Chet Curtis, a nightly news anchor for five decades in Boston, passed away late Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 74 years old. WBUR’s David Boeri, who worked with Curtis at WCVB-TV, offers this remembrance.
BOSTON — If you lived in Greater Boston and had a television back in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, it only took one syllable to recognize Chet Curtis, and just two more to recognize him and his partner, Natalie Jacobson, and why they were so special.
Two stars, three syllables: Chet and Nat. They formed the most famous anchor team on the most popular newscast in one of the biggest television markets in America, when The New York Times called WCVB-TV “the best TV station in the country.”
“Chet and Natalie owned the town,” said Peter Mehegan, a former Channel 5 reporter, anchor and host of “Chronicle,” the magazine program. “Chet was just so at ease out there. He could do anything. He’d make you angry he was so good.”
He was born Chester Kukiewicz in upstate New York. He became a teenage crooner, a tryout for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” and a news reader for a local radio station at 15. When he came to Boston in the 1960s, television news was largely black and white, shot on film, and rip and read from clacking teletype machines. There were no live shots, no satellites. And then, suddenly, there were.
“Chet could handle anything on television — anything,” said Susan Wornick, a longtime reporter and anchor on News Center 5.
He was Mr. Smooth when the world was in chaos and the bells and whistles of technology were still undependable. Self-assured and reassuring — if the world was coming to an end at 7, Chet Curtis was the guy you wanted to break the news to you at 6. TWEET
“He was the whole package,” Mehegan said. “He was a good looking guy. He had a great set of pipes, as we used to say. … And he was smart as a whip. I mean, the guy could do it all.”
It was the age of Camelot for television news, with all the fanfare. Though Curtis never took himself too seriously, he was a knight at the roundtable. The on-screen chemistry between Chet and Nat — dubbed the Madonna of Boston television — paralleled their off-screen romance that led to their marriage and then to the birth of a daughter, which, like the couple themselves, was covered as royalty.
By the measure of audience and ratings, WCVB was top of the pops.
“Everyone who ever worked with Chet Curtis would tell you the same thing,” Wornick said. “He was a wonderful man with a huge heart who was embarrassed in many ways by his own celebrity and his own success.”
He loved to tell a story and better still to sing a song. He was a crooner from way back and he turned his wit on himself.
After knocking off Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” for a wedding crowd, he sat down to stirring applause next to Ron Gollobin, a crime reporter without peer, who, asking about his earlier career as a song and dance man, asked, “Were you any good?” To which Chet responded: “If I was any good, do you think I’d be here?”
But he was good, and not only good, but terrific.
Chet and Nat covered royalty, the visits of Queen Elizabeth, the Bicentennial, the Tall Ships, Pope John Paul II in a rainstorm. They covered the national conventions, presidential campaigns, marathons, hurricanes and blizzards.
“Thoroughly professional. He was in total control of the moment,” said retired WCVB reporter Clark Booth. “He understood the business. He understood its limitations. He understood its downside. He didn’t take it that seriously. He didn’t fall in love with himself on the air like so many people in that position do.”
Natalie was the star. Chet was the quarterback. They led a team of extraordinary reporters, back when news directors were serious, budgets were ambitious and TV news consultants were still kept to the corner. When someone with the intellect and literary gifts of Booth summons the phrase “Golden Age,” you know the quality of news and the reporters Curtis cheered on was special.
“My God, it was extraordinary,” Booth said. “We functioned at a level on par with the networks and it was extraordinary. What Jerusalem was to the Prophets we were to the industry. You had to come through Channel 5 in order to make it big. It was unbelievable.”
And then, it wasn’t. Nothing lasts forever.
And Chet and Nat ended their marriage in 1999. She stayed on as anchor. He left sadly but without complaint. “I never had a lifetime contract,” he used to say.
He headed for his next job, at New England Cable News, with no less professionalism, skill or charm.
Near the end of his life, and as he was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he looked back with gratitude.
“I have won the lottery every time the camera blinked on,” he said. “It is the stuff of dreams to be paid for doing what you’ve done, what you love.”
He added: “Thank you for this rich honor. Thank you for 50 great years.”
Curtis was a champion to the end. But gone was the Golden Age, when, Booth remembers, News Center 5 even covered the Berlin Wall coming down.
“It just takes my breath away to think of all we did,” he said. “And it’s very sad to realize that it will never happen again.”
Like it did when Chet Curtis was king. And a reporter could proudly say, “Back to you, Chet.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Natalie Jacobson’s last name. We regret the error.