I have often said that my early career as a staff photographer took
place in a context that could only be described
as Runyonesque. I am, of course, referring to the renowned
newsman, author and screenplay
Runyon. He was born in 1884 and died in 1946. His stories were peopled
with odd-ball characters, the most well known of whom were the gamblers
and minor hoods in the stage play, which later became the movie, "Guys
a newspaper photographer from the 1960's through 2002, I met
many a character who fit the Runyon mold. Most of them were
my associates at Newsday (Long Island, NY).
the next few months, I will introduce you to them. In many
instances, I have changed names in the fervent hope that I
not be thrashed for having exposed their idiosyncracies to
the world. It is not my intent to ridicule
or criticize anyone. The antics and the events about which
I write did truly take place. Time
may have dimmed the exact
dialogs but I write these journals depicting these people
as accurately as humanly possible. I
hope that you will find them as interesting and as zany
as did I.
A LENS DIMLY
By Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer
Ernie said, “You created the monster, now live with it.”
I think that he was referring to the Frankenstein Monster in the
context that he claimed that we were all responsible for what he
had become. Truth be told, he wasn’t a monster by any stretch
of the imagination. What he had become was the butt of numerous
practical jokes and gags. And he thrived on the attention that
it drew to him and the more he was subjected to this good natured
kidding, the more outrageous a character he became.
The Photo Staff at Newsday was a tight knit little group of men
and while we enjoyed a lot of horseplay, there wasn’t a hint
of malevolence in any of it.
Ernie was a bandy-legged little man of French-Canadian descent.
He had worked in the newspaper’s Print Shop for a number
of years but yearned to be a news photographer. He had been a photographer
in the Navy after World War II, assigned to covering Fleet gunnery
exercises. He longed for the glamour that he thought was part of
photojournalism and begged for the opportunity for the chance at
a staff photographer’s slot. But, the closest that he ever
got to his dream was to be accepted into the department as a darkroom
He was good at it, which assured that he would stay a part of the
department. But he kept begging for an opportunity to prove himself
as a shooter and several times, the Director of Photography gave
him a chance. Alas, poor Ernie just didn’t have what it takes.
He didn’t have the eye, the timing or the “Get the
F--- outta my way, dammit!!!” attitude that was often the
difference between getting a news photo or just a snapshot. So,
for the rest of his career at Newsday, he toiled in the darkroom,
never giving up hope of stumbling across that phenomenal news scene
that would elevate him up to the ranks of the “Big Boys.”
He never missed an opportunity to go out to meals with the photographers,
and he was always welcome because everyone liked Ernie. He was
a barrel of laughs, even when the laughs were directed at him.
And, they usually were because Ernie would always interject comments
into the conversation, which would expose him to ridicule.
For example, one time, just before the Christmas Holidays,
Ernie was discussing how he and a neighbor were engaged
in a not-too-friendly competition regarding
lawn and roof top decorations. Each year they would vie for the distinction
of having the biggest, brightest, most outrageous Holiday
display on the block.
He invited us to view his creation, one evening, and shortly after dusk a bunch
of us went out to his home to see for ourselves. As the sky darkened, Ernie
threw a bunch of switches. The huge Santa in the sleigh
on his rooftop became flooded
with light and a huge loudspeaker hidden in the sleigh boomed out “HO HO
HO’s” that could be heard in the next town. The stereo speakers on
the lawn, next to the elaborate Nativity scene, belted out Christmas carols while
mechanized elves rocked back and forth. Every inch of space on his lawn and roof
was occupied by figures depicting the holiday. And lights…lights everywhere.
Blinking Christmas tree lights were strung in every bush and tree. Spotlights
illuminated every part of the property as well as the property of all his neighbors.
And, to show up his competition, he would run his display from sundown to sun
up. This is the nucleus of scores of Christmas sitcoms. You’ve all seen
them. Well, here we were, up close and personal, being treated to this show
The next day at lunch, Ernie told us that after we had left, a group of neighbors
came over and handed him a petition threatening him with court action if he
tame down his holiday exuberance. After the laughter around the table died
down, he told us that he had reached a compromise. He would lower the decibel
on the loudspeakers and would turn off the lights and music by 10 PM.
One day, Ernie left our lunch group a little earlier than usual. “I have
to pick up my new car. I’ll see you guys back at the office. I’m
getting a new Plymouth.”
He got back to the office before us and when we drove into the section of the
parking lot reserved for photographers, there was this humongous, shiny new
Plymouth four door sedan sitting in one of the spots. Let me add that this
was in the
days of cheap gasoline and this monster was a huge, gas-guzzling machine. It
was also of a color, which would certainly call attention to the car and driver.
Surely this was not the kind of thing that any working photographer would do,
when it was often important to blend into the scenery. But, this was Ernie
and this was his new car. Ernie was nowhere to be seen as we all stood around
his behemoth. Bill Senft, one of our photographers who hadn’t been at lunch
with us, pulled into the lot and joined us at the new car. We told him that it
“Be right back,” he said as he walked back to his car. He came back a few
seconds later with something in his hand. He giggled as he displayed a clear
plastic decal that looked exactly like a bullet hole when affixed to a window.
Without any hesitation, he peeled off the backing and placed the “bullet
hole” right in the center of his rear window. He smoothed it down and
we all stood back to admire his work. Gadzooks! It looked exactly like someone
pegged a shot at him through his rear window.
Ernie was wearing his lab apron and was feeding wet 8 X 10 prints into the
big rotary drier when we walked in.
Didja see my new car?” he asked.
“ Oh, yeah.”
“ Sure did.”
“ Great car, Ernie.”
“But, ya might want to get that rear window taken care of while the warranty
Ernie paused in his work. “Wassamatta with the window? There’s nothin’ wrong
with my window.”
Oh, ok,” said Bill Senft, as we all headed towards the darkrooms to start
developing our morning assignments. Subtlety was one of Bill’s strong
Ernie waited long enough for us to get out of sight before he bolted from the
office and ran to the parking lot. We waited long enough for him to get out
of sight before we all ran to the window where we had a clear view of him as
approached his new car. We saw him walk to the back of his car He paused for
a moment as he scanned the glass. We saw him stiffen as he noticed something
different. It was summer and the office window was open and we clearly heard
his shouted “SON OF A BITCH” as he leaned over to inspect the hole
in the glass and the tiny tracery of fine lines that emanated from it. He ran
his finger over the offending hole. Even from the distance, we could see the
look of puzzlement come over his face. He reached into the pocket of his lab
apron and took out a pencil that he used to probe the hole. Then he looked
over and saw all of us at the window and heard the gales of laughter coming
YOU SONSA BITCHES!!! YOU’LL GET YOURS!” he screamed in our direction.
But over a couple of draft beers at lunch, the next day, he had to admit that
he was really taken in by this gag and he laughed along with us at the recollection.
It was at the Photo Department’s annual Office Christmas Party where Ernie
really sparkled. Every department at the paper threw a party in the weeks preceding
the holiday. But everyone looked forward to attending ours. We all prevailed
upon our long-suffering wives (who, by the way, weren’t invited to attend
our bacchanal) to prepare some special dishes. They produced wonderful entrees
and delicious salads and cookies and cakes plus a fully stocked bar with booze
and wine. (This was back in another, more free-wheeling era. Having booze at
office parties ended 20 years ago, and having office parties ended shortly thereafter.
It’s not for nothing that I describe these memories as akin to the era
of Damon Runyan.) Plus, we had a dear friend who owned a fabulous Chinese Restaurant
in the area and he would donate chafing dishes filled with mouth-watering food.
All of the tools of our trade would be stashed away in a safe place. The plastic
Christmas tree would be erected and festooned with strips of raw 35mm film
instead of tinsel. Our ornaments were film cans and cassettes hung with paper
And our renown “Wall Job” made up of all of the wackiest photos ever
seen that we had produced as well as those that came over the wires were taped
to the office walls along with appropriate home-made captions. A reel-to-reel
tape recorder played seasonal tunes while a Kodak Carousel slide projector produced
a continuous slide show of snapshots showing some of the outrageous and often
embarrassing happenings from previous parties. People from all over the building
would line up in front of the Photo Department’s door, waiting for the
party to start.
And, Ernie would be on hand to open the door and welcome everyone.
After a few drinks, Ernie usually became the entertainment.
One year, shortly after the revelry commenced, no one could
find Ernie. He disappeared from sight for about twenty
minutes. Suddenly, the lights in
the room went out.
A murmur of surprised “Hey’s” and “What’s up” filled
the room. And just as suddenly, the lights came back on and there was Ernie,
standing on one of the counters where we sorted prints and captions. He was dressed
in an outlandish costume of his own making. He wore lime green tights and a green
sweatshirt upon which he had sewn a large letter “E” on top
of a lightning bolt.
“It is I, Super Ernie, to the rescue!” Whereupon he leaped from the
counter, twisting his ankle and breaking a toe.
As we carried him to a car to transport him to the emergency room, he
was heard to say, “You created the monster, now live with it.”