‘I always wanted to be in the business for the long haul,’ says local TV icon Bobbie Wygant
In the Centreport offices of KXAS/Channel 5 that opened in 2013 on the eastern edge of Fort Worth, there are three rooms that pay tribute to key people from KXAS’ long history: Amon Carter Sr., who helped found the station (originally known as WBAP-TV); Harold Taft, the station’s pioneering weatherman; and Bobbie Wygant, the station’s longtime entertainment reporter.
Emphasis on longtime. Wygant, 92, was hired two weeks before the station went on the air in 1948 — she likes to say that she was poured in with the foundation. Officially, she’s retired, but she still contributes reports to the station, most recently an interview with Bradley Cooper, director-star of the new “A Star is Born,” and Jacob Schick, a local Marine veteran who plays Lady Gaga’s boss in the movie.
Wygant has just published a memoir, “Talking to the Stars: Bobbie Wygant’s 70 Years in Television,” although calling it just a memoir is a little unfair: It’s her history, with many celebrity anecdotes, but it’s also Dallas-Fort Worth history (emphasis on Fort Worth, where the station has always been based), Dallas-Fort Worth TV history, and TV history in general.
It’s a hardback book with more than 500 photos, many of which feature Wygant talking to the stars in a way that will give those of us of a certain age flashbacks: Dick Powell, Jimmy Dean, Donald O’Connor, Richard Chamberlain — well, that’s just one page of photos. Flip to a page late in the book, and there are Cooper, Lyle Lovett, Fort Worth’s Betty Buckley — and a much older Richard Chamberlain.
There is much in between, and Wygant says that “tons” of other material was left out.
“Because I’m television-oriented, where we write to the video, the pictures had a lot to do with what was included,” she says during an interview in the Bobbie Wygant room, photos of her interviewing Bob Hope, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Liberace and others on the wall behind her.
“We do have anecdotes that don’t have any pictures to go with them, but the pictures really did drive the book.,” she continues. “As far as anecdotes about people, we probably could do two more books.”
The book starts in 1939, when a 12-year-old Wygant — then named Roberta Connolly — accompanied her grandparents to the New York World’s Fair and toured RCA’s headquarters, where there was an experimental TV studio where visitors could talk to a TV camera. Roberta took a turn in front of the camera, and proved to be a natural. Already interested in entertainment, she would join in audience-participation segments during concerts and more than once tracked down Frank Sinatra — when she was still a teen — for an autograph.
As a broadcasting student at Purdue University, Wygant met Phil Wygant, who was initially just a friend but then asked her out on a date. The first date was in June 1945, and they were married in June 1947. A friend asked Phil to accompany him on a trip to Fort Worth, where Phil quickly fell for the milder winters. He auditioned for a job at radio station KXOL, but they didn’t have any openings, so they called WBAP radio on his behalf. He audtioned there and war hired.. When Carter got ready to launch WBAP-TV, Phil Wygant got a job there. The station’s manager, realizing that Phil’s wife had a broadcasting degree, asked if she wanted a job. “Oh yes,” Phil said.
All the above is in the book — but Wygant tells it with more detail, and in a more entertaining fashion.
“I started with the station two weeks before it went on the air,” she says. “I was hired to be a continuity writer. That meant writing commercials, intros to shows, whatever needed to be written. ... As soon as the [station] went on the air, they had me handling all the TV copy, intros to the shows we had.”
The station started at the Medical Arts building in downtown Fort Worth, where WBAP radio was located at the time, until the KXAS building was completed on Broadcast Hill, just southeast of downtown Fort Worth, the station’s home till 2013. There wasn’t much programming at first, maybe three or four hours a day. But as the business grew, the station began airing more local shows.
“I was Vanna White before there was a Vanna White,” Wygant says, “being the girl to help [chief announcer] Frank Mills or whoever was emceeing a show. We had music shows and game shows [and a] cooking show. We did like that for several years, and then little by little, we started getting syndicated shows and the network started expanding its schedule.”
In the fall of 1960, Wygant began hosting a daytime talk show, “Dateline,” which bore little resemblance to NBC’s current crime-obsessed “Dateline” series. “I had all kinds of guests,” she says. “Astronauts, [elephants from] the Shrine Circus. In those days, we didn’t have cameras that could go out and shoot the elephants.”
Wygant started in the programming department but around 1975, a new station owner moved her to the news department, a move she was initially reluctant to make. “I was afraid that the men would not accept me as an equal,” she says. “But they put Chip Moody and me in charge of a program called ‘Inside Area 5.’ In a way, it was a continuation of what I was doing. We did a lot of entertainment and celebrities, but we did a of of community — every community organization in Dallas and Tarrant County, I think, appeared at one time or another.”
Wygant was offered the opportunity to be an anchor, but turned it down. “I always wanted to be in the business for the long haul,” she says. “Money was not my goal. I would like to make lots of money, but I was more interested in the job and the kind of work I would be doing. I saw in those years that I was in the industry that women did not have as long a life in the industry as the men. The men could get paunchy and gray, and everybody loved them. ... A woman starts to look like she’s a mature woman, and she’s out the door.”
In conversation, as in the book, Wygant’s memory is sharp. But she does say that she kept journals that helped her with the book, although sometimes her method of entering things could be a little tough to decipher. “It was note on top of note because I did everything myself. I was the producer, I was the talent, I was the researcher, I was a one-man band. I had no secretary or assistant.
“The journals helped a lot, but we spent hours and sometimes days trying to identify photographs. I’d say, ‘Yes, I remember that person,’ and tried to recall it all, but some of them I had no recollection. It was somebody I’d interviewed: ‘You’re on the set and you’re interviewing this dude. Who is he?’ ‘I have no idea..’ “
Here are a few other things we discussed. They’re all told in more detail in the book, and they only scratch the surface of the book, which has interesting and amusing anecdotes about celebrities ranging from Julie Christie to John Belushi (who always gave Wygant a hard time) to such former KXAS colleagues as Scott Pelley and Charlie Rose.
On-air the day President Kennedy died
On Nov. 22, 1963 — coincidentally, Wygant’s 37th birthday — she was hosting “Dateline,” which ran from 12:30 to 1 p.m.; “It was just another day at the office,” she says, “except that we knew that we would be doing reports on John Kennedy. There was a chance that President Kennedy’s motorcade would arrive at the Dallas Trade Market earlier than anticipated, and that the station would cut away from Wygant to the activities there.
Wygant was scheduled to conduct two interviews during the program: One with band leader Ray McKinley, who was originally from Fort Worth and was scheduled to perform that night, and one with Lambuth Tomlinson of All Church Press, a company that published weekly church bulletins.
“I noticed that my floor director, Ed Milner, was very antsy and pressing his headset and trying to give signals to me that were not typical signals that you give to on-camera people,” Wygant says. “I was trying to pay attention to them while I was listening during an interview.”
When the words “NEWS BULLETIN” came up on a monitor, she stopped talking. “We heard Tom Whelan, one of our news anchors, come in and say that this news bulletin was from the grounds of the John Kennedy parade: ‘sounds similar to shot have been heard in the vicinity of the Kennedy motorcade. This is all the information we have at the moment. We do not know anything but stay tuned and we will bring you updates.”
Wygant continued the interviews, with the station cutting in as it got updates. Before the show was over, it was clear that shots had been fired and that the president and Texas Gov. John Connally had been hit. The last thing reported before the show went off the air was that Kennedy had been given the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church.
“So when they [said], ‘Coming back to you, Bobbie, pick up where you left off,’ I said, ‘I too am Roman Catholic, and we don’t want to read too much into the Last Rites. Any time there’s a situation of possible death or serious injury it’s not unusual to give the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The president was pronounced dead six minutes after the show ended.
Meeting the Beatles
When the Beatles came to Dallas in 1964, Wygant was sent a non-transferrable invitation to a press conference— so non-transferrable that if she couldn’t make it, nobody else from the station could use her credentials in her place. The group was known for its quick-witted, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes non-sequitur responses to journalists’ questions.
“You really had the feeling that they were just checking you out in every way.” Wygant says. “There were a few women [at Dalllas’ Memorial Auditorium] who were actually journalists, and a few other women who were brought in probably by husbands or boyfriends. When it was time for the conference to begin, Derek [Taylor], the press manager, gave us our rules and regulations and said that when we wanted to ask a question, we should raise our hand, and if we were acknowledged,we should stand and give our affiliation and our question.
“About halfway through, I thought, ‘I’d better get my question in.’ So I stand, I’m acknowledged, and the minute I start to say my name, in unison, the Beatles said, ‘Oh — we saw you on the telly today!’ “ She got to ask her question: “You fellows are the highest-paid entertainers in show business today. When you made your first big money, what was the first luxury you bought yourself?” All four answered, “Automobile!” One said Bentley, another said Rolls Royce, another said Lamborghini. “I couldn’t tell which car went with which Beatle,” Wygant writes in the book.
When the press conference was over, Wygant wanted to go up to Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, to thank him. When she got to him, he said, “Well, of course you’re staying for the concert.” “But I don’t have a ticket,” Wygant replied. “Well then, you’ll just stay with me,” he said. She stood by his side at the foot of the stage during the entire concert.
Talking to the ‘Star Wars’ star
On YouTube, there is footage of Wygant interviewing Harrison Ford for “Star Wars.” You’ll have to turn up the volume: At the time, Ford was very soft-spoken and a little shy.
That did not completely change in subsequent interviews.
“I interviewed Harrison Ford many, many times,” she says. “He’d been a star for a long time, and I was doing an interview with him, and I reminded him that in our earlier interviews, you’d ask him a question, and he’d just stare at the floor. ... I walk in the room, and he’s bright and chipper: ‘Hi Bobbie! Nice to see you!’ And I thought, ‘He’s gotten over that.’ I sit down, I start the first question, and his head goes down. Oh, no. I said, ‘Harrison ...’ and I didn’t go on. And when I stopped, he looked up. ‘What was the question?’ I reminded him that he did that. He said, ‘I did that, huh? I guess I had a foot fetish.’ “
The Bucket List interview that never happened
One person not listed in the book’s index, even though Wygant is a longtime fan, is .... Winston Churchill.
“From the time I was a teenager or before, I was a big fan of Winston Churchill,” she says. “I have books on Winston Churchill up to here. He reminded me a good bit of my grandfather. I was very devoted to my grandfather. His wit, and his kind of demeanor, and his lifestyle — not that I wanted to emulate him, but there’s something kind of wonderful about who wakes up late in the morning and for his breakfast, has a snifter of brandy. [Laughs] But what really made me a Winston Churchill fan was his command of the English language. Nobody equals him. I probably would have been beside myself, but I probably could have pulled it together to ask him a few things.”
Leaving Broadcast Hill
In 2013, KXAS left the somewhat cramped Broadcast Hill studios that had been its home since the WBAP-TV days, and made the move to the large Centreport facility that it shares with Teleumundo’s KXTX/Channel 39 (both stations are owned by NBC Universal). It was an emotional move for longtime employees like Wygant.
“I had gone in to do a little reminiscence that they taped,” Wygant says. “We walked around and went into the studio and [they asked] ‘Bobbie, what do you remember about this studio and things you did here?’ When we finished and I walked out the front door by myself, it was a really strange feeling. I walked straight out and I didn’t look back. I knew that if I looked back I would just lose it. And yet at the same time I was excited about a new state-of-the-art facility. But there was something so special about Broadcast Hill. It was the first television station that was built as a TV station in the country.”
For more on Wygant, check out The Bobbie Wygant Archive at http://bobbiewygant.com. The site includes videos of numberous vintage interviews.
Bobbie Wygant book signings
Bobbie Wygant will make several appearances and do book signings to promote “Talking to the Stars: Bobbie Wygant’s 70 Years in Television.” Here’s a schedule.
Wygant will be among the featured authors at TCU Press’ Holiday Book Fest, 2:30-5 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Dee Kelly Alumni Center, 2820 Stadium Drive in Fort Worth. Wygant is scheduled to speak from 3:30 to 4 p.m.; among the dozen authors featured will also be Fort Worth sportswriter/novelist Dan Jenkins. All books will be 40 percent off. Info at Holiday Book Fest on Facebook.
Wygant will do a book signing from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at the Shops at North East Mall, 861 North East Mall Blvd. in Hurst. For info, call the store, 817-284-1244.
Another signing, at 1 p.m. at Barnes & Noble SMU, 3060 Mockingbird Land, Dallas, 214-768-2435