Room with a Viewer

A young Larry King. A racist white enclave called Liberty City. A homophobic Anita Bryant taken seriously. South Florida's past is present at the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center.

Although most of the collection is news-oriented, the passage of time can drastically alter the tone of any given item. Some seem quaint now, some tragic. And some are downright hysterical. Nineteen-fifty-nine's "Honky Tonk," for example, makes Reefer Madness look even-handed and contemplative by comparison. The segment was one in a series of editorials tricked out as documentaries titled FYI (For Your Information) that aired on WTVJ during the station's early years. (The locally produced news show has nothing to do with the FYI Murphy Brown works for, although Murphy's pompous, blustering co-anchor Jim Dial has a lot in common with South Florida broadcasting legend Ralph Renick, who hosted and co-wrote most of WTVJ's FYI installments.)

"This program will not be devoted to telling you that [the popularity of striptease and dime-a-dance nightclubs] is bad. It is what exists at the moment," Renick monotones by way of introducing "Honky Tonk." He then trots out a procession of deadly earnest political and law enforcement officials who roundly condemn the risque establishments.

"I am not one of those who subscribes to the principle that we reside in a subdivision of Hell," claims Dade Sheriff Tom Kelly, launching into a spiel about the evils of pinball, which he labels "an elementary training class for children in gambling." State Attorney Richard Gerstein goes him one better by asserting that garish billboards contribute to juvenile delinquency, as well, whereupon Miami Police Chief Walter Headley explains the difficulty of enforcing laws against B-girls: "We must have our men solicited. It is not easy to make the cases stand up in court. The problem of sexual perverts is a disturbing one. Just after World War II, I was of the opinion that all of the perverts in the country had decided to converge upon Miami."

Renick concludes the report with this warning: "There are virtually no legitimate nightclubs left in the city. Those left have been turned into lowdown joints catering to the most base tastes. It's up to you whether you want Miami to be Sin City or Sun City."

Other FYI episodes play more solemnly when viewed through the lens of several decades. In one 1964 segment a middle-age woman, her eyes tired and brimming with tears, is filmed watching President Lyndon Johnson attempting to explain American involvement in Vietnam. He sounds more like a vacuum cleaner salesman than a savvy politician whose Machiavellian mastery has helped him ascend to the highest office in the land. This woman isn't buying. Her son, a soldier, has just been killed. Uncharacteristically restrained, Renick allows the images to speak for themselves -- a mother's grief, a politician's hollow rationalization.

This is television at its most powerful, and it is the Wolfson Center's stock-in-trade. A brief sampling of other such moments:

Wind sweeps over a desolate stretch of runway at Miami International Airport. A somber narrator delivers a voice-over that sounds like the last rites for Eastern Airlines. "Time is running out on a once great airline," he intones. A familiar litany of the carrier's troubles follows -- low employee morale, heartless creditors, the formation of WHEAL (We Hate Eastern Airlines), a ranking of tenth out of eleven in on-time performance. For anyone who followed Eastern's collapse throughout the Eighties, none of this would raise an eyebrow. What comes as a surprise is the date the film was made: October 15, 1963. Frank Borman wouldn't even fly his first Apollo mission for another five years.

November 18, 1963. A radiant President Kennedy steps up onto a makeshift podium to deliver a speech in front of a huge crowd in downtown Miami. Security is light. Kennedy is smiling. "The president, with his deep tan, looks healthier than most of the Floridians up there on the platform," quips anchorman Renick, covering the event for WTVJ.

Assignment: Fun, Sun, Romance, a promotional film financed by Eastern Airlines in the mid-Sixties, follows a comely young travel writer on a six-day holiday in Miami Beach. Highlights include a room with "every modern convenience" from walk-in closets to finger-touch climate control; a dinner date with a handsome young attorney who takes her to the Pompadour Club to watch black people in exotic outfits cavort with chickens in staged pagan voodoo rituals; and fast-paced poolside activities from cards to shuffleboard.

WPLG-TV (Channel 10) look at South Beach in 1974 characterizes the neighborhood as "a ghetto in the sun, a place where old people and old values are making a final struggle." An elderly woman who can barely walk shoplifts onions. Another bruises fruit so she can come back to the grocery store a few hours later and buy it for half-price. Hundreds queue up to buy two-day-old bread at a discount.

The year is 1986. An enterprising WTVJ reporter goes undercover as a homeless woman, transformed by a makeup artist from a perky young newswoman into a decrepit old bag lady. She panhandles, she dives for pennies in the fountain of a luxurious hotel. She even washes windshields at an intersection. The reporter? Katie Couric, who will go on to more fame and a better wardrobe at NBC's Today show.

Sinatra on location during the filming of Lady in Cement. Larry King hosting a JFK Remembered program on WTVJ in 1965. Walter Cronkite disseminating the daunting logistics of broadcasting space shots from Cape Canaveral. Liberty City residents protesting the arrival of the first black in their neighborhood with picket signs that scream, "We want this nigger moved!" Anita Bryant lamenting "the seed of sexual sickness germinating in Dade County." A wild-eyed Cassius Clay visibly intimidating Sonny Liston at the weigh-in before the legendary heavyweight boxing match that would, in Clay's words, "shake up the world!"

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