An Initial “Big ’80s” Memory Download
From May 1984 to December 1985, I worked as a Guest Relations Representative (GRP), or Page, for NBC Television Studios in Burbank, California. Many Pages were excited by the frequent showbiz interactions that were accessible and provided by a major TV network facility. Some found work within and outside of the industry. Others found their job only uncovered a depressing, even insulting Hollywood experience.
For me, it was the ultimate. By the time I arrived at NBC in the Big ’80s, the Page position had grown into one of the most sought-after entry-level jobs in the entertainment field. Being a Page at this time involved running into Ricky Schroeder (then of NBC’s Silver Spoons, later of ABC’s NYPD Blue) or Boy George (who was working on one of the Motown Summer Specials), joking with Doc Severinsen (conductor of The Tonight Show band), studying the backstage workings of a TV special or going on a limo-run with one of the stars of NBC’s Hill Street Blues or Days of Our Lives. It was a time before the network’s expanding obsession with the Law & Order franchise and Dateline, the must-see super success of Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, and Will & Grace; it was the Cosby Show era of the company’s initial super resurgence in popularity when Cheers was merely hitting its peak.
Alex P. Keaton, Pat and Vanna, and more…
I found myself on the set of Family Ties, The Golden Girls and Wheel of Fortune. I helped to coordinate an affiliates’ convention, two press tours, five Bob Hope specials, An All-Star Salute To President Dutch Reagan, the 1984 Democratic Presidential Debates, and the 1984 Emmy Awards. I laughed with established comedians, lunched with network suits, hob-knobbed with celebrities, stuffed envelopes — and passed out tickets to Scrabble — all for a measly $5.20 an hour.
It all was a bundle of fun with the so-called Peacock network — which, by the way, was the first broadcast television network to ignite the Page program.
Since 1933, NBC has offered what have now become historic tours of its facilities in Burbank, California, New York, and Chicago. Hundreds of thousands have paced through the studio gates and peered behind the scenes of various NBC shows over the years — all guided by NBC Pages — each of whom served as world guides to TV’s initial broadcast net. Hundreds of young adults have been applying for the Page position every year in the seven decades since the studio commenced the GRP in New York, including such former-Pages as:
Kate Jackson (of ABC’s Charlie’s Angels), Ken Howard (of CBS’ The White Shadow), Richard Benjamin, Steve Allen (one of the original hosts of NBC’s Tonight Show), Dave Garroway (original host of NBC’s Today Show), Eva Marie Saint, Gordon MacRae, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (ABC’s The FBI), Willard Scott (NBC’s iconic Today Show weatherman, pre-Al Roker), Regis Philbin, Tex Antoine, Ted Koppel (ABC’s Nightline host) and CBS-TV’s Captain Kangaroo himself, the late Bob Keeshan (who as Kangaroo, kind of always looked like a Page).
There have also been several top network executives who are former Pages, such as the now infamous and former Disney/ABC high-roller Michael Eisner, and others who have risen through the ranks at NBC constituting a unique fraternity (NBC Betamax?) within the corporation.
It all was a bundle of fun — so let’s all go there!
“Let’s all be there…”
Or so went the commercial slogan for the campaign that NBC employed for its 1984–1985 TV season. At the time, the network was merely the Mr. T- breeding-ground for The A-Team, and home to no-hit wonders like Manimal and The Misfits of Science (starring a pre-Friends Courtney Cox).
For me, NBC was a doorway into the industry. As began the theme for The Brady Bunch (initially on ABC in 1969 and revisited by NBC in 2000 as a behind-the-scenes TV-movie), here’s the story:
I graduated with a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Nazareth College of Rochester, New York (my hometown) in the spring of 1983 and, like so many college grads (with or without a BA in Theatre Arts or Drama), I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dreams. One of those dreams involved being an actor, preferably on a TV sitcom or daytime soap opera.
I also, of course, had this secret fantasy to play Erik Estrada’s younger brother, who I named, Honch, as a replacement for his Ponch character on NBC’s CHiPs. (You know — just like Cheryl Ladd had replaced Farrah Fawcett as her character’s younger — and better built — sister on ABC’s Charlie’s Angels?) But since NBC had just since canceled CHiPs (in the spring of 1983), and even though I once observed the show being filmed on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood some six years before (during my first visit to Los Angeles in the spring of 1977), that dream was dead, at least by the time the fall of 1983 had arrived. By that point, I just needed a place in which not only to live my dream but just a place to live, period.
After a brief search, I ultimately found a studio apartment in the Brentwood/West Los Angeles area on what today is somewhat of a well-known street of dreams (and way too many nightmares): South Bundy Drive.
Fortunately, my initial L.A. apartment hunt transpired some ten years before Bundy Drive had become infamous for the controversial affairs of a certain former athlete in the guise of O.J. Simpson — who actually lived on North Bundy Drive. I was still pretty much safe, though I certainly didn’t require O.J. to make ominous my stay on Bundy. (In not so many words, I guess I would have been much better off if I had moved to the other side of the city.)
I ended up subletting the apartment from a mysterious woman with whom the previous male tenant (who had recently died) was acquainted. The place was mine if I wanted it. But I wasn’t allowed to tell the landlord. Instead, I was instructed to send my rent check to the enigmatic woman, who in turn, was instructed to “take care of it.”
My Spider senses were tingling…
I felt something was amiss. My spider senses were tingling. But I ignored them, mostly because I had reached a primary goal: Again: a place to live and, and it was dirt cheap at $175.00 a month. Yet dirt cheap took on a double meaning once I actually stepped into the apartment — which was filthy — and which sorely needed what is known today as an extreme makeover. But the extensive amount of required home improvement effort ultimately became a good thing.
I was still smarting from a summer-love-gone-sour, and I figured that fixing up the disheveled apartment would have proved to be therapeutic — or would have at least helped me to establish a sense of independence. I’m not so sure if either of those goals panned out (I still hate you, Sonya), but I was willing to give it a shot. I really got in there, and scrubbed and painted, even ripped off ugly wallpaper from the bathroom wall. Unfortunately, during that latter trial and error period, some of the actual wall came off in the process. That’s when I decided to forget the whole thing and hire professionals.
I opened the yellow pages and telephoned a random painter. I was quoted a price of $150.00, which seemed fair. Some hours later, the painters arrived. They completed their work, and I immediately became dissatisfied with the job. So, I needed a break. Yet instead of a burger at McDonald’s (which may have lead to my own French fry franchise), I attended a taping of NBC’s Family Ties, a title of which later proved prophetic for my soon-to-be-TV-network and me.
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This material is an edited excerpt from NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK. For more information, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.