Remembering Cloris Leachman’s Dramatic Visit To WCPN
When award-winning film and TV actor Cloris Leachman died this past week, she left behind many memorable characters. But for former WCPN news director Dave Pignanelli, it’s hard to beat the role she performed with him at the station, nearly 25 years ago. The story starts with one of her classic movies: "Young Frankenstein."
“I saw Young Frankenstein four times in two days when it came out in the theater in 1974, I was 13 years old,” Pignanelli said. “And I just cried, laughing so hard.”
Some of the biggest laughs came from Leachman’s portrayal of an imposing and slightly menacing German housekeeper, Frau Blucher.
“She just had this horrible makeup with a mole and the hair pulled way back in a tight bun,” he said.
Over the years, Pignanelli was struck by Leachman's talent in a variety of roles in film and television, from the farce of films like “Young Frankenstein” to situation comedies like the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Leachman also gave an Oscar-winning performance in the drama "The Last Picture Show.”
In the fall of 1997, Leachman came to Cleveland to appear in the musical “Show Boat.” When Pignanelli heard that she would stop by WCPN to promote the show, he was ecstatic.
Dave Pignanelli in NPR newcast studio 33 [NPR]
“I just couldn't believe that I was going to get the chance to meet her,” he said.
It was some good news coming at the end of a tough year that started with a business trip to Los Angeles. During the course of his stay, Pignanelli developed a cough that wouldn’t go away.
Back home, he found himself getting winded just carrying his two-year-old, Steven, upstairs to bed. He would soon be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The tumor was so big it was blocking my left lung from expanding,” he said. “I spent, most of 1997 fighting this. And then by the fall, I finally got back to work.”
He had lost 40 pounds, and his clothes were just hanging on his skinny frame. He was bald, no eyebrows – all body hair was gone. And here he was, sitting in the radio station lobby, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Cloris Leachman.
He stared at a spiral staircase that connected the lobby to the studios, one floor up, and hatched a plan.
“I knew instantly I was going to utter the line that she said in ‘Young Frankenstein’ to Gene Wilder's character on the staircase,” he said.
Leachman holds a candelabra as she walks up the stairs, turning to warn, “Stay close to the candle. The staircase can be treacherous.”
As Pignanelli visualized the idea, the office door opened and Leachman’s two little pet dogs came skittering in ahead of her. She was casually dressed, no fancy hairstyle or make-up. When she spotted a senior staff meeting taking place in a glass-walled office, she promptly walked up, lifted her sweater and flashed the stunned attendees.
Pignanelli jumped-up to escort his idol up to her interview. Playing along, Bunky Markert, then WCPN's financial officer, rolled-up a piece of paper to look like a candle and handed it to Pignanelli, who then handed it to Leachman as she ascended the stairs.
“And I looked at her and I said, ‘Stay close to the candle.’” he said. “And that's all I said.”
And she took the bait.
“She immediately snapped her head around and looked down to me,” he said. “And she went into the Frau Blucher character, complete with the accent and the seriousness of the delivery: ‘Stay close to the candle. The staircase can be treacherous.’”
Pignanelli was delighted.
“And I turned around and I said, ‘That's it, I'm going home, can't get any better than this.’”
The 71-year-old Leachman was a force of nature for the rest of her stay, doing an interview with former ideastream host Dee Perry, recording station promos, sharing stories from a long career and even re-enacting another “Young Frankenstein” scene with Pignanelli before she blew out the door.
Today, Pignanelli is Supervising Senior Producer of NPR's Newscast Unit. A lot of time has passed, but the memories of a quarter century ago remain vivid.
“I didn't think about it until much later,” he said. “What she must have thought about the way I looked. But for me, I got to forget all of that, you know?”
He pauses, choking up a bit at the memory.
“In this profession, you meet all sorts of people that you would never come across in life or you're in rooms with people that you have no business being there except for the fact that, you know, we're journalists,” he said.
“So, over the years, I've met, really important, great, funny, serious people of all walks of life. And I feel very fortunate about that. But this is by far number One. Number One.”