Wednesday, 29 January 2014

TV's Pork Chop Man

During the early days of “Late Night With David Letterman,” there was a running joke that Letterman had worked for the defunct DuMont Network. It was a bit of an inside joke because someone on the show actually had been on DuMont—Letterman’s announcer, Bill Wendell.

There were guys like Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn and Bert Parks who broke out of the announcer ranks and had long careers hosting on TV. Then there were others who hosted a little bit but were really pigeon-holed as announcers. Johnny Olson, was one. So was Wayne Howell. And Bill Wendell falls in that category, too.

Wendell hosted several shows on WABD/DuMont. He emceed “Stage a Number” and “The Strawhatters” (replacing Bob Haymes), both in 1952, and was “Mr. Adventure,” who introduced late-afternoon movies in 1953; a fairly fast rise for a guy who was announcing on WHAM Rochester only a few years earlier. But DuMont was a small pond. NBC was an ocean that swallowed talent (I’ll spare you a trite “treading water” analogy). After some high-profile announcing gigs, Wendell thought he had reached a new jumping off point in his career in October 1958 when he took over for Jack Barry as host of the game show “Tic Tac Dough.” But it was cancelled a year later. That turned out to be the pinnacle of Wendell’s on-camera career. An Associated Press story in December 1959 revealed he was back at NBC as a staff announcer. And that’s where he stayed until 1993, when he moved with Letterman to CBS.

Here’s a story from the Yonkers Herald Statesman, Saturday, July 18, 1959, when it looked like the best years of Wendell’s career were ahead of him. And, in a way, they were.

Bill Wendell of Yonkers and Video Makes Horatio Alger Look Silly

NEW YORK-Horatio Alger is not dead. He lives on in this cynical, 20th century, his rags-to-riches stories brought to life everyday by men and women who once hooked a sturdy foot over the bottom rung of the ladder and are today swinging victoriously from one of the upper rungs. Take, for example, Bill Wendell. Alger's "Tattered Tom." and all the heroes of the "Puck and Luck" stories don't outdo him. He's a cleancut American boy who started out as a shoe clerk in the Bronx and is now the emcee of "Tic Tac Dough." one of day-time television's highest-rated shows. It is seen daily on NBC-TV, 12 o'clock EDT.
"I don't know to explain it," said Wendell. "It's more than luck, but boy, am I happy to have this show. I hope it stays on a long time. I was a second banana for so long. I was really getting fed up. I was a second banana to everybody. Ernie Kovacs, Bert Parks, Dave Garroway, Steve Allen. I thought I'd never get my own show."
Backstage in his dressing room, within the giant caverns of NBC's studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, this tall, black-haired young man, who gives his age as thirty-four, removed his make-up, wiped a speck of it off his expensive, monogrammed white shirt, and tipped back in his chair to recount the steps of success.
"I'd been married not quite a year and I was working in this shoe store and my wife was pregnant and I knew I had to find a way to make some more money. We were living with my in-laws in the Bronx so one day I announced to the entire family, 'well, I always wanted to be a radio announcer. I think I'll go down to NBC and see if I can take an audition.'
"I found out when they were holding open auditions and I'll never forget that day. The auditions were right here, up on the eighth floor. I was the only guy there who had had no experience. But I watched the others and I checked the pronunciations of the foreign words I couldn't say and when it was my turn, I was surprised to find that at least I could talk.
Comes The Word
"Two weeks later I went home from work one night and my wife was holding the letter from NBC. She gave it to me unopened, but she'd already steamed it open and glued it back. It was the offer of a job as a staff announcer on the NBC radio station in Rochester.
"We went to Rochester in the middle of the summer in 1947. I got 50 dollars a week and after the deductions, it wasn't much more than I'd made at the shoe store. We had a furnished room near the Sagamore Hotel and our window faced a roller-skating rink.
"By 7 o'clock every night the room was rocking and the windows were shaking and if we never hear the 'Skaters Waltz' again, it will be all right. The only compensation was that Anne and I had met in a rollerskating rink so we have a built-in tolerance.
Pork Chops and Skates
"Poor Anne was so sick with her first pregnancy she couldn't cook. I was doing all the cooking, mostly pork chops, on a two-burner hotplate and our memories of Rochester are all wrapped up in pork chops and roller skates."
The Wendell's first child, Anne Marie, called Muffin, now eleven years old, was born in Rochester, and as a man with a family, Bill Wendell again began to look around for ways to make more money.
"I opened supermarkets for miles around," he said. "Fifteen dollars a market was my price, and glad to get it. I obliged the Elks, the Lions, anybody with a few bucks to spend who needed an emcee. At the time I thought of it only as a way to earn money, but now I realize it was valuable experience."
Goes to Detroit
From Rochester, Wendell got an offer of a better job as a staff announcer on WWJ, the NBC radio and television station in Detroit, with a chance to do a weekend television show.
"It was the program director of WWJ who made me the offer," said Wendell. "I almost followed him home. I was afraid to let him get out of my sight.
"I got a lot of television work in Detroit. I eventually had my own night-time variety show there, with a band and comedians and a singer, just like the big time. We rented a nice little house near Grosse Point, five palatial rooms and a lawn. Detroit was very good to me."
In Detroit, the Wendell's next two children were born, Elizabeth, now nine, called Tewi, and William, Jr., now seven, called Champ.
Heads For New York
Meanwhile, after four years in the midwest, Bill Wendell was gradually easing his way back to New York, very well aware that the road to the top of the television ladder is paved by the sidewalks of Madison Ave.
In 1952 he returned to Manhattan to work for the Dumont Network, and in 1955, he came to NBC as a network staff announcer.
"It seems to me I worked on almost every show on NBC," he said. "One of the first shows I did was with Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams when they did that morning show every day. I worked with Garroway on 'Wide Wide World,' and on the old Steve Allen show and with Jack Paar on 'Tonight.'
"I was getting very discouraged about ever getting my own show when bang, out of the blue, I got this chance to do 'Tic Tac Dough.'"
Wants Night Show
And today, dear friends and gentle readers, as Horatio would say, the Wendells live in a 15-room Georgian colonial house in Yonkers. They have two more children, Francette, four, and Richard (Hot Shot Charlie), aged one. They also have six cocker spaniel puppies, a puppy apiece for the five children, and one puppy which mama and papa share.
It is the American success story, from a furnished room in Rochester, to colonial elegance in the suburbs of Manhattan.
"I want my own night-time show," said Bill Wendell, in the immortal words of all television performers. "My very own night-time variety show."

Wendell left the Letterman show in 1995 and retired to Florida. He died April 14, 1999.


  1. That article cleared up a mini mystery for me. I did not know that Bill Wendell worked in Detroit at WWJ.

    There's a film that was made at Jam Handy in the early fifties called "Wings for Roger Windsock" and a few of the voices sounded exactly like Bill Wendell. Now I'm sure it's him. Another voice in the film was Dick Beals who was working at Dertoit's WXYZ at the time.

  2. Thanks, Mike. It's always nice to solve a voice acting mystery.

    Beals left Detroit for Hollywood in 1952. There's a post about him on Yowp HERE. He seems like a nice guy.

  3. I have 2 post cards from Bill Wendell, Mr. Adventure from 1954. He is dressed as a cowboy and was working for Channel 5 WABD at the time. One of them announces a show at Palisades Park and the other he is retuning a picture of me. If anyone has an interest in seeing them, contact me at justavet @