, black/blue Pentel liquid pens, and food. During commercial breaks, I took the orders, so Cronkite instructed: “I’ll have tuna salad on rye with a TAB soda.”

Over these many years since, this job listed on my resume remains a discussion starter. Even in 1969, it was the subject of inquiry. Less than a week into my employment, I was taking the elevator up to the Special Events Unit on the sixth floor of the 518 building of the CBS Broadcast Center, when behind me, one of the film editors, and the only other person on the elevator inquired: “Russo, what’s you’re hook?” I thought to myself “hook?” What could he mean? I had no idea how to respond, but I was polite.

To be very clear, I was in the last stages of becoming a Catholic priest and my seminary education trained me for certain ingrained politeness. But at the time, few people at CBS News knew about this direction in my life, and that summer became a welcomed respite from the safe confines of the seminary. Here was my chance to meet the hundreds of producers, researchers, film editors and reporters who shaped the Apollo 11 broadcast, and helped write my personal history.

One: The Hook to Rt.3 & the Lincoln Tunnel

On the DeCamp Bus that took me via Route 3 back to New Jersey, the “hook” was still on my mind. Later at home, my father translated for me: “He was asking, ‘How did you get this job?’” With emphasis, he added: “Better be careful how you answer that question and others, like how much you are being paid?”

My father, Joe Russo, was the president of a small business, the Mutual Screw Machine & Manufacturing Company, a tool & die shop in Newark. He began his company shortly after the Second World War, having been exempted from the draft because of his technical skills. His paycheck from the Lionel Corporation went directly into his new enterprise. He married my mother Henrietta, and a year later I came along.

By the 1960’s we were living in the prosperous surroundings of an Essex County suburb that would later become the HBO location for Tony Soprano’s home. We were the third Italian-American family located on Devon Road, and near the homes of Connie Francis, the singer, and Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo, a member of the Genovese crime family.

Continually we were mistaken for the other Russo; and since my father grew up with these guys from Newark’s First Ward, he did little to clear up the confusion. When FBI agents parked their cars nearby our driveway or helicopters flew over with cameras directed at our house, my father reminded us to be careful what we said on the telephone because our lines might be tapped.

I knew then, and know even more now, that my parents were among the first generation of Italian-Americans in a professional class, but still rooted in the language, food, and customs of Avellino and Southern Italy. They were the go-betweens for their parents who could not speak English and their generation who had become doctors, builders, lawyers, and politicians.

Like ships at high tide, many would rise in the post-war economy. Of course, they knew the guys in the mob, everyone from the First Ward knew the guys.

My parents were attuned to politics, and mostly the kind of politics that brought jobs to our extended family. At the age of ten, I recall political gatherings in the basement of our Newark home including my mother’s support for Uncle Ralph’s successful campaign for Essex County Sheriff.

Then there was the time when she created a furor with the help of the Newark Evening News in her campaign to have a traffic light placed on Third Avenue where a reckless driver had killed a young boy. It was the very first time I met a newsman who came to our home to interview my mother; the next day I read about her in the newspaper. With good looks, a personal manner and clothing to match, she could compete with Nancy Pelosi’s Max Mara “burnt orange” winter coat; but, my mother was a Republican.

My parents, like other Italian-Americans, were locked out of the Essex County Democratic Party, so they aligned with liberal and reform-minded Republicans. They attended the annual Walter E. Edge Dinner and supported Clifford Case and Millicent Fenwick. By the 1970s these New Jersey Republicans had gone extinct with Governor Tom Kean.

My dad was born the same year as John F. Kennedy and with little regard to party affiliation voted for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election with this rationale: “If an Irish Catholic can be elected president of the United States, so can an Italian!”

In the language of today’s politics, Joe Russo was a “bundler,” he had the touch to gather cash from those Italian Americans prosperous enough to support local candidates for public office. Very competent at the gambling table, my dad took the approach when it came to supporting politicians: sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but in the end, the risks might pay off.

What was my hook? One candidate, supported by my father but defeated for elective office in Essex County, had left behind enough campaign debts to warrant a favor to his creditors, that of a summer job. The candidate had an upwardly mobile and successful brother, Robert Wussler, the director of Special Events, and Executive Producer in charge of CBS News and its space coverage. In effect, I had become the marker.

Two: Meeting Bob Wussler

So I had landed a summer job in the “real world,” one that had its own language, history, work routines and populated by famous broadcast journalists, the last remnant of the “Murrow Boys,” and co-workers single-mindedly moving toward the CBS News coverage of “Man on the Moon: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11.”

On an overcast day in March of 1969, I met Bob Wussler at the Special Events office at the CBS Broadcast Center. I checked in with the security station on the ground floor at 57th Street, passed the guards and headed onto the elevator to the sixth floor. Once there, Mary Kane, Wussler’s administrative aide, had been on the lookout for me. Wussler’s office was in the far right corner of an ample open space where years later Andy Rooney took up residence and videotaped his “60 Minutes” commentaries.

In that initial conversation, Wussler talked about CBS and the Apollo space coverage, and we realized the coincidence that we were both past editors of our high school newspaper. I went on to suggest a rather inflated view of what I might contribute at CBS, which prompted his reply: “We have plenty of creative people around here. What I need is someone who could go out for coffee.” And I said, “Well, I can do that as well!”

Leaving that day, I noticed the sixth-floor parameter offices for producers and researchers, the film editing suites, and a conference room, all of which would become very familiar.

In the early 1960s, CBS News drew its key personnel from the ranks of radio, newspapers, and magazines. With the Kennedy era, there was the passage to a “television generation” of news executives. After graduating Seton Hall University, and a stint in the CBS mailroom, Bob Wussler was an Executive Producer, by the age of 32.

Over the years that I knew him, even in the most grueling moments in a TV control room, he maintained remarkable poise and an aura of great certainty, as he gave directions to his reporters and production crews, with the precision of a quarterback. Years later, when I watched episodes of “Mad Men,” and the striking good looks of actor John Hamm, portraying Don Draper, I could say: “Yeah, that’s Bob Wussler.”

In January of 1965, following the coverage of President Johnson’s inauguration, a production unit within CBS News was needed to cover the on-going race to the moon as a feature of the Cold War. In addition, the haunting reminder of the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy in 1963 necessitated a dedicated unit to cover unforeseen or unscheduled news events.

To meet this need, the CBS News president, Fred Friendly appointed Wussler to the newly created post of Director, Special Events Unit. He had the mandate to mount productions, and the budget and editorial support from Bill Leonard and Gordon Manning, the Vice Presidents in charge of news coverage. Wussler’s strong points were his knowledge of operations and production, while his lack of experience as a “newsman” brought on alliances with Don Hewitt, Bill Leonard, and Gordon Manning. In conversations, they more often referred to the young producer as “Bobby.”

Years later, Wussler admitted to me that his role was to explain to people on the editorial side how new equipment and technologies might advance newsgathering; and conversely, he clarified editorial needs to the technical and operations staff in order to improve the overall production.

With his deputy Clarence “Red” Cross, Wussler attracted youthful and energetic producers: Jeff Gralnick, Joan Richman, Frank Manitzas and Jack Kelly. Together they improvised a working definition of “special events” that flowed out of the state of the emerging technology. These were the news stories of overriding and extraordinary importance with impact outside the usual flow of news. Consequently, reporters developed new ways to tell the story to a national audience by looking deeply into the personalities of astronauts, their families and the innovators among aerospace engineers.

Over time, Wussler amassed a team of thirty producers and associate producers, by July of 1969, in the run up to the Apollo 11, the number had swollen to 70. He commanded what would be regarded then, as well as now, a hefty budget of over $2.4 million. Wussler fashioned large-scale television news specials like film director Busby Berkeley made Hollywood musicals of the ’30s and ’40s and capitalized on the theme that more was better.

Whatever the definition for “Special Events,” both NBC and ABC followed with similar production units that covered the space program, unscheduled news, and the cycle of elections and political conventions.

In taking over from Friendly, the newly appointed president of CBS News, Richard Salant felt it was their mandate to serve up news and events that audiences “ought to see.” At the time of the Democratic Convention of 1968, television news as a medium had emerged as a potent political force. Thus, by the late ’60s, space coverage might have been considered a relief from the protests over the Viet Nam War.

Hewitt had been Wussler’s first mentor in live-television coverage, while Leonard provided the day-to-day organizational guidance. Manning’s instinct for a good story came in brief, one-sentence directives, a first Twitter-like message, known as a “Gordogram.” Manning’s form of “instant messaging” became legendary.

Wussler improvised methods of capturing live events. He was convinced that to provide flexibility in remote productions, internal communication from the control room was a necessity. During the 1964 political primaries, Wussler and engineers from Bell Telephone adapted a standard telephone switchboard, enabling the device to be used as a “party line” among principal producers to talk to one another in the middle of actual broadcast.

With a three-way selector, on a control panel, Wussler communicated directly with his producers and reporters from remote locations. The device became known at CBS as the “Wussler Box,” as he and others passed along minute–to-minute instructions (also, known as EPIC, the Executive Producers Intercom System). At the heart of this task was the intelligence about what’s happening now, and what’s happening next?

As far back as the 1962 John Glenn flight of Freedom 7, producers had begun adapting space coverage to the exigencies of a live broadcast. For example, the many time delays presented producers with the problem of how to fill when waiting for a launch. For these cases, producers and editors prepared in advance a “film bank” which consisted of reports of varying lengths for the possible insertion into the live production.

Drawing on NASA’s projected timeline, Wussler established a tentative “line up” of live-action filmed or videotaped elements, that allowed the Control Room to call upon the film bank to cover delays in the launch. Any change in the schedule simply required the anchor to turn to a particular page in his script to introduce the pre-recorded segment.

Wussler improved these techniques for presidential elections, national political conventions, Nixon’s trip to China (1972) and later, as President of CBS Sports in the broadcasts of Super Bowl X (1976), Super Bowl XII (1978). As a result, he defined a particular genre of live-origination news and sports coverage, like other TV innovators such as Roone Arledge and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” or Don Hewitt and CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

If CBS News could claim hold to those “salad days” of the Edward R. Murrow World War II radio broadcasts from London, it was Bob Wussler and his Special Events producers who created a new era, linking reporters across continents and establishing CBS News and its anchorman Walter Cronkite as the preeminent source for space coverage.

With a cue from a New York control room, the broadcasts broke into regularly scheduled network programming, and from coast to coast, the television audience would see the image of the trademark CBS “Eye,” backed by floating clouds, a design of William Golden in the early 1950s.

From the announcer’s glass booth to the right of the Control Room came the cadence of Harry Kramer’s baritone voice: “This is a CBS News Special Report.”

Three: Special Events at Work

In early June, I began working at CBS News, taking the A train from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Columbus Circle, walking past St. Paul’s Church near Lincoln Center, and onto the corner of 57th Street & 9th Ave, where the “400” Delicatessen stood. Back then they delivered until midnight, something that I was thankful for when catering late night food orders.

The first few days required getting oriented to the layout of the CBS Broadcast Center, a red brick building on 57th, that earlier had been a depot for Sheffield Farms dairy and by the mid-’60s had become a set of buildings connected by a latticework of corridors and up and down passageways.

Following a summons to Bob McCarthy in the Business Office and the signing of an “artist’s contract,” I was listed as a “Production Assistant” with three months employment and a CBS photo Id.

What did this job exactly involve? Looking back it’s difficult to imagine an office environment without email, websites, search engines like Google, or quick access to film and video archives from YouTube. In effect, this job entailed making up for the lack of office tools so relied upon fifty years later.

Soon enough, Mary Kane became my mentor on everything from personnel, studio locations, how to obtain a cash advance, the logistics of hotel reservations, how to work the controls, toner and paper for the 914 Xerox photocopier, and how to proofread correspondence on CBS stationary, according to the style guide, authored by Frank Stanton, the company president.

With clarity for direction, Kane steered me to a trail of people at the newsroom traffic and assignment desks as well as the executives and their secretaries on a distribution list that went from: “Messrs. Salant, Leonard, Manning… to Wolff, R. Wood, R. Wood (Affiliates), Zelman, Zurich.”

Instructions about how to answer the telephone were critical, and with multiple lines, this too could be tricky. Try keeping a New York City long-distance operator on hold in the attempt to reach Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, and on the other phone line, making it clear to bartenders either at the Slate or Le Biarritz restaurants to remind Mr. Reasoner that his editors were waiting for him to finish a “voice-over.”

And there was the case of Bill Headline, this was a man, whose speaking voice matched his emphatic greeting: “Headline!” At first, I thought this was a code or perhaps a news flash, so I put the caller through instantly. Later I learned that Mr. Headline was Gordon Manning’s deputy.

We were on a forced march to the July production of Apollo 11, and two weeks into the job on June 22, I saw first hand how the personnel in the Special Events Unit took to the sudden news of Judy Garland’s death in London. Well, this turned everything in the office “over the rainbow!”

Wussler and producers from the documentary units responded with a prime-time special on Judy Garland with segments drawn from the singer’s CBS-TV program, as well as the positioning of a live remote outside the East 81st location of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home where crowds gathered to mourn her passing.

I found myself in the tight confines of the CBS Research Library amid files and news clippings about Garland, gathering any details to pass along to associate producers and writers readying the script. I was struck when I came across the list and background files of prominent figures “not yet dead” whose biographies would be the subject of coverage at their demise.

I recall librarian Roberta Hadley’s stringent warning: “Don’t reveal the obituary list to anyone, and most especially not to attorneys or talent agents.” Bing Crosby’s lawyer had complained that the crooner’s career was in peril after a CBS researcher mentioned the existence of a Crosby obituary long before Bing’s closing act.

Four: Production Countdown

With Garland dispatched, the Special Events Unit returned to its frenzied firehouse atmosphere but more fully focused on the July launch.

The eight-day Apollo 11 space mission required three critical areas of pre-production and planning: the coverage of the launch set for July 16th at Kennedy Space Center; the thirty-two hour live-broadcast of the so-called “Lunar Day” when the astronauts stepped on the surface of the moon, anchored by Cronkite in New York; and lastly, the coverage of the splashdown and recovery of the astronauts in the Pacific Ocean.

With the Apollo 10 mission completed on Monday, May 26th, NASA scheduled the Apollo 11 launch with only a six-week window between space missions. This tight time frame left sufficient time for two possible attempts in 1969, and fulfill President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

No aspect of the job lacked interest for me. Even the day-to-day humdrum tasks like taking orders for coffee or lunch required getting to know personalities, including Harry Reasoner and Andy Rooney.

Once a production assistant returned from a run to the cafeteria with an English muffin, raw and slathered with butter. Mr. Rooney had not specified that said muffin was to be toasted. Upon first-sight, he asked: “Who orders an untoasted English muffin?” Days later, Rooney’s on-going joke included food orders with such specificity to detail and exaggerated instructions, that he won my unstinting laughter.

Of course, the ever-present task of photocopying, organizing, and distributing piles of NASA updates had great immediacy and importance.

The “anchor producer,” former long-time researcher, Joan Richman was located in a back office; not far from Wussler’s. Once she ordered up multiple copies of a NASA report of fifty pages that described the entrance and egress of astronauts from the Command Module into the LEM in a weightless condition. From my brief reading of this impenetrable text, I asked Joan whether anyone read these reports.

Exhausted from hours of editing, she looked at me and snarled, “Of course, we read these reports, word by word, and cover to cover.” I replied, “Really?”

Along with Beth Fertik and Mark Kramer, Richman distilled the biographies of astronauts, critical figures in the space program, with relevant facts and statistics into CBS News Handbooks to keep current correspondents, reporters, and production staff.

From my observation, Joan Richman was a most capable editor and manager; she would become among the first women executive producers of a network broadcast as well as a vice-president two decades later.

Such achievements for women came with formidable roadblocks. I recall the morning when Frank Stanton’s memo to CBS employees banned women from wearing pants suits. By the 10:30 AM coffee break I overheard Richman, Fertik, and associate producer Judy Hole voice their collective disbelief. At a time when Miss Twiggy and the “mini skirts” set the fashion craze, Mr. Stanton’s attempt to enforce a dress code met with almost instant failure.

Because of his total knowledge of the space mission, Mark Kramer became my candidate for the position of the first newsman to be sent into space. He published a daily update for CBS personnel, addressing whatever seemed important at the moment. When asked to compile a list of what items the astronauts would leave on the moon, he produced an update entitled, “Lots of litter left laying at the lunar landing location.”

Once Clarence Cross grilled Kramer about the possibility of contaminants that might be brought back to earth.

In his memo, Kramer reiterated the official NASA line: “As far as the moon is concerned, Young thinks that propagation of life is very unlikely, although preservation of life, such as spores, would be possible.”

To provide a check on NASA’s claims, Wussler had hired science writer Richard Hoagland who had new doubts about contamination but added, “If we take NASA at its word, then why had NASA planned such an elaborate quarantine procedure after the splashdown in the Pacific?”

The highlight of my typical day included the trek down to the newsroom to hand-deliver the handbooks or updates marked for Walter Cronkite at the anchorman’s glass-enclosed office, near the so-called “fishbowl.” There I encountered the intimidating presence of Cronkite’s secretary, Hinda Glasser; or occasionally connected with Cronkite’s more convivial editorial deputies, Sandy Socolow or Ron Bonn. In turn, they passed along the materials to Cronkite inside his glass booth.

Close by the newsroom was the odor of ammonium thiosulfate, a clear signal of the stop bath and fixer procedure for processing film stock. With the relatively new two-inch magnetic videotape challenging to edit, film and film editing were still crucial to the television broadcast.

In the days before the launch, activity among producers and film editors was directed toward the creation of a film bank of 150 pieces from 3 minutes to 30 minutes in length and together represented between eight to ten hours of programming. While the bank pieces reported on specific details of the space mission, these inserts into the broadcasts performed a “sleight of hand” for those in the control room to mask delays or an uncertain turn in the narrative.

The topics for these segments ranged from cartoon animations of landing and lift off procedures, various stages of the Saturn rocket, and the lunar module’s descent to the moon. Other short cameo pieces provided three-minute biographies of key people in the space program.

This requirement for short documentaries joined efforts in New York to the CBS News bureaus worldwide. The London bureau produced “The Mystery of Stonehenge,” and “Great Explorations of the Past,” both narrated by Alexander Kendrick. In Rome, Winston Burdett contributed a profile of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Idea of Flight.” While in New York, “The Lore of the Moon” was written by Andy Rooney, and narrated by Harry Reasoner. In part this documentary drew from an honors essay by Richard Salant when he was a Harvard undergraduate.

A fourteen-minute piece entitled “Science Fiction,” narrated by Orson Welles in London, was written and produced by Fran Guenette. This segment alone required sampling of science fiction films from George Melies’s “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), to George Pal’s “Destination Moon” (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

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To collect these random films meant my taking a taxi from the Broadcast Center to the film distribution houses on the West Side, or to the New York Public Library, and for photographic stills, to the Bettmann Archive at 666 Fifth Avenue. More often, film stock arrived in heavy metal canisters and delivered to the CBS News traffic desk, and then I was charged with hauling them up the Special Events office and to Fran Guenette. By month’s end, her tiny cubicle was filled from floor to ceiling with films and videotape containers identified for eventual return to the sender.

Construction was underway in Studio 41, the largest production facility at the CBS Broadcast Center. Scenic Designer Hugh Raisky and Art Director Ned Steinberg, and their contractors built a stage set that lifted Walter Cronkite’s anchor desk onto an elevated platform 24 feet above the studio floor with six-foot globes of the earth and moon positioned on either side. Surrounding the walls of the studio was a black-velvet cyclorama with specks of white that on camera resembled the Milky Way.

Sixteen television cameras covered Cronkite’s desk, a status desk for correspondent David Schoumacher, a guest interview area for Harry Reasoner, and the locations for the models of the Apollo spacecraft and a mock lunar landscape. These mock-ups provided special effects-simulations for live production.

What once was the stage for CBS productions of “Playhouse 90” and “Captain Kangaroo,” was transformed into what looked like the Hayden Planetarium or a ride at Disneyland. Now director Joel Banow and his control room team rehearsed cameras and lighting to bring into view a universe of its own.

Only two weeks before the launch, however, the broadcast pathway of signals was jeopardized because of the failed launch of Intelsat 3, a satellite that had been slated for a position high above the Atlantic. As a result, television signals had to be re-routed from the south of England to a satellite hovering over the Indian Ocean, onto Tokyo, and then to a Pacific satellite and the West Coast of the United States. The round-the-world transmission resulted in only a two-second-time delay.

By late June, I escorted to the set those executives whose clients had purchased commercial time and engineers from the aerospace corporations whose replica models were being displayed. In the case of Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, while he had mastered the design of universe was also in the habit of getting lost amid the labyrinth of the CBS Broadcast Center, so I had the responsibility of finding him.

Five: Launch into Space

Walter Cronkite and his wife Betsy arrived in Cape Canaveral on Monday, July 7th. They joined the influx of CBS personnel who were readying for the launch at the Hilton Hotel, the CBS headquarters.

Historian James R. Hanson, in his biography of Neil Armstrong “First Man,” refers to Cronkite as the “Homer” who gives voice to this space odyssey.

In a 1979 interview, Don Hewitt told me that Cronkite fit very neatly into mythology. Hewitt, the producer who coined “Anchorman” to describe Cronkite’s role at the 1952 national political conventions, explained, “He (Cronkite) brought everything to it. Here was a journalist who came off on television as everybody’s journalist. Like Babe Ruth and baseball, Charlie Chaplin and the movies. Walter Cronkite and the television screen: he’s more than an image, he’s integrity, strength, and experience.”

Hewitt gave evidence to the idea that Cronkite’s “on-screen” authenticity had few competitors and was “one of a kind.”

As far back as the 1952 political conventions, one Washington politician confirmed, “Walter Cronkite taught me that getting across on television is all in the eyes and looking square at the correct lens is the best way to project a speaker’s sincerity.”

New York Times TV critic, Jack Gould wrote: “Mr. Cronkite for many years has been something of a one-man phenomenon in space coverage.” Cronkite had a hand in selecting his on-air analysts, Walter “Wally” Schirra, the former astronaut, and writer Arthur C. Clarke. Their chemistry proved to have a clear advantage over ABC and NBC. As one print advertisements noted, “CBS News had ‘Walter to Walter’ coverage.”

The “one-man phenom” notwithstanding, Cronkite was the top man in an army of CBS News personnel numbering 300 at the Kennedy Space Center alone. Like a circus high-wire act, Cronkite’s on-air performance was a combination of a fluid on-air interplay with reporters and correspondents, the off-camera gestures from the stage manager, and a lifeline: his listening to the directives of Wussler, his Executive Producer conveyed via the control room by an earpiece.

Live-remotes in thirty-one locations in the United States and thirteen countries permitted Cronkite to speak to a range of reporters and guests. When each of these elements worked smoothly, the stagecraft projected confidence for viewers that Cronkite was alert to what was happening at the moment and what would happen next.

The Hilton Hotel in Cape Canaveral was, in fact, a two-story motel on the town’s main strip and whose banquet hall had become a newsroom, with broadcast and office trailers as well as a helicopter-landing pad on the hotel grounds.

The space in the newsroom was so limited that by early July it barely had enough room to fit the numbers of reporters, researchers, and producers as well as the logistics and secretarial staff. Like a summer camp readying a big outing, the antics of the campers and personalities were on full display. John Merriman, one of the writers of the Evening News, sat near me, composing copy with an uncanny imitation of Cronkite’s speaking voice.

In these tight confines, Merriman supplied the newsroom with the whiff of his smoked salmon brought down to Florida from Zabar’s, the New York City upper west side food emporium. The CBS personnel, mostly New Yorkers, brought a much quicker pace to that Florida resort than was customary. One morning I glimpsed Joan Richman’s frustration in the Hilton’s Coffee Shop at the slow service when instead she required an “instant breakfast.”

My immediate efforts focused on assisting Mary Kane and Janet Olin with credentials and the assigning of hotel rooms, rental cars, and the accommodations for employees’ families coming down to witness the historic event.

My duties required treks out to the Orlando Airport to meet incoming passengers. Long before cell phones or in-car navigation devices, I never truly mastered the directions. The former McCoy Air Force Base was, as far as I could tell, on the far side of the moon. One night I arrived late at the airport having been disoriented on the grounds of what would become Disney World, while Mr. Wussler waited patiently at curbside.

Back at the Hilton, the lone newsroom photocopier was in constant break-down mode. On the Sunday before the launch, the newsroom operations halted until I located the Xerox repairman. He was retrieved from the beach where he was fishing and flown back to the Hilton via the CBS News helicopter. In my mind, the most helpful aerospace service provided us that week.

While my duplication duties were relatively static, the distribution list called for a novel route when delivering newspapers, memos, updates to individual rooms. This included Cronkite who opened the door to me with my arms loaded down with loose-leaf binders, scripts and a sack of his mail. He quipped: “Did Hinda go over this pile of mail?”

With the high humidity and the Florida heat, most especially in the early mornings, my eyeglasses fogged up as I moved in and out of air-conditioning, but that did not stop me from witnessing some strange sights.

One day on the hotel footpath, I saw the visage of a lion, accompanying the entourage of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, also in residence at the Hilton. By afternoon, word got back to the newsroom that an argument had broken out in the hotel restaurant because the emperor’s lunch had been delayed. At which point his aide was heard yelling at the kitchen staff, “Just feed the (expletive deleted) Emperor!”

In the lobby two-women models, dressed in aluminum foil space suits, promoted a gimmick for Pan American Airlines signing up passengers for the first commercial trips to the moon’s surface.

As the launch approached, the crowds grew, and so too the celebrations at the bars along Florida’s A1A highway including “The Original Fat Boys Barbecue” a favorite hangout for astronauts, the press and, for past launches, Cronkite himself.

By Monday, July 14th, the CBS Evening News had begun broadcasting from the press site at the Kennedy Space Center. Twenty miles away from the hotel, and the new press location had replaced the temporary facilities of the Mercury and Gemini days. The CBS News building was a two-floor construction with the control room and newsroom below, and the, the TV studio above. Cronkite’s anchor desk backed up to a large picture window that looked out on the Saturn V launch pad three miles away. Fifty years later, that building is long gone and replaced by a more modern facility that was used throughout the space shuttle program.

In the early hours of July 16th, at his trailer office, Bob Wussler tested a portable telephone and facsimile devices to be used on the chance of an electrical blackout or telephone failure. Because of the automobile-sized batteries required to power these old contraptions, they were heavy, impossible to lift, and generally not worth the bother. Fortunately, a need for them never arose. Meanwhile, Mary Kane and I were packing trunks and preparing for the return trip to New York, immediately after the launch.

At 3:00 AM CBS News personnel made their way to the Kennedy Space Center in a caravan of cars, accompanied by a police escort. Along the A1A highway, I could see thousands of spectators lining the roads. Once inside the space center, and approaching the press site, at a distance, the mammoth 363-foot Saturn V rocket sat on its pad, brilliantly illuminated against the nighttime sky.

With Cronkite and Schirra seated at the anchor desk, the CBS News broadcast began at 6:00 AM. Twenty-seven minutes later astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, were fully suited, emerging from the operations center for the move to Launch Pad 39A. Television pool cameras followed them as Cronkite and Schirra provided commentary.

For two hours, I shuttled up and down the stairs of our building — from the newsroom to the control room, and into the studio, up and down. This had become the routine, my passing the copy to Richman and onto Cronkite’s desk.

Two-minutes and counting, the time for the launch had approached. Moments before the lift-off, many of us went outside to see with our own eyes the Saturn V rocket with its Apollo astronauts rise into the morning sky. Listening to the blast of the rocket engines with its accompanying ground tremors was an experience for me that even now, television could not fully capture.

Naturally, Cronkite, Schirra, and Richman along with stage manager Davy Fox and camera crew stayed in place.

Once outside, over loudspeakers we heard the Voice of Mission Control:

We are still go with Apollo 11… 30 seconds and counting. Astronauts reported, “Feels good.” T-25 seconds, 20 seconds and counting. T-15 seconds. 20-seconds, guidance is internal, 12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence starts, 6,5,4,3,2,1, zero, all engines running, lift off, we have lift off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift off on Apollo 11. Tower cleared.

Inside the studio, Schirra dropped to the floor in order to see past the top edge of the window, commenting, “There she goes; it’s beautiful.”

Cronkite jubilantly cried, “Oh, boy, oh boy it looks good Wally. This building is shaking. We’re getting the buffeting we’ve become used to. What a moment! Man on the way to the moon! Beautiful!”

Back inside the control room, I glanced at Clarence Cross who pointed to me and said, “Give me a hand.” At that moment, Cross’s job was to receive former President Johnson for an interview with Cronkite. At the side entrance, amid security personnel and a crowd of the bystanders came the former president and Ladybird Johnson.

Staging became everything since both President Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew were scheduled for the same 10 AM time slot. Cross’s task was to place the former president in a holding place until the Agnew interview was completed.

With Frank Stanton and Richard Salant accompanying the former first couple, Cross led them into an office on the newsroom level of the building. Over the years, Johnson’s relations with Stanton and Cronkite had low points, mostly because of CBS News’ coverage of the Viet Nam war. However, in the early days of the Kennedy Administration, Stanton was on the committee that then Vice President Johnson had chaired to oversee the Space Program.

As the group engaged in conversation, I brought in coffee, tea, and soft drinks. Mrs. Johnson offered a friendly touch with compliments directed to me. Soon notice came from the Control Room, and Cross accompanied the former president upstairs and to Cronkite’s desk.

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Seated next to Cronkite, Johnson remarked:

“As they took off this morning, I thought how fortunate we’d been all these years to have had a minimum of accidents. And I know that all of our people are going to have great concern until the flight is finished. Another reaction I had was that it just seemed like a half-million people who’d work on this program through the years, each of them was there, just lifting their all, and trying to see that great power going to the skies.”

Noon approached, and with Apollo 11 just over two-hours in earth orbit, the Houston Manned Flight Center waited anxiously for the trans-lunar injection, the engine firing that would send the craft out of earth orbit toward the moon.

At 12:16 EDT Neil Armstrong relayed word that the maneuver had been successful:

Armstrong: Hey Houston, Apollo 11. This Saturn gave us a magnificent ride.

Houston: Roger 11, we’ll pass that on, and it looks like you are on your way now.

So the voyage to the moon was underway, and the CBS News broadcast ended at 1:15 PM.

In his definitive biography of Cronkite, historian Douglas Brinkley concludes:

“Cronkite had attached himself to the Apollo 11 event, an earnest effort that had started a dozen years before when he staked out space coverage as his beat on ‘The Twentieth Century.’ His dedication had its own rewards, but it was a good investment of his time as well. Cronkite wasn’t only the messenger of bad news. He was Mr. Moon Shot.”

Following the launch, the staff prepared to close down the CBS News Kennedy Space Center operation before going to their “Lunar Day” assignments in Houston, Downey, CA., Bethpage, Long Island, Flagstaff, AZ, CBS-TV station affiliates, or the CBS News Foreign Bureaus.

Walter Cronkite and most of the CBS personnel had already checked out of the Hilton and packed their cars for the drive to the Melbourne Airport and the chartered flight to New York.

Wussler, Kane and I returned to the hotel for a final pick up of equipment. Once there, stagehands helped lift into a van the telephone gear, office trunks, and luggage. With Wussler driving his convertible, and the trailer following behind, we proceeded at high speed to the airport.

The police were on the alert, and there, they directed our vehicles onto the tarmac and to the waiting Eastern Airlines Boeing 727. The ground crew took our cargo, and we proceeded up the staircase and into the cabin for the flight to La Guardia Airport.

Immediately the doors closed behind me, and as the aircraft taxied down the runway, I fastened my seat belt. Once in the air, a flight attendant asked, “What’s your choice for lunch?” I replied, “Now that I’m at the other end of the question, I’ll take the pastrami sandwich.”

We landed in New York, and work began on the Lunar Day broadcast, the next phase in our epic journey of Apollo 11.

Epilogue

James M. Barrie, whose Peter Pan took flight, once wrote: “God has given us a memory that we might have roses in December.”

Fifty years later I recall the lunar landing, the CBS broadcast and the long hours working as the desk assistant; and how I climbed the stairs a thousand or more times to an anchor desk and stood, sat, and even kneeled in place. That summer, I lost fifteen pounds.

Of course, there were moments when the outside news would break in, mostly about the Viet Nam war. From the newsroom in Studio 41, I picked up chatter from writers like Andy Rooney or Howard Stringer and overheard Roger Mudd and Harry Reasoner muse on the fate of Ted Kennedy, the very day that Chappaquiddick entered the political vocabulary.

A day or so after the final Apollo 11 broadcast, the one honoring Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins with ticker-tape parades, I was driving north on Rt. 17 in New Jersey and returning to Darlington Seminary. Suddenly highway traffic came to a total halt. At a gas station in Ridgewood, New Jersey, I asked the attendant what’s going on. He replied: “Young man, are you the only person who has not heard of Woodstock?”

For sure, men had landed on the moon, now thought of as a result of the Cold War as much of an engineering feat. Woodstock was outside my orbit, a cultural revolution that landed on a field in upstate New York, stopped traffic on Rt. 17, and made its history.

As for me, I became a priest, and from time to time helped contribute to CBS News and its special events coverage of elections and national political conventions, and, my mainstay, handicapping the elections of popes, and reporting on their worldwide journeys.

Monterey, CA, July 2019

Thanks to my many friends, now former colleagues at CBS News, who recall our contribution to the CBS News Special Events Unit. Most especially I want to thank Mark Kramer for his expert copy editing and editorial comments as well as David Buksbaum and Marcy McGinnis for their initial reading of this article of mine. And of course, Ginny Prior, A.R. Hogan, Matt Ginella, Jim Nantz and Terrence Gargiulo thanks!   

4 thoughts on “Working Cronkite’s Anchor Desk, June/July 1969

  1. Wow what a great story. And very appropriate, as I just saw the last episode on PBS of the trip to the moon, and of course Cronkite was a big part of the documentary. I learned so much about you! I am still in Texas. And I will return officially on July 29. Hope we can find time to get together before the craziness of the academic year begins. Sal Sent from my iPad

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    • Sal — Thanks for your positive response! I saw the Robert Stone’s PBS doc last night as well. Really great film footage, and for someone at Cape Kennedy on the day of the launch, I had no idea of the vast crowds. Amazing!

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