Ten days from now comes an anniversary I’m not so certain I yearn to acknowledge. At 12:01, Jan. 1, 2020, I will have worked, off and on, for The Signal for a span touching seven decades.
I was a teenager when I cashed my first Signal paycheck. It was for $10 — a fortune in 1964 money. Looking back, I wished I had just kept it and had it framed. In all the various positions I’ve held here, from editor to sports stringer on permanent probation, I can’t say it’s been a job. Granted. Like prostitution, smiles have been exchanged, money has been crossed from one palm to another. But, working at The Mighty Signal has been nothing short of heaven on Earth. Granted, sometimes, there’ve been times when it’s Dante’s Inferno. Still. What a most fortunate soul I’ve been to have this adventure.
While the wicked public eats it up with a clown-sized ice cream spoon, no one in newspaper management likes to air their dirty laundry. This past year, I’ve written more than 100,000 words about the 100-year-history of this august and often quirky periodical. What follows are tawdry tales that fit into no known category:
The Saga of Carmen…
Signal Editor Tim Whyte has a wonderful description found in no college journalism department or newsroom on Earth. It’s called a “Hey Martha!”
A “Hey Martha!” is a story that’s so amazing, controversial and smile-bringing that a husband will be reading it in the living room and yell out to his wife in the other room: “HEY MARTHA! YOU GOTTA COME IN AND READ THIS!”
The Signal used to publish a highly successful entertainment/alternative weekly section called SON OF ESCAPE.
A few days before deadline, the forever-young and trouble-making photographer Gary Thornhill slapped a picture on my desk. It was of a beautiful young lady at a motorcycle rally in Castaic.
Her name was Carmen.
I already had a cover story picked out, but this would make a nice photo for inside somewhere. That was, until Signal staff started dropping by my desk. I’m not sure how today’s younger reporters behave, but back then, women reporters were often — what would be the word?
Male reporters, in varying degrees, were perverts.
The guys on staff would pick up the photo of Carmen, drool, slurp and — literally in two cases — fall on the floor and writhe.
The female reporters — to a woman — picked up the picture of a fellow sister they had never met and launched diatribes about her intelligence, sexual hungers, impending stretch marks and, in general, postulations on just who she was as a human being.
Then they’d make faces, toss the photo, not back in my inbox but toward my lap or floor, and do an abrupt about-face.
I nodded my head and smiled.
I could sense it.
Carmen was a “Hey Martha!”
We ran her on the cover that Friday. For the next month — and this was before social media was born — we received more telephone calls, letters to the editor and plain threats than the Vietnam War a couple decades earlier. One woman wrote that her husband literally climbed onto the breakfast table and sang “God Bless America” when he saw Carmen. Another groused that she had to cup her children’s eyes.
In one of the dumbest PR campaigns ever, we joined forces with a local radio station whose call letters escape me now and brought Carmen to the SCV. We toured the SCV in a stretch limo and covered every minute via radio.
So that people could listen to a curvy femme fatale whose most trenchant observation on the SCV was, “Yeah. You know…”
Still. Wherever Carmen went, men literally — literally — dropped to their knees and bowed before her.
This may be a shock to some, but women can sometimes be catty. To this day, I still get people coming up to me and asking whatever happened to her.
Just a guess, but I think Carmen’s — somewhere.
Sneaking up on 50.
How to NOT Work at The Mighty Signal…
Briefly, I was editor both in title and behind the scenes. I remember collapsing in Tim Whyte’s office one day. My dear friend and hero was kicked upstairs to general manager where he could commit less trouble. I blurted out that it was after 6 and I had been at work for 10 hours doing nothing remotely approaching journalism.
Tim offered the deepest, most insincere graveyard laugh ever cackled, followed by a sardonic: “Geez. Good luck with that…”
I had been trying to get to the bottom of a personnel problem. Some of our reporters and photographers would not go out on assignments with other reporters and photographers. I had filled up an entire yellow legal pad, connecting people by arrows and question marks.
I took me three days to discover that it was all related to a workplace romance.
It’s not that The Signal was or is anti-romance.
Back in the 1990s, a small perk we’d offer editorial staff was to give them passes for movie press screenings in Hollywood. In exchange, they’d write a film review for Escape, our entertainment section.
We sent the food editor (yes; back in those days, we actually had a full-time food editor) to review an upcoming film. She asked if she could take a friend.
No problem from Signal management’s point of view.
The passes were always for two. She took another reporter, a bookish lad with flyaway hair who sat next to her.
She had leadership skills.
He had none.
The next day, it wasn’t hard to notice that either our film reviewer’s companion had been mauled by a pack of Hollywood feral animals or someone had been more than romantically nibbling on his neck.
“HICKIES,” Webster’s call them, in the capitalized plural.
Film critic and assistant film critic were married within a year. Still are.
Once, we interviewed a candidate for Signal business editor. He showed up in shorts, flip flops, wife-beater T-shirt and an unbuttoned dirty short-sleeve white shirt. He had no book of his writing samples, no resume, but he did have body odor. At the end of a very short interview, he asked if we’d be checking references from his former employers.
“I don’t think there’s any danger of that,” I said in an almost sing-song voice.
We’re The Mighty Signal.
We have standards.
Again, my oft cohort in crime Tim Whyte and I were interviewing candidates for a rather healthy five-figure college scholarship The Mighty Signal gave out every year. One of the applicants, a graduating local high school senior, showed up in a cleaner but more revealing outfit than the would-be business editor with the probable checkered/criminal past.
She was a tall, leggy, tan, buxom, stunningly beautiful straight-A student from forever. She had a stone-cold, o-cripes-o-my-goodness-all-mighty Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model figure. Tim and I deduced this because she came to the interview dressed in the miniest of miniskirts and a see-through itsy-bitsy skimpy top.
Tim and I spent the entire interview as if there was an invisible plank running from our eyeballs to the cleft of her chin.
Afterwards, as if we were both Quaker ministers, we were actually shocked about what was going through a young woman’s mind to dress like a porn star for a scholarship interview.
She didn’t get the college money…
Other Uses for the Mighty Signal…
Decades ago, I’d have the occasional cup of coffee with Gus Trueblood. All the places to eat in the SCV and me buying, Gus LOVED going to the Jack in the Box on Lyons. His family ran the paper from 1938 to 1963. He would share wonderful stories about his family and things that never made the paper. One time, Gus made the front page of The Los Angeles Times when Newhall Elementary burned to the ground. A Times photographer got Gus, 10 then in 1939, to pose as if he were dancing in front of the charred wreckage of the school. When The Times came out the next day, Gus got a mild spanking from his dad, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood.
“It wasn’t so much for dancing in front of the ruins of my school,” Gus recalled, smiling. “It was for being on the front page of the competition.”
Gus shared a couple of stories we ran so long ago.
We had a once-in-a-thousand-year blizzard hit us in 1949. Drifts of snow 10 feet high stayed on the ground — in Downtown Newhall — for more than a week. One Canyon Country rancher wrote a letter to the editor about how he gathered all his newspapers and used them to wrap his pipes. He reported the only ones that didn’t burst were the ones wrapped in The Mighty Signal.
On the other end of the temperature spectrum, there’s fire.
In a 1955 tongue-in-cheek report, Editor Fred Trueblood ran this headline: “Copy of Signal Used Without Its Consent in Arson Attempt at Val Verde.” Seems someone used your hometown newspaper to burn down a house. Wrote Fred: “The Signal would like its readers to know that while it tries to print some hot news occasionally, it frowns on any attempt to use it for incendiary purposes.”
Unkind Signal letter-to-the-editor critics have noted over the years that this newspaper could be better used as everything from bird cage liners to toilet paper. Interestingly, perhaps the most enduring legacy of an unusual use of The Signal happened in 1926.
Silent film superstar William S. Hart was making final plans for his new home atop the hill overlooking Newhall. A Mr. Hinrich was contracted to build the winding road from the original ranch house at the base of the mountain to the new mansion. It was Mr. Hart himself who used copies of this newspaper to map out that curvy paved road that leads up to the house today. The actor walked the path, tearing off Signal pages and anchoring them with rocks as the original markers.
Separate checks, please?
I have still so much to learn about journalism. Never will I forget what Signal Editor Ruth Newhall told me nearly 50 years ago.
“Satire is best written with a feather, not an anvil,” she said.
Yet how I love the 12-pound ball-peen hammer.
Today, whenever I’m out with reporters, I always ask for separate checks. This lesson was learned when a dozen colleagues from editorial and I went out for lunch. We got the check. I offered to be the “bank.” The tab was about $130, without tip — a healthy amount in 1990s money and a journalist’s salary. The check was passed around. Everyone quietly studied the bill, then kicked in cash. When it got around the table to me, I counted the cash.
The 12 reporters — some of whom ordered beers, margaritas, steak sandwiches and designer shrimp salads — had kicked in a total of — $36.
Three bucks each. At a sit-down restaurant, not at the SCV Soup Kitchen For Indigent Reporters.
Adding $26 for the 20% tip, the total came to $156.
I noted that, no offense, I wasn’t going to pay $120 for a Coke, burger and fries, then sent the check around a second time. The reporters each took turns, staring at the bill, as if willing their portion to be smaller. Two more trips around the table and their contribution grew to $57, some buttons and some pocket lint.
I had a memorable burger, fries and soda pop for a non-Beverly Hills price tag of $99.
‘The Most Glorious Priesthood in the World…’
I love and admire everyone at that darn table. Some are no longer with us. I have worked with hundreds of Mighty Signalites over the years. And here’s the reason why I so adore this group of heroic, imperfect, eclectic souls who have helped make me the man I am today, and, much more importantly, made The Signal so mighty.
Former Signal Publisher Scott Newhall was interviewed Sept. 8, 1986, for a TV newscast. It was for the grand opening of The Signal’s new offices on Creekside Road. Scotty offered his thoughts on journalism. They were more than poignant. The TV reporter asked if Scott could type his words onto his ancient Royal manual typewriter as they filmed him. If you can imagine the heavy sounds of keys hitting the hard rubber carriage, this is what Scott Newhall said and wrote, 34 years ago:
“I’ve always said this to anyone who comes into this profession, with that marvelous 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. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. After this, there’s just one story left. Come back next Saturday for the final installment, No. 52 out of 52, in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.