Tony Verna, who died Sunday at age 81, gained national fame as the creator of the instant sports replay but, if things had worked out a bit differently, he could have put his creative skills at work on Bandstand, where he worked briefly in the show's early days.
Verna, a bright-eyed 19-year-old Philadelphian was hoping for a career in show business in 1953 when he spotted an ad for a roustabout on The Big Top circus program at WCAU-TV.
"But somebody said Bandstand was hiring, so I went over to Bandstand," Verna said in a 2004 interview for the Archive of American Television. "I put my foot in the door at Bandstand and I met Bob Horn. I'm all ready to be in show business. He says 'I'm having a problem at the door. Can you go over there and help fight off the crowd waiting to get in here to get on camera?' So I spent the whole day as a policeman. I got my foot out of the door and went back and became a circus roustabout."
Verna spent just that one day at WFIL-TV, but learned a lot about crowd control for what was rapidly becoming one of Philadelphia's more popular TV programs.
"They were very selective," Verna recalled in the 2004 interview. "I think they wanted the better-looking people to come in. They were very conscious of the kind of crowd Bob Horn would have."
Verna went on to have a successful career, first at WCAU, then with CBS. It was while working with CBS in 1963 that Verna had his breakout moment.
It was at the end of the college football season and CBS was to broadcast the Army-Navy game from Philadelphia. The game had been delayed a week because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Verna took the extra time to lobby for a pet project -- giving fans a broader game-watching experience by offering videotape replays of crucial plays.
His boss at the time, Bill McPhail, finally relented, allowing Verna to take one of the network's 1,300-pound videotape machines out of the CBS studios for the first time. Verna rented a truck and headed down the road a few days ahead of the Dec. 7, 1963, game.
It was a somber time for America, which was in the midst of an official 30-day period of mourning, but First Lady Jackie Kennedy insisted the game be played. There were no bonfires, no pep rallies, little in the way of celebration of what was truly America's game. Navy, behind its star quarterback, Roger Staubach, was 8-1 and ranked second in the nation behind only Texas. Army had lost just twice. President Kennedy, a huge football fan and Navy veteran, was scheduled to flip the coin to begin the game and had planned to watch the game from the Navy side for one half, and the Army side for the other.
Verna, however, was focused on his quest, checking the dozens of tubes in the massive unit, some of which were shaken loose in transit. Alignment of the finicky recording heads that needed to be just so for the 2-inch wide videotape was another challenge. Verna kept the tape unit in the truck, running hundreds of yards of cable to the lone camera dedicated to the experimant inside Municipal Stadium, located about a mile from where Verna was raised.
In pre-planning, announcers Lindsay Nelson and Jim Simpson and analyst Terry Brennan weren't quite sure how to deal with the experiment. If it worked, they'd deal with it at the time, they decided.
At game time, Verna was still fine tuning things in the truck. Videotape was prohibitively expensive in the early 1960s so CBS stretched its budget by using the same tape over and over. While it saved the network money, it also cost them hundreds of hours of potential archival material. The tapes Verna was using in Philadelphia that day contained snippets of I Love Lucy and other programs.
The experiment was a failure in many respects. It was practically impossible to know what had been captured until playback, and marking sections for possible airing was a logistical nightmare. It took about 30 tries before they got usable footage, a quarterback sneak by Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh that resulted in a touchdown.
When it was replayed during the game, commentator Nelson was compelled to advise viewers that what they were seeing for the first time, was not actually happening at the time. "Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!" he said
By game's end, Verna was exhausted and wasn't sure his efforts were worth it. But Bill McPhail knew. By the start of the 1964 season, most games had replays of some sort. McPhail fondly refered to the new technique as "Tony's Baby."
Verna went on to establish himself as an innovator and top producer and director. Among his credits were producing and directing Pope John Paul II’s TV special, A Prayer for World Peace, and the music special, Live Aid.
Which raises the question: What direction might Bandstand have gone if Verna had lasted more than that one day in 1953?
Here's more on that historic Army-Navy game in 1963: