Press-Telegram Columnist Tim Grobaty
August 28, 2012 - A man who has posed some peculiar questions in interviews for his column in Long Beach's daily newspaper, the Press-Telegram, agreed to be on the other side of a Q&A for a change.
Long Beach native and resident Tim Grobaty has interviewed British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, American novelist John Gregory Dunne, political satirist and writer P.J. O'Rourke, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Scottish musician and artist David Byrne, Jeffrey MacDonald (three times, always in prison) and most people in Long Beach above the rank of sergeant, in addition to writing on topics like his preference for funerals over weddings and solving the city's budget in 10 minutes. He's a 36-year veteran at the Press-Telegram who has become the daily newpaper's most popular columnist.
After dreams of becoming a marine biologist were squashed by his poor math skills, Grobaty took the next obvious career path. His journalism journey at Long Beach City College began in the mid-1970s before he landed a full-time gig with the Press-Telegram.
Grobaty has earned numerous awards for his work, including nods from the Los Angeles Press Club and Long Beach Heritage for his coverage of Long Beach history, and the Best Columnist in the Western States award from the 2009 Best in the West journalism competition. He was inducted into the Long Beach City College Hall of Fame in 2010.
Most recently, Grobaty published a book that reflects on the early years of Long Beach, from its incorporation in 1888 to the devastating 1933 earthquake. Aptly titled, "Long Beach Chronicles: From Pioneers to the 1933 Earthquake," Grobaty's first book is available in paperback and for Amazon's Kindle e-book reader. The paperback version is available almost everywhere – from independent bookstores in town to major retailers like Costco.
Business Journal Publisher George Economides joined the interview. He and Grobaty went back and forth on a number of items.
LBBJ: When did you first realize writing is where you would make your fortune?
Grobaty: When I took math.
LBBJ: What year was that?
Grobaty: The last year I took math? That was probably 1974 at Wilson High School.
LBBJ: So you put two and two together and said writing is it?
Grobaty: I went to a counselor at Long Beach City College wanting to go into marine biology. Wilson High had this great marine biology teacher, Charles "Chuck" Mertz. I just loved marine biology, but the math killed me. It got to where I was going to destroy oceans if I got into marine biology. Maybe not in the business world, but it is true that most journalists are famously bad at math. So I went to a counselor, took an aptitude test and they suggested I go to a newspaper. I didn't write for a newspaper in high school or anything like that.
LBBJ: You didn't do any writing?
Grobaty: I wasn't one of those kids who had his own newspaper at age 8. I like to write. I took creative writing classes and English classes, and I didn't mind it.
LBBJ: So what did you do after Wilson?
Grobaty: I went to Long Beach City College. I was there for a while. After Vietnam there were a lot of vets there.
LBBJ: Did you serve in Vietnam?
Grobaty: No. I was too young.
LBBJ: Did you get a degree?
Grobaty: No. I just went there for a long time.
LBBJ: So you couldn't do math, but you figured that journalism was a great place to . . .
Grobaty: To not do math.
LBBJ: But make a whole lot of money, right?
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. At the time, it was huge. I think All The President's Men came out in 1976. Journalism was all the rage. Everybody was doing it back then. Everybody wanted to be in it. It's kind of like CSI now. All the kids coming out of high school want to be in forensics. There's room for, like, five of them.
LBBJ: So who did you bribe at the Press-Telegram to get you a job?
Grobaty: There was a tad of nepotism. My mom had worked there as a secretary for Larry Collins, Jr., who was with the Independent. There were two papers at the time; the Independent was in the morning and the Press-Telegram was in the evening. Larry Collins was the editor of the Independent. He let her do a little writing. She actually had a music column I discovered after she died. I was going through my garage and found some old Independents. I started looking at them and saw my mom's name. I didn't know she wrote. She wrote this hip little thing called "Disc 'n Data," and she said stuff like "daddio" in it. It was totally hip. But when I applied, Larry Allison was the editor.
LBBJ: A great guy.
Grobaty: He was a really great guy. I had to call him while working on [Long Beach City College's] The Viking and I enjoyed just blathering him. Generously sharing my opinion with the readers.
LBBJ: So you did write at city college?
Grobaty: Yeah. I had to give up my dreams of Sea Hunt or whatever.
LBBJ: Are you a fan of Lloyd Bridges [who starred in the late '50s TV series "Sea Hunt?"]
Grobaty: Huge. But I went into Larry and said I would be his columnist. I agreed to that. He said, "Not so fast. There are people with master's degrees applying for copy boy." So I had to be copy boy for a year or two. Copy boy – we don't have those anymore.
LBBJ: As well as other positions.
Grobaty: Right. Writers.
LBBJ: Do you remember the first story you wrote for the Press-Telegram?
Grobaty: It was a Grateful Dead review.
LBBJ: So you got into music?
Grobaty: Yeah. That's kind of what I did in college. About half of my columns were music related. The others were related to campus. Sometimes I'd blather about presidents.
LBBJ: What year was this?
Grobaty: 1976. . . . I went to Cal State Long Beach for one week. I had one story in the 49er. I went to all of my classes once. Then I realized that I'm studying journalism and I've got a job at the paper, and I already knew everything. There was nothing that I didn't know.
LBBJ: So your first article was on the Grateful Dead. This was probably in the entertainment section?
Grobaty: I think it was called "Leisure." The editor of Leisure was a great guy, Terry Sattoria. He was entertainment and Sunday editor, and he gave me a whole page on Leisure. No ads, just an open page. I wrote about rock music. It was called "Contemporary Beat." It was a lot more sophisticated than "Disc 'n Data." . . . I was a copy boy and they just threw me this open page.
LBBJ: Must have seen something in you.
Grobaty: Yeah. They were just giving me a chance. It's never been the hippest paper.
LBBJ: So you were just a kid.
Grobaty: I think I turned 21 there.
LBBJ: Wow, that's pretty good considering how tough it is today for a 21-year-old to break into journalism.
Grobaty: And when they do, they don't make a ton of money. At the time, we were paid very well. I made more as a copy boy than reporters made at the [OC] Register back then. So there was no incentive for me to do anything else. Only the [L.A.] Times paid more.
LBBJ: So you went to lots of concerts.
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. I went to millions and millions of concerts. A lot of times at papers, people ask, "Who wants to review Fleetwood Mac?" and someone says, "I do" because they like Fleetwood Mac. But at the time, they assigned me to things, whether I liked it or not. So I went to a lot of crappy concerts.
LBBJ: Did you have a following as the music guy? Did you have fans?
Grobaty: I had more people that hated me. It's kind of like sports writing. I got called every name in the book for writing bad reviews . . . .
LBBJ: Was it through the music column how you met your future wife?
Grobaty: No. I met her at city college. Our 33rd anniversary is on Saturday [August 18].
LBBJ: Just out of curiosity, have you any idea how many columns you've written?
Grobaty: I've been doing five a week for at least 10 years, maybe 12 years. I don't know. I don't do math.
LBBJ: That's at least 2,500 in 10 years, roughly.
Grobaty: Yeah. Then I did two a week for a long time. Then I did one a week for a long time.
LBBJ: So you're probably around 7,000 or 8,000 columns. No one keeps a record on that for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Grobaty: No, but I'm sure I have it.
LBBJ: You must have a favorite column, or interview.
Grobaty: Wow. I used to cover a lot more. I'd do a lot of authors and actors and musicians. I had some fun. David Attenborough was just a great interview. He does the nature shows and is [actor/director] Richard Attenborough's brother. He's very passionate. He actually got down on his knees trying to make a point about the earth. I got drunk with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac at their house. That was fun. I got drunk with a lot of people. P.J. O'Rourke . . .
LBBJ: Did you remember the next day?
Grobaty: Oh, yeah.
LBBJ: So you weren't really drunk, drunk.
Grobaty: No. Driving home afterward was always a drag.
LBBJ: Journalists are known to have a drink. They used to drink and smoke in the newsroom.
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. That was glorious. I quit when it got stupid. I felt like a moron standing out front with a bunch of losers. I was three or four packs a day. If I went to a bar, I would smoke two packs just at the bar.
LBBJ: Do you remember the day you quit?
Grobaty: There were a couple of days I quit. I quit for seven years. It was stupid to get back into it. I don't know why I went back to it. But I quit after 20 years, on a given day. I can't remember what the day was, but I had to go review Jay Leno at the Universal Theater. He didn't have a show at the time; he was just a standup comic. I remember coming back and, for the first time in my life, writing a story without a cigarette. All through college I smoked. You could smoke in class at city college when I went there, and of course you could smoke in journalism class. I remember cringing writing that story, thinking, "How can you write a story without a cigarette?" It was virtually impossible. I'm sure the article was crappy. At that time, our deadlines could be held so late because we had our own presses. I used to go to shows that ended at 11 p.m. in L.A., drive back and get them in the paper. I had a one o'clock in the morning deadline.
LBBJ: Do you like politics?
Grobaty: Yeah. But I don't like to discuss it with people because they are all morons if they disagree. I discuss it with people I agree with, but not with those who I disagree with.
LBBJ: So you like Rachel Maddow?
Grobaty: I watch Rachel Maddow every night with a martini and a cigar.
LBBJ: Oh, so you're one of those MSNBC liberals. That's about as liberal as you can get. What about Ed Schultz?
Grobaty: Ed Schultz is kind of a yokel. You know who I like? Al Sharpton. I love Al Sharpton. That's on the record.
LBBJ: Everything so far is on the record. Do your readers know this about you?
Grobaty: My readers don't really appreciate me writing about politics, but I do it anyhow sometimes, just to get it out. I try not to get into it too much because, again, I'm a local columnist. Who cares who I think you should vote for?
LBBJ: What is your fondest memory of old downtown?
Grobaty: The Pike. It was past its heyday, but in a lot of ways the scuzziness and squalor was part of the charm of the place.
LBBJ: The Navy was still here.
Grobaty: They were, but it didn't seem like there were a lot of Navy people down there when I was going. I guess there were.
LBBJ: Do you remember Desmonds? Buffums?
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. My wife worked at Buffums.
LBBJ: If you could change one thing in Long Beach, what would it be? Is there anything in particular you are a fan of?
Grobaty: People always talk about bringing The Pike back. I don't think anyone would go to it now. People want the past back, but they're just not going to get it. I loved the municipal auditorium and the Rainbow Pier. I'm not saying they shouldn't have torn it down. I don't know. I enjoyed things while they were here. I recently did a column about what you miss the most. I probably got 600 responses about rebuilding the old things again. I miss a lot of those things, but I like a lot of the things that are going on right now.
LBBJ: Are you a sports fan? If you were a professional athlete, what sport would you compete in?
Grobaty: Do you mean which sport am I most able to compete in? Can I rebuild my body?
LBBJ: You can do anything you want.
LBBJ: The "Great White Hope?"
Grobaty: No. I'd be black. You said I could rebuild my body. Although I don't like to work that hard, so I might pick baseball because you just stand around.
LBBJ: But you have to play twice as many games in baseball.
Grobaty: But you only play half the time anyway.
LBBJ: So it's all about the physical exercise?
Grobaty: I like watching basketball. I was a huge Laker fan. Back when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were playing, I would just destroy things.
LBBJ: Do you mean you would get mad at the TV?
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. Dennis Johnson made a shot one time and all my friends at the bar from the press club said, "Great shot!" I took a pitcher of beer and threw it all over and stormed out of the place. Or I'd be sitting at the Reno Room and some guy would come in and say, "What's the score?" It would be the third quarter and I would get so mad at him, "What the hell do you care what the score is? Why aren't you watching the game?" I eventually had to start watching games outside. I remember the last time the Lakers won the final; I was watering the lawn in the backyard looking through the bedroom window at the TV. Something would go bad and I would spray water on things. So I had to stop doing that. Luckily, Magic got AIDS. That was nice. I just quit watching.
LBBJ: You didn't like Magic?
Grobaty: Oh, I love Magic. But when he was diagnosed the Lakers went into the tank for a few years.
LBBJ: A team can't be great every year.
Grobaty: Well, no, but it was good because it gave me a chance to settle down and get away from the game for a little while to spend more time with the kids and the wife.
LBBJ: So it helped you get your priorities in order?
Grobaty: Yeah. I haven't achieved that rage anymore since then, which is good. I was absolutely nuts.
LBBJ: You don't get mad at critics, do you?
Grobaty: No. I enjoy getting criticism as much as praise. It's interesting.
LBBJ: You just want to hear from people.
LBBJ: Is there someone in journalism you look up to?
Grobaty: No. I'm pretty much the pinnacle. Larry Allison I looked up to quite a bit. I thought he was a classy guy. You don't see too many classy people in journalism, right? He was gracious, knowledgeable, fair. I gave a talk at his memorial. It just about killed me. It was terrible. He's probably the only person I would do that for.
LBBJ: Why was it terrible?
Grobaty: Public speaking.
LBBJ: Everybody has those fears.
Grobaty: Oh, no. Not like me.
LBBJ: But you speak every day in your column.
Grobaty: That's completely different. That's why I write, so I don't have to talk to people. And to avoid math.
LBBJ: How long does it take you to write a column?
Grobaty: Obviously varying lengths of time. I try to go in everyday without the slightest idea of what I'm going to write about.
LBBJ: You actually go to the office?
LBBJ: I heard a rumor you were working out of your house.
Grobaty: I was. I have. I was a TV critic for two years, and I spent a whole day watching videotapes and writing at home. I didn't see anybody for years. But I find that if I write at home, I don't write. I just lay around. Whereas if I go to work – I don't have to be there for nine hours or anything – I just go in, write my column and leave. I've written columns in 20 minutes and I've written columns in a couple hours.
LBBJ: Do you ever come up to deadline and get stuck on what you're going to write?
Grobaty: It kind of happened today (August 14). I had to get out of there in time to get here. It was noon and I didn't have an idea yet.
LBBJ: Well, if you ever need ideas, call us. We've got lots of ideas. Let's go back to your liberalism. It reminded me of something you wrote in your book. This is page 26, when the Long Beach Press and the Daily Telegram merged to become the Press-Telegram in 1924. You write in here that, "The Press-Telegram has no special hobbies to promote, its publishers assured readers. Even so, the publishers unabashedly proclaimed that in matters of national politics, 'the Press-Telegram will be Republican, conforming to the majority views and affiliations of its publishers, who believe that the Republican party stands for sanity and progress.'"
Grobaty: Those are different times.
LBBJ: Is it still the case today?
LBBJ: A Republican paper with a liberal columnist? But you're not writing your liberal views.
Grobaty: I do sometimes. Tomorrow [August 15] I'm going to tell everybody that I'm going to raise their taxes considerably.
LBBJ: Isn't the Press-Telegram a conservative paper? Over the years, they endorsed Bush and Reagan. Of course, everybody endorsed Reagan.
LBBJ: So is that tough for you? Do you get upset about some of their endorsements?
Grobaty: Well, yeah, but they are predictable. My immediate bosses tend to lean more on the liberal side, so they like my columns. When I'm liberal, they say, "There you go. Yeah." I never hear from the higher up. They don't even read the thing.
LBBJ: What's your take on the state of newspapers?
Grobaty: I think it's the Internet, for the most part. It's the Internet and popular culture. It's the way people are. I'd say it's mostly that. Somebody told me, "The Internet has made things good for you, hasn't it?" Of course, in some ways it has. . . . [But] it's decimated so many industries, certainly newspapers.
LBBJ: Do you think we are going to have newspapers in 20 years?
LBBJ: So I should sell now?
Grobaty: It's too late. Just take it all the way down, take the capital gains losses.
LBBJ: Let's talk about the book. Has it made the New York Times Bestseller's List?
Grobaty: It's made the Amazon Bestseller List. It was at 20,000 at some point. Now it's back to 400,000.
LBBJ: Is there a sequel? You only got to 1933.
Grobaty: There's kind of a sequel, but it's not going to start in 1933. It's going to start in 1955.
LBBJ: So you're going to skip the war years?
Grobaty: Yeah, and go right into the baby boomer years. That's what people who are our age want to read about, the Long Beach of their time. I'm past my deadline for my next book, though, which is filming in Long Beach and all of the locations.
LBBJ: I had no idea that in both 1910 and 1920 we were the fastest growing city in the country.
Grobaty: Train stations came into town. They got the tracks running into Long Beach, which was huge. And then it just happened by word of mouth. That whole "Iowa by the Sea" thing, moving out here and then calling back home and everybody would come out to see.
LBBJ: Did you ever go to the Iowa by the Sea picnics at Recreation Park?
Grobaty: Yeah. My dad, my grandmother and my great-grandmother were all huge Republicans. Deukmejian is a friend of the family. He came to my book signing, in fact, in Belmont Shore. I used to go to political rallies at Recreation Park and they would always draw a ton of people. . . . I used to walk the precinct with my dad. It was like being a Jehovah's Witness kid. Of course, I was Republican at the time.
LBBJ: When did you switch?
Grobaty: When I got an education.
LBBJ: Yeah, those lefty professors. So you think people are going to read this column?
Grobaty: Oh, yeah. You'll sell papers on this.
LBBJ: Do you want a cut?
Grobaty: No, I'm just giving back.
LBBJ: That's nice of you. Speaking of giving back, are you involved with any charitable groups?
Grobaty: No. I'm a liberal. I just consider the words that I write for the cause as my contribution.
LBBJ: Have you ever interviewed Rachel Maddow?
Grobaty: I don't want to meet my idols. Isn't there something to be said about meeting your idol; that you're going to be disappointed? . . . She's unapproachable for me. She's just too . . . I'd be tongue tied and awestruck. It's out of the question. Next question.
LBBJ: If we called up your wife, Jane, and asked her to tell us one thing that really irritates you, what would she say?
Grobaty: Probably having to repeat myself, especially if it's something long. [The Press-Telegram's] Rich Archbold is always saying, "What?" I tell him, "You're not hard of hearing; you're just not paying attention. Quit saying 'huh?' all the time."
LBBJ: When are you going to stop writing?
Grobaty: When you're a writer, you don't have to stop. It's not like being a black basketball player where you have to quit when you're 34.
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