by Peter Hamilton – Head of Media Relations and Communications, G&A Institute
It was lightning in a bottle. It remains the “West Point of the Airwaves.” “It” is the NBC Page Program – once formally known as “NBC Guest Relations,” an area where aspiring entertainers, newscasters, sales executives, PR managers, radio and television (and movie) producers — and in general anyone who wanted to get a “foot in the door” into the network in any capacity — would seek to gain entry.
Before they became famous, the Page program boasted such luminaries as Regis Philbin; Academy Award winner Eva Marie Saint; television’s Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan; “Charlie’s Angels” Kate Jackson; TV personality Peter Marshall; actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and certainly many others. There were countless other behind the scenes stories as pages waited to carve out their career.
NBC page Pat “Ziggy” Ziccarelli became an extra in the first “Godfather” movie and was said to have stolen the wedding scene as a dancer. NBC pages in the locker room who were part of a comedy team were hoping to win Joan Rivers’ favor as the word was out she paid $5 a joke in supporting comedian/pages.
More recently the role of the NBC Page has been immortalized on the “30 Rock” comedy by Jack McBrayer, who plays a “cheery, ambiguously immortal character,” “Kenneth the Page.”
I was lucky enough to be a lesser light in the NBC page program, but, like other colleagues, the NBC Page program opened my world. And what a ride it has been!
Back in the day, for the uninitiated, a “page” was an usher for those television shows requiring live audiences; there was a tour guide component to this, as NBC in New York City (and certainly later in Burbank, California) would host members of the general public on a behind-the-scenes tour of NBC’s television facilities and when the network had radio, its radio elements. The NBC Tour for years has been a “must see” for anyone visiting in New York, and was reintroduced in 1983 after a facility refit after years of being a visitor focal point.
Graduating from Niagara University I headed for New York and NBC. As a page I got to work “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” when it was in New York; and as a tour guide, my tour group got a special thrill when Ed McMahon would come out of his ninth floor office to meet and greet my group (he was not an official stop on the tour, but he was a television institution!). And then there was that special time I got to take actress Anne Francis (of “Forbidden Planet” and star of “Honey West”) on a private tour of NBC with her daughter.
I wrote about the experience in my only foray into book publishing, in an article within a book about the industry from Workman Press in the late 1970s. My article: “Confessions of a Former NBC Page.” Good luck if you can find it!
Most recently the page program was described by Lester Holt on the Today Show as to be more difficult to enter than Harvard. (“the program receives about 16,000 applications each year and accepts less than two percent —making it more difficult to get into than Harvard.” The Today segment here.)
It is that competitive. I grasped this immediately this year when some pages conducted me through a labyrinth on the sixth floor of the NBCUniversal complex in Rockefeller Center in midtown New York City where I and others were to be interviewed for a pre-taped segment to be shown at an anniversary event celebrating the NBC Pages.
Today’s NBC pages are smart, they are energized and know their history of the building, its voices and ghosts, and rich NBC television (and radio) history that belies their young years.
The role of the NBC pages has expanded over the years. To say they are simply show “ushers” does not give them justice. As NBC itself explains:
Pages have the opportunity to learn on “assignments” throughout NBCUniversal. Typically lasting three months, these challenging and rewarding positions provide hands-on work experience, while exposing Pages to NBCUniversal’s diverse opportunities.
Pages also participate in company-driven initiatives and events. On the East Coast, Pages work on the Olympics, the NBCUniversal Upfronts, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, late night shows including “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” as well as NBC News’ election coverage. On the West Coast, Pages assist with the Television Critics Association Press Tour, the Los Angeles Upfronts, pilot screenings, film premieres and the Golden Globe Awards.
During their year at NBCUniversal, Pages make important contacts and connections. They are encouraged to network with employees throughout the organization and schedule informational interviews. Pages also learn from senior executives and talent through regularly scheduled Speaker Series events, where guests discuss their careers and experiences in depth.
It is fair to say I am very much connected with the RCA/GE Building in the heart of “Radio City,” Rockefeller Center. It has always been a happy place for me, as I explained to my video interview hosts. It has been a periodic but important part of my life:
- From the time I was a member of the Howdy Doodie “Peanut Gallery” (yes, I am showing my age, but it was the hottest ticket in television in the mid-to-late Fifties)….
- …to a time I saw the game shows “The Price Is Right” (with host Bill Cullen) and “Say When” (host Art James) and taking the NBC Tour as a grammar school student…
- …to actually representing the network as an NBC Page and Tour Guide and later writing TV and radio publicity for the network.
I have always felt a strong bond with “30 Rock.”
So there I was at the foot of 30 Rock at an event celebrating the 80th anniversary of the NBC Page program in New York on September 25th with a gala reception. The evening’s special guests were NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke and NBC Page alumnus and on-air personality Regis Philbin (formerly of “Live With Regis and Kelly” and now with Fox 1 Sports network’s “Crowd Goes Wild!” sports talk program).
NBC Page alums were lucky enough that night to be hobnobbing with a constellation of stars in the audience at Rockefeller Center Page celebration. Among the attendees: NBC News’ Brian Williams of Nightly News; the Today program’s Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb and Al Roker; CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla, host of the cable network’s “Squawk on the Street” morning program; and a raft of the next generation of television news segment producers, a good number of them who had roots in the NBC Page program.
All tallied, there were about 300 in attendance. Most of these were NBC page alumni from across the decades, including yours truly.
Given our training and our experience, once a page, always a page. We were not star-struck; because we were accustomed to working with on-air talent. There was an almost collegial give and take between the NBC page alums and the current stars. We were family, and we felt as if the event were a “welcome home!” event. Because it was.
For me, it was a special evening. And the memories took me back over the years. As an NBC Page and Tour Guide in 1970, I made good use of the rich experiences in the “Guest Relations” (page) department.
In my time you could only stay as a page for 18 months. Either you got “upstairs” in launching your career or you were out. I stayed in the Guest Relations Department in various managerial capacities beyond being a page for nearly five years.
While a manager I was in charge of hiring. I did the best I could to nurture those I had hired and to help them get upstairs. Simultaneously I wanted to get upstairs myself; for five years I knocked on the NBC Press & Publicity Department door because I wanted to write television and radio publicity. That was it for me. Others wanted to produce sports; others wanted to be sales executives (one I hired became advertising executive for Anheuser Busch, in charge of a billion dollar budget); still others wanted to perform in television or on Broadway. One of those I hired announced one day he was leaving for Las Vegas to become a gambler. Less than tall at about five foot five, while I was wishing him luck as he was leaving I imagined him in the future ending up with a six-foot showgirl on each arm somewhere down the road!
It took me awhile, but I finally “got upstairs” in the NBC (then known as the RCA) Building. The amazing great white-haired bear, NBC Press & Publicity honcho Gene Walsh opened the door for me first as the associate editor of NBC Newsline, the new in-house newspaper that was a resurrection of the old “Chimes” newspaper for NBC employees. One of my first stories was the history of the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas trees. I then worked my way further into the Press Department as an NBC-TV and Radio publicist — and then into what would be a four decade career in public relations and publicity.
Being a page for me opened the door for what I will always believe was a thrilling, rich experience as an NBC publicist:
*NBC Television Network: publicity for all corporate functions, NBC’s prime time schedule and all NBC operating and staff divisions.
*Television Show Handler or Unit Publicity, including some great shows as “St. Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues” and some less-than-acclaimed failed shows and pilots. (Hey, it was television. That’s the business).
*“America Alive!” – Publicity with host Jack Linkletter and travelling co-hosts Bruce Jenner (former Olympic decathlon champion, now Kardashian stepfather); Pat Mitchell (the current President and Chief Executive Officer of The Paley Center for Media, formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) in New York City and the former President and CEO of Public Broadcasting System (PBS); and Janet Langhart (now spouse of former defense secretary William Cohen). This 60-minute show in the late 1970s was live television, a daily talk show that included consumer tips, relationship advice, entertainment news and reviews, and comedy bits.
For a publicist, working with live television was often dangerous, because anything could happen, and sometimes did. But that was a holdover from TV’s Golden Years, when practically all of it was live television.
* “Saturday Night Live”: working with John, Dan, Chevy, Gilda, Larraine, Garrett, Eddie, Joe, Julia and the others (The memories of a publicist on this show, of course, are legion: Eddie Murphy and “Larry the Lobster,” John Belushi and Joe Cocker mimicking each other outside the elevators on 8th floor and Andy Kaufman missing his plane and not turning in his script on time.)
Overall they were just great people; and this show had me working with top television reporters across the nation. I started on the show as a backup publicist with fellow NBC Press colleague Les Slater the week after the October 1975 premiere with host comedian George Carlin. The show could often make news; and I would repair to my office after the show, write up a story and take it and some unexposed film from the dress rehearsal over to nearby Associated Press in the dead of night, imploring AP editor Pat Conroy on the graveyard shift to give us a wire break.
* “The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder”: publicizing Tom’s interview with mass killer Charlie Manson, the first ever at the time; covering the closing of Hurley’s bar – a touchstone in Jack Paar and Johnny Carson monologues and an entertainment industry hangout – and meeting Steve Allen, Dave Garroway and a host of stars from television’s Golden Years; Tom’s newsmaker interviews; producer Pam Burke’s steady hand of the helm of the show; new incoming producer Roger Ailes (now chairman of Fox News) and his imprint as the show expanded to 90 minutes.
It was said that Hurley’s (in a low rise corner building next to 30 Rock) had an extension of the NBC switchboard behind the bar. It was because legend had it that acclaimed NBC Symphony maestro Arturo Toscanini wanted to keep tabs on his string section when they weren’t in Studio 8H. The speculation was that the maestro wanted to know where his strings were on their downtime in case he needed them! When Tom Snyder passed away in 2007, the accompanying wire service obit photo was one of Tom interviewing Manson in 1981, a photo we had serviced from NBC Press.
*White House specials: being in the Reagan Oval Office with the President and working on the “Christmas in Washington” and “Dear Mr. President” specials.
You had to let the White House know what you were doing and why; and thanks to the mentoring of my bosses in NBC Press who kicked my tail around until I got it right, I was fully prepared — and so were the President’s aides. What confidence my NBC Press bosses had in me! The US Secret Service appeared to be impressed as well. At one of the “Christmas in Washington” specials, one of the agents asked me whether I were “new on the job!” Maybe the suit fooled them!
With “Dear Mr. President,” “Here’s Boomer” producer A.C. Lyles managed to package a network special involving his friend, former actor/now President Ronald Reagan. (Lyles has the distinction of being the longest running Paramount Pictures employee). He was known as a prolific producer of Westerns during the 1950s and 1960s.
With “Dear Mr. President,” children from across the nation wrote into the President asking how government worked, and this publicist accompanied the children, bouncing around on a small school bus, meeting the President, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and others. I wrote about each child from each city, so the local press could pick up the publicity (I was a publicist after all, an operative trying to help build an audience but I also tried to ensure that the children might have some great memories.)
*”Friday Night Videos- publicity support for NBC-TV’s late night answer to MTV. Worked with publicists of some of the top acts of the early 1980s.
*”Nashville Palace” – a Nashville-based limited run NBC music/variety show (1981-82) featuring country music and comedy skits, with guest hosts that included country and western legends Roy Rogers and Dale Evans; Roy Clark; Slim Pickens; the Oak Ridge Boys; Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Special thrills: interview with my boyhood idol Roy Rogers; and a Nashville dinner with Slim Pickens (countless Westerns and riding an H-Bomb in “Dr. Strangelove”) and an NBC photographer watching a telecast of the September 1981 Sugar Ray Leonard/ Thomas Hearns fight.
*NBC Radio – working on the story that had NBC News projecting the winner of the 1980 Presidential Election at 8:16 p.m. on NBC Radio Network. Radio was particularly thrilling. Seeing veteran newsman Edwin Newman on the phone with KFWB Radio Los Angeles from Studio 5B (the NBC Radio News studio explaining what the Reagan election meant, telling the station about NBC news’ projection of the Reagan win, was very exciting — and history-making). The network learned from it. By calling an election at 5:16 p.m. Pacific Time, the “call” most likely was dissuading the West Coast from voting. So today, the networks call national elections after the West Coast poll closings.
* NBC’s foray into a new young adult radio news and concert network, “The Source,” where I got to promote concerts of such groups and performers as Yes, Grateful Dead, The Police, Rossington Collins, Judas Priest and many others); and the expansion into TalkNet, a talk radio network; and working with the eight owned and operated (“O/O”) radio stations, including the resurgence of the four station FM group from “automated broom closets” as they were described, into live studio killers.
Each station of course, had its advertising, promotion and publicity operatives, but there was a period when I was divisional publicity chief of a stable of AM and FM radio stations and its stars including Don Imus and the King -Of-All-Media, Howard Stern, who with his then-wife I accompanied on a walking tour of New Orleans when we were introducing the NBC FM Stations group. “Howard” was no shock jock that afternoon; he was as unassuming and polite as any other tourist visiting St. Louis Cathedral and other New Orleans sites.
Earlier, when Stern was at “W4 Radio,” (WWWW, Detroit), an AOR station (album oriented rock; the station’s call letters are now WDTW-FM) I was in town for the national radio convention. I was listening to Stern from my hotel room and phoned the station taking him to task for not including Gilda Radner when he was proposing celebrity Detroit names for the city’s streets.
Our publicity prompted Geoffrey Colvin of Fortune to write a story, “Fred Silverman’s Secret Success” about NBC Radio because we were told he was impressed with all that buzz coming out of NBC Radio. (Silverman was President of NBC after being wooed over from previous programming positions at CBS and then ABC.)
*The NBC Radio Network: helping to chronicle the ongoing affiliate station growth of “America’s First Network,” as NBC Radio Network was described and working on publicity material in support of “Confrontation” ( the predecessor of CNN’s “Crossfire”) with Pat Buchanan (yes, that Pat B.) and Tom Braden (who wrote “‘Eight is Enough”). I also worked with David Brinkley’s radio commentaries.
I was lucky enough to come full circle as a publicist with NBC. One of my final projects as I was leaving the network to join the global advertising agency Young & Rubicam was in writing all the publicity material for the 50th anniversary of the Page and Tour Guide Department in December 1983. The work on this was a labor of love.
The event was large; the search was on for 8,000 former NBC pages, and the venue had to be in Studio 8H to accommodate what would be people coming out of the woodwork. (Studio 8H was former home of the Kraft Television Theatre; NBC News’s moon shot coverage, the NBC Symphony Orchestra; and “Saturday Night Live,” among many productions.).
The press kit elements for the 50th anniversary of the NBC Page program in December 1983 included:
- The Umbrella story: Guest relations’ 50th: A Celebration of Tradition
- Guest relations 50th: Gene Rayburn remembers
- Charlie Spencer’s Huge Task: Locating Hundreds of former Guest Relations/page staffers.
- Ken Howard’s (start of “The White Shadow”): Guest Relations memories
- Brandon Maggart remembers
- NBC Press Chief’s Alan Baker on working with columnist Walter Winchell
- Memories of former GR people in 1984
- GR West Point of the Airwaves: guest relations people go to war WWII
- GR manager Peter Tintle remembers
About “Mr. Tintle”: he was a page who never left the department. I remember “agreeing” with Tintle to bring Rick Carson aboard as a page. It was tongue in cheek. There never was a question of bringing Johnny Carson’s son into the program. Rick would go on to become a Tomorrow Show producer on the West Coast before tragically losing his life in an auto accident. We all had last names on our uniforms. Rick’s name on his page uniform was “Rickcarson.” The public never caught on; and Rick Carson moved unencumbered by a famous name around his job and the public.
*The rise of “Guidettes” and “Pagettes” during WWII. Women join Guest Relations.
*1956 reunion: 200 monkey suit boys converge for reunion.
Flash forward to 2013.
As I knew NBC was planning a reunion, I asked William Bartlett, NBC Executive speechwriter and historian, if he wanted a copy of the 1983 press kit. He agreed and I’d like to think NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke used some of my material at the September 25th event. A good amount of background material Mr. Burke used was from our press kit. “Saturday Night Live” was gearing up for its season premiere in Studio 8H, so we were precluded from the big studio and instead the event would be held in the Rockefeller Plaza Café (by the skating rink).
And so, during the 2013 NBC Page 80th anniversary event, I was fully enjoying myself, not enjoying/working the event as I did in 1983 with a handful of press kits, looking for reporters.
At the 2013 event I reconnected with a former page whom I hired, who now works as an associate director for NBC Nightly News. She wheeled me around to today’s NBC News stars, graciously describing me as the individual who helped her start her career. I asked her to please tone it down because otherwise she would make me cry.
But really, she and others have made me proud. It was all her, I explained.
When she interviewed with me and manager Peter Tintle, after we hired her, at the event I told her I said that all she did was to show up. Her intelligence, grace and presentation at the time made her a prime candidate to represent NBC to the public. And now she’s helping to convey the news to the public.
The time came for me to depart into the night from the Rockefeller Plaza gala celebrating the pages. My time – all of the pages’ time at NBC in the Guest Relations Department – could well be considered lightning in a bottle. And just like that shining point in time years before when we all came to 30 Rock to seek our fortunes, our time was over.
How lucky all of us have been to have played a small role in the collective consciousness of the American public, having some small role in the history of NBC Television (and formerly) Radio. I would imagine all of us went home the night of September 25th with a knowing smile, and a proud one at that.
How lucky are all those pages and tour guide alumni to have had such a rich history of their own! And today’s pages are only now building their memories.
What an amazing cultural touch point!
What did the page department mean to me?
- I always remembered I was representing NBC to the public as a tour guide and page.
- The page program opened my world.
- It opened new opportunities for me and hundreds of others through the years.
- This was the “West Point of the Airwaves,” as others have described it
Truly, this was lightning in a bottle. To be a part of that? Oh my.
# # #
We’re proud to say that Peter Hamilton is one of our team members (our communications director) serving the public relations needs of our clients. We love his “Saturday Night Live” tales – they brighten our day.
– Hank Boerner, Chairman – G&A Institute
When I think of all that Peter has accomplished in his lifetime it makes me very proud to have him as a part of our team. It’s exciting to learn from him everyday, and great to imagine Peter sitting backstage with guys like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase – what a life!
– Louis Coppola, Executive VP – G&A Institute