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Don Paul: My most unforgettable colleague

Don Paul

In November, I wrote a piece about how I ruined Phil Rizzuto’s night in Detroit many years ago.

The man who inadvertently set me up to scare Rizzuto was a unique TV pioneer named Sonny Eliot. In the above article, I said he deserved a separate article, and here it is.

Marvin Schlossberg, aka Sonny Eliot, was one of America’s very first weathermen. He was born in 1920 and lived to age 91. He began his broadcast career at Detroit’s first TV station, WWJ-TV (later to become WDIV) in 1947. He became a dominant personality in one of the nation’s largest TV markets and was known throughout the industry across the country.

I worked with him during his last three years in television until 1983 in Detroit at WJBK, then the CBS station there. We ended up together because the Post-Newsweek station, WDIV, no longer wanted his services. His unique act, in some people’s eyes, was not aging well. By 1983, he faced the same problem with WJBK’s general manager, and that was that for TV, but not for broadcasting.

I did not want to work with Sonny. Frankly, his style and content were antithetical to mine. Right to the end, at age 89, he was still doing afternoon weather updates for CBS radio station WWJ the same way.

Indefatigable, Sonny didn’t seek to evolve into someone new and different. He had a tremendous career in television, becoming one of the most revered Detroit celebrities for decades. He didn’t think it was a good idea to switch gears. But in 1981, my WJBK news director hinted strongly that I was going to replace our then-chief weatherman since I was doing well as the station’s first meteorologist. I’d have to say I was getting a little full of myself at that point, having risen from the tiny Bangor market to No. 7 Detroit in under three years.

After WDIV let Sonny go, it never occurred to me or my news director that our general manager would secretly hire Sonny (without even telling the news director). So, there I was with a sudden turnabout in my upward mobility.

Sonny was no meteorologist, but he had done a lot more in life than I had or would. In fact, Sonny got me my own office. How many No. 2 weathercasters get their own office? He had a nice office, but he didn’t want it cluttered up with noisy teletypes and map facsimile machines. Sonny’s office was where we all went for laughs and entertainment. On the air, his humor was close to squeaky clean, and rapid fire, in between parcels of weather information. Off air, he was a much funnier, wonderfully profane man with stories; so many stories you’d fall behind in your work.

I never let him know I resented his hiring, but he had to know that. He won me over pretty quickly with his humor and warmth, and things like silly rattles and baby toys he had handy for my baby daughters, whom he lifted up and kissed whenever he saw them.

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He even gave me credit for my forecasts the three weekdays I prepared one for him after producing a science report. On my two days off, he gave full credit to “the boys at the National Weather Service” for their forecast. Sonny never pretended to be a meteorologist, and was never pretentious about the topic.

On the other hand, he DID learn a fair amount about weather during the time he served our country. He just didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.

Sonny was a B-24 pilot, and was the squadron officer who went to the Army Air Corps weather briefers for the aviation forecast. He could read the upper air charts quite well, when he chose to look at them. Sonny was shot down on a bombing run and spent 18 months as a prisoner of war at a camp which was eventually liberated by the Russians. He told me at first he was worried about being a Jew in a German POW camp. But the Stalag Luft commandant, he guessed, knew Germany would lose the war and probably didn’t want to face war crimes charges, so he treated Jewish prisoners the same as the rest of the POWs. He even allowed Marvin/Sonny to do comedy skits as kind of a morale officer.

A few years before my exit from WIVB, I saw a picture of Sonny on the back cover of my SAG-AFTRA union magazine getting a major award at the Tigers’ Comerica Stadium. The picture mentioned he was STILL doing daily weather broadcasts in radio, at 89.

I clicked on the WWJ website and listened to one of his streamed weathercasts, like the one above. I was amazed how he sounded essentially the same as he did when I was back in Detroit. He was younger then than I am now. I didn’t know whether he would even remember me from 1983, but I gave him a call. I got a fabulously profane voicemail back, which I still have on my iPhone. He always referred to me as a little (expletive) out of affection, even though 5-foot-8-inch Don Paul towered over him. We played phone tag for a few days and finally connected, with a great and affectionate conversation.

One of my favorite collector’s items is a video of a gag two-man weathercast Sonny and I did, but I can’t possibly post it. It was done for a Friars-type roast of Sonny and, well, you just don’t want to hear me talking that way.

Let me leave you with this nice biographical sketch of Sonny.

His presence may have changed the course of my career for a while. But, then again, I never would have ended up here otherwise if “Dad” and “Son” (our nonprofane nicknames) hadn’t shared what ended up as some great times together.

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