Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Art Finley (1926-2015), broadcaster

Art Finley prepares to go on air at CKNW in Vancouver.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
September 11, 2015

In a profession known for bombast, hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, radio talk-show host Art Finley stood out by relying on none of that.

The broadcaster displayed a witty yet probing technique in on-air interrogations, making him “the thinking man's host” in the opinion of Red Robinson, another well-known Vancouver radio personality.

Mr. Finley, who has died at 88, first made a name in San Francisco before coming north to Canada in 1968, the year after the Summer of Love, quickly becoming a star in an era when talk-radio dominated the Vancouver scene.

In a broadcast career lasting a half-century, the mellifluous host interviewed a Who's Who of celebrities and newsmakers including musicians (Joan Baez, James Brown, John Lennon), prime ministers (Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney), authors (Gore Vidal, Pierre Berton, Isaac Asimov), movie stars (Sophia Loren, Bette Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger), television stars (Leonard Nimoy, Andy Griffith, Bill Shatner), healers (Dr. Jonas Salk, Dr. Henry Heimlich, Dr. Gifford W. Jones), and such activists and rabble-rousers as Germaine Greer, Huey Newton, Cesar Chavez, Ralph Nader, and Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

He enjoyed a good laugh and had a wicked sense of humour himself, so took every opportunity to put on air such comedians as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, and Professor Irwin Corey, as well as members of the Monty Python troupe.

A voracious reader, the host said he gained an audience by listening objectively to the opinions expressed by call-in listeners and by not putting on airs with his guests.

“I am always myself,” he once said. “I talk exactly on the air the same way I do off the air — except for the words the (Federal Communications Commission) says you can't say. I'm honest. I put people at ease.”

As for those sitting across from his microphone, he had only two requirements. “The worst guest is a person who doesn't know his subject,” he said in a 1990 interview, “and talks slow.”

While he enjoyed a certain fame in British Columbia, his voice recognized by strangers even decades after he left the air, he made an indelible impression on a generation of Baby Boom children in the San Francisco Bay area as Mayor Art, the host of a live, after-school television program.
His own childhood began in the rolling Appalachian coal mountains of West Virginia. Arthur Irving Finger was born in Fairmont to Minnie (née Zindler) and Benjamin Sardon Finger, a clothing merchant, on Aug. 25, 1926. He had two older brothers born more than a decade earlier. On his walks home from school during the Depression, young Art scavenged small chunks of coal alongside the railway tracks running out of the Monongahela River valley.
After his father died of a heart attack in 1937, his widowed mother moved with the boy to Texas, where her family lived. While studying mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, he wrote a column in the student newspaper titled Finger-Tips in which he offered whimsical record reviews and notes on radio broadcasts. A bit of doggerel he wrote about the pronunciation of unfamiliar wartime place names was picked up by a syndicated columnist and reprinted in several daily newspapers around the United States. It read in part:

Scorn not the poor announcer
In exotic tongues enmeshed,
Who says, “We bombed Plo-es-ti,”
When we really bombed “plaw-YESHT.”

He lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the waning days of the Second World War.
He was still an undergraduate when hired as a $36 per week radio announcer for station KXYZ. He held a variety of jobs at the station and took part in several zany stunts, including the sending aloft of silver-painted discs at the height of the UFO craze. By 1949, he was host and production manager of “Saturday at The Shamrock,” a weekly live broadcast on the national ABC network featured a big band performance from the ballroom of Houston's grandest hotel. It was during the show he had his first brush with meeting stars of stage and screen, and it was also where he met a hotel guest from New Jersey named Geraldine Molt, whom he almost immediately told he planned to marry. They did so eventually, though she insisted on a courtship lasting longer than his original 24-hour wooing.

While serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, he helped establish military radio stations in Newfoundland. After completing his service, he spent two years in New York before moving to California to become a producer and performer on the “Tooneytown” children's show for KOVR-TV in Stockton. His wife came up with the concept — he would be Mayor Art and the children on the show would be his council. She fashioned for him a long-tailed morning coat and a top hat. An official at the station decided his venerable family name did not fit a kiddie show and he settled on the professional name Art Finley.
The show, which soon moved to KRON-TV in San Francisco, aired live for two hours from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. He introduced cartoons and offered a news program for children. He was aided by a hand-puppet named Ring-A-Ding, a wisecracking cuckoo-clock bird.

In the fashion of the day, the host also did double-duty as pitchman, and Mayor Art was a fast-talking purveyor of Fudgees snack cakes, Buitoni macaroni, and fruit drinks (“It hasta be Shasta”).

Absurd, goofy and always kindly, Mayor Art became known for such catchphrases as “A glass of milk and a how-do-you-do?,” which he spoke after announced the next day's school lunch menu. Cartoon segments were heralded by Mayor Art leading bleachers of children in shouting, “Blooey! Blooey!” He ended each show with a hearty, “I'll be seeing you (pause) subsequently.”

The children's show ended in 1966, after which he briefly played host to a low-budget afternoon call-in game show for adults. He also handled a call-in show on radio station KSFO and, beginning in 1962, had a daily cartoon published in the San Francisco Chronicle. The “Art's Gallery” cartoon featured an elaborate and detailed woodcut illustration from a 19th-century magazine with an anachronistic caption. The result — a medieval knight on horseback looking over his shoulder with the caption, “Is that cop still following us?” — was more wry than knee-slapping. The one-panel cartoon ran in the Chronicle for two decades and was syndicated to newspapers in Canada and the United States.

In 1967, Mr. Finley and his wife became involved in an oddball caper involving a breakaway British colony. The residents of the Caribbean island of Anguilla, population 6,000, declared they wanted no further association with the nearby islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. An independent republic was declared and confirmed in a referendum by a vote of 1,739 to 4.

The leaders rejected large sums from developers, instead seeking small donations from individuals to support the island. The San Francisco couple helped create the Anguilla Trust Fund in which honorary citizenships and passports were issued for donations of $100 US. (Among the donators was Linus Pauling, the scientist and humanitarian.) The idealistic hope was Anguilla would be a bastion of peace and popular democracy in a world torn by strife. In the end, the republic failed, but the island did become a separate British overseas territory.

Mr. Finley was hired by Vancouver radio station CHQM in 1968. He soon after jumped to CKNW, a ratings juggernaut in news and current affairs, including a stellar lineup of talk-show hosts, the king of whom was Jack Webster, a gruff, acerbic, no-nonsense Glaswegian known as The Mouth That Roared. The newcomer's comparably laid-back style — “a mellow-tone voice with the octaval range of a slide trombone to wrap us in the warmest strains of rational charm,” in the words of Lee Bacchus of the Vancouver Sun — set him apart from the microphone maulers.

After Mr. Webster was lured away to rival station CJOR for a reported contract of $110,000 per year, Mr. Finley replaced him in the coveted 6:30 to 8 p.m. slot.

He returned to San Francisco to handle a call-in show for KGO in 1974, returning to Vancouver and a spot on CJOR in 1981. After five years, he hopscotched the continent with WNIS in Norfolk, Va., and XRA in San Diego, Calif., before becoming host of the popular “Nightbeat” show with KCBS in San Francisco.

He retired to Victoria, B.C., from where he and his wife travelled the world. They were holidaying in Buenos Aires in 2006 when Geraldine Finger died suddenly of a heart attack on her 77th birthday. He then moved to Vancouver.

Those who knew him away from the camera and microphone claim he was the same person off air as on, a joking, high-spirited figure who, when shopping at a bargain store promising “every item $1,” imagined making a public-address announcement of “Price cheque on aisle nine.”

“If I have unknowingly offended somebody, I apologize,” he once said. “If I have knowingly offended somebody, give me a chance and I'll do it again.”

Mr. Finley died on Aug. 7 after suffering a heart attack while on a stroll in his Vancouver neighbourhood. He leaves son Jeff Finger and daughters Julie Emerson and Suzanne Noel-Bentley. He was predeceased by his wife of 56 years and two brothers.

In 2002, he donated a reel-to-reel tape and 141 audiocassettes to the University of British Columbia Library. The donation includes 100 radio interviews, ranging from cradle (Dr. Benjamin Spock) to grave (Dr. Jack Kevorkian). Available for future researchers, you might say the world has not heard the last of Mr. Finley.

Art Finlay as Mayor Art was a staple of children's television in San Francisco.