It’s hard to imagine Barbara Walters as anything other than a marquee-name, intrepid and pioneering journalist. But she didn’t get there overnight. A look back at the early career of the broadcast journalist, who died Dec. 30 at age 93, as documented in the pages of Variety shows the clear trajectory of a well-connected, industrious young woman who was destined to reach the summit of New York media and literati circles.
Variety’s coverage of Walters’ climb starting in the early 1950s also neatly tracks the rise of network TV news as a cultural force, and the subsequent evolution of TV news personalities into celebrities.
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Walters’ status as the daughter of Broadway producer, booking agent and nightclub owner Lou Walters surely afforded her an early entrée into attention from Variety. Her first few references always included a reference to her father’s showbiz pedigree. But it wasn’t long before the younger Walters was earning items on her own. Barbara Walters stood out for the quality of her work even before she was on camera.
Variety noted when she went out on her now-famous assignment for “Today” of becoming a trainee Playboy Bunny – a mention that no doubt helped cement that part of her legend in industry circles. Variety reviewers also praised her work as a writer and producer, including her skill at hard news subjects such as a September 1964 “Today” report on a spike in tuberculosis cases in upstate New York.
Taken as a whole, Variety’s coverage of Walters’ early career proves just how hard she worked to get to the heights she scaled. And it offers a unique and insightful prism on the evolution of television news, as an information medium and as a cultural force. Because Walters was part of the New York-based world of broadcast news, she was a regular in weekly Variety by the early 1960s, but she was barely mentioned in Hollywood-based Daily Variety until the mid-1970s.
Walters became synonymous with the modern image of the intrepid journalist going the extra mile to land the big interview. But early on she did work in the realm of PR and advertising before she planted roots on the editorial side at NBC News’ “Today.”
Barbara Walters’ debut in Variety came when Eisenhower was in the White House. She merited a mention high in the “From the Production Centres” column (I have no idea why we used that spelling for Centers) that ran on page 56 of the July 30, 1952, weekly edition. It’s a mention that she is joining the “flackery” (aka PR) department of WNBC-TV and WNBT radio.
She shifted into programming for WNBC-TV by early 1953 as was noted in the Jan. 14, 1953, edition of weekly. Walters was part of a newly formed team of execs at WNBC-TV that included future “Lou Grant” writer Leon Takotyan.
Walters work as a writer-producer on the half-hour Monday-Friday daytime series “The Eloise McElhone Show” was lightly praised in a review in the March 31, 1954, weekly edition. From the who-knew file, Walters worked on the show with former MGM child star Freddie Bartholomew as he made the career transition into directing.
By the June 20, 1956, edition of weekly, Walters was prominent enough as a producer on CBS’ “Good Morning” show hosted by Will Rogers Jr., to earn a personal mention in the “Television Chatter” column that she was heading out on a trip to Mexico to celebrate her first wedding anniversary.
Walters moved through a few PR firms in the early 1960s before landing at “Today.” In the March 21, 1961, edition, Variety noted her shuffle from “Tex McCrary’s public relations outfit,” where she headed the TV and radio department, for a similar post with Rowland Co.” This was of course at a time when advertising agencies held great sway over the development and greenlighting of TV programs.
Walters’ big Bunny moment came during Peak “Mad Men” era. The Dec. 26, 1962, edition of weekly teased her special report to come for “Today.” It aired five days later on Monday, Dec. 31.
Walters also had a front-row seat to Camelot thanks to her prominence as a journalist. As noted in the June 27, 1962, edition of weekly, she traveled with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy for a feature for Ladies Home Journal – all while working still long hours for “Today.”
Her 1963 marriage to producer and executive Lee Guber (grandfather of Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman) grabbed two mentions in 1963, one in June 1963 for the engagement and one in December of that year after the knot was tied.
The following year, Walters’ work for “Today” on a tough story about tuberculosis was singled out as “expertly handled” in a review in the Sept. 30, 1964, edition of weekly.
The same year, Walters was featured in one of Variety’s signature oddball news items that our predecessors loved to run in a small box at the top of a page.
As someone who kept her finger on the pulse, Variety noted in the Dec. 9, 1964, edition that Walters of course showed off her football chops in her probing interview with the wife of then-embattled New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle.
Walters took another great leap the following year as her star truly begins to rise. In the Sept. 8, 1965, edition of weekly, a long-ish item on “the busy Miss Walters” captures the period when Walters became a celebrity in her own right. The blurb notes that the woman “who usually does the interviewing,” would be featured the following week on the popular syndicated daytime series “The Mike Douglas Show.” She was set to be interviewed and sing on the show — just one of many passions Walters pursued throughout her extraordinary life.
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