Oh, the way the internet can sweep in you strange directions. While providing the finishing touches to my book Hitting the Water, I dilly dallied a bit on the Google search engine to get a feel for the San Francisco comedy world of of the 1970’s and 80’s. You see, one of my stories is an autobiographical account of a SF comedian I knew briefly when I was an intern at a now defunct radio station in New York City – 66 WNBC-AM. Her name was Jane Dornacker, a talent who was making a name as New York’s favorite traffic reporter, and who was also considered a San Francisco comedy legend.
The circumstances on how I got to know her were strange – otherworldly, in fact. I was in college, and had just been taken on as an intern at the station. Jane was their helicopter traffic reporter. One morning, while doing the traffic from the sky, the helicopter she and her pilot were on crashed into the Hackensack River. They both survived; however, afterwards, Jane was grounded, assigned to do traffic reports from the confines of the newsroom at 30 Rock for three months until they procured another copter. That’s how I got to know her. Sitting around various news desks, talking about life in between traffic reports.
Although Jane told us about her life, the distance in time since I last spoke to her is so vast, that I needed some Google action to remind me and provide a little more history into her life previously discussed over cups of coffee and the din of newsroom wire machines back in 1986. I found the picture above, over at SFGate.com. Jane had performed with Whoopie Goldberg back in 1983.
It brought back old memories. Jane who would tell us about her days in San Francisco, her intermingling with Goldberg, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Robin Williams, Dana Carvey and A. Whitney Brown. Apparently, she was in the bay area comedy pantheon, being watched by producers during her one woman shows – to the point where Lorne Michaels was courting her as a possible new Saturday Night Live cast member. This was around the time I got to know her. It’s what initially brought her to New York, where I guess she decided to stay for a while even though she didn’t get the SNL gig.
The reason why knowing Jane was “otherworldly”, was due to what happened several months later – after my internship ended, and I said goodbye to the newsroom, including Jane. You see, a helicopter crash resulted in her staying on the ground long enough for me to know her. But in October of that year, inexplicably, the new helicopter they sent her up in crashed…this time in the Hudson River. This time…she didn’t make it. Jane died on the air, while reporting traffic for the afternoon drive time.
It’s sad to think how that talent was wasted, and what we could have seen from this quirky, funny lady who was a bit like Joan Cusak, if Joan Cusak turned up the sexy pilot light and sang punk songs. (That’s what Jane did when heading up her SF band Leila and the Snakes).
So, hats off to my quirky old acquaintance from so many years ago. Her story stays with me as I remember her voice and the time spent in a small newsroom in Rockefeller Plaza that no longer exists.
October 13, 2014 at 9:32 pm
I remember listening to Jane on the radio here in SF in the early 80s. I think she is the person who coined the term, Mustang Flambe`, to describe a car fire on the Bay Bridge one morning. It was a sad day for many people out here when she died.
October 13, 2014 at 11:10 pm
She was a hoot. I was lucky to have known for her the little time she had in the newsroom. When I left, she went back up in the air, and then met her tragic end. So sad. She was a blast.
October 13, 2014 at 11:30 pm
I don’t know which is more eerie… the fact that she actually survived one crash and found the nerve to go up in a chopper only to be killed in a second crash… her final words “hit the water, hit the water”
the fact that those final words are very, very close to the title of your book.
October 13, 2014 at 11:33 pm
Maggie – actually her words inspired the title. And yes – the story is eerie. Whenever I write about it, people are amazed. I wouldn’t have known her if she hadn’t crashed the first time. The station manager grounded her, and made her work out of the newsroom with the rest of us. We had a lot of down time, and we sat around and talked. Then – I my internship ended, I graduated college and got a job at the NBC Network. The fall of the same year – she crashed again – and this time – died. It was chilling. I went to her memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I incredibly moved by her life and how it briefly touched mine.