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Post Stories Make Rabbitts Hopping Mad

by Larry Hoffman

Is this town big enough for two Johnny Rabbitts? Is a six-gun showdown on Market Street imminent? Not exactly. It seems that a swirl of controversy, claims and counterclaims found their way onto the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the past several months.

At issue is the rightful ownership of the Johnny Rabbitt name and legacy, though the actual trademark, registered by the now-defunct Storz Broadcasting Co. in early 1964, expired over 12 years ago.

After a late May 1996 “Everyday Magazine” profile of former Rabbitt Ron Elz, who currently holds down the morning slot on WRTH, the Post received several letters and phone calls challenging certain statements, among which was a lengthy fax from Elz’s successor on KXOK, Don Pietromonaco.

The St. Louis Journalism Review decided to visit Pietromonaco in California for an update and retrospective of his years in St. Louis - from mid-1964, after Elz’s relationship with KXOK had ended, to 1970 when Pietromonaco returned to KRIZ in Phoenix after his act had run its course in St. Louis.

When the second Post article was published, a Rabbitt runoff was launched, inviting readers to phone in a vote for the DJ they felt influenced them the most. Discounting 500 votes for Elz which were determined to have been generated by auto redial from the same phone - the work of an “overzealous fan,” according to the Post - Elz still prevailed, trouncing Pietromonaco 1600 to 1100 votes.

Dick Weiss, Post features editor, was astounded at the number of responses for a poll of this nature. Unfortunately the airchecks which were to be used to refamiliarize readers with the two Rabbitts’ broadcasting styles were not ready in time for the voting. How this would have changed the tally, if at all, is not known.

What does all this mean in 1996? It means absolutely nothing. It’s ancient history. But it’s also interesting ancient history.

Both men, each with his own radio presence, have benefited greatly since the first time Johnny Rabbitt hopped onto the scene on KXOK in the early ‘60s. Each continues to thrive using the name. Elz appears on WRTH as Johnny Rabbitt, and Pietromonaco currently runs Johnny Rabbitt’s Voiceover Studio, offering demo tapes placement through agents, and individual coaching in the art of voicing commercials.

The baby boomers who blabbed it to the Rabbitt or who were thoroughly entertained by Pietromonaco’s special brand of radio ventriloquism really don’t care which Rabbitt was best. The only people for whom this dispute holds any significance are Ron Elz and Don Pietromonaco.

Elz at 58 in 1996 can look back at a widely varied and successful career as a disc jockey, format creator, broadcast school owner, record company representative, program director, newspaper editor and columnist, AFTRA president and college instructor. His contributions to the community are numerous. He is busier with his current endeavors than ever before.

Though Pietromonaco’s ties to St. Louis in 1996 are via his two daughters who still live here, at age 61 he can reflect on a star-studded six-plus year run on KXOK during the station’s rock and roll monopoly years. KXOK blew away the competition following the British Invasion , driving WIL to ill-fated talk and all-news formats, and forcing the disappearance of also-ran KWK as a rock and roll station. Pietromonaco’s Rabbitt/Bruno act was the spearhead, and the money rolled in, making KXOK Storz’s most successful property. By the time FM radio posed any threat to Storz in St. Louis with the advent of Bartell’s KSLQ-FM in the fall of 1972, Rabbitt’s years here were long finished.

Pietromonaco help raise several million dollars for medical research, and many laudatory newspaper articles appeared in local papers.

He was a clean-living, upbeat influence on his teen audience during those years. He resisted sleaze and corruption in an industry that got worse, not better, following the payola scandals of the late ‘50s.

“They called me a candy-ass,” Pietromonaco told SJR.during an interview on his boat in Marina del Rey, Near Los Angeles. “I was the embodiment of my middle-class Italian values, and instead of accepting unlimited offers of anything I wanted - women, drugs - all I asked of the record companies was that they give me a thousand new record albums to give away to listeners. After they went along with it, I bought my audience. It worked.”

After the second Post article, sources close to the paper told SJR that all of the non-poll-related phone calls received were from fans of Pietromonaco, most of them women offering treasured memories of those “high rocking years.” One fan cited the Rabbitt as the person who helped her blossom into a fun-loving teen during the mid- to late-‘60s.

In person in 1996, Pietromonaco’s eyes still sparkle with enthusiasm as he relates classic stories of his interviews with the Beatles, celebrity friendships and on-air antics. He also recounted tales of a malevolent and imperious program director (the late Mort Crowley), duplicitous fellow KXOK jocks (William A. Hopkins and Nick Charles), and repressive and retaliatory station management. He offered high praise and heartfelt recollections of someone we both agreed was one of the greatest guys in the business, the late longtime KXOK newsman Bob Shea. He added that KXOK production director Richard Ward Fatherly’s technical wizardry saved him on several occasions, even though the two men clashed frequently.

Pietromonaco was a nationally prominent success during those six years, but he says he wishes he were a better businessman as he spoke of the frenzied teen clubs he ran such as Bruno’s Bat Cave and Cloud Nyne. Frequent flyers will remember his in-flight entertainment voiceovers for several airlines, including TWA. He has to his credit a long-standing voiceover training and production studio using the Johnny Rabbitt name in its title, and he lives comfortably in the marina amid pleasant surroundings.

He’s in regular contact with industry colleagues and calls his years doing the Rabbitt show with Bruno on KXOK the best of his long career as an on-air talent. Prior to beginning his radio career at KROG in Sonora, California in the 1950s, Pietromonaco was a child actor in Hollywood, acting in 37 pictures. His most memorable role was his appearance in the opening scene of “An Affair to Remember.” Since leaving live radio broadcasting he has done well over 1,000 commercials and currently writes and produces advertising, as well as offering instruction to aspiring voiceover talent.

A career highlight was his selection as “Personality of the Year” by Billboard magazine in the early ‘70s. In the mid ‘80s Billboard editor Rollye Bornstein wrote in her column that Pietromonaco was the only Johnny Rabbitt remembered by listeners, and the one who was a nationally known runaway ratings success.

Recently during a nationwide search for a morning host on KLOU-FM, both Rabbitts were offered the job. Elz decided to stay with Heritage because of their dedication to him during recent surgery which saved the vision in one eye. Pietromonaco passed up the opportunity when his proposal to do the show from 4:00 - 8:00 a.m. Pacific Time via a Switch 56 hookup was rejected by program director Dave Dunkin.

So instead of being hopping mad at each other, both Rabbitts should be thrilled at this unexpected burst of publicity. It jogged the memories of countless fans who, in the ‘60s, had one hand on their homework and the other poised to dial FOrest 7-6000 to “Blab it to the Rabbitt.”

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 9/96)