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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.