Thursday, September 24, 2009

From Inca Dinka Do to Rinka Dinka Do

The best headline writer I ever knew was the late Hal Frankel at the New York Daily News. Hal was in his sixties but had never grown up, he was a roly poly over-aged kid at heart. He was a throwback to the days when the language in articles was more colorful and varied than it is today, when people opined instead of said. Hal needed to lose a few dozen pounds, had trouble with his legs, lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Houston Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and took a taxi to and from work each day, probably spending as much in transportation as copy editors make at smaller papers throughout the country but the Daily News paid pretty well and there was no way his legs would carry him down into the subway and up again.

Every day during our "lunch" break, usually around 7 p.m., Hal would go to a nearby watering hole and return with a coffee cup that he'd sip from for the next three hours, only it wasn't coffee that was in the cup. His eyesight wasn't very good, he needed a cataract operation, and he would sit at his terminal with two pairs of glasses, one atop the other, and his head about five inches from the screen. Len Valenti, the copy chief, knew that the copy Hal handled would need a second read, but the headlines Hal wrote couldn't be matched.

He also smoked, and heavily. Back when it was permissible to smoke in the newsroom, his keyboard was like an ashtray, and his fellow copy editors shunned the idea of sitting next to him; except for me. I loved sitting next to Hal because along with the secondhand smoke I thought perhaps by the very same osmosis I might learn something about writing headlines.

When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 1987, the team planned a big celebration at Giants Stadium after their return to New York. Each of the 50,000 or so people who attended was given a kazoo; why I can't recall but the idea, I suppose, was to help them make noise. The story about the party went across two of the News' tabloid pages, I don't recall whether it was Pages 2 and 3 or 4 and 5, but the idea was to have a big ol' headline, don't ask me if it was 80 point or 120 point, that spread across the two pages.

Hal's headline for that story was "Start spreading kazoos."

I can only remember one other headline Hal wrote. The anniversary of Earth Day was approaching -- memory being funny, I always thought it was the 25th, but that would have occurred after I left the Daily News, so it most likely was the 15th -- and there was going to be a "harmonic convergence" in Central Park. This was some kind of ceremony going back to the Inca culture. The headline Hal wrote was "Inca Dinka Do." Of the 40 or so copy chiefs I've worked under -- someday I'll have to make an accurate count -- I'd say 30 would have rejected that headline for one reason or other, the most likely reason being a deficiency in the sense of humor department, but the headline got into the paper.

Hal missed a lot of time his last few years at the paper due to health concerns -- he had the cataract surgery, and started taking some kind of medicine that made him stop drinking -- but the damage was done and his liver just gave out the Thanksgiving weekend after I left the paper in 1988.

I always thought it was after he died, but it must have been while he was on sick leave that the News ran a story about how Donald Trump was going to come to the rescue of the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, which had fallen into disrepair. One of the other copy editors, I think it was Jonathan Kaufman but I can't be sure, in tribute to Hal wrote the following headline: "Rinka Dinka Do."

Now this is something copy editors probably shouldn't do except in the most poignant of circumstances, and that's write a headline that has meaning to your fellow co-workers but would lack that special message to the paper's 1.2 million readers in the case of the Daily News. Still, it's always meant a lot to me.

Thanks for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment