Barry ZeVan can tell you stories about what it was like to do a TV weather forecast in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, before Doppler radar, computer graphics and green-screen special effects.
He can tell you — or he can just show you. That’s what he’s doing with “Retro Weather,” a lighthearted weekly show that he’s posting on YouTube. “Please forgive me,” he requests in the first segment, which was posted on April 10, “but it’s been since 1977 that I’ve done it this way.”
That way is to stand in front of a map of the continental United States with a black Magic Marker (this was also pre-Sharpie), sketching in cold fronts, circling storm areas and scribbling temperatures while unleashing a fast-paced banter intermixing the data he gleaned from weather maps with what these days would be called “dad jokes” — instead of Miami, it’s Your-ami.
It’s all classic ZeVan, right down to the coyish peekaboos at the camera that he takes over his shoulder. Then he flashes an impish grin and punctuates it with a giggle, a sign that while he takes the task of predicting the weather seriously, he has the exact opposite attitude about himself.
“Self-degredation is the first law of self-preservation,” he said in an interview in his basement, where he sat surrounded by souvenirs from more than half a century of broadcasting. “Fortunately, laughing at myself has come naturally.”
ZeVan, 81, became an icon during two stints in the Twin Cities in which he was billed as “Barry ZeVan, the Weatherman.” In July 1974, he posted a Nielsen ratings record for a local weather forecast — 51% of the audience — that still stands and likely always will because of the fragmentation of the TV market through cable, satellite and streaming.
One of the people watching him was a young Louie Anderson — or, more to the point, Louie’s father.
“My dad loved him,” the Emmy-winning St. Paul native recalled by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I was like 13, and when Barry came on, my dad would yell at me from the living room: ‘Louie! Louie! Come watch this guy. He kills me.’ And I’d run into the room and watch him look around into the camera while he was doing the forecast. He was so funny that I didn’t even mind if it rained.”
The 7-minute-or-so “Retro Weather” segments, which are posted every Wednesday about 6:30 p.m., were actually Anderson’s idea. He and ZeVan ended up sitting next to each other at a fundraiser for the Twin Cities-based charity 30 Days Foundation. Anderson was so amused by ZeVan’s stories — “I don’t know if he means to be or not, but he’s very funny” — that he suggested ZeVan reconstitute his old shtick.
ZeVan was flattered by the idea, but was not convinced it would work.
“I told Louie, ‘No TV station is going to hire me for that.’ And Louie said, ‘These days, you don’t need a TV station.’ ”
Anderson steered ZeVan toward YouTube. The comedian was so excited about the idea that he even offered to tape a series of introductions that are rotated among the segments.
“I got to enjoy him growing up, and I thought other people should have that chance, too,” he said.
One of the things Anderson loves about ZeVan is his energy level. “He’s got a zest for life.”
Actually, ZeVan said, he’s happy just to be alive. Thanks to chemotherapy, he’s in remission from chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
“I owe everything to the doctors at the VA [hospital].” he said.
The good old days
Even the preparation for the spots is old school, with ZeVan studying the National Weather Service maps (they used to come via teletype, but now he prints them off a computer) and creating his own forecast from them. Once he has the data committed to memory — the entire process takes about two hours — he does the segment without benefit of cue cards or a teleprompter.
The only difference is that while he used to do the forecasts live, now he tapes his segments at CCX Media in Brooklyn Park.
“They have to be on tape to be on YouTube,” he said. “But even though that means we could go back [and do a second take], we don’t. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake, because that’s how it was done live.”
Partly because he moved around before landing in the Twin Cities and partly because Minnesotans have a tendency to relocate in their golden years, the segments are drawing viewers from all over the country — and beyond. YouTube has told him that he has regular viewers in England, South Africa and Singapore.
ZeVan never set out to be weatherman. He figured that he was going to be an entertainer. In 1943, at age 5, he got a job singing on a radio show in his hometown of Pittsburgh. When the family moved to New York City, his mother enrolled him in an arts prep school, Lodge Professional Children’s School, where his classmates included Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley and Charlie Moss.
Charlie who? “He went on to create the ‘I heart New York’ campaign.’ ” ZeVan said, adding with a laugh: “He made millions. I really should have kept in touch with him.”
He enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War. When he finished basic training, he was given a choice: Become a driver in the motor pool or go to school to learn to be a met tech (meteorological technician). He chose the latter because it sounded more interesting. “I never thought I’d do anything with it,” he said.
Once out of the Air Force, he tried his hand at show business, but struggled to find acting roles. It was suggested to him that his voice seemed ideally suited to broadcasting.
“I found a book listing all the radio and TV stations in the country,” he said. “I sent out 75 letters along with the worst audition tape in history. I heard back from one — a radio station in Helena, Mont., that was offering $55 a week, which wasn’t all that bad in 1957.”
A call for help
The job wasn’t a good fit, however. In addition to announcing, he was expected to run the sound board, something for which he had no training or experience. A few months later, a TV station in Missoula, Mont., offered him a job in which he would have to serve only as an announcer.
“I was booth announcer,” he said. In those days, a live announcer came on between shows to deliver ads and promote upcoming programs. A month after he arrived, the owner of the station, who wanted to localize the regional weather service forecasts, sent out a memo to the staff: Does anybody know anything about weather?
And an iconic career was born.
“Because I’d been an actor, I knew that you were supposed to look at the audience,” ZeVan said. “But you can’t do that when your back is to the camera and you’re writing on a map. So I peeked at the audience. The guy who was doing the news laughed and called me the Peekaboo Weatherman, and that’s how that all started.”
As he worked his way up the ladder to larger TV markets, he made a stop in Las Vegas. Realizing that he had an appreciation for all things silly, stars from the casino shows started crashing his segments.
Clips of those encounters, which involved the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Goulet and Juliet Prowse, are included in the YouTube postings, where they’re billed as “Retro Moments.” In them, ZeVan dutifully plays the straight man while the celebrities crack wise: Instead of a meteorologist, Jimmy Durante introduces ZeVan as a “meathead-ologist.”
He arrived at KSTP, Ch. 5 in the fall of 1970. His stint in Minnesota was interrupted in 1974 by a job he took in Washington, D.C., a decision he calls “the worst thing I ever did in my career” because he regretted leaving KSTP. After a stop in Detroit, he returned to the Twin Cities to work at Ch. 11 (which went through multiple call letter changes while he was there, from WTCN to WUSA to KARE), retired from full-time broadcasting in 1987 (although he did occasional entertainment reporting for another 10 years) and still lives in the area.
Fans who do a search for “Retro Weather Barry ZeVan” on YouTube can see the past few segments, but he’d like viewers to subscribe (there’s a red subscribe button just below the video). It’s free, but if he can get 30,000 subscribers, YouTube will allow him to start charging a fee.
“I want to give something to charity,” he said. “If I could charge just a dollar or two a month, yes, I’d have to start paying the people who [currently volunteer to] help me put on the show, but I’d have some money left to give to people who are down on their luck.”
He thinks the 30,000 figure is achievable. The Twin Cities has more than 3 million people; “30,000 isn’t that big of a percentage,” he said.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’m lucky that my health is good right now. I want to help others. I want to do as much as I can for as long as I can.”