Anchors in the firmament

I was yammering into the phone at the far end of the hotel lobby when I spied him sauntering down the concourse. The year was 1994 and I was working for Brazilian television as an executive secretary during coverage of the World Cup. He walked right up to me and pointed at the shoeshine stand next to my desk. “Who do I see about a shine,” he muttered through a tight smile. His outfit was a bit too country-club, but the souped-up toupee and boozy breath were as advertised. “No, Mr. Bonds. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to ask at the front desk.” Off he went and I returned to booking plane tickets for Brazilian TV execs off to San Francisco.

It seems that 1994 was not a good year for Bill Bonds. Somewhere in Detroit, fellow barflies allegedly gathered around a saloon’s telly to make bets on how many lines their star juicer would flub during the newscast. There was also an infamous boozy cruise that led to a drunken driving conviction.

Bonds may be sober now, but he’s also less fun. A celebrity on the skids appeals much more to our cynical hearts than a modest renaissance does to our better angels. I’m fondly reminded of Bill Kennedy, legendary host of the afternoon movies in Detroit and Windsor. Kennedy was an unrepentant tippler to the end and all the better for it. Who can forget his grandiose pronouncements on the topics of the day, when he wasn’t spinning some yarn about his salad days as Clark Gable’s understudy? Even in the last days, when his toupee was swept into the ocean as he cruised along Palm Beach in a Caddy rigged for sight and sound, Kennedy kept his soused cool.

Thanks to the miracle of satellite technology, viewers in Ferndale and Flin Flon, Manitoba, alike can leer shamelessly at our premier TV anchor. Carmen Harlan is a class act. Even though she appears on local news — a notoriously seedy enterprise second only to the WWF as a favorite whipping boy for television critics and scholars — she exudes grace, sincerity and good upbringing. One never gets the feeling that she’s waiting impatiently for her big break or sucking up to a lobotomized audience.

Carmen is of Detroit, for Detroit, year after year, decade after decade. New talking heads come and go, presumably to greener pastures. She stays. And let us not forget that she honed her craft at the side of Mort Crim, a golden relic of local news whose values reflect the days before ratings fever and tabloid journalism. Moreover, she’s a paragon of black womanhood, putting to shame the nubile “bitches and hos” that BET and MTV present to impressionable youth as such.

Then where would we be without the cliché of the used car dealer? Richard Nixon’s true character would never have been described with such accuracy. Yet, every town finds a place in its heart for that special individual able to beckon fine citizens down to his lot to inspect a fleet of masterpieces driven by little old ladies to church.

Rumor has it that Mel Farr keeps special counsel with NASA, which has provided him the technology capable of turning off the ignition of any of his cars by remote control. Should some poor schlep miss a payment, Mel throws a switch and the jalopy is an instant lemon. I’ll have none of this slander.

In my youth, I marveled at the former Detroit Lion flying high above the city, red cape flapping triumphantly behind him, vanquishing high prices and bad credit on our behalf.

The ageless Farr is still at it, talking fast and furiously to a camera that eats him up. Unlike Ollie Fretter who sheepishly promised us “five pounds of coffee if I can’t beat your best deal.” On camera, Fretter seemed game if uncomfortable, even though he came off as a lovable kook.

At some point, Ollie tired of this racket and wisely unloaded his business, just before the onslaught of carpetbagging appliance superstores. I see Ollie out on the town once in a while, the goofy jocularity still intact, and I become wistful for the local entrepreneur making his pitch to a local audience.

Despite a nagging fear that he’ll expire right on camera, I nonetheless delight in the quaint spectacle of Woodrow W. Woody muttering from behind his desk at the Hamtramck car dealership that has borne the family name for well over a half-century. And Mr. Belvedere, if only I had been old enough to own a home that you could cloak in your aluminum siding!

Global capitalism being as it is, we now get pitchmen selling product that requires no roots, no history: just money. Andy Jacob, once the ubiquitous shill for World Wide Financial, has resurfaced with Loan Giant. Jacob is a local guy, but what about the loot he promises to homeowners hungry to put their equity on the line to go further into debt? The old economy of local entrepreneurship and local patronage of such is almost as obsolete as the idea of going down to your friendly neighborhood banker for a mortgage.

Ollie and Mel, we need you — without you, we’ll click our way so far into the abyss of Web shopping that we’ll never find our way out. And the tears will flow when we try desperately to remember your names and what you once meant.

Timothy Dugdale writes about arts and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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