Waterloo woman has vivid memories of life as Charlotte Peters' girl Friday

News-DemocratOctober 6, 2013 

Catherine Harberding couldn't keep Rosalind Russell's dog away from the hamburger, but she managed to scale a fence to get into Busch Stadium. In a skirt.

Neither was in the job description when Catherine began a new career in television in 1956.

A legal secretary for Ameren, the then 35-year-old applied for a position at KSD TV, with a few qualifications beyond shorthand and typing: being able to read music, own a car and not have any children.

"I learned that the car was for carrying props and things," she said.

A statement from the man who hired her might have been a forewarning.

"You've got to be here every day, dead or alive. Or we'll send an ambulance for the body," said Catherine with a chuckle. "He really said that."

Relaxing in her sunny apartment at Garden Place Senior Living in Waterloo, the 91-year-old regaled guests with her vivid recollection of life as an assistant director of "The Charlotte Peters Show," a popular daytime show on St. Louis television from 1956 to 1970.

Her job: "To make sure it all ran on schedule." Five days a week.

It was on-the-job training because "TV was new; they didn't teach it. Every day you learned a major thing, and then the little things would fall into place."

Catherine Upchurch grew up in Maplewood Park, between Dupo and Cahokia, but moved to St. Louis when she married Robert Harberding. He died in 1965. She remained single and came back to Illinois in 2012 to be closer to her family.

Charlotte Peters, already a veteran of TV with seven previous years on a show called "To The Ladies," spied Catherine one day at the typewriter at the KSD studios.

"Her secretary couldn't type," Catherine said, raising an eyebrow. "That's when she decided she had to have me."

Catherine found herself working for a woman who was comedian, talk-show host, singer, St. Louis personality extraordinaire and, inevitably, friend.

"She was wonderful to me."

With television in its infancy, there were few locally produced shows on television. Charlotte reigned as "The First Lady of St. Louis Television."

"We were the noonday carrier for (local) commercials and had 300,000-plus watching."

The live show initially ran 30 minutes, but six months after Catherine began working for Charlotte, the star's increasing popularity had more sponsors requesting commercial time and the show went to an hour-long format.

"She was St. Louis. She had such a connection with people. She put them at ease and they forgot they were on TV."

While Charlotte wowed the audience, made up mostly of women, Catherine was backstage acting as floor director, always wearing the same piece of "jewelry" around her neck: a stopwatch that "counted back time, so we got everything in."

A crew of 14 worked for the show, Catherine said, from cameramen to engineers and stagehands.

"What did I do best? Worry," she said of juggling everything from making sure the teleprompters had the right information to checking rolling prop tables prepared for the commercial spots to peppering stars with questions behind the scenes, then giving the notes to her boss.

"I'd find out why they were there (in St. Louis), what they wanted to publicize."

Charlotte, like many talk-show hosts after her, opened with a funny monologue, then performed a song or a skit in a silly costume, from mermaid singing "Tiny Bubbles" to scrub woman and long-in-the-tooth fairy.

"She cut up her wedding gown for that. The stagehands made her wings. She put a bicycle horn on the bottom of her wand."

And sang a song titled "Nobody Wants a Fairy After 40." (You can see it on You Tube. Search for "The Charlotte Peters Show Part 1.)

No surprise that zany Phyllis Diller, a good friend, hosted the show for three months when Charlotte had throat surgery.

A daily audience participation "stunt" was expected.

St. Louis organist Stan Kann was the musical director of the show.

And Catherine was in charge of booking the major stars, who came to town to perform at Gaslight Square, the Muny and other venues.

"All the guests were booked just a week ahead," she said. "I called all the guests -- you couldn't count on them. If they didn't show up: dead air!"

Celebrity names rolled off Catherine's tongue: Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Cab Calloway, Buddy Hackett -- "He never stopped talking."

Zsa Zsa Gabor -- "She had the most beautiful skin I'd ever seen" -- Carol Channing and the Three Stooges.

"We prepared a skit for them and they were such professionals. They said, 'We got it. Where's the coffee?'"

Rosalind Russell arrived in true Hollywood mode, complete with furs, sunglasses and a big tall dog. She left it backstage to be watched while Charlotte interviewed her on camera.

"I look and see that a commercial is coming up and the dog has eaten the last bit of hamburger" put out in a big display bowl for a grocery store special-of-the-week spot, Catherine recalled, laughing. "It's live TV. We roll out the table and she (Russell) makes it part of the commercial."

When the local dairy farmers association had a promotion called "Wait 'til the Cows Come Home," Charlotte asked Catherine to find a cow for the segment.

"A real one. The dairy farmers brought one and Charlotte is going to milk the cow. We get it out on stage. She wanted a bucket to sit on, too."

Catherine pauses in telling the story, shaking her head, eyes sparkling.

"The cow raises its tail and showers the curtain. On air. We had fan mail like you wouldn't believe!"

The unexpected became ... normal.

A pregame ladies day show live at Busch Stadium meant extra work -- and patience.

Catherine, who usually started her day at 9 a.m., was at the stadium with a crew at 6 a.m.

"I was the only woman and there is no one to let us in. We gotta get in. We've got a noon live remote and there's a lot to do. My office is in the dugout."

They see their only option: Someone had to climb "a big high fence" around the field.

"They booted me up and caught me on the other side. I had scripts, music and everything with me. I unloaded in the dugout."

Charlotte made her entrance by landing in on a helicopter on the field.

It all went according to plan, except opera star Maria Callas, there to sing the national anthem, ripped her hosiery during the performance and demanded, while Catherine was on the field as the helicopter was landing, that the show pay her for them.

"She's yelling, 'I want paid!' I couldn't get rid of her!"

Callas went away without compensation for the nylons.

The audience, which booked a year in advance was enthralled by stunts on the show that involved them.

They didn't always go according to plan.

"One time we decided to have a chicken race. With real live chickens," Catherine said. "We called the poultry company and a guy brought in a cage with about six chickens in it."

Audience members were paired with a chicken: The fastest bird won the contestant a prize.

"We turned them loose and they all flew up to the ceiling and sat on the klieg lights."

Catherine paused for effect.

"And you know what else happened? ... We went off the air. Stan Kann was playing and he had a stagehand holding an umbrella over him."

While Catherine may have never been seen on screen, her name appeared in the credits at the end of the show.

Except for one error.

"They said, 'Hope you spell your name with a 'K' because that's how we have it set up.' Then, the mail came in for me with a 'K.' I just left it."

Catherine became Katherine became Kathy.

The show ended in July 1970, after a move in the early 1960s to KTVI-TV. Catherine returned to being a legal secretary and worked until she was 88.

She and Charlotte remained friends and kept in touch, she said. Charlotte died in 1988.

Last year, for her 90th birthday, Charlotte's son, cartoonist Mike Peters, gave Catherine a drawing for the celebration.

Catherine is spelled with a K.

"Because that's how they knew me!"

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