Yep, it's been one bad, sad year with more than 335,000 lives lost to the global coronavirus pandemic. I could almost fill each letter with this retrospective with a notable death – but I won't. There are some other things worth remembering from 2020, such as how the Cincinnati riverfront was "Simpsonfied" in November.
Here's my socially distanced look back at the year of TV/Media/Radio/Movies stories from A to Z:
A is for Alex Trebek, the beloved Jeopardy! host who died of pancreatic cancer in November at age 80. I interviewed him several times, and he always ended up talking about spending the summer of 1958 as a "Cincinnati garbage man." in the Queen City. His final episodes, taped in October, air Jan. 4-8.
B is for Black Panther's Chadwick Boseman, the gifted actor who starred as Jackie Robinson in 42. He died of colon cancer at age 43 in August after filming Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
C is for the crazy COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. What else could it be? The virus changed everything in our lives – masks, social distancing, chaotic cancellations, business and school closures. Can't wait to get that vaccine.
D is for the Duke is done. Earl "Duke" Hamilton, the Queen City's reigning royalty of country music radio, retired in July from WUBE-FM. Hamilton, a member of the Country Radio Broadcasters' Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, played country hits for 43 years on WUBE.
E is for the End of the road for Earl Pitts and WLW-AM's overnight truckers' show. Gary Burbank, who retired from WLW-AM in 2007, recorded his final commentary after 35 years for his uniquely Uh-merikan character (although "best of" reruns will air in national syndication throughout 2021). WLW-AM canceled the America's Truckin' Network show after 36 years in November and terminated hosts Steve Sommers and Dave Martin. Steve took over the show in 2004 from his father, Dale "The Truckin' Bozo" Sommers, who started it in 1984.
F is for the most unusual Rozzi's Famous Fireworks show. With crowd restrictions canceling Riverfest, WKRC-TV broadcast the WEBN/Western & Southern fireworks display from empty Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
G is for Goners: Dancing With The Stars hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrew (at right); CBS' Criminal Minds, Madam Secretary, Hawaii Five-O, God Friended Me, Edie Falco's Tommy, Man With A Plan, Pauley Perrette's Broke and Patricia Heaton's Carol's Second Act; Fox's Empire, Almost Family and BH90210; ABC's Modern Family, How To Get Away With Murder, Fresh Off The Boat, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Single Parents, Schooled, Bless This Mess and Emergence; NBC's The Good Place, Bluff City Law, Blindspot, Perfect Harmony and Connecting; and CW's Supernatural. Joining this list next year will be TBS's Conan, ending in June so Conan O'Brien can host a weekly variety series on HBO Max, and E!'s Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
H is for director Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy about my hometown. Glenn Close nailed J.D. Vance's grandmother Mamaw – and should get her another Academy Award nomination – but I found Ron Howard's adaptation of Vance's Middletown memoir an over-simplified comic book version, lacking the reasons for the disillusionment, detachment and sometimes discrimination felt by poor whites. Filmed mostly in Macon, GA, with its huge railroad underpass, Howard's Middletown didn't look like my hometown of 48,000, and didn't show its racial, economic or cultural diversity.
I is for the entertainment icons who died this year: Sean Connery, Diana Rigg, Regis Philbin, Carl Reiner, Kirk Douglas, Olivia De Haviland, Hugh Downs, PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, MAD magazine artist Mort Drucker, and Inside The Actors Studio host James Lipton.
Other notable celebrity deaths include comedians Jerry Stiller, Fred Willard, Norm Crosby, Terry Jones (Monty Python); actors Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West), Brian Dennehy, Kelly Preston, Wilfred Brimley, Buck Henry, Kevin Dobson, Conchatta Ferrell, David Prowse, David Lander (Laverne & Shirley), Ja'net Dubois (Good Times), Max von Sydow, Ian Holm, Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip), Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell), Orson Bean, Kellye Nakahara Wallett (M*A*S*H), Lyle Waggoner, John Saxon and Naya Rivera (Glee); TV hosts Tom Kennedy (Name That Tune) and Phyllis George (above left); MythBusters cast member Grant Imahara; Trading Spaces designer Frank Bielec; director Alan Park (Midnight Express, Fame); and producers Thomas L. Miller (Full House), Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H) and Fred Silverman.
J is for Jo Ellen Pellman, the 2014 Walnut Hills High School graduate who made her movie debut in December in Netflix's The Prom with Nicole Kidman (above), Meryl Streep, James Corden, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Ariana DeBose and Tracey Ullman. You may have seen her as Bob Cratchit's daughter for four years in the Playhouse in the Park production of A Christmas Carol, or in Cincinnati Young People's Theatre or Cincinnati's Children's Theatre productions.
K is for Kenny Rogers, the country singer who parlayed his Grammy-winning "Gambler" hit into TV movies. Roger first hit the pop charts with The First Edition in 1968, and scored many more after going solo in 1976.
Other music stars who passed in 2020: Little Richard, Charlie Pride, Charlie Daniels, Chad Stuart (of Chad & Jeremy) John Prine, Mac Davis, Bonnie Pointer, K.T. Oslin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Diffie, Johnny Nash, Trini Lopez and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
L is for Cincinnati TV pioneers Wanda Lewis and Len Goorian, who were part of the first generation of TV stars who made up television as they went along. Lewis, who died at 94 in August, pantomimed to records on Paul Dixon's WCPO-TV show before co-starring as Capt. Windy on her husband's Uncle Al Show.
Goorian, who died at 100 in January, danced on WLWT when it was an experimental station in 1947, and produced the Dixon Show in the early 1950s. See a rare clip here with Dixon, Wanda Lewis and Dotty Mack.
Goorian also turned war veteran Glenn Schnitker into WKRC-TV's Skipper Ryle children's host, and produced WCET-TV's Conversations with Irma Lazarus and Lilias Folan's yoga shows.
M is for Marilyn Harris, the Cincinnati food maven who was canned by WKRC-AM in a nationwide January iHeartMedia budget cut after 32 years. The cookbook author, Enquirer columnist and cooking school operator was fired over the phone: "I was told, 'iHeart is laying off 1,000 people today, and you're on the list, so don't bother to come in on Saturday,' " she told me.
N is for newspapers, which continued to adapt in their fight for survival. The Enquirer returned to a full-size "broadsheet" in January, abandoning the smaller "compact" tabloid format after a six-year partnership with the Columbus Dispatch. (So did the Dispatch.) The Cox family re-acquired the Dayton Daily News, Butler County's Journal-News and Springfield News-Sun in February to preserve them as daily publications. After Cox sold the papers - plus 14 TV stations and three radio stations - to Apollo Global Management last year, Apollo said it would reduce the papers to three issues a week after the federal government re-instated a rule prohibiting "cross ownership" of TV stations and daily newspapers in the same market. (The rule was not in effect when Cox Media announced the sale to Apollo in February 2019.)
O is for O'Toole From Moscow, WVXU's revival of a 1955 Rod Serling TV play as a one-hour radio comedy. It was a 30-year dream of mine which came true thanks to eight talented University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music students, CCM professor Richard Hess, Cincinnati Public Radio engineer Josh Elstro (in photo above at left), Reds organist John Schutte and Anne Serling, Rod's daughter, our program host and narrator.
P is for the Peacock and the explosion of "plus" streaming services. NBC launched Peacock in April to compete with Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, ESPN+, BET+, AMC+, CBS All Access (which becomes Paramount+ in 2021) and Warner Bros.' HBO Max, which shook up the landscape in December by announcing that Warner Bros. movies will premiere simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in 2021. Coming Jan. 4: Discovery+ with 55,000 hours of content from HGTV, Food Network and TLC.
Q is for former "Q102 Morning Zoo" founder Jim Fox, who died at 71 in May. Born Allen Duaine Pruett in Texas, Fox and Chris O'Brien hosted the hugely popular morning show on WKRQ-FM in the 1970s and '80s, and hosted country music on WUBE-FM in the 1990s.
Other local deaths include UC basketball analyst Chuck Machock; radio personalities Laura Powell, Bob Nave, Bill Ridenour, Larry Thomas, Geoff Nimmo, Ron Britain and Vic Henley; Joe Morgan, the Reds Hall of Famer turned TV analyst for Reds TV and ESPN Sunday Night Baseball; Bengals coach and NFL analyst Sam Wyche; movie producer/distributor Phil Borak; former Enquirer writers Sara Pearce and Lonnie Wheeler; Blue Wisp saxophonist Joe Gaudio; bandleader Jerry Conrad; and WLWT-TV engineer Ron Whitaker.
R is for Julia Reichert, who with her partner Steven Bognar won an Academy Award for best documentary feature for their American Factory film shot in suburban Dayton. Then they repeated the feat, winning a primetime Emmy Award for directing the Netflix film. It was the second national Emmy for the Yellow Springs duo, whose A Lion In the House documentary about Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center cancer patients won in 2007 for outstanding directing for a documentary/nonfiction.
S is for The Simpsons, Skyline Chili and spectacularly gigantic bowls filled with three-ways when The Simpsons' Principal Seymour Skinner and School Supt. Gary Chalmers took a road trip Nov. 29 to an education convention in Cincinnati. Fans of the show were quite animated over the wonderful depiction, particularly how producers "Simponfied" the riverfront and the Clifton Skyline where Skinner and Chalmers bonded over huge bowls of chili to the WKRP in Cincinnati theme ("Maybe you and me were never meant to be…"). As executive producer Matt Selman told me: "We love to honor American originals, and that's one of the funnest things about what The Simpsons do, to put our 'Simpsonfy' on an original, classic, unique American beloved institution, and certainly Skyline Chili is one."
T is for TV news changes: WCPO-TV permanently shut down Chopper 9 and terminated helicopter traffic reporter Dan Carroll in February. WKRC-TV named Kyle Inskeep and Paula Toti main anchors (above) in March to replace Rob Braun and Cammy Dierking; finally appointed John Gumm chief meteorologist four years after Tim Hedrick's death; promoted Adam Clements and Meghan Mongillo to early evening news anchors; and lost veteran reporters Angenette Levy and Angela Ingram in the fall. Weekend sports anchor Elise Jesse and reporters Alexis Rogers and Andrew Setters left WLWT-TV. WXIX-TV added 5-6:30 p.m. newscasts in January; weekend meteorologist Jeff Creighton retired in September.
Kudos to WKRC-TV for broadcasting the WEBN-FM fireworks; to WLWT-TV for telecasting the Cincinnati Ballet's The Nutcracker; and to WCPO-TV parent E.W. Scripps for buying the ION network (originally PAX TV) in September.
U is for unreality TV, how never-proven voter fraud conspiracies filled right-wing news channels after the Associated Press, Fox News and other networks called the presidential election for Joe Biden on Nov. 7. Fox News ratings dropped as President Trump criticized the usually loyal network, and encouraged followers to switch to Newsmax and One America News. Personalities on all three networks continued to perpetuate an alternative universe – that Trump could emerge as the winner by Jan. 20 – while the president refused to concede after losing 59 court challenges and the Dec. 14 Electoral College vote.
V is for Eddie Van Halen, the rock guitar virtuoso, songwriter ("Jump," "Panama") and founder of the Van Halen rock band, who died of cancer at age 65 in October. Other rockers who died this year: Singer-songwriter Bill Withers, Ken Hensley of Uriah Heap and Neil Peart of Rush.
W is for Cincinnati Public Radio's WVXU-FM, WGUC-FM and WMUB-FM, which celebrated significant anniversaries this year. Classical music 90.9 WGUC tuned 60 in September, a week before 91.7 WVXU celebrated its 50th. Turning 70 this year was Oxford's WMUB-FM (88.5), which has simulcast WVXU-FM since 2009.
WVXU experienced the most changes, with the departures of Cincinnati City Hall reporter Jay Hanselman, retirement of host/producer Lee Hay, and the end of Hay's Around Cincinnati arts and entertainment show after 15 years. WVXU also added reporters Cory Sharber and Jolene Almendarez; Cincinnati Edition assistant producer Nick Swartsell (from CityBeat); and Jenn White as host of NPR's 1A (10 a.m. weekdays), replacing Joshua Johnson, who took over the time slot after Diane Rehm retired in 2016. Reporter Becca Costello, a Batavia High School alum, replaces Hanselman as local government reporter Jan. 18.
X is for XFL, which was rescued from bankruptcy in August by wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. His investment group paid the WWE $415 million for the professional football league that twice has closed after one season, in 2001 and this year.
Y is for yerrr out! The Reds yanked Thom Brennaman off Fox Sports Ohio's telecast in the middle of the fifth inning Aug. 19 after his homophobic slur was heard earlier in the doubleheader with the Kansas City Royals. Fox Sports immediately dropped him from its NFL announcers' roster; Kroger halted his in-store promotional announcements. Brennaman spent the next four months meeting with LGBT groups and counselors. The Reds, Fox Sports or Brennaman have not said to whom he was talking to or about what, or if anyone else was disciplined.
Z is for Zoom, a noun which became a verb during the global pandemic, as we used the video conferencing services to keep in touch with family, friends, bosses and other coworkers.