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Ye Olde Houston Press

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton
Rediscovered among my souvenirs is a crumbling, 65-year-old copy of the original Houston Press.

Note to younger folks: This was the Scripps-Howard daily newspaper with the screaming headlines and sassy attitude, not to be confused with the contemporary Houston Press, a news and entertainment weekly.

While admiring the modern-day, same-name publication, I wish they’d call it something else. It’s confusing because, to this child of the mid-20th century, there always will be just one Houston Press.

I don’t remember anyone in my hometown who actually subscribed to the old Press -- most people took the Houston Post in the morning or Houston Chronicle and Baytown Sun in the afternoon -- but many of us read the Press at every opportunity. We often got our “Houston Press fix” from news hawkers at the Morgan’s Point and Lynchburg ferry landings, savoring latest editions while waiting in our cars to board.

Downtown Houston, you could buy a copy on any street corner, drawn by sales pitches such as “Extra, extra! Read all about it! He killed his wife because he hated her cooking! … Extra, extra!”

The Houston Press was a throw-back to the era of the frenzied scoops. The front-page crew kept the motor running, ready to mow down the competition, namely the Post and Chronicle.

However, after wading through the mud and melodrama, one could find some pretty terrific prose, the best of which led with a Sigman Byrd by-line.

“Byrd’s Houston,” a book published in 1955, was praised in an article by David Theiss in 1994 in the current Houston Press. Theiss called it “flat-out one of the finest books, fiction or non-fiction, this city has ever spawned. That it has been out of print since its initial release in 1955 is both tragic and typically Houstonian. The dead and gone are seldom lamented or remembered in perpetual boomtowns.”
Another Houston Press writer, John Nova Lomax, paid tribute to Byrd in an article in 2009. He wrote, “Of all the columnists in the history of Houston journalism, Sigman Byrd was easily the darkest and the most literary. From the late 1940s to the early '60s, Byrd wrote a column called The Stroller for the Houston Press and later, briefly for the Houston Chronicle. He favored the city's dark shadows, scruffy neighborhoods, and forgotten, often wrecked people over the big affairs of the day and Houston's high and mighty.”  

I’m glad my 1950 copy of the old Houston Press contains one of Byrd’s columns. It’s about a mother who sells her son’s bike in order to put food on the table. He wrote about local history, too, and I saved some of those clippings.

While Bill Roberts wasn’t a great writer, his café society columns in the old Houston Press were fun to read as were the tantrums by editorial page columnist Carl Victor Little.

A native of Ohio, Little went over the top in his fanatic defense of Texas, admitting there’s no one more zealous than a convert.

In his longest-running tirade, Little bashed Edna Ferber for her novel, “Giant.” He even offered to host an autographing party for Ferber with the main activity being a public hanging, claiming such punishment fit the crime for making fun of Texas.

Among Little’s crusades was a proposal to organize the Society for Prevention of Pay Toilets. In response to Little’s Big Story, the Houston Public Library unlocked all of its restroom stalls. Free at last!

Feature writer Andy Anderson, in contrast to Carl the Curmudgeon, seldom had a bad word to say about anyone or anything, and he pushed countless worthy causes with his human interest stories.

Everybody loved Andy.

In fact, everybody loved the old Houston Press -- although not everybody would admit it.



© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist, March 30, 2015 column
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