Role Models and the Unimaginable Days before the Internet
Marsha Lynn Smith
At the eager start of my career search to find a job in TV news, I didn’t realize the unwitting and important part that role models and mentors would play. Those first influencers arrived in a circuitous way.
During my coming-of-age years in the 1960s, I saw that men defined the face of reporting the TV news. The only females I remember seeing were perky white weather girls. They looked different than me. I was a tan, brown-eyed Black girl with hair made smooth from an Ultra Sheen crème relaxer. I didn’t look like these ladies, however I could speak just as well. When I became an adult (or at least the age when one needs to consider what to do in life), I dreamed of becoming a news reporter and relaying serious-minded information about current events.
About a year after my 1977 college graduation, I literally put the wheels in motion to find a career by driving my yellow Ford Pinto the two miles from my $183-a-month, rent-controlled Beverly Hills-adjacent apartment in Los Angeles to the employment office at CBS Television City.
The pre-recorded phone message at CBS stated a job application could be filled out Tuesdays and Thursdays between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. These were the unimaginable days before the Internet. No online job application to download, nor a PDF to attach a cover letter and resume. No Instagram photos, Facebook pages or Twitter feeds for a potential employer to check an applicant for a less than squeaky-clean online presence.
Weeks before going to CBS, I had been studying the (usually blonde) female news anchors on my 13-inch Hitachi color TV from the orange floral couch in my living room. They had blown out, feather-waved Farrah Fawcett hairstyles, every strand sprayed in place. A dark blazer over a blouse with a ruffle curling down the front seemed to be their customary wardrobe.
While reading the front page of the L.A. Times aloud in front of the bathroom mirror, I rehearsed keeping my composure and stating facts without interjecting any feeling. I marveled how a newscaster never looked upset while relaying stressful details of war, murder and mayhem. I imagined myself like them, sitting in that swivel chair behind a TV news desk. And if I could talk into the camera while looking perfectly groomed in customized make-up? Icing on the cake.
I really didn’t know anyone in the news business as such to give me guidance. The one “in” I did have was from my favorite Loyola Marymount University professor and former scriptwriter on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He recommended me for my first industry job. It wasn’t in a news department but as a page at Metromedia, a major Hollywood television studio. I ushered at tapings of “Soul Train” and several of the classic Norman Lear sitcoms, like “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” and “One Day at a Time.”
A camera guy colleague offered to help with my TV reporter aspirations, and filmed my audition tape. He even offered to get it to the news director. What my friend didn’t tell me? I was on my own when it came to my on-camera appearance. In hindsight, my boring hairstyle and bland makeup did not convey excitement.
My camera guy friend delivered the good news/bad news to me. The news director was impressed by my pronunciation of a Czechoslovakian politician’s name. The bad news was that he didn’t know if I was Black, or Mexican. That was offensive but not surprising. Since moving to L.A., a stranger might approach me speaking Spanish, or a new acquaintance sometimes asked point-blank, “What are you?”
I signed up for a weekly broadcast journalism course at L.A. Community College to polish my skills. The instructor took us students on a field trip to the local CBS station on Sunset Boulevard, to observe firsthand how a news program was produced.
I had seen anchors’ news desks at Metromedia, and the mini-version of a TV studio at LMU. But this was the real-deal. Rows of monitors displaying color bars and telecasts of local and network programs were like perched hawks overseeing the studio action. If people weren’t going about their business at-hand, they were at consoles pushing or pulling levers, measuring sound levels.
Then, I saw Connie Chung, a journalist of Chinese origin. Come to think of it, the only woman of color I had seen delivering TV news. At this early point in her trailblazing career, she co-anchored the local evening broadcast. She was wearing a pullover sweater and jeans, not one of her authoritative yet feminine on-air outfits, seated at a console with most likely a producer.
I forgot the encouraging career advice she most certainly provided. What I do recall -- she spoke to us like colleagues, and not wannabe reporters. She emanated trust and confidence. With her as a role model, perhaps my road to success could be a lot easier. Smitten, I wanted to be like her when I grew up.
Our visit with her was over when the teacher announced, “We need to let Connie get back to editing.” On the way out, he told us what I already knew, “You’re lucky to have met someone like her.”
Connie Chung will never know that she became the main reason I applied to CBS.
With a freshly-typed copy of my résumé and a few of my college newspaper press clippings in a manila folder, I was on my way to CBS’s personnel office. I donned a look my newly-minted role model might wear: a black double-breasted pantsuit, pink camisole, and a pearl necklace with matching stud earrings.
After printing in my full name, address and phone number, came the section where I had to list my job experience and education. I noted Metromedia, the recent broadcast journalism class, and (in case they ever wanted me to report on the performing arts) my dance studies in West African traditional dance and the Martha Graham Technique.
I added my current job in the public relations department at Golden State Mutual insurance company. Their claim to fame was being “the largest Black-owned life insurance company west of the Mississippi.” My boss, in addition to overseeing the company’s PR, was an artist who selected their fine art collection featuring works by African and African-American artists. I liked learning from him the basics of corporate PR and cataloging art material. But I wanted a bigger career.
Hope was kept alive when I saw that the CBS personnel manager I would be speaking with was a Black woman. “Oh good, a sister,” I thought. Perhaps she was in a position to make a difference and give this “sister” a job.
“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Mason said, placing her elbows on the desk and resting her chin on folded hands, “we don’t have any positions for you, but,” she added brightly, “come back once you’ve developed more of a news portfolio.” So much for helping a sister out. I felt like a drained kitchen sink with the water it once held transported to my bladder. I had to rearrange my thoughts. After all, a good TV reporter must be able to handle the unexpected.
That evening, I got out the five-inch thick Yellow Pages directory to call the other TV stations in town.
When could I fill out their job applications?
Were there volunteer opportunities in their news departments?
Did my camera guy friend know a hair and makeup person to help me look better on tape?
One part of my brain proceeded to initiate a pep talk: Hop onto the next stepping stone in your journey. Pull yourself up rung by rung, and you’ll climb your way to eventual success.
The other side of my brain wasn’t having this vague and metaphorical b.s. I tuned into the Channel 2 News and again observed the poised Connie Chung. Her calm voice and demeanor remained steady, despite reporting on arson-set fires in Reseda, and how President Carter’s anti-inflation message was causing the U.S. dollar to fall to record lows. Such grim news. I tried to remember the last time a newscaster told me something I cared about -- like a good date movie, the best disco clubs, or where to check out the latest music.
Lost in thought about the fate of local TV news and making my job search to-do list, I hadn’t noticed the blinking green light on my phone answering machine. I pushed down the lever and after the cassette tape whirred to the beginning, heard the familiar voice of my best girlfriend.
“I hear there’s a fun concert tomorrow night at The Roxy. Lemme know if you wanna go.”
The Roxy? I loved this nightclub on the Sunset Strip. If one wanted to hear popular or up and coming artists perform the hippest and most current rock & roll or R&B in an intimate environment, it was the place to go. I was in need of some entertainment after my disappointing day.
At the club, the band moved my spirit. Was this Black gospel music? Except it was rooted in something else. Like James Brown funk and Motown soul with a jazzy undercurrent. The musician beamed a huge smile as he ran his fingers up and down the keys of a handheld electric keyboard. Meanwhile, the drummer pounded away and in a baritone voice, sang to the eager crowd. Then the two girl and one guy backup singers in an in-tune shrill commanded everyone to, “DANCE!”
The audience was on its feet dancing, snapping fingers and clapping to the repetitive funky rhythm. The sweat on my back soaked into my long-sleeved red leotard. The stovepipe blue jeans covering my black platform shoes almost caused me to trip over myself as I danced around my seat.
The show came to an end. The houselights crept up. I didn’t want to leave. I sat or maybe stood there, staring at the now-unaccompanied musical instruments that seemed to reverberate from their recently emitted sounds. I couldn’t disconnect. It became crucial to my existence to figure out how I was going to be a part of this music scene. The idea of having a career in broadcast journalism began melting away. I decided to introduce myself to a well-dressed man who looked like he was with the band.
“Hi, do you work with the band?”
He looked around to see if it was to him I was directing my question. He asked, “What do you mean?”
“Do you work with the band? Cos if you do,” I took a deep breath and told him my newest career goal. “I would love to find out how I could work with them.”
“Who are you?” He was a few inches taller than me and looked down at me through wire-rimmed tinted shades. I noticed his scruffy, curly black beard was interrupted with a few gray hairs. His receding hairline came to an Eddie Munster-like sharp widow’s peak. He studied me for a moment and one of the corners of his mouth turned up. I thought he was going to smile but it turned into more of a smirk.
“My name’s Marsha Smith.”
“Uh, hi, Marsha. I’m Victor Treadwell. Actually, I do work with the band but through the record company. Are you really looking for a job?”
“Oh, yes! What record company?”
“CBS Records. Listen, I gotta go. But if you’re for real, I might know of something for you.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to me. “Gimme a jingle and I’ll let you know what’s happenin’.”
I followed up and he told me that CBS Records recently formed a new department, called Black Music Marketing. My publicity experience with a Black-owned insurance company suddenly came in handy and like Mother Nature loosening rocks on a hill, my dream of becoming a TV reporter shifted.
On Victor’s referral, I went back to the HR office at CBS Television City and met with the same personnel manager.
“For the Black Music Marketing coordinator position,” Mrs. Mason explained, “you’ll need to pass a typing test and get correct at least 40 words per minute. Since this job also involves writing, you’ll need to write a photo caption.”
I was shown to a room with several manual typewriters lined up on just as many desks. I set the paper I was to copy on the typing stand and when she said, “Begin,” I tapped away for 60 intense seconds.
Next, she handed me a laminated copy of a black & white photo from a newspaper but the caption had been cut off. She asked me to write a journalistic description. When I turned in the completed assignment, Mrs. Mason barely lowered her head, looked into my eyes and gave me “The Nod.” That was a signal to Black solidarity and a way to say, “I see you; I acknowledge you.”
It seemed like an eternity passed since my writing and typing tests at CBS. Following job search etiquette, I mailed my thank-you-for-taking-the-valuable-time-out-of-your-schedule-notes to both Victor and Mrs. Mason. Had yet to hear anything from either. One evening when I got home from work, there was a message on my answering machine:
“This is Mrs. Mason from CBS Human Relations. We met a couple of weeks ago? Nothing has opened up in the news department, but your application for CBS Records turned out to be a good match. After reviewing all of our applicants, we’ve determined you’re the right girl for the publicity coordinator position. Congratulations.”
The sister came through. Although I didn’t get a TV news job at CBS, Connie Chung and I would now be working for the same company.
When I returned Mrs. Mason’s call, I hoped she could feel the joy inside my heart. I would have been embarrassed if she saw the grateful tears in my eyes.
From teachers encouraging me, to studying the newscasters from yester-year, to meeting Connie Chung, to attending an inspiring jazz/funk concert that transformed a dream – these nudges contributed to my career foundation.
I went on to have rewarding PR and marketing jobs in both the TV and music industries, working with some of the greatest talents of our time. Like Victor and Mrs. Mason taking a chance on me, I wanted to step in and step up to support others looking for a way to get their foot in the door.
A friend’s daughter, a recent college grad, really wanted to get in the entertainment industry (how I could relate). When she applied to an internship program offered by the company I worked for and hoped to be one of the lucky 10 selected from a pool of 2000 just-as-hopeful applicants, I forwarded her information to an acquaintance in charge of the program. The young lady got one of the coveted spots. The acquaintance told me, “There was no way I’d be able to review all those applications. Your referral went to the top of the pile and she’s just the kind of person we were looking for.” She went on to become a successful TV scriptwriter.
When other young people bring me their résumés to edit or ask how they can get into PR, we have honest conversations. “Being an entertainment publicist is stressful and not all about red carpet premieres and hanging out with the stars,” I tell them. I follow up with a slew of questions: Are you willing to start at the bottom? What type of PR interests you (copywriting, company spokesperson, social media manager)? How are your writing skills (and texting doesn’t count)?
I accepted speaking invitations at college classes and even did some part-time teaching before I took down my corporate PR shingle. These days, I volunteer with a non-profit that encourages teen girls to express themselves through writing. Watching these young ladies, I am heartened for our future as they express their creativity with words while expanding their communication skills.
When I drove my Pinto to CBS-TV with stars in my eyes, and asked a stranger at a nightclub for a job more decades ago than I’d like to believe, I couldn’t know what the future held. I know now that I was fortunate. Goodness knows the mentors and role models that crossed my path showed up unexpectedly. Their ability to inadvertently inspire altered my life and for that, they will always be appreciated.
Marsha Lynn Smith: "I am a writer living in Southern California. After a career in the music and television industries, I am completing a memoir about a rocky romance with a jazz musician, juggling single motherhood and my surprise career as a Hollywood publicist. My work is pending publication in the Los Angeles Review of Books."