Kevin Riordan: TV news retirees reflect on changing era

Mike Strug (left), Fred Bauer talk at the gathering of the ROMEOs (Retired Old Mavens Eating Out). RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer
Mike Strug (left), Fred Bauer talk at the gathering of the ROMEOs (Retired Old Mavens Eating Out). RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer (Mike Strug (left), Fred Bauer)
Posted: March 20, 2012

It's as if I'm lunching with old friends I haven't seen in ages.

Cathy Gandolfo, Bill Baldini, Cherie Bank, Steve Levy, Mike Strug, Marc Howard, and I are sharing a lively table at The Pub.

"You probably thought I died," says Gandolfo, the South Philly homegirl who retired in December, after 36 years at WPVI's signature Action News.

In the same corner of the gigantic Pennsauken restaurant are Robin Mackintosh, Dick Standish, John Blunt, Dick Sheeran - a parade of Philly TV news luminaries.

They're former anchors, reporters, personalities, and technicians, talking shop and swapping memories. I've only met one or two before, but I feel as if I know them. And if you're over 30, you probably do, too.

Everyone in Philadelphia watched them back when everyone in Philadelphia watched the news on Channels 3, 6, and 10, before TV newsrooms evolved into 24/7 operations, and tiny newscasters addressed us from the screens of our smartphones.

About 40 "film at 11" veterans are together in the retro ambience of The Pub, breaking bread with the behind-the-scenes colleagues who made their nightly visits to our households possible.

"When you work with each other that long, you become friends," explains Gary Mirkin, 69, of Washington Township, a longtime KYW technician who helped establish the group two years ago.

"When you retire, you don't necessarily miss the work," adds Mirkin, whose wife, Anne Amico, did makeup and other offstage jobs at Channel 3. "But you do miss the people."

Hence, the Romeos (Retired Old Mavens Eating Out), a loosely organized yet close-knit group. Their faces, voices, and street savvy gave the news a distinctively Philly personality, and gave them an enduring local celebrity.

Their longevity in a single market (if not always at a single station) was unusual then and would be extraordinary today, given the army of interchangeable bloviators who hog the screen.

The eldest ROMEO, former Channel 3 technician John Malarkey, is in his 80s; at 64, Levy is among the youngest. More people are attending the bimonthly lunches now that Mirkin has put up a Facebook page.

"I started as a copy boy in 1964," says former WCAU reporter Baldini, 69, who lives in Drexel Hill and retired, after 44 years, in 2006.

"I miss the good stories," says Bank, a 30-year WCAU veteran best known for her medical reporting. "I don't miss the pressure."

Or the mishaps, such as being knocked out cold by a runaway light reflector while taping a 10 Around Town newsmagazine segment with Levy.

"It was on the Belmont Plateau," Levy, who grew up in South Philly, says, without missing a beat. "And when you were unconscious, nobody noticed any difference."

Viewers "thought we were married," Bank, of Gladwyne, observes drily.

That on-air pairs are often perceived as couples in real life is among the few things unchanged in a business several of my tablemates say they barely recognize.

They considered themselves journalists, not commentators - and surely not entertainers. They adhered to standards of fairness, of getting both sides of a story.

When Howard heard a colleague declare that balance was no longer necessary, "I realized TV news was no longer a newspaper with pictures," recalled the 'PVI veteran, 75, of Villanova.

"I've got a better one," says Strug, 69, of Bala Cynwyd, who worked at 3, 6, and 10. "I came back from the Shore and I told a news editor, who shall remain nameless, that I had two good stories. He told me, 'we don't need two good stories. We need three mediocre ones.' "

The push for quantity over quality, and the migration of the audience to high-tech platforms that make the nightly newscast seem quaint, prove to be mere detours in the convivial conversations around the tables.

Perhaps it's the lighting, but everyone looks fabulous - including a columnist a waitress momentarily mistakes for a TV guy.

Another member of the waitstaff pulls me aside and whispers, "is that guy over there John Facenda?"

No, the Philadelphia broadcasting titan - and voice of NFL films - passed away in 1984.

But Facenda has never really left.

And 28 years from now, the stars at the ROMEO luncheon will still be with us, too.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq

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