To be inducted into the Silver Circle, a hall of fame established by the Washington chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a person needs to have spent a quarter-century in the business of entertaining local TV audiences.
Around these parts, few fit that bill better than Rhea Feikin, who's spent nearly four decades on Baltimore television, first as a kids' show host and weatherperson on WBAL, Channel 11, then as a frequent on-air presence on MPT.
Only thing is, she's a little uneasy about acknowledging that this brands her as a sort of elder statesman.
"It does, but I don't feel like one," says Feikin, who looks decidedly younger than her 63 years. "I guess I don't think about how people think about me."
Feikin is scheduled to receive her honor during a ceremony Saturday at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.
Her TV career began in the early 1960s. Armed with a degree in speech therapy from the University of Maryland (where her classmates included Jim Henson), and with only a few acting jobs to her credit (she was one of the volunteers who helped start Center Stage), she was approached by WBAL to serve as host for a show produced in conjunction with the city school system.
"I made the decision to do it on the spot," she says during an interview at the MPT studios, where she's worked on a free-lance basis for more than 20 years. "It was a chance to do what I really wanted to do, which was act."
Thus was born Betty Better Speech, a character that enabled her to combine her speech training with acting. Shortly thereafter, she went to work full-time for WBAL as host of "Miss Rhea and Sunshine," a collaborative effort with puppeteer Cal Schumann.
"It was great fun. We had all sorts of animals on that show," Feikin says with a smile that has changed very little in more than three decades. "Of course, we had Sunshine J. Dogg, and we also had Gertie Bird and Oogy Worm."
At WBAL, Feikin was part of the golden age of Baltimore kids' shows. Along with such fabled on-air personalities as Lary Lewman, Royal Parker, Stu Kerr, Jerry Wheeler and Nancy Claster (Pete the Pirate, P.W. Doodle, Bozo/Professor Kool, Lorenzo and Miss Nancy, respectively), she helped raise a generation of Baltimore kids.
"Television at that time, it was so much fun," says Feikin. "It was all still so new. Everybody came from a different walk of life, and everybody was always very supportive of everybody else. There was an atmosphere of being able to try things, and actually being able to fail without losing your job."
When Gulf Oil came to town and offered to sponsor WBAL's weather, provided they liked who was presenting it, station management tapped Feikin and Schumann to "do something entertaining." That "something" became Rhea and J.P., a woman-and-puppet team known for delightfully silly weather readings and for making the normally stoic WBAL anchor, Rolf Hertsgaard, laugh whenever J.P. would shout, "Good night, Rolf."
"I was a weather girl, but I didn't know a thing about the weather, I'll admit that," Feikin says. "But when I started, it was the only thing women were doing."
Feikin, who lives in the Stevenson/Pikesville area of Baltimore County with her husband of 12 years, Colgate Salsbury, ended her association with WBAL in the mid-1970s. Told by station management they were being let go, Feikin says with a wicked grin, she and Schumann walked off the set in the middle of a broadcast.
Soon after, she began work as a freelancer for MPT. Her most prominent roles are serving as host for the station's pledge drives and for the roving "MPT On Location" spots.
While she may be getting the laurels one associates with the twilight of a career, Feikin says she has no plans to disappear from the airwaves.
"I'll only retire when nobody wants me to do anything anymore," she says, "and that hasn't happened yet."
For an enthralling look at things you've probably never seen before, be sure and check "Mega Tech" Sunday on The Learning Channel. This three-hour show about incredible feats of engineering begins with a journey along the underbelly of New York City, navigating the miles and miles and miles of telephone lines, water pipes and subway tunnels (enough, if laid end to end, to stretch from New York to Chicago) that criss-cross the Big Apple. You even get an update on a 50-year project to provide more water to New York City: construction of a new tunnel that won't be finished until 2020.
The third hour travels above ground to showcase the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, a group whose work can be seen everywhere. But the real eye-opener is hour two, an amazing look at abandoned missile sites (including one used as a house, another for scuba diving), air-raid shelters (including a site in West Virginia where Congress was to sit out a nuclear war) and other cold-war remnants.
"Mega Tech" airs on The Learning Channel from 8 p.m.-11 p.m., with a repeat from 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
James Burke, creator of the intricately fascinating "Connections" series on PBS and The Learning Channel, will be the keynote speaker for "Making Connections," a science, math and technology symposium at UMBC tomorrow sponsored by The Park School.
"Connections," which debuted on PBS in 1976, chronicles how seemingly unrelated events in various fields come together to make technological advances possible. A sequel, "Connections 2," began airing on The Learning Channel in 1992; "Connections 3" is in the works.
Tickets for Burke's keynote speech, slated for 7: 30 p.m. in UMBC's University Center ballroom, are $10. Call The Park School at 1-800-877-4942.
Pub Date: 11/04/98