Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 5 of a 5-part (and growing) series

The second hour of Saturday's GMA Weekend wrapped up, as had the first, with all four of the anchors sitting on a couch in a corner nook of the studio where the great huge windows overlooking Times Square were right behind them. After the show wrapped, they continued to sit there and chat and my wife and I casually sidled over toward them. We wanted to meet everybody, of course, but didn’t want to charge over like rabid fans looking for some celebrity attention.

Alice (that's her in the top picture with me), who had a real knack for showing up at precisely the right time, was there at our elbows to introduce us. Bill and Kate remembered the BBQ segment well and welcomed us to the show. They were friendly, but then I made a comment that really changed the welcome we received.

Several months back, there had been a segment on GMA weekend having to do with peoples’ secrets and their past. I don’t recall the specifics of the report, but when it was over the anchor team was all seated on one of the studio’s couches talking about the segment before jumping to commercial. With probably around ten seconds to go, Kate turned to Bill and asked “So what secret do you have in your past?” Totally deadpan, Bill looked straight at the camera and said, “I once killed a hobo.” Ron Claiborne laughed so hard I thought he might fall off the couch. Marysol rolled her eyes, and Kate put her head in her hands in what I took to be horror. It was just a moment in the show’s history, but it was a very funny one if you happened to catch it.

So when we met Bill, I mentioned to him that “My kids asked me if I was going to meet ‘that funny news man who killed a hobo.’” And with that comment, we were part of the GMA Weekend family. It wasn’t that the anchors had been even remotely cold before I said it, but afterward we’d established a rapport, a history, and moments later we were being whisked off to the anchor desk for pictures with Bill and Kate. Somebody I hadn’t met took our camera and snapped multiple pictures of my wife and me at the desk both with the anchors and without them. It was just one more case of us being treated as friends and honored guests, rather than just tourists come to gawk at a bunch of people going about what were, to them, just their jobs.

When that was done and everybody had dispersed, we were alone by the anchor desk with Alice. “Oh,” she asked, ”did I introduce you to the man who was taking your pictures? That was Andrew Morse. He’s the show’s Executive Producer.” Gulp. Now THAT was cool.

At this point, you might think we’d pretty much seen and done it all. Think again - there was still about an hour left in our tour, if you can believe that.

Alice had recently toured Central New York on an Erie Canal cruise, and we discussed the Erie Canal as she walked us through the as-yet-unseen parts of the GMA facility. I’m no expert on the Canal, but I’m familiar with it and had recently, as chance would have it, discussed it with my dad, who was reading a book on the subject. So I regaled Alice with information about the reasons for the canal, some details about the terrain, and even about how it had once run directly through downtown Syracuse where today there’s a major thoroughfare (Erie Boulevard) and a fountain/ice-rink at Clinton Square. She found this fascinating and lamented that she’d learned more from me in ten minutes than she had during the entire three-day cruise. I sure hope that’s not literally true, but it was flattering to hear, anyway.

Our next stop was the meteorology center, where we met Max the Meteorologist. GMA has an entire weather center where Max prepares the maps and animations that go onto the big 103” plasma screen (and its little buddies alongside) for Sam Champion and Marysol Castro (or their substitutes) to do the weather. Max was happy to tell us about what he did, and even zoomed in on Syracuse to show us the weather back home. We got to talking and he asked me some questions about a couple of the lakes nearby – Oswego Lake and Onondaga Lake. I mentioned that Onondaga is one of the most-polluted lakes in the nation (Syracuse’s claim to fame – yay!) which he found very interesting. Alice then mentioned that I was an expert on the Erie Canal (Alice seemed to enjoy over-selling my background in any subject that came up, but I wasn’t complaining. If I ever need a PR Rep, she’s tops on my list.) and Max and I discussed that for a while.

Eventually it was time to bid a fond farewell to Max and his high-tech weather center and get on with the tour. We poked our heads into Andrew Morse’s office where he and some folks were having a post-show meeting. We saw Bill Weir hunkered over a computer in an office across the hall. We met Robin Roberts’ personal assistant who was on her way to work out. We stopped in to say hi to the camera operators, who were all hanging out together next to the green room. Alice told them I wanted to be a camera man and they looked at me like I was nuts. “Why??” one of them finally asked. “Well, I don’t really. Alice just feels I need some sort of job.” It’s ok, really. My mother-in-law feels the same way. I think she’d like Alice a lot, too.

I had told Alice about my background on Point ‘n’ Click and how much I had enjoyed learning all about every aspect of the show’s production, including audio, video/camera, lighting, direction, etc. From this she’d extrapolated that I might enjoy being a part-time freelance cameraman for my local news outlets. But she also played up my on-air experience and interest in TV production, which I think had a lot to do with how excited everybody was to talk to me. I also think that tours like mine are pretty rare – most of the show’s guests probably just come on, pitch their product or story, and then leave. I was there to see it all, though, and Alice took it as a personal challenge. We literally explored areas it was clear to me she’d never been in before.

Beyond the dressing rooms and camera crew lounge (which I think was actually designated “Green Room 2”), we took an elevator down to what I believe was below street level. Here we found an employee break-room (with the aforementioned maintenance worker watching TV on his break), the full kitchen where all of the food used on the show is prepped, and a warehouse of set pieces, lights and large props like extra chairs. This was the point that I could really tell we’d gone off Alice’s map.

Next, we were back upstairs to grab some water from the Green Room and then head through the control room again. Alice pointed out Lily, the show’s director, who was busy recording a promo spot with Bill Weir that’s done live at around 9:30 AM with a station somewhere in California. We watched as they did a test connection over Skype with Mommy Blogger Heather Armstrong. They had her move about her house and fiddle with the blinds and such in search of an optimal location for the Sunday morning interview they were doing. And I got to say hi to Eric Noll, the show’s segment producer who I’d met a month earlier at the Dinosaur. We hung around in there for a while, as Alice knew I was fascinated by the technical aspects of the show’s production. We watched closely, sipping our waters, then eventually headed out the door opposite the one that leads to the set.

In this hallway, the first thing I noted were the multiple, very large signs that read “Control Room – absolutely no food or drink beyond this point.” As I’m standing there with my half-empty bottle of water in my hand. D’oh! My heart started racing as I wondered whether everybody in the control room thought we were complete tools for standing there in their multi-million-dollar command center flaunting our bottles of electronics-poison. And, of course, they’d tell everybody else on the team and all those people who’d been so nice to us would think we were jerks, too, and aaaaaagh! I’d ruined everything! Why weren’t these signs on the other entryway, too?!?

Then I remembered that several people in the control room had had a cup of coffee next to their station and I calmed down. They hadn’t noticed or said anything because evidently it was no big deal. Whew! I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it again, just in case, but it seemed a lot less likely that they’d already started trading emails about what horrible people we were once we'd walked out the door.

Our next stop was the audio room, where Joe and Mark set all of the levels for the studio mics, any remote setups, any segments playing off tape, and so forth. Mark was on the phone, but Joe was more than happy to show off his giant sound board (which looked to me exactly like what you’d see in a high-end music recording studio) and the various monitors where he matched the sound to the video. They also had a window to the side that looked straight through into the control room. Joe remembered the BBQ segment (it seemed everybody had really enjoyed devouring the multiple sets of ribs that had been shipped to the studio by the competing restaurants for the taste-test) and remembered me as well. On the Sunday morning when we taped the GMA segment live from the Dinosaur, Joe’s had been the voice in my IFB checking the levels on the mic and verifying that I could hear the anchors’ voices through my earpiece. Joe’s a biker and sometimes gets up around Syracuse on his rides, so we exchanged contact info in the hopes that we can meet up at the Dinosaur the next time he’s up my way.

Alice showed us through a few more offices, but at that point we’d pretty well seen everything there was to see in the GMA studio. We chatted again briefly with Bill Weir and then Andrew Morse (I got to tell Bill that I loved the rapport that the weekend anchors had and that in many ways I enjoyed GMA Weekend more than the weekday show. He seemed very happy to hear it. My wife liked how his eyes sparkled). It was nearly 10 AM at this point and we had to admit that there just wasn’t anything left to tour. Alice walked us down through the back hallways and out to the street and bid us a fond adieu. The tour had been everything I could have hoped for and much more I’d never dared to expect. But there was one last surprise that I wouldn’t even have imagined. I’d heard it from several people in the studio, and Alice confirmed that they weren’t just saying it to be polite. We’d been invited to come back again for Sunday’s show!

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