WHY FITZ WORE A TAM O' SHANTER

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That most irreverent of television critics, Marvin Kitman of Newsday, noted in a recent column the latest career derailing of an overpaid local television newsman, in this instance the WCBS-TV anchor (at a million plus a year) Ernie Anastos.

As Ernie announced he would shortly be stepping down, he revealed he was discussing a huge talk-show development deal with Multimedia. Said Kitman:

"Multimedia said it was planning to hire 300 talk-show hosts. [Maybe not that exact number, Marvin conceded, `but a lot.'] They were going to have a new channel with nothing but talk shows. Not well known talk-show hosts like Sally Jessy or Phil, but new ones.

"Ernie was one of the 300 they were talking to ... "

Beyond the put-down of Ernie Anastos' pretensions, Kitman was really on to something. It is difficult to be startled by anything you see on New York television these days (I recently came across "The Dyke Show" on cable). But the proliferation, actual and intended, of TV talk shows in the country as a whole is pretty stunning.

Morton Downey Jr. is coming back. So is Dennis Miller. There is an Hispanic woman who lost 60 pounds and she has a show. There are "Oprah" clones. Joanie Rivers talks and sells zircons at the same time. Barry Diller is hiring people. I, my own self, have actually been approached by befuddled producers with good intentions. Warhol used to say we would eventually all be famous for 15 minutes.

In the 500-channel tomorrow, we will all have a talk show.

Over at CNBC Roger Ailes actually suggested potential talk-show hosts mail in an audition tape with the winner going on the air. And followed this astounding challenge by doing interviews himself, most recently with Bryant Gumbel. To no one's surprise, Ailes is good. Maybe he ought to audition himself.

With all this going on, what a tragedy it is that Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald are no longer with us. You know the Fitzgeralds, of course. I preached the eulogy over both of them at St. Vincent Ferrer (or was it St. Jean Baptiste?). They had the longest running talk-show ever on the air, over WOR-AM, the New York radio station.

Did the show out of their apartment at 40 Central Park South. Where they had all the cats, about 40 or 50 cats, and sprightly and attractive young interns like Kathy Novak and Tonya, "The Blushin' Russian." It was in that apartment during the show (it was live, an hour long) their beloved and faithful housekeeper died while dusting but Peg didn't mention it on the air because it "might upset our listeners" and they kept right on doing the show, stepping over and around the body.

Ed was a newspaperman and a vaudevillian and a fighter pilot in World War One (he was shot down by the Germans over the Western Front). His own dad died when he fell through a sidewalk grating and until his own death (in his 90s) Ed was very careful not to walk on sidewalk gratings and often warned me about them.

Pegeen wrote copy for a big department store out West and later did voice-overs on radio. They collected fire engines, the Fitzgeralds did, up at their place in Kent, Conn., where they also had a country store. I was the executor of Peg's will and I can tell you that was an adventure. Some of the fire engines were missing from the inventory and I don't think we ever did find them all and although the family got the bulk of the estate, some of them suspected I might have done away with a fire engine or two but I never did and that's the truth.

The cats, though, that was another story. People called me from all over the country, cat lovers, quite convinced Peg would leave her millions to care for worthy and needy cats. But she didn't, not all of it anyway, and when I informed people of this there were some heated words, you can be sure. I also got pitches from various priests and convents of nuns, all of them sure they'd been remembered in the will.

Ed loved red meat and double bourbons and smoked a pipe. Pegeen was a vegetarian and didn't drink (not in my time) and I don't believe smoked. I was on their show a lot. When an important guest failed them they had regulars they called and you went over there. Bill Geist was one of us, I believe. So were gangsters and writers and Broadway actors who hadn't made Playbill in decades.

During the show, live, I remind you, Peg would open while Ed was still looking for his pipe or going to the bathroom. He wore a tam o' shanter indoors because he had four holes in the top of his head, dime-sized, from an operation to remove brain tumors or something. He used to show me (and other favorites) the holes in his head. Very neat they were, with the skin having grown back over where the brain surgeon drilled, but it was soft there, unlike hard skull, as Ed would demonstrate by poking at the place with an elegant finger.

It was the most amazing thing.

Then during the show she would get up to go into the kitchen or someplace and Ed would keep it going, great puffs of smoke emerging, and a cat would bound up on the dining room table the Fitzgeralds shared with microphones, guests, ashtrays and glasses half filled with various things. And they talked and talked and talked.

The Fitzgeralds knew everyone. Ed worked for old man Hearst (the original W.R.) and knew Paley and all the pols. Peg knew all the fashion designers and Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel and Mr. Lord & Taylor. They read voraciously and were extremely well-informed and enormously curious. And everything went out over the air, barring the occasional snippet of gossip Ed would whisper to me during commercials.

When they died Ed was well into his 90s and Peg, a few years later, halfway through her 80s. And if they were still alive, Ailes could call off his auditions and sign them up at a million per with options.

Those people could talk! And get guests to talk, too. Today the American talk show sort of reminds me of the original title Hollywood had for "Casablanca":

"Everyone Goes to Rick's Place."

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