Monday, August 10, 2015

The Watts Riots and Color/TV

August 11, 1965.  The Watts Riots ignited in South Central Los Angeles.  In August of last year, I flew out to New York City for a 2-week stay.  I taped two editions of a film review and interview TV show as its guest co-host/critic.  Thanks to several friends, I stretched that 2-week stay out to nearly one year.  I've been couch-surfing and job hunting, determined to kick four years of brutal unemployment to the curb.  While I've been a gypsy, so to speak, I've listened to Larry Mantle every week on my computer.  He's the host of AirTalk on KPCC out of Pasadena.  Larry and I are in the same age category.  We're both native-born Los Angelenos.  KPCC looks back at Watts 50 on August 11th.  Larry, on his show, said that he was about six when the riots occurred and he asked listeners to call in with memories of the Watts Riots, if they were old enough to remember.  Like Larry, I was a boy then.  Our black Catholic family lived in the curfew area.
We lived on 124th Street, a cul-de-sac block at Central Avenue.  One afternoon during the riots, my little sister and I walked up to the corner of our block and watched the armed  National Guard roll down Central Avenue for duty.  Central Avenue was always busy with cars and buses and trucks.  That afternoon, we saw only military men traveling dramatically down the avenue like a scene out of a 1950s sci-fi movie when giant radioactive creatures terrorized a city.  It was surreal.  And scary.  Because those men in green, like the police, were armed.  KTLA, a local independent TV station, was the first TV station to equip a helicopter with a camera.  That camera was for improved, up-to-the-minute traffic reports in the newscasts.  Then the riots happened and that camera became a local news giant Cyclops, that one eye looking down to beam a steady stream of fires caused by black men hurling molotov cocktails.  It showed black looters and black people in conflict with the cops.  Those images caused fear in some upscale white communities, communities not at all in proximity to Watts.

Up to that point, most of America didn't think of racial inequality and racial anger when they thought of Los Angeles.  The film and TV images of L.A. life were Hollywood, Beverly Hills, orange groves, Disneyland, blonde surfer girls, the beaches, music by The Beach Boys and year-round Pacific Coast weather.  You didn't see that L.A. had black communities.  TV didn't show you black people like my father, a postal clerk for the main postal terminal in downtown L.A., and my mother, a registered nurse who worked in top L.A. hospitals.

In August 1963, there was Dr. King's historic March on Washington for Civil Rights.  The racist murder of four little girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church bombing happened the following month. In November 1963, America was stunned and paralyzed with grief by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  That was a national shock and grief not matched until the September 11th attacks in 2001.  In 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.  In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and we had the Watts Riots.  Watts, our predominantly black and underprivileged community constantly overlooked by mainstream press in Los Angeles, suddenly became the lead story in the national news.
Ours was a 2-newspaper a day household.  Local TV news and the city's major papers didn't have reporters who covered our South Central L.A. community as a regular beat, but the riots made Watts the top local news hotspot.

I love movies.  Film art is my passion.  I picked up the love of classic and new films, domestic and foreign, from my parents.  Our family went to the drive-in movies a lot.  In between the two movies for one low price were a cartoon, coming attractions and occasionally a newsreel.  It was an odd sensation one night late that month to see our community projected onto a big drive-in movie screen.
After the riots, helicopters with cameras became standard in local TV news stations.  The images we watched on TV during the riots, the images that my parents discussed with neighbors on the block and other friends, stayed with me.  For South Central L.A., those images were part of the story but they weren't the whole story.  Those images stayed with me and had a great impact on why I pursued a TV career.  You look for reflections of yourself and your world on TV.  My parents did.  Our neighbors did.  I did too.  Our family loved movies.  We didn't see black people on TV reviewing movies, talking about the Oscar nominations and interviewing movie stars.  We didn't see black people host prime time or late night entertainment talk shows on network TV.  I didn't see black people host kiddie shows.  Whether Captain Kangaroo and Shari Lewis on network television or local L.A. hosts like Sheriff John, Engineer Bill, Skipper Frank and Hobo Kelly...they were all white.  So were the local movie hosts.  Years later, when I was in high school, a few of us from Verbum Dei High in Watts attended Camp Brotherhood Anytown one summer -- for automatic extra credit the upcoming fall season.  The National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored the week in the San Bernardino mountains so that kids of different races, religions, and communities in L.A. could integrate with good dialogue to improve race relations.  Students from Watts were eagerly sought by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for this camp experience.  The thing that hit us guys from Watts at camp was hearing the access that white kids from Brentwood, Redondo Beach, Long Beach and other then-predominantely white sections of Southern California had.  They talked about scholarship programs and grants that we didn't even know existed.  Their schools had really up-to-date supplies.  Our Catholic school teachers spent money out of their pockets to help us with materials.  Their parents were financially secure.  One kid began a comment with "The first time our family went to Europe..."  None of us from Verbum Dei had ever been to Europe even once.  We were lucky to get to Disneyland. That camp opened our eyes wider to the haves and the have-nots.  Also, some of those white kids talked about how their parents were scared and considered evacuating when they saw news coverage of the Watts Riots -- several miles away by car.

I wanted to contribute fresh racial images to TV via my work.  I am still proud to be from South Central L.A., now called simply South L.A.

Tom Bergeron, ABC's Dancing With The Stars host, and I are about the same age.  We've worked for some of the same people in our TV careers.  He's got representation.  I've had years of broadcast agents turn me down with "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  That's been said to me was on national TV and national radio.  That had more to do with the entertainment industry's need to embrace diversity than it did with my talent -- because I did manage to get myself work.  But, without an agent, I had difficulty landing auditions for big gigs like the kind Bergeron has for ABC.  As a black performer, I've been lucky to get the opportunity to audition for an opportunity.  I have over 10 years of network TV jobs as a talk show host, pop culture host, movie critic and actor on my resumé. I was hired by VH1, CBS Late Night, ABC News and Food Network, to name a few.  I'm still without a broadcast agent.  I hustle up my own gigs.
Tom wrote his autobiography a few years ago.  I read his I'm Hosting As Fast As I Can.  One thing stood out to me in the first chapters of his book:  We were about same young age when we started to dream of a career in radio and TV.  Mostly TV.  He had his dream in the big, comfortable, 2-story suburban house in New England.  I had my dream in a one-bathroom, 2-bedroom ranch house for 5 of us just 4 short blocks away from one of the deadly fires in the Watts Riots.

If you'd like to hear the incomparable Larry Mantle host AirTalk ® and hear the program Take Two devote its August 11th broadcast to the anniversary of the Watts Riots, check out this website for more info:  KPCC.org.









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