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Give a Presbyterian this Christmas!

A holiday shopping guide to an 89-year-old elder’s pioneer media career

December 8, 2009

Chet Burger with a fan at a book signing.

Chet Burger at a book signing for Unexpected New York. —Jim Nedelka

New York

As the Christmas shopping season heads into the homestretch, are you facing a Christmas shopper’s “cold sweat” moment? You know, that OMG feeling that, despite standing in line during Sneak Peek Week, surfing online during Cyber Monday, shopping bleary-eyed on Black Friday and going pale over Green Weekend you’re still facing a Blue Christmas for that certain “someone” on your gift list?
  
The Presbyterian News Service offers this suggestion to help make Ol’ St. Nick jolly: Give a Presbyterian this Christmas!
  
Allow us to suggest a pair of  new books — one written by, the other featuring 89-year-old Presbyterian elder Chester Burger.
  
Know someone planning to visit — or just enamored with — New York City? Then pick up Chet’s most recent book, Unexpected New York – 87 Discoveries in Familiar Places [Goodwin Publishers LLC, 150 pages, $29.95.] Lavishly illustrated with hundreds of his own color photos, Chet’s concise storytelling guides you through the historic places of his hometown’s five boroughs generally overlooked by most tourist guides.
 
In this labor of love, which was initially dismissed by most publishers as being too parochial, but whose sales have prompted a 3rd edition, you’ll go from Hellgate to the High Line. You’ll visit the home of Samuel Tilden, elected by the people as president of the United States in 1876, then Chet holds open the door to the intimate Episcopal Church where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent many a Sunday morning.  

You’ll also learn why New York-Presbyterian Hospital and its sprawling campus along the East River would today be located within Central Park if not for the ego-driven New York State Legislature of 1850.
  
Unexpected New York, now in its third edition, is a sturdy volume — printed on heavy 8½” by 11” stock — yet comfortable enough to easily carry along during your own personal walking tour of The Big Apple.
  
The book’s visual flow stems from Chet’s longtime love of photography. His collection of stereo photographs — many taken before the opening of and then during the run of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair — is part of the permanent collection of the New-York Historical Society.
  
But photographer and ad hoc tour guide are just two aspects of Chet Burger, who turns 89 in January 2010. If Frank Sinatra were still alive and recording, “That’s Life” would have a whole different set of lyrics.
  
Chet’s first “real job” came courtesy of the Columbia Broadcasting System’s mailroom until President Roosevelt’s “greetings” invited Chet to join millions other Americans participating in World War II.
  
Stationed stateside, when he wasn’t collecting military patches (his thousand-piece collection now part of the permanent collection of the New York Public Library), he produced the Army’s first-ever television show.

Repatriating in 1946 after, as Chet rapidly recalls “three years, one month, 15 days, 2 hours and 15 minutes” of U. S. Army Air Force service, the former Staff Sergeant returned to CBS. Unhappy that the personnel office dismissed his military broadcast experience and begrudgingly offered him a return to the mailroom — essentially starting at the bottom again — Chet suggested a really warm place where the personnel staffer could take up residence, signed away his re-employment rights under the G.I. Bill and walked out the door, unemployed.
  
After pounding the pavement for several weeks without success, a friend told him about a job opening at CBS “in something called ‘television.’” He went over to their studios at Grand Central Terminal and was hired by Henry Cassirer for nearly twice the offered $27.50/week mailroom salary, to the consternation of the personnel bureaucrats.
  
Thus, Chet found himself on the ground floor of a new medium, one dismissed by many as a gimmick, one that seasoned radio veterans — especially news people — avoided like the plague. He wasn’t quite sure what his job was — his title was “visualizer” — but it was a job and it wasn’t in the mailroom.
  
Then the fun began, as chronicled by Mike Conway in The Origins of Television News in America: the Visualizers of CBS in the 1940's (Mediating American History) [Peter Lang Publishing, 400 pages, $99.95.]
  
A professor of history at Indiana University, Conway began this textbook (hence the hefty price tag) by accident more than ten years ago while working on another project. Sifting through Cassirer’s archives, bequeathed to The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, led to Chet Burger’s papers, also gived to The Briscoe Center.
  
Conway’s eyes popped when he realized the depth of Burger’s saved materials.
   
“I realized something was going on here that hadn't been written about,” remembers Conway. The material in both men’s archives proved to be something of a Rosetta stone or, perhaps, akin to the mythical “Q” Gospel.
   
“I soon realized,” says Conway, “that the depth of material, especially the detail of Chet’s papers, were telling a story of the forgotten and pushed aside of the infant television industry.”
    
Regarding television news, Conway emphasizes that the archival material, “went against the popular history already in the history books.”
  
He contacted Chet, who helped guide Conway through his papers, sat for a three-hour video interview and helped point Conway to other surviving members of this “pioneer group.”
  
Conway says the book wrote itself but with a sense of urgency because, “the age of the people involved. I wanted them to be around when the book came out so they could get some recognition in their lifetimes for what they did.”
  
Chet Burger helped create the basic formatics of TV news broadcasts. While newscasts have moved forward in the past 60 years from the initial all-white-male cast, many of the principles and techniques that Chet and his colleagues developed through trial and error are still in use today.

For example, since the television set was generally placed in the living room, it was decided the comportment of the news presenter (the term “anchorman” was still years away from being coined) should be that of a guest in your home. But, who should this person be? ... how should he look? ... what should he wear?
  
These pioneers also figured out how to present “visuals” for best effect on the small 9- or 12-inch black-and-white screens of the era. For example:  how best to crop still pictures for broadcast? ... how to shoot news footage — what was “too wide” or “too tight?” ... what speed should you shoot film and at what aperture?  ... how big should the captions be?

As TV news’ first “street reporter,” Chet and his camera man, sound man and lighting man pioneered the art of covering a story for same-day broadcast instead of for the weekly or semi-weekly theatrical newsreels.
  
Chet rose through management positions at CBS-TV News, but it is said that you can’t be in the broadcasting business without getting fired. CBS’ ax fell on Chet in 1954 ... which led to his writing a seminal consultancy guidebook for AT&T on how the Telephone Company could use the new medium to tell their message ... which led to a career as a top management consultant and Hall of Fame public relations expert…which itself is another story, perhaps for future gift-giving under a future Christmas tree.

Jim Nedelka, an elder at West Park Presbyterian Church in New York, is a veteran news professional and a frequent contributor to the Presbyterian News Service.

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