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Some people dismiss Stanley Tonight as inconsequential drivel

Siegel slot

“Nice going,” Stanley says to Jeff Van Deerlin, signing off. “See you in Coronado.”
  • “Nice going,” Stanley says to Jeff Van Deerlin, signing off. “See you in Coronado.”
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It’s hard to watch the Stanley Tonight show without asking yourself at some point, “Is this guy for real?” Talk-show hosts are odd, as a rule, and Stanley Siegel is the excess to the rule. He laughs by closing his eyes, opening his mouth, and barking. He wears dark wool suits and a generous amount of Brylcreem. He uses the words “fabulous” and “wonderful” with abandon. He keeps track of his guests with oversize pink index cards, which he reads on-camera, holding them in front of his face. Still he calls people by the wrong names. His guests frequently correct him on his facts, and sometimes they insult him. His audience occasionally gets out of control. The show is, at times, painful to watch.

 The show is taped before a small audience in the station's studio off Ruffner Road in Clairemont.

The show is taped before a small audience in the station's studio off Ruffner Road in Clairemont.

March 16: The presiding judge of San Diego’s juvenile court, Judith McConnell, is on the show. Stanley calls her “Janet.” He wants to know about the local shortage of foster care homes. “Spell it out. Judge,” he says. Later he interviews a married couple who've had 350 foster kids through their home.

The presiding judge of San Diego’s juvenile court, Judith McConnell, is on the show. Stanley calls her “Janet.”

The presiding judge of San Diego’s juvenile court, Judith McConnell, is on the show. Stanley calls her “Janet.”

“How many Christmas cards did you get last year?” Stanley asks.

“Three hundred,” says the husband.

How nice, Stanley says, to be remembered by all those foster kids.

He wears dark wool suits and a generous amount of Brylcreem.

He wears dark wool suits and a generous amount of Brylcreem.

“We have other friends,” replies the husband.

April 8: Stanley has booked two San Diego couples who emigrated from the Soviet Union. He had hoped to tie into the marine sex and spy scandal at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. But his guests left their homeland years ago and aren't well versed in diplomatic intrigue. So Stanley questions them about their lives in the USSR, assuming that they trudged through a Solzhenitsyn existence and departed through a Sakharov gamut.

Yvonne De Carlo: “How can one man be wrong about so many things?”

Yvonne De Carlo: “How can one man be wrong about so many things?”

But it turns out that they weren't really persecuted, and by Soviet standards, they were financially well off. One couple owned their own home, an opportunity open to only two percent of the population. The woman is now a real-estate agent.

Lechner does not make excuses for Siegel’s inattention to names. "People find it disturbing. I know I find it disturbing."

Lechner does not make excuses for Siegel’s inattention to names. "People find it disturbing. I know I find it disturbing."

“Was that one of the reasons you came to the United States? You found out about real estate in our country?” inquires Stanley. The audience laughs, although he is not joking. To the other woman he says, “Was it difficult to leave your family behind in Russia?”

Guests are people like Alan Eliason, former chief of the border patrol, Ballard Smith, president of the Padres, Gerald Warren, editor of the San Diego Union, Mayor Maureen O'Connor, Sheriff John Duffy, millionaire Gene Klein and America's Cup winner Dennis Conner.

Guests are people like Alan Eliason, former chief of the border patrol, Ballard Smith, president of the Padres, Gerald Warren, editor of the San Diego Union, Mayor Maureen O'Connor, Sheriff John Duffy, millionaire Gene Klein and America's Cup winner Dennis Conner.

Her answer: “I guess so.” As the couples leave the stage, Siegel asks the piano player to improvise a melody, “A little sex and spy music, please, as we say good-bye to the Kaminskys.”

Some people dismiss Stanley Tonight as inconsequential drivel, and others consider it a good fit for San Diego. No one has given it cult status yet, but this, too, will be said. Stanley Siegel has been bludgeoning a niche for himself since last summer, when KUSI-TV hired him to host a local talk show. He tries to be Phil Donahue but lands somewhere between Tom Snyder and Ed Sullivan. Something about Stanley is definitely ajar, but it’s hard to determine exactly what. His show is certainly unpredictable; you don't know what will go wrong next.

Yet there is an audience for Stanley Tonight, albeit an unlikely mix of viewers. Channel switchers stumble across Stanley Tonight and stay for a while to see if it's a spoof. Others, like politicos and journalists, tune in because they occasionally have to. Jumbled in with San Diegans who rescue possums or breed miniature horses are people like Alan Eliason, former chief of the border patrol, Ballard Smith, president of the Padres, Gerald Warren, editor of the San Diego Union, Mayor Maureen O'Connor, Sheriff John Duffy, and School District Superintendent Thomas Payzant. People who generally ignore reporters, like millionaire Gene Klein and America's Cup winner Dennis Conner, have come on Stanley’s show. Craig Peyer demonstrated the highway patrol’s drunk-driving test twelve days before the murder of Cara Knott; three weeks later, his wife appeared on Stanley Tonight to trumpet his innocence of the murder charges.

All of this leads to questions greater than “How does he get those guests?” and “Don’t they watch the show first?” The purpose of this article is not to enumerate every time Stanley Siegel has called someone by the wrong name, gotten the facts crooked, or asked inane questions — although examples will follow. The questions that need exploration are why the show has survived this long and why it’s important that it stay on television.

Stanley Tonight replaced reruns of Kojak last August on KUSI (Channel 51), the station that carries the Padres games. It was filmed live at first, but the guests changed that format by arriving late. Now the show is taped before a small audience in the station's studio off Ruffner Road in Clairemont.

Until last month, Stanley Tonight aired five nights a week, Monday through Friday, at 9:00 p.m. Now it’s been cut back to two nights a week, Saturday and Sunday, showing at ten o'clock. Siegel's staff has been reduced from four to one, leaving only Stanley and his producer to put the program together.

The general manager of KUSI, Mike McKinnon, says he “wasn't overwhelmed" by the Stanley Tonight ratings but has no plans to cancel the show. “We’re pretty pleased with the results, but we can't put five days a week into Stanley,” he explains. The ice is thin in TV land, though, and Stanley’s show has fallen through in other cities. It could happen here, too. At whatever the cost, we must save Stanley Tonight. The show is important because it gives us local news we don't get elsewhere, it's more informative than Kojak, and besides, Stanley is a nice guy.

March 13: The topics to be explored are: Should college athletes be paid? Why are there so many suicides on the Coronado Bay Bridge? Is raising miniature horses fun?

Bridge suicides are the headliner segment, stemming from four people leaping off the bridge the previous weekend. Siegel’s staff has booked Jim Larson, a spokesman for Caltrans; Pam Blackwell, head of the county’s suicide prevention program, and the Vigils, whose teen-age daughter jumped to her death in 1984.

Stanley is under the impression that people are dropping like flies from the bridge. “How many calls a day do you get?” he asks Pam Blackwell, the suicide counselor. She tells him they've only had three since the phone was installed in 1985. Siegel, who never misses an opportunity to mention that he lives in Coronado, asks Jim Larson the name of the Caltrans worker who towed Stanley off the bridge when his car broke down the other day.

The show takes a live phone call from Jeff Van Deerlin, son of former U.S. Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin (who has also been on Stanley Tonight). Eight days ago, as Jeff was driving home to Coronado, he saw a woman leap from the bridge. He stopped and reported it to the police, and the suicide victim was rescued. Stanley asks Jeff what it feels like to be such a hero, and Jeff says that all he really did was make a phone call.

“Nice going,” Stanley says, signing off. “See you in Coronado.” Siegel then interviews the parents and the sister of the girl who committed suicide in 1984. But he keeps forgetting the name of the victim and has to ask the family to remind him twice. As the interview winds down into a commercial, Stanley promises upcoming scandals about local college athletes. But following the break is Jim Larson from Caltrans again, on-camera with Stanley. They need to clarify the number of suicides from the bridge.

Siegel: “We mentioned 200. Is that a little in excess?”

Larson: “It’s a lot in excess. It’s more like 134.”

In the next segment, Siegel asks Fred Miller, athletic director at San Diego State University, if any of his football stars were enticed to SDSU with money, cars, or other perks. But Miller, who asserts that his program is spotless, won’t even agree that this practice happens at other colleges. Stanley makes Willie Buchanon, a former defensive back for the Chargers, admit that other colleges offered him bonuses but that he chose SDSU instead. Siegel wants to discuss a theory he read somewhere about college alumni using their finances to direct the lives of ghetto kids. He directs the observation to Buchanon, a black man. “Willie, here’s a question I think you can relate to,” he says.

The last segment of this show is obviously the one that Stanley’s been looking forward to. “When we come back, you’re going to see something never seen in the history of television,” he says before the commercial. Stanley has been getting increasingly excited about the miniature horse segment, where five grown men ride “huge gerbils” (Stanley’s description) onstage. “I used to have a miniature horse. He used to make me sandwiches,” says Siegel, to no one’s comprehension. He interviews “Killer,” one of the shrunken beasts, by getting on his knees and putting the microphone to the horse’s mouth. “Have you ever met Secretariat?” he asks.

The answer to the first question — why Siegel is still on TV — may be more elusive than anticipated. But the second question may have already been answered. Stanley Tonight serves a purpose. There is only one other local talk show — Gloria Penner in Conversation — and it’s a serious, one-on-one interview with San Diego notables. Gloria Penner would never book Shanti the Belly Dancer — a vision of rumbling flesh and shredded plastic — on her show. Some of Stanley’s guests should be on TV, need to be on TV, and Stanley Tonight is the only place they will ever appear.

Like Dutch Schultz, the former president of the local Hell’s Angels chapter. He was able to tell his side of the story on Stanley' Tonight before starting his prison term for selling methamphetamine from an East San Diego limousine service. Or the hookers from El Cajon Boulevard, who appeared on the show (although they demanded a fee) during one of the vice crackdowns. How often do you see them quoted in the daily papers?

Opposing sides to local issues — which meet only in newsprint, as far as the public is concerned — can hash it out on Stanley’s show. Supporters or other interested parties are invited to the studio to make their comments from the audience. Stanley sets the tone, so almost anything goes.

May 2: State Assemblyman Steve Peace is facing off against Elbert “Thad” Poppell, owner of a now-defunct exercise and sexual-encounter studio in Chula Vista.

Assemblyman Peace: “Mr. Poppell... is a cheater, a liar, and a criminal. Other than that, I don’t have anything against him.”

Poppell: “Why does he always like to call people names? Right here there’s an article from the newspaper [that] practically condemns Mr. Peace as being a crook. He’s going to benefit by putting a park close to his house to increase the value of his property.”

San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender is on the show, along with his wife Lois, to discuss the crime victims’ fund. Poppell gets it in his head that Kolender might apprehend him for an unresolved contempt of court charge. Poppell’s paranoia increases as Kolender — with a little instigation from Stanley — condemns Thad’s house of free love. Poppell finally accuses Peace of arranging a setup, despite the fact that Kolender has nothing to do with the Chula Vista Police Department. All is resolved, at least temporarily, when Thad Poppell leaves the studio a free man.

To appear on Stanley Tonight, you must fit into one of the following categories: an issue or person in San Diego who’s been in the headlines that week; a broadly interesting topic with a local tie-in; something silly, poignant, or leisure-oriented that can be found or done in San Diego; any celebrity who happens to be in the city.

The last grouping is where Yvonne De Carlo fit in. Although Stanley won’t admit it, he probably wishes he had let her squeeze through town unnoticed. This could have been the worst Stanley Tonight interview ever. De Carlo followed the Soviet emigrant couples, and Siegel introduced her the way he introduces most of his guests — like a circus barker. Each writer is famous, each politico very powerful, every athlete headed for the Hall of Fame. So Yvonne De Carlo, was, naturally, “a movie and television legend.”

De Carlo did have a quick heyday in the Forties, but her best-known role is probably as Lily Munster in the laugh-track-riddled television series called The Munsters. In Hollywood she was the sex sauce that producers poured on B movies. Today she is a much older, much heavier, and much nastier woman, who was on tour to promote a recently published autobiography called Yvonne.

The advance material on the book hinted at celebrity anecdotes and names of Hollywood stars who spent horizontal time with De Carlo. Unfortunately, Stanley could not pull any of the obvious tidbits from Yvonne, who appeared to have been born disgruntled. They may have started on a bad note when Siegel said, in his introduction, “A great many men have lusted after Yvonne De Carlo.”

Stanley: “What do you remember most about Hedy Lamarr?”

Yvonne: “Nothing. You got the wrong one.”

Stanley: “What about Lana Turner? Did you know her?”

Yvonne [perturbed]: “No. Never did.”

Stanley: “What about the moguls. Did you know Harry Cohn?"

Yvonne [chafing]: “No.”

Stanley: “What about Louie B. Mayer?”

Yvonne [exasperated]: “No. Let's skip ad that and go to Walter Wanger.”

Stanley: “Okay. He was one of the great directors.”

Yvonne [disdainfully]: “No. He was a producer.”

Siegel manages to coax De Carlo into flattering some of her favorite paramours or men she had simply dated once or twice; Yvonne laments over a couple of men she wished had married her. Stanley is curious about one in particular.

“I hope I’m not coming off as too prurient... but where were you having these affairs with Howard Hughes? Was it at his house? A hotel?”

Yvonne [acting as if she’s been hit with a brick]: “What affairs?”

Stanley quickly points out that she wrote about Howard Hughes in her book.

Yvonne: “An affair, but not these affairs.” She explains that her book was a concentrated version of her love life: if you took all the men in her book and spread them out over a lifetime, there weren’t that many.

Stanley [matter of factly]: “So you're I saying you didn’t have that many affairs.”

Yvonne: [snapping like a turtle]: “I told you not to use that word!"

At Stanley’s next blunder, Yvonne turns towards the audience and says, “How can one man be wrong about so many things?” From this point on, she primarily addresses the audience, except to correct Siegel here and there [“Don’t say ‘Monsters.’ It’s ‘Munsters’ ”]. The interview is obviously bombing, but Stanley clings to the debris. He picks up the pace and attempts glib gloss-overs. He tells Yvonne what a great lady she is, how he wants to put their interview in a time capsule, and so on.

Yvonne [to the audience]: “I didn't understand one word he said.” This really launches Stanley. “Yvonne, I am loving this interview. I am really loving it,” he says. Then he proposes marriage. It works. Yvonne blossoms into a congenial coquette, and she reminds Stanley of their engagement at the end of the show. Siegel wraps up the interview by describing Yvonne as “a little bit like my first wife.”

Only Stanley Siegel could have endured that interview. Then again, only Stanley Siegel could have conducted that interview. A month after the show, he turns down the opportunity to say anything mean about Yvonne, other than there was “a hint of the barfly about her.” Like Broadway Danny Rose, Stanley seems to have cultivated a sympathy for the walking remnants of show biz. In the same career, he has interviewed Barbara Walters, Jimmy Carter, Truman Capote, and Nancy Reagan.

Siegel has been hosting talk shows like Stanley Tonight for the last fourteen years. His last show, America Talks Back to Stanley Siegel, was broadcast in Los Angeles in 1985. Before that was The Stanley Siegel Show, which ran on two New York stations between 1975 and 1980. His first talk show was called Mornings with Stanley Siegel. It aired in Nashville from 1973 to 1975. In between shows and early in his career. Siegel worked as a newspaper and radio reporter.

“It took me many, many years to figure out where I belong,” says Siegel. He thinks he is suited to the talk-show format because he is interested in current events and he likes to have fun. He is proud of the fact that Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, laughed on Stanley Tonight. The show focused on the Immigration Reform Bill; at the same time, according to Siegel, “It was funny, it was crazy, it was wacky.”

Not every station has appreciated Stanley’s clowning. He lost a news anchor job in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for donning a rubber suit and snorkel and climbing into a vat of lemon Jell-O. “I wanted to better understand the lamentable plight of the fruits and vegetables in this country that wind up in anonymous cafeterias,” he explains. Siegel also ate dog food on-camera. The station bosses didn't find his stunts amusing. “They thought [the show] lacked credibility,” he recalls.

Stanley admits that he is a showman and not a newsman; he believes that the former is every bit as important as the latter. Let’s admit it: the news serves as a backdrop on interview shows, says Siegel, who doesn’t fool himself with journalistic airs. “At the heart of it, Ted Koppel probably thinks he’s as interesting as the subject,” he says.

When it comes to interview styles, the similarity ends between Koppel and Siegel. Stanley does not like to embarrass his guests and seems genuinely disturbed at the thought of hurting or shaming someone on his show. If people don't want to answer Stanley’s questions, that’s generally okay with him. He just moves on. This doesn’t make for a very penetrating interview, but it could explain how he’s able to book press-shy people.

Siegel’s guests must bear up under his velocity, however. Stanley’s questions come like soft but insistent salvos that annoy upon impact. His malaprops are just as relentless. The faces of the guests on Stanley Tonight register varying reactions: alarm, confusion, amusement. Some balk, while others play along. Either way, it doesn’t matter; Siegel burrows through any impediment to his pace by winding himself into a plodding frenzy. He’s a windshield wiper gone awry. In a 45 RPM world, Stanley is on 78.

January 15: Siegel is interviewing Roger Hedgecock, a man who, according to Stanley, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” after tumbling out of the mayor’s chair because of a felony conviction. Stanley wants to know if Hedgecock has considered suicide. Says Siegel, “If I lived in Japan and I had failed as many times as I’ve presently failed, I would have committed seppuku. I would have fallen on my sword. Have you ever thought about falling on your sword?”

If Roger has contemplated suicide, he doesn’t admit it here. He talks, instead, of how power-brokering in city hall and the Copley newspapers led to his fall and of his ongoing appeal of his conviction.

Siegel:“Suppose, Roger, God forbid, you do go to jail. Will you see some former cohorts there?” The audience titters. Stanley apologizes. But Hedgecock is undisturbed and smoothly discusses his accomplishments in planning the development of Otay Mesa. Siegel knows enough to bring up the name of Roque de la Fuente II, a big landowner in Otay Mesa who has hired Hedgecock as a consultant. Hedgecock guides the discussion back to his radio show on KSDO. Stanley tries to get Hedgecock to sing “Louie Louie” a cappella, but the occasional recording artist refuses.

Luckily, it’s time for a call-in from “Mr. Blackwell,” the Hollywood snipe who puts together the ten-worst-dressed list every year. Mr. Blackwell goes through his list of celebrity insults, and when he gets to Vanna White, he says, “Now you’ve got to listen to this line because it has a compound double meaning. She gets fashion’s booby prize for the year.”

Siegel: “How so? In what way? Oh, I see, because of the Wheel of Fortune. Is that right?”

Mr. Blackwell descends into a description of Vanna White’s push-up bra but abandons the explanation and moves on to Meryl Streep.

Good listening skills have never been Siegel’s strong suit. A person could say, “Stanley, one of your guests just burst into flames,” and Siegel would say, “Yeah. Yeah. Bring them over here.” He has a giant filter in place that screens out all but a few words, which he uses to spring into the next question. As a result, his questions don’t always follow or make sense. Siegel admits this. “I think I suffer from some kind of aphasia. It’s probably why I wasn’t good at math,” he explains. Also, he has a lot of guests and subjects to keep tabs on. His viewers realize, he hopes, that he misses some points only to land on others. As for his problem with names. he says, “I find it offensive that people would get that concerned about getting their name right.”

April 23: Jimmy Swaggart is bringing his crusade to the Sports Arena this weekend, so the theme of Siegel’s show is evangelist broadcasters in San Diego. The panel is composed of ministers who host shows on local Christian radio and television. Also participating is a secular humanist who investigates TV evangelists. The audience is full of witnessing Christians and avowed atheists.

“Tonight we have our greatest show ever,” Siegel tells the audience. As the ministers take the stage, one says, “Stanley, if you mispronounce my name one more time, I’m going to call you Sidney. It’s Right, not Night.” Siegel apologizes. A red bubble light glows atop a camera, and Stanley retells the saga of Jim and Tammy Bakker. He begins the interview with Reverend Jerry Bernard, founder of a twenty-four-hour Christian television station on Cox Cable. Bernard’s station broadcasts from San Diego to the rest of the country via satellite. The station once carried the Jim and Tammy show.

“Does Jim Bakker owe you money?” Stanley asks.

Bernard replies that the answer is “privileged information.”

Siegel: “I was told it’s about $30,000. Is that right?”

The minister says it’s a lot less. Siegel: “Is it true that you didn’t pull the plug [on Bakker] because you needed his program to flesh out your satellite?”

Stanley is still reading from his pink crib cards, but it’s obvious that someone has done some homework. Siegel points out that Bernard’s mail-in ministry must be pulling in at least $30,000 to pay his monthly bill from Cox Cable. He asks the minister about his personal finances. Bernard says he makes no salary from his television show and anyone can come in and examine the church’s records. Stanley keeps pressing: Does his congregation know they have access to this information? Has anyone ever checked?

Bernard is rescued by “Advertiser’s Spotlight,” where Siegel interviews one of his advertisers as though it’s part of the show. In a small corner stage, he talks to a woman who sells an electronic muscle-relaxing device called the “Pro-Health Stimulator.” Pinned to the curtain behind her is a blown-up photo of a man in bathing trunks; stuck to his back, like a gathering of leeches, are black electrodes.

The highlight of the show, at least in Stanley’s mind, is a woman named “Mary” who was once married to a philandering minister in San Diego. She faces away from the camera while she's interviewed to hide her identity. In her lap is her husband’s diary, which supposedly contains the awful truth about his affairs with married women in his Unity church congregation. Stanley has hinted, since the beginning of the show, that we will hear some licentious passages from the diary. But Mary doesn't volunteer to read them, and Stanley doesn’t ask. Nonetheless, Mary’s interview stretches to the end of the show, leaving a four-minute scrap of time for comments from the audience. Stanley dashes, microphone outstretched, between the Christians, atheists, and humanists. Many of them are cut off midsentence or don’t get a chance to speak at all. The show ends, and Siegel’s staff chases everyone out of the studio to make way for another taping. Stanley’s guests exchange their views in the parking lot.

The debates on Stanley Tonight often run on their own steam, unassisted by the show's host. But Siegel’s laissez-faire attitude can backfire, and the mob can get a little ugly. This is what apparently happened when Siegel attempted to explore the topic of gay politics in San Diego. Among the panelists were prominent members of the gay community, many of whom are active Republicans. Unbeknownst to the gays. Reverend Dorman Owens and his hell-bent following of fundamentalists were invited for a little audience participation.

Siegel’s staff claim they wpre hoodwinked by the Christians, who promised to stick to the topic. What they did, instead, was scream insults at the panelists. Rich Gnosch, a city council aide who also appeared on the panel, got harassed as he walked through the parking lot. The Christians assumed that Grosch was gay (he isn’t) and threw a rock at his brand new car. One man pushed him in the parking lot and yelled, “Sinner!” Grosch blames the whole fracas on Stanley. “He didn’t have control of the audience or a clear grip of the issue,” says Grosch. “I don’t think the subject [of gay politics] ever came up at all.”

Debbie Lechner, the show’s producer, thinks that Grosch is still angry about being the only non-gay on the panel (other guests canceled) and that this is the reason why Grosch's boss, Councilman Mike Gotch, has turned down invitations to appear on Stanley Tonight. Grosch disagrees. “I think Mike has just seen the show,” he says.

Half of San Diego’s city council has appeared on Stanley Tonight, as well as the city manager. Siegel’s staff jumped through hoops to get the mayor on the show. O’Connor canceled twice, which meant, for the Stanley Tonight staff, telling seventy audience members and a navy band to stay home. When the booking finally jelled, the staff had to call the same seventy-plus people twice, once to invite them again, and once to tell them to come one hour earlier because the mayor rescheduled the time of the taping. If the Stanley Tonight staff wants a guest, they keep calling until the person says yes. Senator Pete Wilson has been stalling since the show began last August. Perhaps his scheduling conflicts won’t outlive Stanley Tonight.

While persistence is responsible for many booking coups, the bottom fact is undeniable: people love to be on TV. Second undeniable fact: San Diego has its fair share of limelighters. Laura Walcher, owner of a public-relations firm in town, has put a number of her clients on Stanley Tonight. “In their book, the show is a real prize,” she says. Walcher’s clients report a good response, in terms of phone calls and letters, after their appearances. “He’s provocative, and he knows how to keep viewers tuned in,” she says, naming Stanley’s strengths. “He’s like the National Enquirer of San Diego television.” Siegel’s weakness, according to Walcher, is not knowing enough about the subject to create a good argument. “But even when he’s not smooth, not articulate, and mispronounces someone’s name, he can still aim for the jugular,” she observes.

February 4: Stanley is interviewing sportscaster Ted Leitner, who has built his career on acerbic observations and quick retorts. One would think that he’d make mincemeat out of Stanley. But somehow Siegel has flipped Leitner over on his back and is now diving for his midsection. He finds out that Leitner is twice divorced.

Siegel: “What generally led to your divorces?”

Leitner: “We go from John Denver (in the previous interview) and that Rocky Mountain Low he was giving us for five minutes to attacks on my personal life?”

Stanley waits for his answer.

Leitner: “I don’t know. I wasn’t good at it.” He explains how he was too busy, had no time to work on his marriages, and so on.

Siegel (a little later): “Are you paying alimony on both of your wives?” Leitner [embarrassed and annoyed): “Yes, Stanley, since you asked.” Siegel: “How much time can you spend with your kids?”

Debbie Lechner has been working as the producer of Stanley Tonight since October. Part of her job description should read “Stanley’s mother.” It’s a role she doesn’t seem to mind. Lechner keeps both Stanley and the show together in a cool, assured manner. She attends to the details, which include briefing Stanley on the guests and the order of the show, all the while rubbing his hunched shoulders in a calming motion. Stanley seems genuinely grateful and often hugs her after the show. (Stanley hugs lots of people, although he usually asks permission first. But Siegel will wordlessly hand his microphone or notes to someone in the studio audience before he walks off to do something. The person usually sits there, looking sheepish and uncomfortable, until Stanley retrieves his possessions. Sometimes he forgets about them entirely. There’s no denying it: Stanley can be endearing.)

Lechner admits that she often cringes at the things that come out of Stanley’s mouth. It introduces an enjoyable element of surprise into her job, she says. Siegel makes up his own crib cards, according to Lechner, and studies them before each show. “He comes in fully prepared. He does his homework well.” Lechner does not make excuses for Siegel’s inattention to names, however. “I think he's done this all of his life on television. It’s part of him. People find it disturbing. I know I find it disturbing. It’s one of the things I’d like to change about Stanley.”

January 15: Bill Murray, a Del Mar novelist, is appearing on the same show as Roger Hedgecock and Mr. Blackwell. Murray is being interviewed because of his December piece in The New Yorker on the relationship between San Diego and Tijuana. Stanley asks questions like, “What does San Diego think of Tijuana? What does Tijuana think about San Diego?”

“I was a little miffed,” Murray said recently, remembering the breakneck speed at which he was interviewed. “I'm sure he hadn't read my article.” But the number of talk show hosts who go this far “can be counted on one crippled hand,” according to Murray. He doubts he would appear on Stanley Tonight again. But he admits, “I came out of the show sort of liking Stanley.”

Bram Dijkstra, also a Del Mar writer, appeared on the Stanley Tonight show a couple of months later, even though Bill Murray advised him against it. Dijkstra discussed his new book, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Dijkstra, a UCSD professor, had to distill years of research into a ten-minute segment. “The attempt to compress everything into a small compass is doomed to failure,” he says now. But this impossible demand is common on talk shows, according to Dijkstra, who believes that a slice of bread is better than no loaf at all. His final appraisal: “I was glad I got on the show.” December 12: Two weeks before Christmas, and Stanley Tonight is featuring a dozen Santa Clauses from the local shopping malls. Stanley encourages them to tell heart-toasting anecdotes, and one in particular really gets to him. It’s about the indigent mother who slipped a note to Santa asking him not to promise her children any toys. Santa got the family’s address and showed up on Christmas Eve with presents. The family didn’t even have a tree to put them under. Two tears drop from Siegel’s eyes, and he cuts to a commercial without brushing them away. Is it real, or is it Stanley? Does Stanley even know? Does it matter?

Stanley Tonight's old time slot is now being filled by Hang ’em High (Clint Eastwood), El Dorado (John Wayne), and other cinematic masterpieces. Stanley Tonight was up against even tougher competition on network television — popular shows like Moonlighting and The Love Boat. Gloria Penner, Siegel’s only rival, is impressed that Stanley Tonight lasted as long as it did in the nine o’ clock slot. “It’s hard to believe that a talk show would sustain in prime time," she says. Penner thinks there’s enough room on the dial for both shows, since they usually differ in content and format. Stanley has nice things to say about Gloria, too. “I think she’s kinda cute. Put that down,” he says, adding, “She’s very intelligent. She could name three countries in Western Europe.”

Station manager Mike McKinnon says he’s going to wait to see how Stanley Tonight does at its new time. He is considering Stanley Tonight reruns on daytime TV. He calls Stanley Siegel “a legitimate kind of guy” and says that the show “is not just good-looking hairdos.” The quality of the program should improve now that the number of shows has been reduced, he says.

Once again, Stanley’s true appeal is being overlooked. To improve the show would be a crime against entertainment; it might also thwart Siegel's rise into a cult favorite. So what if he gets some names wrong? Lots of people are bad with names. Take Jim Bates, the U.S. congressman. Here is a man who represents approximately 400,000 San Diegans in Washington, D.C., who votes on constitutional issues, who designs model social legislation. Before he appeared on Stanley Tonight. Bates sent a press release describing the Workfare program. The cover letter was addressed to “Stanley Seagull.”

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