From Heston to Damiani

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, August 7, 2013

By Frank Roberts

“PBS presents ‘Vietnam and the Media,’ starring Frank Roberts and Charlton Heston.”

All right, that was not quite the billing on the show offered by a right-wing organization. They had asked for equal time to counter an earlier “left-wing” broadcast by a rival political group.

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Mr. Heston, a staunch conservative, starred in the public broadcasting program, which criticized the media. I portrayed an earnest-sounding reporter offering what Heston and company perceived as left-leaning coverage of the war.

For me, radio reporting was typecasting. For several years I had been working at Studio Center in Norfolk (they have since moved to Virginia Beach), making commercials that were broadcast across the country. One of my steadiest assignments was for a large Florida Buick dealer. Studio Center was the third-largest such group in the business.

Most of the announcers worked in area radio and television stations. My newscaster assignment was partly based on my media experience. Before joining the Virginian-Pilot, where I spent 30 happy years, I was the morning man on WBOF in Virginia Beach. And I was a background announcer for WVEC-TV on channel 15. Later, of course, it occupied channel 13.

At ‘BOF I did shows with Keefe Brasselle, who starred in “The Eddie Cantor Story,” and with big-band leader Vaughn “Racing With the Moon” Monroe. He was a really nice guy.

So was Brasselle, who was a squirrel’s delight — a big nut. His wife was Arlene DeMarco, one of the five DeMarco Sisters, singers who recorded for MGM.

To my pleasant surprise, his conductor was an old childhood friend. I grew up with Hal Schaeffer, a great jazz pianist who later taught Marilyn Monroe how to sing for the movies. (More on that in a later column.)

The Studio Center powers-that-be felt I could handle the Vietnam chore, and the show was done under the watchful eyes of the group presenting the show.

I did my mini newscast in just two takes. I reported on the war, then Heston answered my report, essentially illustrating that my reporting was quite one-sided.

When I was finished, one of the execs from D.C. said that my reporting was done exactly the way they wanted. I felt like Clint Eastwood — that made my day.

Folks asked what it was like working with Heston. Sadly, my answer is, “How the heck do I know?” He had done his bit earlier in Hollywood.

By the way, I still have the recording.

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A major country star several moons ago was Hank Williams Jr. Ugh! He was colder than an Arctic winter.

I didn’t know his legendary father, but I became good friends with Sr.’s band, The Drifting Cowboys. I still have correspondence and literature they gave me, plus a rare recording that had limited release.

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I have been enjoying reading about Andy Damiani, one of the nicest people I have ever known, and that rare bird — an honest politician. He was also an excellent musician, playing stand-up bass, and made several recordings in France, where he lived for a spell after getting out of the service. I borrowed a few of his discs and listened to some really good jazz.

He and his late wife were a credit to Suffolk.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.