ANDREW HEYWARD: Bernie Birnbaum, currently a producer at SUNDAY
MORNING, is a 44-year veteran of CBS News. Bernie was Charles's senior
producer for ON TFIE ROAD. Charles's battered motor home zigzagged through
every state and back again and logged more than a million miles on the
road. Here's Bernie Birnbaum.
BERNIE BIRNBAUM: Petie, Karen, Wallace, and the members of the Kuralt
family. I don't think any of us would be here in this great hall with
all these great people without one man whom we should honor, Dr. Stanton.
Without you, none of this would be possible. None of us would be here.
Thank you for coming to honor Charles Kuralt.
Those of us who've been around CBS News for a long time have really
been blessed. We were privileged to work with all the greats: Murrow,
Sevareid, Burton Benjamin, Bill Leonard, Richard Salant, Collingwood,
Hughes Rudd, Reasoner and, now, Charles Kuralt. We respected them all.
We worked with them all. We admired them all, but none of the greats
were quite like Charles.
He was really special. The first time I ever went out on assignment
with him, 37 years ago, I knew he was a genius because he could do anything
and everything that anyone in this profession did, but he did it better.
Let me tell you why. He sometimes liked to say that he was not a real
reporter. I'd like to quote one of his writings: "Real reporters
have to stick their noses in where they're not wanted, ask embarrassing
questions, dodge bullets, contend with deadlines, worry about the competition.
If I came upon a real story out there on the road," he said, "I'd
call some real reporter to come cover it."
He was a real reporter, and even before ON THE ROAD, he was one of the
best correspondents that we at CBS News ever worked with. Listen to
30-year-old Charles Kuralt describing poverty in "Christmas in
Appalachia," 1964: "This is a road, if you can call it that,
that leads to the Pert Creek School in Letcher County, Kentucky. There
are tens of thousands of roads like this, winding back along the creeks
and hollows of 11 states. And beside these roads, the shacks and tarpaper
and pine which are the home of a million permanently poor." And
at the end of the broadcast, he said, "Coal cars roll on through
Christmas week, carrying the wealth of Appalachia away. The cars carry
coal, never people. The people wait. A million people wait." This
was all before the war on poverty. I think this program helped bring
that program about.
After that 1964 broadcast, which Phil Scheffler helped set up, the CBS
switchboard lit up. Seventy thousand dollars of unsolicited money poured
into CBS News. Dr. Stanton got Salant to give it away to the Red Cross.
A viewer chartered a plane to carry food and Christmas presents to Letcher
County, Kentucky, all because of Kuralt's words and that grave voice
over those stark black-and-white pictures describing poor children and
their coal-miner families at Christmastime, dying of hunger in the richest
country, in America.
Kuralt looked again the next year, in 1965, for what he wrote was "the
most miserable spot to spend Christmas." He sent me to Vietnam.
He wasn't interested in politics or the generals. We spent our time
in Vietnam with an infantry squad, a few G.I.'s who fought daily against
snipers and booby traps.
One day, a mine exploded in the bush on the perimeter. Sergeant Floyd,
whom we filmed that morning, was badly wounded. As we rushed him to
an aid station, Kuralt twisted the tourniquet on his leg and held it
tight. Sergeant Duenas, whom we had also filmed that morning, died in
Before that blast, Kuralt told me he didn't want me out on the perimeterit
was too dangerous. Perhaps he saved my life, but perhaps I saved his,
too. One night, we were under mortar fire and Kuralt wanted to use the
nearest latrine. I felt it was too close to the jungle and the bushthe
V.C. were always around. So I advised him to use the latrine in the
center of the camp. He did. The next night, we heard an explosion. The
latrine he wanted to use had been boobytrapped and completely blown
apart. He looked at me quizzically and I said, "I told you so."
Kuralt was a superstitious person and a creature of habit. When he was
about to leave Saigon for New York to write and cut our broadcast "Christmas
in Vietnam," he said, "Before we put a rough script and lineup
together in the field, let's write the lineup on the back of an envelope
like we did last year in 'Christmas in Appalachia.'" For years
afterwards, whenever we worked together, he would say, "Let's take
an envelope out and write a lineup."
I shall always remember that Christmas in Vietnam. Sergeant Floyd wanted
to be here today. Sergeant Floyd loved Kuralt. He followed him into
his hospital, where he got his artificial leg. He followed him to his
marriage. He interviewed him 20 years after "Christmas in Vietnam."
Anyone who ever touched Kuralt never was the same.
When Kuralt came back to America, after Vietnam, he had had enough of
death and danger. Believe it or not, he was soon off to the North Pole.
He was to travel to the North Pole by snowmobile. About the only thing
that came out of that expedition was that he was able to write a book
about it. The expedition was led, as he writes, "by a peddler of
spices, extracts, fly spray and cattle vitamins from Askov, Minnesota,
the rutabaga capital of the world." Kuralt told me that, at one
point, he himself ended up shooting some of the most dangerous footage
that had aired in the program because most of the time the Arctic froze
the cameras, shredded the 16-millimeter film into confetti.
To prevent these problems, he put the hand-held camera next to his warm
body one day on a dangerous flight, underneath his clothing. He was
able to shoot some of the most dramatic film himself.
Let me tell you why I've always believed that Charles Kuralt was a genius:
he was a great writer, he was a great poet, he could do most things
quite well, with ease and grace and no pomposity and guile.
Shortly after the EVENING NEWS expanded to a half-hourthose
were the days of Hewitt, Midgley and Schefflerwe were sitting
in the old Slate restaurant where the 555 building now stands. Kuralt
asked me, "Bernie, what do those new associate producers do?"
I said, "Shut up, Keep quiet' If every correspondent was like you,
guys like me would be out of a job!" That's the truth.
I told you before that Kuralt could do anything that anyone in this
profession did, but better. I bet that some of you cameramen out there
sitting in this room have been thinking that he couldn't do your job
as well. Well, in the 1960s, he was appointed chiefand onlyLatin
American correspondent. That's the reason I sometimes called him Carlos
instead of Charles. I don't think he liked Charlie.
Once, he got a one-man visa to set foot in Cuba when all Americans were
barred from entry. We couldn't send a cameraman along, so our executive
producer, Les Midgley, gave him 50 hundred-foot rolls of black-and-white
film. He shot the whole EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY himself. The story was
great. Kuralt could do anything. When we were screening the footage
in New York, Les Midgley looked around the screening room and said,
"Why is it some cameramen can't shoot film as good as Kuralt?"
I couldn't answer him.
If you've read any of his books, you probably know how Kuralt started
the ON THE ROAD series. When he returned to New York from the North
Pole, he approached president Dick Salant and asked for a change of
pace. Nineteen-sixty-seven: "I said, 'Why don't you let me just
wander for three months, to see what I can find?' Salant said, 'What
do you think you'll find?' I waxed poetic: 'Farmers bringing in their
crops, first-graders starting school, country fairs, town meetings,
pulse of America, you know.' President Salant was distracted by the
pile of work on his desk. 'Okay,' he said, 'Try it. Keep the budget
down."' Mr. Heyward knows some things never change.
From that simple beginning, ON THE ROAD would last over 20 years. Kuralt
and his crew of Izzy Bleckman and Johnny and Larry Gianneschi sent to
the CBS EVENING NEWS almost 500 stories that were such great classics
that every few years executive producer Les Midgley and I had the honor
to rebroadcast those stories and make new hour and half-hour programs
from them. By the way, those programs were the highest rated CBS News
programs of that season.
Perhaps the most memorable series was "On the Road to '76,"
that one we put on during the bicentennial year. During that time, Kuralt
sent a new story to the EVENING NEWS every week from each of the 50
states. It was a complete oral history of America. And recently, under
Shad Northshield's direction, they were rebroadcast again on the Travel
Channel. Where else in America can you find 500 stories almost 30 years
old that look as fresh and original today as the day he and his crew
created them? I told you he was a genius.
So, how was he able to create this great body of work? I'll try to tell
you how he did it. Charles stood behind the camera, quietly watching
what was taking place. He put people at ease, engaged them in quiet
conversation. They all got to know him and love him. Then; he personally
looked at each foot of film or tape, made his own notes, crafted his
own scripts and, thanks to editors like Tommy Micklas and Lenny Raff,
took his precious words and made them into jewels. He once told me he
never wrote a word without visualizing in his mind the matching picture
that would sit over each word. In a cutting room once, he said, "I
want this word to hit over this particular frame." Each frame lasted
a 24th of a second.
He was a perfectionist as well as a poet. He matched his words to the
picture so well that you could close your eyes and still get the impactthe
full impactof what he was saying. Peter Freundlich and Mary Lou
Teel, who is sitting there, worked with Charles Kuralt on SUNDAY MORNING.
Listen to a tribute she wrote, published in a Maine newspaper: "Charles
exuded something, a kind of magicalthough I'm searching for another
wordthat transformed things into something better. Enchantment.
Charm. Charles would know. Being with him made us feel blessed, somehow,
worthwhile, important, better than we thought we were before."
I say he'll remain with us in our hearts and in our minds, through his
books and his great body of work at CBS News.
He ended his book, On the Road, writingand I quote"We
feel we have the best jobs in journalism. We are out there now, leaving
the motel parking lot with the sun coming up. We've just plugged in
the coffee pot. Izzy is driving the bus. Larry's in the back tinkering
with his gear. I'm looking at the road map to figure out which way we'll
go today. We have a story we're headed toward, but we hope we'll never
get there. We hope we'll stumble across something more interesting along
the way. There's a long road ahead of us. We don't know where we'll
be spending the night."
For all of us now, without you, Charles, it's the darkest of nights.
And now from Shakespeare: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night,
sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
An intellectually stimulating collection of insightful
and occasionally poignant commentaries, Charles Kuralt's People is
very highly recommended reading for students of the human condition in
and legions of Charles Kuralt fans in particular. — Midwest Book
for more info.
Hard cover, 386 pages, $25.95 plus $3.95 Priority
Mail shipping. (NC residents must add 6 percent sales tax.)
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About Kenilworth Media
Publishers of the first edition of "Remembering Charles Kuralt,"
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the life works of Charles Kuralt.