In Pittsburgh Newsweekly | C O V E R S T O R Y | Nov. 18-25, 1998

Ricki & Me

If you spent your whole childhood on TV,
you might end up a film critic, too.

By Harry Kloman

IMPOSSIBLE, I THOUGHT, nibbling on a piece of bread, and blowing bubbles in my glass of water like a 4-year-old, which I was. That can't possibly be Hank Stohl sitting at the table in the corner. He lives inside the television.

So I asked my parents how Hank Stohl got outside of our mahogany console TV, which sat on spindly gold legs in our suburban living room and broadcast black-and-white images all day into my nascent mind.

"Well," said my mother, "why don't you go ask him?"

I don't quite remember his answer. It was something rhetorical, something like: "When I'm on TV, that's where I am, and when I'm not on TV, I'm outside." But it was good enough for a kid who'd just met his first local TV celebrity--the beginning of a long and rewarding series of 15 minutes. (Come to think of it, I almost knocked Andy Warhol to the pavement one day in Manhattan when I rounded the corner of East 10th Street and came face to face with him on Fifth Avenue.)

The restaurant in Wilkins Township where I met Hank Stohl has undergone many demolitions and turnovers since the day we met. Now it's a Hooters--something you didn't find in early '60s suburban Pittsburgh, and certainly not the kind of place you'd ever find the host of Popeye and Knish, an afternoon children's show on Channel 4, the TV station nearest our home, and so the one that came in best on our rabbit ears.

Each afternoon, for 30 minutes, Hank Stohl (see photo at right) would introduce Popeye cartoons and do little comedy routines with Knish, who was a ragmop with a large wooden nose, and Rodney, who (as I recall) was a little bald-headed puppet man who didn't talk.

Am I getting any of this right? Yes, of course: For history, after all, is what you remember, and not necessarily what really happened.

This was back in a time when "local TV" meant more than just the evening news, and a "local celebrity" was more than just a short guy (they all look much taller on TV) with a microphone, a cameraman, a satellite van and a helicopter.

At one time or another I met all the greatest stars: Paul Shannon, the droll, sleepy-eyed Adventuretime host who revived The Three Stooges, and who sometimes dressed as his sinister alter ego, Nosmo King; Del Taylor, the handsome fellow with the baritone voice who showed movies each morning and gave away money on Dialing for Dollars; and Nick Perry, the gregarious little man who hosted a bowling show and went to jail for helping to fix the Pennsylvania Lottery.

But no local TV celebrity holds province in my life like Ricki Wertz, the vivacious, auburn-haired hostess of Ricki and Copper and Junior High Quiz, the two most popular local children's TV shows--on which I starred.

AS A CHILD in the Pittsburgh '60s, the only thing better than a snow day from school was appearing on Ricki and Copper. The show aired each weekday morning on Channel 4 but was videotaped at the studio several days before so the children could see themselves on TV--and also, no doubt, so the producers could edit out any kid who cried for Mommy.

I was a 5-year-old in kindergarten when I made my starring appearance. That was the average age of a Ricki and Copper kid. The show took place on a woodland set constructed inside a Channel 4 studio. Each episode featured half a dozen children or so; one by one, each child would appear on camera with Ricki and her golden retriever, Copper (who died during the run of the show and was replaced by the younger Copper Penny, although I wonder if the kids would have known the difference).

You would sit on a log, tell Ricki your name and where you lived, answer a few questions about your hobbies and interests, then sing a little song and tell a little joke. Ricki, of course, would always "give up" on your joke, and Mr. Boom Man, a boom microphone with a hat and mustache, would rumble laughter when you told Ricki the punch line. Then you would go sit around a picnic table to wait. When all the kids had finished, Ricki would sing "Happy Birthday" using everyone's name in the song.

Then we'd eat cake.

The show ended a few moments later with Ricki leading us off the set. "Over the BRIDGE we go!" she'd say, and we'd all follow, like little Pucks behind our Titania.

For a while during my appearance on Ricki and Copper, everything went smoothly. I even brought Ricki a cupcake, something children on the show often did. She set the cupcake down beside her, and it didn't take the rascally Copper very long to snarf it up. Ricki acted sad, fearing I might cry because the dog had eaten the gift I'd been so thoughtful to bring her. But to tell you the truth, at age 5, Copper interested me more than Ricki.

"That's all right," I said, as Copper wolfed down the cupcake, "she can have it." Ricki laughed reassuringly. She hadn't expected me to say anything. In fact, she probably expected me to cry for Mommy.

We then got back on script. Ricki asked me where I lived, and soon it came time for me to belt out what I knew to be one of her favorite songs, "Hey Look Me Over." I told my joke, which I've now forgotten. Ricki gave up and I told my punch line. Then Ricki prepared to usher me away and make room for the next kid.

But I wasn't done yet.

"I have another joke," I said, interrupting Ricki's sendoff. This was unprecedented.

"Okay," she said, after a startled pause. "What is it?" She had no choice but to let me tell it. If she tried to explain that I couldn't, for all she knew I would cry for Mommy.

"Why did the man throw the butter out the window?" I asked. Ricki had heard this one a thousand times on the air, and after every time she heard it, she would never pilfer a kid's punch line. But I had ad-libbed, so now it was her turn.

"To see a butterfly," Ricki said, stealing my laugh.

"That's right!" I said, pleased to learn that she wasn't as dumb as I'd always thought she was for never knowing the punch line to such a common joke.

This all took place before cable TV and VCRs. My parents had arranged for my kindergarten teacher to have a television in the classroom on the morning of my appearance so everyone in my class could see me on TV as I sat among them, relishing my celebrity. But the picture on the television was nothing but electronic fuzz that morning at Eastmont Elementary School, and although we could hear the show, we couldn't see a damn thing.

SO THE WAY I figured it, Ricki owed me one.

Eight years later, she had a chance to make good when I appeared on another show she hosted: Junior High Quiz, which Channel 4 billed as "a game of general knowledge and quick recall between two teams of eighth grade students chosen by their schools."

I became a Quiz Kid when Mr. Fallon and Mrs. Geeting (our team sponsors), aided by Mrs. Thomas (the guidance counselor) and Mr. Minerd (a lovable history teacher), whittled about 20 of us down to a team of six players and two alternates. I was one of the six who got to play.

We appeared on the show five times and ended up winning the grand prize that school year: three days in Washington, D.C., where we stayed at the Watergate Hotel, ate lunch with Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott in a private Capitol dining room, and met former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was then a senator from Minnesota.

Two stories about Junior High Quiz. First--and I'm telling this here for the first time--I cheated on the air.

The question was: "What country is called the Land of the Rising Sun"? The answer was not Alaska, which is called the Land of the Midnight Sun. But Alaska had popped into my head, and I only realized my mental error after pressing my buzzer.

The camera was on me, waiting for my answer, and I stared into it, groping for something to say other than "Alaska." My teammate sitting next to me could see I had drawn a blank. So he whispered to me: "Norway." And I said to all of Pittsburgh: "NORWAY!"

Which was wrong.

The other Ricki story is this: She came to my home with Copper Penny. During the week before the Friday night taping of Junior High Quiz--which aired every Sunday afternoon--Ricki and a camera crew would travel to each of the two competing schools and film some footage to air during the quiz show. On the day she visited Wilkins Junior High, I showed her the hamsters we were raising for Mr. Fallon's science class. I mentioned that I, too, had some baby hamsters at my home, and that I sold them as pets.

A few weeks later, Ricki called me to ask if she could buy a hamster for her son to give as a birthday gift. I almost hyperventilated when I got the call: a TV celebrity at my home! She came with Copper Penny and her son Tom--whom I would meet again at a party almost 20 years later. He remembered the hamster transaction.

And that was it for me on Pittsburgh television, back in the days when there was such a thing. I have nothing against the "broadcast journalists" and talking heads who read the news every night. I've learned to tolerate their "tragic accidents" (why are there no "happy accidents"?) and their Swiss-cheese reporting.

But I miss local kiddie-show stars like Paul Shannon, Hank Stohl and especially Ricki Wertz, who was, to a pre-adolescent boy who watched too much television, as perfect and divine as a person could get.

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