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Still crooning

How Chet Curtis became the Larry King of New England Cable
By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  August 27, 2008

CABLE TALKERS: Chet Curtis and Jim Braude preside over NECN's prime-time chat block.It’s the morning of Ted Kennedy’s 74th birthday, and as the senator enters NECN’s Newton headquarters, he warmly greets Chet Curtis — who is tan and rested after a stint in his Fort Lauderdale condo — as an old friend.

“You’re looking too good,” bellows the senator, who jokes that he got just what he wanted as a birthday present: “an interview with Chet Curtis.” (When Curtis was a 24-year-old cub TV reporter in Washington, a co-worker named Sam Donaldson took him on his inaugural tour of Capitol Hill. They were both watching a young Ted Kennedy in the Senate chamber when Curtis saw a man approach him and say, “Senator, your brother the president has been shot.” It was November 22, 1963.)

Kennedy is taping an interview for that evening’s Chet Curtis Report, the half-hour news-and-interview show that airs nightly at eight. In his non-threatening but savvy interview style, Curtis puts Kennedy through his paces, asking about globalization, partisan acrimony, and the port-security controversy. Kennedy is on his game — rattling off statistics, gesturing passionately, and leaning forward in his seat for emphasis. Just a few feet away, it is Curtis who is relaxed, casual, and leaning back in the comfy black chair.

At 66, an age when many anchors have signed off, the ex–Channel 5 star is capping a four-decade-long career with a different kind of second act. Once half of the most famous local anchor team at the most powerful station in one of the nation’s biggest TV markets, Curtis is now host of an evening show at a 14-year-old regional cable network that, according to NECN officials, earns an average rating of between .5 and one in the Boston market. That means somewhere between 12,000 and 24,000 homes are usually watching, a fraction of his old Channel 5 audience.

Gone is the professional and personal partnership with his ex-wife, Natalie Jacobson, that made “Chet and Nat” a household phrase. And the one-time leading man of local TV news is rounder, grayer, and if possible, even a little mellower.

But a funny thing happened since Curtis arrived at NECN five years ago. As local television news in a market redefined by Channel 7’s success has fallen further under the sway of info-tainment values — putting as much emphasis on promos, graphics, and studio color schemes as the content itself — NECN’s solid journalistic values and serious local reporting have carved out a real niche for the cable outlet. And at a time when local TV news treats politics and policy issues like 10 pounds of glowing plutonium, the prime-time shows hosted by Curtis and Jim Braude are an oasis of smart and timely public debate. (Another exception is Channel 2’s Greater Boston, a show on which I — in the interest of full disclosure — am a paid panelist.)

In this devolving news environment, Curtis, with his easy-to-watch style — and the best roster of A-list guests in the market — has settled into an influential role as the go-to guy for the big interview, the king of news schmooze, the Boston version of CNN’s enduring septuagenarian Larry King.

“What the hell am I gonna do, quit and go down to Florida and play shuffleboard?” he asks, making it clear that’s not an option.

“Chet and I are good friends. I respect him immensely... [and] I’ve said to him, ‘Why do you need this?’” asserts Jim Thistle, a former Channel 5 colleague who directs BU’s broadcast-journalism program. “I say more power to him. This is Chet.”

“I’m a crooner”
Growing up in upstate New York, the young Curtis dreamed of a singing career. As a teen, he sang on a show out of Schenectady, New York, and once even auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. He still likes karaoke and recently sang with the Pops at the Spinazzola Foundation’s food-and-wine festival. But Curtis insists that his vocal range is nothing to get excited about.

“I’m a crooner,” he shrugs.

That word might also define the style of Curtis’s TV career, which began at WTOP in Washington in 1963 and passed through WCBS in New York, before landing at Channel 5 in Boston in 1968. (Curtis left New York because “I wasn’t so good that I was gonna light the world on fire. I was never gonna be the next Cronkite.”) Crooning implies an ease of performance, if not artistic excellence. Crooning suggests something soothing and pleasant. And crooning conjures up Dean Martin — the likable star who played the sidekick to both Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra.

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Chet and Nat haven't said much publicly about their famous breakup. But in a 2004 Boston magazine interview, an emotional Jacobson seemed to assign culpability for the split when she declared that Curits "broke my heart." Asked about that remark, Curtis bows his head a bit and speaks quietly.

"I wish I had some things to do over again," he says. "Not every story has a happy ending. I guess I'm not good at relationships. It scares the hell out of me to spend the rest of my life alone. But if it has to be, it has to be." Curtis acknowledges that he had been dating recently, but adds, with a sense of resignation, that he doesn't see himself back at the altar again.

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