In 1979 I graduated with a BFA from The Cooper Union in New York City, and was thrust into an unwelcoming world with a diploma as valuable as hand towel. I was well-versed in the sculptures of ancient Sumer and conceptual art, but ill prepared to make a living. When I told prospective employers I went to Cooper Union their usual reaction was a vacant stare and the query, “Cooper what?”
After bouncing around for a few years like a cue ball in a dive bar, I somewhat miraculously found myself on the doorstep of the Graphics Director of ABC network News on 57th Street on the West side. His name was Ben Blank and he was christened with the unofficial title, The Father of News Graphics. Back in 1957, Ben put a ping pong ball on the end of a coat hanger and waved it in front of a drawing of the earth to illustrate how Sputnik was orbiting the planet. It was a sensation and his reputation as a pioneer in TV graphics was made. John Hockenberry, in his 2006 book, Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, called Blank the "television graphic artist's equivalent of Homer, Marshall McLuhan and Edward R. Murrow rolled into one."
The only reason Ben deigned to see me was that he too, was a Cooper Union alum. To my amazement he bemoaned the fact that there were no “Cooper men” in the department. Now he had the opportunity to reverse this dearth.
My portfolio was a hodge-podge of drawings and photos of sculpture, none of it had anything to do with the kind of graphics they created for TV.
He flipped through the pages clenching a black wet cigar in his teeth. He grunted and coughed. I couldn’t take my eyes off a dangling gray ash the size of a small depth charge on the end of his stogie that finally dropped off and exploded into dust on my portfolio. He didn’t notice or didn’t care. Then he said, “I’ll tell ya what. You can draw. Call George Fox next week and tell him I said to put you on the schedule as a per diem artist. We’ll try you out.”
I floated out of his office ten feet off the ground.
It was 1982. A time when the Big Three Networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, were the only game in town. They ruled the airwaves. People had to actually sit down in front of the tube and watch a show when it aired. It was pre-Tivo, pre-DVD, pre-CNN, pre-internet! But it was cutting-edge at the time.
I was poised on the brink of success, ready to assume the role as a per diem broadcast graphic artist at ABC when the unthinkable happened. George Fox wouldn’t take my calls. He stone-walled me.
I tried calling several times a day for a week and finally got him on the phone. He was surly with no stomach for small talk. “Whattya keep calling for? There’s no room on the schedule for you. Stop calling.”
“But Ben said you would put me on the schedule a week ago.”
“Well he never told me.”
“Ask him. He said he wanted me to start working per diem.”
“Ben’s not here. He’s in the hospital and won’t be back till the end of the month and that’s that.”
‘But nothing, Goodbye.” And he hung up the phone.
I was devastated.
The whole unfortunate episode began when Ben got into a disagreement with his brother-in-law, Henry Chigger. Ben had hired Henry ten years ago even though he had no qualifications as an artist and Ben regretted it ever since. You see Henry couldn’t be fired. It was a union shop. And Henry was the Shop Steward to boot.
The two had an argument in Ben’s office and it came to blows. Henry’s finger ended up in Ben’s cheek while Ben tried to land a slow-motion punch to Henry’s mid-rib. It was a rather pathetic fracas, but enough to cause Ben’s gall bladder to implode.
I had to wait several weeks for Ben to regain his health before I had a chance to work as a network broadcast graphic artist. But I finally got put on the schedule.
Damn George Fox and Henry Chigger too. Funny how my destiny was wrapped up with two men who couldn’t care less about me. But it all worked out well in the end. Sort of.
The desk I was assigned to was situated right next to Henry Chigger’s desk. It was vacant because no one wanted to be near Henry. He had nothing to do all day except read the papers, do crossword puzzles and harass people.
What never failed to piss everyone off was when he would sing with a mocking twang, “RRR-ita, RRR-ita, RRR-ita.” Rolling the “R’s” to create a spine-tingling sound akin to fingernails being scratched on a blackboard.
He used to chide me, “Slow down, Sonny-boy. Whattya trying to do, make everyone look bad? You get paid the same whether you make one graphic or ten. Keep it up and you’ll bust a nut. RRR-ita, RRR-ita, RRR-ita!”
On many occasions he would be downright mean, “You know you’ll never get hired. You’re low-man on the totem pole. You’re per diem. George can take you off the schedule like that.” He snapped his pudgy fingers and sneered. “The union hasn’t hired anyone in five years and there’s no chance of you being made permanent. When the time comes, you’re the first one on the list to be let-go.”
One day something came into the department that changed everything. It was a called a “Paintbox”.
The mandate was handed down from the head of Broadcast Operations to Ben Blank, do something with the Paintbox. Make it work. The powers that be wanted to justify their expenditure on this new piece of equipment which was touted as the next big thing in broadcast graphics. All the hubbub was over the fact that it cost half-a-million dollars.
Ironically, Ben resented the Paintbox. It interfered with a lucrative kickback scheme he had going with the suppliers of matt boards, pencils, paint, press type and all the other art materials used by the department. If the Paintbox was going to create graphics electronically there would be no need for art supplies and his payola scheme would go out the window. He wasn’t about to let that happen.
Ben was in a pickle. On one hand, his graft from the suppliers was in jeopardy, on the other, his reputation as the Father of TV Graphics had to be upheld. He couldn’t resist riding the wave of new broadcast technology to prove that he was a true pioneer of the medium, but he also couldn’t stand to give up the kickbacks.
He made a Solomon-like choice. He decided to send all the senior artists to be trained on the Paintbox. They had the most experience in the department. They were also old men and it would be difficult for them to learn new tricks. It was a brilliant move by Ben. If the Paintbox failed it would be because it was ill-suited as an artist’s tool, not for Ben’s lack of trying. Then the status quo would live on and Ben could keep taking his cut on the art supplies.
It very nearly worked. After weeks of training it was time for the director of World News, Charlie Heinz, to come in and see what the Paintbox was capable of. As Ben and Charlie stood behind the Paintbox monitor in a darkened room, the senior artists took turns fumbling with the machine and showing crude circles, squares and screens of solid colors. I snuck in the back of the room to see what was going on.
Charlie finally said, “Well, I’ll be damned, can it make anything we can use on the air?”
Charlie was under the same pressure to find a use for the Paintbox as Ben was. But, Charlie had no ulterior motive.
“Ah, Charlie, ah, we’ve only had the machine a few weeks.” Ben said squirming.
What neither Ben nor Charlie knew was that I was learning how to work the Paintbox at night, when no one was around. Since I was low-man on the totem pole, I worked the night shift and was free to sneak into the room where it was kept and fiddle away. I wasn’t allowed to touch it during the day because I wasn’t a full-fledged member of NABET, the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians. Only Nabes, as they were called, were allowed to touch the equipment.
Paradoxically, the Paintbox was designed to be used by artists, not engineers. It had functions called, stencils, airbrush, cut and paste - things artists understood. It seemed very intuitive to me. You didn’t have to go near a keyboard to paint, draw and create anything you could with conventional art supplies. It was all done with a pencil-like cursor and a large tablet. It was a wonderful, magical machine.
As Ben continued to stutter and sweat, apoplectic about the dismal showing, I spoke up.
“Ben, can I show you some stuff I’ve been doing on the machine.” It was highly improper for a per diem artist to put in his two cents when the director of World News Tonight and Ben were having a meeting with all the senior artists. But, Ben was so humiliated and desperate, he agreed to take a look.
During those long, quiet nights I had created inspired images of a colorful pipeline in forced perspective leading from a stylized factory, a ring of doctors huddled around an operating theater with an electronic pulse superimposed over it, and a frog sitting atop a mushroom in the rain.
They were floored.
I was hired as full-time staff the next day, joined NABET, and was soon feeding graphics directly to the control room of World News Tonight for the first time at ABC.