August 26, 2007

My Shot: Frank Chirkinian

Front and center! Coming up, a TV legend with revelations on Bobby Jones, Spider-Man and the guy in the rainbow wig.

Frank Chirkinian, photographed July 1, 2003, in Hollywood, Calif.

Frank Chirkinian, photographed July 1, 2003, in Hollywood, Calif.

__ Age 77,

TV producer,

Bel Air, California __

One day, long after I'm dead, you're going to see sports live in 3-D. A series of high-definition screens will surround you, and two great players will be on your left and right at the Masters, and you'll hear every word they're saying. You'll see the flight of the ball as they see it, and it will be so real your instinct will be to walk forward and pick up their divot. Put this prediction in a time capsule and open it in 50 years. You'll see that I was right.

They call me The Ayatollah. Pat Summerall gave me the name in the late 1970s, when the Shah of Iran was deposed and replaced by Khomeini. I admit, reluctantly, that I enjoyed the nickname. If nothing else, it beat being called Adolf.

Like Patton, when I wanted to get my message across, I gave it to them loud and dirty. In rehearsals I was profane as could be. I ripped everybody. We had seven announcers all wanting air time, and it was important they remember I was the boss. I treated my crew almost like children, and let's face it, sometimes children need to be spanked. It was a form of tough love. As a result, I had a very loyal group of individuals working for me, and the loyalty was returned in kind.

Don't underestimate the power of an occasional "atta boy." Use it sparingly but sincerely, and it will make up for the hundred times you uttered those words, "You dumb s---."

Workplaces today subscribe to the psychobabble of treating each individual differently. In my world, nobody could complain about being picked on, because everybody was picked on. During rehearsals, every guy on the crew would wait to see who was going to get chewed out next, the way one brother takes pleasure in seeing the other brother get punished. It was therapeutic. When a cameraman saw Pat Summerall getting ripped, and then Ben Wright getting yelled at, it made him realize there was equality.

Never talk while the ball is in the air.

My parents were from Armenia, the first country in the world to embrace Christianity. It was a bastion of Christianity in a sea of Islam. The Turks decided to take it over, and by 1923 they had killed almost 2 million Armenians. My mother's family was the richest in Constantinople, and in that episode her entire family was killed and my mother was raped. My father's first wife, his four sons, aunts and uncles — 14 people all together — were massacred by the Turks. They threw my four half-brothers into the air and caught them on bayonets. My father escaped and came to America, where he settled in Philadelphia. He took my mother's name off a displaced-person's list — he didn't know her — and traveled to Cuba, where the government had sent her. From there he brought her to Philadelphia, where he married her. There followed the birth of my sister and me. Mine is an American success story.

When my son was growing up, I was gone all the time. We're talking not being there for Christmas and New Year's, missing his birthday. A while back I asked my son, who is now 44, "Why aren't you getting married?" He answered, "Because I don't want to raise my son by telephone, the way you did me." I said, "Son, aside from that being the cruelest thing you've ever said to me, I have to admit it's the most honest thing you've ever said. For what it's worth, I love you, and I did all I could." I believe he understands. I hope he understands. I really did try.

You remember Rollen Stewart. He was the guy in the rainbow wig holding the John 3:16 sign on virtually every telecast for a two-year period during the '80s. It galled me more and more, having this man distracting viewers from the show we worked on so hard. One day I'd had enough. I had Stewart brought to my office. "Let me tell you something," I said. "As a Christian, I'm embarrassed by you and what you're doing. If you continue, I'm going to have you arrested at every single tournament site. You're going to be spending most of your time with your funny wig behind bars." That was the end of Rollen Stewart, at least for us. [Stewart was sentenced to three life prison terms for taking a hotel maid hostage in 1992.]

Movies in black and white tend to be predicated on human emotion and are uplifting. Movies in color are predicated on special effects. Watching Spider-Man climb the side of a building does nothing for me. With the exception of "On Golden Pond," color movies for the most part are junk. On the other hand, the day I walked into our production truck in 1966 and saw our golf broadcasts in color for the first time, I almost cried. It was the greatest experience of my life, like giving sight to a blind man.

In 1967 there was a strike before the final round of the Masters. Our engineers had to honor the picket line, so I had to use management people to run the equipment and also do the announcing. Talk about a circus. They were well-educated, articulate people, but when the show came on they were helpless. Teddy O'Connell, one of our sales people, was manning the 15th hole when Tommy Aaron came into view. "Here comes Tommy Walker," Teddy said, "a member of the Aaron Cup Team." When I hear someone say, "Hell, I could announce as well as those guys," I don't hesitate to come back with, "No, you couldn't."

I hired Henry Longhurst, who had worked for the BBC and had a thick British accent, a wonderful way with words and a perspective of the game that blended beautifully with our American announcers. For Henry's first American telecast, at a tournament in Massachusetts, I decided to put him on the 16th hole. We had just built a 40-foot tower there, the tallest in our history, and at that time we didn't have ladders, because we'd never needed them. I was in the truck for the rehearsal, and suddenly it dawned on me: How is Henry going to get up that tower? Climbing the scaffolding was out of the question. Henry was getting on in years, his physical condition was deplorable, and he loved his martinis. It was raining, and the metal scaffolding was slippery. It was a disaster waiting to happen. I zoomed out to the 16th just in time to see Henry start up the scaffolding. Before I could say anything, he had scurried up that thing like a spider. He was at the top in about 30 seconds. It was the most astonishing thing I'd ever seen. When Henry came down, I started in on him. "That was dangerous, Henry. It's wet outside and ..."

"Yes, yes, my boy," he interrupted. "Now, let's go to the clubhouse and get wet on the inside." And off he went to find a martini.

Then there was Ben Wright. When he denied making those comments about breasts interfering with a woman's swing and how lesbianism on the LPGA Tour made corporate America reluctant to embrace the tour, I believed him. It turned out he lied. I feel that if Ben had come clean in the first place, the episode would have died out very quickly. The observation on breasts he got straight from JoAnne Carner. As for lesbianism hurting the LPGA corporately, well, you tell me. I do feel that Ben should be back on the air. If Marv Albert, who was a convicted felon, can be brought back — with a raise — then there ought to be a place for Ben Wright.

If you discount the spectacular views of Pebble Beach, the blimp doesn't add much to the telecast. But I'm proud I was the first to use it in golf. In the area of "promotional considerations," it's been a home run.

I really disliked the Butler Cabin ceremony at Augusta. I always felt that the best thing to do would be to go right to the public presentation of the green jacket, with emotions still at a fever pitch and all the people and a national TV audience there to see it. To go inside the flower-infested catacombs of the Butler Cabin and watch the club chairmen perform the ceremony they were helpless — really let the air out of the balloon. One year Hord Hardin asked Bernhard Langer how he pronounced his name. Another year he asked Seve how tall he was. I would watch this with my face in my hands, but the club wouldn't have it any other way. Oh, well.

Jack Whitaker was banned from the Masters telecast for referring to the patrons as a "mob." Here's the deal on that: It was a Monday playoff between Billy Casper and Gene Littler, and all the security people had left to go back to their real jobs. Most of the season badge holders had left town, and on the way out had given their badges to people who weren't real fans. With those fans running all over, Whitaker referred to them as a mob. Cliff Roberts [Augusta National co-founder] got rid of Jack for that, but I think he did it out of embarrassment and frustration for things spinning out of control. I know Roberts regretted it, because when Henry Longhurst fell ill several years later and couldn't do the telecast, I took Whitaker to Cliff's office and explained the problem and asked if Jack could work. Cliff couldn't say yes fast enough.

I loved Bob Jones. It was my custom, upon arriving at Augusta early in Masters week, to go to Bob's cabin and visit with him. In 1970, when I arrived at the cabin, there was Mary Jones, Bob's wife, standing on the steps waiting for me, beside herself with anger. "How could you?" she said. "How could you?"

"How could I what?" I said.

"How could you do that to Bob!"

"Do what to Bob?"

"Remove him from the presentation ceremony."

"I did no such thing," I replied. "I fully expect him to be there."

Mary paused for moment, then said, "I knew it. That son of a bitch Roberts, I knew he was behind this."

It turned out Roberts had told Mary that CBS had decided to exclude Bob from the presentation ceremony, with the explanation CBS was afraid Bob would "expire" on live television. And it wasn't our decision at all. I was not surprised one bit to learn that when Bobby Jones died a year later, that Clifford Roberts was not invited to attend the funeral, and that as a result, Bob Jones III was declared persona non grata at Augusta National.

Make no mistake, if another Frank Chirkinian came along today, he could not survive. He would be deemed politically incorrect and would be run out of town. It's a different world today, and for me school was dismissed just in time.