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WHY A DAILY NEWS WEBSITE?

by Rip Rense

"(Descanso) gardens will be remembered long after the Daily News and all the other newspapers in Los Angeles, perhaps, are forgotten."
                                      ---Manchester Boddy.


"I'm tempted to think that in its short life, the Los Angeles Daily News meant more to us than the prettiest bed of camelias."
                                    ---Ralph Story



          Why a Daily News tribute site? Surely all L.A. papers are worthy of remembrance, and inspire nostalgia. True, but none, really, in the way the Daily News does.
          The News was an improbable, kind of ramshackle, irreverent and very un-self-serious affair in a city whose other papers weren't. The Hearst Herald-Express was unapologetically, crassly sensational, the Hearst Examiner (the number one paper until the 60's) was. . .Hearstian. The Times was pompous, gray, racist, and very Republican. (The pomposity somehow never left.)
          But The News? Well, it wasn't a broadsheet, and wasn't a tabloid. It was an in-between "oversized tabloid," with lovely (unpretentious) cursive masthead, and for years was printed on peach-colored paper. It was amusingly sensational, and as the pro-union, self-proclaimed "Only Democratic Newspaper West of the Rockies," the choice of the working class. The average guy. The average gal.
          Housed in an old brick building at the corner of Pico and Los Angeles, The News was owned by a hands-off, rather humanitarian publisher who hired people he liked, and left them alone to do their jobs. Manchester Boddy wrote and broadcast a popular column, but ultimately took more interest in the camelia gardens that The News financed than his paper, and it's rather poetic to regard his former estate, now Descanso Gardens, as the grave of the Daily News.
          Compared with the other L.A. papers, The News was also a paragon of equal opportunity employment. During World War II, its ranks swelled with women reporters and at least one photographer (the remarkable Helen Brush, who once photographed the birth of her own child.) Sparky Saldana became what must been the first latino city editor on an L.A. (English) daily paper, and his brother, Lupi, was a sportswriter. African-Americans were employed in the pressroom and editorial, and Japanese-American L.A. journalist Mary Kitano was hired as Daily News librarian, more or less straight out of the Manzanar "relocation camp." A Chinese-American woman, Mamie Leung, was a longtime reporter.
          But really, the opportunity wasn't equal. It was sort of narrow. If you were a person of style, panache, personality, interesting character, you were in. While newspapers are famed for attracting free-spirited types, The News attracted freer spirits. Journalism degree? Didn't matter. If you were an intriguing person and capable with language, you were likely to get a job. Veteran L.A. reporter Paul Weeks moved from New Mexico just to work at The Daily News. It had a national reputation for being a "newspaperman's newspaper."And while it can't be said that the paper covered minority issues in L.A. adequately, it did so far more than its rivals.
          Its environs sort of mirrored its attitude. Where The Times had its gray concrete monolith and the Examiner its Julia Morgan-designed Casbah-on-Broadway, The News was housed in a three-story former Cadillac dealership from the 1920's. No heat or air conditioning. Windows were open around the clock, and on hot summer nights at least one bored city editor used to plink empty booze bottles off the sills with a BB rifle. Speaking of which, Boddy once issued a formal edict banning booze bottles from plain view, in case school kids came down to tour the joint (and besides, the plinking was making a racket when he broadcast his weekly commentary right from his office.) One reporter got around this rule with a teapot full of bourbon, refilled regularly at nearby Don's Bar, then hoisted up to the second-floor city room by rope and copy boy. (Really.) When the first-floor presses ran, the whole joint shook like a 5.0 on the Richter Scale. the presses caught fire about once a month.
          Yet this paper probably had the best pure writers in town. The great Matt Weinstock---the Herb Caen of L.A.---wrote his around-town column in The News for decades. Ned Cronin was easily the most stylish and literate sports columnist in the city, as was attested to by his great friendship with one of his most admiring readers, the author Gene Fowler. Literary flourishes crept into the reporting here and there, though hardly pretentiously. Sportswriter Art Rense might refer to Rabelais or Rome while writing about Norm Van Brocklin or Bob Waterfield of the L.A. Rams. The weather story was occasionally written under nome de plumes such as "Will O'The Wisp."
          Irreverent? If The News had two photos of the mayor, one with his finger up his nose, guess which one would run. This is not to say the paper was frivolous. It aimed to cover L.A., and the world, and it did so with flare, wit, and punch. Just as a newspaper should, and just as the other papers didn't.
          As for my connection with the Daily News, well, it began early in my life. Specifically, on my second day:
 

          Right. I began making the papers shortly after my birth.
          I noticed, growing up, that on the rare occasions that my father happened to refer to his years at the Daily News (he seldom discussed the past), his tone changed. There was always a touch of warmth in his words, and an amused half-smile would steal across his face. Decades later, while I was working a reporter at the old Valley News, two of my bosses were old Daily News guys: Phil Garrison and Larry Fowler. I swear they spoke about the place with the same affection and amused expression as my father had. Also, the great and whimsical L.A. Times columnist, Jack Smith, who had started out at the Daily News, occasionally wrote columns about it that were. . .affectionate and amused in tone. And so I became curious about the place, yet it somehow never dawned on me that the building was still intact until one day in 1980, when I was working as a reporter for the L.A. Herald-Examiner under the great Jim Bellows (the only other time, in my view, that an L.A. newspaper embodied the correct, rambunctious spirit.) So I took a little walk on my lunch break over to the corner of Pico and Los Angeles, and there it was.
          I was amazed at how little things seemed to have changed from the '40s and '50s, from the clattery elevator to the worn stairs---which I promptly climbed. As I approached the top, my ears were assailed by a great bustle and clatter, rather like a room full of frantic typewriters. Ahead, I saw swinging doors with windows in them, obviously the doors to the one-time city room. I got an eerie feeling, and goosebumps. Was I time-traveling? Would Rod Serling appear? Not quite. The old Daily News city room was full of desks and busy people, all right---garment workers. It was a sweatshop. (Which later prompted reporter Jack Jones to observe, "It always was.")
          I met many of the old Daily News staffers while covering their reunion at the old Press Club in 1981 for the Her-Ex, and they were as vivacious and singular as I imagined them to be. There was a lot of love in the air. In the mid-90's, I got in touch with the remaining "Newsies," as they called themselves, to go downtown and tour their old digs. Seeing them variously hobble and walk haltingly up those old stairs was lovely as it was heartbreaking. I wrote the day up for the L.A. Times Magazine, which paid me for a cover story but instead featured a cover about "lawns in Los Angeles." Really. Lawns.
           These men and women turned out to be even more substantial, unpretentious, dignified, down-to-earth, irascible, witty, straight-shooting than I had been led to expect. They lived up to legend, as did the stories they told of the Daily News and L.A. in the 40's and 50's. Small wonder that they came from the newsroom inhabited by one Vern Partlow, a folksinger/songwriter when he wasn't reporting, who penned the de facto reporter's national anthem, "A Newspaperman Meets Such Interesting People" (sung by many a drunken chorus, I was told, at Daily News parties.) He also wrote "Old Man Atom," arguably the first anti-nuclear song, which was banned and resulted in Partlow being blacklisted as a "communist" during the McCarthy era. And in the Daily News's darkest chapter (during the paper's last years, when Boddy was no longer involved), Partlow was ordered to declare that he was not a communist. He refused, and was fired. (These and more stories of the Daily News and the other old newspapers of L.A. are detailed in the wonderfully detailed, definitive history of L.A. print journalism, Red Ink White Lies, by Rob Wagner.)
          One interesting post-script bears a mention here.
          I approached Descanso Gardens a few years ago with the idea of a tribute exhibit to the Daily News in the "Boddy House," which was once Manchester's home and is now essentially an art gallery. The fellow I approached had just been appointed curator of Descanso, and he was thrilled at the idea. Plans were made to have the "Newsies" come by for book-signings. I went to the Young Library at UCLA to arrange for photos to be blown up and mounted from their Daily News collection. I arranged for publicity---print, TV, and radio---for the exhibit. The Descanso curator formally agreed to host it (I was funding out-of-pocket.) It would take up all of one room.
          Then I never heard another word from Descanso.
          Seems the curator left after a few months, and a woman who was the longtime de facto curator was filling in on a temporary basis. I wrote to her, and was told---surprise---that there were no plans to do a Daily News exhibit. Huh? And then I remembered: when I made the initial presentation to Descanso for the exhibit, this same woman had remained cold, distant, unfriendly. I had related the anecdote about Boddy telling reporters to keep booze bottles off the desks, which elicited laughs from the curator, but a frown and the following comment from the woman (paraphrased): "It's not appropriate for our patrons to have mentions of alcoholic beverages at our exhibits." Really.
          Can you say. . .ironic?
          So the Gardens that the Daily News built refused to honor the memory of the Daily News, because of demon rum!
          Somehow, I think the old Newsies would have found that fall-down funny.
          And so there is this website, perhaps too little and too late, but better late then never, with extensive interviews with the Newsies, articles, photo gallery, and coming soon: special tribute pages for Matt Weinstock, Ned Cronin, and others.
          Read all about it.

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Special thanks to all the "Newsies" who helped with this site, especially the late Paul Weeks, who was also a good friend. Anyone with Daily News photos, memorabilia, old issues, anecdotes is urged to contact me at rip@riprense.com ---RR.

                                                                                                                             copyright 2003, 2012 Rip Rense