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Mort Meisner's new book recalls TV career, growing up in Detroit


By Susan Whitall  |  Special to The Detroit News

Mort Meisner had a tough childhood growing up in Detroit and Oak Park. How tough? How about being evicted from your home on Thanksgiving Day, when you’re 11 years old.

“It was just days after President Kennedy was assassinated,” Meisner recalled of that day in 1963. He thought eating beanie weenies on his front lawn, instead of turkey in the dining room, kind of cool — at first.

It was the third eviction for the Meisners — the previous two had been in Detroit. Over time, Mort managed to overcome his family’s perilous finances, as well as his abusive father and emotionally distant mother.

He managed to hustle himself into several careers, notably as news director for Fox 2 (WJBK-TV Channel 2), for 10 years, ending in 1997, although he developed a roaring cocaine addiction and left a few marriages behind.

Today, as a talent agent, Meisner represents a stable of TV and radio personalities, including Glenda and Diana Lewis, and WWJ morning news team Roberta Jasina and Tom Jordan.

Meisner tells his story in a memoir, “Enough to Be Dangerous” (Two Sisters Writing and Publishing), with writer Stephanie Ruopp. It's available for preorder from his website mortmeisner.com, and on Oct. 1, from Amazon.com.

As a teenager, Meisner worked in concert promotion during the wild Grande Ballroom and Eastown Theater days, when promoters packed guns and the ticket money never quite added up.

His TV career started when he got a job in the late '70s as a production assistant at Channel 7. Mort was the guy tasked with packing up Bill Bonds’ belongings when he was fired. Ironically, he ended up being the executive at TV2 who fired Bonds. 

“Bill walked the walk and talked the talk and he really, really cared,” Meisner said. “It was heartbreaking to me, watching him over the years. When that light came on, he was right on, although oftentimes he was inebriated.

“When I was a production assistant, maybe three times I was told by my mentor (news director) Phil Nye, ‘Pack up Billy, put his stuff in a box.’ They would deliver it to his house. Bill was making so much money then, he would have uncashed checks in his office.

“I was the last one, sadly, to fire Bill when I brought him over to Channel 2,” Meisner recalled. “I went into his office and said ‘Billy, pack it up and go home. You smell like a gin mill.’ But I learned so much from him.”

There were others who helped him along the way. At Oak Park High, where he was told he’d be lucky to get a factory job, Meisner finally drew a counselor, Harry Weberman, who recommended that he go to college. His great-uncle, Adolf Deutsch, paid his way through the University of Detroit. “My parents could never have afforded it.”

Not all of his memories of growing up in Oak Park are dire — he remembers seeing David Weiss and his father, actor (and Detroit’s Santa Claus) Rube Weiss walking their standard poodles dyed vivid hues of pink and purple. 

Meisner was still in high school when he got a job selling pop at the Grande Ballroom for owners Gabe and Steve Glantz. The Glantzes later ran shows at the Eastown (after they merged with Bob Bageris) and the Michigan Palace.

He believes that the Glantzes’ part in Grande history has been forgotten over the years. “Gabe and Steve Glantz owned the Grande,” he said. “Russ Gibb worked for them.

“Russ did book bands for Gabe, up to the point that Steve was able to start booking them,” Meisner said. “Steve was 17 or 18, I was 16 when I started. But it was an amazing time, from the Grande, then the Eastown, the Michigan Palace, (rival promoter) Bob Bageris, and fistfights. Some of the stuff I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it.”

Which brings us to what happened at the Clock restaurant on Harper, on Detroit’s east side, when Meisner and Mountain guitarist Leslie West went in for a late night meal. “The locals, who had presumably never seen an obese Jewish rock star, mocked him and made fun of him,” Meisner wrote. “His response started a ruckus in the restaurant and almost spun out of control.” Wait, what did West do?

“He dropped his pants and mooned everybody,” Meisner said. That’s tame rock star stuff. Especially compared to what he says he says he saw at Iggy Pop shows. Yes, Iggy took his clothes off, yes peanut butter was involved, but Meisner saw much more going on between Iggy and the audience. It’s not in the book, but Meisner will tell you about it, when he does a book event--when there are book events again.

He writes about walking in on rock pioneer Chuck Berry in a dressing room at the Eastown, where Berry was “entertaining” two young women. Berry asked for some time before going onstage, and he got it.

Meisner still worked for the Glantzes while he was taking journalism classes at the University of Detroit. But he tired of what he calls their “questionable business practices,” and resolved to get a job in TV.

“I was at a funeral few weeks ago, and I saw Steve’s gravestone (The younger Glantz was 44 when he died in 1995). He was tormented. There were times he tried to go the honest route, but his dad would drag him to the dark side. I had to leave—but I wanted to be in TV news, anyway.”

As a child, Meisner had written to Channel 7 sportscaster Dave Diles, and was invited to the station to watch a sportscast. That encouragement continued when Meisner was hired as a production assistant at 7, where he received a sort of Dilesian tough love.

Similarly, Bonds took a liking to Meisner, and he loved to dispense advice. “He told me, ‘Kid, never become too proficient at BS tasks. Don’t learn how to change the AP or UPI paper.’ ‘Well, what do I do when we’re out of paper?’ ‘Go take a leak. Because if you don’t, you’ll be stuck in this job forever.’”

Meisner writes about seeing Bonds wing it on the air, giving an instant, thoughtful obituary on Hubert Humphrey when the former vice president died in 1978. Bond delivered it off the top of his head — or so it seemed.

“I go with Bill as the best anchor I ever worked with, and the smartest,” Meisner said. “He had his demons — but he was a good friend, very good to me.”

A significant part of the book is devoted to Meisner’s disgust with sexist and racist behavior he witnessed in newsrooms over the years. He calls that chapter “The Garbagemen,” referring to a pejorative term applied to black male reporters who would be given the “garbage” assignments.

Meisner insists he didn’t just raise the issue in response to the current focus on civil rights, but has felt that way since he witnessed black classmates harassed at Edgar Guest elementary school in Detroit.

“It’s angered me so much over the years, I would have talked about it anyway,” he said. “That’s why I called that chapter ‘The Garbagemen.’ That’s how these black men were treated, and women.

“I tell that story about the one boss, who said ‘If we have a woman working as a manager, I won’t be able to swear.’ And, ‘They should be at home preparing dinner and raising kids.’ It was just so stupid, and the current climate makes it all the more relevant.”

After Channel 7, Meisner did stints at stations in Chicago and St. Louis, before returning to his hometown. And in the end, he put most of his demons to rest. Most.

Recovery from addiction was important, as was therapy, and of course, his touchstone —the music of Bruce Springsteen. Meisner first met him as a promoter, and he’s attended so many concerts, Bruce came to remember him.

Meisner’s father, who he described as a “real life Ralph Kramden,” mellowed in his later years.

“It’s like it was a personality change. He had been beaten by his father, who was a leader of the baker’s union. With me, maybe the cocaine use was self-medication. I was always in search of happiness. To this day, that remains, on a lot of levels.”

More Meisner

On his relatively long term (1988 to 1997) at Channel 2: “Almost 10 years. In retrospect, I think that’s too long. I think you need new blood, new leadership. I worked for some awful people at the end, and it was just time. I am proud of what we did--I was smart enough to help bring Huel Perkins to St. Louis, and then we brought him here. When I hired Huel, (Free Press columnist) Bob Talbert said ‘He ain’t gonna last 18 months. Too skinny, crooked jaw--he ain’t gonna work.’ He wrote that, and he was wrong.”

On his fondness for animal stories, including the raccoon trapped in the traffic light: “The newsroom revolted when I led the newscast with that. It wasn’t because it was a raccoon, it’s what people were talking about. And if you’re waiting for your husband or wife to come home for dinner, they’re going to be late coming up I-75. I would do it again! It’s more relevant than all the dump truck accidents they run.”

On cable “news”: “There’s too much opinion that is unidentified. When Bill Bonds expressed an opinion, it was identified as commentary. Too many people think what (Fox host) Sean Hannity or (CNN’s) Don Lemon are saying is fact.

On Detroit TV news: “I’m partial, but Glenda Lewis is an amazing anchor for Channel 7. It’s clear that the reason Channel 7 isn’t more competitive ratings-wise, is that they need a star quality male anchor. They promoted Dave (LewAllen), who came out of Sports, but they need someone dynamic who they can grow and will be there for a long time. But management does not want to create a 10,000 gorilla anymore, they have to pay them too much. Huel Perkins (Channel 2) and Devin Scillian (Channel 4) are outstanding anchors. When Huel retires, they will replace him with someone who makes a third of what he makes. I think they’re grooming Roop Raj.

“Overall, the stations air too many irrelevant shootings. Stories lack context and perspective. It’s in part because the producers and writers are not ready to be in markets like this.”

“Enough to Be Dangerous”

Two Sisters Writing and Publishing

 $32.99

Susan Whitall is a Detroit author and journalist. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.