One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life is how important it is to always be curious.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life is how important it is to always be curious. It’s one of the first things I tell young interns when they are just starting out in the news reporting business. “Don't have tunnel vision when you interview someone,” I tell them. “Ask lots of questions about all sorts of things. You never know what kind of story you may wind up with.”
I have a favorite story to go along with this advice, of course, And it just might be my best life lesson in this very thing.
I was a reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune in 1975 when a call came in from a woman who lived in a rowhouse at 52nd and Parrish Streets in West Philadelphia. She said she lived alone and was terrified of a group of local teenage boys who would call her ugly names and had even thrown a rock through her front window.
I told her to call the police. “I did call the police,” she told me, “and a cop came to the house and took a report from me, but I never heard from them again, and the kids are still harassing me.”
I told the editor, who said, “Well, it doesn’t exactly sound like a 'stop the presses' story, but go on out there and talk to her. You never know what you'll find.”
So I went and spoke to the woman for about 30 minutes, and really did not learn anything more than I had heard on that previous three-minute phone call. I told her I would write it up but could not promise that it would run in the paper.
Then I stood up and put on my overcoat (it was a cold December day) and happened to notice a framed photo on a side table next to the couch in which a short man had his arm around the shoulder of a tall, striking woman in a skimpy Les Vegas showgirl-type outfit. Both were smiling.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but the short man in this photo looks like Sammy Davis Jr. Is it?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Is this one of those times,” I replied, “when a person sees a celebrity and wants to take a picture with him and get his autograph?”
“No,” she said. “I worked with him. I was a professional dancer and part of an opening act for Sammy's nightclub act. We went all over the world – Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Paris, Stockholm, lots of places.”
“WOW,” I exclaimed. “That is spectacular! Did you meet any other celebrities along the way?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I danced with other girls in some movies. We met Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando…..”
“That is nuts!” I said. “What were they like? Which ones were really nice people, and were there any jerks? (Most were very nice, she said.) You don't happen to have any photos of yourself with those people, do you?”
She proceeded to go upstairs and come down with two photo albums containing photos of herself with lots of people, including some with movie stars.
I said, “This is solid gold! Too good to be true. May I borrow a few of these photos? I promise I will bring them back in person.”
“Why?” she said. “What does this have to do with teenagers harassing me?”
“An awful lot of people are fascinated by celebrities,” I told her. “That is why there are so many celebrity magazines and biographies, TV talk shows, fan clubs, and well-publicized scandals.
“If I turn in a story that 'teens harass woman in West Philly,' it will probably get a few paragraphs on page 53, if that,” I continued. “But if I turn in a headline of 'Dancer with the stars harassed by teens in West Philly,' and run it with these photos, it will be on the front page!”
So I turned in the article and photos to the editor, who had a mile-wide grin on her face. Two days later the “Dancer with the stars...” headline was at the top of page one, over four photos of the harassment victim posing with a number of movie stars.
The paper sold out, and stores were calling in the afternoon to ask for more copies of the paper.
Late that afternoon, the ex-dancer called me and said, “Guess what? The captain and lieutenant from the local police station came to my house, apologized for not doing enough and said they would be putting police cars in front of my house in shifts. People I went to school with years ago are calling me, and kidding me about being a star. I'm so happy!”
I guess the moral of the story is that if you want the authorities to help you, make friends with a few movie stars.
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com