SANTA CRUZ — Jerry Graham, former host of KRON’s “Bay Area Backroads” and Sentinel columnist, died of a heart attack Monday at his Santa Cruz home. He would have turned 79 Tuesday. Graham, a Santa Cruz resident since 1995, put himself on the Bay Area map with his award-winning TV series “Bay Area Backroads,” which featured Northern California’s hidden gems. KRON produced the series for 28 years. “The concept was that we live in this great spot, but we’re all in such a hurry, that we drive by things without looking and don’t even notice what’s around us,” Graham told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008.
Starts in Indiana
Graham was born Gerald Granowsky in Indianapolis. He changed his name for professional reasons at his first television job as a staff announcer for TV stations in Evansville, Ind., and Binghamton, N.Y.
Graham moved from Binghamton to New York City, where he worked as a radio news writer for Metromedia’s WNEW. After rising through the ranks at the station, Graham bought and ran his own radio station, WGRG, with partner David Gordon. He returned to WNEW in 1974 as general manager, then hosted the TV show “Pacific Currents” on KPIX Channel 5. He also anchored weekend news for KRON and was general manager at radio station KSAN.
Throughout his career, Graham maintained a strong sense of humor. He even got demoted for having an on-air laughing attack in Binghamton, a fact his son Jefferson Graham said doesn’t surprise him. “He liked to laugh … the fits continued for years,” Jefferson said. “There were many instances where the laughter was contagious, and we just laughed and laughed, uncontrollable, with tears, falling on the floor.”
Once he moved to Santa Cruz, Graham wrote eight travel guidebooks with his wife Catherine Graham, including “Bay Area Backroads,” “More Bay Area Backroads” and “Bay Area Backroads Food and Lodging Guide.”
“It was terrific in the sense that we could each write a section, then edit each other’s work,” Catherine said. “We called the books our first babies. We couldn’t remember who came up with what line after a while.”
Even when Graham became well-known for his work in television, he always remained humble, said Bob Klein, the executive producer of “Bay Area Backroads.” ”In the Bay Area for a while, he was it, he was the anchor,” Klein said. “But it wasn’t like people were running up for his autograph; it was like, ‘Hey, Jerry.’”
Graham was known in Santa Cruz for his television column for the Sentinel, which he wrote in the early 2000s. ”He was loved in the community, and he loved Santa Cruz,” Jefferson said. In addition to teaching English as a second language at the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz, he also played basketball every Sunday in Santa Cruz and tennis twice a week at the Chaminade. Over 6 feet tall, he won a gold medal with his basketball team the Nor Cal Sharks at the California State Senior Olympics in 2009.
“His local team was important to him,” Catherine said. “It was going to the church of basketball.” A lifelong dog lover, Graham took his 5-year-old dog Chicolini to the park every afternoon. ”I am a cat person who married a dog person,” wrote Catherine, also a Sentinel columnist, in an article published Aug. 4, 2002. “Before we met, Jerry went public with his disdain for felines on his San Francisco Bay Area TV show called ‘Pacific Currents,’ with a segment called ‘Why I Hate Cats.’”
After meeting in 1984 in San Francisco, the two married in 1986, continuing to build a strong relationship throughout their 27-year marriage. ”He started this thing just recently where every morning, he’d sing a song I didn’t know,” Catherine said. “We’d gone through at least 100, and he still had more in his head.”
Family marks birthday
Jefferson visited his father during the weekend for an early birthday celebration. Graham would have turned 79 Tuesday. ”I was sitting with him on Saturday and Sunday morning, and he was reading the Santa Cruz Sentinel,” Jefferson said. “He read it every morning.” Catherine planned to take her husband out for a pedicure on Tuesday, as well as bake him “fudgy” brownies.
Graham decided to retire at age 60 to help raise his daughter Lily Graham, now 22. While he had a long and prolific career, Graham always put his three children first, his wife said. ”I just had to go through his wallet for filling out paperwork, and it’s crammed full of pictures of Lily,” Catherine said. “I don’t know how they all fit in there.” And while his family was of utmost importance, Graham always knew how to connect with anyone, Jefferson said. ”He was Jerry Graham, always the smartest, smoothest guy in the room,” his son said, “the one who could start a conversation with anyone and make it interesting, and have them laughing and enjoying the company.”
Comments on Jerry Graham
Andy Fisher — When I started at WNEW as a copy boy at the beginning of the newspaper strike in 1962, Jerry Graham was the guy I wanted most to be like. He was smart, funny, always impeccably dressed (remember, this was the early 1960s), and always in the middle of what was going on. After I overslept two work days in a row and Jack Pluntze got Lee Hanna to tell Dick Merson to fire me — and Nat Asch moved me to afternoons — I showed up for work on Monday afternoon and Jerry nearly fell out of his chair laughing.
“You know,” he finally managed to say, “you were fired this morning.” I turned to go. ”No!” he said, starting to laugh again. “They fired your replacement!” It was true. Merson had fired the kid who showed up in the morning, Roy Fleischmann, who walked out of the newsroom, bewildered, saying, “I thought they liked me…” Jackie Regan, a Hunter College junior, was the impossibly beautiful blonde receptionist. Every straight man in the place had designs on her. One night, she asked me if I wanted to go to see Dame Judith Anderson in her solo performance of Medea at Hunter. It was, I reckoned, the best night of my life so far.
“Why are you so happy?” Jerry asked when I showed up for work the next day. ”I had a date with Jackie Regan last night,” I said. ”Yeah, right,” he scoffed. The same thing happened after Jackie and I went to the circus on a couple of comp tickets from Ringling Brothers. One night, Jackie and I — and Jerry and Judy — went to Carnegie Hall for a concert of the Symphony of the Air, whose managing director was Marlene Sanders’ husband Jerome Toobin. Afterwards, we had a late supper at the Russian Tea Room. Jackie and Judy went to the powder room. Jerry leaned over toward me. “Pretty nice,” he said.
In 1965, after Jerry had become news director, I graduated from Columbia, and started an on-air job Pluntze had set up for me at WIP in Philadelphia. Jerry wrote a wonderful memo that ended, “So long, Andy, and take your hand off your ear.” Harvey Glascock had taken over as general manager at WNEW a few months before I left. He was known for, among other things, his brutal memos. I wrote a parody of one, and taped it to the window in the newsroom. Glascock didn’t see it until some time after I had left for WIP, but when he did, he exploded.
“I want the man who wrote that fired!” he roared. ”Mr. Glascock,” Jerry proclaimed, solemnly and truthfully, “the man who wrote that will not be working here tomorrow…”
I tend to judge people by their senses of humor. Jerry had one of the best. He was also a wonderful writer, reporter, and manager, and we are all diminished by his death. A.F.
Alan Walden — I first met Jerry Graham in May of 1964, just as he became news director of WNEW. I was the new kid on the block “who’d been “discovered” by Jack Sullivan while he was driving across Ohio. Sullivan had called me and asked if I’d consider moving from Cleveland to New York and, when I replied in the affirmative (It was, after all, the ultimate “no brainer”) he suggested that I fly east on my next day off from WERE and drop by. The following Sunday I made my first visit to the “Big W,” was welcomed by John Dale and, the next morning, was introduced to Jerry and Lee Hanna who was about to make his move to television. Jerry conducted most of the interview and, after I wrote and recorded the obligatory newscast, asked me to write a five minute analysis of the situation in Vietnam from memory; no notes, no research, just write it. I did and after he’d read it he looked up, rubbed his nose, and said, “Pretty good.” “And…?,” I asked. His face broke into a lazy grin and I knew I’d gotten my dream job even though I was never quite sure he was completely happy with that decision.
Jerry and I never really interacted socially. We saw one another at WNEW events, at Basin Street East, etc. He was closest to Promotion Director Bernie Ruttenberg. Reid Collins and Jim Van Sickle were the stars of the news staff and I was just one of the late-comers with good pipes and diction who helped fill the schedule between drive times. I was, therefore, pleasantly startled when my photo turned up on the cover of the new WNEW style book and one of the lines I had written was used as an example of how we did what we did. Jerry was easy to work for; a thorough professional with a rather puckish sense of humor albeit tinged with what seemed to me a world-weary cynicism; a bit odd I thought since he was not yet 30 when we met.
I was rather surprised when Jerry was chosen by Harvey Glascock, who became GM when Sullivan moved up the corporate ladder, to become Program Director of WNEW. For one thing I didn’t know he wanted the job. For another, I expected it would go to Nat Asch, nemesis of the unwary and unworldly back then: my good and trusted friend during the more than 40 years since. But, since Nat’s creativity and boundless energy was by then directed toward the transformation of the FM station from stepchild of “The World’s Greatest Radio Station” to a fully independent entity with its own unique and eclectic personality, he went there. In any case, when Jerry moved to non-news programming he was, for all intents and purposes, out of my life.
Jerry and I had little in common other than “the business” and the fact that, at the time, we were both married to women named Judy. Our world views were poles apart. But we were of an age (Jerry was less than a year older than I) and his loss has, therefore, jolted my awareness of our mortality. It also brought back to full flood the flow of memories of that wonderful place and that extraordinary time when all things were possible. A.W.
Nat Asch — I will, until I die, be in debt to Jerry Graham for extending the two happiest periods of my life on Metromedia’s payroll. Let me explain.
Harvey Glascock came from Philadelphia’s WIP to be the GM of “the world’s greatest radio station” at the same time that WNEW’s PD, Varner “behold a pale Norse this way comes” Paulsen had accepted his ascendancy as GM of KNEW in Oakland. Glascock, endlessly shooting his Paul Stuart made-to-order-and-initialed shirt cuffs, asked me to lunch where he told me that I would be his PD after Paulsen left. Three weeks later and again at lunch, Glascock said he had decided instead to name Jerry Graham as his Program Director. The news devastated me.
My intention to leave WNEW became known to the new president of Metromedia radio, Jack Sullivan, who asked me to stay because he anticipated naming me the PD of the newly minted WNEW-FM which, thanks to Jerry Graham’s decision, enabled me to embark on the second part of the best years of my life in broadcasting. But no good assignment goes “unrewarded.” Jerry had to work with Harvey Glascock who was convinced that what was good for Philadelphia radio audiences was also good for the Big Apple…(from the picture, “FAT CHANCE.”) Glascock was, in my opinion, “anal retentive, “as well as somewhat paranoid. He admitted feeling that he was disliked by the staff he inherited…and not without reason. His concerns, his standards, especially for WNEW radio, almost always depended on the proof provided by polls, (Billboard, et al) polls that were laughed at by the rest of WNEW’s staff since the station was “top of the heap, A-number one in the city that never sleeps.”
The music, the on-air personalities, all had to measure up to the imposed standards provided by those polls that Glascock insisted on following. (This may also be the moment that I admit that I tilted the studio-side long hallway’s hanging pictures every morning…something that drove Harvey into near apoplexy.)
Jerry Graham was a well read, witty, insightful young executive who had great difficulty with those programming impositions. Jerry also pitched for WNEW’s Big W’s softball team…and, one year, went undefeated; not a small thing for a gangly Program Director and a former News Director of the “world’s greatest radio station.” There was the time that we and our wives attended the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room opening night of a Steve and Eydie run. It was formal and we were dressed for the occasion. Jerry said to me that I looked good in a tuxedo. I responded that he looked better. He gave me that Graham grin, a bright eyed Shakespearian Bottom, making subtle mischief on a higher plane.
He was really good at that. N.A
Al Wasser –My memories of Jerry are uncomplicated and positive: I found him to have sharp journalistic instincts despite his generally non-news background, and to be fun to work with and for as well as in our occasional social contacts.
One incident in particular stands out as a life-changer for me. Jerry had a strong interest in theater, and was aware that I had made small investments in a series of Broadway shows, including the recently-opened Fiddler On The Roof. At the time, WNEW’s theater reviews were provided by a number of celebrities. At the time, I was the editor on the 11am-7pm shift. One afternoon, Jerry (who I think was still Assistant News Director) called me in and told me that Arlene Francis was sick and unable to review that night’s opening of Saul Bellow’s first play (a failure whose title I don’t remember). Editor’s note: the play was “Last Analysis,” which opened in October, 1964 and soon closed. Jerry suggested that my theater investments indicated I had a measure of expertise. He said that, if I would be willing to provide a substitute review, he would arrange for me to get out of work early so that I could make the opening curtain. I had strong immediate doubts about my ability to do an adequate job, but swallowed hard and agreed to do it.
In those days, critics went to the official opening night and went back to their offices to write reviews that were quickly printed or aired. Broadcast reviews, including ours, were aired on 11pm newscasts. Despite my extreme nervousness, I rushed back to the ‘NEW newsroom and wrote and taped my review. Jerry call immediately to say he liked it. The next day, presumably after consulting with his bosses, Jerry told me he was firing Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and our other celebrity reviewers. For the next year, I reviewed every Broadway opening (and several off-Broadway shows).
Jerry provided constant encouragement and, most important, constructive feedback that helped me refine and improve my reviews. At the end of that year, Jerry told me he needed me to switch to the morning editor’s shift, with a 4:00 am start time that meant an end to my career as a critic. Jerry’s confidence in me had increased my own self-confidence, as well as providing a unique and exhilarating experience. A.W.