Sunday, July 19, 2009

Local Characters: Jerry Springer -- Kennedyite Gone Wild

Dear George,

While most of the civilized world now knows of Jerry Springer, he got his start in Cincinnati, so we feel a certain proprietary attachment.  Springer came here about the same time that we did in the late 1960s, and we followed the beginning of his career while he was still in his mid-20’s.

Gerald Norman Springer was born on Feb. 13, 1944, in a subway station bomb shelter in London, England.  His parents, Margo Springer (a bank clerk) and Richard Springer (a shoe shop owner) were Jewish refugees from Poland who escaped Nazi Germany and later emigrated to the U.S., settling in Queens in 1949.  His grandparents and three close family members were killed in the death camps.  Springer’s parents liked to talk politics, and Jerry became  interested in a young age.  He’s said that he was particularly affected by watching John F. Kennedy on TV at the Democratic National Convention in 1956.  Springer completed a B.A. in political science at Tulane in 1965 and received his law degree from Northwestern in 1968.  He then became a campaign aide to Robert Kennedy.  When Kennedy was assassinated soon after in June 1968, Springer came to Cincinnati and joined the law firm of Frost & Jacobs.

Springer helped lead the successful movement to lower Ohio’s voting age from 21 to 19.  He ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1970 at age 26.  Though he failed to unseat entrenched incumbent Donald Clancy in a heavily Republican district, he did receive 45% of the vote.  Then he ran successfully for the Cincinnati City Council in 1971.  His political career was temporarily derailed in 1974 when a police search of a “massage parlor” in Northern Kentucky turned up a personal check that Springer had used to pay a prostitute.  He held a press conference on local TV, admitting and apologizing for his actions.  Voters responded positively and reelected him to Council in 1975.  In 1977 he was chosen to be mayor.  A liberal leader in a conservative city, he established health clinics and recreation centers for youth in low-income neighborhoods. 

While he was still mayor, Jerry Springer began his broadcast career on WEBN, which J and Katja listened to each morning as they drove to Walnut Hills High School.  “The Springer Memorandum” featured commentaries from the mayor.  WLWT (the local NBC affiliate) then hired Springer as a political commentator and subsequently promoted him to primary news anchor.  WLWT had the lowest-rated new program at the time, but, over the next two years, Springer and his partner Norma Rashid became the top news team in the city.  Springer received ten local Emmys for his nightly commentaries.

WLWT replaced the Phil Donahue Show with The Jerry Springer Show in September 1991.  The new Springer show was a serious, politically oriented talk show, addressing topics such as homelessness and gun control.  Early guests included Oliver North and Jesse Jackson.  By 1994 Springer and station personnel began reformatting the show to increase ratings.  They found that the more lowbrow the show became, the higher the ratings.  Adultery, Satanism, homosexuality, transvestitism, hate group membership, and other controversial topics became the standard fare, and shows were marked by shouting, chair-throwing, fist fights, and taking off clothing.  No matter how outrageous or destructive the episode, Springer always closed by saying, “Take care of yourself, and each other.”  The show was hugely successful, outdoing Oprah Winfrey in many cities and reaching over 6.7 million viewers.  Springer admitted that he rarely watched his own  broadcasts, commenting, “It wouldn’t interest me.”

Jerry Springer has done lots of other things too.  He hosted America’s Got Talent for several seasons, as well as Miss Universe and Miss World.  We watched him on Dancing with the Stars, where he was an incompetent dancer but an audience favorite.  He has recorded a country music album, impersonated Elvis, and sang as the opening act at Billy Ray Cyrus concerts. He has been a fund-raiser for charities connected with birth defects, disabled access, AIDS, and various liberal causes.  He has appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone, Esquire, and New York Magazine, among others.  Jerry Springer, The Opera had its New York premiere in 1998.  His ultimate accolade occurred when he was the featured character in the 1998 Halloween special of The Simpsons.  Springer looked into running for the U.S. Senate in 2003, but negative reactions regarding his TV hosting led him to change his mind.  In June 2008 Springer gave the commencement address at his alma mater, the Northwestern University School of Law.  He ended with a story about his parents, saying: “In one generation here in America, my family went from near-total annihilation to the ridiculously privileged life I live today because of my show.  Indeed in America, all things are possible.”

We liked and admired Jerry Springer from the beginning because he was bright, progressive, articulate, and funny.  His career turned out to be very strange, going from an idealistic, Kennedy-inspired politician setting out to improve the world to a lowbrow but extraordinarily successful TV talk host.  He does seem to regard the latter as a sort of a lark, though it has consumed much of his adult life.  Springer has commented, “We can't just have mainstream behavior on television in a free society, we have to make sure we see the whole panorama of human behavior.”  He has accomplished that goal.  Jerry Springer is another of those persons who have added a bit of spice to life in the Queen City.



Sources (from Google search): Wikipedia,,,,  



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