DETROIT — Some years ago, I took a vacuum cleaner to a suburban shop to be overhauled. The man behind the counter stared at my credit card.
“You are Jack Lessenberry?” he said, in a tone of what I thought was awe and admiration. “This is really you?”
Well, yes, I said, adding that I was flattered he recognized my name. I asked him where he read my work, or whether he listened to me on the radio, or saw my TV show.
“I don’t know what you do,” he said, puncturing my little ego as effectively as if he’d used a scalpel. “I didn’t think you were a real person. I thought you were just one of those characters made up by Sonny Eliot in that crazy weather forecast he does.”
Well, in a sense I was. And always will be, though Sonny Eliot died last Friday. For years, Sonny would proclaim that Friday was “Jack Lessenberry Day” on the weathercast he did twice a day on Detroit’s all-news radio station, WWJ-AM.
He usually called me a “well-known street fighter,” or a “guinea-pig guru.” The truth is that my street fighting abilities are probably on a par with those of a guinea pig.
I loved it. Mr. Eliot was more than a comic, however. He was, for a few million Baby Boomers and their parents, one of the most enduring iconic images of Detroit.
He was also the last person on the air who was present at the creation of TV broadcasting in Detroit. The first regular service began in 1947, and before the end of that year, Mr. Eliot was on TV.
Back then, he did a little bit of everything. He acted in plays. He was once drafted at the last minute to play Madame Cadillac in a play about the founding of Detroit.
And he did the weather. Once he said it was 55 degrees in Las Vegas, adding slyly: “Ten the hard way.”
The audience laughed. The ratings perked. A career was born. He delivered the weather nightly with a combination of slapstick and Borscht-belt humor.
He invented words such as “cloggy,” for cloudy and foggy. He gave the temperature in Chinese, in Swedish, in Hungarian. The audience loved it.
“Back in the day, he had a 50 share,” said Rich Homberg, chief executive officer of Detroit Public Television. “A 50 share. That meant half of all the TVs in the Detroit area were tuned to his show when he was on. Who ever had a 50 share?”
For years, Mr. Homberg ran the radio station that included Mr. Eliot’s broadcast. As far as he was concerned, Mr. Eliot had a job for life. In fact, he worked until he was short of 90.
“I will be 39 soon — time to hang it up,” he told me. His actual age was a secret, and is still a matter of dispute. Though obituaries said he was born in 1920, Army records he showed me indicated he was born in 1919.
Whichever is true, he was a Detroiter to the core, the youngest child (hence Sonny) of Latvian Jewish immigrants. He grew up on the tough East Side, where his family owned a hardware store. As a boy, he sometimes delivered new plate glass to the local bawdy house after the usual fights broke out on Saturday nights.
Young Marvin Schlossberg — Mr. Eliot’s real name — cared about one thing: flying. When World War II started, he became a B-24 bomber pilot. When flak tore into his plane in February, 1944, he held the Doodley Squat steady until his crew bailed out. Then he jumped.
He was apprehended by a German farmer with a pitchfork and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Bored, he helped organize plays. He found he had a talent for acting, and was more than a bit of a ham.
When the war ended, he came back to Detroit, where he quickly became a statewide media star. For years, he was the master of ceremonies for Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Once, NBC’s Today Show offered him a job as weatherman. “I could have been Williard Scott,” he said.
But Mr. Eliot wasn’t 100 percent sure he could have made it in the big city, and, anyway, he was 100 percent Detroit.
He was cheerfully apolitical, rubbing elbows with politicians across the spectrum. The only time I knew him to take sides vocally was in 2008, when he was all for John McCain.
Not, however, because Mr. Eliot didn’t like Barack Obama. Mr. Eliot, like Mr. McCain, knew what it was like to be in a POW camp.
Mr. Eliot was cheerfully politically incorrect to the end, indulging in Mad Man-era behavior that might have gotten anyone else fired for harassment. “But it’s just Sonny,” one anchorwoman sighed, after he tried to throw her off her delivery by dropping his pants off camera.
Late in life, he was stricken with rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s. After he retired, I told him how sorry I was about the way things turned out.
“What do you mean?” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. All I could have asked for is a little more hair, and a lot more sex.”
And for one last time, he flashed that famous grin.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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