No. 21 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
All the things I could have been — doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, a contender — I ended up being a journalist. I started at 14, supplying high school blurbs for The Mighty Signal at $10 a week.
The salary hasn’t changed much. My best friend, Phil Lanier, was Signal sports editor in 1971. Philly hired me to write three weekly stories, $15 per. Three years later, I was sports editor.
I loved it. I loved the smell of ink, the satisfying and rhythmic cacophony of the presses, the gallows humor, even the pressure of deadlines.
The Signal was the eye of the storm. More than that. It was the storm. My career has spanned six decades. Journalism has been kind to me.
I’ve pounded out nouns, verbs and obscure punctuation marks to indicate swearing in the millions and have 119 major awards. I may be the most prolific humor writer and satirist in world history. Mostly, I’ve been a Signal columnist.
I earned my first journalism award in 1974 for creating the best sports section in California. Granted, the circulation category was like some upended brassiere size, “ZZZZZZZ DIVISION — FOR NEWSPAPERS WITH A CIRCULATION OF ONE OR LESS.” Thanks to Larry Rasmussen for reading.
Still. I was giddy.
The Signal wasn’t a job. It was like being in a movie. Part pirate, part detective, part Western. The Signal took chances, righted wrongs, stuck up for the little guy. The Signal toppled evil-doers, saved the day. The Signal made people laugh, cry, howl, threaten lawsuits or clench molars (hopefully, their own). The Signal taught me that a little wickedness — a little — makes us interesting. Our motto, tiny but bold in our daily masthead, still teaches me something holy: “Vigilance Forever.”
So, why is it I still search for that ever-moving boundary, that literary misdemeanor that might bring threats and squinted eyes, but no jail time?
I blame the Newhall family. They gave me a wonderful gift, the big, blank canvas. So did Will Fleet. So did editor John Green, publishers Richard Budman and Tony Newhall. With more put-upon sighs than reporters covering midnight mass, there is the irreplaceable Ice Capades ruffian in a tutu posing as a hockey player named Tim Whyte to thank. Without Tim, there is no journalism.
Going to war with armpits
If you look at old sports sections of The Signal, through the decades, hairstyles change. The armpit photo doesn’t. It’s the exact, interchangeable snapshot of a grimacing cager(s), and his/their armpits, soaring 3 inches in the air for a rebound. Same with every paper in America.
As sports editor in 1974, I enlisted a strict no armpit policy.
CAPTION goes w/ Boston/Lanier guys w/ leather jackets
I asked our talented shutterbug corps to bring back the unusual. Bring back — art. Bring back — the moment. Bring back — the story. Bless their wonderful hearts, the photogs did.
We ran a giant, intense five-column super close-up of a shot-putter grimacing. And a song queen sobbing after a loss. And a little kid calmly eating popcorn in the stands while about him shrieked bedlam. One of my favorites was shot after a COC football game. A giant lineman, holding his helmet, was bending way over to kiss his tiny cheerleader girlfriend. In the background was the billboard with COC’s winning score.
The sports section, like the paper, had passion.
And then they started firing me
There were many sins for which I should have been launched into the ionosphere via trebuchet.
When Publisher Scott Newhall’s cousin, Fred Newhall Woods, was arrested for the infamous 1976 burying of a Chowchilla school bus with the ASB still in it, I passed around a fake memo from Scott, noting the Newhalls would be deducting 10% from everyone’s Signal paycheck to pay for Fred’s defense fund.
His wife, Ruth, of all people, warned me.
“That was funny. But Scott … is going … to K I L L L L L L L … you …” she said with that quivering Katherine Hepburn accent. Ruth instructed me to hide for a season. I worked from home, parked my noisy motorcycle two blocks away from Signal HQ on 6th Street so Scott wouldn’t hear it pull up. I’d literally crawl in, commando-style, to deliver my sports copy.
Another felony. On her first day, a sweet, innocent teenage back shop worker asked procedure on how to collect news stories from Ruth’s desk. I told the innocent that Ruth was hard of hearing in her right ear and completely deaf in the left.
“Literally get an inch away and yell as loud as you can into Ruth’s right ear: ‘I’VE COME TO COLLECT THE COPY!!!!’”
Mrs. Newhall nearly went through the window. And then, she produced the most creative diatribe, part scalded Aztec priest, part sailor. Our Bambi-like first-dayer was traumatized. How many rings of Human Resources Hell would I fall through trying that stunt today?
That was one thing that characterized the paper. Laughter. It was such a fun place. I loved the camaraderie, fighting a good fight. In 1977, I earned my first writing acknowledgment. There were only five print awards then at the prestigious Los Angeles Press Club Awards. Scott Newhall won for best editorial, I took home top honors for best column.
CAPTION goes w/ Mad Dogs Englishmen signal clipping
There were no circulation divisions, and we competed against The Daily News, Long Beach Press Telegram, The Times and other big boys. Like Hannibal coming out of the hills with his elephants, The Signal invaded five-star banquet halls and showed the L.A. media bowtie crowd that the navel of the universe dwelt here, in Santa Clarita.
My duties increased. I quit sports and went to special editions. We produced one a month. Some topped 120 pages. For a Christmas issue, I actually worked my wedding day, Nov. 18, 1978. Sadly, production went off without a hitch, and I actually made it to my wedding.
Speaking of, in the 1980s, I attended the nuptials of Signal publisher and friend, Tony Newhall. When I returned, there was a note in my typewriter. I had been fired. Poor Tony. He was upset. Mind you, I gave Tony and his bride, Reena, the First Lady of SCV Dance, something like a 164-pound solid gold ancient Egyptian cheese fondue kit that cost me a year’s salary for a wedding present.
I blame the dratted Morris Corp. Charles Morris bought the paper in 1974.
I’m not the person you’d want to approach for a character reference on Morris or his spawn, Charles Jr. Once, a reporter asked me to name my Top-5 Most Nefarious People in SCV History. The Savannah, Georgia-based newspaper syndicate owner topped off my list. His son earned No. 2. Another story. Perhaps.
Escape and son of escape
I don’t think the world has seen anything like these two eclectic entertainment sections. The Great Escapes (“That little comic book of yours,” as Scott Newhall called it) made people laugh.
It tattled where you could get a great cheeseburger, weekend road trip, concert or peaceful hike. For the SCV, Fridays and Escape (Scott came up with the title) became synonymous. It grew like a virus, running page counts eclipsing 76. We even surpassed the regular Friday Signal in ad revenue. I risked decapitation, again, this time from Tony. At a department head meeting, tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that, seeing as Escape was outpulling the regular Friday paper in ad revenue and pages, would the Newhalls like to wrap The Signal INSIDE Escape?
Ruth and Scott thought that was funny.
Tony? Not so much.
Just trying to help.
Fun darn days, those were.
We ran a “Name The New City” contest in 1987. A little old lady won with “SClarita.” And so it stuck. We published the annual “Buck Naked” parallel universe Fourth of July fake parade lineup, named after our congressman, Buck McKeon.
And people say I don’t make fun of Republicans.
We created separate man/woman movie reviews because, no matter what political correctness tells you, men and women can live in two separate universes when it comes to movies. We had a kids’ movie rating section to warn parents of inappropriate movies and the SCV Society of Insufferable Film Critics. Escape and, later, SOE, did things no one else was doing in mainstream media. It was fun, cutting edge and Santa Clarita-based. The citizens appreciated that.
I was fired (again) shortly after the Newhalls got fed up with Morris and left to start their citizen newspaper. Prophetic date — Sept. 11, 1988. It lasted a year and lost $1 million.
Four years later, I was asked to return (again). Escape had shrunk like that thou shalt not mention in a family newspaper after a swim in a frigid lake. We changed the name.
I still can’t believe then-Editor John Green jokingly came up with “Son of Escape” AND we actually used it. Son of Escape was such a hit, The Los Angeles Times did a huge, front-page feature on SOE in their Sunday Lifestyle section.
How I became an alleged columnist
Will Fleet is a darn sharp newspaper executive, good soul and snappy dresser. From 1993 to 2001, he was The Signal’s publisher. Poor Will. He inherited another whimsical Morris pet dropping, Dwight Jurgens. Somehow, at an airport, Dwight had met a daft Morris Corp. empty suit and charmed his way into a job as The Signal’s new daily columnist.
Despite a growing list of peccadillos, Dwight became the moral compass of this paper. Finally, without the use of rubber gloves, Will fired the paragraphist with the bad teeth. Currently, Dwight Jurgens is in a Kansas penitentiary, probably for the rest of his life. Charge? Rape and human trafficking.
Life’s timing can be whimsical. Out of the blue, I was offered two jobs, at The Times and Daily News. The former offered to quadruple my salary. The latter — triple. They wanted to make me their heavy hitter columnist.
Will Fleet had a better offer. The Signal publisher showed up, wearing jeans, a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy boots. (Which is how I dressed at work.) Fleet said he’d dress like me daily and do anything to keep me at The Signal. I was so touched. I was taking care of an aging father, and the Santa Clarita was, and is, my home. We worked out a handsome deal. I started my next Signal phase: Page A2 daily columnist. I wrote seven columns a week.
So I quit the next few times
Five times I’ve been asked to be Signal editor. It’s beyond flattering, although anyone who’s survived the job can attest it’s easier to put contact lenses on a monkey than to keep this place on message. Once, briefly, I was editor. Most difficult and best days of my Signal career. Around that time, we won the grand sweepstakes award at the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association awards for best community newspaper, all divisions. Then, we earned the same award at the national level.
Publishers and owners came and went the past several years. One halved my salary, literally doubled my workweek and said if I didn’t like it, I could “shove it up my … (in place of the missing cavity, we will enjoy a brief interlude of elevator music).” Mind you, this wasn’t during any heated argument. To this day, if that little human albino suppository had delivered that sentiment to my face instead of over the phone, I swear today he’d still be eating lemon Jell-O through an outlawed California plastic straw.
One long-ago publisher had mental health issues. I’d sit across from him and watch him manually return his tongue to his mouth. Not kidding. He offered me a job to “…run everything. Money is no object.”
When we sat to hammer details, he asked if I could start out small, writing one weekly column.
At $15 per.
That’s $5 more than when I started when I was 14 years old.
That was about five years ago at that point. I lasted three months, then quit. Enraged, he yelled and accused: “… you’re the worst writer I’ve ever met in all my years in journalism!”
I’m guessing he never met Dwight.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 22 in our History of The Mighty Signal.