River Slim is telling me where his live catfish come from and how they get to his store here on Pulaski Avenue on Chicago’s West Side. “They’re not from around here?” I ask. “Nope,” says Slim. “We raise ‘em in Mississippi, then drive ‘em up in a big truck.”
It’s a good line of inquiry, revealing some surprising facts. But then I remember it didn’t come from my questioning of River Slim. It had been fed to me by my director and co-producer, John Davies. I’m watching show #102 of Wild Chicago, shot in May of 1988. I’m selecting segments from the show to include in a DVD I’m planning to release in the coming months: Wild Chicago, The Early Years. (Working title, mind you.)
Not every one gets to see what they looked like on a given day, doing their job 23 years ago. That’s one of the pleasures of working in visual media for a while. (And it is a pleasure – I am unabashedly enamored of seeing myself on the screen.)
That day at River Slim’s Live Fish, however, was not a happy one. At home, my wife and I were drifting apart and our recent move to a slick downtown high-rise had proven not to be the magic elixir to save our marriage. We were both hurting. But only one of us was on camera. Fortunately the editing process had erased any hint of trouble with the pith-helmeted host. But my memory could not be covered with b-roll.
Here’s the backstory. I’d arrived at the shoot after a morning of particularly acute psychic pain over my domestic situation. I had considered canceling but chose instead to show up. Unprepared.
After the first 10 minutes of the shoot, John Davies, my director, pulled me aside with urgency and said, “Ben, you’ve got to be more prepared for these shoots. You can’t just wing it. I saw your eyes roll up into your head and I knew you didn’t have any idea what to ask next.” He was right. TV veteran that he was, John took over, fired off a bunch of questions to River Slim, got a handful of funny answers and quickly we had all the material we needed to make a good segment. Though embarrassed, I was present enough to be impressed with John’s prowess. I’d like to say some of it rubbed off on me, however painful it was to my ego.
And truth be told, that day was a turning point for me and my career in television. I never came unprepared to a shoot again. And I’ll forever be grateful to John for calling me out.
I’ll be sure to include the River Slim segment in the DVD. And some still shots of my reporter’s notepad from later Wild Chicago shoots so you can see how writing questions in advance became paramount in my development as a TV interviewer.
Next time: How cool it is to see the show evolve, along with my confidence, as I watch the first season unfold, episode by episode.