Breath of Fresh Air

Before cable TV and VCRs, there was the late movie. Back when Tucson TV personalities were real, Hank Lominac was the realest of all.

Hank Lominac died a couple weeks back. His passing was duly noted in the dailies, albeit farther back in the paper than I would have preferred. I never met the man, but if I had, I would have told him that in his own small way, he was part of the charm of Tucson that prompted my decision to stay here after college.

Lominac did a lot of things on TV back in the 1970s, but what I remember him for was his hosting of late-night movies on the weekends. He just seemed like somebody's uncle or grandpa, up there on the screen telling us a little bit about the movie and then gently segueing into a seemingly-unrehearsed pitch for whichever product or merchant happened to be sponsoring the show that night. And then it was back to the movie. Or not.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, where everything was slick and phony, I found Lominac to be a breath of fresh air. He reminded me of Cal Worthington, an L.A. car dealer who would wear cowboy hats and trot out a variety of exotic zoo animals, all of which he referred to as "My dog Spot." Lominac was Cal Worthington without the gimmicks.

There was no cable TV or VCRs back in the '70s, so you had to hope that the late-night movie was a good one. But even if it sucked, Lominac somehow made it seem like you were in for a real treat. He'd trot out the most arcane facts about the movie and its stars, and you'd almost regret the fact that you weren't taking notes.

"Tonight's film," he would say, "is 'The Conqueror,' starring John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell. As many of you know, John Wayne spent a lot of time here in Tucson, shooting and then re-shooting the same film over and over again. One time it would be 'Rio Lobo,' and the next time they would call it 'El Dorado.' Mr. Wayne had a lot of favorite hangouts here in town, including a couple where a man could, shall we say, quench his thirst."

Hank would smile into the camera, and that image you had of John Wayne drinking too much and then starting a bar fight would just melt away. Replacing it was a vision of The Duke sitting in a fern bar, nursing a club soda over a game of chess, quietly discussing the issues of the day with his co-stars of different races and genders.

Then Hank would continue, "In this film, shot in St. George, Utah back in 1956, John Wayne plays Genghis Khan, who is waging war against the Tartars. Now, of course, John Wayne isn't Chinese ..." [Neither, for that matter, was Genghis Khan] ... "but his screen presence is enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief."

By this time, you were ready for the movie to start. Hank would smile into the camera again, pause tantalizingly, then say, "John Wayne was born Marion Morrison, somewhere in Iowa. He actually played football at the University of Southern California before beginning his acting career. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, who was actually a real-life character who lived in Arkansas."

He'd do a couple more commercials, then come back. By this time, we're chomping at the bit. He'd smile one last time, then say, "You know, an interesting sidelight of the filming of this movie, is that the cast and crew used to get lawn chairs and watch the atomic bomb tests, which were done less than 100 miles upwind in Nevada. There are always stories of scenes that had to be re-shot because mushroom clouds would appear in the background. Of course many of the people who worked on the film developed cancer later in life.

"So now, here's John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Agnes Moorehead in 'The Conqueror.'"

Hank Lominac was just real. In fact, there were several real people on local TV back then. Jim Ferguson, before he became the absolute King of the Movie Junket and dispenser of glowing quotes for even the sucko-est of movies, used to have a late-night local talk show. I remember shortly after the Three Mile Island fiasco, Ferguson spent a good five minutes discussing with his guests whether the word "nuclear" is pronounced "new-cleer" or "new-clee-ur."

Hank Hubbard, who reminded me of Eric Sevareid, was a mainstay of local news. Poised and dignified, he somehow managed to look like he was just shy of 60 for the last 20 years of his career.

Then there was Gene Adelstein, who owned Channel 11 before it got gobbled up by a conglomerate. Channel 11 put on a local newscast back then with George Borozan and Bill Roemer on sports. Adelstein used to slay me because he was part-owner of the station and he basically hired himself to do the play-by-play for Wildcat sports. He died, far too soon, while still in his 40s.

All of these guys just made Tucson feel right. Unpolished, laid-back and real. Of course, the entire place has gone to hell in a handbasket since then, but that's for another time.

A few months ago, Hank Lominac was back on the air. He was in the advanced stage of Parkinson's disease at the time and his tremors were quite pronounced. He was sponsored, and joined on camera, by his old and loyal friend, Jim Click. (Despite his sometimes-queasy politics, Click is a good and decent man who probably does more for people in this community than any of us will ever know.)

It was somewhat uncomfortable watching Lominac struggle, but I figured that if he could be up there on camera, the least I could do is watch. Less than half of those who live here now lived here then. There's no telling what a newcomer must've thought if they saw Lominac's show last year.

All I know is that I was proud to have been around in his heyday and happy to have seen him one last time.

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