Rhea Feikin reflects on her career in ‘Rhea: A Life in Television’

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Courtesy: Maryland Public Television.

Rhea Feikin for Mayor? At least she’d have the fundraising part down.

During a half-hour program about broadcasting pioneer Rhea Feikin and her recent retirement as “First Lady of Maryland Public Television,” filmmaker John Waters suggested that she run for public office now that she has some time on her hands.

“What’s next? Everybody’s going to say that. Why don’t you run for mayor?” he told her on the show, in which he interviewed her. “You have the name recognition.”

Feikin, who signed off March 1 as the longtime host of Maryland Public Television’s pledge drives and other programs, appeared to warm to the suggestion.

“That’s a good idea. I never thought of it, John,” she replied, adding that it would be a way to put her fundraising skills to use.

“I could just get on television and say, ‘I don’t have enough money for this campaign, so will you please call this number and make a contribution?'”

“Go and run,” Waters encouraged her. “You could win.”

Raising money was a recurring theme in “Rhea: A Life in Television,” a show that took a fond look back at Feikin’s television career, which Waters described as “longer than anyone including Barbara Walters.”

She also touched on a wide range of other subjects, from presenting the weather on TV with a puppet to delivering “the best line” in “Hairspray” to getting an obscene phone call on-air during one of the station’s pledge drives. She also received a rare gift, a “First Lady” pin from former Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The format of the show was that Feikin would be interviewed by other people, rather than her doing the interviews. Besides Waters and Mikulski, questions were asked by Baltimore Center Stage executive director Michael Ross, MPT president and CEO Larry Unger and longtime producer Don Thoms.

Waters was at his inquisitive best, probing about her days as a weather forecaster on WBAL in the early 1960s, even though she knew nothing about meteorology. Her weather forecasting partner was Cal Schumann, a WBAL film editor who took on the role of J.P. the puppet on the news. He was the only weather puppet in the country, and he was known to have a drink or two before going on air. He would be under the news desk delivering jokes to Rhea, who was his straight woman. The weather portion of the news was sponsored by Gulf Oil, and it ran for years.

“We’d get the information off the teletype machine, and then we would just do the weather, which was a small part of the show and the kibitzing was the larger part of it,” Rhea recalled.

One day the two found out they were being fired, before they went on the air. The producers didn’t know they knew. To the surprise of viewers at home, Rhea announced her own termination at the start of the segment and asked Schumann to get up from under the desk so people could see the man behind the puppet. Then they walked out of the building.

“We left the anchorman with about five minutes to fill,” Rhea recalled. “They were just shocked in the studio.”

The drama didn’t seem to hurt Rhea, who went on to do freelance work in television, such as voiceovers for radio and television commercials and corporate videos. She joined Maryland Public Television in the 1970s, initially to serve as host for the pledge drives that help raise funds to operate the nonprofit station. She eventually moved on to appear on other MPT productions, including “Consumer Survival Kit,” “Artworks,” “Impressions” and “Chesapeake Collectibles.”

Feikin said she liked the rush of live television, especially hearing the phones ring when she made a particularly strong appeal during a pledge drive.

“You’re never supposed to say, ‘Oh, the phones aren’t ringing,'” she confided. “That was the mantra for a long time. But I got over that. I mean, I like to tell the truth: ‘The phones are not ringing and only you the audience can make them ring. So where are you?'”

Rhea recalled one time when a volunteer came to her and said there was a caller who promised to make a big donation if she would get on the line and take the pledge herself. But it turned out to be a prank call.

“This guy started talking in the most indecent way that you can imagine,” she said. “It was an indecent phone call. So I just said, ‘Thank you so much. This is such a generous pledge. I’m so glad you like us. Good night.'”

Waters asked where she got her knack for making the phones ring. “Were you a good panhandler?”

“I was a good beggar,” she replied. “I was good at begging and selling, I guess. I always think I missed my chance. I should have been on the Home Shopping Network or one of those things.”

At 84, Feikin quips that no one can ever accuse MPT of age discrimination. “They just let me keep working and keep working and keep working.”

Waters asked if she ever thought about moving to a bigger market.

“I sort of toyed with it at one point, when I was at WBAL and I was doing the weather and I thought I could do the news, I could do that,” she admitted. “It was a time when there were very, very, very few women doing anything on network television. And maybe I could have gotten a job. But I don’t know. I just sort of didn’t have the momentum. Nobody pushed me and I didn’t push myself.”

Feikin said she thinks that part of the reason she lasted so long in Baltimore is that viewers saw her as part of the community, not as someone passing through on the way to another station.

“I’ve been doing this for such a long time and I live in Baltimore and I’m around,” she said. “I go to the theater. I go to the museum. I go to the supermarket… I just feel like we’re part of the same community, and we are. I think that viewers feel like I’m just one of them.”

Feikin said she would have liked to have been in more movies, with roles like the one she had in in Waters’ 1988 classic “Hairspray.” She was the geometry teacher of Tracy Turnblad, played by Ricki Lake, and she had a memorable line about Tracy’s “ratted” hairdo: “Whatever you call it, it’s a hair don’t.” Feikin said it was the best line in the movie.

“You sold the line,” Waters said approvingly. “Drag queens still say that line.”

She shared her memories of growing up in Hampden, the daughter of first-generation immigrants, living behind the grocery that her father ran. “The grocery store was my playground,” she said. “I was the last child in my family, so they sort of let me go wild.”

She told Mikulski that hers was the only Jewish family in Hampden, and “it was very important to be proud of who we were.” She remembered that the local police station would have a Christmas party for kids in the neighborhood, and one year she decided to go. “We didn’t celebrate Christmas and I longed to go there, to get the present, obviously.”

When she finally got to the front of the line with her friend, Irene Johnson, she said, she sat on Santa’s lap and blurted out, “Santa, I’m Jewish!”

Santa just laughed and gave her a present, a coloring set, she said. When she got home, she had to tell her parents where she got it. “They just thought it was fine,” she said. “I didn’t get into any trouble.”

MPT plans to re-broadcast the show on May 23 at 5:30 p.m. The program ends with MPT colleagues gathering for a champagne toast to the First Lady of Maryland Public Television.

“I don’t think I’m going to say goodbye,” she tells them. “I think I’ll just say what I always say: ‘Thank you for your support.'”

Ed Gunts

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