Q&A: MPT’s Rhea Feikin discusses her career on TV, retirement and more

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Courtesy: Maryland Public Television.

For more than five decades, Rhea Feikin has graced the television screens in Marylanders’ homes, first as the star of the educational program “Betty Better Speech” and children’s show “Miss Rhea and Sunshine,” both on WBAL. Then, with the help of a puppet named J.P., she read the weather on the station’s newscasts.

But most know Feikin as the “First Lady” of Maryland Public Television, where she has worked since the 1970s, starting out as a freelancer before becoming a correspondent on the “Consumer Survival Kit” and, eventually, the host of the arts series “Artworks,” interview series “Impressions” and the localized “Antiques Roadshow” program “Chesapeake Collectibles,” among other shows. Perhaps her most prominent role at the station was as the on-air host of the pledge drive specials.

There’s so much more she’s done off-camera, too, helping to co-found Baltimore Center Stage and serving on the boards of the Baltimore School for the Arts and Gordon Center for Performing Arts, to name a few.

Last October, Feikin, 84, announced she was retiring from broadcasting. Her final episode of Artworks airs tonight at 7 p.m. And while there’s a pre-recorded episode of “Chesapeake Collectibles” that will air in April, Feikin will sign off for the last time on Sunday evening during one more fundraising drive, from 7-11 p.m.

I recently reached Feikin by phone to talk about her iconic career, her favorite interview and her plans for retirement.

Baltimore Fishbowl: When you arrived at MPT in the ’70s and started working as a freelancer, did you imagine you would stay for this long?

Rhea Feikin: Oh my gosh, no. [laughs] I wasn’t even sure I was going to live this long, let alone work on TV this long. But it’s been a wonderful run. And I can really thank MPT for giving me so many great opportunities to grow and do new programs. I’ve had a great time.

BFB: When exactly were you offered to join them full-time? And what convinced you that that was the right move?

RF: I first started out just volunteering, doing pledge drives, and then as time went on, I started being asked to do more.

At first, I wasn’t on a regular schedule of any kind. And then, as I started to do more and more things, it made sense to have me all on one schedule. So it was sort of a gradual kind of a thing. There were certain people that I feel indebted to, that really liked what I was doing on camera and felt that I could do more.

And those are people that I always remember because they really helped me do more programs, learn to be better on the air. Michael Styer, was program director at that time, and he was wonderful. He gave me a lot of opportunities, and I will always be indebted to him.

BFB: In your career, you moved from children’s television on WBAL to doing the weather on that network and then to doing interviewing and hosting duties with MPT. What was the trick for handling all those changes?

RF: It’s sort of things that just happened and grew. The first thing that I did was a school program as a speech therapist, and it happened to be on WBAL.

And then when that little semester program ended, they asked me if I want to come to work there and do a kid’s show. I mean, just like another wonderful accident. So I stopped my job as a speech therapist and wrote and directed “Betty Better Speech.” And doing that led to other things at WBAL that I got to do eventually, like doing the weather, which I knew absolutely nothing about.

But our president then, Brent Gunts, said in his opinion, as far as weather reports were concerned, people just cared if they needed an umbrella or it was going to be hot or cold. They didn’t care about barometric pressures and highs and lows, they just wanted to be entertained.

And so Gulf Oil at that time decided throughout the country that they were going to go into the sponsorship of weather shows.

BFB: Right.

RF: And they came to all the stations in Baltimore, as they did in other places, and said, send us a video of what your show would look like. And Brent felt that way about weather shows. He said to Cal Schumann, who was my partner and a puppeteer, and I, “Come up with a weather show, just make it entertaining.”

So we did. We put together a show which was more fun than weather. And lo and behold, Gulf Oil decided they liked it and we became the weather on the early news show. And that’s sort of how that happened. We lasted through a number of changes of general managers.

And finally, one general manager decided he didn’t like us very much and that was going to be the end of us doing the weather. In those days–maybe still, I don’t know–if you were going to be fired you did your last show on the air without knowing that you were going to be fired.

BFB: Oh wow.

RF: And as you finished that show, you were escorted to your desk, pick up your things, and escorted out of the building. Well, somehow or another, Cal and I found out that we were going to be fired and that we were going to be doing our last weather show. I don’t know what possessed us, but I just thought, Well, I’m going to be fired anyhow, so I’m going to just take this opportunity to say goodbye on the air. And we did that. I said, “This is our last weather show and it’s been so great and so much fun to do it. And I appreciate your watching this all the time, but this is the last show because we’ve been fired.” And you could hear a gasp–the technicians, the anchor. What was going on?

And so Cal stood up and introduced himself. He had never been seen with the puppet on the stage.

And we said goodbye and walked out, leaving them with at least six minutes to kill. It was a great way to say goodbye. I have always been so happy, because I think back and I would have missed that opportunity. It was fun.

Rhea Feikin and film director John Waters during a 2018 taping of “Artworks.” Courtesy: Maryland Public Television.

BFB: Over your career at MPT, you’ve done more journalistic programming, with series such as “Artworks” and “Impressions.” So how did you transition into that role?

RF: I guess I started doing membership and got to know different people, and then there would be an opportunity, like a program that they wanted to call “Consumer Survival Kit.” And that was sort of a program where they took a couple items and researched them. It wasn’t showing the bad things about them, it wasn’t that kind of thing. It was just telling about them and how they were done and how you can get the best buy.

They were doing that, Larry Lewman was the host of it, and they wanted a segment where somebody would go out and interview people in different parts. Somehow or another, they asked me if I wanted to do that. And yeah, I did. And it was great fun.

That was the first show I actually did where I had a part in the show. And then other things came up. And again, they would say, Does it interest you to do this? And it was always, Yeah, I’d love to do it.

BFB: A lot of profiles over the years have noted the mark you made on pledge drives. One of those will be your final appearance on the air. Did that role of trying to raise money become easier or harder over time?

RF: I know it’s kinda odd, but I love doing the pledge drives. Yeah, I will do my very last one and miss doing it. I always felt that it was a wonderful way to interact with our audience, because many shows have very different audiences, which you don’t get when you do one kind of show. Like you do the art show, you have sort of regular audience for that. But when you’re doing pledge, you’re covering all kinds of audiences. So it was a challenge to be able to relate that show and those audiences.

And I knew how important the money was that we raised on these pledge drives. I mean, it wasn’t just for fun. It was for programming. So it was important. And I don’t know, maybe there is a bit of a competitor in me or something, but I knew that we had certain goals for programs, and I really wanted to reach those goals.

I think I became known to so many people because of that, because there were so many different kinds of people.

BFB: So it became sort of like a way for you to meet audience members who maybe didn’t watch certain segments, that sort of thing.

RF: Yeah. And sometimes it was a wonderful surprise, you know? In the early days, public television was accused of being elitist. And boy, have we learned that that’s not true at all. We have such a diverse audience, so many different kinds of people watch at different ages, different interests, different nationalities.

And because we have wide programming, we often appeal to various groups. Sometimes we’ll have a program, one that we wonder, Do we have an audience for this program? And then we ask for their support and we get this amazing outpouring of support. We think, Gosh, how great that we have people that are interested in science or interested in history. Things that we’re not sure that we have an audience for.

BFB: As a co-founder of Baltimore Center Stage and host of eight seasons of “Artworks,” you’re clearly a big admirer of the local arts. What excites you the most about what’s been happening in and around Baltimore in recent years?

RF: Well, I found out a long time ago when we did the first “Artworks” programming–which was a slightly different format than the one we currently have–where all the artists that we use were local. In Maryland, not just Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and Virginia. And it was amazing to me how many incredibly gifted artists we have in our area–some of them not well known, others got to be better known, but people doing their art.

And for me, always, although I love their art, whatever form it might be, I just love their heads. I love the way artists think because it’s really different than the way I think. Getting an idea of what the process is for any kind of artist has always been fascinating to me. And obviously to other people.

I think our arts community has just gotten bigger and better and more robust. We have more theaters. We have more artist exhibitions in various places. We have more artists working here because it’s a good environment for them. I’m thrilled by it. And I think people come to this area and from out of town, and they, too, are amazed at the health of the art community.

BFB: Between “Artworks” and the interview series “Impressions,” which I believe ran from 2007 to 2014, who was your favorite interview subject and why?

RF: I guess for me, the most exciting was someone that I had admired as an actor, but also had a big crush on. I mean, I thought he was really handsome and really sexy, besides being very talented. And that was Jeremy Irons.

He was being honored at a gala for one of the Washington theater groups, Shakespeare Theatre Company. And they were letting the press have a few minutes with him. We had been doing a lot of segments on artwork for that theater, so we begged that we would have more than the five minutes. Grudgingly, they said, well, 10 to 15 minutes. So we got over there early, we had our two cameras set up, everything was ready. I was very excited. I’d done my homework, I knew a lot about Jeremy Irons. And so they had, where we walked in, this huge, long table with a makeup artist. Not for me, I had no makeup artist, but for him.

They had the cameras set up and they had the monitor setup. I was sitting where I would be sitting for the interview and you could see me in the monitors. In walks Jeremy Irons. He doesn’t say much, he looks around. He looks at me on the monitor, and then he looks at this big, long makeup table. And then he turns to me and he said, “Do you think I need makeup?” [laughs]

I said, “Nope, not a bit.” He said, “Neither do I,” and he walked out. Well I thought the makeup artist was going to hit me with a brush or something.

He walked back in and he sits down opposite me and they say, action. And before I can say a word, he says, “You know, you’re an actress, aren’t you?”

And I said, “No, no, I’m not.” He said, “We’ll see, I think you are.” And then we proceed. Well, our little 10 minutes to 15 minutes turned into a half an hour. They kept wanting him to leave, he kept ignoring the signal. He spoke without an “er” or an “ah” or anything. Beautiful voice, great grammar, English accent, the whole thing. And it was a great interview. We talked about a lot of things. And for me, it was my most favorite.

BFB: That’s a great story. So I wanted to revisit a quote of yours in 1998, you told The Sun, “I’ll only retire when nobody wants me to do anything anymore, and that hasn’t happened yet.” This feels like you’re going out on your own terms, though. When did you decide on this?

RF: I always thought, Well, maybe I’ll retire when I’m 80. I got to be 80 and I didn’t retire. And then I didn’t think about it much. But then I started thinking, You know what? I think it’s time. I want to leave when they’re still wanting me to stay, not when they’re wanting me to leave, and who knows when that’s going to be. I don’t think it was.

But I just felt it was time. I still love being on the air. I still love my work. I still love the people there. But I knew it was time. I just knew.

I mean, it wasn’t a big thing that I pondered and worried about. I just sort of knew. And I went in and talked to Larry Unger, our president. He said, “When you made this appointment, I was afraid that’s what you were going to say.” It just sort of happened that way. And they’ve been so wonderful to me in my upcoming retirement. It’s been a very happy time for me.

Rhea Feikin and violinist André Rieu on the set of a pledge drive in the 2000s. Courtesy: Maryland Public Television.

BFB: How was the role of public television changed or evolved in your time, its role in the community?

RF: Basically, I think it hasn’t changed all that much. I think the mission of public television and Maryland Public Television was and is to serve the community. We at MPT have done and have been recognized throughout the whole country as a station that does a lot of local programming, much more than a lot of other stations. And I think we want to continue to do that, we want to continue to answer the needs that occur in our public.

Lately, I’ve been so proud of what MPT has done for the opioid crisis. They’ve just done a great public service job there. And that’s what we need to do, we need to be there for the community.

I think our programs have gotten more sophisticated, more varied than they used to be. But basically, I don’t think it’s changed all that much.

I guess in some ways we would like to have it change. We would like to have younger people watching it. I think we’re a little bit more successful that way. But basically it seems that when people get to be a certain age, they sort of get tired of the game shows and the things that commercial television provides and they sort of start looking for other kinds of programming. Fortunately, public television’s been able to provide that.

BFB: More broadly, as someone who has seen television go from having, you know, the three big networks in NBC, ABC and CBS to cable to now on the streaming era, what’s your perspective on how the medium has changed?

RF: Well, it has changed. And I think public television knows that it has to change also. We have started streaming. We’re doing more of it. You can get our programming, a lot of it, on YouTube.

They know very well that viewers are watching in different ways, and we have to address that. And I think we’re getting there, but we know we have to do more. I’m not really involved in that part of what public television or what MPT is doing. When they do it I know about it, but I haven’t really been a part of the development of that.

We do a lot of programming that’s not on camera, that’s all online. And so many educational programs that are used by teachers and schools and caregivers. I don’t think people know how much we do in that area. It’s like a big secret that people ought to be aware of because we reach so many people that way.

BFB: As you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?

RF: My daughter pointed it out to me one time and she said, “You know, one thing you’ve got to be proud of is that you’ve changed the face of women on television in Maryland.” And by that, she meant that MPT allowed me to stay on the air as I got older and older and older. There used to be a time when a woman turned 40ish and she was finished. I mean, over. And I think I helped change that idea about what a woman should be like, look like, act like on television. I hope.

BFB: What are your plans for retirement?

RF I’m going to watch a lot of television. [laughs] I still watch all the programs I love on public television. But I must say I love movies and I love detective stories. I also like to read a lot. I go to yoga. I have a trainer. I do a lot of that kind of stuff. I don’t have any definite plans.

I really don’t want to know I have to be somewhere at a certain time. I want a vacation from that.

I do want to remain very involved with Maryland Public Television, and I’ve been asked to be on their foundation board. And I’m thrilled to be a participant in that. So I’m definitely going to be involved with MPT. They have not seen the last of me, if not on the air.

Brandon Weigel

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