TV Will Break Your Heart Every Time

1) 1958. I first learned television’s power to wound when I was eight.

Aside from hosting frequent tornadoes that blew away houses and people and barnyard animals, the town I lived in — Wichita Falls, Texas — also had a kids’ show called Pet Parade on the local TV channel.

Since I was a budding narcissist, naturally I wanted to be on TV more than anything in the world. All you had to do was send your name in to the station, saying you had a pet and were available any time of night or day for your chance at stardom. I did all that and waited. Finally, the big call came in. They wanted me and my pet on Pet Parade.

This raised a bit of a problem. I was confident that I was camera-ready — but a pet? Our family had two pets (after our third, an Easter chick, had grown up and moved to a farm). Both of our current pets were not only lacking in glamour, I felt, but also totally deficient in star quality.

Our fox terrier, Bouncer, had a problem that would nowadays probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He sometimes liked to play with my sister and me, but would usually end up biting us. (My mother said this was because Bouncer was overly sensitive, just like her.) I had the feeling a pet who bit the show host might ruin my career as a TV star before it even took off.

That left our parakeet, Baby. Baby had no discernible personality, so, in our house, everybody left Baby in a corner. She spent her days squawking and eating. Once every six months, she screeched something my mother insisted was “Baby bird!” Like every other communication in our family, though, this was subject to interpretation.

Anyway, since I wasn’t willing to have Bouncer bite me all the way to the TV studio, I was stuck with Baby. I showed up at the TV station all dressed up and hauling a bird cage with me. When I was introduced on camera, I walked on and plopped the bird cage down on the emcee’s desk.

I’d hoped the emcee would want to focus on me after he quickly realized I was the one with bigtime potential to be another Shirley Temple — and not the parakeet with the dazed look on her face. But he kept pestering me with questions about Baby. Could she talk? No. Could she do tricks? No. Could she do anything? Well, no, not really.

After a couple of minutes of this, the emcee gave me and Baby the hook. They started playing the Pet Parade music and marched us off camera. The prize went to some other kid with a dog that could sit down on command and didn’t bite anyone. On the way home in the car, Baby started talking a lot.

For months afterward, other kids would come up to me and say they had seen me on Pet Parade. But no one ever suggested Baby and I should have won.

2) 1981. Mount St. Helen’s volcano has blown its top. My husband has become an expert on the psychological effects of living close to hot lava and ash. Nightline calls him. Is he available? Well, of course, he is.

We jump in our car and head from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. Before we leave, we notify every person on earth we know or would like to know. National TV! En route, we chortle. Wait till that 11th grade English teacher (the one who always hinted he would amount to nothing) sees him! And all those snotty people who never gave him the time of day! Ha! We are emotionally intoxicated, we are grandiose, we are insufferable — the way you can be only when you’re still quite young and life hasn’t yet taken a dump all over you and your dreams.

At the last minute, Nightline cuts him. The next day, we slink back to Charlottesville. This time, it’s a quieter drive. We are chastened, we are a little bitter, we seem to have aged a lot in 24 hours. We are also extremely hung over.

3) 2008. Since this is still too painful to recount, please check out my almost-stardom as a cancer survivor in this tragic post entitled, Local Woman Refuses to Come Out of Fetal Position. Read it and weep; God knows, I do.

4) 2011. You think a bad 24 hours can age you? Well, try 30 years — even a good 30 years. Over the years, we have both been on TV a few times, mostly local TV, but don’t quibble. We are mature, we are a bit jaded, we are grounded. Our heads are no longer turned so easily. We won’t be Linda Blair to TV’s exorcist.

So, we are only mildly agitated when Brian Williams’ new show, Rock Center, got in touch with my husband about his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. A producer from New York flew in and filmed him in his office and in class. The segment was supposed to air on Monday, December 5th. Being mature and wise beyond our years, we didn’t tell many people about it. Well, just a few, anyway.

You know the rest of the story. It didn’t air then. It may air soon. Or, you know, it may not.

The only thing I know for sure is this: No matter how mature and centered you may think you are, when TV comes calling, you might as well be eight years old again, clutching a bird cage with a mute parakeet and waiting to be the next Shirley Temple. Some things you just never can learn.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

17 comments… add one
  • I was interviewed once as a teen for a local news story, then I appeared on a local morning show to talk about one of my books. My last couple of brushes with TV have ended similarly to yours – too much effort on my part and no actual footage ever shown.

  • having been on the procing side of televison for a number of years in the past, I’ll say these sorts of decision do not always make sense from that side of things either.

    had missed the fact that you grew up in Wichita Falls. a good friend of mine did also — sounds like a town with many stories.

  • Cindy A Link

    Do let us know when Dr. P’s segment will air!

  • God, TV is deadly isn’t it? It’s gotten to the point when I actually pretend I don’t want to be on it.

    Of course until they want me.

    (Loved the fetal position one you linked to. So crazy funny, Ruth. You had me laughing out loud)

  • So far I haven’t had any brushes with TV fame like you have–either I need to get a parakeet that talks or teach my dog to do more than sleep and beg for food I guess.

  • My TV experience dates back to when my sister and I were in the audience of the Howdy Doody Show decades ago. A couple of years ago my husband called me at work – he was doing a live presentation and what should he wear. After putting a shirt, tie and jacket together (me on phone, he in front of his closet), he was off. His presentation was cut from the broadcast, but he was seen sitting directly behind the Governor. At least he looked OK!

  • It’s interesting to get the inside story. So many of us think that being “on” would be da’bomb!

  • My 6th grade class was supposed to be in a TV documentary about local writer Willie when I lived in Mississippi. I got the chicken pox and was home covered in spots for that one.

  • These are important lessons. Many, many, many times when I worked in PR, we would get frantic calls from producers from Oprah (or the like). We would bust our behinds to get them the information they needed, and they NEVER, ever used it. Never.

    I hope the Rock Center thing does air, and I’d still be wildly giddy to see your hubby on The Daily Show or Colbert Report.

  • I had a radio show in France. To make a long story short, the new owner of the station planned to buy a TV station and dangled a job on TV before me, but TV never tempted me. I did love doing radio though. I love these posts, Ruth. You always make me smile.

  • After decades, I learned the power of TV was in the plug– I finally pulled it!

    As for your dream of being the next Shirley Temple (snicker)– with your straight hair? Well, move over, sister! I wanted to be THE next Spanky McFarland!

  • Sheryl Link

    I think it might be time to give up on the tv dream…until someone else comes calling. So close…yet so far. And so funny . Maybe e next tv gig could be as a stand-up comedienne??

  • This was lol funny! I think many of us who have had our 15 seconds of fame (or not) on television can relate.

  • I can only surmise that your last name is too long to fit on the cue cards. No other excuse for passing up such fascinating people. (and parrots)

  • My first husband was on TV once when my son was about 3. I can’t remember why he was on — his expertise was the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and they wanted a professor to say something wise about some skulduggery of the Russians, I guess. What I remember is that my son was badly frightened as we watched his father on the tube. “How is Daddy going to get out of the TV?” he asked me tearfully.

  • As a former PR flack, I’ve also been emotionally bruised when my clients’ TV appearances or magazine spreads were inevitably shelved. Clearly you need a lackey to blame! Is Baby Bird still available to be a long-suffering assistant?

  • How ’bout this: You actually agree to do an on-camera interview, the producer sends you a DVD of said show, and it’s been well over six months and you just can’t make yourself watch it, even after people have approached you from unlikely quarters saying: “didn’t I just see you on…”

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