If you’re a longtime WDIV fan, you’re going to love this special WDIV Insider blog.
Kevin Ward just retired after 40 years -- yes, 40 years -- at WDIV, working as a photographer, cameraman and editor. He’s seen some things! I asked Kevin to write some reflections on his career over the last four decades. Here’s what he graciously shared:
When Ken asked me to capsulate my 40 years at WDIV, I thought sure, why not? Well I’m still thinking that, with Samuel Johnson’s words, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” firmly in mind.
My employment at Channel 4 began within the campaign that had as its theme: GO 4 IT! And we did. In those days, we took on yearlong commitments to community causes. In the case of the winter of 1982, we were in the middle of trying to help the viewing public cope with very high unemployment amidst a flagging economy. My first documentary shoot, for example, was at the old Cobo Hall, at a robotics convention held for the benefit of formerly employed auto workers.
Working with the ‘Count’
Of course, along with the serious topics of the day, much attention was payed to the lighter side. Enter: Count Scary! If you couldn’t forget your troubles watching the Count, it wasn’t gonna happen. Very few things in my life have been more fun than working with the “Crew of Fine Boys.” The shows we did included a terrible beach movie, which was perfect fodder for the pen of Tom DeLisle and the brilliant physical comedy of Tom Ryan. Alan Frank and Henry Maldonado, the Program Chief and Executive Producer at the time, seemed to be of the mind that the more fun these and other shows were to make, the more fun they’d be to watch.
I’ve gotta tell you about the time I made Count Scary fly over to the Red Can and dance on the roof of the tall tower. Of course, a lot of it was the “magic of television,” read: green screen. But to give the Count his path, I got to fly from WDIV to said location sideways, shooting out the door of the helicopter through the peaks of the Guardian Building.
Once we got there, we shot the Count dancing with his date, in his own inimitable style. Tom later admitted to being really SCARED. He wasn’t the only one. During that event, the helicopter decided to drop straight down a couple hundred feet in a split second. My recordist and audio man Jim Howard wore a whiter shade of pale for hours there after. Yipes! Me? Didn’t affect me all that much. I was watching the whole scene on a one and a half inch screen in black and white. My stomach however, as I recall did attempt an escape.
Gosh, there’s so much to remember over the years…this could easily become nothing more than a list. Even at that, I’d probably forget half of the salient moments. Eh. Maybe not. Forging ahead:
The Old Building
Back then we were in the “Old Building.” A place designed as much for radio as TV. It had a theatre, the entrance of which was just inside the front door and lobby. The theatre was used for “Sonya.” This was a then soon-to-be syndicated talk show (USA) which drew national personalities, a forerunner of many.
Other things from the OB include my short stint with “Wheel of Fortune,” for which I shot “Detroit Week” with Pat and Vanna. As an aside, it feels really cool to have someone like Vanna White walk into a room filled with your colleagues and yell “KEVIN” and give you a hug. Which is what happened a couple of years later, prior to a judge taping for “Saturday Night Music Machine,” which is a whole other story.
The only other really notable thing that happened whilst we were in the “OB” was the production of a documentary called “City Nights,” a slice of Detroit life along Woodward avenue from midnight to six, for which Kevin Hewitt and I each took home the Emmy for Videography. Yay team! Then, the last moment in the OB was personal to me. This finger (I’m showing you my right index finger) pushed the button that sent the broadcast signal to the NEW Building next door. I believe the date was December 12, 1982.
The New Building
OK, on to the new building. The trek from 600 to 550 West Lafayette was done before we knew it. There to continue our “Scary” ways and documentary productions. All new studios and edit facilities awaited with gleaming hardware and practically no software of any kind yet. I think one of the best parts of the new building, was that the garage we had been parking in all along was now actually connected to the building we were to work in. A huge milestone in the lowest of tech was finally reached. Of course the viewers of Channel 4 were mostly unaware of the comfort the purveyors of their TV signals were now enjoying.
As the new era began, we were still scaring people’s pants off. We were also busy with the usual commercial spots, on air promotions (promos) and public service announcements (PSAs). I can’t put dates or even chronological order to events that happened so long ago, so this is just how I remember some of it in really no particular order.
Working on the shows
One of the first things we worked on in the brand-spanking new studio B was “Purtan’s People.” This was a sort of mini talk show that anchored the afternoon comedy block. Where you now might see a talk show or even an early news broadcast, then, it was Barney Miller et al. I realize many of this era’s audience may not be familiar with Dick Purtan. Ask mom or grandma. They’ll know. One word: GREAT!
Also in “B,” back in the day, we did global teleconferencing for the Chrysler Corporation, sometimes complete with Mr. Lee Iacocca. They really took up residence for a while. Just after their tenure, the Michigan State Lottery came to stay, and are still doing drawings from WDIV to this day.
Speaking of the Lottery, they didn’t just work “in house.” We took the show on the road with (I think it was called “Road to Riches”) trips to Marquette, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids. I wish I had words better than “BLAST” and “some of the best times ever” for how much fun it can be to take a large crew and mobile studio on the road to such cool places.
Adding to this process was the fact that it was yours truly who got to do the pre-production scouting and aerial videography of locations, by flying over the sites in Mort Crim’s Piper Cherokee. There could be a whole other section of this mini-memoir about that Piper. For reasons of propriety that probably won’t happen.
Back on earth, in the mid-80s we began to harmonize to the tunes of “Saturday Night Music Machine.” Three contestants a show, a music video for each one, weekly, a creative wonderland. This show got a lot of support from every category. The sponsors were enthusiastic, as was the Detroit musical community. The stars we enlisted to do the judging often requested return engagements. The quality of the show might have, in part, been one of the reasons for its undoing. At a huge party in studio B one night, it was announced the show had been picked up by Fox. Visions of taking it national were dancing in our heads. Alas, SNMM was shelved and poof. What happened? An answer would only be conjecture on my part.
Though, of course, I have one. There were other original shows like “Juke Box Saturday Night.” This was hosted by Jim Harper. It was a music video review of current hits etc. It was not the first but perhaps one of the best uses of the talking car motif.
The documentaries continued. I went on an eagle banding expedition in our very own U.P. This was part of an extended eco-commitment the name of which escapes me. Then there was “A Gift From the Heart,” a trip with a group called Healing the Children to Guatemala. The local flavor for this one was provided by a boy who had been treated at U-M, and the fact that we travelled with a group of doctors and dentists from Trenton.
Not to be left out is what is probably my favorite, ever. “Risky Business: Iron Boat, Iron Men.” We went aboard the “Benson Ford” to document every moment we could of an ore run from the Ford Rouge plant to Marquette and back. All I can say right now is WOW!