Yesterday and Today
01/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
"I WAS ONE OF THE FIRST WOMEN WHO DID political reporting for network television," Estelle Parsons proudly recalls. "I was out in the field with Estes Kefauver." Florence Henderson remembers that host Dave Garroway "wanted to know what it would be like to have more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So they brought in a barrel of monkeys and opened the top, and all the monkeys jumped out." Not that Garroway was necessarily partial to having simian costars. Says Betsy Palmer: "Mr. Kokomo adored me. But he hated Garroway, and Garroway hated him."
In fact, it didn't all start with a barrel of primates—the show's chimps, J. Fred Muggs and his successor, Mr. Kokomo, came later—but sometimes it seemed that way. On Jan. 14, 1952, with peacock feathers trembling, NBC brought television to the American breakfast table with the Today show. Now the network is celebrating the program's 40th anniversary with, naturally, a special, Today at 40, at 10 P.M., Tues., Jan. 14. Women of today's Today and yesterday's—including Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley, current coanchor Katie Couric, plus Torn Brokaw, Gene Shalit, Bryant Gumbel and Willard Scott, among others—will be on hand, even if the ill-starred Deborah Norville (who wasn't invited) will not. Their prominence is in sharp counterpoint to the predominantly frilly "Today girl" image of the '50s and early '60s, the era of Parsons, Palmer, Henderson and several others, including Lee Meriwether and Helen O'Connell.
Walters, who joined the show as a writer in 1961 and became an on-air regular in 1964, made the biggest breakthrough in 1974 when she became Today's first woman coanchor. "When Frank McGee died," she remembers, "they began to look for someone, and we said, 'Oh, by the way, it's in Barbara's contract that she become a cohost if Frank ever left the show.' They said, 'What! What!' They never expected it." Pauley, then only 25, followed Walters in 1976 and became America's new morning glory. In her 13-year tenure Pauley learned the hard way that cohost Bryant Gumbel—and youth—had to be served. Enter, in 1990, Deborah Norville, just eight years Jane's junior, fresh-faced, full of enthusiasm, and doomed.
Norville's disastrous 13-month stint—it ended when the network decided not to bring her back from maternity leave—is a painful subject. "There was so much publicity before I was even asked to be coanchor that I actually, for a moment, considered turning the job down," she says. Alas, she didn't. "I'm not bitter," she insists, "but it was the most stressful period I've ever gone through."
The clang of battle subsided with the arrival last April of the personable Couric, 35. "My title is coanchor," she says. "Bryant's title is anchor. But I think it's largely a question of semantics. Viewers want to see equality between us and don't want to have a woman there doing all the cooking segments. In fact," she adds, "Bryant does more of them than I do. He's a better cook than I am."
Enjoy the banquet while you can, Katie, because anchors are weighed and anchors are slipped, but the Today show abideth. As Florence Henderson, 57, now a stage and screen veteran, observes, "It seems to me that the show is really the star and will outlast everybody. It's like a great musical. It doesn't matter who you put in it, it still works."
TOBY KAHN in New York City