NIAGARA FALLS – This city’s villagelike housing projects nourished Nelson Davis in the 1950s as he began to dream of a career in television and radio, working with Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor.
Now from his office on Sunset Boulevard, he credits the diversity of his old neighborhood for helping him to imagine an ambitious future.
“I was a good learner,” said Davis, 66, speaking by phone from the Hollywood office of his TV production company. “I didn’t recognize barriers. Growing up with kids who were Italian, Polish, Jewish, Arab, I viewed nobody with fear and suspicion.”
Davis returned to Niagara Falls last month to speak at the 70th anniversary celebration of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority. The city looks even poorer than it did when he last visited seven years ago.
“Niagara Falls is a pale shadow of what I knew as a kid,” he said.
Some of the row-house-style housing projects he knew as a kid remain on Center Avenue, but the section he lived in was torn down and replaced by a newer, spiffier version. To think back at his old home now, it is surprising how small the space was.
He estimated that the three-bedroom apartment at 22D, where he lived with his parents and three sisters, was less than 1,000 square feet.
It was there that he used his record player and a tape recorder to make sample radio shows and send them off to stations in hopes of getting a job. Even though the neighborhood nurtured him, it was limiting.
“I was looking for dreams, and many people in the housing project were having an existence, not a dream-infused existence: Working, having jobs, kids. Nobody was talking about trips to Europe. Nobody was talking about being the president of Carborundum,” he said. “Media became my window to the other world, the other lives. I watched ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ or Jackie Gleason and saw another world that didn’t resemble the world in which I lived.”
After graduating from Niagara Falls High School, Davis skipped college and went on to work as a radio disc jockey in Ottawa.
“I became one of Canada’s top 10 disc jockeys,” he said. After 12 years he decided to try his luck in Los Angeles, and in 1977, he moved without a job. He found freelance work at a television station, Channel 13, hosted a talk show and eventually got a trainee position in the miniseries department at NBC when he was 32.
An internship during high school in radio show production at local station WJJL led to a part-time job in a control room at a station across the border?
My senior year of high school, that was a start for me. I got a part-time job at a CHVC in Niagara Falls, Ont. That was the beginning for me in radio.
Radio and television was my escape valve, along with the library. That was my dream factory. I went on with great good fortune.
To get your next job, you recorded sample radio shows?
I made tapes of my little made-up radio programs. I sent those tapes out to some stations in small towns. I sent one to Little Falls, N.Y. The program director had invited me down to the radio station. I took the bus down there to Little Falls, which is near Utica.
He felt that a young black kid would not be at home in Little Falls, N.Y. There was a certain amount of resentment. That was one of those things. Everything happens for some kind of a reason. It gets you on a path.
I wasn’t an adult yet, but I was having an adult lesson.
Yet there were others who encouraged you?
One of my inspirations was WKBW in Buffalo. Tom Shannon. He was a top rock jock. He invited me up to the station there on Main Street. He was one of those people who said, “You can do it. You can do it.” I did visit another station. WUFO. An R&B station. Eddie O’Jay encouraged me as well. He allowed me to read some news stories on the air on Saturday. That was the beginning.
Your four years at NBC included working in the department that checked to see that language and situations on the Tonight Show and others met network standards. When you met Johnny Carson, you told him how surprising it was to end up working with him. What was that like?
He was John. Nobody called him Johnny. The first day I was sitting in his office, I had a big old clown smile on my face. I said, “I’m a little stunned. In 1962, I was at my parents’ house watching the Tonight Show when you took over from Jack Paar. … I don’t know how that happened.” He laughed and said he, being the kid from this small town in Nebraska, asked himself the same question.
I truly do believe our dreams come true. Those things that we dream about if we believe in those dreams, most often, quite often, they become the reality of our lives. Media and books were shaping our dreams. They became sort of personal to me. I always believed it would happen. I just didn’t know how.
Before you left the network to start your own production company, you were director of daytime programming. What was it about you that led to such success?
I have always understood that it was about people. I love people. I go out of my way sometimes … to talk to people, ask them questions. I would sometimes just walk up and just start talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Or Frank Sinatra. One day I saw him in a parking lot. … I was an admirer of his. Somebody told me he sang like a musical instrument. When I saw him getting stuff out of the trunk of his car, I asked him if that was true. He said, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that.” It was not a long conversation, but it was a significant conversation to me, talking to this man I’d admired for many years.
And Elizabeth Taylor? She was appearing on a Bob Hope special in 1981 when you were in the broadcast standards department?
If you start thinking of stars, nobody had higher wattage. She was this petite person with interesting eyes who knew how to behave like a star. She showed up on time and did what she was supposed to do.
When you were ready to leave NBC, Merv Griffin asked you to help revive Jeopardy, and steady work followed. What are you doing now?
I’ve been self-employed for the past 23 years. We just started a series: “The Making It Show.” We’re in production at the moment for an online series. It was broadcast and in syndication for 20 years, and now we’ve started producing them for online distribution.
“Making It” profiles the success stories of diverse men and women who have started and succeeded in small business. You can see it at makingittv.com. My way of contributing to the greater good is to encourage people who want to start and or grown their small business.
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