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From thugs to thunderstorms: The Don Paul Story

Don Paul

In a recent article, I recounted how I began my TV weather career with a brief stopover at what was probably the worst station in the nation.

But one of my most cherished pre-TV jobs was spending more than two years at WNEW Radio in New York. It was the station where Frank Sinatra started; it had the best local newsroom in American radio; it was probably the most sophisticated adult station to be found.

Natch, I fit right in. If Frank could start there, so could I. After all, I grew up in an apartment two miles north of his apartment in Jersey. I snagged a job as a “desk assistant” (read, “Hey, COPYBOY!) for $92 a week in the newsroom. My rent for a basement studio across the Hudson was $155. I was "living la vida broka," but loving every minute of it.

Because part of my job was to type traffic reports, which consisted of info I stole from the WCBS and WOR helicopter reporters, I had to join the Writers Guild. The bargain dues took me down to $89 or $90.

To be an appreciated flunky at such an institution was a dream I never knew I had. I cleared 12 teletypes, and hauled rolls of paper up from a roach-infested basement, but hey—I was working at a station on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, where the roaches had panache.

While I was juggling these duties, I got a “promotion” to become an assistant to our chief reporter, Jim Gash. Jim had a vision handicap, and needed a literate driver and assistant who had some interest in news, and who could do some phone legwork setting up interviews. He was a standout reporter. Every day was an adventure. We covered some great stories. This was partly because Jim was pals with another great reporter, WNBC-TV’s Gabe Pressman. Gabe just died at age 93 last week, and he was still producing weekly features for WNBC.

Gabe and Gash liked one another, and they used to feed each other stories; often biggies. Both of them were excellent at getting Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Mayor John Lindsay and other politicians to spit out pithy soundbites they didn’t often give to other reporters.

The morning after the Attica Prison uprising, my boss and Pressman were able to corner Rockefeller coming out of his 81st Street and Fifth Avenue apartment at 6 a.m. to get an exclusive interview although he had been planning on ducking the press that day. Rockefeller looked visibly shaken at what had happened when 39 people were killed by state police retaking the prison.

My most memorable story was the shooting of Joe Colombo, Brooklyn mob boss. On a warm summer morning Gash told me to get an unmarked mobile unit up to Columbus Circle, where the ballyhooed “Italian-American Civil Rights Day” was going to be celebrated. In reality, the Italian-American Civil Rights League behind that event was nothing more than a Mafia front.

The league was trying to work up public anger toward all the ongoing federal arrests and indictments. It had been organized by Colombo, against the wishes of other dons, who didn’t want the publicity. Colombo demanded loyalty. In fact, Colombo threw still-liberal Frank Sinatra out of his league because he supported Mayor Lindsay over City Judge Mario Procaccino.

When I arrived at Columbus Circle, I parked our unit with its NYP license plates, and got out. A hefty man said, “Hey, kid! You can’t park dere!” I inquired as to why not, seeing that I had the NYP press plates. So I asked this swarthy gent if he was a police officer. He responded curtly in the negative, and urged me to move my (expletive) car. This was a man of little nuance. We went back and forth, and I began to get a little feisty. A young cop snorted a giggle.

He waved me over and asked, “Do you know who you’re arguing with??” “Nope. Who the hell is he?” “That’s Fat Tony Salerno. Even I’m not sure I’d argue with that guy!”

My memory is hazy, but I think I moved the green Chevelle to 59th Street.

Later that morning, I was shooting the breeze with a copy boy from WINS radio. Then another kind of shooting occurred. We thought we heard firecrackers. The firecrackers were gunshots. A move had been made against Colombo, whose henchmen immediately shot and killed the hit man before the cops could intervene. Colombo had been shot in the head and neck. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, where the press waited outside for word of his death.

I was in that press mob, wearing my laminated NYPD Press card when a black Cadillac limo pulled up. A few ominous-looking types wearing dark suits got out. Some of the reporters hissed: “That’s Gambino!” Carlo Gambino was THE head guy. WABC-TV reporter Bob Lape told me “take off that damn badge and go sidle over to those guys. See if you can hear what they’re saying.”

I did so, with surprising stealth. But like Sgt. Schultz, “I heard noth-ing!” Mumbled grumbles. When one of them noticed a kid was leaning in trying to eavesdrop, they got back in the limo. “Thanks for nothing, kid,” Lape said with gratitude.

As for Colombo, he lived on for seven more years. He didn’t get around much anymore, but he lasted longer than our next character. Most mob leaders were convinced the hit was directed by “Crazy Joe” Gallo.

Gallo was an arch Colombo rival who, despite being a thug, somehow managed to exude some charm and get into high society. He even befriended people like Jerry Orbach and his wife. What’s this got to do with the story of my life? Well …

About 10 years ago, David Letterman asked Don Rickles about having to work in mob-owned places early in his career. Rickles quickly corrected Letterman, and said it wasn’t so long ago he was still dealing with wise guys and such.

As a favor, he played the Copacabana in 1972, then owned by a shady character. The owner warned him “Crazy Joey” Gallo was out in front. He told Don this heavy-duty mobster could be friendly but had a ferocious temper. He strongly advised Rickles to lay off Gallo.

Rickles: “Dave, that’s like waving a red cape in front of me. Toro! I went after him all night, and he LOVED it! Tears down his cheeks!” Rickles said Gallo came backstage and warmly begged Don to join him and his pals at Umberto’s Clam Broth House. Rickles came up with excuses, and got out of it. This was fortunate for the world of comedy.

That night at around 5 a.m., four gangsters came into Umberto’s and disposed of Gallo with .38s and .45s. This was seen as extremely negative feedback for the Colombo hit.

Hearing this Rickles story, I realized unbeknownst to him, Donald Jay Rickles reminded Donald Jay Paul that even as a flunky, I was on the fringes of mob history.

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