Signal 100|Scott Newhall and The Editorial Divine

No. 32 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

Growing up here, and I still am, the Santa Clarita has provided me with a lovely collection of heroes. I’ve been lucky to have known not good, but once-in-a-millennia teachers, coaches, small-town philosophers, humble souls who served in ordinariness and bona fide seers and philosophers. One of my role models was Hamilton Clyde Smyth.

Clyde made his transition about seven years back. He had been a city founder, mayor and super-duper-intendent of the Wm. S. yada yada District. He shared his morning ritual. He’d climb out of bed, wiggle into a robe and march out to the soggy front lawn to pick up his copy of The Mighty Signal. Often, he’d rummage through, page by page, absent-mindedly waving at neighbors and raccoons. Clyde told me if your name wasn’t in the paper or especially in one of Scott Newhall’s Death-To-Traitors editorials, it was going to be a grand day.

For 25 years, as editor/publisher of The Mighty Signal, Scott Newhall ruled the Santa Clarita Valley with an iron thesaurus covered in velvet. There was never a journalist in America, there never will be a journalist in America, who wrote editorials with such passion, panache, insight and monkey business. Look up “swashbuckling” in the dictionary. Next to the definition is Scott’s grinning photo.

I suppose Clyde Smyth had a filled yellow legal pad of reasons to be wary of Scott’s sometimes kind, sometimes poisonous, sometimes both, literary pen.

Witness the March 12, 1986, front-page, above-the-fold editorial on Clyde. It’s hard to miss. It’s in 100-point type. Scotty called Clyde: “Dr. Beat-A-Million Smyth.” Fortunately, the newspaperman’s barb was a kind one. He cited Smyth for spending extra money to attract better teachers to the district. Of course, Scotty giveth and Scotty taketh away. Much of his lengthy editorial pondered what you could buy for $69,000 (Smyth’s yearly salary in 1986). “It (Smyth’s salary) would pay for a year’s lodging — with food — at Mama Maria’s Hot Tamale Hotel on the outskirts of Tijuana.”

Movie star handsome, Scott Newhall ran The Mighty Signal for a quarter century. His fabled front-page editorials enlightened the SCV, challenged, teased, tormented, made us laugh and made us cry. He was a genius and a giant on a pirate’s wooden leg.

Another wonderfully unique Scott Newhall front-page op-ed piece appeared just a few months later. The war-declared headline was: “Send Your Sexfreaks to Saugus.” It was about the city of Los Angeles voting to send their, ahem — hardened — criminals to Castaic.

I don’t know what Sigmund Freud would say. But Scott Newhall often had a fascination with writing about the nether regions and naughty parts of the human anatomy.

The huge headline was normally reserved for UFOs landing at the mall: “Habeaus Your Erotic Corpus.” First paragraph? It goes a little something like this: “Is there never to be an end to this bizarre but boring 20th-century love affair that has blossomed between the peasantry of America and the human crotch?”

Well. Nearly a half-century later, I’d say, “no…”

In 1979, Mr. Newhall penned a front-page position paper, condemning the ITT Corp.’s attempt to put a massive dump here and the county’s attempt to place other garbage mounds here. “We are not a Chamberpot” was the huge headline. Wrote Scotty: “There is a wretched plot afoot to transform the beautiful bucolic Santa Clarita Valley into the rectum of Los Angeles.”

Say it with me. “Rectum? Damn near killed him…”

Scott’s target in 1977 was, again, the poor Hart School District. Headline: “Get Back to Euclid & Forget The Crotch.” One of the amazing Scott’s grafs: “The bad news here, in the Santa Clarita Valley, our academic halls are in peril of collapsing before the flood of inflated dollars, inflated egos, lazy parents and cash and carry teacher gypsies and a miasmic swamp of education slumgullion.”

I had to look up “slumgullion.” It’s “cheap or unsubstantial stew.” Great day for journalism when you get to print “slumgullion” in big type on the front page.

Scott used his editorials like da Vinci used a paintbrush. Back in 1967, he questioned the wisdom of placing a Job Corps depot out in Val Verde.

“Some opponents suggest if it came out to their community, there would be an increase in not just crime, but venereal disease.” Scott suggested that the community observe a moment of silence. He did so by leaving a giant empty space in the middle of his opinion piece.

To this day, I still think Scott Newhall’s editorial on the release of the Susan B. Anthony dollar was 28 times better than anything Mark Twain ever wrote.

In an editorial entitled: “The Rape of Susan B.” our Mr. Newhall wrote on the Fourth of July, 1979: “In reality this pusillanimous scrap of base metal is nothing more valuable than a cake of buffalo dung.” The moral leader of the SCV called the coin “a whorehouse token” and “a dollarette.” It should be pointed out that Scotty was an ardent numismatist.

That’s a coin collector. Not a crotch grabber.

I’m not sure if there was a public official, from president to dog catcher, who escaped Scott’s demand for removal from office, often atop a rail while covered in tar and feathers. If you were in the crosshairs of Scott Newhall, life, as you knew it, was over.

Witness his diatribe against our 39th president:

“The canonization of St. James Earl Carter, Jr., is proceeding apace. It was a mere six months ago that this tousled-headed four-flusher from the peanut patches of Georgia was sniveling his way into the White House by promising the American people they would be ushered into an instant Utopia if they would be gracious enough to give him their votes.”

I’m confident you’ll recall Jimmy Carter was just a one-term president.

I always found it amazing that he penned such wonderful prose and poetry and had a vocabulary that included every word. Scott never looked up synonyms. He was a master craftsman. Interesting that he pretty much avoided traditional education in his boyhood years.
Before he bought The Signal in 1962, Scott practiced on the denizens of San Francisco Bay. He was the editor of The Chronicle and ran “The Monarch of the Dailies,” William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, out of business. Scott wrote those epic editorials up north, like: “A Great City Forced to Drink Swill.” It was about San Fran’s bad coffee. He also created S.I.N.A. The Society Against Indecency & Nudity in Animals. Scott felt that all the animals in the San Francisco Zoo deserved the dignity of being fully clothed — and wrote about it, too.

Scott Newhall rarely wasted a chance to grace the front page with a patented editorial and a headline alluding to an erotic zone on the human body. This piece was actually about tennis. We were pro.

His Barnum & Bailey journalistic style had purpose to it. Newhall felt that people would rush to see the 20,000-pound monkey. They wouldn’t necessarily budge to see 20,000 one-pound simians.

I loved Scott Newhall editorials. They were always so fresh, so different. Never pedantic, still, you could swear sometimes hearing “Ride of the Valkyries” while you were reading.

In our very first issue of 1976, Newhall called for yet another end to yet another drought.

“We hereby serve notice of demand that the winter rains begin. And we are not referring to the ‘gentle dew’ propounded by William Shakespeare. We instruct the gods to send us rain, steady and long, until the gutters are flowing like chokecherry wine and the hills are soaked, and the Santa Clara River is rolling along like the Mississippi. If these instructions are not heeded, heaven will have to answer to the free, infallible, and invincible press of America.”

How can you NOT be proud to be a Santa Claritan after reading something like that?

For years, at Christmastime, Scott would write an epic Mahabharata poem, listing just about every mover and shaker in the SCV. He noted that we made some of the best freeways in the world here in Southern California. And, the ugliest. He was precomputer age and typed all those wonderful op-ed pieces on a No. 10 New Model Royal manual typewriter. Currently, it’s on a bookcase, above my computer at home.

I believe he is also the only editor to write the word, “BASTARDS” in 120-point type on the front page of an American newspaper. Imagine seeing, first thing in the morning, the gargantuan call-out: “If The Big Rigs Won’t Slow Down Throw The Bastards In Jail.” Newhall attacked speeding and poorly maintained big rigs. He likened them to a “Southern California Panzer Division of Murder Incorporated…” We received several threats of violence, reportedly from Teamsters, against the staff and paper. Others thought the truckers needed to slow down. There was an interesting sidebar, few people knew. Scott lost his only daughter to a drunken truck driver in San Francisco. She was 8.

When the Ku Klux Klan held a rally here, Scott wrote one of the most touching editorials on the meaning of Christianity. It still tears me up.

He was a prophet, writing in 1974, a piece entitled: “Keep Your Asses Down, And Find A New Hero.” The provocative title led into a rather trenchant — and hauntingly prophetic — look at the new burgeoning phenomenon of small, zealous, psychotic and militant political groups around the world.

Scott’s words: “They rise and fall, overnight, like colonies of Mediterranean fruit flies. They fight and die, frightening the world for a few brief bloody minutes, and then they fade into yesterday.”

Scott also predicted: “We are in the middle of a new world war right now, and if we do not do something quickly about cleaning out the rot this new world war is going to spread, and spread fast.” The headline? It came from terrorist/hostage/heiress Patty Hearst: “You have to keep your ass down, come out shooting, and then start asking your questions later on.”

The Signal newsroom could be a raucous place, especially in the wild and completely un-PC end of the 20th century. Scotty, with that wooden leg, would walk in. Funny. With all the mischief he caused, like a pirate principal, he had a calming effect on chaos. He was a man’s man, a leader — a journalist.

There was only one Scott Newhall. And he did that just perfectly.

There are days when I still so miss the guy.

When we opened the then-new World Corporate Headquarters of The Mighty Signal over on Creekside Road decades back, Scott was interviewed by a television reporter. He was asked about journalism.

From time-to-time, I pull it out and read it. It still is a magic call to arms for me, a reminder of just why I dedicated my life to something that many say is dying: The Newspaper.

From Scott’s interview:

“I’ve always said this to anyone who comes into this profession, with that marvelous look glint in their eyes when they want to enter the newspaper business. No matter what you find the realities are, the compromises you have to make, don’t ever forget your idealism. The most glorious priesthood in the world is the newspaper profession. If you let your cynicism run away with you, then you’ll self-destruct. Never forget those wonderful ideals and exciting concepts when you were young and started in this business.”

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years.

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