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Commentary: Sonny Eliot

Over the weekend, the papers were full of tributes to Sonny Eliot, the wisecracking weatherman who was a television icon for a few million baby boomers and their parents.

To someone new to Michigan, or anyone younger than forty, this may have seemed a trifle odd.  Sonny, who died Friday, hadn’t been on TV on a regular basis since the 1980’s.

True, his twice-daily zany weather forecasts were a beloved part of all-news AM radio until a couple years ago.  But why all this fuss over a guy who broadcast the weather?

Well, he was, indeed, one-of-a-kind; a statewide celebrity before there were such things as cable networks, or 24 hour news. But I think the answer may have as much to do with ourselves as Sonny Eliot. Sonny did deserve to be recognized. He was certainly the last person on the air who was actually present at the creation of TV broadcasting in Detroit.

What is now WDIV first began broadcasting a continuous service in 1947, and within weeks, a young former bomber pilot became one of local TV’s earliest stars.

They sort of made it up as they went along. Most programming was live. One day Sonny might be hosting a kids’ puppet show; the next day, he was doing golf, or giving the weather.

Early on, he tried throwing in a few quips, calling 55, “Ten the hard way, as they say in Las Vegas.”  It caught on, and, Sonny was soon doing a full-court-press, borsht-belt style weather forecast. His jokes were often real groaners, and were stunningly popular. He dominated the ratings.

That was in an era when Detroit and the nation were booming, and virtually nobody imagined a time when the auto industry wouldn’t be all-powerful, or Michigan’s biggest city would be dilapidated and bankrupt.

Sonny was a Detroiter, to the core. He was born on the east side, to a poor immigrant family who ran a hardware store. Not many knew his real name was Schlossberg, that he had been a B-24 pilot during World War II, or that he had reinvented himself as an actor to entertain his fellow inmates in a Nazi prison camp. Like so many of our fathers, he returned home determined to live the good life in postwar America, and he did. The Detroit that he celebrated, and that celebrated him, is nearly gone. Eliot’s style of risqué humor and Mad Man era jokes might seem hopelessly passe today.

But there’s a lesson in his career we could do well to learn from. He was constantly reinventing himself, and adding to his skill set. Television was as new to his generation as Twitter to ours. He embraced it and mastered it. When it passed him by, he developed a new career on the radio, wrote books, did commercials.

He was still working until he began showing signs of Alzheimer’s when almost 90. His last years weren’t easy; his wife had suffered a stroke, and they could no longer visit their beloved Paris. But when I expressed sympathy, he said “I’ve had a wonderful life.” He had, in part because he had decided to have one, worked hard at building it and stayed mostly cheerful through it all.

If that isn‘t worth imitating, I don’t know what is.   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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