He also became a friend, much to my surprise and delight.
Steve Friedman went by the title "Mr. Movie." His Saturday night shows -- frequently from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- were known as "Mr. Movie Marathons," eight hours behind the mic, fielding calls from young and old, local and far away.
I happened on Steve's show by accident. This must have been around 1989 or so; I know Eileen and I were married and living in Jeffersonville at the time. We were driving home one Saturday night from some event or movie, and the weather forecast was threatening snow for the following morning. Being a church organist, I habitually tune my ear to potential bad weather on Sunday mornings, so I turned on the radio to hear the latest predictions.
Instead of news, I heard a gentleman on the airwaves talking movies. A passion of mine, for sure, and I zeroed in on his discussion.
It was interesting and engaging and entertaining from the start: What impressed me right off the bat were two things:
- His extensive knowledge
- His willingness to let callers discuss their points of view.
He discussed the merits of Citizen Kane with the same fervor as he did Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. And he respected fans of both.
"Be your own movie critic," he advised. "Don't let anyone talk you out of loving a movie you love or hating a movie you hate."
I started making a weekly habit of listening. When my eyes couldn't be propped open anymore because of the lateness of the hour, I slid in a cassette tape (remember those?) and recorded as much of the show as was technologically possible. Driving to and from church Sunday mornings, I caught up on the discussions I'd missed the prior night by going to bed.
The first podcast!
I learned a ton listening to this show. I had a relatively expansive background in movies before then, but he took what was akin to an elementary school knowledge and led me to doctorate-level. All while being gentle and encouraging and warm.
His favorite film was Forbidden Planet. He laid claim to the bragging rights of having seen more films than Roger Ebert, a fact that Ebert himself (begrudgingly) admitted. The film Steve listed as most important of all time was It's a Wonderful Life, a stance that confirmed to me that he and I were kindred spirits.
And most impressively, he exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. If he had seen one feature one time, he had instantaneous recall about its every detail.
The most common callers, which I thoroughly enjoyed, were those frantic souls wracking their brains to remember the title of a film they had seen decades ago. And Steve was uniformly able to help.
"I saw this picture once about two lovers stuck on a desert island, but it wasn't Blue Lagoon because it was in black and white and nobody was naked..."
We're Not Dressing (1934) with Bing Crosby.
"There was this movie on late one night about a tree that grows dollar bills, but I can't remember the title."
It Grows on Trees (1952) with Irene Dunne.
"My dad used to talk about a movie where a guy captures Death up in an apple tree. But I never got the title."
On Borrowed Time (1939) with Lionel Barrymore
And on and on. He never failed.
Turns out his photographic memory for film was a gift he had been given as the result of a childhood accident. As he told it, he was leaning over a kitchen toaster, trying to pry a piece of bread from the coils with a knife. The cutlery connected with the heating element, and as he pushed forward, his abdomen came in contact with the aluminum rim of the countertop. The resulting shock knocked him to the floor, and his parents flew into a panic that he had electrocuted himself.
No. He was fine. But after that incident, he had instant recall for imagery -- limited, it turned out, to only imagery. For although he knew a lot about history and science as well, his total recall was pretty much confined to movies and television. He even submitted to study by the University of Pennsylvania, I recall him saying, to test the limits of his abilities.
He loved telling this story: He was once asked about the actress who played the first victim in the movie blockbuster Jaws. He quieted himself for a moment and eventually came up with the name: Susan Backlinie.
When asked how he summoned that obscure name, his answer was both amazing and a little frightening.
"I ran the credits in my head," he said.
That vast knowledge was at his fingertips. He routinely logged eight hours of airtime about the movies, not using a single print resource. No encyclopedias, no books, no internet (didn't exist back then).
I started calling in. I became a regular. I was "Dan from Jeffersonville."
Soon, Steve began recognizing my voice and respecting my insights, such that they were. He started talking to me off-air, in the queue, before I'd go live. What was I seeing? What did I think? What was I looking forward to?
I talk often of the movies he "gave" me, the films that he recommended that I'd never seen (or, in some cases, heard of) that he loved: The Court Jester (1955), for example. Go Tell the Spartans (1978). The Haunting (1963).
Our friendship grew. Steve gave me the extreme honor of asking me into the studio to watch him work, so one Saturday night, I drove to the WCAU studios on City Line Avenue, met Steve in the parking lot, and accompanied him to his booth to watch him work.
One of the biggest thrills of my life.
Steve once helped me out of a professional jam as well, coming to my rescue when I needed a big-name speaker for a work-related event. Without charge, he attended, presented, and was captivating.
The photo below is from that evening.
Sadly, ill health drew the curtain down on the life of Steve Friedman. In 2009, he succumbed to kidney disease.
I miss him.
Rest well, Mr. Movie. I hope where you are, the screens are clean, the crushed-velvet seats are comfortable and the popcorn is warm and fresh.