As a director at WMAQ-Channel 5 news, Alison Ebert was calm voice in ears of anchors, reporters
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter April 9, 2014 7:09PM
Alison Ebert, director and floor director at NBC 5 in Chicago.
Updated: May 11, 2014 10:04AM
It probably was inevitable that Alison Ebert was going to get into TV news.
When she and her brother and sister were little kids, chattering in bed instead of going to sleep, their father, who worked at NBC, would call out from his room with the sign-off from the old Huntley-Brinkley report: ‘Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night for NBC News.”
Ms. Ebert won multiple Emmys during the 30 years she worked at WMAQ-Channel 5, rising to become director of the noon and 5 p.m. newscasts. Part of the directing team for major events including the Chicago Marathon and Chicago Auto Show, she was also an unflappable presence on high-pressure election nights, when she always wore an American flag pin.
Ms. Ebert, 55, died of lung cancer March 23 at her Winfield Township home.
She was the calm voice in the earphones of reporters and anchors, warning them if their ties were askew and cueing them on which camera to look into and when to start speaking their live reports, said Patrick Lake, another WMAQ-Channel 5 director.
“All right, dear, I’ve got you,” she’d tell them. “Stay with me. Here’s what you’re going to do.” To make sure their voices weren’t scratchy, she handed out Life Savers candies.
“When you sat down in a studio with her in charge you knew everything was going to be okay,” said WLS-TV anchor Ron Magers, a former WMAQ-Channel 5 staffer. “From making sure my tie was straight to letting me know the live shot two segments away faced possible issues, she was on top of what was happening. She did her job so well it was much easier for me to do mine. I was better, my colleagues were better, television was better because of the way Alison did her job.”
“As things got more crazy or chaotic, she seemed calmer,” said WMAQ-Channel 5 anchor Allison Rosati.
Funny and highly organized, Ms. Ebert didn’t panic or get angry, though she wasn’t above warning, “ ‘Don’t make me come over there and slap you.’ ”
She and former WMAQ-Channel 5 sportscaster Mark Giangreco used to carpool home after work, decompressing from the stress of live TV by joking about problem co-workers. “We’d move them up and down the ‘kill’ list,” said Giangreco, now with WLS-TV.
She spent her early years in Rogers Park. Her mother, Loretta “Jo” Brazaitis Ebert, sang professionally and worked at NBC in the early 1950s as a “makeup girl,” said Alison Ebert’s sister, Betsy Ballek. Their father, longtime WMAQ staffer Carl Allen Ebert, won Emmys as a director of sports productions.
After relocating to Wilmette, their German-born grandmother, Hattie Engleman, moved in with them. “Hattie was very German, organized, methodical. We used to tease Alison that she was a lot like her grandmother,” her sister said.
Their father took them on tours of the NBC studios when they were at the Merchandise Mart, where he let them go out on the balcony that circled the building. “It felt like we were in the clouds,” her sister said. They met sportscasters Greg Gumbel and Tim Weigel, and Jorie Lueloff, who in 1966 became Chicago’s first female TV news anchor.
The young Alison became a director of sorts when she became involved with theater at Regina Dominican High School, running lights and doing production work. She majored in communications and theater at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis.
Strong in her knowledge of current events, history and geography, she was unbeatable at trivia contests. But her interest in school was mixed. “I recall her science requirement being met by a class called ‘World Food,’ ’’ her sister said.
She volunteered at the Field Museum, where she focused her prodigious organizational skills on their tanned skins collection. “There were three big freezers of tanned skins,” her sister said, “and she took them out and cleaned them and catalogued them. They all had to be identified by genus and species. She educated herself.”
An adventurous traveler, Ms. Ebert toured about 14 countries, including Antarctica, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Poland, Russia and Spain. She visited Churchill, Manitoba to observe the town’s polar bears.
She met many celebrities at work, but the only one who left her speechless was Adam West, star of that camp classic of 1960s TV, “Batman.”
“He spoke, and she thought ‘Oh my God, you are Batman,’ ’’ Betsy Ballek said.
She is also survived by her mother, Jo Ebert, her brother, Christopher; her nieces, Elizabeth and Jessica; her nephew, Daniel, and her aunt, Eileen Bray. Services were held.
A dog-lover, she volunteered at a number of rescue organizations. “Sometimes it was wintertime and she would go and dog-walk for the little dogs that were waiting to be adopted. She went every weekend,’’ her sister said.
Her rescue dogs, pitbull mixes Kaia and Ruby, helped give her the strength to leave the hospital for the last time. “She had had several strokes by then,” her sister said, “and she kept saying ‘Home, home. Dogs, dogs.’ ‘’