America's Weather Wackies Take Their Forecasting with a Vane of Salt
Everybody talks about the weather, and some even get paid for it. With the advent of television, weathermen (persons) have evolved from dour fellows with horn-rimmed glasses and bewildering maps into entertainers. Their showbiz routines, including cartoons, puppets and slapstick, sometimes seem designed to soften the bad news that, just when you hoped otherwise, it's going to be either too wet or too dry. As the nation looks toward its last holiday weekend of the summer, the weather wizards are even more important to anxious vacationers eager for a few last rays. Here is a sampling of some of those who, likely as not, will predict rain on your Labor Day parade.
Meteorology madness, mornings at 7
"I'm 6'3" and 265 pounds of cured Virginia ham," says NBC's Willard Scott, who commutes from his Virginia farm to New York for his $200,000-plus-a-year job as the Today show weatherman. Scott, of course, is the acknowledged dean of comic forecasters and has taken weather wackery about as far as it can go. A onetime clown who invented the character of Ronald McDonald, Scott, 47, brings a heap of down-home buffoonery to the weather map. He cavorts with gifts from viewers—like a very dead crab—and even cajoles viewers into easing his considerable hunger pangs—two key lime pies arrived in the mail the day after one on-air appeal. Scott's hard information on the weather is compiled for him by three professionals; he just adds yuks. "I have always approached the job with a light touch," he says. "I'm an entertainer, not a meteorologist."
A hot line to the heavens
With its frequently soppy climate, Seattle reminds some observers of London without Princess Diana. But KIRO-TV weatherman Harry Wappler somehow manages to maintain a singularly sunny disposition. One of the city's most popular television half minutes is a crowded promotional spot that shows Wappler waking up, stretching and launching into a slightly off-key rendition of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning while his black-and-white cat, Domino, looks on in feline bemusement. Then in the shower he croons Singin'in the Rain, and as he tools his MGB down the driveway, I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone.
Wappler is modest about his meteorological medley. "I can carry a tune," he says, "but nobody would hire me to sing." In fact, KIRO did hire him to boost its ratings, and station officials give him much of the credit for their top ranking in the evening news sweepstakes. Besides his warbling, Wappler banters with anchor people, and devoted viewers send him such gag gifts as a weather rock with the legend "If the rock is wet, it is raining." His folksy ways have won him an intensely devoted following—and one of his prized possessions is a handmade afghan crocheted for him by the residents of an old-age home.
Wappler has kept a close eye on the heavens all his life. For three years the 44-year-old weatherman was an active Episcopal minister. Then he turned his collar around, studied meteorology and landed at KIRO in 1969. "I guess that I had got accustomed to thinking in celestial terms," he explains, "so it was a natural." Except for a three-year hiatus in New York, he, his wife and two sons have been in Seattle ever since. For his two daily telecasts, Wappler follows the fronts on a National Weather Service teletype machine in the garage of his home in the affluent suburb of Mercer Island, and the hills are alive with a network of amateur radio operators called Harry's Hams, who send in temperature reports from smaller cities in the area. After three hours of preparation with charts, maps and machines, he's ready to go on the air. His chain of informants is "like following military intelligence," says Wappler. "You've got to keep the pot on simmer, and when it's time, you cook up the forecast."
Drawing clouds instead of 'little mouses'
He may not be Walt Disney, but Don Noe of Miami's WPLG-TV has carved out a huge television following using animated symbols to show the movement of the weather. "It's a cartoon a day," he says, "but instead of mouses and ducks, I'm using clouds and cold fronts." He spends three hours daily cranking out his reports on a $6,000 film animation machine (above). All that work produces 2,500 individual frames—but only two minutes of animation. "Weather is dynamic," he explains. "It moves. Why can't it move in front of people watching television?"
Like many of his colleagues, Noe has an impressive professional background—even though, to succeed in television, he has to carry a big shtik. A native of Fond du Lac, Wis., Noe, 30, graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a major in meteorology. He then became a weatherman at a Green Bay, Wis. TV station in 1973. "My first year I tried to imitate the experienced weatherman there, but it wasn't me," he recalls. "It was very stilted and straitlaced. Then one day the news director told me to be myself. The next night I gave the weather standing on my head."
Following a year's stint in Portland, Oreg., Noe moved to Miami in 1979. He was faced with Hurricane David in his first week—and proved himself a quick study. "It was a hell of a change," he remembers. "I'm sitting reading books on hurricanes while it's coming closer and closer." Noe deadpans that, like many others, he moved to Florida "because of the weather"; but his work hasn't been easy. "Forecasting rain here is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," he explains. "In the summer in Florida, it can rain anytime, anyplace." But there are advantages. "You don't have to worry about what the temperature is in the summer," he jokes. "It's always a high of 90 and a low of 78."
Because of the time-consuming animation, Noe puts in 10-to 11-hour days. One compensation is that Betty Zyduck, his wife of eight years, works as a news anchor at a nearby radio station. "For the first time in my marriage, we have the same hours and can car-pool," he laughs. He also spends two hours each week speaking at schools, trying to arouse the same interest that drew him to his trade as a child. "Kids are fascinated by weather," he observes. "If I can spark a kid's interest in science, it makes me feel good."
Weather's her new deal
"I'm serious about the weather," insists Kristine Hanson, 29, the morning forecaster for KCRA-TV in Sacramento. Skeptics point out that Hanson got her first public recognition by posing nude for a Playboy centerfold in 1974 while she was working her way through Sacramento State. At the same time she was a blackjack dealer in a Lake Tahoe casino. Ironically, Hanson once planned a career as a nun—until her parents yanked her from a parochial school and enrolled her in a Sacramento high school, where she became homecoming queen. She plans to take the accreditation exam of the American Meteorological Association later this year. "I don't want to be a 40-year-old weather girl," she confides. "I want to be a meteorologist."
Hanson keeps her on-air demeanor dignified, but her forecasts have encountered occasional patches of rowdiness. She recalls one live, on-the-street broadcast: "A bunch of guys, drunk as skunks on a jug of wine, came up behind me," she says. "They said, 'Oh, wow, you're that girl that was in Playboy." Then they began waving at the camera and saying, 'Hi, Mom.' " Hanson often has to squelch her own comic bent. "I threaten to say, 'On Highway 50 this morning, chains will be required—but whips will be optional,' " she laughs. Hanson is ever conscious of the need to appear serious. "I couldn't wear a low-cut blouse on camera or someone would say, 'There she goes again showing her boobs,' " she observes. Two years ago Playboy approached her about doing an encore, but she declined. "I'm too far along in my career," she says. "I don't need that type of exposure now."
A long-raining institution
Dr. George Fischbeck stalks the weather map, prowls the sound stage like a caged lion and explodes into a frenzy of animation while delivering his forecasts. He candidly admits that cameramen should get hazard pay for trying to keep up with him. Fischbeck's antics for KABC-TV have made him such an institution in Los Angeles that his 26-year-old daughter has a tidy side business selling Dr. George collectibles—T-shirts, buttons, even umbrellas emblazoned with his familiar face and bow-tied collar. The buffoonery notwithstanding, Fischbeck considers himself anything but an entertainer. He is a former high school science teacher and recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Albuquerque. "Most weather types use their job as a stepping-stone to go on to game shows or talk shows," he sniffs. "Presenting the weather is enough for me. I love this job so much that it's embarrassing to get paid for it."
Fischbeck has an extraordinarily varied background. Son of a Monmouth, N.J. farmer, he has been an electrician, archaeologist, fruit picker, forest-fire fighter, stevedore, park ranger and artist. In 1958, while teaching in Albuquerque, he started a science show for a local TV station, then began filling in as a weatherman. He was an overnight hit and never looked back—although the audience reaction to his 1972 move to the Los Angeles station almost made him wish he'd never left the classroom. "I think people felt I was putting on an act, but that's really the way I taught school," he reflects. "I could teach kids anything once I had their attention, and if I could make them smile, they would even remember it." In one memorable gimmick, he brought a lion and a lamb into the studio to celebrate the beginning of March. His frenetic manner and infectious enthusiasm eventually won over his audience. And his devotion to his craft earned their respect. A member of the American Meteorological Society, Fischbeck stops by the National Weather Service office in Los Angeles twice daily, in addition to making frequent checks by phone. "No one should have warmed-over 5 o'clock weather at 11," he says. Arthur Lessard, of the National Weather Service in Southern California, agrees: "I've never seen George blasé about anything. Not only does he read the weather—he lives it."
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