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Ruth Lyons: 'Mother' captured hearts and ratings

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

The television talk show was born in post-war Cincinnati, the offspring of a loquacious, gray-blond woman who disguised her microphone as a bouquet, used a rocker love seat as a pulpit and who was known - to her staff and millions of adoring fans - simply as Mother.

The term of endearment was altogether fitting, because in TV genealogy, Ruth Lyons was the maternal ancestor of David Letterman, Phil Donahue and every other talk-show host who came later - and borrowed freely from the unscripted, free-wheeling style she pioneered.

For nearly four decades on radio and TV, Miss Lyons shared her enthusiasms and prejudices on topics ranging from food, clothes and husbands to politics, religion and civil rights. Mixing caustic asides with treacly sentimentality, she ad-libbed her way through interviews with Hollywood's biggest stars. In the process, she refined a programming genre that, a half century later, remains one of TV's most familiar, popular and profitable.

''Ruth Lyons was the Oprah Winfrey of her day, a daytime Jack Paar,'' film star Angie Dickinson said.

Even that compliment inadequately captures her lofty stature in TV history. In the late 1950s and early '60s, her ''Fifty-Fifty Club'' on WLW-T (Channel 5) was the highest rated daytime television program in the nation. An estimated 7 million viewers in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia tuned in, and there was a five-year waiting list for tickets in the studio - where the women always wore white gloves, a tradition born when Miss Lyons said ladies simply didn't look properly dressed without them.

Her program was a $2 million-a-year gold mine for WLW - an unheard-of figure at the time - and her endorsement could send products flying off Midwestern store shelves. Look Magazine once hailed her as a Cincinnati tradition worthy of mention in the same breath with Fountain Square and the Tafts. But a more common description in national magazines - and one closer to Miss Lyons' self-image - was ''the most influential housewife in America.''

The woman whowould become Cincinnati's most beloved broadcaster was born Ruth Reeves in 1905 in her family's East End home, the older of two daughters of a railroad clerk and a deeply religious homemaker.

After graduating from East High School (now Withrow), she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. Worried about the financial strain the tuition put on her family, she dropped out of UC after her freshman year to take a job playing sheet music at Willis Music's downtown store. (Musically talented even as a child, she wrote several popular songs, including ''Bungalow Blues'' and a holiday standard, ''Let's Light the Christmas Tree.'')

Her first full-time job in broadcasting came in 1929, when she was hired as a pianist and assistant musical director at WKRC radio. One morning in May of that year, the host of a show called ''The Woman's Hour'' phoned in sick, and Miss Reeves - the only woman around other than the switchboard operator - was rushed into the studio to read the script.

Though momentarily petrified, she instantly grew comfortable before the microphone - so much so that, by program's end, she had tossed aside the script and was rattling on about anything that came into her mind. Station executives were dumbfounded - but the sponsor liked the show so much that he called to say he wanted her to take over the program.

In 1932, when she already was one of local radio's best-known personalities, she married childhood neighbor Johnny Lyons. They divorced in 1939, but the marriage effectively ended five years earlier when Lyons' company transferred him to Cleveland and his wife - unwilling to leave her radio job - stayed in Cincinnati. But she kept the name Ruth Lyons even after marrying Herman Newman, a UC English professor, in 1942.

Also in 1942, a $10-a-week raise from the rival Crosley Broadcasting Corp. lured her to WSAI and WLW, where she was a hit on ''Morning Matinee,'' ''Petticoat Partyline'' and ''Consumer's Foundation.''

When the Avco Corp. bought WLW in the mid-1940s, she approached her bosses with an idea for a mid-day program to be broadcast live from the Gibson Hotel downtown. She called the program, which debuted Feb. 5, 1946, ''The Fifty Club,'' so named because her audience was composed of 50 women who paid one dollar for lunch prior to the show. While still broadcasting it on radio, WLW moved the 90-minute show to television in 1949, where a bigger studio had room for 100 people, prompting a name change to ''The Fifty-Fifty Club.''

Sticking with the format - or, more accurately, the lack of one - that had served her well since her first days at WKRC, Miss Lyons refused to follow a script or take direction. Instead, from her rocker sofa on a set decorated like a paneled living room, she relied on her own impeccable sense of showmanship and timing to keep her audience's interest from flagging as the program caromed from her repartee with the cast to songs to her impromptu commentaries to interviews with guests as disparate as Bob Hope, Van Cliburn and Clarabell the Clown.

Her disdain for scripts extended even to commercials, which she insisted on delivering in her own words, believing them more effective than canned copy. Advertisers who demanded otherwise did so at their own peril. Once, when Miss Lyons reluctantly recited a breakfast food's claim that it made children ''big, brawny, bold and brave,'' she paused and added: ''The next word beginning with 'b' that comes to mind is 'baloney!' ''

Most advertisers were happy to allow Miss Lyons to do things her own way, because in TV salesmanship, she was peerless. When she mentioned the perfume she wore on one show, it was sold out in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus within three days. A contest for Kroger's bread drew 165,851 entries, and after 10 weeks on her show, a brand of canned vegetables went from being the seventh most popular on local grocery shelves to No. 1.

Her constant aches and pains and jokes about her age - understated by three years on her marriage license - were running gags on the show. Once, Miss Lyons greeted silent film star Gloria Swanson by saying, ''At last I have somebody on this show who's older than I am.'' Miss Swanson smiled thinly, then proceeded to mention one of her films. ''I remember that - I must have been in kindergarten,'' Miss Lyons said. ''Teaching, no doubt,'' Miss Swanson murmured.

Miss Lyons attributed her TV success to never talking down to her viewers and to believing that housewives were as interested in city and world affairs as skirt lengths and pregnancies. ''I don't believe the average woman's only concern is with a dust cloth and getting Junior off to school on time,'' she said.

Her viewers also delighted in seeing a woman who clearly was the boss, vicariously enjoying her superiority years before the term ''women's liberation'' was coined. She incessantly needled and browbeat male cast members, and her English professor husband got no more respect when he called in during the show to correct his wife's grammar or pronunciation. ''Don't bother me, Herman!'' she would say after impatiently picking up a phone on stage. ''Did you remember to carry out the garbage?''

By sharing nearly every facet of her family life - purchases, vacations, weight battles and once, even bringing her laundry to the studio to be ironed by audience members - Miss Lyons all but obliterated the line separating it from her career. And so all of Cincinnati - and her wider regional audience - grieved with her through the most shattering loss of her life.

In August 1944, heartbroken after their own daughter was stillborn, Miss Lyons and Newman adopted a baby girl born two days earlier. They named her Candy, and the girl literally grew up on her mother's show, appearing for the first time when she was only six weeks old.

When she was 20, Candy Newman was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She joined the on-air staff of ''The Fifty-Fifty Club'' in the fall of 1965, but by the following year, it was clear she was dying. After her parents granted her wish to go to Europe once more and sailed for Italy, Candy Newman died at sea aboard the S.S. Michelangelo on Father's Day in 1966.

Four months later, Miss Lyons made an emotional return to her TV show, but her private grief made it impossible for her to any longer convey public joy. On Jan. 27, 1967, Avco Broadcasting vice president Walter Bartlett appeared on ''The Fifty-Fifty Club'' to announce that Ruth Lyons had retired - stunning news that had the cast, crew and audience in tears.

After being on the air for nearly 38 years, Miss Lyons never again appeared before the cameras. Her health declined in the 1970s, and several strokes left her bedridden during her final years. On Nov. 7, 1988, she died at her Watch Hill home; she no doubt would have chuckled over the fact that, though 83, front-page stories gave her age as two years younger.

Always a tireless over-achiever, Ruth Lyons left behind another legacy that deserves equal billing with her role in shaping modern television.

In 1939, a visit to Children's Hospital left her depressed over the thought of young children being hospitalized over Christmas. She poured her dismay into her radio microphone, pleading with listeners to send in nickels and dimes to help buy toys. By Christmas Eve, $1,002 had been donated, enough for a gift for every child in the hospital.

From that modest start, the Ruth Lyons Christmas Fund - kicked off annually on her birthday in October - has raised more than $19 million over the past six decades. And though insuring that no sick child fails to receive a visit from Santa remains its primary purpose, the money also is used for TVs, books and crafts for playrooms at 43 tri-state hospitals.

The hundreds of poignant tales spawned by the fund includes one about a 14-year-old girl who, in a spell of melancholia, had not spoken for a year. But after noticing that the word ''Christmas'' drew a tiny reaction, Children's nurses asked Miss Lyons to visit her.

When Miss Lyons entered the room, the silent girl beamed and said: ''Hi, Ruth Lyons.''

Ruth Lyons wept that day. But because of the charitable fund that immortalizes her, thousands of children will forever smile through difficult times - and give thanks that Ruth Lyons always will light the Christmas tree in Cincinnati.

Publication date: 05-13-99

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