Friday, March 17, 2017

The King of TV 50 and His Most Loyal Subject


I got turned on to Detroit’s WKPD-TV 50 from Upper Michigan, as a nerdy 7th grader in the early ‘70s. Cable television was like Christmas morning 365 days a year, and TV 50 was the best present of all.

WKPD-TV 50 reigned as Detroit’s superstation during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Endless reruns of beloved sitcoms—The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and The Brady Bunch—were after school treats. Star Trek and William Shatner’s over-acting was out of this world compared to Perry Mason’s precision formula and Raymond Burr’s fierce stare. I gobbled up all this pop culture—along with Chips Ahoy!, Little Debbies, buttery popcorn, all washed down with Faygo’s Rock N’ Rye cream soda—also from Detroit. I was not just a babysitter for my aunt and uncle’s kids—I was also a tubby TV fan.

Bill Kennedy was Detroit's top TV movie host.
His sets got more elaborate as time went by!
For me, the best was Bill Kennedy at the Movies. Before Turner Classic Movies (TCM), local TV stations ran afternoon movies, often with a host. TV 50 showcased Bill Kennedy, a one-time actor and life-long ham. Bill loved reliving his glory days as a contract player at Warner Brothers. Sometimes, Kennedy featured a film where he played a bit part, like Now, Voyager or Mr. Skeffington, as one of Bette Davis’ suitors in both classic soaps. In Kennedy’s scenes, his cameraman put a halo of light around Bill’s head, a Hollywood deity at last. Kennedy had substantial scenes in Cary Grant’s only war movie, Operation Tokyo and he played the executioner who lit a fire under Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc. Kennedy’s last claim to fame in Hollywood was the announcer on the 1950s’ Superman series: “Faster than a speeding bullet…”

Voice-overs and radio work got Bill Kennedy through the lean years. Then Kennedy got a break as a movie host, first in Windsor and finally, Detroit. Kennedy joked that his show’s theme song was Just in Time because he was in dire need for a gig. Bill’s new audience wanted their daily dose of his memories and movies, which later included me.

Bill kisses Bette Davis' hand in 'Mr. Skeffington.'
I was an indifferent school student, and Bill Kennedy at the Movies was my reel education. Cozy on my aunt and uncle’s plaid sofa, candy and pop within reach, I’d enter a world of Technicolor or shimmering black-and-white. I learned about each studio, their directors, and stars. Gradually, I noticed the films’ cinematographers, screenwriters, music composers, and costume designers. Instead of doing my homework, I’d consult my best friend, TV Guide, for more movies to gorge on. Old-time flicks were a world filled with snappy dialogue, plot twists, and dramatic confrontations that made real life in Manistique, Michigan look dull.

Bill Kennedy, far right, in his biggest role, 'Operation Tokyo,' with Cary Grant.
Sometimes I watched movies at my aunt and uncle’s house alone. Afterward, I’d walk home. The scenery was stellar: Indian Lake and the summer greenery of pines mingling with maples, later a kaleidoscope of fall leaves; the fields, clover or hay, along the secondary roads home. Yet my mind always drifted, as I replayed movie moments, often involving co-stars kissing, slapping, or shooting each other in beautiful black and white.

Bill with Debbie Reynolds, both getting photobombed by Bette Davis!
When Bill Kennedy’s young self popped up in old pictures, he looked like the typical handsome actor of his day: square-jawed, strong brow, and distinguished profile. When I started watching Bill Kennedy at the Movies, he wore suits and wire rim glasses, and looked like an aging ad man. Business suits were eventually retired for leisure variety. He later wore glasses the size of welder shields, the norm for that era. Kennedy sometimes sported a nautical-themed jacket to go with his boating cap, reminding me of Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island. My own ‘70s style mainly was growing shaggy hair and getting “husky.” I faithfully watched Bill’s show through high school and was growing up to be a big—in every sense—film buff.

Bill showing one of his own movies, this one starred Robert Alda--yes Alan's dad!
Kennedy’s set underwent periodic makeovers, but my favorite featured pillars, wrapped in mock-celluloid frames of stars in their greatest roles, like Bette Davis in All about Eve or Bogart in Casablanca. And that huge yellow desk phone, which he worked like a prop: “Hello, Bill Kennedy at the Movies! Your question, please!”

I marveled at Bill’s bravado. I hated answering the phone, especially when my uncle’s work crew called the house, and I’d get mistaken for my aunt. As a kid, I’d quietly lurk around rowdy relatives at family gatherings, eavesdropping while making myself useful, like emptying ashtrays and on one memorable night, topping a glass of beer with a few shakes of salt!

Bill loved big stars like John Wayne and Clark Gable.
Bill Kennedy was like those aging relatives, one-time pistols who were still good for a few more explosive rounds. Bill constantly had a cigarette going, smoke wafting from his ashtray, while he rambled on. Sometimes Kennedy seemed tipsy—my suspicions sparked by isolated news stories about him getting pulled over for drunk driving.

During breaks, Bill’s showbiz stories ran from sentimental to sassy to sometimes sour. I was in stitches when Kennedy recited quotes from movie star memoirs, grandly emoting with each syllable. If a phone caller hemmed and hawed while asking a showbiz question, Bill got irate, as if he had received a solicitation call, barking: “Why are you calling?”

Bill Kennedy was in Hollywood hog heaven when celebrities visited his show!
Kennedy’s imitations of movie stars were a hoot, bellowing as Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh: “Mr. Christian!” Or Bill’s droll take on Bette Davis’ camp classic line in Beyond the Forest: “Whaaat a dumppp!”

Gable's acting wasn't as good as
my Grandma Leone remembered!
My Grandma Leone couldn’t stand Bill Kennedy. She thought Bill was a showboater—I thought he was a showman. Grandma was a high school secretary between marriages when she fell down the icy steps of her upstairs apartment, and broke her leg. My grandmother hated the soaps, so I suggested that she enjoy the movies Kennedy showed, and ignore him.  Recovering that winter, the ice broke between Grandma and Bill Kennedy. She realized that beneath his bluster, Bill was a softie who loved movies, stars, and his audience. From then on, Grandma chuckled at his antics.

Grandma and I compared our favorite movie stars. She was amazed that some of her once-favorite actors now seemed hammy, laughing about Clark Gable’s cartoonish persona. My grandmother was reserved, so it was no surprise that she didn’t care much for alpha actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, acting with a capital A. Grandma thought Cary Grant was utterly charming and adored Frank Sinatra not just as a singer, but also his natural acting style. Grandma enjoyed revisiting the movies of her youth, a respite from her dreary circumstances as a financially struggling divorcee.

Grandma Leone was amused by my knowledge of old time movies, stars, and singers. The nostalgia boom was just kicking in during the early ‘70s, so imagine Grandma’s surprise when her oldest grandchild started asking what folks in her heyday thought about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s ricochet romance or Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s infamous feud.

Before there was TCM, syndicated stations like TV 50 showed the classics.
In 9th grade, I joined The Nostalgia Book Club. Making my book binge a double feature, I joined The Movie Book Club, where I received a dozen free books. When that big box arrived by mail, my siblings surrounded me. After I opened the package and they only saw books about old movies, they quickly scattered. My school books now took second-billing to film books. I even snuck movie memoirs with my textbooks to school, though I was careful to hide them from teachers or fellow students.

Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton were in their "breaking up/together again" heyday, which gave Bill Kennedy a field day!
Thirty years later, I owned over two dozen large boxes of books. When I moved to Portland, OR, I sold all but two boxes. The contents of every single memoir, film genre book, coffee table tome, and movie magazine that I ever read was imbedded in my head.  I yearned for none of the many other possessions I sold, but later missed holding actual copies of my favorite film books. In researching Bill Kennedy, I found that the books, magazines, and papers he often used on his show have been donated to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). Maybe someday, I will hold Bill’s books and papers in my hands.

Bill Kennedy at the Movies was a starring part of my coming of age. I was not an outdoorsy boy growing up in rugged Upper Michigan. The men in the family worked and hunted out in the northern cold, while my brothers and male cousins played in the woods and rode snowmobiles. I stayed toasty warm in front of the television. I preferred warmth, books, baking, snack foods, and most of all, TV shows and movies.

In my research of Bill Kennedy, I found that many baby boomers associate Bill Kennedy with being home sick from school, under blankets on a sofa, and watching old movies with grownups. Others wrote about watching Bill’s Sunday film classics, while listening to their parents’ movie memories, with smells of dinner cooking wafting from the kitchen. People repeatedly said that their love of classic movies started with Bill Kennedy.

Bill Kennedy and toupee heading into their last hurrah!
As the ‘70s ended, I was out of my cinematic cocoon and in the real world—downstate Traverse City—and only occasionally watched Kennedy’s show. Over the next few years, I’d get a bit of a jolt checking in with Bill. The panda print pants and nautical-themed jackets were now joined by tropical floral shirts and pastel leisure suits. This was most appropriate for his later move to Palm Beach, where he hosted movies weekly instead of daily for Detroit TV 50. He wore the most bald-faced lie of a toupee, which looked like a lapdog napping on his noggin. All of this made Bill look like a potential suitor for one of The Golden Girls. Kennedy presented his last movie in December 1983. There were no more comebacks and Bill Kennedy remained retired until his death, January 27, 1997.  I hope those last dozen years were as blissful for Bill as the dozen that I watched Bill Kennedy at the Movies.

Bill Kennedy, easing into retirement from Palm Beach.
Looking back on the past is like a funhouse mirror. You get the distorted feeling that it was only yesterday, yet it also seems so long ago, like it is someone else’s life. Was it really over 40 years ago that I first watched that old hambone Bill Kennedy, when he was rumored to have had hair plugs? Was it over 30 years ago that I spiked my hair like Duran Duran or slicked back, like retro Elvis? Or 17 years ago when I faced the new millennium head on by shaving my balding scalp? No plugs or rugs for me, like my old movie buddy Bill.


Movies comforted and entertained me as a kid, and inspired me to live a creative life as an adult. For that, I owe thanks to Bill Kennedy, my movie mentor, who once ruled the airwaves every afternoon on WKPD-TV 50.

Bill Kennedy, lookin' good back in his Hollywood days.

8 comments:

  1. I grew up just south of Windsor and watched Bill (not every day, but regularly enough) first on channel 9 and then on 50. He was a character, that's for sure. Thanks for the fond look back.

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    1. Thanks, the passing of Robert Osborne made me think of Bill Kennedy again! Rick

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    2. The only other movie "presenter" in Detroit back in the day was Rita Bell who had "Rita Bell's Prize Movie" on WXYZ 7.

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  2. Wow this was great. Never even heard of him but identified so much. I got made fun of a lot because I never wore out my sneakers. A dead give away! I was watching old movies too, and snacking enough to land me in the husky department. Thank God for old movies and for movie hosts too.

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    1. Glad you liked it, Gingerguy! Nice seeing you from Poseidon's place : )
      I'd appreciate if you follow me,
      Rick

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  3. Been meaning to get back here after reading this several weeks ago to tell you how much I enjoyed it. In the Bay Area there was one of those dialing for dollars type movie shows that aired in the mornings with a perky hostess named Pippa. The interruptions for calling and trivia were so lengthy, it would take two to three days to get through a single 90 minute movie. Since it aired during school hours, the only times I got to watch it were when I was sick. Standing out in my mind is its theme music ("Florida Fantasy" from Midnight Cowboy) and watching Joan Crawford in "Dancing Lady" over the course of what felt like an entire week. Thanks for jogging a somewhat lost memory with your loving tribute to Bill Kennedy and his long tenure as the movie king of Detroit.

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    1. Ken, one thing I had to leave out were his interviews with stars coming through Detroit to promote whatever. Bill was shameless. I remember not one, but two celeb couples he grilled on their feelings about the second Liz & Dick breakup. The first were Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. Benjamin feigned surprise: "What? And they didn't call me with the news?!" The second were Robert Wagner & Natalie Wood, promoting their awful version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." They were mortified, as they were both friends of Elizabeth's. Natalie's nervous tic of blinking rapidly was on display that day! Cheers : )

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    2. HA! That is hilarious! I would have loved seeing that (especially Natalie Wood!). Reminds me of when I used to catch Joe Franklin on some UHF channel in my youth. Only he never really did anything but gush over peoples talent and talk about the old days. No matter how mediocre they were.

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