At the age of 79, “The Peek-A-Boo Weatherman” wants a comeback
By any measure, Barry ZeVan is a broadcast legend.
At the height of his career in the ‘60s and ‘70s “The Peek-A-Boo Weather Man” was the face of TV weather in several major US cities. His on-set antics brought him big audiences and celebrity friends. He was the first weatherman to inject Hollywood star power into his forecasts with appearances by Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr. and other icons.
By the late ‘80s, he was driving a cab and playing Santa Claus at parties in Minnesota to make ends meet. Now he’s 79 years old, and all ZeVan wants is to make a comeback.
I met ZeVan at his home in Golden Valley, a suburb of Minneapolis. He answered the door and immediately showed me footage from a Daily Show segment in the ‘90s in which he was featured. It was the first of many brushes with fame I’d see in his home.
Stepping into ZeVan’s basement is like a trip down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His walls are covered with photos of himself standing next to celebrities, dignitaries and politicians. His memory of each photo is as vivid as they day they were taken.
At the age of 79, “The Peek-A-Boo Weatherman” wants a comeback
“Obviously, it sure made an impression on me because it’s cemented in my brain,” said ZeVan. “I can tell you exact moments for all these pictures and why they happened and the beforehand and the after.
He described in detail the effect that each famous person had on his life. He considered Vice President Hubert Humphrey a father figure (ZeVan’s own dad abandoned him at 16 months old). He thinks of Jerry Stiller as a brother (the subtitle of his memoir, which was released earlier this year, is “Thank you Jerry Stiller… for urging me to write this book”).
The memoir, “Barry ZeVan: My Life Among The Giants, A Memoir”, is crammed with these kinds of moments too. He writes about hanging out in Willard Scott’s pool and Duke Ellington kissing him on the lips. ZeVan joked that the original title for the book was going to be “Too Much Life.”
Today, ZeVan is retired and has an occasional side job consulting for a nonprofit, but it doesn’t fulfill him like the broadcast career he had in his prime.
ZeVan was five years old, in 1943, when he got his first professional break. He was on a program called “Starlets on Parade” on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, his hometown.
Barry ZeVan singing "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral"
“My mother had heard from a friend that you could audition,” ZeVan said. “I, being very non-modest here, I sang pretty well. I can do a lot of stylistic things from Sinatra to Como to whatever.”
A producer popped ZeVan into a studio and told him to sing his heart out. His choice: “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” an old Irish tune sung by Bing Crosby.
He performed on Starlets for two years. When ZeVan turned 18, he drove to Los Angeles to try to start a movie career. It was 1955. He found an agent who introduced him to one of Hollywood’s most prominent casting directors.
According to ZeVan, the casting director told his agent, “You keep a short leash on this kid.”
But he didn’t have enough money to stay in Los Angeles, so ZeVan reluctantly drove his 1946 Ford back home. On the journey, he checked in with the landlord of his California apartment. People had been looking for him: He had been cast in a production with film icon Loretta Young.
Many stories ZeVan told of his brushes with success followed a similar format: Too little, too late.
ZeVan said, in retrospect, he should’ve called his agent, but he didn’t want to ask for a handout.
“I don’t have any money but I wanna stay. What am I gonna do?” is what ZeVan wishes he said. “But you’re not smart enough in those days. You think you have all the answers and that you’ll make the right decisions. No, you need help. Unless your name is Gates, or Rockefeller, or Buffett. You need help.”
Today, ZeVan is still convinced that the breaks he missed would’ve placed him in the ranks of the many icons on his wall, that he’d be the star in other people’s photos.
“We would’ve been contemporaries,” he said.
ZeVan would end up making his mark, but it wouldn’t be in movies.
He had joined the Air Force near the end of the Korean War. After basic training, he was given a choice of two fields to work in: motor pool and meteorology. Not surprisingly, ZeVan followed the stars. He had always been interested in astronomy, and figured meteorology was related enough to be interesting. At least, more interesting than the motor pool.
“I never thought it would help on the outside,” ZeVan said.
After the war, ZeVan got hired at KMSO Channel 13 in Missoula, Montana. He’d done several odd jobs within the newsroom and his boss was curious about whether he could do the weather.
For the first time, the performer and the Air Force weatherman put the pieces together.
He was told to do the weather any way he wanted. ZeVan’s method of meteorology involved frequently turning his head to the camera as he did the forecast. He thought it was rude to show his back to the audience. He describes his technique as a way of making sure his viewers were still with him, hence the “Peek-A-Boo” routine.
His boss later dubbed him “Barry ZeVan, The Peek-A-Boo Weatherman” — and told him that if he kept it up, the little trick would be his meal ticket.
Eight years later, in 1967, he was hired at KSHO Channel 13 in Las Vegas. The city gave him access to a stream of celebrity guests. Stars from the Strip like Robert Goulet, a Grammy winning baritone singer, and Redd Foxx, comedian and star of Sanford & Son, would often interrupt the broadcasts with comedic results. Robert Goulet would often take over broadcasts and Redd Foxx once interrupted the program looking for Juliet Prowse.
ZeVan submitted that tape of Foxx and Prowse as well as a tape of him hitting a sports broadcaster in the face with a shaving cream pie to KSTP in the Twin Cities, which had a considerably higher audience. He would go from the 120th largest market in the US to the 12th.
At KSTP, ZeVan hit his stride. The position established him as a regionally recognized weather personality. His news team had even captured 51 percent share of the Nielsen audience in July of 1974, “a US record for a local news team.”
Of course, antics only take a weatherman so far. Fortunately, ZeVan was also a competent meteorologist. In a later job in Washington, DC, he was the only weatherman to predict flooding in the city in 1977.
He traveled the world covering a variety of topics. He had always loved skiing and had covered the sport at many of his stations. His position also allowed him to interview politicians. This was the peak of his career and influence. He came back to the Twin Cities in the spring of 1983 where he continued to interview celebrities as the entertainment editor.
In 1987, to his surprise, his contract wasn’t renewed.
ZeVan said he thinks his contract ended because, by then, he was 50 years old. He did a few documentaries after KSTP, but he went long periods without steady work.
For a short period, he drove a cab and dressed up as Santa at parties for $10 a pop. After driving for 20 hours one day, he had only made $10. ZeVan said if he had a gun next to him that night, he would’ve used it on himself.
It was one of several low points for ZeVan.
“I thought, ‘this shouldn’t happen to you,’” ZeVan recalled.
He was able to bounce back in the 90s with a program for Channel America called Hollywood Update with Barry ZeVan from 1991-1997 where he interviewed celebrities. That work was a small reminder of what his career had been.
Now approaching 80, Barry ZeVan still wants to prove himself. He yearns for another shot at a broadcasting career. He reasoned that his voice sounds much younger than his 79 years and he proudly compares his brain to that of a two-year-old. The extra income would help, too; he lives off a small pension and social security. He also does side work for the Svetlana Masgutova Educational Institute, a foundation that studies neuro-sensory-motor integration. His wife works for a law office. He has two daughters, four grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
“It’s been an unusual life. It’s been a lucky life,” said ZeVan. And those famous friends, he adds, were certainly instrumental in “making my life a lot more exciting than flipping burgers.”
If broadcasting is what ZeVan is doing when he dies, he’d be fine with that. He asked me several times to put in a good word for him to any broadcaster I knew.