Sunday, October 17, 2004
Ruth Lyons, the film, coming soon
Longtime admirer of city's legendary TV hostess is on a mission: Preserve her aura in a documentary
By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer
CORRYVILLE - Before there was Oprah, there was Ruth.
Mark Magistrelli at WVXU (91.7 FM), with some of his Ruth Lyons memorabilia. He's trying to find sponsors to underwrite his project, a documentary about the woman who dominated daytime TV here for many years.
The Enquirer/TONY JONES
Ruth Lyons, that is.
Thirty-seven years after her last broadcast and 16 years after her death in 1988 at the age of 83, the pioneering broadcaster is back in the news.
On Saturday, Lyons was inducted into the hall of fame of the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in ceremonies at the Marriott Kingsgate Conference Hotel here.
To preserve Lyons' legacy, award-winning documentarian and WVXU-FM (91.7) host Mark Magistrelli plans to make a video documentary of her life in time for the 2005 centennial of her birth.
Lyons was the first national talk-show hostess.
The Cincinnati native ruled the airwaves with unprecedented power.
Able to make entertainment careers and alter the course of commerce, she broadcast her daily unscripted show while holding a flower-bedecked microphone and seated on a sofa in a Cincinnati TV studio at WLWT.
Ahead of her time, she spoke out on radio and TV in favor of racial equality and women's rights during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
She raised millions for hospitalized children, amassed ratings five times greater than all of her competitors combined and never took herself too seriously.
Her style helped shape today's daytime and late-night talk shows. In her audience were millions of Midwesterners.
Making mental notes for future reference were David Letterman and Jane Pauley.
Letterman and Pauley have told Magistrelli he can count on them to make on-camera comments.
They will speak to Lyons' highly persuasive powers. She could sell anything from soap to songs, from singers to the national salvation of equal rights.
At her urging, her fans would support a struggling performer. That's how comedian George Carlin and folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary performed for packed houses early in their careers.
When she switched grocery-store sponsors, going to Kroger, the effect was immediate. That afternoon, the former sponsor's parking lots emptied as Lyons' followers went Krogering.
These powers came from a highly unlikely source. Lyons did not have a voice for radio or a face for television. (Imagine a mule braying. Picture Renee Zellweger in the film Cold Mountain.)
"Ruth Lyons was unabashedly Midwestern," Magistrelli said. "She was a mix of old-fashioned values and a love of the cutting edge."
Shows weren't preserved
For the documentary, he has amassed boxes of Lyons collectibles. Buttons and publicity stills mingle with a five-pound canned ham tin bearing her likeness.
After doing some Dumpster diving - "you would not believe what has been thrown away from her show over the years" - Magistrelli has filled a dozen three-ring binders with stills from the show. Lyons' staff photographer captured performances with such guests as Tony Bennett and Bob Hope.
Films of her programs are hard to come by. Lyons did thousands of shows. But, only two broadcasts exist in their entirety. Magestrelli has found "a home movie of a show that a fan shot from the stands."
In addition to Lyons memorabilia, Magistrelli needs money. The documentary requires expensive restoration of films and photos.
Interviews must be recorded on costly high-definition video. He figures he'll need a budget in the low- to mid-six figures - inexpensive for shows of this type.
He's also asking potential underwriters to contribute to the Ruth Lyons Children's Fund.
She started the fund in 1939 to provide toys for hospitalized area children. Since then, the fund has raised $21 million.
Magistrelli hopes the documentary's underwriters will add another $50,000. He sees that contribution as a way of carrying on Lyons' legacy of helping the community.