Saturday, May 15, 2010

Roy Leonard

Roy Leonard was a fixture at WGN Radio for more than 30 years (1967-1998)

Rick: I was surprised to see that it’s already been almost twelve years since you signed off as a full-time host at WGN. Do you miss it?

Roy: In all honesty, no. I had a wonderful time doing it, but in the late 90s I wasn’t really pleased with the way radio was going. I was never controversial, and didn’t enjoy controversy. There were a few times I canceled interviews with authors, because I read the book and thought, oh no, I don’t want to talk about that. I thought the book was terrible.

The business of radio had also changed and was moving in a new direction. I joined AFTRA in 1954, so I called AFTRA headquarters in NY and asked what the pension was, and they told me, and I said to my wife, why am I working? It’s a generous pension. I could actually afford to retire. I didn’t have to do stuff I didn’t want to do anymore. I still fill in occasionally. And still do commercial work. But I don’t miss the drudgery of doing it every day. I like being my own boss.

Rick: I’ll confess that I was a long-time listener of your show, from a very early age. The radio was always on in my house, and it was always tuned to WGN. Of all those classic WGN hosts, I think you managed to change with the times most successfully. You were always tuned in to what was happening, in Chicago, in pop culture, in politics, through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. How did you do it?

Roy: Two things. First of all, my children. I have six sons. There were at least 4 different radios on in our house, listening to all sorts of different stations. One loved WXRT. Another one was a big Dahl & Meier fan. I heard my kid’s music, and I heard what they were talking about. Although, as an aside, they wanted to hear what I was into too—my music. My youngest son was a Dead fan and enjoyed Steve and Garry, and one day he came up to me and asked if he could listen to my old records—and I said sure. I still remember how excited he was when he discovered Billy Holiday. I guess my house was always liberal in that sense. My kids could listen to or read anything they wanted.

The other thing that kept me current was when I got my first radio producer, Peter Marino. There’s a story at about him. He was much younger than me, young enough to be my son. And one day he came up to me and said it was time to get rid of the Ray Conniff records. He was the one that turned me on to a lot of things I might have otherwise missed. To tell you the truth, I’m not a nostalgia buff. I’d rather enjoy what is going on now than listen to those old boring Andrew Sisters records. I’ll be 80 at my next birthday, but I don’t like to bring that up, because most of my 80-year-old friends are boring as heck. (laughs)

Rick: You also weren’t afraid to talk about your family life on the radio, which made you a three dimensional figure to your listeners. When I mentioned to my mom that I was interviewing you this week, she immediately ticked off the number of children you had, that all of their names started with the same letter, your wife’s name, and that you supported soccer (which was important to her). To her, you were a part of the family. Did that sort of attention ever cause any problems with your actual family?

Roy: Before I came to Chicago I used to have the family on with me at my radio station in Boston around Christmas time. They would come into the studio, and they got a big kick out it. We did the same thing in Chicago after I started at WGN. (Photo: Roy and the family, Christmas 1973) Then one day one of the boys, who was in New Trier at the time, said ‘Do you mind if we don’t do this anymore?’ He was getting kidded about it at school—so we stopped. But every time I talked about them, you’re right, the listeners really liked that I would share my family stories. I was proud of them. Sheila didn’t mind. So we fell into a routine.

Rick: I think the best way to describe your style on the air is “friendly.” For some reason, that’s a rare commodity on the radio these days. Confrontation and controversy have become the norm. Why do you think that is, and are there any shows out there now in your opinion, that carry on in that Roy Leonard tradition?

Roy: I happen to like the new WGN morning guy Greg Jarrett. I get mail from people that don’t like him, but I really do. I think he is an intelligent guy, has a wealth of experience, and I like that he shares some of those stories. Some people think he’s talking about himself too much—I disagree. I also like that he doesn’t always try to be funny. Steve Cochran is very bright and is a really talented host, but sometimes I really think he tries too hard to be funny.

As for the controversy and confrontation, the world of the computer has changed things immensely. Everyone has an outlet, a way of venting their frustrations. I was listening to Dave Kaplan the other night. He was on after the ballgame and the Cub fans were ranting and raving about the team. They just wanted to let off steam. That sort of thing has spread. I don’t know why. It just has. Why did rock and roll radio take over in the 60s? People were looking for change.

In 1967 my station in Boston went rock and roll. They were a WGN-type station before that, #3 in the market, but they wanted to be #1. And that’s what they became. They were #1 in seven months. They asked me to stay on, but I didn’t want to be a rock and roll disc jockey. I liked the music, but I didn’t want to play it on the radio. One of my best friends was Curt Gowdy, he was a neighbor, and I asked him if he knew anyone that would hire me. He called his buddy in New York, and it turned out that he repped WGN.

At the time, WGN had marvelous ratings in the afternoon because of Cubs baseball, but after the season ended, they got no numbers. So, I bought three Chicago newspapers, The Trib, Sun-Times, and The American, went through them, and made a tape of what I thought my show would sound like in Chicago. They liked the tape, and Wally was taking some time off, so they paid me to fill in for him, and that Friday after filling in for a week, they asked me to work for them in the afternoon slot, 1 to 4 PM. I had been getting up at 3 in the morning, so I said, that’s great! But, my family was in Boston, and I have six kids, and I couldn’t just pack up and leave. So they agreed to fly me home to Boston when the Cubs were in town that summer of 1967. That made the move a little easier. We were able to sell our house and move out here before school in the fall.

As for my style of radio, you’re right, nobody is really doing that kind of show right now, but then again they weren’t doing it before I got here either. I listened to Chicago radio as much as I could (Howard Miller, etc.) when I first came to town. I tried to find what nobody was doing, and make that my own. Nobody was talking about theatre or film at the time, and I enjoyed both immensely, so when I first started, that’s what I talked about.

I remember Aaron Gold was representing the Ivanhoe, and he heard me talking about theater, so he asked me to come out and see their latest show. And that’s when I started getting these great guests.

Marcel Marceau (photo) was one of my first guests—and we really hit it off. Ironically, he wouldn’t shut up (laughs). We even had him out to the house. That’s one thing I never really talked about on the air—that I spent a lot of time with some of these people off the air—many of them came out to the house. I remember another time we had Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits over. He ended up in the bedroom upstairs playing guitar with my boys.

Rick: I’ve interviewed quite a few of your former colleagues and many of them mentioned you as a sort of mentor. Max Armstrong called you “a class act.” Spike O’Dell said you were a “consummate pro”. Dean Richards said he developed his sense of broadcast responsibility from you and your contemporaries. All of them modeled themselves after you in a way. Who served that mentor role for you? Who did you pattern yourself after?

Roy: The only one that immediately comes to mind is Arthur Godfrey (photo). I remember listening to his radio show out of Washington, and I thought this man does a commercial that doesn’t sound like a commercial. I emulated that from Godfrey. Edward R. Murrow. He was so classy, so professional, in the way he reported the news. There was one personality in Boston, his name wouldn’t mean anything here, but he had an evening music show—and he would time out the lip of every bit of music he played. I thought that was great. I stole that—tried to do that. But those are only ones that really come to mind. Nobody has ever asked me that before.

Rick: Here’s another one I’m guessing no-one has asked. I see that you were stationed in Nome Alaska in the Air Force, and worked at the radio station up there.

Roy: That’s true. Here’s a story I don’t think I’ve ever told publicly. I never met my father until I was in the service. He deserted our family when I was 2, and to be honest, I was pretty pissed at him. He had written a few times and he was a Marine and ran a construction business. I knew of him and knew what he was, but that’s about it.

I was stationed at Sampson Air Force base in New York, and I heard that they were looking for guys to go to Alaska, because the natives, the Eskimos, were all listening to Radio Moscow—and everyone was afraid they would be too influenced by that. They sent an Army building crew up there to build a radio station—and the Air Force staffed it. I was one of the staffers. I did the all-night show. And I really enjoyed it.

And that’s where I met my Alaska. We got along, but I think he was trying to make up for lost time, and it didn’t really work. We went out to dinner a few times. He was a hunter, and we went moose and bear hunting. I’m glad we didn’t actually find any. I must admit, I was not the greatest GI in the world. I paid this kid to clean my rifle. I couldn’t stand it. We really almost lived the civilian life up there because it was so remote. I don’t think I put a uniform on more than once or twice. I probably shouldn’t admit that—but oh well—I guess the statute of limitations has expired by now.

Rick: I think what you are remembered for the most are your interviews. The Roy Leonard interview is still the gold standard of radio interviews. You did hundreds of them over the years. I found references to a few of them that I’d love to hear more about. Did you really interview John F. Kennedy?

Roy: Yes. Back in Boston, I had a Sunday afternoon television show called The Yankee Camera. We carried the NY Giants football games, so we never knew how long the show was going to be, because it followed the game. There were times it was just a few minutes, and then there were times when we knew we had at least a half hour. Just before the New Hampshire primaries, Kennedy was running for president, and he came on the show. By the way, I don’t have a video or audio of that, we didn’t keep video records in those days. It’s a shame. It was a great interview—he was very warm, very friendly.

To show you how politically savvy that family was, Kennedy shook the hands of everyone there—everyone in the booth, everyone at the station. Then, when I got back to my office, the phone rang. I was told there was a call from Ambassador Joe Kennedy. He said “Roy, I just want to thank you for being so nice to my son.” I met him a year or two later and he remembered me.

Rick: I’m just going to mention a few more names of people you interviewed, and if you don’t mind, please tell me your memories and impressions of them too.

Roy: Sure.

Rick: Ronald Reagan

Roy: He was President of Screen Actors Guild at the time—somewhere in the early to mid-50s. I can’t remember what the interview was about to be totally honest with you. All I remember is that I found him politically savvy. His fellow actors were a little worried at the time, wondering if he was the right man for the job—he wasn’t totally accepted by the other Guild members yet. But he was successful at persuading them—and I do remember that we got into a discussion of politics and I was very impressed with him—I was surprised he was as knowledgeable as he was. I liked him very much. I never voted for him (laughs), but I was impressed by him.

Rick: George Harrison

Roy: He came to Chicago on a tour in the mid-70s and he was just in to plug the new album. I found him to be very warm, friendly, smart, bright, and fun.

Rick: John Belushi

Roy: I was on one of those junkets, I think that Belushi and Ackroyd had just done “Neighbors,” and so I was interviewing both of them. It’s really not that difficult to make a personal connection with someone, if you share an interest, and with John all I had to do was mention I was from Chicago—and he opened right up. And then when I mentioned Second City—and my love for it—that was all he needed to hear. My son, by the way, is now the VP at Second City.

Rick: Jimmy Stewart

Roy: He came in to promote his book of poetry. I have a tape of that somewhere. We’re eventually going to be putting up some of these interviews at my website (—so thanks for bringing that one up. I have to go look for it. I found him to be exactly like I expected him to be. Down to Earth—not overawed by the adulation—nice guy. Genuine guy. Just as you would imagine him. I liked his poetry very much too.

Rick: Mel Brooks

Roy: I can’t remember why he was in town, but he agreed to do two full hours with me. A lot of his stuff was on record at the time, and we did a lot of prep—my producer and I, we had bits from his movies, music from the soundtracks, you name it. Mel was impressed that it was something more than just a conversation. He was also absolutely hilarious. I’ll never forget his last line of the interview. He said: “Roy, do you always do your show in your underwear?”

I got to know him a little bit over the years, spent some time with him, went to his office in Hollywood—kibitzed with him. When The Producers came to Chicago, I ran into him on opening night, and he remembered me, and we spent some time with him.

I don’t know if you remember, but we used to take tours of listeners around the world to various different places, and one time we took a group to Italy. We were in a village in Northern Italy, and we pulled up to the hotel with our coach, and I went to the front door, and Mel was there. He said “ROY!” I said “MEL!” He was just hanging out at the hotel while his wife (Anne Bancroft) was filming a movie. Mel came on the bus and entertained us all.

Rick: That’s incredible.

Roy: If you make personal contact, people remember you. Burt Reynolds was one of those guys too. I met him, and we hit it off, but he had never come to Chicago. Well, one time he finally did come to town, but I was out of town. My producer called me in St. Louis, and said ‘Burt really wants to be on the show. He said he’ll stay over until you come back.’ And he did. These are some of the wonderful friends that you can make if you’re friendly, but don’t get overawed by them.

Rick: Thanks for spending some time with me. I could have asked you a million more questions, but it’s impossible to encapsulate thirty plus years in an interview like this. But while I have you, I did want to ask you one more thing. I read your blog post about the current WGN staff. You were pretty honest in your assessments, and some of those assessments were publicized by Robert Feder in his Vocalo blog. Did you get any heat for that?

Roy: My wife is a little angry at me because she thinks I’m becoming a curmudgeon in my old age—telling people what I really think, and I didn’t always do that—let’s face it. But I’m free to say what I want now, so I do. To tell you the truth, I’ve gotten nothing but positive comments about that, even from WGN people. I sat with the GM Tom Langmyer on the night they honored Wally, and he was very friendly, although we didn’t really discuss the current lineup that night.

But you know, there is some good stuff on WGN now. I think John Williams has really developed—he has become more opinionated—and is doing the kind of show they wanted me to do, I think. You know, express a personal opinion, and then let the listeners either agree or disagree, without yelling at each other. He’s very good at that.

I think Garry Meier has really improved too—he has found a groove. I’ve been listening to him more and more, and enjoying the show. He’s getting better and better.

Rick: Thanks Roy.

Roy: Enjoyed it, man. Tell everyone to go visit