Finding Carl Kasell

Finding Carl Kasell

By Don Hall

“Has anyone seen Carl?”

The question chilled the blood in my chest. Anne, Tyler and I were up on the third balcony, placing Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! gift bags and Carl Kasell dolls on every one of the 1,850 seats in the Warner Theater. In three hours, every seat would be filled by fans looking to see and celebrate the final taping of the show with Carl as the Judge/Timekeeper.

Below, onstage, the cast and crew were running through a technical rehearsal — running jokes, testing microphones, adjusting lights.

And Carl was nowhere to be found.

I came on board the WWDTM team in 2007 as the new House Manager. At first, Peter Sagal couldn’t even bother to remember my name. I found out later that I reminded him of a guy in high school who used to beat him up. Of all the cast, Carl Kasell was the one who truly welcomed me in, asking me about myself and my family, telling me stories of his half century of broadcasting. He was a genuinely warm and lovely human being who was a perfect balance for the more guarded, snarky Sagal. They made a brilliant team on stage.

As the House Manager, my duties entailed a lot of things not written in the job description. In a decade, I handled four separate patrons having heart attacks during tapings without interrupting the show. I bundled and held a woman going into Gran Mal seizures while waiting in line after calling in paramedics. Once, when our Not My Job Guest was Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who had just put away “Scooter” Libby, Peter had me go out and get a razor scooter and get it inscribed to give him during the show hours before the show. I took Denis Leary through a back entrance under the bank so he could smoke without going through the audience or leaving the building. House Manager sounds simple but turned out to be anything but.

Seven years I worked with Carl and in that seventh year, he began to exhibit signs of illness. Forgetfulness. Zoning out during table reads. More mistakes to correct at the close of each taping when the producers made the cast retake lines and phrases to clean up the presentation. Carl was known to almost never have to do retakes — it was a standard Sagal joke in the day — but now, he was flubbing things more often.

It turned out that he had been stricken with early stage Alzheimer's disease and, against his every instinct, it became time for him to retire.

And so, it came to pass. For his final Chicago taping, I arranged for 500 Suger Bliss cupcakes for the audience, a 44-piece marching band, and a group of burlesque dancers. It was a wonder to behold and, as always, Carl was gracious despite his lingering frustration at being retired.

Not to be outdone, NPR decided to give him his final taping in Washington, DC. We all flew out for the VIP reception the night before the taping. Nancy Pelosi was presenting an award and many muckity mucks were attending. As basically the Head Janitor of the show, I was seated at a table with no one notable. A couple who knew someone important. A few NPR staffers. And Carl’s cousin and his wife. We all sat and chatted over drinks and expensive cheese and a grand buffet dinner about the show and each other. Carl’s cousin was from Tennessee — I was born in Tennessee. He had never seen the show and was frequently in Chicago. We exchanged cards and the evening progressed.

A lot of pictures were taken. Peter said a few words. Nancy Pelosi was charming but it was obvious she didn’t listen to the show.

The next day, Tyler (my assistant) and I went around and got a tour of the new NPR facility. We roamed around DC for awhile and, after a quick lunch with Vanessa Harris (my old boss from WBEZ who was now working for NPR) we headed to the theater to get things set up.

“Has anyone seen Carl?”

Mike Danforth, the Executive Producer, approached me. “How do we find Carl? This is really disconcerting.”

Tyler was never good in stress situations, so I knew that Mike was actually asking “How do YOU, Don, find Carl.”

I called his wife, Mary Ann. She hadn’t seen him since breakfast. I called NPR. No one knew. I debated calling the police with an image of this revered newscaster lost and wandering around DC.

And then it hit me.

I reached into my bag and fished out his cousin’s business card. I called the number.

“Hello?”

“Hi! This is Don Hall — the WWDTM House Manager? We met last night at dinner.”
 “Sure! What can I do for you, Don?”
 “Have you seen Carl today?”
 “Yeah. He’s right here. We’ve been catching up.”

Immediate relief.

“Could you bring him to the Warner Theater right now? He’s late for our technical rehearsal.”
 “Oh. I can have him drive over…”
 “Nah. It’s better if you bring him yourself if that’s alright.”
 “Oh! Yes. I understand. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
 “Great. Thank you.”

I barked out to the stage, “I found Carl. He’ll be here in 20 minutes.”

Perhaps it was because they were stressed out or that they just expected that their House Manager could just get things done but no one ever asked me how I found him. It was simply enough that he was found.

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Upon hearing about his passing yesterday, I realized that, in a world of acrimony and bitterness, Carl Kasell was one of the Good Guys. Noble, focused, always gracious and kind. When I see these qualities in others, sometimes I think of him. I guess I’m always finding Carl in the most unlikely of places.

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