Gather around children, it’s time to open Uncle Bob’s Story Time Vault.
For you adults, you might want to pour a glass of wine, and sit back to take in this story. I started out shorter than it ended up, but that often happens with stories. This one is true, and no names have been changed. So if you have the patience, I hope you will not be bored.
Sit back now, and let me take you back to the year of 1976. It was the summer to be precise, and the place was New York City. That’s right kids, the Big Apple, and it was the year of our country’s Bicentennial Celebration.
It was also the year that the Democrat Party had their national convention in New York, and that was the reason I was there.
You see, ole Uncle Bob was a reporter back then, and he specialized in covering government and politics as he had done for many years.
At that time, I was working as a free-lance reporter. I had lost my job at KXJB-TV in Fargo in April of 1974, and was working as a stringer for United Press International (UPI), Newsweek Magazine out of their Chicago Bureau, and for the convention, I had contracted with a couple of radio and TV stations to report on the North Dakota delegation to the national convention. I was also writing for some weekly newspapers in ND, and had published an ill-fated monthly newsletter on ND government and politics.
So, now here I am, flying to New York City, with my TV gear furnished by one of the TV stations I was stringing for, heading for the Taft Hotel in Manhattan, where the North Dakota delegates and alternates to the convention were staying, and so was I.
The Taft Hotel by 1976 had seen better days. The hotel was located at 152 West 51st Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan, and when it opened in 1926 it was the largest hotel in Times Square.
(Cue the Flashback: That’s a cinematic term for cutting back to scenes that have little to do with the main story, but are connected somehow. )
This wasn’t the first time I had stayed at the Taft. When I got off the boat at Fort Hamilton in New York on May 16th, and got discharged, there were several of the guys I had served with in Germany for over 2 years decided to spend a couple of nights in Manhattan. The year was 1962, and they didn’t even refer to New York City as “The Big Apple,” yet.
We got our rooms, which by the way to be had for the grand sum of $9.25, plus .45 cents tax, and on the advice of one of our number got a couple of bottles so we could have cocktails before we went out to sample the night life of the U.S. for the first time since we had left in February of 1960. Since prices in Manhattan night life were relatively pricey, the thought was we wouldn’t spend as much when we went out.
Sample we did, and one of the spots we headed for was The Peppermint Lounge where Chubby Checker, he of The Twist fame, was performing. The joint was on West 45th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues not far from the Taft.
It took us a while to get past the doorman, but when we did we found a crowded, noisy and expensive place to drink while listening to Chubby Checker. It wasn’t till many years later that we learned that the Peppermint Lounge was reputedly owned by the Genovese crime family, but was still visited by celebrities galore during the heyday of the Twist. I think the club closed in 1965 when they lost their liquor license.
The next day, contrary to our plans, my friends all decided they wanted to get home, and so I was left alone. My plan had been to surprise my parents on their anniversary, May 25th by arriving home on the very day. It was now the 17th of May, and I stayed one more day, then began my homeward journey via stops in Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis before flying into Jamestown to be picked up by my friends Don and Mary Kay Klocke and then onward to my surprise to see the parents I hadn’t seen since Christmas, 1959.
Before I left the Taft that day, I had called for the bellhop to come for my bags so I could check out, but I left a pair of almost new combat boots in the closet. I had no further need for them, and when the bellhop saw them he asked me about them, and I told him if he wanted them he could have them. He took’em, and I left.
End of flashback, and back to the main story.
It was 1976, and Mayor Abe Beame wanted to make a good impression on the thousands of Democrat delegates, alternates and press who would be descending on his city. Times Square was a pretty seedy place in the mid to late 70’s, and since that would be a focal point for all who came for the convention the word went out that as of midnight the day before the convention was to gavel in, all of the hookers, pimps and other seedy denizens of the night would be off the streets in the area of Times Square. I remember getting there, and on the night before, looking south on 7th Avenue towards Times Square, there was evidence they had not yet been moved to some other area of the city, but the next day and the nights to follow, they were gone.
As many reading this may recall, that was the year the Democrats were going to endorse Jimmy Carter for President. That was a foregone conclusion going into the convention. The only question remaining was who he was going to pick for Vice-President. So, this convention was a pretty dull one compared to past conventions.
I realized from the start that it was going to be difficult for me to file stories every day that would be of any interest to my clients, both UPI and the radio and TV stations I was working for. I wasn’t the only one scratching for stories where there was no contest, the networks were having problems as well.
I had for a moment thought about a feature on two of the North Dakota delegation members. Eliot Glassheim of Grand Forks and Lucy Calautti, now the spouse of former Senator Kent Conrad, of Bismarck were both originally from New York City, and I thought that was interesting that two delegates to the convention from North Dakota were native New Yorkers. Their stories on how they had come from New York to settle in North Dakota piqued my interest. I had known both of them for several years and thought it would make a good feature. I never did it, for what reason I can no longer remember.
Now enters the story, Kermit Bye. Kermit wasn’t a delegate, but his wife, Carol Beth was. Kermit, an attorney, had been active in Democratic politics in North Dakota for many years, and he and I had become friends over the years. So Kermit became my assistant for the duration of the convention. Kermit, by the way, is now a retired judge from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, a position he held for 15 years.
Richard Ista was, at the time, the State Chairman of the Democratic-NPL party, and he arranged for Kermit and I to have floor passes every day during the convention. Under normal convention rules, I would have to spend a short time on the floor and then go back and get in line to get another pass. Ista made my life much easier, except that even having unlimited access to the floor did not make it any easier to find stories to file.
There was, on the main floor of the Taft Hotel, just off the lobby, a restaurant/bar called the Cattleman Restaurant. It was there, at the bar, one day, Kermit and I hatched a plan that would result in me having a unique feature on the ND delegation. I was lamenting the lack of substantive stories, when a though struck. The Cattleman, whose main outside door was on West 51st, had a stage coach with horses that would give patrons rides for nothing. There were also two other Cattleman restaurants in Manhattan each having a stage coach. You see where this is going right?
Kermit and I approached the manager of the Cattleman at the Taft, and wondered if it would be possible to get the other stage coaches from the other properties to give the ND delegation which included Governor Art Link and First Lady, Grace, a ride to Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention, for the evening session the next day.
The manager said he’d make some calls, and came back later to tell us we had a deal. The stage coaches would be outside the main door on the 51st Street side of the restaurant ready for loading at 4:30 the next day. Kermit and I ordered another drink, laughed and I said, “I don’t believe we are going to do this.” I also told Kermit that we should keep a lid on what was going on lest some other news outlet get wind of it. I told him I needed to get some exclusive footage for my guys back home, before it became news.
While I never condoned creating news for the sake of a story, in this case I threw that rule to the wind. I was having to much fun creating this one.
We alerted the members of the ND delegates, alternates and others connected with the delegation, and told them to assemble at the designated time, and the deal was on.
The next day, 4:30 came, and the members of the delegation began to gather, and we got some bad news. My hear sank at first, when the manager told me they could only get one of the other stage coaches for this event. That meant two instead of three. Kermit and I said, we’ll make do with two, and proceeded to cram as many of the delegation as we could on the two coaches. The close quarters on the coaches did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of the North Dakotans about to embark on their run down 7th Avenue.
Governor Art Link and Grace got the prime spots on the first coach, and everyone else fit in where they could. The manager of the Cattleman then gave out straw cowboy hats to everyone, hats that were emblazoned with the Cattleman logo on them. Mine never really fit, but I didn’t care. Neither did anyone else.
At 5:00 P.M., the coaches and their handlers made a left turn on to 7th Avenue for the trip to Madison Square Garden. I had a spot on the first coach, and I, your intrepid reporter, would jump off and run down a block ahead so I could get good film of these two stage coaches with the ND delegation riding down 7th Avenue during rush hour in Manhattan through the heart of Times Square, the 17 blocks or so to the Garden.
The delegates were hooting and hollering and waving the Cattleman straw cowboy hats much to the amusement and bemusement of all of those who witnessed this very strange scene. I did notice one car that must have run around the block to see if it was real, for I saw him twice on the trip down. To see these two horse drawn stage coaches with cowboy hat waving conventioneers in the sea of motor traffic, in and out of the shadows and sunlight, through the concrete canyons that are Manhattan at rush hour must have been a strange sight indeed, even for New York.
About a block from the Garden, the word must have reached the other news media who were hungry for a feature, and we could see cameramen running to meet these stage coaches lumbering down 7th Avenue.
When we got to the Garden, and disembarked, I saw a beaming, Gov. Link, still with the Cattleman straw cowboy had on, and his wife, Grace talking to some network TV guy, or he could have been some local New York TV guy, and I knew the story had worked.
I ran into the Garden to get my film to the folks who would overnight it back to ND for me, where it would be aired on KFYR-TV, the following day, and spent the rest of the evening basking in the afterglow of the fact that the idea Kermit and I had hatched had taken wings.
It would me months later, when I would run into Gov. Link, he would finally call me Bob. I think that event cemented my name in his mind.
The rest of the convention, outside of the question of who the Veep would be, was dull. I have another story about me and Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson, but I’ll leave that for another time.
The last night I was in New York, after the convention was over, I joined Kermit and his wife, Carol Beth, Richard Ista and his wife and we went to the Rainbow Grill in Rockefeller Center to see the famous jazz singer, Nancy Wilson.
That night, as we got back to the Taft, I looked down 7th Avenue towards Times Square, and they were all back, and it was business as usual. The Democrats had gone home, and they had reclaimed their streets.
I flew back to Fargo the next day, satisfied that I had provided my clients with enough “news” about the convention, even if I had to create some of it myself.