I could slap myself for letting March 20 get away from me without mention. It was on that date in 1964 that — after 52 years in business, the last few operating at a loss — the Houston Press closed.
Anyone familiar with the triumvirate of this city’s major daily newspapers knows the Houston Press was the No. 3 of the bunch. Rarely a strong contender in terms of numbers — the Chronicle had nearly three times the circulation when it purchased the Press’ assets — the paper always maintained a dogged pursuit of wrongdoing and human interest in Houston. A typical Page One might have a story on a vice raid at some club right next to a sad tale about a kid whose puppy was stolen.
The Chronicle’s Zarko Franks called the Scripps-Howard-owned Press the “jazzy old lady of Texas journalism.”
Just after the paper closed, he wrote:
She screamed in two-inch black headlines when a mad dog terrorized the Heights. And she would scream equally as loud when a district attorney was indicted.
She turned her back on the Congo and Patrice Lumumba but never ignored a fight at the Cork Club.
She tattled like a backyard gossip, slugged toe-to-toe with the high and mighty, harassed faith healers and medicine men, loved kids and dogs.
Every once in a while I’ll hear from the dwindling pool of Houston Press staffers still with us. The one thing I’ve always heard or read about the Press was that working there was fun, like a production of “The Front Page” playing out on the corner of Rusk and Chartres six days a week.
It helps to have a standout cast of characters on staff, too. Franks rightfully believed the Press assembled its finest staff in the 1950s. That included folks like:
* Vance Trimble, “the idea man” who would later go on to win a Pulitzer for his work in Washington, D.C.
* Carl Victor Little, the closest thing this city had to H.L. Mencken.
* Sig Byrd, “The Stroller,” who captured the underbelly of Houston like no one else before or since.
* Ben Kaplan, “The man with a thousand news sources” who, Franks said, knew more about politics than most professional politicians.
* Margaret Davis, feared courthouse reporter who had covered Houston’s judicial scene since the 1930s.
* Andy Anderson, the sports columnist-turned-humanitarian. In my opinion, no columnist here has done more for the community and its veterans than Anderson.
* Bill Roberts, “The Town Crier,” who changed the way gossip columns are written here.
* Marvin Zindler, our own Weegee on the bayou, who worked at the family store during the day and photographed the mayhem in our city at night.
Of course, we also can’t forget others like Walter Cronkite, Thomas Thompson, Maxine Mesinger, Kent Demaret and Bob Rule, who also called the Press home over
This whole crew was led by Tennessee-born George Carmack. Twenty years after its closure, Carmack told the Chronicle’s Bob Tutt that the paper was the proudest thing in his life.
“There was never a paper that had more conscience than the Press had,” Carmack told Tutt. “The Press set out to tell the truth, and if there was anything we felt was wrong, we had the courage to report it and editorialize it.”
So why, with all this talent on board, did the Press close? Franks offered this explanation:
“It was accepted in the North Side and the East End but never quite got its foot in the door in River Oaks and the southwest where the merchants with the advertising dollars lived.”
Sidney Van Ulm, staff artist at the Press, had put in more years there than anyone when it closed. He didn’t shed any tears 50 years ago.
“I don’t regret a single day I’ve spent here,” he told the Houston Post. “I was doing eight different jobs at times. But I could hardly wait to come to work in the morning … it was really a pleasure.”
And with that, Houston became a two-newspaper town for the next 31 years.