Bill Bonds may or may not be a classic, but there's no denying he's a doozy. "Got a second?" Detroit's most legendary TV newsman asks, laying down his phone to riffle through some papers. "Here's some names for you. Jimmy Hoffa. John F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy. Ronald Reagan. George Wallace. Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford. Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King. Malcolm X. Bill Clinton. Do you know what they all have in common?"
"Let me guess. They were all interviewed by Bill Bonds?"
"That's right. And of those 11, six of them were shot and killed. Wallace was shot and paralyzed. Reagan was shot. Ford was shot at and missed. Clinton was impeached. Nixon should have been impeached, and if so he would have been found guilty. That's 11 guys I interviewed, more than once. And look what happened to them! So if Bill Bonds ever walks up to you and he's got a microphone, don't talk to him. Run the other way! Put that in your newspaper!"
Well, I think I just will. The generation that recognizes the silver-topped baritone as pitchman for furniture chains and personal injury lawyers might wonder what the hell he's ranting about, but from the '67 riots until he left the Channel 7 (WXYZ) anchor desk in 1995, Bill Bonds was the face of television news in Detroit. Many times, much to the chagrin of his management, he made news as well as reported it. And now he's back in the key light again, as one of the honorees in the new exhibit "Detroit's Classic TV Personalities," which opens Saturday.
Our Billy's on-camera exploits will be celebrated in the five-month exposition, alongside the artifacts, photos and videos of:
Amyre Makupson, who anchored Big City News for America's first African-American-owned television station, Detroit's WGPR-TV, but is best known for her 27 years at WKBD (Channel 50), 17 as lead anchor of the city's pioneering Ten O'Clock News broadcast.
John Kelly and Marilyn Turner, the nation's first husband-and-wife talk-show hosts on Channel 7's groundbreaking Kelly & Company, one of Detroit's highest-rated series for more than 17 years.
Bill Kennedy, the urbane, colorful host of Bill Kennedy at the Movies, a fixture on Detroit television from the 1950s well into the 1980s, most memorably at Channel 50. (Sidebar: I had the privilege of interviewing Kennedy, who died in 1997, on numerous occasions, and the former actor's "Old Hollywood" flamboyance made him a sheer delight. Seldom was he happier than when he was presenting a black-and-white "classic" film in which he had a role.)
Emery King, now the face of the DMC, the former NBC News White House correspondent who chose lifestyle and family over frequent-flyer network glory by taking an anchor post at WDIV (Channel 4), where he remained for 19 years — until the station unceremoniously dumped him in 2005, nearly touching off viewer rioting.
Soupy Sales, unquestionably the biggest star of Detroit television's early years, the madcap comic who hosted a lunchtime show for kids and a nighttime sketch comedy and jazz show for their parents on Channel 7 before vaulting to national acclaim. It's said the revenue his programs generated in Detroit helped save the fledgling ABC network, which struggled in its infancy.
Sales, who has been in ill health for some time, reportedly has said he wants to fly into Detroit for the exhibit, though that seems unlikely. What visitors definitely will see, however, is Soupy's original "biggest and meanest dog in the USA," White Fang — discovered by local TV historians Ed Golick and Tim Kiska in a box of discards given them by puppeteer Clyde Adler's widow.
Kiska, author of the new book A Newscast for the Masses: The History of Detroit Television News (Wayne State University Press, $24.95), believes TV remembrances such as these are an important part of Detroit's shared history. "It was the part of our culture that made us different from everybody else," he says. "Every city had its own kids' shows and newscasters and movie hosts, and those folks set us apart from Cleveland or Chicago or Pittsburgh. It's what made us unique."
Speaking of unique, Bonds, who busies himself with speaking engagements in addition to his commercial work, wants no part of what "classic" implies connected to his future. "Frankly, I miss being in the news business most of all," he admits. "I'd go back in a New York minute. I'll tell you, once you get bitten by that bug, it never goes away."
Must be true. Makupson, who recently authored a self-published book on after-death speculations titled So ... What's Next? and now hosts TV productions for Comcast and the Archdiocese of Detroit, says, "Mostly I don't miss it, but every now and then, when a lot of stuff starts happening, I get like, 'Oh, man!' Like the [presidential] campaign. I haven't been glued to television that much since O.J. went off in his white Bronco."
When she got the call from the museum declaring her a "classic," Makupson says, "I was so honored. I'm just about as thrilled as I can be. I mean, I would have died at my desk if [Channel 50] hadn't stopped doing the news. I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. I did go through a lot of co-anchors, but it was a lot of fun."
Shows Saturday, March 14, through Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave. in the Cultural District. Call 313-833-1805 or go to www.detroithistorical.org.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]