Sunday, August 24

Unique Up on Him

The lexicologists will tell you that the word “unique” takes no modifiers. Nothing can be “very” unique, or “truly” unique, or "really" unique, or "absolutely" unique or "somewhat" unique. Unique stands by itself. So does Sonny Elliot. Let’s take a trip on the “Wayback Machine” and watch Sonny in the early 70s on the old WWJ-TV in Detroit taking the weather “toss” from anchorman Dean Miller.
Thanks, Dean. You folks all know Dean Miller. He had a family of beavers move into is water bed—and loved it! Dean wrote the book, Love Thy Neighbor—But Don’t Get Caught. Dean once said, “An optimist is a man who thinks he can marry his secretary and still dictate to her.” Well, I think an optimist is a man who thinks we’re going to have a nice weekend. It’s hot now: so hot that thieves are breaking into only air conditioned cars. And coming up next, moving in from the west, is heavy rain. In Chicago it’s raining so hard right now that they’re playing leap frog—using real frogs!
That’s one I more-or-less memorized from my days at WWJ. In transcribing it I probably should go back and add in some more exclamation points. Sonny was—and is—all exclamation points, all energy, all jokes—all the time.

And for the longest time he was the biggest TV personality in Detroit—and one of the most recognizable faces in the state! (See, I’m doing it already—all exclamation points!) In a sports-crazy city, he was bigger than any sports star. He was more recognized than any politician. He’s in his eighties now, but he’s still working, still tossing out gags, still irrepressible, and still beloved.

If you worked in any newsroom thirty-or-more years ago you’ll remember those big, clunky Associated Press printers—and the bells. Alarm bells. They sounded whenever major stories started to clear the wire. Ten bells was the ultimate: the end of World War II got ten bells—as did the Kennedy assassination.

Sonny Eliot was a private pilot in his spare time. One day, landing his single-engine plane at Detroit City Airport, the front landing gear collapsed and the plane skidded on its nose. And in every newsroom in the state, the AP sounded eight bells—SONNY ELLIOT IN PLANE CRASH! He wasn’t hurt; but just the hint that he might be was bulletin news. Eight Bells!

Sonny had survived worse. “Marvin” Eliot was a B-24 pilot in World War II.
Here’s what I know, and here’s how I know it. A couple of blocks from the WWJ TV and radio studios was the “Lindell A.C.” Before anyone in America knew what a sports bar was, the Lindell was one. The “A.C.” stood for “Athletic Club.” It was an inside joke. When the Detroit Lions or Tigers or Red Wings or Pistons headed home after a night of boozing they could—honestly—tell their inquiring wives, “I was at the Athletic Club.”

It actually may have been flamboyant New York Yankees manager Billy Martin who suggested the sports theme. That’s one story some people have heard. Another story every baseball fans has heard is that Martin—in 1969, as manager of the Minnesota Twins—got into a fight with his pitcher, Dave Boswell, in an alley behind the bar. Martin got seven stitches after that one. Boswell got 20.

Lions All-Pro tackle Alex Karras once owned a piece of the Lindell. His jock, framed, hung on one of the walls. He got into a famous dust-up with pro wrestler “Dick the Bruiser” there.

The real owners were the Butsicaris brothers, John and Jim. John and Sonny were best friends—and co-owned that light plane I mentioned. Even though Sonny never drank, he could be found most nights after the 11:00 o’clock news hanging with his friends—the center of a
ttention—at the Lindell.

One night I was headed to the Lindell men’s room, past walls of celebrity photos, when I spotted a picture of Sonny I hadn’t seen before. I thought it was some sort of gag photo. It was Sonny in a black-and-white striped uniform—complete with striped cap. He looked like one of the Three Stooges dressed up for a prison bit.

When I returned to the table and mentioned it to Sonny he eyes narrowed, his jaws clenched, and he shot out of his chair and over to John Butsicaris. It was obvious he was livid. Butsicaris rushed to the wall and took down the picture.

When Sonny returned he explained that the picture was of him as a Prisoner of War in “Stalagluft I” after being shot down by the Germans in World War II. Sonny was a POW for a year-and-a-half; but this was the only time he ever mentioned it, and I’m sure most Detroiters had no clue that this mischievous weather elf was a war hero.

One last Lindell story before I move on. In 1974 I moved from WOOD in Grand Rapids to WWJ to produce the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts. I was going to be Sonny Eliot’s producer! He was most welcoming.

I had been there for a month when one of my Grand Rapids friends and co-workers, Denny Arger, said he and his wife were passing through Detroit on vacation, and would like to see the station. Absolutely. I went to Sonny, and asked if he was going to be in the Lindell that Friday night, explaining that I had friends coming and they’d really get a kick out of it if he’d come to our table and sit for a minute or two. For Sonny—no problem.

So after the 11, a little before midnight, my guests and I adjourned to the Lindell—and sat at the big round table in the corner, where Sonny soon joined us.

A few minutes later the door opened, and in walked Roman Gribbs, the former Mayor of Detroit! He saw Sonny, came over and sat down. A few minutes after that the door opened and in came Tigers star Al Kaline. He saw Sonny and Roman Gribbs and came over and sat down! Later still—just before closing—the door opened and in walked bandleader Woody Herman, in town playing the Pontchartrain Hotel with his orchestra. Extra points if you remember the orchestra’s nickname: “Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd.” Anyway, he saw Sonny and Gribbs and Kaline and came over and sat down.

Denny and his wife had eyes the size of saucers. I was nonchalant—“Oh, yes, I’m with these people most nights.” Uh-huh. Sure. As if.

A bunch of us went to a Tigers game or two (or more) after the six o’clock. You never needed a ticket when you were with Sonny Eliot: no door was ever closed, no hand went un-shaken. One night Sonny led a bunch of us right into the club house to hang out for a bit with Manager Sparky Anderson.

Look up the word “ebullient” in the dictionary and you’ll find Sonny’s picture.

Sonny in those days did weather on WWJ radio and TV, maybe six or seven weathercasts a day. He kept index cards of jokes, and joke books on his office shelves. He told me once that
he could go for an entire year without repeating a one-liner.

His corn-ball vaudevillian shtick made him unique—but it also caused him trouble.
As the technology of TV moved forward, station managers started to look at Sonny as the past, not the future. They started trying to mold him and shape him. They wanted tighter control over his format. He resisted. His thinking, I’m sure, was “I’ve outlasted ten news directors and five GMs, I’ll outlast another dozen of each.”

He didn’t. As TV news moved more and more high-tech, the bosses felt TV had passed Sonny by, and before too long Sonny was off the air—fired, or resigned I never knew which. The powers that be wanted younger demographics, and to them the one thing that made Sonny unique was that he was old!

And here’s why TV managers (myself included) are stupid. It’s 2008, and what I hear (even in my small consulting business) is, “We have to give viewers a reason to watch. We have to come up with something (someone) that makes people take notice. Something (someone) that stands out. Something (someone) that the competition doesn’t have.”

That’s why we get Super-Duper-Dual-Level-3D-Four-on-the-Floor-Cinco-de-Mayo-Full-Range-Live-Infrared-Red-Bull-Aerial-Bend-Over-and-Kiss-Your-Ass-Goodbye-Satellite-Doppler-Radar-with-Neighborhood-Seismic-Detection. We're so into meteorologists and away from "weathercasters" that no one remembers how to be a communicator. We've come a long way since Sonny first used chalk to draw on a blackboard.
We're into computers and graphics programs and hard drives. Sonny could talk to you about isobars and occluded fronts if he had to. Most nights he didn't have to. He gave you the forecast.

I dunno: maybe in 2008 we could find someone with a unique personality who connects with the viewers and makes them comfortable.

Just a thought.

Sonny kicked around Detroit TV for awhile. WWJ-TV long ago became WDIV-TV—a
new WWJ-TV signed on some years ago—and Sonny’s back on WWJ-AM. You can go to their web site and listen to Sonny live every weekday at 4:20 and 5:20 p.m.

Sonny has been on the air for more than 60 years now! Here’s a piece from WJBK-TV from 1997, when Sonny marked fifty years as a Detroit superstar. That means he's at 60 now, and counting! Here's a good sample of Sonny eliot at his shtick-iest.

There are several Sonny Eliot videos on YouTube. They’re worth a look. The man was, and is, the consummate professional and a good guy. I’m blessed that I had a chance to work with him.

Working with Sonny made me glad and happy--"Glappy."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What other tv weather guy would regularly tell you how hot it was in Hell (Michigan)? Who else yanked a piece of the Upper Peninsula off his pre-computer wall map?

Pure Sonny!