Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Odd Jobs And Jack LaLanne

While my husband was working on his Masters of Theology degree I was working on my PhT... “Putting Hubby Through” seminary. I took my BA in History and used it to fill in the blanks of applications for jobs that had nothing to do with my major but helped pay the bills while my husband worked part time and took a full load of classes.

One of those jobs was the one that paid for our first child's birth and introduced me to Eunice. Then I heard that a new Baptist cable TV network was in development in Ft. Worth and they were hiring. I became a secretary for a talk show a couple of months before it went on the air. We had two or three interviews and a musical guest on each one hour show and did them “live-to-tape”.

Working for the ACTS Network I found an interesting mix of creative professionals, ministers, broadcast technicians and other “seminary wives” like me. The work would turn out to be infinitely more interesting than typing numbers into a 10-key all day at my previous job. For the first few days I sat in the office with the show's two co-hosts and listened to them brainstorming and planning so I could figure out how to organize the information they would need. This was in the early '80s when the only computer in our department was one Apple IIe in the office of one of our bosses. He was learning to write programs for it in BASIC but all of us secretaries still had IBM Selectrics at our desks. When I set up the files they were in a filing cabinet, not a computer database.

During meetings with the show's hosts and producers, I was encouraged to share my own ideas for guests or interview questions and it was clear that our team was open to input from everyone. One of my duties was to type out the intros of the guests for the teleprompters and when we discovered that the intros written by the show's hosts were too long I made suggestions for editing them. Eventually, I started writing them myself. I just tried to imagine what would sound good to me if I were watching the show at home and I guess I did okay because they let me keep doing it. (Guess now I can add “writer for television” to my resume!)

I spent a lot of time on research, reading books that were sent to us from publishers in hopes that we'd book their authors. I'd take a book or two home at night, read it and bring it back to the hosts and tell them “Great book, but your interview is in Chapter 3. I underlined a couple of quotes for you.” Or I'd tell them the book was only so-so and the topic was too close to one we'd already covered and we'd pass on it. The producer of this show called me “Radar” because I could anticipate his decisions about the guests I suggested just as well as Radar on MASH anticipated the colonel's orders.

On taping days I met the guests when they arrived and escorted them to the studio, sometimes staying with them all day and even driving a few to the airport afterward. Because we could often schedule a guest on a couple of cable TV shows and a nationally syndicated radio show or two, all produced in the same building, we were able to book some fascinating guests who came through the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex. I met some amazing people during my two years at that job. Being part of a creative, talented team that valued my input was an unforgettable experience.

About a year later, this show was replaced by a call-in talk show and I was promoted from secretary to production assistant with a greater role in booking guests. (The producer of this show, who had formerly worked at our local NBC affiliate, told me that if I'd done the same jobs in any other network or station I would have been called production assistant and then associate producer. But if they'd called me that they would have had to pay me more. Oh well.)

One day as I was scanning the newspaper for ideas for the show I saw an article about Jack LaLanne and a new exercise video he'd just released. I had watched his show when I was a preschooler, doing all the exercises along with my mom and Jack and Jack's beautiful white dog. I knew his high energy and enthusiasm and the popular topics of nutrition and fitness would be perfect for our call-in talk show. When I pitched it to the show's producer and hosts they loved the idea. Their only question was, “How do we contact him?”

Keep in mind this was during the pre-Google days. There was no contact information in the newspaper article I'd read, either. But I did have the name of the videotape.

I called a local video rental store and asked if they had the video. They did. I told the clerk that I was trying to find out how to contact Jack Lalanne and why and asked her to give me the name of the company that produced the video. She did. Finding a phone number for that company didn't take long and they gave me the number for Jack LaLanne's publicist. I told her all about our show and our little network and she said they'd gotten a couple of other inquiries from media outlets in Dallas and Houston. “Maybe we should go ahead and put together a media tour for him.”

When Jack LaLanne and his wife, Elaine, arrived at the Baptist Radio & Television Commission building I met them to escort them to the studio. I introduced myself and said, “I watched your show with my mom when I was a preschooler and we did all the exercises with you every day!” He grinned and said, “Well then I taught you how to count, didn't I?” And he started pumping his arms in a mock jumping-jack motion, saying “One! Two! Three! Four!”

Jack was a whirlwind of energy and joy and charmed everybody in the studio. His wife, Elaine, was just as charming and looked twenty years younger than her then actual age. After a lively interview segment tracing his career as a pioneer in the fitness industry we were ready to take calls and our phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree.

Jack fielded questions about nutrition and exercise from our show's hosts and from callers and the phones were still ringing when we signed off. He and Elaine happily demonstrated some exercises, too. After the taping was done for the day he continued to challenge and encourage the members of our crew. I wish I'd gotten a picture with the two of them.

I recently discovered that I can watch those old black & white Jack LaLanne TV shows on his website,  . You can't watch for more than a minute or two before feeling like this man really wanted you to be successful in your very first attempts to exercise. He wanted you to feel good and be healthy, not just thin. When Jack opened his first gym people thought he was crazy. I'm glad – though not at all surprised – that he lived long enough for everyone to see that he was right all along.

It makes me a little sad to see so many different machines and gadgets and videos for sale. Oh, Jack did sell a “Glamour Stretcher” which was essentially a rubber resistance band. I still have one my mother ordered and yes, I use it now and then. And I know Jack LaLanne invented many of the machines that are now used in gyms all across America, and don't forget that juicer!

But success depends less on gadgets and more on attitude. And being thin doesn't make you happy. It doesn't necessarily make you healthy, either.

I confess I'm feeling a little nostalgic for a simple little black and white TV show with a man, his beautiful white dog and his encouraging words showing you how to do a few little exercises every day so you can feel better and live longer.

It wasn't just a show about exercise. It was a show about getting the most out of life. Jack knew that a little time effort will pay off. Just don't give up.

It sure worked for him.

Thank you, Jack.

This illustration by Andy Helms was especially commissioned just for this blog entry.
Thank you, Andy! You can see more of Andy's work at http://oktotally.tumblr.com/


  1. Best blog post yet - well done!

  2. Donna
    What a great story! As a child, I remember people making fun of Jack LaLanne's hyper enthusiasm for exercise & a healthy diet. He was a character and your memories of him make his detractors seem foolish. I wonder how many people are sharing their wisdom with us now and we are too closed off in our minds to hear the lessons.
    By the way, you seem to be a person that makes life happen for themselves. Shows what a positive attitude and perseverance can bring into our own lives.
    Haayhowu (TwitterName)