In 1978 Bob Jordan only asked one thing of his reporters, which wasn’t bad for a guy many considered to be one of the toughest television news directors in North America. In those days, we only did a half hour of news at 6:00 and 11:00pm, so airtime was precious.
Bob’s one thing? He gave you a beat and wanted only one story a day from that beat. But it had to be the biggest, best, most important and most interesting story of the day. And he expected his reporters to be on the air every day they worked. One story, once a day. It didn’t sound like much, but you could cut the newsroom tension with a knife. One of the secrets to Bob’s success is the competition he fosters among his reporters to produce the best story, the one people talk about, the one producers fought over.
It was a hot day in the summer of 1978 when I was operating the assignment desk at Channel 9. The assignment editor coordinates reporter assignments and news coverage, and then funnels everything that comes in to the producers, who put the news on television.
One of our best reporters, Ron Comings, was covering his beat: Seminole county. Ron understood the one great story a day rule and he always delivered. On this day Ron and his photographer Jeff Moorman were chasing another big story.
Sometime just before noon I fielded a call from a man who identified himself as Chuck Best from Sanford. He said, “I’m down on the southeast corner of Lake Monroe, and I’ve taught a squirrel how to water ski. I glued two popsicle sticks together, mounted a little set of handle bars, put some peanut butter on them, and then attached a line to a battery powered boat. I thought you guys might like to see it.”
We were very busy and I offered a very stupid response that went something like, “smoke another one and call me back later.” We got a lot of crank calls.
Half an hour later, Ron called in a panic from Sanford. His story was not coming together for today and he was desperately trying to find another one. I said, “Why don’t you go down to the southeast corner of Lake Monroe and tell me if you see anything unusual.” I was too skeptical to tell him what he might find.
The day got busier and I forgot about Ron. At 4:30 I noticed he wasn’t on the rundown. I tried to call him but got no response. The hour before the newscast was hectic and the newsroom was humming towards 6:00.
At 5:30 the back door of the newsroom went BANG and flew open. Ron and Jeff came sprinting in waving ¾ inch videotape, and Ron was shouting, “You won’t believe this. Get Jordan.”
We crowded into a small edit room and Jeff hit the play button. Up came the most fantastic video. A tight shot of a small squirrel standing up with his hind legs on what looked like water skis, and his front paws clutched around a small stick mounted straight up from the water skis. And he was moving across the water towards Jeff’s camera. Jeff did a slow pull back to reveal a small boat pulling the squirrel on skis. It was hard to believe, but it was a water skiing squirrel. We just stood there for a minute watching in disbelief. Ron said, “His name is Twiggy.”
Jordan said, “Call New York.” Twiggy debuted to Central Florida that night on our 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts. The next morning he made his national debut on Good Morning America, and that evening Peter Jennings put him on World News Tonight. As they say today, Twiggy went viral. Ron and Jeff won an Emmy. Twiggy and Chuck toured the country and the world doing shows at hundreds of conventions.
Chuck Best and the original Twiggy are both gone now, but the franchise lives on through Chuck’s family and subsequent Twiggys. Chuck told me once it was actually pretty easy to teach a squirrel how to water ski. You can catch up with Twiggy and his family at www.twiggyskis.com.