Television personality Bill Green calls Eddie Driscoll, “The most brilliant TV person I ever worked with by a mile.” “Brilliant,” is a word also used by Green’s WCSH colleague Pat Callahan who says Eddie Driscoll represents, “Local TV at its best.”
Generations of Maine TV viewers have fond memories of Eddie Driscoll, a broadcasting pioneer whose best work will never be seen again, vanished forever into the air, simply because it wasn’t economically possible to retain the hours and hours of live TV he created in his career.
While memories of his work may be burnished by nostalgia, the high regard of both colleagues and fans are testament to Eddie Driscoll's particular genius.
Eddie Driscoll’s television career began, in 1954, the day they turned the tranmitter on for Bangor’s Channel 2 WLBZ.
After leaving the Navy in 1948, a young Eddie returned home to Brewer, met and married wife Ruby, and spent the next couple of years working in the Eastern Paper Mill. Performing was already in his blood, a fan of vaudeville and films, he put on live shows now and again, and he was really excited about the prospect of television.
His wife Ruby says when she and Eddie used to go to the movies “over town,” Eddie would look at the test pattern on the TV screen in the store windows. He told her, “Someday I’ll be on there.” Ruby says, at the time, she was skeptical about that. They didn’t even have a TV in their house when he started.
Television was a new medium in those days and like any new medium it was completely open to experimentation. Local programming ruled the day in TV in general, and particularly at WLBZ, which couldn’t rely on available network programming that had been monopolized by the cross-town competition. Videotape didn’t become widely available until the mid 60’s, and producing TV on film was both time-consuming and costly, so the staff of WLBZ had to create hours and hours of live programming, particularly in the first year. “It was pretty rough,” says Margo Cobb, who also started that first day at WLBZ. “Television was rough back then, but I think I never had as much fun in television as I did in those early days. It was like putting on a play in your father’s garage.”
Budgets were low and so were production values. TV was much looser and much more spontaneous in those days. The low-tech approach would doubtless appear quaint and dated now, but in the mid 1950’s the very concept of TV was new and exciting. Cobb says, “The Six O’Clock News could come on any time from quarter-of to ten past.” It was also much less automated. In those days, FCC regulations required warm bodies in the station and at the transmitters at all times. Even hourly station IDs had to be read live, by announcers.
Commercials also had to be produced live, so the station staff got plenty of screen time. Coming up with a new way to sell sponsor’s products was a constant challenge, but one Eddie Driscoll was up to.
It was a medium perfectly designed for Eddie Driscoll’s madcap imagination. He created characters, wore costumes. One of his earliest children’s shows used puppet characters like Captain Salty and Mason Mutt, which Eddie would design and wife Ruby would assemble.
Eddie had one of the first TV morning shows. He’d do interviews and comedy bits and, of course, the commercials. Cobb says no one thought the morning show would work, “The powers-that-be decided that no one would watch television in the morning.”
Eddie Driscoll was a natural TV performer and a natural comedian in his prime in the era of the legendary TV comics like Sid Cesar. “He was as good as they were,” says Cobb, “Regrettably he lived in Bangor, Maine and didn’t have the promoter to push him into New York.”
Bill Green got his start in TV as Eddie’s cameraman for two
and a half years. He once accompanied Eddie to the Lakewood Theater
near Skowhegan to visit Milton Berle, the “King of TV”,
who was performing there one summer. Berle and Driscoll were trading
one-liners for the camera, “Eddie was more than twice as funny
as Milton Berle. Here’s the ‘King of TV’ and he’s
getting his butt kicked by Eddie Driscoll. It wasn’t a competition,
but of those two men Eddie was the funnier by far.”
Eddie was everywhere on WLBZ in the fifties and sixties and into the seventies. He appeared on shows with sportswriter “Bud” Leavitt, another Maine legend. Everybody wanted Eddie to be in their commercials, to the point his wife Ruby says he was overexposed with commercials.
One of Eddie’s longest-running shows was “Dialing for Dollars.” In the middle of the weekday morning, Eddie would call randomly call homes listed in the phone book. If the person on the other line was watching and could answer the questions, “The count and the amount,” they’d win a cash prize. The prize was insignificant; it started at three bucks and went up another three for every unsuccessful call Eddie made - but a call from Driscoll was a notable event.
You couldn’t hear the people Eddie was calling, only Eddie – cracking jokes, occasionally singing songs, and reading announcements for community events, mostly “bean suppahs.” Like many of Eddie’s shows “Dialing for Dollars” had enormous ratings. Green says, “Eddie had a way of reaching our to all those little rural towns,” reached by WLBZ-TV. In his books, author Stephen King mentions Eddie Driscoll and “Dialing for Dollars” .
King was also a big fan of “Weird.” Late night on Saturday, Channel 2 would show some typically awful, lousy, horrible movie with live commercial breaks featuring Eddie. These breaks could be up to fifteen minutes long and were usually more entertaining than the movies. Members of the Air National Guard from nearby Dow Field joined Eddie for one “Weird” stunt. In the field behind the station, with volunteer service people, US government equipment, and fake ammo, Eddie created a live World War Two scene . Neighbors came out to see what all the commotion was about at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. It was just Eddie Driscoll and his co-conspirators, making TV history. Bill Green was there. “That wasn’t lucky, or something local, that was a guy who knew what he was doing.”
Bill Green also worked with Eddie on “My Backyard,” which aired each morning just before “Dialing for Dollars.” Eddie filled time between Warner Brothers cartoons on a flimsy set with his puppets. Bill Green says they only had around eighty cartoons. “They did it on a shoestring budget with nothing but imagination and creativity.” It was the only children’s programming available in that time slot in a world with three TV stations to choose from. Everyone watched Eddie Driscoll.
Sometimes Eddie would push the envelope. “He needed a censor.” Margo Cobb says, “Unless you really got on top of him he could be a little naughty.” Eddie wasn’t above letting humorous double entendre slip out over the pristine air of WLBZ. Green agrees sometime Eddie let things slip that maybe shouldn’t have been said on TV.
Northern Maine and Atlantic Canada was, and is, full of Eddie Driscoll’s fans. Fred Thompson, whose family owned Channel 2, calls Eddie “the most dynamic local talent …in Bangor for fifteen to twenty years.” Other markets had their own local talents. Portland viewers remember Cliff Reynolds and “Captain” Lloyd Knight among others, but Eddie Driscoll, while filling the same role, did it his way. “He was able to take the things that he saw and heard in everyday life and make them funny,” Cobb says.
Everyone knew who Eddie was, and everyone thought they knew Eddie, but meeting Eddie in person wasn’t like meeting the Eddie on TV. Green says “Eddie was a very private person. The persona you saw on TV was something that he put on for television.” Margo Cobb says “You’d think he’d be the last person in the world to be a performer if you just met him off stage.”
Eddie was uncomfortable meeting fans, even shy about it. Eddie’s wife says he didn’t mind it when people he didn’t know came up and talked to him. He understood that was the price of his success, but he didn’t mingle easily with strangers. While Eddie clearly loved performing, Russ van Aarsdale, who worked at Channel 2 as a news reporter says Eddie, “Didn’t really care for the spotlight.”
Despite that, Eddie Driscoll was an ambassador for WLBZ and appeared regularly in parades throughout Eastern Maine.
Eddie retired in 1987 after a thirty-three year career in television in Bangor. Like everything else, television had changed in those thirty-three years. Live local programming, with the exception of news broadcasts, was largely a quaint memory of the past. Nearly everything was now recorded on videotape or supplied by the network.
Eddie’s role at WLBZ had diminished as well. In his fifties, Eddie began to show signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that he suffers from today, which further limited his television exposure.
Bill Green says, “TV was kind of moving by him.”
Most of Eddie Driscoll’s live broadcasts were never captured. What tape remains is mostly of the later years, when Eddie’s shtick was well-developed and familiar. There’s no great record of Eddie’s body of work for scholars to reevaluate years from now, Some scraps are preserved at Northeast Historic Film, but the vast majority was transmitted into space- live, enjoyed and appreciated by his audience, and then gone.
Ruby just marked Eddie’s 79th birthday. Eddie’s Alzheimer’s has rendered this great performer unable to communicate. Ruby visits him in the nursing home every day; even though hasn’t recognized her for years. “I do it for me.”
Eddie’s personal legacy will be his two daughters, but Eddie Driscoll has left his fans with a lifetime of memories and laughter, and the genius of his talent has created a common appreciation, a bond of community that all of us who fell under his spell, especially those of us who were children at the time, can share and cherish for years to come.
June 24, 2004