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Video: Original staffers bring laughs on TODAY

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    >> well, good morning once again. back at 8:35. this morning on "today" at 60, a full house . we're here to talk about some of the great people who helped create the show. we begin with one man's story.

    >> few remain who remember the small print in this dream, but we found one sitting in a familiar window. never thought my heart would be so yearning why did i decide to roam

    >> lou didn't inherit the show. he helped invent it.

    >> oh, it was frightening.

    >> reporter: even for a veteran returning from the korean war .

    >> what about a microphone?

    >> oh, yeah!

    >> reporter: the studio was crammed with state of the art -- stuff. and the staff had to learn to strike a balance between the two parts of the show.

    >> one was news game. the other was show biz .

    >> reporter: here they are on one of "today's" first road trips in biloxi, minnesota. that's lou . the graphic artist gladly did two jobs.

    >> when i was a kid, starving artist was one word.

    >> reporter: back then the television was a heavy piece of furniture in the living room. most folks were in the kitchen when "today" came on the air. host dave garroway had only one sponsor, kiplinger magazine.

    >> i can give you this one free.

    >> he elevated people's curiosity and intelligence.

    >> reporter: with a barefoot voice.

    >> you will see the news running over my feet like this.

    >> reporter: he presided over the first social media , inviting us to peek in the studio window to see ourselves.

    >> this is a program from america to america .

    >> reporter: despite that the show almost faded from the small screen. for adults watching television in the morning was considered somewhat decadent. like dessert, tv was consumed after dinner. what changed that was a baby born two months to the day after the show premiered.

    >> this young philosopher here is a fellow named j. fred muggs .

    >> reporter: garroway's new co-host.

    >> i don't think garroway was found of him? he wasn't disciplined.

    >> reporter: but kids loved muggs so much they persuaded their parents to leave the kitchen and finally watch the show.

    >> we call it "today" and two minutes. here it is for the first time.

    >> reporter: no tv had shown reporters live from the scene of breaking news.

    >> go ahead, chicago.

    >> reporter: or watched weather developing in places they didn't live.

    >> up here it turns to snow, right in here.

    >> reporter: it introduced them to books they hadn't read.

    >> this is "a man called peter" by catherine marshall .

    >> reporter: lawmakers they hadn't met and recipes they ought to try.

    >> this is a blintz. if you want another we'll call it blintzes.

    >> you can't have my pencil. you're getting strong. by golly, we finished 50/50.

    >> reporter: those who laughed last.

    >> that's a long, slow look.

    >> reporter: "today" show may be more high tech than the one lou started.

    >> i don't see any crayons.

    >> reporter: but his work is still beautiful.

    >> it holds up.

    >> technology changes and things like that, but the art is what counts.

    >> reporter: from all the folks the cameras seldom show.

    >> this is all your stuff.

    >> i can't stand it!

    >> reporter: the ones who, 60 years ago had the rare gift to see what we all see, but think what no one else has thought.

    >> that's the way they changed the way america woke up. this morning we have with us lou and 90-year-old mike dan who is one of the original creators of "today."

    >> good morning. great to have you here.

    >> lou , let me start with you. what was it like to see the area where the technology has come so far?

    >> unbelievable. we have three cameras. one camera was on an ease sell where we did the art work to shoot the limbo. then we had one camera for the window and one for dave garroway .

    >> you were a kid when you were working on the show.

    >> yes.

    >> what were the early days like for you?

    >> i worked from 12:00 midnight to 8:00 in the morning. show went on at 7:00 a.m . all the work was done at night. the news, all the news was ticking away. and everything had to be done by 5:00 a.m . that was dress rehearsal.

    >> mike, as an executive for the broadcast when dave garroway was the anchor there was a moment he came to you and said, it's either me or the chimp . did you think about keeping the chimp ?

    >> yeah. i thought about keeping the chimp . i wouldn't care if dave left.

    >> whoa!

    >> because our ratings were quite acceptable, but nothing extraordinary. but when we had the chimp on the show, the ratings actually doubled. now for ratings to double without any promotion, ads or anybody screaming at night, you know, we have the president of the united states on for tomorrow morning , it was extraordinary. so when the chimp came in, he took over. nobody -- there was no script. nobody running around trying to keep the chimp happy, giving him nuts or something like that. he jumped on dave 's lap. dave didn't know what to do with him. the monkey would be grabbing him like that. he finally stormed into my office afterwards. he was exhausted. he says, mike, he says, the damn chimp -- you know what he's causing. he said, it's either me or the chimp . i said, dave , don't make me make that choice. [ laughter ]

    >> after that, he calmed down. dave was a very somber man. he took everything very serious.

    >> like al.

    >> right.

    >> they feed him a lot of peanuts in between.

    >> and the director on the set. if you had a complaint he'd like to hear it, but that's all. people felt at ease. he didn't like to interview people.

    >> he wasn't a people person.

    >> no, no.

    >> he wasn't.

    >> nobody wanted to come in at 5:00 a in the morning.

    >> that hasn't changed.

    >> mike, you have to come out of your shell. you do.

    >> besides the challenges with the chimp and with the personalities, what were some of the bigger challenges the show had early on?

    >> the biggest single show on the opening day was the fact that we had just taken over the exhibition hall with the building we are uh now in. the biggest problem was first it was a huge snowstorm. second of all, we were terrified of the fire engines or the police cars outside the window making noise. so i called the mayor's office to please tell him not to come down this street. he told me we didn't have to put the show on the air. so it wasn't difficult.

    >> do you still watch the show on a daily basis?

    >> yes, yes.

    >> good.

    >> every morning.

    >> i'm glad to hear that.

    >> with my coffee, looking at you. when nielsen calls, i say, yes.

    >> mike and lou , thank you, guys.

    >> thank you.

    >> for the legacy you leave behind for all of us.

    >> it's an honor.

    >> thank you so much.

    >> great piece, bob dodson.

    >> tomorrow, how people were watching the show then and now how they watch it every morning. and we'll have a special piece, all of the anchors you have loved through the years back.

    >> what about the chimp ?

    >> we'll be right back after this. this is "today" on

TODAY contributor
updated 1/11/2012 8:40:03 AM ET 2012-01-11T13:40:03

Dave Garroway and I have something besides the TODAY show in common: The first host and I both owe our long careers on the program to a chimp.

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Back in 1952, my family’s television set was a heavy piece of furniture in the living room. In those days, that’s where most TVs sat: proud possessions to be polished, not moved. Unfortunately, everyone was in the kitchen eating breakfast when the TODAY show came on. So despite its many cutting-edge attractions, the show almost faded in my house, and in many others.

Back then, watching morning television was considered somewhat decadent: Like dessert, TV was consumed after dinner. What changed all that was a baby chimp born two months to the day after the TODAY show premiered. A year later, he became Garroway’s co-host.

Kids like me loved J. Fred Muggs so much we persuaded our parents to leave the kitchen and watch the show with us. They enjoyed what they saw and stayed, even after Muggs moved on.

Original TODAY host Dave Garroway with J. Fred Muggs.

Monkey business
During the long musical breaks TODAY took back then, my dad would talk about his day at the optical store he owned — the one he hoped I would someday run. My grandfather wanted me to follow him into law. Nearly everyone in the family worried about my poor choice of careers:  I started at the St. Louis Zoo, as an announcer for the chimpanzee show.

The Batman TV show was big that season, and trainers dressed one of the chimps, Little Pierre, like the Caped Crusader. The hairy little Batman entered high over the crowd on a wire between the announce booth and the stage.

Unfortunately, a big chimp called Captain Bozo wanted to escape show biz, and the wire, which was permanent, provided a tempting escape route. So the show’s director gave me a rifle that fired tiny sponges and told me to shoot Bozo every time he came close to that wire.

“You won’t hurt him,” he insisted, “but Bozo weighs 120 pounds. We can’t have him dropping on the kids.”

Video: Original staffers bring laughs on TODAY (on this page)

So all summer long I annoyed the big chimp, popping him with the sponge gun. One day late in the season, my sound engineer and I were playing a hand of poker as the show progressed. We knew the routine so well by then that we didn’t have to look. “How ‘bout a big hand for him, boys and girls!” I shouted into the microphone, slapping down a card.

Suddenly, the audience gasped.  There was big ol’ Bozo, looking like King Kong, climbing the wire, halfway across the moat that separated the audience from the stage.

I grabbed the sponge gun and leaned out of the announce booth. Pow! Pow! Pow!

Bozo dropped into the water and the audience applauded, as if the popgun fire were part of the act. He bounced back on stage, unhurt, but I could picture the newspaper headline: “Zoo Announcer Shoots Beloved Chimp.”

Making the invisible visible
That’s when I started my long life on the road. Some days it seems I have worked on the TODAY show since the earth was cooling, crisscrossing this country, 4 million miles, practically nonstop for 40 years, searching for people who are practically invisible, the ones who change our lives, but don’t take time to tweet and tell us about it. They may not run for president or go on talk shows, but without their contribution, the kind of country we love would not exist. These are people with thoughtful solutions to problems we all face, incredible ideas that work, blueprints for our dreams, ways to make America better. The country survives and thrives because of all these names we don’t know: ordinary people who live life with passion, who succeed not just on talent and hard work, but curiosity and imagination.

Video: Country’s most successful inventors

I’ve spent my entire career coaxing such people in to the spotlight: The truck driver who taught microsurgery. The 14-year-old who invented television. The brothers who searched 60 years until they found what the Navy could not: their father’s lost submarine.

Video: Celebrating the legacy of truck driver turned surgeon

Most reporters focus on our frustrations: the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, middle-class jobs moving to China and India, hate-filled politics that prefers gridlock to compromise. What we know about America mostly comes from journalists who travel in herds, trailing politicians or camped out at big stories, pouncing on problems to repeat over and over.  For solutions they turn to celebrity experts: people who spend their busy days spouting opinions to cameras, while others in the shadows quietly make America work.

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Many of the people continually filling our newscasts know the business and its limitations better than the correspondents who cover them. If reporters are riding in a car and the right front tire goes flat, they hop out, glance at the tire, then start tweeting. Maybe they come back a few months later to lament that the tire is still flat.

I became determined to examine all the tires; try to find out why some are still rolling. To do that, I had to stop chasing headlines. That’s why I decided to start sticking stories to an address list of long overlooked names, seeking drama and dimension in the lives of ordinary Americans.

Thankfully, the folks who sign paychecks see some merit in that. They’ve put me in more motel rooms than the Gideon Bible. The TODAY show enables me to poke around in forgotten corners, tapping into people's hopes that their lives hold something of value. The full chronicle of this country is not in the news; it’s tucked away in our attics and basements waiting for someone to discover.

Story: His robot legs may lift people from wheelchairs

Perhaps memories are more precious to those who have more of them: People who have been around a while begin to realize that memories matter. They are who we are. That’s why the TODAY show’s 60th anniversary is so special. The taste of gum lasts longer than most TV shows, but TODAY survives and thrives because here you can still discover the people who live the values our country cherishes: 

Video: A millionaire who spreads his wealth

In this time of rapid change, rediscovering the constant values that built what’s best about America helps us find our own way. I have spent my life seeking solutions from people who are seldom asked, shining a light in neglected corners, revealing answers that others rush past.  Nearly 1,500 ordinary Americans have shared their insights with me, people who see what we all see, but think what no one else has thought. Wisdom doesn’t always wear a suit. 

Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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