Chet Curtis, the TV newsman, was too nice a guy to go out the way he did, trapped in an extended death grip by pancreatic cancer. But, then, he was never much of a complainer.
When his marriage to Natalie Jacobson ended in 1999, so, too, did the anchor desk dream team at WCVB (Channel 5). As a couple, they had a chemistry. But, after they split, some viewers shifted uncomfortably at seeing something of a Harold Pinter play, so the station extended the split, keeping Nat on the 6 o’clock news, shunting Chet off to Sundays.
In the history of powerful men versus powerful women, their fates constituted the first time that the woman didn’t get the shaft. Chet accepted his demotion with the closest thing to good grace as could be expected, even as he plotted his move to NECN, then a nascent cable station.
Then again, Nat was always the star, Chet the warm pair of slippers. She was Marilyn Monroe to his Arthur Miller. Despite their eye-popping salaries, the house in Nantucket, and all the trappings, they remained down to earth, taking the journalism seriously.
Chet was the most natural, earnest ad-libber I’ve seen on TV. He could have regained his stardom in this day and age, when at the first sign of flurries the TV stations go on for hours, as if it’s absolutely shocking that it actually snows in New England.
Chet’s death has touched off a wave of nostalgia, a longing for the golden age of local TV news, when the anchors were stars and local celebrities.
Chet Curtis was huge back in the day, that day being when there was only one Janet Wu on the TV news, when Bob Gamere spent more time in bowling alleys than dark alleys, when Liz Walker was an anchor, not a preacher.
It was a day when TV newsmen could have a receding hairline or, in Jack Harper’s case, no hairline. (Jack’s the best, still on air, fighting the good fight.) When women reporters didn’t have to look like models. When being a beauty queen would be left off a resume because it might suggest a lack of gravitas. When the latest update on “Dancing with the Stars” or some promo on a pedestrian network drama wasn’t dressed up to impersonate news.
It was a day when you didn’t use surnames when talking about the biggest local news anchors. There was Chet and Nat on Channel 5 and Jack and Liz on Channel 4. Somehow Channel 7 never matched the star power in the anchor chair, and lagged in the ratings as a result. Now, Jack Williams is the last of those four star anchors left on the air in Boston.
When Channel 7 ditched the traditional approach for something more like the glitz and gunplay of their owners in Miami, they, not surprisingly, began the local trend of de-emphasizing the concept of star anchors who could command high-six-figure salaries.
Curtis was uncomfortable with the recent direction of most local TV news. Back in its heyday, and even today more than most, Channel 5 was comfortable enough in its skin to showcase good reporters who wouldn’t win any beauty contests. (I’m talkin’ about you, Gollobin.)
Years ago, as we left the studio after doing a radio show together, Curtis cast a cold eye on the trends in local TV news nationwide.
“When you let people who made their name in advertising or marketing run newsrooms,” he said, “it’s over.”
Hard to believe, and maybe this just confirms that we in Boston are a bunch of provincial rubes, but the 1981 birth of Chet and Nat’s daughter, Linsday, attracted the sort of local attention later reserved for the birth of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s firstborn.
Chet Curtis’s demise will get considerably less attention, though it shouldn’t because he represented something better.
Chet Curtis was a really nice guy.
For all the changes, that still matters in the news business.