Rhea Feikin, ‘First Lady’ of Maryland Public Television, earns retirement TV special

Maryland Public Television host Rhea Feikin (right) appears with Baltimore filmmaking icon John Waters. (Courtesy MPT)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Rhea: A Life in Television' on MPT

The “First Lady” of Maryland Public Television announced her retirement in March.

On Monday, Rhea Feikin will receive the tribute “Rhea: A Life in Television” at 8 p.m.

“It was kind of a funny idea,” Feikin told WTOP. “It was Eric Neumann’s idea. He thought that for so many years I’ve been interviewing people, but it was time to turn the tables and have people interview me. … He picked [five] terrific people and I think it’s gonna be fun.”

First, filmmaker John Waters chats with Feikin about her early days at WBAL-TV.

“I have known John since before he was famous,” Feikin said. “John loves to be called eccentric and weird … but basically John is just a wonderful friend and a very kind person. One of the reasons he gets away with what he does is because it’s never mean-spirited.”

She even appeared in his films, playing a geometry teacher in “Hairspray” (1988).

“It’s a very pleasant experience being in one of his movies,” Feikin said. “I had never been in a ‘movie’ movie before. I still get residuals. Every year, I get about $2.50 from SAG.”

Next, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski reminisces with her about growing up in Baltimore, where Feikin lived in an apartment behind her parents’ grocery store in Hampden.

“I would see the senator at various functions,” Feikin said. “I went to a big party with my late husband, Colgate, and he was not a very outgoing person. … I looked on the dance floor and there he is with the senator just jitter bugging and carrying on. I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ I did remind the senator about that and she remembered it, too.”

She then talks theater with Baltimore Center Stage Executive Director Michael Ross.

“I was a founder of Center Stage,” Feikin said. “I got to be in the first play. … The first play was ‘La Ronde.’ … I was in the first scene. I was the young maid who has a dalliance with the young man. … Many years later … I married that young man who was in ‘La Ronde.'”

After that, MPT President and CEO Larry Unger goes behind-the-scenes of her shows.

“I worked for a lot of different presidents,” Feikin said. “He was definitely my favorite and the one who I think really changed the atmosphere at Maryland Public Television. It became much more open. He was always available and listened to everybody.”

Finally, she chats with longtime co-host Donald Thoms about their favorite pledge show guests, including bestselling author Nora Roberts, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“I was fascinated by her,” Feikin said. “Her publicist made it very clear that there were certain things we couldn’t ask her. … She walked in and had this kind of gravelly voice. … She was straightforward and really interesting. We just hit it off. As the interview went on, she got more and more engrossed in it and the do’s and don’t’s just disappeared.”

She also enjoyed interviewing David Foster, who wrote Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.”

“He was great,” Feikin said. “He told stories, he had jeans that were cut out in the knees and he just was fabulous and funny. After several of the breaks, we were sitting in the green room and I said, ‘Are you really this nice? Or do you just know how to act nice?’ He just smiled and said, ‘A little bit of both.’ I loved that answer because it was the truth.”

Still, her all-time favorite was interviewing Jeremy Irons at Shakespeare Theatre.

“It was extremely exciting,” Feikin said. “We got there early. … In walks Jeremy Irons [with] bags under his eyes, kind of fabulous looking, this unsmiling person. … He looked at all the makeup on the makeup table, then he looked at me in the monitor, and he looked back and he said to me, ‘Do you think I need makeup?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think you do.'”

What was supposed to be a 10-minute chat turned into a 40-minute conversation.

“The first thing he said when he sat down was, ‘You’re an actress, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘No, I’m really not,’ and he just said, ‘Oh, yes, you are. Now let’s begin.’ I was unnerved from the beginning,'” Feikin said. “Every time the person would make a signal that he was to stop, he just ignored it. … He talked in complete sentences with never an ‘err’ or ‘uhh.'”

If anyone appreciates eloquent speech it’s Feikin, who studied speech pathology at the University of Maryland before becoming a speech therapist in Baltimore City schools. This inspired her very first gig at WBAL-TV with the education program “Betty Better Speech.”

“The FCC would from time to time ask stations to devote a certain amount of time for public service programming,” Feikin said. “They said, ‘Who wants to do this?’ … ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ That’s how it happened. When it was over, I was called into Brent Gunts’ office and he said, ‘Would you like to do a kids show?’ I didn’t walk, I ran to do it! And that was it.”

She stayed at WBAL-TV to create “Miss Rhea and Sunshine” with Cal Schumann.

“That was so much fun to do,” Feikin said. “He was absolutely a crazy, wonderful person, but totally unreliable because he drank a lot. We would get together once a week and write the shows for the week because he was the puppeteer. … We didn’t script any of it. We just scripted the idea but not the actual words, so you had to be on your toes.”

She and Schumann reunited for the nightly puppet weather forecast “Rhea and JP.”

“[Gulf Oil] asked all the stations to send in a video,” Feikin said. “Brent Gunts was the general manager. … He said, ‘I don’t think people really care about highs and lows and barometric pressure; just do something that’s kind of fun and amusing.’ … We made up this thing with this crazy looking puppet and sent it off. Lo and behold, Gulf Oil chose us.”

Upon joining MPT, she hosted “Consumer Survival Kit,” as well as “Artworks This Week,” “MPT on Location,” “Chesapeake Collectibles” and “Impressions with Rhea Feikin.”

“I just loved doing all those things because I got to go to lots of different places,” Feikin said. “We did one on oriental rugs [at] a place in New York called Marjan International on Fifth Avenue. It was a huge rug store, family owned. … They were Persian and the whole family stood and watched as we taped the segments. … We sat on these rolled up rugs.”

Suddenly, she put her foot in her mouth and couldn’t believe her next question.

“I just turned to this guy and said, ‘Are you Jewish?'” Feikin said. “There was just complete silence. The family was silent. All the people from MPT didn’t move. There was this moment. I was terrified. Finally, he just turned to me and said, ‘Yes, I am. Are you?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and everybody started to laugh. … They gave me a nice little prayer rock as a gift.”

In 2010, she became the first personality recognized on MPT’s Walk of Fame, a fitting accolade for five decades in television that came to an end when she retired March 1.

“I finally realized that the time has come,” Feikin said. “I will be celebrating in July my 85th birthday and I thought, ‘I better leave before they want me to leave.’ … The station was just wonderful. .. I appreciate the many emails and letters. It was a happy retirement.”

Does she have any big plans for retirement?

“I’m gonna walk, I’m gonna do my yoga and I’m gonna do very little else,” Feikin said. “I’m going to watch a lot of television. I love all the movies and things on Netflix and Amazon.”

She can start by watching “Rhea: A Life in Television” on MPT — albeit quarantined.

“I’ll be watching alone,” Feikin said. “I’m still unable to have people in my apartment.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Rhea Feikin (Full Interview)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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