CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - I would know his voice anywhere. Larry Bruton was one of those guys who had the gift for radio.
When I was a kid, my parents always kept the radios tuned to AM-1490, WSTP in Salisbury. We've written a lot lately about that station going off the air after nearly 80 years of being a trusted companion.
The radio station's demise brought back a lot of memories for a lot of folks in Salisbury and Rowan County, and in my case, while the station going dark had nothing to do with "the camera," it all seemed to complete a circle.
Larry Bruton was an announcer at WSTP. In the late 1960's and 1970's, he and Bill Henderson were the dominant voices on that radio station, and they were very good at their craft.
One time when I was in elementary school I won my choice of an album from the WSTP music library. My mom took me to the station on Statesville Boulevard to pick up my prize, and while I was there, I got to see inside the control room when Larry Bruton was working. I was awe struck.
Years later while in high school, I got a part-time job at the FM sister station to WSTP, and that meant that I actually worked with Larry Bruton. By that time he was also working part time. I'll never forget that while he was on the air, he often had his cat with him, and he could talk on the air and hold the cat on his forearm at the same time. It was a sight.
Larry left WSTP sometime in the late 70's, maybe early 80's, and I lost touch with him. As it turns out, our "re-connection" came about in a most surprising way.
I've now been working at WBTV for a little more than 25 years. I left WSTP/WRDX to join WBTV in 1991, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I was made aware that Larry Bruton had once worked at WBTV.
"I hope you remember me," the letter started. It's a letter from Larry Bruton that was in a big cardboard box that also contained, well, I'm getting ahead of myself here.
The letter from Larry said that he was now retired, and he mentioned that he had watched my progress over the years at WBTV. He said some really nice things that I won't post here, but that I appreciate greatly.
Larry mentioned that he was "dealing with some medical issues," and was "thinking about mementos I have and what might become of them in the future."
That beings me back to what was in the box. It was a television camera. A camera that Larry Bruton used when he was a stringer at WBTV, while working for WSTP.
A stringer for WBTV? Larry Bruton did that? That's what I used to do! I had no idea!
This 16 mm silent film camera, known as the "Filmo70," was manufactured by Bell & Howell, and was used by Larry to shoot news in Salisbury and Rowan County in the 1960's and 70's.
"A lot of film went through this camera from Salisbury and the nearby area," Bruton wrote. "The riots at Livingstone when (Dr.) King was shot, the anti-Vietnam was protests at Catawba College, the Black Panther police confrontations in Winston-Salem, and the Ku Klux Klan convention in Salisbury. Most filming, however, was just the usual fires and wrecks and sports items."
The camera is surprisingly small, but heavy. It has a compartment for a film reel and a take up reel. And in the days before microwave feeds, just how did that film get from Salisbury to Charlotte to make the news? You may be surprised.
"Say for instance I had something from Salisbury for the 6 pm show," Bruton wrote. "To make the deadline, I had to get the exposed film to the Salisbury bus terminal no later than the 12:30 pm bus leaving from Salisbury to Charlotte. I would put the film in a pouch and give it to the bus driver. The film would be taken to the Charlotte bus terminal where it was picked up by a courier, taken back to the station, processed in the station film lab, then edited and scripted to get it into Doug Mayes hands in time for the news."
This type of camera has a pretty interesting history, both with WBTV, and in the world of televised sports. Larry recalled one of the first times that a TV news camera was placed inside of a race car actually running on the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway
"I shot film with this camera from a race car at speed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway that was broadcast on WBTV in 1966," Bruton wrote. "We taped Bill Ward's Championship Wrestling show on Wednesday nights for rebroadcast on Saturdays, and one of the wrestling managers was named Homer O'Dell. I think Homer was one of the first "bad guy" wrestling managers who shouted and threw chairs and such. He was best known later for the tag teams of Brute Bernard and Scull Murphy, and Rip Hawk and Swede Hansen, but in 1966 he had two nasty wrestlers named Bronco Lubitch and Aldo Bogni, a couple of real knuckledraggers."
Bruton said that at the time, O'Dell realized the value of a cross promotion between wrestling and racing.
"To promote his wrestlers, he had bought a patched up 1964 Ford race car, hired a driver, and officially entered the 600," Bruton recalled. "During race week Homer came into the studio to tape the wrestling matches and began showing around pictures of the car. I asked him if I could come to the speedway the next morning and try to shoot some film from inside the car while it was on the track for practice. Homer was all for it, and they said they would rig up some kind of seat for me on the passenger side. When I got to the track, the 'seat' was an upside-down wire milk crate sitting unattached to the floorboard...no shoulder harness or seatbelt. And nobody seemed to question any of this. These are the kinds of things you do when you are young and stupid. Anyway, I locked an arm around a roll bar support to steady the camera and off we go around the track at full speed. I held the camera braced against my chest pointing it out the windshield and the side windows, and we used the film on the 6pm newscast, so I'd say WBTV scooped the network in-car cameras by about 13 years."
Bruton says the race cars actual performance on the track wasn't as exciting.
"In the big race, the car blew up after only twenty laps or so, and the Homer O'Dell Wrestling #96 Ford finished dead last," Bruton added. "I think he gave up race car ownership shortly after that an d went back to fulltime chair throwing."
(Editor note: The car didn't actually finish dead last, but it was close. The Homer O'Dell Ford finished 38th out of 44 cars. Driver Sonny Lamphear retired with drive shaft troubles on lap 29.)
Larry's memories are as precious as gold to me, even one about dropping a boom microphone into one of Betty Feezor's pineapple upside down cakes on the set of her highly popular show. I love hearing about history of WBTV, especially from the guys who were doing the very same thing that I'm doing now.
All of this came about for me through Larry's daughter. Deborah Koontz Horne is the Fire Marshal for Rowan County, and someone I admire greatly. She first made the connection that brought me back into the world of Larry Bruton, and I'll be forever grateful to her for that.
I will treasure the Filmo70, but more than that, the stories that Larry provided and the wonderful feeling they have created for me.
Thanks Larry, and remember, "Park & Shop time is 8:00!"