Detroit TV legend Sonny Eliot dies

8:13 AM, Nov 16, 2012   |    comments
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Detroit, Mich. (FREEP) Sonny Eliot, whose radio and television career ran longer than any other broadcaster in Detroit history, died Thursday at his home in Farmington Hills, according to reports. He was 91.

Eliot began his career in the late 1940s, when he appeared on the then-infant medium of television. He was Channel 4's star weathercaster from the 1950s until the late 1970s; a weathercaster on Channel 2 in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and a movie host on Channel 50, also in the late 1980s. He rounded out his career at WWJ-AM, where he served up two weathercasts each weekday at 4:18 p.m. and 5:18 p.m.

"The landscape of Detroit radio and television was built around Sonny Eliot," remarked Jim Brandstatter, the Detroit Lions football commentator who was a longtime friend of Eliot's.

Eliot's persona was that of a clown. He peppered his weathercasts with puns and could be seen roaming Detroit Tiger baseball games with a goofy grin. He was a joke machine, churning out gags at, it seemed, one every ten seconds. A typical one-liner: "If you've found the love of a woman-cherish her, appreciate her, enjoy her-and whatever you do, don't tell your wife about it." (The joke was ironic because Eliot was devoted to his wife, Annette.)

One-on-one, Eliot was a serious person. He read widely, particularly history; he spoke German and French, and could understand Spanish; he was a captain in the Air Force Reserves.

Sonny Eliot was born Marvin Schlossberg on Dec. 5, 1920 to Jacob and Jenny Schlossberg. Eliot grew up near downtown Detroit, graduating from Central High School. Even as a child, he had fallen in love with the movies and performing. He hung out at the Warfield Theater and sat for hours watching his brother rehearse with an area big band.

While at Wayne State University, he took a class taught by Fran Striker, producer of the "Lone Ranger." Eliot later wrote a script for the popular program.

When World War II broke out, Eliot ended up as a B-24 bomber pilot. He was shot down on a mission over Germany and taken as a prisoner of war.

Eliot spent 18 months in a camp near Barth, Germany. He kept a scrapbook of his experience: it included glassine envelopes of coffee and tea from the camp; and pieces from his file, which he took from the German commandant's office after the camp was liberated by Allied forces. His identification card had the word "Judem" scrawled across the bottom-indicating that his captors knew his religious heritage. Asked how he survived, he said: "I was too tough for them."

He returned home to participate in the revolutionary new medium of television.

The first Detroit television broadcast took place on Oct. 23, 1946, when broadcasters and executives from the Evening News Association beamed a signal from an attic in the Penobscot Building to an office at Detroit News headquarters on West Lafayette. Channel 4 went on the air with a regular five-day-a-week schedule June 3, 1947. (Channels 2 and 7 would not go on the air for more than a year.)

"During those first few years, I don't think anyone realized that the giant eye in a box, sitting in the front room, would have an impact so great that the world would never be the same again," he once wrote. "Art was being changed by technology and technology was being changed by art. The technology of today is staggering and sensational - oftentimes unbelievable. Yesteryear's TV and today is like comparing mud to ice cream."

Flexibility was a key in early television, and Eliot could do just about anything. He hosted "Shadow Stumpers," a charades-like game show that aired in the 1950s; he also hosted "Hit a Homer," in which contestants answered trivia questions and advanced teammates along "bases" if they answered a question correctly. What the viewing audience may not have known was that most of the audience was drunken Detroit newspapermen who were hustled out of area bars to fill vacant seats in the audience. He also hosted Eliot's Almanac, a five-minute program about history. But Eliot made his biggest contribution as a weathercaster, where Eliot was a TV news anomaly.

Most television news in the 1950s was serious stuff: jokes were few, and "personality" was something reserved for entertainment-oriented shows in the infant medium. Dr. Everett Phelps, Channel 2's weatherman during the 1950s, was more typical: A trained physicist who was also tenured professor at Wayne State University, Phelps would deliver the weather in the manner of a lecture, using his pipe to point out highlights on a weather map. The difference was immediately apparent to Detroit viewers.

Eliot lightened up the Channel 4 newscast by jokes and other means: He might wing a piece of chalk across the set at an anchorman, or make up names for on-air colleagues. For instance, Eliot dubbed sportscaster Don Kremer "Howdy Doody" because of Kremer's rounded face and reddish hair; or, he called anchorman Dean Miller "sidewall" because of Miller's white sideburns. Surveys showed that he was one of the station's most popular personalities, and helped define Channel 4's image. Eliot had not started out as a humorist.

"I'd been doing it (the weather) for several months very straight, very meteorologically-giving lapse rates, temperatures, prognosis charts, and doing all of the things you're supposed to do to make it a serious presentation. It became kind of mundane," he once recalled in an interview. "One day, I saw I had a temperature in Las Vegas, and it was fifty-five degrees there - very chilly. I said, 'Five and five - 10 the hard way.' Paul Williams, who was doing the news, started to smile. I said to myself: 'Hey that's pretty good. I got a smile from Williams.' Next thing, I gave the temperature in Florida - 'It's eighty-two degree in Florida, where businessmen lie on the beach - about how much money they make.' That was the development of it, those two in the same newscast.

Eliot's presentation contrasted with the norm in television news in the 1950s.

The fame made Eliot something of a man about town. He and Lindell AC owner Jimmy Butsicaris were a two-man rat pack in the 1950s and 1960s. Major League baseball players would proceed directly from Tiger Stadium to the nearby Lindell AC after a game and spend the rest of the evening drinking. The evening would conclude in the wee hours-sometimes daybreak-at a schvitz. Eliot seemed to know everybody in town. His lawyer was former Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh.

Eliot's career ran into a rocky phase in the late 1970s. His cornball persona wasn't fitting in with Post-Newsweek's plans after the Washington D.C. communications company acquired Channel 4 in 1978. Eliot went to work for Channel 2 in that same year. (Eliot later told friends that leaving Channel 4 was "the worst mistake I ever made." He was fired four years later. Channel 2 general manager Bill Flynn summoned Eliot to his office minutes before a newscast and let Eliot go, later telling a reporter that Eliot appealed mostly to older viewers. The sacking drew an immediate negative reaction from Eliot's many fans.

He later hosted movies on Channel 50 and worked at a desk job in the Detroit News marketing department - a job he hated because of ceaseless paperwork.

He worked well into his 80s at WWJ-AM. Eliot would show up to work each weekday wearing a suit and tie-unusual in a business where casual attire is the norm. He'd study weather data, writing information in shorthand on the back of an envelope. Maybe 30 minutes before the newscast, he'd read his work to his wife, Annette, over the telephone. Then, at 4:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. he would head into the studio for his twice-daily weathercasts-which he would mostly ad lib, based on notes he had written on envelopes.

And, of course, the gags continued. A few one-liners that could be heard on his radio weather segment: "As welcome as sand in a sugar bowl..." He was a Detroit original.

"So often I think younger people in radio, television and newspapers don't appreciate or understand the great history of our businesses and don't take the time to understand or appreciate those that have gone before," said Brandstatter.

Said WWJ anchor Jayne Bower: "Sonny was a marvel to me. He worked for more than 60 years for the same radio station. I can't think of another broadcaster who has done that.

"However, Sonny's professional longevity was no accident. He was immensely talented at his craft and was endlessly kind to the people who were fortunate enough to work with him and call him a friend."

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