'Today' celebrates 50th anniversary

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

NEW YORK -- On its Golden Anniversary broadcast, NBC's "Today" reprised moments grand and goofy from its past 50 years.

And at least one live segment Monday morning will likely become part of any future retrospective: Katie Couric and the baby chimp.

A contemporary stand-in for J. Fred Muggs (the popular "Today" chimpanzee in the 1950s), baby Jonah was huggy with the "Today" host. Trouble is, his own Huggies had failed him, as alert viewers could see from his britches.

"He's a little overexcited," laughed Couric, managing to return Jonah's embrace while holding him a safe distance from her lavender suit.

As much as the planned events on the broadcast, this encounter summed up "Today": grace under the pressure of delivering the world each morning on live TV.

Along with the current team of Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry, Monday's edition of "Today" -- roughly its 14,000th -- also brought back alumni including Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters, Jim Hartz, Jane Pauley and "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, who confessed to having once overslept during his "Today" tenure.

"No one seemed to notice," he said. "They started the show without me."

In an unprecedented flash of detente between "Today" and its 2-year-old morning rival on CBS, a simulcast found current "Early Show" host Bryant Gumbel dropping by his "Today" alma mater. He ended his 15-year "Today" run in 1997.

'Weaver's Folly'

"Today" was a brainchild of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, now 93, who was represented on the show Monday by his actress daughter Sigourney Weaver.

"'Today' was a big gamble" in its first years, she told Lauer. "I think they called it Weaver's Folly for quite a while."

In more ways than one, it was a groundbreaking program when it premiered on Jan. 14, 1952.

In a film clip from that first day, original anchor Dave Garroway addressed its most basic breakthrough when he welcomed an audience perhaps caught off-guard by the very sight of him: "You've just arisen and find your TV sets working instead of a test pattern," he noted. Before "Today," the network programmed nothing at the breakfast hour.

Lauer summed up his feelings after the broadcast. "It's a humbling day, it really is," he said. "Part of you says, 'Do I deserve to be here?' and the other part of you says, 'What a wonderful thing it is to be part of this long-running tradition."'

That tradition has included a customary top spot in the ratings. The lead over ABC's "Good Morning America" has narrowed somewhat in recent months, but "Today" has been No. 1 for six years, earning NBC some $350 million annually.

"Today" recently re-signed audience favorite Couric with a new contract reportedly paying her more than $60 million over the next 4 1/2 years. She said after the show Monday that the prospect of staying on has her "jazzed."

"I love coming up with new ideas and creative things to do," Couric said. "It's not as if I have to say, 'Oh, I have to carry out somebody else's vision.' I'm participating in that vision. And that's really fun and gratifying."

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