Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The man I idolized and still try to emulate

You might say that I had an hour to kill this morning between my East Los Angeles appointment and my downtown L.A. meeting.
But I wouldn't say that.
I saw it as an hour to live.
It's ironic that I chose this morning to explore one of the old cemeteries in East Los Angeles. This would be my sixth or seventh in the past month or so.
I intended to explore a well-maintained Serbian cemetery I'd discovered, but then I noticed a neglected, nearly abandoned graveyard hiding across the street.
I found a gate with no lock, so I went in. It turns out it's a Russian cemetery that must have been accepting most of its tenants in the early part of the 20th Century.
When I walked over to the beautifully groomed Serbian cemetery, one member of a tag-team , grave-digging duo responded to my greeting -- and to everything else I said to him -- in a thick Spanish accent.
"No camara. No pictures. No camera."
That took the fun out it for me. I spent a few minutes walking between the polished gravestones with a sort of "see if you can stop me" attitude. But I didn't shoot any pictures.
When I got back in my car, I heard the voice of my first TV boss, Pete Noyes, on KPCC's "Air Talk." He was talking about the man who had inspired me more than anyone, -- a man who I believe opened up my eyes to Los Angeles, to people and the beauty of brilliant writing. The sad part was that Pete was talking about Ralph Story in the past tense.
It took only a moment for me to realized the man I've idolized -- more than anyone -- had just died.
If you thought it was strange when you read that I was exploring seemingly abandoned graveyards in my not-so-spare time, then you can thank Ralph Story.
I certainly did. He stimulated my curiousity. He helped me find the explorer inside of me.
You see, when I was on the fringes of failing history in high school -- sorry, couldn't relate, -- I'd be looking forward to learning history by watching Ralph Story's Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon, even though it was a repeat of the program I'd already seen the Sunday before. And I'd be back in front of our old TV the next day to see the next episode.
Each week was a new adventure -- a new look at an old Los Angeles. He introduced me to Henry Huntington, Barney's Beanery, the old amusement park that was across Beverly Blvd. from what's now the Beverly Center. He took me on rides on the old Red Cars and took me back to the day in 1942 when the Japanese sub surfaced and lobbed a few shells in the direction of an oil field north of Ventura. And then he described the hysteria a day or two later when everyone thought that Japanese planes were bombing L.A. He called it The Battle of Los Angeles.
Of course, there were no Japanese planes.
He taught me the amazing history of water in Los Angeles and about the dam that old William Mulholland had designed -- a dam that would collapse on March 12, 1928. Years later I would bring together a reunion of the survivors of Southern California's worst disaster. I had never learned about it in school.
Ralph Story taught me.
I doubt that I ever got anything higher than a "C" in any history class, but I dreamed of the day I'd be sitting on the set, looking into the camera and sharing "Don Ray's Los Angeles" with fascinated young haters of history.

Ralph Story had an amazing ability to see things others couldn't see and to see things in ordinary people that others missed. He was a great writer, but I'd later learn that he had great writers working with him.
When I returned from Vietnam, I went back to my job with the U.S. Postal Service. It took me several years to realize that I was in the wrong place. That earlier dream was still inside of me, so jumped ship and went to college to study journalism.
In 1982, I began a stint as a per diem news writer at Channel 2 News at a time when Ralph Story was back on the air as an anchor.
I was able to watch, up close, the way he could pick up anything -- even poorly written news scripts and read them in a way that would make them sing. Finally, the day came when I got to write for him. My writing was probably mediocre, but his delivery made me believe I was gifted..
I hoped that there would come a day when maybe I could have dinner with him and tell him just how much he had inspired me. But I was a 33-year-old guy, and I couldn't compete with the lure of 21-year-old women. The truth is that I was invisible. Stuff like that happens in television.
But I still could put together the kinds of scripts that he could plate in gold with his conversational delivery.
For 40 years I've been giving my friends and their friends my all-night tour of Los Angeles. We never go to any place fancy -- just to amazingly interesting places most Angelenos have never heard about. When the rising sun signals the end of our adventure, my guests have a new way of seeing Los Angeles. They're seeing Ralph Story's Los Angeles and their seeing Don Ray's Los Angeles. And if I've done my job well, they're seeing their own Los Angeles. Posted by Picasa


Michael Hart said...

Don - this is sad news, you and I both hold Ralph Story and his style of relating his-story to the masses in high reguard.

Just one addition, it was Ralph Story who started A.M. Los Angeles on KABC-7 way back whenever with Stephanie (red head, last name escapes me) that program was them adapted by ABC network to what we now know as Good Morning America.

The best part was the opening.... Walter(now Wendy) Carlos' version of the Brandenberg Concerto to morning scenes around the LA area... finishing with a sand piper at the Santa Monica Peer, Then fade to Ralph and Stephanie in the studio for the opening banter.

ABC execs decided Ralph was not the right guy for the anchor... but did have him do feature stories for the first year and act as a consultant.

Ralph was replaced as host in LA by the ever peppy Regis Philbin.... our loss.

Jason Lam said...

Thought I'd drop by and check out your site. I like the thoroughness of it. I recently went on an adventure up north staying at the cheapest hotels just to see what made them cheap. I, too, like going to places that are not only different but places that smart people avoid. I found a lot of interesting hotels that give hotels a bad name. From rooms w/o walls to rooms with big cigarette holes in the sheets. Interesting indeed!

Anonymous said...

Stephanie Edwards was the redhead's name, I recall. What a team: Ralph Story and Stephanie Edwards. What a great morning show. I remember watching it with my mom when I was growing up. We enjoyed it together. I thought the opening was stupendous! Whoever dreamed up the idea of using Walter Carlos' music was a genius. They just don't have those kind of creative, inventive people in TV anymore. It's nothing original these days, always something that's been done before... Sad days indeed.