Before Barbara Walters,
There Was Rona Barrett
The Grand Dame Of Gossip In The 1960s Paved The Way For Walters And The Succeeding Generations Of Journalists That Followed In Her Footsteps
Columnist and television personality Rona Barrett.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel To Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 17, 2015 — We all know that television stories about celebrity minutia have become as ubiquitous in our culture as the seemingly unending array of photos of Kim Kardashian’s ample backside. The major networks and cable shows dutifully cover celebrity gossip, the more salacious of course, the better. And nowhere is that more in evidence than the “Gotcha” moments (in addition to some actual legitimate scoops) engineered by TMZ.
But back in the 1960s, such “fluff journalism” (at least on TV) was nascent. And the face of it was Rona Barrett, a frosted blonde pixie with a Joey Heatherton hairdo and a “New Yawkish” speech cadence that had some viewers lunging for their remotes.
For her time, Barrett (now 79 and living in northern California) was the grand dame of gossip. She even had her own catchphrase sign-off (“That’s Hollywood”) which, combined with her sly, knowing stare, she ended her weekly gossip and interview segments on ABC.
In fact, prefiguring the later arrival of Barbara Walters, Barrett was the first to develop in-depth probing TV specials about entertainment and political celebrities. At her height, she even and had a series of magazines covering the entertainment industry including “Rona Barrett's Hollywood.”
In 1991, Barrett retired to her ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., where she currently runs the Rona Barrett Foundation which caters to senior citizens in need.
Back in 1982, when Barrett was reporting out of her suite of offices at NBC, we sat down with her and learned quickly that the word “gossip” is not part of her lexicon.
“I began to resent the word gossip as applied to me when I learned that it carried an innuendo of trivia and a stigma of nastiness, everything that I abhor. I work hard at my craft,” she said.
Perseverance and an unflagging belief in her own capabilities, Barrett told us, were responsible for her success. By her own admission she “gnawed” her way into network television in Los Angeles.
“I drove people crazy at KNBC,” she said. “I kept applying for a job there. They never turned me down but they never said yes, either. Finally they said, ‘For God’s sake let’s put her on the air and she’ll bomb and then we’ll be finished with her.’”
As a child, Barrett was a victim of muscular dystrophy and wore leg braces. Her move from New York City was precipitated by the fact that whenever it snowed, she felt like a “caged animal.” At the age of 13, armed with nothing more than sheer bravado, Barrett stormed singer Eddie Fisher’s Los Angeles office and convinced him that she should be head of his national fan club.
“I saw through Eddie Fisher, my own way to escape,” she said. “At 13, I believed that famous people were perfect people and that if I could attach myself to a faultless human being, my life would be perfect. All the pain, suffering and indignation would fade away. It hasn’t.”
Barrett’s entire pre-foundation career was spent reporting about celebrities. At the same time, she made a concerted attempt to legitimize herself and her profession to her peers and the American public at large.
“People think that this job is so easy. They’re all under the impression that you wake up in the morning and say to yourself: ‘Well, today should I interview Rock Hudson or James Arness?’” Barrett said. “I’ve spent 20 years accumulating the knowledge and experience to be able to do my job thoroughly and efficiently, to put it all in perspective. You can’t take somebody off the street and tell them to report on Hollywood.”
In the 1980s, dignity and respect were the intransigents Barrett searched for as she nomadically bounced from network to network. That was the reason for her move to NBC and a short-lived co-anchor spot on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. Sublimating his own blimp-sized ego was never Snyder’s hallmark, and Barrett left the show in a mutual rancor that made her the subject of – dare we say it – gossip! NBC also tried Barrett out on her own program after she left Snyder, but that too, bombed.
In an effort to dismiss any similarities between herself and such Hollywood columnists as Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, Barrett said that she tried to reflect the shifting attitude in the U.S.
“Louella and Hedda were very moral people but their job was to expose the immorality of others. I don’t do that. I expose immorality from a business standpoint,” Barrett said. “I feel the public really isn’t interested anymore in who is sleeping with whom. It may sound pompous, but I think people are seeking something more spiritual. That want to find out how stars overcame obstacles enroute to their success, even if it’s as silly as learning how to cook.”
Celebrities interviewed by Barrett back then seemed to sense that same concern. They knew that her interviewing technique was to penetrate as deeply as possible into their emotional psyches (just as Walters would do years later) to try to discover what really made them tick. Often Barrett probed the common ground of misery that the celebrity might have experienced during their childhood – something Barrett could certainly empathize with.
“I’ve listened to Dudley Moore explain about how his sense of humor sprang from the compensation he continually made because of the clubfoot he was born with,” she said. “His parents were outraged and humiliated at having produced a child who wasn’t physically normal.
“Another interview I vividly remember is when Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues talked to me about his alcoholism. He said that if you ever want to do a chronic alcoholic a favor, you should fire them.”
Triumphing over daunting disabilities; exorcising personal demons and finding a therapeutic peace via the stories of others who have faced down similar pain were Barrett’s pocket aces time and again in her interviews. So what if they sometimes sounded suspiciously like the plot threads of a Tinseltown screenplay.
As Barrett might’ve said herself: “That’s Hollywood!”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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