by RIP RENSE
This column won "Honorable Mention" (3rd place) in the Los Angeles Press
Club awards for 2008.
(March 18, 2008)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
Special thanks to Alex Ben Block for organizing the reunion.
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