MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

TRULY EXCELLENT WRITING MEMOIRS FROM VIRGINIA GUNN DIEHL



Two Insults Away From Fame


I was living in Texas when my first husband tried to kill me. He tried to suffocate me with a pillow. It almost worked. The next day when he was at work, I gathered my dog and split. I went back to Atlanta, as that is where most of my family lives.


I really only had experience in two areas. I had worked in P.R. for a television station in Atlanta. I had worked as a receptionist for a radio station in Atlanta, and I had been a disc jockey in Del Rio, Texas. I had also been an airline stewardess (that’s what they called them back then) for Braniff Airlines.


I applied for a job at WAGA-TV5, the CBS station in Atlanta. I was hired as the part time, weekend receptionist. Believe it or not, there was once a time in television when you could actually speak to a person when you called the station, no matter what time it was. There was a person there to answer the phone the entire time the station was on the air. It was a pretty hard job, as the phone was always ringing. It never stopped. Sometimes it was quite scary at night. The crazy people called at night. They would want you to tell them what was on TV that night. One guy use to call me and ask if there were any scary movies on that night. I would have to look it up and tell him. He would tell me how much he loved blood, and especially killing women. I'd hang up on him, but he'd just call back later. Then there was the guy that wanted to suck my toes, and the list of whacky people with too much time on their hands, would go on and on. Former president, Jimmy Carter dropped in one night for an interview with someone that was kind of exciting.


One night the Program Director dropped in. He asked me what my background was. I told him I had been a disc jockey. He asked me if I would be interested in being a booth announcer. I had no idea what that was, but I said "Sure." That was the end of that and I went back to answering the phones. After a while, I was promoted to full time, daytime receptionist. The phone rang all the time, plus you had to actually dress for the part. The station manager would call, and if the phone rang more than five times, I'd get in trouble. There was a home for crazy people down the street, and for some reason they would come to our station when they escaped. I guess because it looked like Tara in Gone With the Wind. I had a panic button under the desk, I'd ring it, and the police would come and take them back home.


One time they had a big party for the stock holders. I had to dress up like Scarlett O'Hara, and walk up and down the circular staircase, welcoming them. Another time a bunch of streakers showed up with a cake for the station's anniversary. I welcomed them in, just like everyone else, and almost got fired for doing that. They had a great time running around the station naked for a while, until they came and chased them away.


There came a time in the 70's when all departments had to hire one black person, and one female. Once again I was asked if I would be interested in becoming a booth announcer. And once again I said, "Sure." I still had no idea what it was, but I was hoping it would mean more money. I found out that a booth announcer was someone that sat in a tiny room, the size of a closet, off the set where the news was delivered. Everyone could see you. Four sided, glass room, with a microphone. My job was to log exactly what time each program and each commercial aired. On the half hour, I would open the mike, and say, "This is WAGA-TV5, Atlanta." There would be commercials that aired that had to be tagged. I would open the mike and say something like, "Available at Rich's,” or wherever it was available. It was usually about 15 to 20 seconds worth of copy, and it had to be timed perfectly, or you would run into the next commercial. There was a big clock in front of me.

The black guy that was hired along with me fainted the first time he had to do it. It was a terrifying job. Lots of pressure, but it was fun to be doing something other than answering the phone, and I was the first, female booth announcer, so it was also an honor. Sometimes I had the morning shift, which meant I had to be there at the crack of dawn, when they opened the station. Early in the morning, I had to do the Farm Report, which I called the Pig Report. It was really long, full of information that farmers needed. One morning when I was giving the Pig Report, I came across a sentence that was talking about botulism organisms. I got confused and said, "Botulism orgasm." I was hoping no one was listening, but they were. Several phone calls came in about that screw up, pardon the pun.


There also use to be a time when if you called information, you'd actually get a person, and believe it or not, they were actually in Atlanta. Sometimes when I would call information for a phone number, the operator would say, "Is this Virginia Gunn?" That would totally freak me out, and I would say, "How do you know it's me?" and they would say they recognized my voice from my booth announcing job. Those were the good ole days, when you could talk to a real person on the phone instead of screaming at some computer voice the way it is now.


One day I was at my aunt Ann and Pegram's house, swimming in their pool. When I climbed out of the pool, my aunt, who is the closest thing to Martha Stewart I have ever known, except prettier, says to me, "You know, if you would just lose about ten pounds, you'd be quite pretty." I would have been insulted, except I knew she was right, that I did need to lose some weight, so I just made a mental note of it and went on my way. The next week, the station manager stopped me in the hall and said almost verbatim, what Ann had said. "You know, if you would lose about ten pounds, you wouldn't be half bad to look at." This time I was crushed, as this was no family member. Then he says, "Say Atlanta."


I said, "Atlantah." He says, "No, it has no h in it. I tried again. I still couldn't say it the way he wanted me to. So he says, "Say Chicago." I said, "Chicago." To which he replies, "Good, we'll get you a job in Chicago." That was the end of that, and I went back to my booth announcing.


One time I got real brave, and asked if I could audition for an on- camera job. I tried, but I failed miserably. I was just too scared. My voice wouldn't hold up, I couldn't follow the tele-prompter, and I decided that I was probably where I was supposed to be, in my little booth.


It was decided by the powers that be that I should become the weather girl, that's what they called them back then. I was sent off to diction lessons, and a diet doctor. The diet doctor put me on a 700 calorie a day diet. I had to write down everything I ate. He gave me some nasty protein drink and speed. The weight fell off, and I spoke even faster than ever before. The diction teacher taught me how to say, "Atlanta" properly and how to put ”ing” on the end of my words. She also taught me that you say, "Saturday, Sunday, and Monday", but all the other days in the week are pronounced, "Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday."


I had to buy a children's puzzle of the United States, so that I could learn my states, and where they were. They built a platform for me to stand on, because I couldn't reach Maine. During those days, weather was pretty simple. All of the weather people got their information off of a teletype machine. I had a white magic marker that I would use to draw in the cold fronts, warm fronts, etc. I practiced and practiced, but the thought of it all still scared me to death. The head weather dude, Guy Sharpe, told me to just be myself and everything would be alright. I thought there was probably more to it than that, but I plugged ahead practicing to be the weekend weather girl. Finally, the day arrived. My uncle sent me a telegram that said something like, Good Luck. Just remember, the worst thing that can happen is that you will embarrass the entire family, and we'll all have to leave town."


The station could see that I was truly terrified, so the doctor put me on valium. I took it for several weeks, but it didn't seem to help much. One night I was watching the play back of my performance, and noticed my eyes were almost totally shut. I stopped the valium, and lo and behold, my eyes opened up.


Then one time, I fell off the platform they had built for me. One minute I was there, the next minute I was gone. There was one night my contact lens fell out of my eye. I kinda forgot I was on television, and told the audience to hold on, we had to find my contact, and there I was crawling around on the floor looking for the damn thing instead of doing the weather.


A few weeks after I started this new job I was in Burger King. A woman came up to me and said, "Congratulations on your new job." I said, "How do you know about that." to which she replies, "I've been watching you." I almost dropped dead on the spot. It was the first time it had even occurred to me that anyone had been watching besides the people in the studio. I became even more nervous on the air. I do not know why they didn't fire me, except I think the audience was totally amused at just how clueless I was.


Many months later something scary and profound happened. Both of the main weather guys were taken down. One had a horrible car accident, and almost died. The other one had a heart attack. This meant I had to do all three weather forecasts every day, seven days a week. Noon, six and eleven. This went on for a long time, maybe it was weeks, maybe it was more than a month, I can't remember. For three or four days I had a temperature of 102 degrees from the flu, but I had to carry on, as there was no one else that could do it. Only then did I learn my craft well. Only then did I start getting comfortable with the camera, and finally I started loving my job. I became quite famous, because every time you turned on the TV, there I was.


So, I guess some times a couple of good intended insults can lead to the best job.

And that's how Virginia Gunn became, "Are you the Virginia Gunn?" for just about the rest of my life.


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