Fans of 'Pepper and Friends' on KOMU remember, say goodbye

Friday, September 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:44 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 18, 2009
Paul Pepper of KOMU's long-standing variety talk show Pepper and Friends talks with Elle Saitta of the Boone Hospital Center on Wednesday. After 27 years, Pepper and Friends will have its last airing Friday.

COLUMBIA — Paul Pepper always knew he was destined to be on television.

Paul Pepper timeline

May 1963 — Begins as a radio disc jockey for KJSC in Festus

September 1969 — Starts as a commercial booth announcer at KOMU-TV

March 1970 — Begins as the afternoon weatherman at KOMU

June 1970 — Promoted to the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. weathercast slots

Feb. 1982 — "Pepper and Friends" premieres as a 30-minute Saturday evening program.

Oct. 1985 — "Pepper and Friends" moves to 30-minute weekday slot, and James Mouser joins the team as co-host.

March 1989 — "Pepper and Friends" promoted to a one-hour slot

May 2009 — Cancellation of "Pepper and Friends" announced

Sept. 2009 — Paul Pepper celebrates his 40-year anniversary with KOMU on Sept. 15.

Sept. 18 2009 —"Pepper and  Friends" hosts its last show.

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At age 8, he used a small toy camera and vacuum cleaner hose for a microphone to improvise a shaving-cream commercial.

As a teenager in 1969, he answered an ad in Broadcasting Magazine for a booth announcer at KOMU/Channel 8. After joining the station, it took only six months to catapult himself to daytime weatherman before switching later to the weather shift on the 6 o’clock news.

His showcase, "Pepper and Friends," was born in 1982 as a variety/talk show covering personalities in central Missouri. Over the next 27 years, it was home to local cooks, gardeners, activists, jugglers, singers, performers, heroes, orphaned pets and an elephant named Valerie.

At 11 a.m. Friday, after hosting 5,000 daytime segments on KOMU, Pepper will say goodbye.

Citing a deficit of more than $74,000 in the last year, KOMU General Manager Marty Siddall announced in May that the program would air its last show on Sept. 18. KOMU's schedule will be stacking "Access Hollywood" and "Inside Edition"  into Pepper's one-hour slot.

The finale of "Pepper and Friends" will be a montage of video clips and stills from Pepper's 40-year career on KOMU, beginning in 1969 with his news and weather reports and ending with highlights from the long-running variety show.

Friends and former guests are returning to reminisce, said Pepper, 63. He said a singalong to "keep up with (their) hokeyness" is planned.

He has already found a new home on radio station KBIA/91.3 FM with a daily 10-minute segment during the Morning Edition program. On KOMU's Web site, fans can watch video clips of old shows.

But the TV host has not downplayed his disappointment about the cancellation of "Pepper and Friends."

“I was stunned because that was the last thing in the world I was expecting, when earlier we were so important,” Pepper said this week.

He and his fans did not go down without a fight. Pepper said the show might not suit contemporary tastes, but he calls it beneficial to the public.

What "Pepper and Friends" offered was genuine, he said.

“Everything we do here is real," he said. "It’s real people coming in from the community talking about real concerns, about real fundraisers they’re doing, to help real people get out of problems.”

Many of them have been returning guests over the years, becoming lifelong friends in the "Pepper" family. In recent days, a number were invited back for final, often tearful, appearances.

“They can cancel the show, but they can’t cancel our friendship,” Pepper said Wednesday to Ellie Saitta, behavioral health manager at Boone Hospital Center.

Before joining Pepper on the set, Saitta wiped tears from her eyes and said she wished she could tell jokes instead.

“You can feel the synergy of the crew, the synergy of the team,” she said. “Paul Pepper is an icon for this community.”

Beforehand, Pepper circled the studio with homemade fudge brought by a guest.  Co-host James Mouser offered tissues for those sitting off-camera in white plastic patio chairs and tried to keep it together while recalling memories of the show.

Mouser mentioned "all the love and support from the people who have written to us, who have been on the show.”

“They have shown what it means to them, especially in the last six months," he said.  "I cannot imagine the show ending without that now because it has been carrying me through.”

A stream of letters to the editors of local newspapers, KOMU and the university illustrate the community’s devotion to "Pepper and Friends" and the outrage at its cancellation. Supporters of the show held rallies and town hall-style meetings to come up with solutions that would keep the community-based show alive. 

The two hosts offered to give back $58,000 of their salaries, and sponsors offered more money for their commercials. However, Pepper said, press releases continued to declare that the station had “exhausted all efforts” and "Pepper and Friends" was too expensive to continue.

“We have not lost any clients on this show with the economic downturn,” he said. 

Siddall said he valued the show's ability to reach out to the community.

"'Pepper and Friends' was a nice community service and one of many outreaches to the community that we have supported and continue to pursue," he said.

While this part of his career must come to an end, Pepper said, the journey was worth it.

“This has been an absolute dream job,” he said.

From his first glimpse at TV, Pepper knew persistence and passion would help his career.

Born Paul Urzi, he grew up 30 miles outside St. Louis in Antonia. Early on, he became a fan of "The Charlotte Peters Show," an unscripted variety show popular in St. Louis during the 1950s and '60s.

His mother would take him to the show, he said, and he appeared several times on a “Kids Korner” segment with homegrown vegetables in tow.

The name Paul Pepper came about by accident. At 16, while working for a radio station, his determination to go on the air was evident.

A member of the station commented that Paul certainly was a “red-hot pepper” for wanting to be in broadcast so earnestly. The name stuck.

“I've wanted to do a (variety) show since I was a kid,” Pepper said.

He was the sole host of "Pepper and Friends" when it was a live 30-minute Saturday evening program until 1985, at which point Mouser was added as co-host and the show moved to a daytime slot.

Some members of the community said the hour-long segment became more than just a TV show. It was a place where almost anyone could have a voice.

“Everybody could come on this show,” said Irene Haskins, a columnist for the Columbia Tribune who considers herself a close friend of the show's hosts.

"It was for everybody — the best talents and the worst talents," she said. "Paul was a touchstone to the whole community. It was hokey, it was corny, but that’s America.”

Haskins credits Pepper’s calming nature and experience for making her comfortable enough to make repeat visits, often singing on the air, for nearly 25 years.

“He’s just a people person,” she said. “The most nervous person could come out here, ready to collapse, and he’ll put them at ease.”

Crew members have said they received as much respect as guests on the show. Travis McMillen, the Reynolds Journalism Institute video producer at MU, was an audio producer on "Pepper and Friends" for many years and created the farewell video montage.

“He had just been doing it for so long by the time I got there you knew whatever he said was going to be the right thing to do," McMillen said. "You trust him; he’s very trusting when he’d done it for so long.”

Though his heart remains with television and the kind of intimacy variety shows bring to a community, Pepper’s other passions include a lifelong love of gardening as well as frequent trips to Hawaii.

“This job allowed me to live my life’s dream," he said. "I couldn’t have asked for anything more, anything better. It’s been perfect.”

Some who tuned in day after day have said they'll miss the show but will remain loyal to the host.

“They can take 'Pepper' off the air, but they can’t take the air out of 'Pepper,'” Haskins said.





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Mel Zelenak September 18, 2009 | 1:33 p.m.

Please note that there is no deficit as the management at KOMU and UMC continue to spin incorrectly.

Even if we accept the $74K shortfall as fact (which we must accept since the specifics of the budget were not made available for public review), the Missourian article correctly stated that Pepper and Mouser offered to reduce their salaries and benefits by a total of $58,000+. Further, an advertiser offered to provide the additional funding to make P&F "break even" so that P&F could continue for at least one more year. Finally it is likely that the 12-20 other advertisers who stopped advertising on KOMU solely because of the P&F termination, would probably add to the revenues of the station that picks up the show. This certainly would assure profitabilty.

I hope one of the other local TV stations picks up the program in the near future. They will inherit a strong advertising base as well as a strong viewership base that will be indebted to that station for keeping this community service program on the air waves.

Keep in mind that financial losses were repeatedly stated by management at UMC and KOMU as the ONLY reason for the termination.Some one is not telling the truth. The media should check out where the fabrications exist.Is it with Mr. Siddall and Ms. Jones or with P&F??
Please have a correction made after the facts of this case are verified. Thank you.

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