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Ernie Runs the Show : City Co-Stars With the Mayor in This Slick, Cheerleading Program Seen on Cable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monday, noon--Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell leans back in a director’s chair in his office, tips his chin toward the ceiling and shuts his eyes while a young woman powders his nose. “This is the worst part,” Kell confides. The makeup artist squirts a can of hair spray and arranges Kell’s white locks across his forehead.

A soundman snaps a microphone under Kell’s tie. Director Robert Richards yells: “OK, stand by then, let’s roll, and. . . . action!”

Welcome to the set of the city’s publicly funded cable television series, “Keys to the City,” starring Mayor Ernie Kell.

The slick, monthly shows feature the mayor and his aw-shucks manner in a variety of settings, delivering upbeat messages about the city. For a show about the Port of Long Beach, the mayor is shown riding a tugboat. In a program on the city’s efforts to fight drugs, he pops out from behind a car after watching the dramatization of a drug bust.

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For a show about Long Beach’s sister city Sochi, Kell clinks glasses with a visiting Soviet delegation. And in the latest episode, “Safe Streets,” the mayor visits the Police Department and a crime-ridden downtown park to tout the efforts of the Long Beach Police Department.

In less than two years, the series has become an elaborate production. A dozen full-time employees and about 10 part-timers work up to three months producing a show, which is broadcast at 6 p.m. weekdays on Channel 21, the cable station that is provided, by law, to the city for municipal programming.

The mayor is enormously proud of the show. “It’s a good public service,” he says. “It makes people feel good about their city and where they live.”

But its hefty budget and its spotlight on the mayor have drawn fire from a couple of councilmen. “This thing is like Hollywood,” grumbled Councilman Warren Harwood, who sent out a flurry of memos to his colleagues and other city officials, demanding that councilmen be allowed to share the spotlight with the mayor. “The city shouldn’t be spending money on the mayor that it’s not spending on the council.”

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Harwood’s indignation peaked when the city manager’s office sent him a memo reporting that the eight episodes scheduled in this fiscal year will cost taxpayers $321,005--more than $40,000 per show. (The show’s producers, however, estimate the costs will approach $395,712.) “What is going on here?” Harwood sputtered. “It’s outrageous that we are spending money for this puffery and promotion when the city is cutting back on its public safety services.”

Councilman Thomas Clark made the series a campaign issue during last spring’s mayoral race, contending it gave the mayor an unfair advantage. Kell defeated Clark by only 672 votes in a June runoff election. The state Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that the show was permissible, but Clark is still angry.

“The intent under Ernie Kell’s staging of the show is to promote himself. It’s public relations,” Clark said recently. “There should be some access to that money by other members of the council who wish to put on shows.”

Kell said he came up with the idea in the fall of 1988, months after becoming the city’s first full-time, elected mayor. He conferred with City Manager James C. Hankla, who sent a memo to the city’s Library Department, asking its telecommunications bureau to take care of the matter. After a couple of brainstorming sessions with the mayor and his staff, the producers put together a pilot show in the spring of 1989. The mayor liked it, and a series was born.

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The segment on the Port of Long Beach made its debut last October, months before Kell was up for reelection. Ten more productions since then have helped transform the Telecommunications Bureau into a bustling production center, which has access to a studio, a city-owned production van, city-owned cameras and sound equipment and even a city-purchased library of 50 compact discs offering sound-effects ranging from sirens to a trumpeting elephant. Many of the items were purchased for the production of “Keys to the City,” according to staffers assigned to the show.

The telecommunications bureau now has contracts with 44 professionals, including eight producer/directors, six production assistants, six camera people, six actors, five soundmen, four men to carry heavy equipment, two editors, two makeup artists and a writer. The bureau also broadcasts City Council meetings and produces public service videos for other city departments, but the “Keys to the City” program is its most ambitious venture.

Since fiscal year 1988-89, the amount of money the bureau has spent on these contracts and on new equipment has more than tripled. The bureau’s overall budget has more than doubled in that same time, to $1.1 million.

Kell insists that it’s worth it. He calls the program “educational” and says it also fulfills a mandate in the City Charter, which calls on the mayor of Long Beach to articulate citywide issues. What better vehicle to communicate with his constituents, the mayor asks, than television?

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Monday, 1 p.m.--The mayor is posing in front of the Long Beach Police Department, reading his lines from a TelePrompTer. A camera man, soundman, makeup artist, TelePrompTer operator and producer Richards huddle nearby.

“Dedication and personal commitment characterize the men and women who protect and serve our community,” the mayor says.

On cue, two police officers stride up some stairs into the department.

“Cut!” Richards asks them to walk more slowly. Officer Paul Sanford says they have already spent the morning climbing in and out of a police car for another scene.

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“Even the largest and best-equipped Police Department cannot clear our streets of crime,” the mayor continues. The police walk. “It is essential to have the cooperation of all the citizens of Long Beach.”

Cut! Richards tells Kell to “pump up” his delivery. Cut! A truck ruins the sound. Cut! Two women nearly collide with the police. Cut! Traffic. It takes an hour to film the mayor’s three sentences.

Kell spends two days a month on location, plus practicing lines on weekends at home in front of his wife, Jackie. “To tell you the truth, I don’t look forward to it,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming. You have to say the same things over and over again. You feel kind of stupid after a while.”

At first, the mayor balked at other production rituals, such as makeup sessions, producers said. But after he got some compliments on his video appearance, one producer said, he became more cooperative.

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“I treat him the same as any other actor,” studio artist Susan Weinstein said on the set last month. First, she applies foundation. “He is very red and white underneath the cameras. He would look dead without it.” Next, powder. “He gets greasy,” she said.

She hasn’t yet tackled one last problem, bushy eyebrows: “I want to take some clippers to his eyebrows, but I need to know him a little better.”

Long Beach apparently devotes more time, money and hair spray to its cable productions than other cities. The telecommunications bureau’s $1.1-million budget tops those of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Torrance, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, according to a survey of officials of those cities, although some of the larger cities with huge, complex franchise operations, are just getting started with their programs.

Many cities, in an effort to prevent the shows from becoming political vehicles, have avoided a format that would feature a city politician. Several communities have regulations and policies defining just who should be on the shows, how often, and what the topics should be. Los Angeles has even recently appointed a three-member commission to oversee the city’s fledgling production program “to take it out of that political arena and make sure there’s no hidden agenda,” says Karl Holt, assistant general manager of the telecommunications department in Los Angeles.

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Other cities simply broadcast news of events and meetings on public access stations, which can be used free by anybody wishing to show off a stamp collection or play a tuba.

Councilman Harwood uses a public access station to host a talk show on city issues. “We don’t get any makeup, no nothing,” he observed.

But supporters insist “Keys to the City” is giving the public its money’s worth. “The city of Long Beach puts cable television to good use more than any city I have seen in 23 years of cable management,” said Frank McNellis, president and general manager of Simmons Cable TV of Long Beach, the local franchise operator. “Long Beach is known from the Hudson River to the Pacific Ocean as a result.”

Long Beach has won more than 30 cable industry awards for its municipal programming, according to telecommunications bureau manager Sherry Blohm. A special hourlong “Keys to the City” episode on gangs captured a Diamond award, which recognizes excellence in the cable industry, and was nominated for an Emmy in the category of public municipal programming. A Keys to the City program on drugs also won a Diamond award.

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Obviously pleased, Kell Says: “It sort of showcases the city, taking people to places they’ve never been.”

Monday, 2 p.m.--The mayor is having some trouble following his producer’s directions to Drake Park, a crime-ridden park a mile or so from City Hall. The crew is with the mayor’s next prop, police car No. 17916. So is Officer Sanford.

Kell arrives about 10 minutes late, parks and walks to the police car, where he is told to drape his left arm over the passenger door. “Here in Long Beach, our Police Department takes its job very seriously, employing a wide variety of programs that directly impact street crime,” Kells says to the mike.

During a break, he and Sanford chat about how dangerous the downtown park is. Kell walks back to his car to make sure it’s locked. Next, the crew moves the mayor to an X marked with tape near graffiti on the sidewalk.

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The activity draws a crowd of children coming home from school. They don’t recognize the mayor. “Who’s that white man?” yells a girl. “What’s he doing?” asks 11-year-old Jesus. When told, the youngster walks away. “I don’t got no cable,” he says.

City and cable officials say they don’t know how many of the estimated 120,000 cable television viewers in Long Beach actually switch on the show. Different episodes are replayed every weekday evening at 6 and Sundays at 8 p.m. on Channel 21 (the Cityscope channel) and sometimes are replayed until early morning. About 50 videos are distributed to schools, libraries, video stores and production crew. The mayor gets five of them.

The man who shepherds the effort every month is Rustin Greene, the affable executive producer of the series and other bureau productions. The city found Greene through an ad in the help-wanted columns of the local newspapers in 1988. Greene had been running his own production company, which put together advertisements for everything from sun wear to Chevrolets and also produced information spots for doctors.

He and the mayor’s assistant, Sheila Parsons, come up with a list of topics for the series every year and hand it to the mayor. Kell says he rejects subjects he thinks are “seedy.” Greene said the mayor has panned only a couple of proposals--shows on AIDS and the city’s controversial new trash-to-energy incinerator.

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“We don’t want to rile up the neighborhood,” Kell said.

Kell has little to do with the show until the last two weeks of shooting, when he gets his script. He doesn’t even like to watch it, he said. “I’m not a very good actor,” he said, then corrected himself, “ah, I’m not very good on camera. Too many ‘uhs’ and ‘ohs.’ ”

The mayor’s final production job is to preside over a panel discussion that is inserted into the middle of the show. The mayor is called the host of the show. But at his elbow in the studio sits Robert Dean, a free-lance writer and producer who acts as moderator for $600 a session.

Before each panel discussion is filmed, the participants have lunch delivered to the studio and talk about what they’ll talk about in front of the cameras. The mayor insists that the discussion remain “positive.”

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Friday, noon--The participants in the panel discussion on the Police Department are due in the studio to begin shooting, but one of them has a problem. “I can’t tell the public what wonderful service they’re getting when they can’t even get a (patrol) car,” Councilman Douglas Drummond says. He says he is concerned that nearly half of the city’s 911 calls are not answered within five minutes.

Kell: “I don’t want to get into this.”

Drummond brings up another sensitive topic: funding for police. “Is this city motivated to keep a blue uniform and pay for it?” he asks.

Kell: “I don’t think we want to get at that.”

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Drummond waves a piece of cake in the air. “One thing that really bothers me about this program is that we’re painting a big glossy picture that says everything’s fine,” he says. “But we need to stand up and say that everything’s not OK.”

Kell: “The citizens should hear that the city is doing a good job.” They all head down to the studio.

“Safe Streets” is being shown over and over on cable television in Long Beach now. The show opens on the inspiring notes of Handel’s Water Music as the camera pans to shots of City Hall, the World Trade Center, and the Port of Long Beach.

There is the mayor. In front of the Police Department. In Drake Park. In the studio, hosting a panel discussion stripped of controversy. In control.

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“We’re going to see (that) the streets and alleys of Long Beach will be safer and safer as the days go forward,” Kell assures viewers.

Thrown on the cutting room floor are 20 to 30 hours of video. “The real skill comes in being able to weave it all together,” producer Greene said. “That’s where the magic begins.”

But Greene said the wizards behind the curtain play only a supporting role.

“It’s Ernie’s show,” he said.

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