Smiles and bumps as panelist 21 years on 'Wall St. Week'

The Ticker

November 19, 1992|By Julius Westheimer

On Friday, November 20, 1970 -- 22 years ago tomorrow -- what is now the popular coast-to-coast TV program "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser" made its debut from a remote Owings Mills hilltop studio -- but without me.

Feeling that the show might be just another local flop -- other financial programs had been tried and failed -- I declined when the show's creator, Anne Truax Darlington, then a producer at Maryland Public Television, asked me to be one of its pioneer panelists. But six months later, when "W$W" gathered steam and moved toward an audience that now numbers 10 million weekly viewers in over 275 cities in the United States and abroad, I quickly changed my mind, reapplied, was accepted, then scrambled on board and have been a happy regular panelist ever since.

Happy panelist? For sure, because there's nothing quite as heady and adrenalin-producing as that moment when the floor director shouts, "We're on the air," but there have been a few bumps along the way.

There was the time, for example, when host Louis Rukeyser (a great boss -- tough, but fair) asked me an unrehearsed question about stock options, a topic I should have known something about but didn't, and still don't. Instead of saying I didn't know I replied badly, so badly that about 150 "hate letters" poured in. ("Get that dummy off the air," etc.) On a show when I do a relatively good job I generally receive about three letters -- one from my mother-in-law, one from my granddaughter and one from a viewer who wants to know if I'm related to Dr. Ruth Westheimer (no) or whether my ancestors came from Frankfurt, Germany (yes).

Then there was the evening when Louis mildly scolded me. About seven years ago, after all of us watched the show come over the air (we generally record it a few minutes before you see it), Louis beckoned me into a corner and said, "Look, when I ask you a question on the air, you answer it, and then give your speech if you want to, but always answer my question first." Certain that I would be fired, I took the Metroliner to New York next day, bought a huge blackboard ($45) at F.A.O. Schwartz, wrote on it 30 times, "I will always answer your question first!" and shipped it to his Greenwich, Conn., home. (Shipping cost: $60.) We've laughed about it since.

Pleasant moments have dwarfed the unhappy ones. For example, after a tiring 12-hour non-stop El Al flight from Tel Aviv to New York, I was delighted when a customs inspector looked up at me just before asking me to open my suitcases and exclaimed, "Gosh, I see you on that stock market TV show every Friday night. You gotta be honest. Go on through!" My dog-tired travel companions almost died.

A few tidbits about the show: "Wall Street Week" will soon have aired under six presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton -- surviving more administrations than any other show of its type. . . . Since Johnny Carson retired from "The Tonight Show," Rukeyser has now been host to a network TV series longer than anyone else. . . . "That woman," whom everyone asks about, is our on-the-air floor manager, Natalie Seltz. . . . Except for the questions from the viewers (panelists receive them 48 hours before show time), the entire show is spontaneous, unrehearsed and unedited. . . . Rukeyser's formula: "Economics puts people to sleep; money wakes them up."

More W$W chatter: One of my most embarrassing moments came five years ago. After wrongly predicting an imminent stock market collapse for over a year, I finally gave up and admitted defeat on the show of Oct. 8, 1987. A little over a week later, the Dow Jones average plunged 508 points in one day! . . . Born in New York, Mr. Rukeyser graduated with honors from Princeton in 1954, then became a reporter for The Evening Sun, followed by positions as London and New Delhi bureau chiefs for The Sun . . . Tomorrow night, "W$W" spotlights liquor and tobacco stocks with guest Emanuel Goldman, managing director, PaineWebber Inc., panelists Howard "Pete" Colhoun, Gail Dudack, Bernadette Murphy.

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