"Online since 1999"



Paul Yacich Memories

Legendary WDSU-TV Director and

New Orleans Television Pioneer Shares His Memories


1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10

Prior to 1950, I lived with my parents at 1826 Independence Street in the lower ninth ward. I was a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve. With a name like "Yacich" my family constantly received unwanted mail from countries supporting Communism as a form of government. We would find magazines like "China Today" and "The Romanian News" regularly stuffed into our mailbox. Not surprisingly, the Navy knew about this mailbox stuff. In 1950, I was called to active duty during the Korean Conflict.

(NOTE: I was more than a little unhappy about having to leave WDSU-TV.)

After surviving a thorough investigation, I became a member of a unit of the Office of Naval Intelligence and was cleared to handle top secret material.

After 2 years service, I was honorably discharged and returned to WDSU-TV. In May of 1967, the name "Yacich" again attracted the attention of some people living in a communist state. This time, however, the U. S. I. A. was responsible for the attention. The U. S. government information agency sent three members of RTB (Radio Television Belgrade- the Yugoslavian version of a broadcast network) to visit me. They were escorted by a member of the U.S.I.A., agent Harold Morlock. Morlock told me Slavic broadcast people knew about me and wanted to see how a Yugoslavian director lived in the United States. The three visitors were Serbians and I am of Croatian descent but we got along just fine.

My wife, Rita, invited them to our house. Morlock said that he would be there to guide the conversation during the visit. Rita told him that, in our house, visitors could talk about anything that interested them. When Morlock arrived with the communist broadcasters, they found Croatian, Serbian and Russian music playing on our "hi-fi" system and a copy of Das Kapital on the coffee table. Agent Morlock told Rita: "I give up. You know how to keep them happy a hell of lot better than I do!" The trio watched my kids in our pool then they joined the kids watching color cartoons on TV.

We went out to the lakefront where they wanted to see the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which was considered by the Yugoslavs to be a miracle of construction. They asked Morlock if they might shoot 16 mm film of the bridge from the air. Morlock tried to get clearance to take the group up in a helicopter but was told that was not possible because of the nearness of the NASA facilities. The U. S. I. A. got clearance to let me go in the 'copter to shoot the Causeway film. I shot a couple of hundred feet of film and gave it to Morlock, who sent it to the C.I.A. for their examination. The film was cleared and was sent to RTB in Belgrade after their three visitors to new Orleans had returned to Yugoslavia

Another request of the three Belgrade broadcasters was to see a local newscast produced at WDSU-TV. Morlock brought them to the Channel 6 studios on a Saturday night when Mel Leavitt was the newscaster and I was the director. The group was with me in the control room as the newscast went on the air. As the newscast was coming to an end, I asked Mel, via the studio intercom system, to cut two stories which would make the newscast run too long and get to the wrap-up. I heard the Yugoslavs whispering: "Censorship!" I told them it was not censorshipwe were just running long. They didn't believe me. So I told Mel to do the stories and that I would be responsible for any consequences for running long. That satisfied the commies that I wasn't censoring the news. When I explained the situation to our General Manager, A. Louis Read, He agreed that the situation called for that action on my part.

I received letters of thanks from the Yugoslavian RTB, from the U.S.I.A. officials and from Harold Morlock, who said: "I remain indebted to you for the above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty assistance in hosting our Yugoslav guests. You made my assignment not a job, but a pleasure. When I asked about the trio's opinions of their visit, Morlock reported that although they were impressed by New Orleans, the Causeway and WDSU-TV, they talked more about my wife, my kids, and me. They said "Those Dalmatian kids really know how to live!" The comment about Dalmatian kids was because my grandfather came to this country from the Dalmatian island of Brac, a part of Croatia and "how to live" was because of the pool. I stopped receiving information about the three visitors after the breakup of the Yugoslavian federation when Croatia and Serbia again became separate states.

One of the first statewide commercially sponsored TV programs and the first special of its type to be produced in the south aired on Monday, May 23, 1966, pre-empting NBC TVs "Hullabaloo." The program, originated by WDSU-TV, was also carried simultaneously by WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge and KLFY-TV in Lafayette. Newspaper promotion of the show said: "WDSU-TVs Paul Yacich has written, produced and directed this hour-long special, "Testing: Do You Know Louisiana?" which features a multitude of varied and interesting questions and answers on Louisiana history, geography and politics and is sure to interest a wide viewing audience."

Test papers (with fill-in answer slots) were distributed, throughout southeast Louisiana schools, through the office of the Superintendent of Education. A fill-in form was also published in various newspapers. The program was co-hosted by Mel Leavitt and Bart Darby and was sponsored by E. J. Ourso's Security Industrial Insurance Company.

Following the airing of the special, Jerry Romig, WDSU-TV Program Director, wrote in a press release: " We had a marvelous response to our testing special via the switchboard Monday night." He said many calls were received and included comments like: "Excellent," "Magnificent," "When will it be repeated?" etc. Many callers identified themselves as teachers and nuns. Many children also called to compliment the show. He also said a couple of callers wanted to debate the answer to one particular question. He wrapped up the memo with: "This was a most difficult undertaking for us and I would like to give full credit to Paul Yacich for a tough job - well done."

Needless to say, Jerry remains one of my treasured friends and both of us miss our WDSU-TV.

On October 16, 1965, TV viewers in New Orleans saw, as reported in the Times-Picayune, "an unprecedented simulcast of the ceremonies of installation for Archbishop Philip M. Hannan and the concelebrated Mass which followed." The telecast originated at the St. Louis Basilica. All three (at that time there were only three stations) commercial stations - WWL-TV, Channel 4; WDSU-TV, Channel 6; and WVUE-TV, Channel 12 (again, at that time...later became Ch. 8) carried the special program which aired from 4 to 5:30 PM. The pool technical facilities were handled by WDSU-TV . The program was produced by Jerry Romig and directed by Paul Yacich. Radio stations WWL and WSMB also broadcast the ceremonies.

At the time of the Garrison-Clay Shaw JFK assassination conspiracy trial, I unexpectedly met one of the central figures in the New Orleans District Attorney's case. I was leaving WDSU-TV's studios at 520 Royal Street and going to the Court House At Canal and Broad Streets. Standing in front of the Porte Cochere of the Broulatour Residence, I hailed a Yellow cab traveling up Royal Street. I got in and gave the driver my destination. He turned and said: "You with WDSU?" I told him I was. He then asked if I had anything to do with the TV coverage of the trial. I told him I was handling some local feeds to the NBC TV's "Huntley-Brinkley Show." He asked: "Do you know who I am?" I did not and I told him so. Then he began ranting and raving: "I'm Perry Russo. I'm the DA's star witness. I don't think you press guys realize how important I am in this trial. I gotta have this gun to protect myself from people who don't think I'm for real and that I'm lying and that the DA is nuts." He began waving a 45 caliber automatic that he had hidden under his seat. I asked him to stop the cab because I had forgotten to do something at the studio. What I meant was that I had forgotten to stay there!

Now, it's 30 years later. My friend, cameraman and partner, Derek Toten, was on his way to the Delta Queen Steamship Company on the Robin Street wharf. He hailed a cab, got in, and told the driver his destination. The driver said had a friend who worked there. Derek recognized the friends name as one of the people who happened to have appeared in one of our Delta Queen video presentations. Derek and the driver talked a little about television and video work. Then the driver asked Derek; "Did you see me on TV? I was on TV about Clay Shaw. I'm Perry Russo!" He began ranting about bad treatment by the press. Derek then remembered me telling him about my meeting with Perry Russo in his cab and began looking to see if the driver had a gun. Apparently he didn't. Derek decided to just listen to the man, get to his destination and get the hell out of the cab.

When I met Derek at the wharf, he could hardly wait to tell me what happened. I decided to just listen to the man and get the hell off the wharf. I jest, of course. Derek is like the son I never had. He has done more for my wife, Rita, my daughters and me than anyone else in this whole wide world. He has protected Rita and my daughters when I was not able to be with them. He was my daughter Kristi's coach when she appeared on the CBS-TV program "Jeopardy" He drove my wife to Baton Rouge so she could be with our daughter, Deirdre, when she was having her baby. I was handling a casting session at the time the call from Deirdre came and I couldn't leave. He even acted as a "house sitter" for Deirdre and her husband when they were out of town.

So, any time he wants to tell me his Perry Russo story I will listen. At one time, Derek Toten, a fine cameraman and a great editor, worked for and with me. Now that I am retired, I sometimes work for him and I'm dammed proud of it!

When WDSU (Radio) was located in the Monteleone Hotel there were only about 19 people working for the Stephens Broadcasting Co. including 5 in the engineering department, 4 announcers, 1 Program Director, 2 in accounting, 4 in traffic and continuity, 1 in promotion, 1 General Manager and one wonderful elderly African American lady who kept the joint clean. Her name was Birda Price. She made the move to Royal Street and began working under the new management of WDSU. Everybody adored the lady and she liked everybody at the station. Her assignment was cleaning the GM's office and the Audition Room (a large room in the Broulatour Residence used for sales meetings, program previews, parties, etc.).

Older staffers at WDSU remember an incident in which Birda Price became an advisor to network execs. The Audition Room was the site of a meeting of NBC TV execs visiting New Orleans and WDSU-TV. In the rear of the room, Birda was polishing some of the antique furniture. At one point during the meeting, someone suggested the cancellation of a certain NBC television program. WDSU-TV staffers outside and near the Audition Room door were both shocked and amused to hear Birda say: "Oh! I wouldn't do that!" They were again shocked when they heard one of the execs ask: "And why not?" .and then listen to Birda tell them how much she and her friends liked that certain program. Now, I don't know what effect Birda had on their decision, but she has to be the one and only TV viewer ever to tell a group of high powered TV decision makers how she felt about a TV show.

I don't know if Birda is still with us, but if she's not then she is advising a group of angels in that great Audition Room in the sky! Tell 'em how to do it, Birda.

I'm not a writer (as if you couldn't tell) but, as a director, trying to fit a writer's words into a 30 second TV spot or a 1 hour TV special tends to develop one's editing abilities.

I am proud to say that I was the only individual allowed to edit Mel Leavitt's copy, David Snow's copy and Rusty Cantelli's copy. All three were excellent and prolific writers. Rusty's expertise was in the wording of political commercials. In his spots, there was a definite reason for every word to be in the copy. That didn't make editing easy. One of Rusty's spots I was privileged to direct involved the candidate, Pascal Calagero, a member of the State of Louisiana Supreme Court, who was running for re-election. Pascal is a great guy who calls himself "an Italian kid from St. Aloysius" (high school, not standing today). We featured him seated on a stool in a pool of light. He spoke Rusty's lines written to answer charges by one of his two opponents, (call them Mr. X and Mr. Y) that the supreme court released convicted criminals from jail. The copy read, in part: "..the Supreme Court doesn't release criminals, it merely orders new trials. Now, both Mr. X and Mr. Y know that. They just hope you don't!"

Those lines so impressed many other political commercial writers that they were repeated (modified to fit the campaign) in many states across the country. One of the most influential political advisors in the nation, Raymond Strother of Washington, D.C., used the lines and told Rusty he would pay for the usage. Rusty sent Ray a bill for one dollar. Ray sent Rusty ten dollars and said : "I'll probably use your lines nine more times!"

I have directed many commercials written by Strother and Cantelli and, many times, have grieved with them when we had to cut words from their copy to fit the allocated time. Working for them and their candidates has taken me all over the country and to France and Switzerland to produce their spots. Producing and directing political commercials made my adrenaline flow like the "Big Muddy."

Every political campaign I was privileged to work with was a new and exciting challenge. One, however, was scary! My camera crew and I were producing spots for a Congressman from an east coast state. We were filming in his office in Washington, D.C. when a young man about 17 years old rushed into the office and announced to the Congressman: "They need you on in the house for a vote!" Without asking what the vote was for, the Congressman told the kid, "I'm busy...you go vote for me." Not vote "Yes," not vote "No," just go vote! Talk about scary!

We learned some important things about producing political commercials in Washington. If your camera is hand held you don't need a city permit. A camera on a tripod in the street requires a permit. If a policeman questions you about what you are doing, never, never say we're here to shoot Congressman Gillis Long (or whoever). The D.C. police don't cotton up to the word "shoot" that we, in the TV business, are wont to use.

For one election campaign, I went to Switzerland with a cameraman. We shot a series of political commercials for a Louisiana public official. Part of the shooting involved the use of a device called a "Steadycam." The device envelopes the cameraman and, with the camera mounted on it, makes the camera guy look a little threatening. That's apparently what the Swiss guards stationed at the hotel we were going to use in the film thought. When they saw the cameraman emerge from our car in this strange get-up they went down on one knee aid aimed their rifles at us. They weren't smiling! I told the cameraman to get back in the car while I tried to explain to the guards what the "Steadycam" was. Fortunately, the man in charge spoke English and understood what the camera rig was for. It seems that this hotel was a regular meeting site for the OPEC representatives, who, apparently were not the most popular guys in the world. The guards let us do what we came to do and we left the hotel all in one piece.

Returning home from Switzerland we encountered some unexpected problems involving our unprocessed exposed film. At the Orly airport in France, the security officials insisted on placing my film in their x-ray scanner. I objected strenuously and was taken, film in hand, to the office of the head honcho of airport security. He explained that the gate we were to leave from was the same gate as the flights to Israel used and that security was tighter there than at some of the other gates. He also said, sounding an awful lot like Danny Kaye doing an impression of a French security officer, "If the film does not go through the x-ray machine, you do not go on the plane!" Reluctantly, I had to agree to allow my film, an estimated investment of about $20K, to go through the x-ray process. Fortunately, as I found out later, The French airport uses x-rays that are a lot "softer" than the x-ray system of U. S. airports and would not fog film unless the film was put through the process six or more times.

FYI, as far as we could determine, the x-rays used at Moisant Field (the name of the New Orleans airport at that time) were the strongest or "hardest" in the United States and would fog unprocessed film on a single pass.

Almost everyone enjoys watching the TV program "Bloopers," especially the goof-up of a professional news reporter...like the newsgirl who gets her ear nipped by an ostrich behind her as she attempts to report a story about the big boids. One of WDSU-TV's reporters, Charlie Zewe, provided us with a good chuckle in his interview with John Schwegmann, Sr. concerning his bid for political office. Before the interview the giant supermarket mogul told Zewe that he would like to do the interview in front of the store's milk cooler, a large uncovered refrigerated display unit. The interview then might be a commercial for the store as well.

The camera was set up, Zewe sat on the edge of the cooler and asked: "Why do you, a supermarket owner, want to run for the office of Public Service Commissioner?" Schwegmann answered: "I DON'T want to run for Public Service Commissioner. Chehardy (Lawrence Chehardy, Sr., Jefferson Parish Assessor) wants me to run for Public Service Commissioner!" Zewe couldn't control a burst of laughter and fell into the milk cooler as the camera swung to him. It was never shown on "Bloopers" but should have been.

When we were looking for a sponsor for "Testing: Do You Know Louisiana?" Bob Shultis, VP and Sales Manager of WDSU-TV, contacted E.J. Ourso. I had directed several commercials for Ourso's Security Industrial Insurance Company and had met Mr. Ourso during the production of one of the spots. While I was doing the spot, Mr. Ourso came into the control room. I didn't know him then. Strangers often wandered into the control room while commercial production was in progress. Ourso's ad agency had written the spot we were doing and I hated it! It featured an open casket, open but empty. Not knowing he was the sponsor, I turned to Ourso and said: "Isn't this the worst spot you've ever seen?" He asked; "Why don't you like it?" I told him; " I just don't like caskets coming into my living room via TV!" He said: "You know, I don't either." Then he introduced himself. Once again I began trying to think of other TV facilities that might hire a fired TV director. He asked me if I could think of a better way to bring his insurance benefits copy to the TV viewers of southern Louisiana. I suggested a simple but elegant bouquet in a pool of light and using dissolves from flower to flower while the announcer read his copy. Ourso liked the idea and immediately picked up the phone and ordered a boquet. Then he called his staff and told them to come get the casket out of the studio. We did the spot with the bouquet and Ourso loved it.

I told Shultis about the incident and he said he already heard about it from Ourso, who had invited Bob to come to a crawfish boil party in Lafayette and to present a preview of the testing special. E. J. was proud of his boiled crawfish. Bob said: "And he wants you there, too!" I told Bob: "I hate crawfish. Look, I'm a Croatian and in Louisiana and on the Gulf Coast, Croatian means "Oyster Man," just look in the phone book for "Oysters" and you'll see! All of the oyster companies in New Orleans are run by people with an "ich" on the end of their name (and anyone with an "ich" on the end of his/her name can't be all bad!). I can eat oysters but eating crawfish I'll get sick. I'll die." Shultis said: "If you want your show sponsored, you'll go and you'll eat E.J's crawfish!"

I went with Schultis to Lafayette. I ate the damn crawfish and I got sick. I didn't die, however, I just wished I was dead! E.J. Ourso bought my show! I still, however, don't eat crawfish, boiled, stewed, fried, etouffe'd, whatever, and that sometimes causes my wife's Cajun blood to boil!

Pinky Vidacovich was one of the favorites of the New Orleans broadcasting community. He was a musician, a song writer, a comedian and, in later life, an advertising exec. I had the good fortune of growing up in a house across the street from the Vidacovich family home on Independence Street in the lower ninth...er...I mean "nint" ward of New Orleans. He and my uncle, Chris Yacich, were staffers at radio station WWL. Pinky was one of the stars of the WWL program "Dawnbusters." He played clarinet in the group that featured Al "Jumbo" Hirt on the trumpet. Many old timers in the Crescent City will remember Pinky singing his novelty hit song "Arizay" (translated from the Cajun patois means "Arise"). Pinky and Chris wrote novelty songs separately and together. Another Yacich, my dad, Frank Yacich, also joined in the novelty song writing group. As a kid, I was taken, by my Dad and Chris, to see the production of the "Dawnbusters" program in the WWL studios in the Roosevelt Hotel (now the Fairmont). That visit sold me on becoming a part of the broadcasting community.

After the "Dawnbusters" program left the airwaves, Pinky joined the staff of a local ad agency as a commercial producer. I was pleased to have the guy I admired so much as a teenager choose me as the director of his TV commercials. Pinky was a good friend to my dad and uncle and in his later life to this Croatian kid from the lower "nint" ward.

FYI...Chris Yacich's novelty song "I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones" can be found on the web site of the "Hoosier Hot Shot" museum at: http://www.hoosierhotshots.com/cy.html .

Frank Yacich's "When There's Tears In The Eyes Of A Potato" at: http://www.hoosierhotshots.com/tears.html .

To maintain my family's tradition, I may write a song about the wonderful naval oranges of Plaquemines Parish. I suggest that you not hold your breath waiting for my concerto.

In the early 70s I was I was pleased to direct two McDonalds (hamburgers) commercials. One of them was designed as a mule and carriage tour of the Vieux Carre'. The other featured the steamboat "Natchez." We had the usual compliment of technicians on location and were ready to film on the steamboat's dock as well as on the boat underway. The spot's talent, selected by the McDonalds ad agency, was to play the role of the boat's captain.

After several attempts at a run through, which never was really satisfactory because the talent could not remember the scripted lines, I called a time out from the rehearsals and tried to work with the talent away form the camera setup. He just couldn't get the lines etched on his brain. The agency rep said we've got to get someone to play the part. I asked: "Where do we get that someone right now, today! Who can we get to do the part?" He replied: "YOU, that's who! You've been rehearsing with the talent and you know the lines." I reacted with: "Whoa! Kimosabe. I work behind the camera never in front of the lens." The agency guy commented, rather sarcastically: "OK, Tonto, but your company and mine are going to lose a few bucks if we don't shoot this spot today. I said: "Let's see if the Captain's costume fits me."

One of the scenes required me to steer the "Natchez" underway. The camera was on the bow looking up to the boat's pilothouse in which there was only me steering a boat with hundreds of people aboard. I was as nervous as a cat trying to cover its you know what on a marble floor. Then, for a finale, the script called for the line "Now, that's really worth going out of your way for!." BUT the agency scriptwriter said it should be delivered with a lower ninth ward (New Orleans) accent. I tried for many years to lose that kind of accent. I never did grow out of it completely. It's an accent that takes only one day to get back into again so after I did the line: "Na, dat's rilly woit goin' outta ya way fuh!" I knew I was facing a long time in corrective speech therapy. Well, we made the spot and I'm happy to say that it won some kind of ad award. So far, however, Hollywood hasn't called me.

The following was sent to me by Bob Grevemberg, formerly a WDSU-TV news cameraman and later of the BBC in Washington, D.C. It kinda proves that TV people can't be all bad!

Many people have always been a bit offended that Lee Marvin is buried in a grove of 3 and 4 star generals at Arlington. His marker gives his name, rank (PVT) and service (USMC). Nothing else. I thought to myself, damn here's a guy who was only a famous movie star who served his time, why the heck does he rate burial with these guys?

Well, following is the amazing answer:

I always liked Lee Marvin, but did not know the extent of his Corps experiences, including award of the Navy Cross. There is only one higher award...the Medal Of Honor.

Dialog From a Tonight Show ... Johnny Carson ... His guest was Lee Marvin:

Johnny said, "Lee, I'll bet a lot of people are unaware that you were a Marine in the initial landing at Iwo Jima ... and that during the course of that action you earned the Navy Cross and were severely wounded."

And you know how Lee was.

"Yeah, yeah ... I got shot square in the ass and they gave me the cross for securing a hot spot about halfway up Suribachi ... bad thing about getting shot up on a mountain is guys gettin' shot hauling you down.

"But Johnny, at Iwo I served under the bravest man I ever knew ... We both got the Cross the same day, but what he did for his Cross made mine look cheap in comparison. The dumb bastard actually stood up on Red Beach and directed his troops to move forward and get the hell off the beach.That Sergeant and I have been life long friends.

"When they brought me off Suribachi we passed the Sergeant and he lit a smoke and passed it to me lying on my belly on the litter ..."Where'd they get you Lee?"...

"Well Bob ... if you make it home before me, tell Mom to sell the outhouse.".....

"Johnny, I'm not lying ... Sergeant Keeshan was the bravest man I ever knew ... Bob Keeshan ... You and the world know him as Captain Kangaroo."

Nobody doesn't like..Sarah Lee or Pontchartrain Beach! Many New Orleanians will remember "WDSU-TV At The Beach." Each year, for quite a few years, WDSU-TV invited NBC TV celebs to be featured attractions at the beach on WDSU-TV day. Most TV stars who accepted the invitation considered it a great honor to be in New Orleans and...at the beach, at the beach, at Pontchartrain Beach! Their appearance, in some cases, was not without some danger to themselves.

One of the wonderful TV greats to accept the invitation was the youngest of the Cartwrights of "Bonanza", Michael Landon. I was with him as we walked onto the Pontchartrain Beach "boardwalk" (it was a concrete strip for those who don't remember). There were so many of Michael's fans crowded around us that it was almost impossible to make our way to the stage area. Some screaming girls tried to kiss him, others just wanted to touch him, but some grabbed at all parts of his body. We finally got to the stage where he graciously represented WDSU-TV and entertained a cheering, yelling, screaming audience. 

Back at the hotel, he revealed to us big black and blue bruises all over his body and admitted that he was hurting somewhat "where the sun don't shine." He told us that, despite the bruises, he was still happy that we had brought him to "WDSU-TV Day At The Beach."

< Back          Next >