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Note: This column won "Honorable Mention" (3rd place) in the Los Angeles Press Club awards for 2008.

(March 18, 2008)

                Early at the Herald-Examiner reunion last week at the L.A. Press Club, former editor Jim Bellows arrived on the arm of longtime friend (and successor at the Herald) Mary Ann Dolan. Bellows used a cane, and moved like a guy in his 80’s, because he is.
          I said my hellos to both, and Bellows eyed me Irishly.
          “Make. . .funny!” he said, eyebrows raised half-way to his hairline. He gestured inimitably with his right arm, haltingly, sort of like he was conducting Stravinsky.
          That was it for me. After the guest panelists pontificated, after all the crazy happy/sad stuff that always happens at reunions happened, after all the big guts and baldness and menopause and trifocals and hair dye and Diet Coke, that’s what stuck:
          “Make. . .funny!”
          Bellows is legendary for cryptic remarks like this, if you don’t know. Instructions like “bip bip bip” (explaining the desired style of a column) have become fable. He once advised me to visit a particular bar because “it’s like the shade in a cave.”
          He could also be more direct, of course, like the time I wrote a lede on a story about an unknown aspiring starlet with cleavage that the Space Shuttle could have landed in. The lede was "(Starlet) has  extremely large aspirations.” Said Bellows, passing me in the Her-Ex city room, with a twinkle:
          “Liked. . .that. . .lede.”
          Well, of course. I made funny.
          I had trouble taking his advice, though, at the Her-Ex reunion. Had trouble making this increasingly old heart lighten up. The paper is, after all, almost 20 years gone---not exactly a funny thing. But the event was really an excuse to honor Bellows, and most rightly. This is, after all, the man who took a strike-wrecked joke of a newspaper (except for sports, which was always good) and turned it into what in my view was easily the best in L.A. history.
          Even those who regard that as hyperbole acknowledge the Bellows Her-Ex’s vivaciousness, feisty spirit, championing of the underdog, cacophonous personality. And there is no arguing with the Her-Ex’s trouncing of the L.A. Times repeatedly in the L.A. Press Club Awards, with about one-fifth the staff.
          I won’t get much into trying to explain Bellows’ style or importance here. Many have done it, including me (column here.) Suffice it to say that he not only had something astonishingly lacking in journalism---canny news judgment, instinct for knowing what people wanted to read---but he cared for the community.
          To Bellows, L.A. was a town, and the people simply needed to know what the hell was going on in their town: what the criminals were doing, what the scoundrels in public office were doing, what the robberbarons were doing, what the socialites and movie stars and homeless people were doing. And, by implication and editorial, what they should be doing.
          He took L.A. seriously as one place---not, as Times editors forever puff, a mysterious, indefinable series of burgs and burbs and ethnic enclaves. (No wonder the Times is always so all-over-the-place.)
          Bellows also just had a way of getting smart free spirits together and freeing them to do their spirited best. The Bellows Her-Ex columnists were provocateurs and investigators, not diversions. The award-winning, crackerjack photogs were runaway empathetic types; there was not a pretentious frame in their shutters. The paper was playful, irreverent (it “made funny”), hard-hitting, relentless, goading, terse, gritty, incredibly and sometimes eccentrically articulate, occasionally a little reckless. Editorials cut. Juice ran from the gossip columns. Style section criticism was Pulitzer bait.
          Under his taciturn guidance, the Her-Ex never soft-pedaled a story or shied away from a telling photo. I'll never forget, for example, the heartbreaking shot that ran with my front-page story about long-lost silent film actress Mary MacLaren, exiled in her own L.A. home by a religious charlatan who had turned it into his "temple." Poor Mary was etched with more lines than a Dore engraving, and the photog caught every one of them. The editors ran it big. . .
          It wasn’t always pretty, in that funky museum that was the old Hearst Examiner building, but the camaraderie was always intense. Nobody ever wanted to let the guy down. Or if not him, then the paper. Which were really indistinguishable. Anyone who doubts the impact of Bellows on that newspaper need only remember that hordes of Her-Ex people went to work for the Times, and did not make the slightest dent in its stodginess and pretense.
          Which was another reason I had trouble “making funny” at the reunion. What have all those ex-Her-Ex people been doing at the Times all these years? Didn’t they learn anything from working at 1111 S. Broadway? Well, to be fair, they were up against institutionalized Times self-importance and coagulated bureaucracy, and after all, there was no Bellows around.
          But I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines, apparently. Former Her-Ex’er Ron Kaye, now editor of the nearly tabloid-(down)sized Daily News, remarked how it is “criminal” that the Times has never aggressively covered this city, advocating on behalf of the underdog, and for quality of life. Doubt that contention? Why has the Times never declared war on gang violence? Traffic? Or the so-called “smart growth” and other density-greasing measures which have so ruined neighborhood after neighborhood? The paper has done some important reporting through the years, but it just has no teeth.
          When the Bellows Her-Ex got hold of a cause, it held on like a south L.A. pit bull on a mailman.
          As these and other impotent thoughts impeded my “make funny” at the reunion, one was the unfunniest. You have to wonder: even if a paper does it right, as the Bellows Her-Ex did, would it be much more than a curiosity today? People would rather yap into cell phones than read. Most find the blogosophere more fun to glance at than any page one. Starbucks-es are full of laptops. Newspapers everywhere are stagnating to death from decades of uniformity, timidity, demographic pandering, lack of imagination, detachment from the community. . .
          So I just took a few deep breaths and stood in the back of the Steve Allen Theater at the Press Club and watched the self-congratulation fest, well deserved, in honor of old JB. Watched as film critic Peter Rainer did his hilarious impression of eternal Examiner/Her-Ex gossip man Jim Bacon to waves of laughs, as investigative reporter Merle Linda Wolin (who had flown in from Hong Kong!) remembered risking her life by posing as an illegal garment worker for the remarkable "Sweatshop" series, as the always warm-hearted ex-reporter Pam Moreland lauded a couple of much-loved staffers no longer around, as great sports guy Johnny Beyrooty told of ordering a Chivas at the Her-Ex bar, Corky’s, and instead being served Manishewitz (which he drank anyhow, chased by a Chivas.) Watched with colleagues I used to find variously loveable, insufferable, gracious, tyrannical, dear, condescending (and combinations thereof), all united by what many speakers said were “the best years of my life.”
          Mine, too.
          In the end, it was just too surreal, disorienting, and I found myself standing outside with my old Her-Ex crony, Greg Braxton, who is always good for a reality-check. We mused about the degree of anti-depressant intoxication that might have been in the Press Club at that moment. We remarked how so few other reporters who worked themselves goofy for next-to-no money were present. Ann Salisbury, Andy Furillo, Carol Gulotta, Milt Policzer, Ron Burns, scores more. The ones on whose now-probably arthritic fingers the self-congratulation fest was substantially built. Then we fell into silence, surveying the crowd. . .until I impulsively cracked a rather oh, ribald---but decidedly amusing---comment about a particular ex-colleague standing nearby. I don't know, it just came from nowhere, an old reflex. Braxton doubled over, laughing, until the tears ran. And after a minute, I followed suit.
           Just as he and I used to do, countless times, in the back row of the Her-Ex city room, twenty-seven or eight years ago.
          We made funny.
          Good enough, Jim?

Reunion slide show, more here.

Reunion videos here.
Reunion links here.
Special thanks to Alex Ben Block for organizing the reunion.

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