As founding members of the Coastal Alter Kocker Society, Calbuzz today offers up a special edition of The Dustbin of History, sweeping us back to a date that will live in Father’s Day infamy.
On June 9, 2001, a seven-foot long Komodo Dragon viciously attacked newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, who had climbed into the cage with the creature during a behind-the-scenes zoo tour — a special “surprise early Father’s Day present” arranged by his then-wife, the actress Sharon Stone.
The attack itself is recounted wherever newspaper folk gather round campfires or, um, watering holes. What has never before been told, is the inside story of how the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper that Bronstein edited, learned about it and sprang into action to cover it. Herewith, a Calbuzz exclusive: the first, first-hand account of how the world learned of the Komodo Dragon tragedy, told by Jerry Roberts.
My pager went off shortly after 6. It was Saturday evening, June 9.
I’d just left the newsroom after working the Sunday edition, and was settling into a comfy theater seat to watch a movie (“Blow”) with my daughter. When I saw the display number on the page, I cursed, and hustled to the lobby to call the city desk, hoping to get back to my popcorn and soda before the previews ended.
It was not to be.
On the line was Sunday editor Kenn Altine. One-half Sonny Barger and one-half Oscar Wilde, he was an old-school newsman who matched efficiency with officiousness. He gave it to me straight:
“Jerry, Phil has just been attacked by a Komodo Dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo.”
I answered with annoyance: “Fer chrissake, Kenn, I’m trying to watch a movie with my kid.”
“No, no, it’s true,” he said, voice and timbre rising. “Here’s Sharon’s cell phone number.”
So I rang up the Executive Editor’s wife’s cell. Sure enough, they were in the ER; choking back tears, she confirmed that the Great Man had gone one round too many with a hungry reptile. I asked her to put Bronstein on the line.
“Phil,” I began, as cheerfully as possible, “Wussup dude?”
“Mmmmm…mumble mumble…interested in Komodo dragons…mmmm…got in the cage…mmmm…grabbed my foot…mmmm…going to surgery…mumble mumble.”
Thankfully, some primitive career survival instinct kicked in, and I fought back the urge to ask the question screaming in my head:
Why do you think they keep them in cages?
I knew Bronstein almost always wore cowboy boots, so I asked instead if the dragon had bit all the way through them. I guess I was thinking maybe the lizard saw alligator skin and became enraged on behalf of a distant relative.
He said he’d been wearing white sneakers, and the big brain zoo keeper who’d invited him into the cage said to remove them. Seems the dragon was fond of eating white rats, and might mistake white shoes for dinner. So the Big (white) Guy climbed in barefoot.
I swung into operational mode.
“Phil…you know we have to do a story on this.”
“Yeah,” he said, to his credit.
“Where would you like me to put this story?
“I’ll leave that up to you,” he said, also to his credit.
I hauled my kid out of the movie, double timed back to the paper and dumped the notes from the ER interview to Altine. An early adapter, he’d checked out Komodo Dragons on the web, and told me enthusiastically about their “serrated teeth designed for ripping flesh,” which harbor bits of meat from previous meals, carrion that carries lots of bacteria strains, including some that are septic.
As the newsroom rolled into action, I got on the horn to give a heads up to senior editors and business side executives. My first call went to the paper’s spokesman, who’d soon be inundated with press inquiries from around the world.
It was tough duty, because no one believed me.
“No, no, it’s true,” I kept saying, echoing Altines’ earlier comment, to people who figured I was Saturday night drunk dialing.
By the time I tracked down publisher John Oppedahl at a Union Street bar, I’d refined my approach.
“John, what I’m about to tell you is true, and really not a joke,” I began, hearing happy saloon noises on his end.
“Whatthehellyawant?” demanded Oppedahl.
I gave it to him straight.
“John – Phil has been attacked by a Komodo Dragon at the Los Angeles zoo.”
There was a long pause.
“Is he dead?” the publisher finally asked.
Out in the newsroom, the Saturday night staff raced the first edition deadline. While the copy desk waited for the story to move, they held a headline writing contest.
“Gotcha!” was a strong contender, as were ”Lizard Bait” and “Dragon Bites Editor – Expected to Live.”
But it was an homage to Mrs. Bronstein’s greatest cinematic triumph that won hands-down: “Basic Instinct.”
Happy Father’s Day from Calbuzz.
PS: The photo of the Komodo Dragon above was taken 2/27/09 at the Toronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, by Phil Trounstine