Post stories makes rabbit hopping mad.
At issue is the rightful ownership of the Johnny Rabbitt name and legacy, though the actual trademark, registered by the now-defunct Storz Broadcasting Co. in early 1964, expired over 12 years ago.
After a late May 1996 Everyday Magazine profile of Rabbitt creator and WRTH morning personality Ron Elz, the Post received several letters and phone calls challenging certain statements, among which was a lengthy fax from Elz's successor on KXOK, Don Pietromonaco.
SJR decided to visit Pietromonaco in California for an update and retrospective of his years in St. Louis - from mid-1964, after Elz's relationship with Storz and KXOK ended, to late 1970 when Pietromonaco returned to KRIZ in Phoenix after his act ran its course in St. Louis.
When the second Post article was published last month, a Rabbitt runoff was launched, inviting readers to phone in a vote for the DJ they felt influenced them the most. Discounting 500 votes for Elz, which were determined to have been generated by the auto redial from the same phone - the work of an "overzealous fan," according to the Post - Elz still prevailed, trouncing Pietromonaco 1600 to 1100 votes.
Dick Weiss, Post features editor, was astounded at the number of responses for a poll of this nature. Unfortunately, the airchecks which were to be used to refamiliarize readers with the two Rabbitts' broadcasting styles were not ready in time for the voting. How this would have changed the tally, if at all, isn't known.
What does this all mean in 1996? It means absolutely nothing. It's ancient history. But it's also interesting ancient history.
If Elz put a positive spin on his career path during a Q & A with Jerry Berger, or Pietromonaco hasn't worked in this market for nearly 30 years, the fact remains that both men, each with his own radio presence, have benefitted greatly since the first time Johnny Rabbitt hopped onto the scene on KXOK in the early '60s. Both continue to thrive using the name. Elz appears on WRTH as Johnny Rabbitt, and Pietromonaco currently runs 'Johnny Rabbitt's Voice-Over Studio' offering demo tapes, placement through agents, and individual coaching in the art of voicing commercials.
The baby boomers who blabbed it to the Rabbitt or were thoroughly entertained by Pietromonaco's special brand of radio ventriloquism really don't care which Rabbitt was the best. The only people for whom Ibis dispute holds any significance are Ron Elz and Don Pietromonaco.
Elz at 58 in 1996 can look back at a widely varied and successful career as a disc jockey, format creator, broadcast school owner, record company representative (RSO - at the height of the disco craze), program director, newspaper editor and columnist, AFTRA president and college instructor. His contributions to the community are numerous and have been documented in this column several times. He is busier with his current endeavors than ever before.
Though Pietromonaco's ties to St. Louis in 1996 are via his two daughters who still live here, at age 61 he can reflect on a star-studded six-plus year run on KXOK during the station's rock and roll monopoly years. KXOK blew away the competition following the British invasion, driving WIL to ill-fated talk and all news formats, and forcing the disappearance of also-ran KWK as a rock and roll station. Pietromonaco's Rabbitt/Bruno act was the spearhead, and the money rolled in, making KXOK Storz's most successful property. By the time FM radio posed any threat to Storz in St. Louis with the advent of Bartell's KSLZ-FM in the fall of 1972, Rabbitt's years here were long finished.
Pietromonaco helped raise several million dollars for medical research, and through the process of researching his career for the follow-up piece in the Post, there were consistently laudatory recollections of the "Rab" from former colleagues and fans alike.
He was a clean-living, upbeat influence on the teen audience during those years. He resisted sleaze and corruption in an industry that got worse, not better, following the payola scandals of the late '50s.
"They called me a candy-ass," Pietromonaco told SJR during the interview on his boat in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles. "I was the embodiment of my middle-class Italian values, and instead of accepting unlimited offers of anything I wanted - women, drugs - all I asked of the record companies was to give me a thousand new record albums to give away to listeners. After they went along with it, I bought my audience. It worked."
After the second article, sources close to the Post told SJR that all of the non-poll related phone calls received were from fans of Pietromonaco, most of them women offering treasured memories of those "high rocking years." One fan cited the Rabbitt as the one who helped her blossom into a fun-loving teen during the mid- to late-'60s.
In person, in 1996, Pietromonaco's eyes still sparkle with enthusiasm as he relates classic stories of his interviews with the Beatles, celebrity friendships and on-air antics. He also recounted tales of a malevolent and imperious program director (the late Mort Crowley), duplicitous fellow KXOK jocks (William A. Hopkins and Nick Charles), and repressive and retaliatory station management. He offered high praise and heartfelt reflections of someone we both agree was one of the greatest guys in the business, the late longtime KXOK newsman Bob Shea. He added that KXOK production director Richard Ward Fatherley and his technical wizardry saved him on several occasions, even though the two men clashed frequently.
Pietromonaco was a nationally prominent success during those six-plus years, but says he wishes he were a better businessman as he spoke of the frenzied teen clubs he ran such as Bruno's Bat Cave and Cloud Nyne. Frequent flyers will remember his in-flight entertainment voice-overs for several airlines, including TWA. He has to his credit a long-standing voice-over training and production studio using the Johnny Rabbitt name in its title and lives comfortably in the Marina amid pleasant surroundings.
He's in regular contact with industry colleagues and calls his years doing the Rabbitt show with Bruno on KXOK the best of his long career as an on-air talent. Prior to beginning his radio career at KROG in Sonora, California in the 1950s, Pietromonaco was a child actor in Hollywood, acting in 37 pictures. His most memorable role was his appearance in the opening scene of "An Affair to Remember."
Since leaving live radio broadcasting, he, has done well over 1,000 commercials and currently writes and produces advertising, as well as offering instruction to aspiring voice-over talent.
A career highlight was his selection as "Personality of the Year" by Billboard Magazine in the early '70s, in the mid-'80s, Billboard radio editor Rollye Bornstein wrote in her column that Pietromonaco was the only Johnny Rabbitt remembered by listeners, and the one who was a nationally known runaway ratings success.
Recently, during a nationwide search for a morning show on KLOU-FM (103.3 FM), both Rabbitts were offered the job. Elz decided to stay with Heritage because of their dedication to him following recent surgery which saved the vision in one eye, and Pietromonaco passed up the opportunity when his proposal to do the show from 4 to 8 a.m. Pacific time via a Switch 56 hookup was rejected by program director Dave Dunkin.
So instead of being hopping mad at each other, both Rabbitts should be thrilled at this unexpected burst of publicity. It jogged the memories of countless fans who in the '60s had one hand on their homework and the other poised to dial FOrest 7-6000 and "blab it to the Rabbitt."
Larry Hoffman has been a freelance contributor to Billboard and wrote several chapters of Dick Clark's First 25 Years of Rock and Roll.
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|Title Annotation:||the rightful ownership of the Johnny Rabbitt name; St. Louis Post-Dispatch|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1996|
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