By Steve Gilford
I am addicted to “On This Date in History” type columns listing of significant anniversaries of events, births, etc. On September first, I realized that day was the birthday of three people I connect with ‘GBH.
The first was Alan Dershowitz, a high profile defense lawyer, a constitutional law expert as well as a Harvard Law School Professor and a frequent guest on Louis Lyons News and on WGBH public affairs programming. As stage manager, I often had the opportunity to chat with him. He was just one of the nationally known figures who were regulars in our studio.
The second whose birthday was September 1 is Seiji Ozawa. I never had anything to do with him personally but he and the BSO were regular and much appreciated features on our air. However, it’s the third person I want to write about.
To do so, I need to return to 1964. It was an election year. when WGBH didn’t yet have a real news department. Lyndon Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater. Further down the ballot, Joseph Fernandes, the founder of Fernandes Supermarkets, was running for State Treasurer.
To advance his cause, he had called a press conference in Boston to explain his agenda if elected. To encourage reporters to show up, the press conference was to be held over lunch at Anthony’s Pier 4, one of the city’s premier seafood restaurants. Invitations went out to the news departments of local television and radio stations as well as to reporters at the newspapers in the Greater Boston area.
As I mentioned earlier, WGBH did not yet have a news department but we got an invitation and somehow the invitation was passed on to me. Not long out of college and working for what WGBH, in the mid-Sixties, called a salary, the thought of a free lunch at Pier 4 was tempting and I gave in.
I decided that I could just slip in among the others there and if asked I could give my station affiliation. I figured no one would quiz me about my non-existent news department. On the appropriate date and time, I drove with my motorcycle to the waterfront. rearranged my clothes so I didn’t look quite so obviously windblown and walked in to meet Mr. Fernandes and what I expected would be a score or two of journalists.
Entering the dining room that had been reserved for the press conference, I saw that there were only three other people there. A determinedly cheerful Joe Fernandes stepped over to me and introduced himself and his two companions, Rocky and Frankie. What struck me immediately was how different his friends were from each other. Frankie flashy, a big guy, overweight, kind of pudgy, with golden bleached hair. On his pinkie finger he wore a large gold ring the size of a World Championship Superbowl ring with what must have been his initials, FF, laid out in diamonds.
Rocky was a bit shorter, was dressed conservatively in slacks and a sports jacket that showed that he was in very good shape. I figured he must have been Fernandes’ bodyguard. I had no idea what Frankie did for Fernandes.
Fernandes told me why there were no other press people in the room. Ted Kennedy was running for re-election as Senator from Massachusetts. He was still suffering from a private plane crash that had killed the pilot and another passenger and now was a sentimental favorite to win re-election. He had been bedridden for months with his wife, filling in for him at appearances across the state. Reporters hadn’t seen much of him since the crash so earlier in the day when he had called a press conference in another part of Boston scheduled for the same time, reporters had no trouble figuring out which one to attend even if there wouldn’t be oysters and beer.
Now that I was the only one to have shown up, I had to explain that I was actually there under false pretenses but no one seemed to mind. That Fernandes was a regular viewer of WGBH helped.
Slowly it came to me that the big pudgy guy with the bleached hair was Frankie Fontaine. Those of us of a certain age will remember him from the Jackie Gleason show when Gleason, as Joe, the Bartender, would greet Crazy Guggenheim as he walked into his bar. That was Frankie and that was how each comic skit began. If you want to see him in action, Google Frankie Fontaine and Jackie Gleason on YouTube.
About Rocky? He was the third of the trio whose birthday was today but it took a while before I realized who he was. Finally there enough clues in the conversation and I realized that it the guy I thought was Joe Fernandes’ bodyguard was ”The Brockton Blockbuster”, “The Rock from Brockton”, the retired, undefeated World Heavyweight Champion, Rocky Marciano.
The three of them made me feel welcome, so much so that our lunch went on for nearly two hours. The talk was fun – about show business, about boxing, about a lot of different things. I don’t think we ever talked about the Fernandes campaign.
Their next stop was Springfield where Fernandes would be giving a speech that evening. We were having such a fine time that they made a serious effort to convince me to go with them. I felt I had to turn the offer down. Back at the station there were some things I had to finish by day’s end but I think it would have been a glorious trip.
Never again would have the honor of representing the yet-to-be-established WGBH News Department but was a lot of fun while it lasted.