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Looking for a few good women
The opening credits of Radio-TV-Film's Chuck LaMendola include
at least a half-dozen television industry awards,
but if you think this no-nonsense Italian is kicking back
and kissing the tips of his fingers, just forgetaboutit.
By David Van Meter
HEAVIER than they look, the polished metal statuettes were meant for the palms of people, just right for wrapping your fingers around their
Oscar-esque waists and pumping your fist in the air like you're king of the world.
By that measure, Chuck LaMendola is Henry the VIII. Four Tellys. An Addy. A BEA. That's a lot of thanking the academy.
When not behind the camera, the award-winning LaMendola (right, with size-enhanced statuettes) can be found holding a sauce pan, a strong heritage of Italian cooking in his blood. The head chef for his family, his pizza crusts receive critical acclaim from wife Kelly, a nurse for the City of Fort Worth, and their two daughters, 7-year-old Francesca and 2-year-old Juliana.
But LaMendola's too something for that grip-and-grin scene. Maybe it's the New York in him, his Long Island accent still intact. Can there be a blue-collar professor? With
LaMendola, cinematography and film aesthetics meet simple passion and everyday pragmatism:
Yo, nobody leaves this set until we're done, you got it?
"I think Francis Coppola said it best," said the 40-year-old LaMendola, salt just starting to set into his head of pepper. "Aside from being a dictator, being a director is the best job you can have, and there aren't a lot of dictator positions open these days."
A 30-second spot of his Moudy office shows shelves of VHS and Beta tapes, a stack of film trailers, gimme caps from
CNN/SI, ABC News.com and others, the complete set of Ken Burns' epic Baseball series, a row of family pictures along the window sill. Up to this three-hour conversation, LaMendola has spent 17 years around and behind cameras (and radios), doing commercials, sports programs and corporate videos. Young & Rubicam in New York City. ABC Sports. ESPN. The University of Rhode Island. Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Johnson & Johnson. Those are just a few of the director's cuts.
For TCU, LaMendola has directed and produced most of the school's television spots, from coaches' shows to men's basketball commercials to the TCU Minute, football season's weekly segment on NBC's Channel 5. He has also performed the radio play-by-play for TCU baseball games three years running.
For every award, for every assignment, LaMendola laments the errors. Everything is good, but nothing is perfect. His occasional expletives fit the feeling of frustration. A perfectionist he's not, he insists, but pursuing it is what keeps his craft sharp, edgy, entertaining.
"To me, it has always got to be better," said LaMendola, in his fifth year at
TCU. "The rush only comes when you know you've done a good job, when you see your vision go from a piece of paper to something that people see and react to -- good, bad or indifferent."
Sam Ditore '95, a producer and editor for Roll With It Productions in Dallas, knows about the good, the bad and the ugly. During his senior year, he and Brad Wall '95, a producer for Fox Sports in New York City, directed and produced a feature-length film called Who Killed Rock
"We were in way over our heads," Ditore admits now, "and that's when Chuck stepped in. He basically ripped down the barrier between student and professor and got dirty with us." Wall said LaMendola provided the "hard-core experience" they needed to complete the film. "Whatever we wanted to know, he had already been there before," Wall said. "He was a great resource, and he was at our disposal."
Ditore now brings to life corporate videos for the likes of Dr Pepper, Frito Lay and a Disney subsidiary, but he has never forgotten that first film or the professor who helped make it possible.
"Chuck tells it like it is," Ditore said. "He tells the students in his classes that only two of them are going to get good jobs, so they had better compete their tails off. He doesn't mess around."
"All of us in the department take the glamour off of radio-TV-film and show them the reality," LaMendola said. "Students don't just learn to do it, they learn what it's like to do it. That's the difference."
Had it been up to LaMendola's father, a Long Island power company manager for 45 years, his son would have learned what it was like to be an accountant. LaMendola actually majored in business for a semester at Arkansas State before visiting a counselor in desperation. "She asked me what it was I really liked to do," he said. "I told her I liked to listen to the radio."
An only child until he was 14, LaMendola grew up a sports fanatic -- he played football, baseball and basketball -- and a
radiophile. He would sneak a transistor radio under his pillow at night, the play-by-play of his Yankees barely audible through the feathers. In school, he would put the same radio down his pants, a headphone cord snaking up the back of his shirt, his head leaning on the hand that cupped the earphone in his right ear. With American history in the foreground, LaMendola enjoyed the Mets and Orioles in the background. "I got caught," LaMendola said, "but it was the World Series, so they kind of let it go."
On most Saturdays, his father would work in his grandfather's shoe repair shop. LaMendola would spend those afternoons with his uncle, only 11 years older.
"If he went to the store, he would take me with him," LaMendola said. "He had this habit of punching the buttons on the radio, which I inherited. I'd get into the car with my mother and -- zztunk zztook zztunk -- I would be hitting those mechanical buttons on the radio, drove her crazy."
LaMendola hoped to become the next Marv Albert (minus the affinity for wearing women's lingerie). His first radio class at Arkansas State quickly pointed out his technical difficulty; his Long Island accent would never play in Peoria, at least not then. LaMendola turned to television, both behind the camera and in the director's chair. And that, as they say in the industry, was a wrap.
"Look at television, movies, radio, newspapers -- there's no question the influence they have on people. From the time you get up to the time you go to bed, you can't not be affected by what it is we teach and what it is we do.
"As a director, I can make things that end up on the screen, but as a teacher -- and I think this is the one reason I chose to teach -- I can mold people who end up making things that end up on the screen.
"That to me is a pretty cool thing to do."