Once upon a time, during a Christmas season many years ago (it was 1963), the Chicago bureau of United Press International and UPI's National Broadcast News Department, normally shortened to "national radio." celebrated Christmas with a festive office party--the company may even have picked up the tab-- and although I have forgotten the specific details, if I ever had a firm grasp of them, that is a party that haunted me for years after.
In that season, the Chicago bureau and national radio were housed in what was then the Uptown Savings and Loan Building, across Michigan Avenue from Tribune Tower, having moved earlier in the year from offices in the old Daily News Building on West Madison. Those of you who watched the sitcom in which Bob Newhart played a psychologist, Dr. Bob Hartley, will remember the Uptown Savings building as the one in which Bob had his office and into he which walked after meandering around the area north of the Loop in the opening sequence.
Into the basement of that same building a few months after we moved in came one of Chicago's great characters, William "Billy Goat" Sianis, who set up a saloon. Billy Goat had also moved from West Madison Street, where he had had a saloon across from the Chicago Stadium. Generations of Chicago newspapermen had trod into Billy's after (or before) covering the Bulls or the Blackhawks or Sonia Henie or Jersey Joe Walcott or Gorgeous George or whatever other act was playing the Stadium, and they had become friends with the proprietor.
Billy was a Greek immigrant with a pet goat and a gift for furnishing columnists with copy, especially on slow days, and with their complicity he gained a measure of fame. One episode alone was enough to insure his newsprint immortality: eighteen years earlier, in 1945, Billy had tried to take his goat, Billy Jr., into Wrigley Field to watch a World Series game, and the two were thrown out. In retaliation, Billy (Sr.) put a hex on the Cubs, which he never lifted and which has continued in effect through every long northside baseball season since. Later, when John Belushi and the Second City gang made it to "Saturday Night Live," it was Billy Goat's they satirized in their "hambooga, hambooga, hambooga...Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi" routine (according to Tribune columnist Dave Condon, Billy Goat's was the home of the meatless hamburger).
As you can imagine, we Unipressers upstairs were overjoyed to have Billy Goat's in the basement, and we made good use of it from the start--we invested more there than in the savings and loan, certainly (Dolores Deasy, the teetotaling UPI receptionist spent the first dollar in the place, and that dollar was destined to hang above the cash register--may still even be there). Because of its proximity, the joint was the hands-down choice for the Christmas party in that year when we were new neighbors. Alas, four of us on national radio had to work that night from four to midnight (or thereabouts), and we would miss the party.
In other circumstances, one or more of us might have called in sick. But we weren't entirely stupid. In fact, we were Unipressers, and resourceful, and we hadn't been at our typewriters long that evening when we came up with an idea that would allow us both pleasure and business.
Each night, one editor would be in charge of assigning stories for the five-minute world in brief (wib) broadcasts we sent out most hours and editing and filing them. Another would be in charge of the 15-minute world news roundups (rup) that we sent about every three hours. Two writers would write for both editors. But on this prelude to the holy season, if all of us shared the writing of every wib and roundup, we agreed, we could get the newscasts out and spell each other in going to the party.
And that's what we did. Two of us at a time went down the back elevator, hustled through the parking garage, squeezed through a half door that was designed for deliveries and jumped three or four feet to the floor of the tavern. We'd have a couple of drinks and a sandwich and go back up to let the other two party for a while. It was a wonderful system.
The broadcast stylebook admonished broadcast writers to use what was called the "bar stool method" of writing. Just tell the story to your typewriter as you'd tell it to the guy on the next bar stool, the lesson read. Trouble was, we got to the point at which the typewriter no longer understood what the hell we were trying to say.
The drawer of the main desk held a pair of scissors, however, and we had paste, and a file of the wibs and rups that had gone out earlier in the day, and even if we couldn't write we still had some manual dexterity and skills we'd carried with us from kindergarten. With a newscast coming up, one person would clip a story from the third wib while another was hacking at the fifth and another choosing an item from the seventh or eighth. One of us would paste everything on a sheet of copy paper, do a little penciling and hand it to the teletype operator.
It was only the next day that we realized that what we had done might have gotten us into some trouble. Had a client called to complain about getting the same stories hour after hour, or had one of the managers gone through the report critically the next day, or had someone noticed all the pasted-up copy in the bundle of raw copy. Or? There were too many "ors" to think about with the heads we were carrying around, and so we went about our work as if nothing out of the ordinary had gone on, and, blessedly, no one questioned us.
But the guilt was there, festering. My own Ghost of Christmas Past. And I never told the story. Not until more than 30 years later, when I was having dinner at the home of Tom and Adele McGann one night. Tom had been one the top editors on national radio and became a good friend. Caught up in good will and reminiscence, I confessed what we had done. Even then, I was hesitant.
Tom laughed. "You think you were the only guy who ever did that?" he said.
I was deflated. But, at last, I was absolved.