The Register -- Cable Hostess to the Stars

Cable Hostess Chats with the Stars

By Hildy Wils Fontaine

The Register - 1986

Carol Channing found her to be genuinely interested. Her eyes and smile caught Vic Damone’s attention.

To Perry Como she was delightful.

Red Buttons extended their interview into a close friendship.

Talking with her was easy for Eddie Fisher.

Cable television talk show hostess Arlene Herson says these are among the compliments she has received from the stars. But she says the flattery is really secondary to the facts the stars, business people and political figures have revealed to Herson, the award-winning hostess of “The Arlene Herson Show.”

For instance, with Liberace she “talked about how he nearly died twice.” He also mentioned almost having a finger amputated when he was a teenager. “He had an infection one of his fingers. The doctor wanted to amputate. His mother gave him something, and the infection went away. Imagine Liberace with nine fingers,” she said.

Sammy Davis, Jr. told her how, at the height of his career, he contemplated suicide, she said. And he discussed with her the prejudice he endured in the early part of his career.

Success in what has developed into a second career in the last decade has got the biggies in the entertainment world taking a second look at Herson.

“The Arlene Herson Show,” complete with a new logo and a new theme written especially for the show by Mitch Leigh, who wrote the music for “Man of LaMancha,” will be syndicated nationally by Perigee International Enterprises Inc., and available for purchase by national television networks at the beginning of 1987.

Jeff Toddler, who also works for the TV ad agency in New York, is using her as the flagship for his new company after becoming familiar with her show on cable television.

“He thought it would be a perfect vehicle for syndication,” she said. The company, still in its infancy, is still working on signing Herson’s show with a network.

That doesn’t worry Herson, because her audience is already a wide one. The Cable Television Network, which connects all cable systems in New Jersey and is received in more than 1.3 million homes through the state, carries the show. So does Manhattan Cable Television and Group W Cable in New York. Both New York stations carry her program twice weekly.

“Going on Cable Network gave me a wider audience, and more sponsors afforded me the opportunity to go out on location,” Herson Said. Her estimated viewing audience is more that 3 million.

Her show received the 1984 and 1985 CAPE Award (Cable Award for Programming Excellence) for the best talk/interview show in commercial programming on CTN.

Does Herson hold a patented formula for drawing out hitherto unrevealed or bypasses stories of the stars? Not really.

“I have been able to develop a trust in my guests that I think is unique,” she said. “My way of talking to people is not threatening. I know when not to go too far. If they are going to be difficult, I consider it a challenge to turn them around.”

After Herson gets the show’s syndication through the first stages, “I’m planning on writing a book,” she said. “It will be based on my experiences with the celebrities, anecdotes of people I have interviewed, and how I became a success in cable.

The Bronx-born Herson has brought about these coups through hard work, determination, savvy and believing in herself. Hard work is not alien to her. It has always been her life style.

“I have always worked. I have had very interesting jobs and I like to work,” said Herson, whose background is in public relations, politics and newspapers.

In New York, Herson carved out her first career, one that would prepare for dealing with the most noted of the notables. She worked for the late Sen. Jacob Javits and columnist William Safire in his public relations firm. She was also associated with Tex McCrary Inc., a New York public relations firm where she just happened to work with Barbara Walters.

Contrast that outwardly glamorous life with life in Suburbia.

Witness culture shock. She experienced it when she moved from the city to New Jersey in 1971, when husband Milton Herson’s company, Music Makers Theatres Inc., purchased movie theatres in New Jersey.

“It was the first time I had not worked,” she said. With two young children in tow, she decided to try the life of a young suburbanite.

By the second year of busying herself with charity organizations, she got restless. Ever the go-getter, Herson got a job selling advertising. Then she started writing a social column for an area newspaper.

A year later she began taking photographs to accompany her column. “I was selling ads, doing ad layouts, writing and taking pictures. Then I thought, “What else have I not done yet?”

Joseph Frankel thought of something else. It was Frankel, the mayor of Eatontown, who suggested that she pursue something on cable television. “I called the people at Storer Cable Future Vision. I asked if they would be interested in an interview show,” Herson said.

They were.

“Two weeks later I came back with a format, a list of 20 people I wanted to interview, and why. The next thing I knew I had my own cable TV show,” she said. “Getting to Know You with Arlene Herson” (the show’s original name) bowed in 1978.

With the show came the responsibilities of producing, seeking sponsors, writing and hosting the show. “That was the only way to do it at that time,” she said. To this day she coordinates her own wardrobe and does her own hair and makeup.

Her pilot program was an interview with her husband. That was followed be an interview with Fred Caruso, a Rumson movie producer. She focused on Monmouth County personalities in business and politics.

“I started interviewing entertainers as they came into the county. They were mixed in with Monmouth County people.” Interviewing the stars evolved with the growth of casinos in Atlantic City and the big-name attractions they offered. Then she expanded into Ocean County.

Come September she will be cited as the Woman of Achievement in Communications by the Monmouth County Advisory Commission on the Status of Women.

Herson still books her guests herself. She sometimes bumps into them in odd places, like airports. An example is Polly Bergen, whom she met in July at Kennedy Airport as both were waiting for a California flight.

They happened to board the same flight.

“We became fast friends. She’s very nice. We have mutual friends.”

And, quite naturally, “I am going to be doing an interview with her.”

She met Mel Brooks and Burt Young the same way, then had them as guests on her show. Herson does all interviews on location.

“I go to apartments, homes, offices and hotels of the stars. I will get people that I cannot get to come to the studio,” she continued. She is accompanied by two cameramen, a director, a sound person, a lighting person and her assistant.

Cracking the New York City television world “opened an entirely new market for me. I was planning on syndicating nationally on national cable when I was presented with this offer to do a nationally syndicated show,” she said.

She promises to continue the cable shows simultaneously with national syndication. And this may mean doing more than double duty.

After an interview is confirmed research begins. Press kits and libraries provide the foundation. “I read everything my assistant brings back. If they have written five books, I will read them. I read all the newspapers and periodicals.”

“By the time I finish, I know so much about that person I am over-prepared. I very rarely ask a question that I don’t know the answer to.”

She writes shows at night, and estimates it takes about four hours to write half-hour show. “Once it is together, from that moment on, I am not nervous,” she said.

“It is a lot of hard work. There is a lot of preparation. I would like to say the glamour outweighs the work in the office, but that is not true,” she commentated.

But, she added, “It is exciting to be on a one-to-one basis with top named people.”

Booking guests, researching their accomplishments and preparing shows leaves very little time to herself.

“I don’t have a lot of personal time. That is the thing I miss,” she said. But she added, “You have to give up something.”