Thursday, May 23 2013 12:03 PM

Broadcasting pioneer Rodewald dead at 86

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    Don Rodewald poses with kittens in a publicity shot from his days at Channel 10, sometime before KERO became Channel 23.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

“Until tomorrow at 3, when it’s just you and me.”

With that line, which would become the catchphrase of a lifetime, Don Rodewald went from genial announcer to Bakersfield icon in the early days of television, a giddy era of seat-of-the-pants improvisation, when every telecast held the potential for greatness, disaster or side-splitting laughter, owing to the inevitable gaffes that are an occupational hazard of live TV.

With Rodewald’s death on Wednesday at age 86, a vital link to Bakersfield’s trailblazing media history was lost forever.

“He was primarily an announcer on camera, and his best-known show was as host of the ‘Afternoon Show,’” said Rodewald’s daughter, Judy Barkett.

“It was the precursor to the modern-day talk show. He showed movies and he did live features of goings-on around town. It was a two-hour show, from 3 to 5. Everybody I knew growing up had him in their living room when they came home from school.”

But Rodewald’s legacy —first at KERO-TV and then at Bakersfield College, where he taught when his television career ended — cannot be defined merely by his professional accomplishments.

It was his cheer, zest and ever-present smile — not to mention that famous crew cut — that made people stop, stare and point, not years but decades after he retired from television in 1973.

Steve Taylor, director of creative services at KERO, worked with Rodewald 10 years ago on the occasion of the station’s 50th anniversary.

“The (general manager) we had at the time met Don and I at Rosa’s (Restaurant),” Taylor recalled. “People at the booths kept staring at Don. The GM said, ‘That doesn’t even happen to our current talent.’"

April Rodewald Fout became accustomed at a young age to the attention her dad commanded as a local celebrity.

“The most common question that Judy and I got growing up: ‘Well, what’s your dad really like. On TV, he’s so funny, he jokes around, he’s so friendly. What’s he like at home?’ He was exactly the same. What you see is him. He was just a real people person. Never knew a stranger. Everybody who ever met him just was enchanted by him.”

Businessman Ray Mish, both a friend and client over the years, admired Rodewald’s brio and warmth.

“The moment you met him, he smiled at you, and you knew the man. He was one of the most intelligent, handsome men I’ve ever known in my life.”

Loves of his life

Rodewald was born in Bakersfield on Jan. 2, 1927, to Ross and Dorothy Rodewald. He attended East Bakersfield High, and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame earlier this year.

Upon his graduation from high school, in the waning days of World War II, Rodewald immediately enlisted in the Navy, but by the time he received orders to head overseas, the war had ended.

Though he saw no action, his time in the service was productive and led to two enduring passions of Rodewald’s life: a love of flying and his future wife, Shirley. The two met in Minnesota, where she was a volunteer in the all-female division of the U.S. Navy, known as the WAVES.

“It was love at first sight for both of them,” said Barkett.

After a brief time apart, when Rodewald returned to California, the two were married.

Rodewald attended Bakersfield College before transferring to what was then called College of the Pacific in Stockton, where he earned a degree in radio and speech. The newlyweds lived in San Francisco after graduation so that Rodewald could be trained in engineering — a requirement of disc jockeys in those days — before he took his first job in broadcasting, at KWSO in Wasco.

Always game

The couple moved to Shafter — where their two daughters were born — when Rodewald began his job as a disc jockey at KWSO around 1951.

“There are people in their 80s and 90s who still remember that radio show, believe it or not,” Barkett said.

It was while he was doing a commercial — they were all live back then — that the topic of making a move into television came up.

“He did a commercial for Casa Moore (Furniture) and the TV station in Bakersfield was Channel 10, KERO, which was an NBC affiliate then. It was in the El Tejon Hotel. Phil Marty (the Casa Moore client) went to the television station and said, ‘I want this disc jockey at KWSO to do my commercials.’ They told him, ‘We don’t take radio people.’ He told them, ‘If you don’t use him, I’m going to pull my commercials.’”

So KERO relented and gave Rodewald an audition. He didn’t knock anyone’s socks off, at least not at first, according to Barkett.

But when KERO executives got wise to the rough gem in their midst, they hired Rodewald in 1955, Taylor said.

In Rodewald, they got an essential quality for those high-wire days of live TV: a pleasant personality who was game for anything.

He did live commercials for orange growers, furniture stores, Chinese food; he directed episodes of “Cousin Herb’s Trading Post,” a showcase for the musicians creating an exciting genre of country music called the Bakersfield Sound; he spun records on a dance show and hosted a program called “Come As You Are.” As the name makes perfectly clear, the host would call a housewife at random and ask her to drop everything and race down to the station, sans makeup, in curlers, pajamas, a bath towel. And they did it.

But most memorably, he was host of the “Afternoon Show,” which launched his trademark line.

“Until the day he died, he was still saying that phrase,” Barkett said. “He told me the night before he died, ‘All the ladies see me in the grocery store and say, ‘Until tomorrow at 3, when it’s just you and me.’”

But it was the wacky, unscripted moments of television that showcased Rodewald’s facile mind and quick wit.

“He used to do a commercial, all of them were live, for a citrus producer about navel oranges,” Barkett recalled. “He had the same script every time and had cue cards, but he’d get it memorized. he’d hold the orange to his nose and say, ‘Now that’s one sweet-smelling orange.’ But one time he messed up and said, ‘Now that’s one sweet-smelling navel.’ The cameraman loses it. My dad loses it because someone else loses it. He’s laughing until he’s crying and the screen literallyhad to go black.”

Rodewald’s older daughter recalls the time her dad was demonstrating an uncooperative vegetable chopper.

“The lettuce or cabbage got stuck and he pounded on it until it broke apart,” Rodewald Fout said.

But the Don Rodewald story that has achieved the status of legend is a Cold War-era doozy that involves a promotional campaign and two weeks of confinement, with his wife, in a fallout shelter hauled out on a trailer to Chester Avenue.

“It must have been in 1960, and there was a local company called Lloyd Neudeck that made bomb shelters and swimming pools,” recalled Rodewald Fout. “Everybody in America was putting in bomb shelters because we were convinced the Russians were going to drop the bomb. So Lloyd Neudeck asked my dad and KERO to do this promotion, where my parents would live in a bomb shelter on Chester Avenue for two weeks. And so they did.”

The couple ate canned food, drank canned water and used a chemical commode, all while passers-by watched on monitors outside the cozy shelter (Rodewald insisted on — and was granted — an on/off switch to control the cameras). People asked questions of the couped-up couple on a telephone placed outside.

“The agreement was that in return for doing this, Lloyd Neudeck would build a bomb shelter at our house on Kaibab Street. But my dad told them, ‘We want a swimming pool. If the Russians drop a bomb, we don’t want to be a survivor.’”

Second career at BC

While still at KERO, Rodewald went back to school to earn his teaching credential. He loved television, Barkett said, but left in 1973 for a variety of reasons. Plus, the station, which had been independently owned, was sold and Rodewald no longer felt at home with the new corporate culture.

After a stint student teaching at Bakersfield High School, he began his second career at Bakersfield College, where he taught speech and communications and produced promotional videos for the school.

“He used to say that as much as he enjoyed his time in television that it really made him feel great when a former student came up and told him what a difference he made in helping them in their career,” said Rodewald Fout.

Rodewald retired from BC in 1987 and after his wife retired as a kindergarten teacher, the two hit the road to explore the other 47 states they could drive to in their fifth wheel. They were avid bird-watchers, and Rodewald was an amateur photographer and pilot.

His beloved wife Shirley died in 2010.

“After her death, here’s his expression: he very slowly went down a slippery slope,” Barkett said. “He was adrift without her. But he always had a positive outlook on life. He didn’t wallow or feel sorry for himself. He was waiting to die peacefully.”

Rodewald had lived in a couple of retirement facilities in recent years and required nearly round-the-clock care before his death.

“He didn’t really need it; he wanted it,” Barkett said. “He let people go home and could push a button if he needed anything. He was a little bit of a prince and was used to being taken care of. But he had an amazing way of endearing himself to everyone, especially the women.”

Rodewald dropped in at the station from time to time, Taylor said. One of the encounters between the men happened fairly recently when Taylor learned that Rodewald had dropped and broken his prized KERO coffee mug.

“It was something he valued, it was sentimental to him,” Taylor said. “The lady who took care of him (Willie Baker) came in and asked if we had something for him. She took a hat and other things, and Don was so cheered up by it.”

Remembering back to the 50th anniversary celebration 10 years ago, Taylor noted that despite the advances in technology, Rodewald didn’t miss a trick when he returned to tape segments.

“Obviously, out of sight out of mind for most people. But Don really had a legacy very similar to (longtime KERO newscaster) Burleigh Smith. That classic person who for so many years had been on the air. People remember and associate the station with that person. His picture is in our lobby.”

Both of Rodewald’s daughters were at their father’s side at San Joaquin Community Hospital Wednesday afternoon, when he got what he’d been hoping for since he lost his wife in 2010: a peaceful death.

“He was lucid until the end,” Rodewald Fout said. “One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Until tomorrow at 3, when it’s just you and me.’ He left on his own terms. He was ready to go. He got to say goodbye to us all.”

There are no plans for a memorial in Bakersfield, though Rodewald’s family has announced a scholarship in his name at Bakersfield College, which will be administered by the school’s foundation, whose website is bcfoundation.net.

Beyond Rodewald Fout of Dallas and Barkett of San Francisco, Rodewald is survived by sons-in-law Doug Fout and Joe Barkett, and grandchildren Emily and Megan King and Adam, Marshall and Zachery Fout.

The family plans to honor the last wishes of Rodewald and his wife by taking their ashes to “their favorite place in the world”: the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

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