My career, such as it was, in local TV news was short and chaotic.
I was hired in 1982 to produce and anchor local cut-ins for a thing called Satellite News Channel, Westinghouse Broadcasting’s Washington-based nascent competitor to CNN. I had never sat or stood before a camera, nor written for broadcast news, but these were heady times for expansion in all media, and because a manager at Channel 3 had known me from the Philadelphia Daily News, there I was, a budding Walter Cronkite.
Well, things are never as they seem. As Satellite News Channel winnowed its mission—local inserts were not selling well—I drifted into the Channel 3 newsroom, KYW being an NBC affiliate owned by Westinghouse at the time. It was just as newscasts were expanding and the need for producers, even one as inexperienced as I, was great. I got to do everything and be with everyone—sports producing for Bob Bradley and Howard Eskin, running the “3 Today” first early-morning broadcasts with Dave Stanley and Pat Ciarrocchi and Jerry Penacoli. Some days it was evenings in the booth on three phones screaming at people in live shots and anchors making five times my salary on set. Other days, thankfully, it was out with reporter Mike Strug and cameraman Irv Grodsky on Car Three, on which we would have three or four minutes of air time doing a feature for the end of the 5 p.m. newscast almost daily, something that does not even exist in local TV news any more.
But after being fired, taking a trip around the world, and then rehired by the guy who took over when the guy who fired me was himself fired—something not so odd in those heady TV days as it sounds today—I decided to go back to print by the late 1980s.
As crazy and sometimes debilitating as those days were, they were not without positives. There was a foxhole mentality, not just at Channel 3, but in all of TV news, I think.
That is why a good-sized band—usually 40 or 50 of us—of smiling faces known as the ROMEOs—the Retired Old Mavens Eating Out—meets every few months or so at the ultimate ROMEO place, the ancient establishment, The Pub on the Airport Circle in Pennsauken.
Founded just short of seven years ago, the ROMEOs are retired, or at least job-shifted, members of TV news, and sometimes public relations or entertainment, primarily from Philadelphia’s Big Three network affiliates, Channels 3, 6 and 10.
“The night I retired from Eyewitness News [the sobriquet for Channel 3, KYW], April 30, 2008, a retired news guy suggested several of us get together and have lunch. The idea was to stay in touch after Eyewitness News ,” said Dick Standish, who had worked at KYW Newsradio before moving to TV. “We had spent many years working together, were friends, had the same experiences, and so forth.”
Unshockingly, the most outgoing of the group, Dick Sheeran, who grew up deep down in South Philadelphia, but by then had retired to Atlantic City, suggested a raucous place for the first lunch—Ralph’s on South 9th Street.
The first group had most of its roots at Channel 3, with a smattering of other experience: on-air folks Sheeran, Standish and Robin Mackintosh, producers David Neal Gomberg and Mike Quinn, and cameraman Norm Glenn. A few weeks later, Sheeran called Mike Strug, who had recently retired from Channel 10, and longtime sports and weather guy Tom Lamaine, and for Lamaine’s sake, chose to have the lunch at Tony’s Baltimore Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, near Lamaine’s Ocean City home.
Within a few months, everyone started asking other TV friends and, with a few lunches at Connie Mack’s in Pennsauken, the now-couple-dozen regulars moved into the vast Pub dining room on various Thursday lunchtimes.
“It was real TV types, which may be different than what people think,” said Grodsky, who went to Northeast High, then worked at Channel 48 as a studio cameraman while going to Temple, finally working as a tech of all sorts at Channel 3 for 36 years before retiring in 2008.
“I love talking stories about what we did in the studio and on the street,” Grodsky said. “We talk about the same stories over and over again. There are old stories, new stories and stories we already talked about hours before. We laugh and laugh and it never gets old because we met some interesting people and did a lot of interesting things.”
For most of the big-time TV news era in Philadelphia, Channel 6, always the ABC affiliate, towered over the ratings—sometimes getting as many viewers for a nighttime newscast as both Channel 3 and Channel 10, which have both been CBS and NBC affiliates, with Channel 29, now the Fox affiliate, most times lagging behind. As king of the hill, Channel 6 would rarely, if ever, hire anyone who had ever worked at the “lesser” stations. So even after a lifetime in local TV news, some in business are just meeting for the first time at the ROMEOs.
“Cathy Gandolfo, what a pleasure it has been to get to know her,” said Gary Mirkin, who met his wife, Anne Amico, in the engineering and tech side at Channel 3, where they both worked off-camera for a generation before retiring a few years ago. Gandolfo spent much of that same time as an on-air reporter at Channel 6. “We all sort of have the same stories, but it is good to hear them from other people.”
Mirkin and Amico have become the godfather and godmother of the ROMEOs. They keep the Facebook page, send out the reminders of Pub luncheons, and do that onerous duty of collecting at the end of each lunch.
“Oh, it’s not too bad. These are not the type of people who complain about a lunch bill. They are just laughing too much to worry about it,” said Mirkin.
Mike Strug is one of, he believes, three on air people who have worked at all three Philadelphia major stations—3, 6 and 10. After a short radio career out of Temple, he got a job at Channel 6, replacing his former Temple prof, John Roberts. He then worked for a couple of decades at Channel 3, mostly doing features, and then finished his career at Channel 10. He said that Steve Levy, an occasional ROMEO visitor from his retirement home in Colorado, and Larry Kane are two others who worked for all three major stations.
Strug has become the unofficial historian for the ROMEOs, posting photos after each luncheon on the Facebook site, and encouraging fellow ROMEOs to write up the stories they love to tell. Strug has a dream of making a book out of the little tidbits and slices of on-the-street life in late 20th Century Philadelphia TV news.
One of Strug’s personal favorites was when he was assigned to do a story with the colorful former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, soon after Rizzo had had hemorrhoid surgery and was still in the hospital.
“Somehow we had arranged a bedside interview,” said Strug, indicating that even for Rizzo, who almost always made himself available, this was a little strange.
“So he is here lying surrounded by his guys. The one I remember being there was Hillel Levinson, the managing director,” said Strug. “Anyway, he talked for a few minutes before starting the interview. And it was then, before the camera rolled as we talked about his hemorrhoidal surgery that Rizzo gave what would have been, maybe, his best sound bite ever, had we gotten it on film:
“‘Now I am what my enemies have always said I was, a perfect asshole.’”
As Strug notes, it is not just local celebs and stories that these ROMEOs covered in their heydays. Technician Ralph DiCocco, now coming to the lunches in his 80s, worked cameras on both Dick Clark’s American Bandstand at Channel 6 and the variety and celebrity Mike Douglas Show from 1965-78 at Channel 3.
“There wasn’t anyone who didn’t come to the Douglas Show,” said Strug. Often Douglas would have week-long guest hosts—Barbra Streisand was one and John Lennon was another. Tiger Woods appeared as a two-year-old golf prodigy on the Douglas show—his first TV appearance of many.
Mackintosh and cameraman Larry Bossone were perhaps the most prolific team in Philadelphia TV news history. They are both confirmed storytellers at each ROMEO lunch. Back in their day, one would pick up the other from their suburban homes and by the time they actually got to the Channel 3 studios at 5th and Market, they would have covered at least one, but often two or three stories.
One time, though, said Mackintosh, they were sent to New York for a demonstration against the demolition of Grand Central Station. After they were finished the story, Mackintosh saw Jacqueline Kennedy, who was one of those supporting the preservation, in a limousine. He tapped on the window and asked if she would say something.
“She came out and I put the microphone out and asked the usual dumb question, ‘Are you for the preservation of the terminal?’” said Mackintosh. “She said, ‘Evidently,’ and got back into the limo.
“Well, at that time, her niece, Maria Shriver, was a young staffer at Evening Magazine, which was upstairs from the Channel 3 newsroom,” said Mackintosh. “I told her we had interviewed her aunt and she said only one word. She said, ‘That is one word more than I would have expected.’”
Standish said Sheeran, who traipses up the 60 miles from Atlantic City to Pennsauken for every ROMEOs lunch, is the real spirit behind the sentimental lunches.
“Dick says he doesn’t miss the rat race at all,” said Standish, “but he does miss the rats.
“Look, we were in a very public profession, whether we were on camera or on the great support staffs of technicians and producers we had,” said Standish. “This big lunch every few months with all the stories is the kind of thing we live for.”