Ricki Wertz on TV, #MeToo, and leaving Pittsburgh

One day early in her television career, Ricki Wertz was knocked over by a stranger on her way to the bank.

“He grabbed me and picked me up and and put me on the step and said, ‘Sorry, Rick, I’m in a hurry,’” Ms. Wertz recalls. She stood there stunned. She had never seen the man before, but he knew her name.

“That was so powerful,” she said. “I’ve never forgotten the importance of going into someone’s home, because you’re part of their life.”

Ricki Wertz and her costar, Copper. (Courtesy of Ricki Wertz)

Ms. Wertz made her first appearances in Pittsburgh homes in the late ’50s. One of her first major television gigs was an evening news segment in which she sang updates about the weather forecast — while dressed in a negligee.

“With the #MeToo movement, I’m ashamed of it,” Ms. Wertz recalled with a laugh. “It was a weird time. Fifteen minutes of the news was me singing weather. That’s how bad it was.”

“I would wear Bermuda shorts and sneakers under the negligee to feel more ‘me,’” she added.

By the time she became WTAE’s scantily-clad weatherwoman, Ms. Wertz was already acquainted with show business.

At the age of 17, she left Wilkes-Barre, the coal mining town where she was born (“I have anthracite coal dust behind my ears”), to train at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on a scholarship. There, she shared a room with actress Shirley Jones, fine-tuned her singing and stage presence, and performed in productions like “Three to One” and “Cinderella.”    

“And I went from there to television,” she said. At the studio, she met her husband and lifelong collaborator, Tom Bordenkircher.

Bordenkircher, then known as Tom Borden — “an artist had to write your name after ‘directed by’ and the screens were so small,” Ms. Wertz explains — was a promising director in the blossoming industry.    

Ricki and Copper make an appearance in town.

“It was exciting and new and nobody had done it before.” Ms. Wertz recalls of the television industry. “It was a really fun time.”

“Exciting” might be an understatement. Ms. Wertz and her husband were at work during the decade that defined television. In 1950, just 9 percent of American households had televisions. When “The Ricki & Copper Show”—a children’s program that starred Ms. Wertz and her red-haired dog —debuted in 1959, that figure was inching close to 90 percent.

On each episode of “Ricki & Copper,” Ms. Wertz would host a handful of local kids for some singing, joke-telling, and playing with local television’s favorite dog. And watching the show was almost as exciting as appearing on it.

“In a city the size of Pittsburgh … if you were on local television everyone knew you, of course,” says Harry Kloman, a journalism professor at the University of Pittsburgh who appeared on “Ricki & Copper” when he was 5 years old. “It was a small city and people tended to watch local shows. They wanted to see their friends and neighbors on TV.”

On the set of “Ricki & Copper.” (Courtesy of Ricki Wertz)

But it wasn’t all song and dance. As the negligee anecdote might suggest, the industry was fraught with hostile gender dynamics. Ms. Wertz was one of few women to host her own program, and she remembers that they were “way underpaid.”

“We did not get the contracts the men did,” she says. And on top of everything else else, they had to look pretty — all the time. “Management made no bones about the fact that you were not to appear in public with slacks on.”

But the network executives weren’t the only ones. The journalists who wrote about Wertz were similarly fixated on her appearance. When Wertz acted in stage productions early in her career, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to her as “Pretty Ricki Wertz.”

The Pittsburgh Press called her a “girl of talent and looks” and noted that she probably received “more invitations to high school dances than any other girl in Pittsburgh.” In an especially prurient article, a reporter at The Press wrote that she was “scintillating” and therefore “a difficult person for a man to interview.”

A segment of a profile from 1970.

“We were trying to break into a world where a lot of it was your looks, which I found offensive,” Ms. Wertz says. “The #MeToo movement, I really hope it goes [well]. We all have stories. But it’s getting better.”

After “Ricki & Copper,” Ms. Wertz went on to host “Junior High Quiz,” a trivia competition for middle schoolers, for 20 years. Then, in 1982, she pivoted to a new network— and a whole new kind of programming.

The new project was “The Chemical People,” a program produced by WQED that aimed to get communities talking about drug and alcohol abuse. Thousands of communities across America convened to watch the program.

“We just wanted people to talk,” Ms. Wertz says. “You can’t say no to something if you deny it’s even happening.”

Ricki Wertz and her guests on set. (Courtesy of Ricki Wertz)

These days, Ms. Wertz lives with her husband in Chicago. She’s still getting the hang of the public transportation system, and sometimes schedules meetings on Eastern Standard Time by accident. “Our heart and soul is in Pittsburgh,” she declares. “I’m never going to root for the Bears.”  

As a person who witnessed — and was part of — a seismic shift in mass media six decades ago, Ms. Wertz has a unique perspective on the ways we communicate now. “My world was television; your world is computers,” she said.

She said she worries about people who believe what they read online “without question,” because “they’re being bombarded with stuff, from irresponsible people with power.”        

Ms. Wertz recalls one of her goals from hosting “Ricki & Copper”: to help children understand television, and how it works.

“We had a set that had a bridge. You thought we went into the woods,” she says of the show’s idyllic woodland backdrop. “It was to show them it was a set. It’s fantasy. It’s not real.”

 

These pictures were brought to our attention by Ricki Wertz’s friend, Mary Beth Mueller. 

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.

14 Comments

  1. Marlene
    6/19/2018
    Reply

    I believe Ricky Wertz was a real pioneer in the early days of broadcasting. She was lively and did a great job. Wish she was still here. I will always remember her.

  2. Michele Pastor
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    My favorite show as a child. Never missed it. Also, Adventure Time with Paul Shannon.

  3. Barb Haas
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    I was on Ricki and Copper. To this day, I remember the joke I told – I remember the small toy they gave us and walking over that bridge. It was magic…

  4. Tom Ritter
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    I was in a Masters Program at LaRoche College, Human Resources Management! What a nice person just as I remember her on TV! Hi Ricki!

  5. Paul Snodgrass
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    My father Lou Snodgrass was Mr. Microphone for Ricki And Copper. He always said that Ricky Wertz was one of the best people to work with at WTAE. She was always professional and as prepared as you could be working with small children. His stories of the shenanigans that went on at KDKA where he started and at WTAE in the early days of TV in Pittsburgh would always get a laugh.

  6. Ronald Prymas
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    I was a Police Officer in Richland Township was involved with the Chemical People.. She was a class act and concerned for the youth and the popularity of drugs.

  7. Margaret Shapiro
    6/20/2018
    Reply

    I am 66 years old and grew up in Pittsburgh. Ricki and Copper was my favorite television show!! I loved Ms. Wertz kindness and joy that beamed through the screen, as well as her love of Copper! I have lived in the Chicago area for over 40 years, but Pittsburgh is the home of my heart…. Ricki & Copper share that space.
    I will be looking for Ricki on the streets of Chicago now!! I would recognize her radiant self in a second!

  8. Art in San Francisco
    6/21/2018
    Reply

    I remember meeting Ricki and Copper back around 1961 at one of their public appearances at McDonald’s in Uniontown. At the age of 11 back then, I was thrilled just to meet somebody famous for the first time in my life! I also met Channel 11’s Captain Jim there on another occasion as I recall.

  9. Rella House Whetzel
    6/21/2018
    Reply

    I remember being on the Ricki and Copper show when I was 5 back in 1965. I had my button pin, with my name in it, for a very long time but alas it has disappeared over time. I will NEVER forget that experience nor the feeling it gave me.

  10. David Boyce
    6/21/2018
    Reply

    I was on my Ricki and Copper, probably 1959. My biggest disappointment was that we ran out of time and didn’t get to cross the bridge at the end of the show. Also, that my mother made me sing a song in German and wouldn’t let me tell a joke.

  11. David Boyce
    6/21/2018
    Reply

    I was on Ricki and Copper, probably 1959. My biggest disappointment was that we ran out of time and didn’t get to cross the bridge at the end of the show. Also, that my mother made me sing a song in German and wouldn’t let me tell a joke.

  12. Diane
    6/22/2018
    Reply

    Ricky, Copper and Penny! She was it…never missed her show…later in my life I got a dog just like her dog…Ricki was my friend as she was everyone’s friend. Ricki is one of the best childhood memorie any kid had in Pittsburgh…Thank you Ricki for the love!

  13. Pam ford
    6/25/2018
    Reply

    I was also on the show, probably in 1968. I had my button for a very long time, too. I remember the joke i told, also! I would love to see a rerun of the show that i was on!

  14. Susan Senn
    7/10/2018
    Reply

    I still remember singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and telling the “throw the butter out the window to see a butterfly” joke on my 7th birthday in 1965. I was so excited to meet Ricki, Joe Negri, and (my favorite) Copper! Thank you, Ricki and Copper, for making so many Pittsburgh area children feel so special!

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