ARTICLE

TV Personality Now Runs Florida Station

Democrat and Chronicle
Bob Marcotte

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jerry Carr, one of Rochester’s favorite TV personalities during the 1960s and 70s, will never forget the time he was nailed in a coffin.

Carr at the time was the host of Chiller Theater on WORK-TV (Channel 13) – one of several shows he did live at the time. His trademark – a touch he had come up with, he proudly recalls – was to sit up in a coffin to begin introducing that night’s feature.

One of the producers came up with a “brilliant idea” on the eve of one of our nation’s space shots: What if the coffin was set upright? And some dry ice was put around it? The camera could then pan in such a way it would look like the coffin was traveling toward the moon.

All of which was fine, except that the lid kept springing open and finally the stage crew had to nail it shut – with Carr inside.

Now, Carr had never actually been nailed shut in a coffin before, and in the meantime it was taking several minutes to get the lighting set up.

“I got very uptight and nervous and I started to rock,” Carr recalls. “The coffin tipped over, landed on its left side and I broke my elbow.”

Next thing Carr knows, he’s at the hospital, confronted by an emergency room nurse wanting to know what happened.

“I said I fell out of a coffin. That got quite a bit of attention at 2 in the morning.”

But that’s not the end of the story.

A couple of days later, Carr, still wearing his cast, was getting ready to do his daily Weather Outside forecast in front of the old Manger Hotel – another Carr feature that lots of Rochesterians remember fondly.

This time a producer wanted him to get on a live elephant to do the broadcast. That’s right, an elephant from one of the old Tarzan movies was in town.

“The elephant threw me off,” Carr relates. “I landed on my broken elbow, went back to the same hospital, and the same nurse was there.”

“What happened now?” she asked.

“I fell off an elephant,” Carr replied.

“Where?”

“At the corner of Main and Clinton.”

“Were there any witnesses?”

“Yeah, about 200,000.”

Born for broadcast

You would think that right about then Jerry Carr might have had second thoughts about his broadcasting career.

No way.

He loved it then, and he loves it now, at age 76, presiding over WXEL, a public TV and radio station, much like Rochester’s WXXI, in Boynton Beach, Florida.

In fact, he knew from an early age that this was what he wanted to do.

Born Bernard Jerome Comisar in Rochester, he had to give a speech at his bar mitzvah at age 13. “Someone came up to my mother, and said, ‘My goodness a 13-year-old with voice like that, he ought to be in broadcasting.’”

Carr looked into it, and liked what he saw. “I’m one of those lucky people who has always known what I wanted to do,” he once told a reporter. “Everything I did was aimed in one direction – broadcasting.”

For example, he became a big fan of local newscaster Bill Adams.

“I used to get on the bus and go down to WHEC studios. He let me sit in the room while he did the news.”

Not surprisingly, Carr’s first job, at age 16, was a Neisner’s department store downtown – announcing. Well, not exactly in the same way. “I sat in a little room and each of the department managers would come up and give me little notes to read, about a sale on one of their items, and I would announce ‘Ladies, men’s handkerchiefs at counter 14 are on sale this morning.’”

After graduating from Franklin High School, Carr did a stint in the Navy, fulfilling his military obligations by day, and working as a DJ at night for a Washington, D.C., radio station.

After leaving the service in 1956, he worked at a radio station in Michigan, then one in Toledo, Ohio. When he heard that a license was about to be granted for a new TV station in Rochester, he returned to his hometown and gave the station’s original sign-on in 1962.

On the air

Then came his glory years.

“Rochester was where I had the most fun,” Carr recalls, “because that was where I was primarily on the air.”

And how.

At one point, Carr was doing 25 appearances a week, live, doing the Weather Outside segment, hosting Chiller Theater and the Mickey Mouse Club and Pick-a-Show, and a “memorable movie” each Sunday night- and even a talk shot at 11 each morning called Jerry Carr Around Town. And on top of all that, he was DJ at WBBF radio on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“I worked seven days a week. I never refused anything, ever. I just loved it too much.”

One Sunday night he was driving home and stopped at a diner, and ordered a hamburger. “The cook said, ‘Can you wait a minute? I’m watching this guy on Memorable Movie. It’s my favorite show.’ So I had to sit there while he watched me on television. And he never made the connection.”

Others do. People will still come up to him when he visits Rochester, and say, “‘Hi, I watch you all the time.’ They don’t even know I’m gone.”

Management moves

He did leave. But not until he had moved up the ranks into production and management at two local stations. By the end of his 16 years with WORK, for example, he had become vice president and program director. After leaving in a change of management in 1978, he worked briefly as director of communications for Page Airways before being invited by Malrite Communications to direct the launching of its new TV station in Rochester – WUHF-TV (Channel 31).

Again Carr had the privilege of signing on a local station for the first time. And despite being high up in management, he continued to find ways to get in front of the camera, hosting special events and broadcasts, and even hosting a show answering mail from viewers.

When he left as general manager after five years, at age 50, he told reporters, “I’ve done all there is to do here. It’s a well-run station that the public has accepted. Now I need to grow. I’ve been looking to move to a bigger station.”

And that’s when Carr moved to Florida with his wife Linda, and bought a house in Boca Raton.

After Rochester

By then, Carr had a national reputation as a good man to get a new station going. In 1984, he became chief operating officer for Grant Broadcasting, overseeing the construction of new TV stations in Miami, Philadelphia and Chicago.

When the group was bought out, Carr was hired by former Rochesterian Bud Paxon, who owned 60-some TV stations across the country, to run WTVX in West Palm Beach.

And when that station was bought out from under him, Carr retired.

For two weeks.

Then came the offer to be president of WXEL, with its National Public Radio-affiliated radio station and Public Broadcasting System-affiliated TV station in Boynton Beach.

He’s been there since 1997.

These are not easy times for public broadcasting. Especially in Boynton Beach, near the home base of Bernie Madoff. That scandal hurt many of the wealthy Palm Beach donors who, over the years, have contributed much to the station, Carr notes.

For example, one local foundation that used to contribute $50,000 a year to help underwrite the Newshour with Jim Lehrer just cut its contribution to $14,000.

That has meant, in effect, mothballing two big production studios that WXEL owns and used to keep in continuous operation. Now they operate on a standby basis only.

Some shows have had to be cut.

But Carr is optimistic. Membership remains strong. During the latest pledge drive, WXEL surpassed its $200,000 goal by $10,000. Congress appears ready to pass some stimulus funding for public broadcasting. And Carr is also excited about a golf classic that will be held to benefit WXEL in early November. It will be held at an exclusive Donald Trump course that is normally accessible to people who can afford the $175,000 membership fee.

“I don’t expect this (economic downturn) to last forever,” Carr adds. “From all I’ve seen and read, it’s bottoming out and starting to turn around,” Carr adds.

In the meantime, “I still get every morning and love to come to work.”

Still going

When he’s not at the office, Carr enjoys wood-working, cycling, reading and his two Havanese dogs, Diva and Dutchess. “They weigh about 10 to 12 pounds and are the most lovable creatures you’ve ever seen.”

His wife Linda keeps busy as a travel concierge, working from home, does some work as a “life coach,” listening to people’s problems and helping them reach their own decisions. She also does a lot of volunteer work, even helping out with a public affairs show on WXEL.

Three children, two from Carr’s first marriage, and one from Linda’s first, are in Rochester, New York City and Los Angeles. “So we have to travel some to be with family.” He’ll be back in Rochester early next month, as a matter of fact, visiting family.

So when will he retire? “I’m healthy, I’m vital, I love this business, I love public broadcasting. I’m having a ball,” Carr replies.

“I’m not saying I won’t consider it in the near future, but as long as I have and idea or two in my lame brain, I’m going to be active.”

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