For a few years Michael and I bounced among Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CBS This Morning doing Roadfood segments. Decades back, lots of people watched these network shows; and if you were fortunate enough to be on one, whatever you were selling sold. Roadfood sales soared each time we appeared.
Many of the stories we did took us on the road with a camera crew to our favorite Roadfood eateries. Despite the exposure being good for our career, the segments were not all that good. It was just the two of us yakking, images of hamburgers sizzling, and people at the counter exclaiming how yummy the food was. They all were pretty much the same. But the networks did not think they were as lame as we did. So we kept getting rehired.
Our last gig was with CBS This Morning. They were great to work for: sent limos to Connecticut to pick us up, paid us handsomely, and were effusive in their praise. They thought we were adorable. But honestly, we felt like we were phoning it in.
What was fun was encountering famous people who shared the green room with us as they waited for their time slot on the morning show. Many were big-deal household names, even if sitting next to them eventually became as predictable as the stale bagels and weak coffee on the hospitality table.
There was one exception: Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite had relinquished his iconic job as the CBS Evening News anchor, but being the newsman that the whole nation trusted, he was brought in on special occasions, such as presidential elections, to deliver his words of wisdom.
We happened to be scheduled for a Roadfood segment on election day. In this era of 24-hour Trump lunacy, it seems inconceivable that a morning TV show would give over 15 minutes of election coverage to two not terribly charismatic people explaining why people in Milwaukee like Bratwurst, but they did; so we geared up to bring another segment of Roadfood to the viewers.
After the makeup department did its best to make us look presentable, we were ushered into the green room. Sitting there all by himself was Walter Cronkite. The first thing that both Michael and I noticed was how much he looked just like Walter Cronkite. This may seem an odd comment, but seeing someone on TV often is a distortion of what they look like in real life.
We both ran back into the hallway. “Oh my God!” I said. “Its Water Cronkite. What should we do?” We were not obligated to “do” anything; but we felt we should make a gesture of acknowledgment.
“Yes, yes,” said Michael, flipping through his mental Filofax. “Do you remember long ago going to Penn’s Catfish in Mississippi? There was an article on the wall saying that it was Walter Cronkite’s favorite restaurant. Let’s tell him we ate there.” Penn’s was a colorful, downhome eatery with great catfish and world class hush puppies.
Back into the green room we marched. Cronkite looked at us and nodded his head. “Mr Cronkite,” Michael said. “We are the food reporters on the show and just thought you should know we also are great fans of Penn’s Catfish.”
There was a long pause and a blank face. “What did you say”? he asked.
“I said we are great fans of Penn’s Catfish in Mississippi. We know you like it, too.”
Again, nothing. He tapped his ear to signal he was hard of hearing.
We began to panic. Michael has a deep and loud voice; and when he projects he can be heard a mile away.
“He can’t hear you,” I whispered to Michael. “Say it louder”
And so it went, the two of us standing in front Mr. Cronkite yelling “Penn’s, Penn’s, Penn’s Catfish!”
We heard a commotion in the hallway. It was the producer with a member of the crew. “Someone is yelling at Mr. Cronkite. I think they are yelling “penis.”
“Penn’s, Penn’s, Penn’s,” we continued to scream.
Pushing his way into the room, the panicking producer jumped in front of us. “Why are you yelling “penis” at Walter Cronkite?” he demanded.
“We didn’t say ‘penis,’ Michael replied. We just asked him if he remembered eating at Penn’s Catfish.”
The producer motioned for the veteran newscaster to put in one of his two hearing aids. Now that he could hear, we bellowed once more: “We like Penn’s Catfish! Don’t you?”
Cronkite gave us a long look of total incomprehension and said, “Never heard of it.”
We were about to faint from embarrassment and exhaustion. We ran out of the green room and hid in the hall.
Later that night we watched Walter Cronkite covering the election. He was seamless. Between his hearing aids and the scrolling word monitor hidden on his desk, he picked up on every nuance of the electoral process. He was the wise sage a nation liked to turn to.
We lasted another month or two on CBS This Morning before we were canned. It would be cool to say it was because we yelled “penis” at Walter Cronkite; but the truth is that we were just not all that good. Maybe neither was Penn’s Catfish.