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For five decades Mac McGarry was a fixture of Saturday morning television in Washington, hosting the teen quiz bowl “It’s Academic.” But McGarry’s career also included gigs as radio announcer, disc jockey and talk-show host. McGarry died last week at age 87. Kojo revisits his 2005 interview with McGarry.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILate last week we learned that Mac McGarry, a legendary broadcaster both here locally and around the country had died on December 12th. For five decades he hosted, "It's Academic," a televised quiz show for high school students that aired on NBC4. It's now the longest running quiz show in television history. But before Mac became an iconic quizmaster, he was a fixture on the local airwaves here in Washington, as a radio host and D.J.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe had the pleasure of interviewing Mac in October of 2005, along with Susan Altman, a producer of "It's Academic," and the daughter of the shows founder. Mac told us all about the early days of the show and what it was like to be a jack of all trades during the golden age of television.
MR. MAC MCGARRYI was one of 11 staff announcers, Kojo. That's a concept that doesn't exist anymore.
MCGARRYStaff announcers would get up every half hour and say, well, when I first came, back in the early '50s, WNBW, the NBC Television Theater, in the Wardman Park Hotel, Washington. Then I would rest for a half hour. (laughter)
NNAMDIYeah, that kind of stuff can make you tired.
MCGARRYBut actually, announcers did more than that. We were the news people of that day. We would go out front -- since I remember being assigned to National Airport, when General McArthur came back. That sort of thing. We would be sent out, along with the news people, to cover special events. But the assignment came to me in 1961 from the program director of Channel 4, Wes Harris, he said, "Come up to my office." So being a good Jesuit product, I went up to his office.
MCGARRYAnd he said, I have a program. I think you're the one to do it. Here's the outline and the contact for "It's Academic." That was in July of '61. We went on the air in September or October of '61. And we're still on the air, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd during the course of these 44 years, Mac McGarry has only missed one show.
MCGARRYWell, that's right. Actually, I've never missed a taping, but I went to the taping and I had really bad laryngitis. We had a man named Ed Grennan who did the show in Chicago, standing by. So we were taping three shows that day. I did one of them and I let him do two. So I haven't missed a taping, but I have missed a couple of shows.
NNAMDIWell, Susan Altman, your mother created "It's Academic,"…
MS. SUSAN ALTMANThat's correct.
NNAMDI…Sophie Altman, while hosting another teen-focused talk show. Where did the idea for "It's Academic" come from?
ALTMANWell, originally she produced a show called "Teen Talk," which was a teenage discussion show. And what she noticed was that you had a number of very bright kids who tended to be kind of shy and not as outgoing. And she wanted to create a show that would showcase their talents as well. So she kind of worked out the format for "It's Academic," which would spotlight academic talent. And it sort of sat in a drawer for two years. And then all of a sudden in July they called up and said, well, you can have it ready by the fall. And she said, oh, sure, no problem. (laugh)
ALTMANAnd amazingly enough she did. And, I mean, you know, sitting there writing all the questions and coordinating all the schools and so forth. But the show just gained its own momentum. The time was right and there was Mac McGarry.
NNAMDIThere is Mac McGarry. There always will be Mac McGarry.
ALTMANThis is Mac Mc Garry. Excuse me. (laughter)
NNAMDIBut one of the things your mother apparently noticed, even before the show, was that a lot of the kids she was dealing with were fairly shy. And one of the reasons she created "It's Academic," was because she thought it would help them.
NNAMDIIt would bring them out more.
NNAMDIAnd that has happened.
ALTMANAbsolutely. Although, I must say, many of the kids who appear on the air today are not at all shy. They're in drama, they're in sports, they're very well rounded students. But we do get the shy ones as well. So it…
NNAMDIAnd their television savvy, Mac McGarry. Compare the students who appear on the program now, in terms of their television savviness, to 1961.
MCGARRYThey are completely savvy. You're right. There's so much more television. There's so much more of everything than there was in 1961. When we started the Washington area had four television stations and maybe a handful of important radio stations. Now, the number is almost incalculable. The number of channels that you have on cable, the number of radio stations, everything. The kids today are tuned into all this. Think of it, 1961, Kojo, no information technology. None of it.
MCGARRYNot a computer in sight. (laugh) This has been the main difference, I think, over all the decades that we've been on. Their familiarity with the great new computer generation.
NNAMDIYou know, one would think that because this is a contest in which you have to think quickly, that a lot of people would become lawyers and maybe a few of them would become politicians. It's my understanding that Senator Hillary Clinton was once an alternate on the show.
NNAMDISenator Chuck Schumer out of New York was once actually on the show. But it's my understanding that you had a reunion of former contestants and you found that the most popular profession was lawyers, 16 percent. But there was also at least one shepherd.
MCGARRY(laugh) I remember him.
NNAMDITwo rabbis, a newspaper publisher, a lute maker. (laughter) And several state legislators.
ALTMANWe also have an astronaut who was on.
MCGARRYYeah, whatever sells. (laughter) This was about 20 years after we had started the show, so it's back a little while now.
MCGARRYIt was in the Rayburn House Office Building.
ALTMANOffice building, right.
MCGARRYFour-hundred alumni and alumnae returned. We had a match among younger people and middle-aged people and older people. And we had a great exercise there in the Rayburn House Office Building.
NNAMDIYou're listening to our interview with the late television host Mac McGarry, recorded in October 2005. As you might expect, when we talked to Mac, a lot of former "It's Academic" contestants called in, along with lifelong fans. But one of our callers who identified himself as Mark, wanted Mac to talk about his other passion, big band music.
NNAMDILet's move on to Mark, in Potomac, Md. Mark, your turn.
MARKYes. I am a huge fan of Mac McGarry. Not only as host of "It's Academic," but a man who has an encyclopedic knowledge of big bands.
MCGARRYI recognize this man. This is Mark Gauvreau Judge who writes for the Washington Post. All right. Mark, hit me with it.
NNAMDIYou've been outted, Mark.
MARKI've been begging you for years to return to the mic as a disc jockey and I just was wondering if you could share a memory or two of being a Washington and/or New York big band enthusiast.
MCGARRYWell, I wasn't indeed that, Mark, as you know.
MCGARRYAnd I had the chance through the years. I think the one interview that stays with me the longest, when I was doing work as a disc jockey -- I interviewed Duke Ellington. What a thrill. I was always a fan of his. Of course I knew he was from Washington. And we talked for he was very generous with his time. As a young guy growing up in New York I idolized that band and I remember that we closed the interview with his famous sign off, "Love you madly." (laughter)
NNAMDIEdward Kennedy Ellington.
MCGARRYThat was the greatest.
MARKAmen to that. And you introduced the Dorsey Brothers, at Glen Echo.
MCGARRYWell, we did. I had the pleasure of being the announcer for the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey band at Glen Echo back in 1954. And here's the thing I'm sure Mark wants me to tell. The sign was up for the next attraction. This was September of '54. The next week Bill Haley and His Comets. (laughter) so that was a true end of the big band era and rock and roll began at Glen Echo in 1954.
NNAMDIRock and roll began to take over at that point. You were the afternoon drive-time host at WRC on "The Mac McGarry Show," from 1960 to 1972. Before that in the 1950s…
NNAMDI…you worked with Willard Scott. You're very good friends with our own Ed Walker.
MCGARRYOh, I'm happy to say I'm -- I hope I'm right about this. He seems to be recovering well from difficulties, and he had been in the hospital for a while.
NNAMDIYes, he is recovering.
MCGARRYBut we sure wish him all the best. What a great guy.
NNAMDIWe certainly do. Mark, thank you very much for you call.
MCGARRYThank you, Mark-o.
NNAMDIMac McGarry, you have had, as we mentioned at the beginning of the show, a long and broad, wide-ranging career in broadcasting, yet having done "It's Academic," for the past 44 years, going into your 45th season. It looks like this is going to be your broadcast legacy.
MCGARRYWell, I guess so. I thought it might be working the big bands or directing a big band. People have asked me what would I like to do. When I was a kid I wanted to be Tommy Dorsey or Glen Miller or Benny Goodman. But this is a wonderful opportunity to have had for such a long, long time. And to make a difference, I think, in the community. It's been my pleasure.
NNAMDIWhen it got started in 1961, how long did you think it would last?
MCGARRYI really thought if it went more than a year it would be a miracle because I had done many shows before that time, including shows back in the mid '50s with Jim Henson and the Muppets, who were with us on Channel 4, and with Willard Scott, my old friend.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, a lot of people didn't know that Jim Henson started here.
MCGARRYYeah. And each of these shows…
ALTMANHe did one of the original graphics for "It's Academic."
MCGARRYThat's right. On our first show Jim Henson created the graphics. What was the question? (laughter) My brain is gone.
NNAMDIHow long you thought the show would last when you first started.
MCGARRYI thought it would last maybe a year at most. No idea it could go this long.
NNAMDIMac McGarry died last week at age 87. He will be missed. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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