This article was originally published in January 2015.
Tune into the local TV news these days and you’ll find a dizzying array of Milwaukee stars. Yes, these anchors and reporters are bona fide Milwaukee celebrities, able to breathe the same rarefied air as Bob Uecker and that guy who sells sunglasses outside the federal building in the summer. But look to the past and you’ll find a whole galaxy of memorable Milwaukee broadcasters—some great, some beloved, some controversial, some made out of socks. Join us, as we flip the channel backwards and round up 10 notable figures from Milwaukee’s glorious TV news past.
1. Carl Zimmerman
Years active in Milwaukee: 1959-1986
Any discussion of local TV news legends has to begin with Carl Zimmerman. Dubbed the “silver-haired dean of Milwaukee broadcast news” by the Journal Sentinel upon his death (at 96) in 2014, Zimmerman had the longest-running on-air broadcasting career in the city’s history, putting in more than 50 years of service in television and radio, mostly at WITI-TV (Channel 6). Zimmerman reported from the front lines in World War II (and palled around with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in Paris), but he’s best remembered in town for his long, distinguished run at WITI. If Milwaukee has an Edward R. Murrow, Zimmerman is it.
2. Ward Allen and “Albert the Alley Cat”
Years active in Milwaukee: 1965-1981
Way back when, television was littered with serious broadcasters paired up with adorable animal sidekicks—hell, Siskel and Ebert once boasted two of them (“Spot the Wonder Dog” and “Aroma the Educated Skunk”). The Milwaukee airwaves, however, were home to one of the most popular human-varmint teams of all time: Ward Allen and “Albert the Alley Cat.” Making their WITI-TV debut on August 2, 1965, Allen and Albert—the latter a scruffy puppet voiced and operated by local TV horror host Jack DuBlon—served as the station’s weatherbeings for decades, forever keeping a perpetually cold and dreary Milwaukee warm with the knowledge that it was getting its weather from a dude and a sock. (In more recent years, Scott Steele kept the manimal weather team tradition alive with his late “Spunky the Weather Dog.”) Albert stuck around until 1981 and was a huge hit, though he had at least one notable detractor…
3. Tom Skilling
Years active in Milwaukee: 1975-1978
Since 1978, Tom Skilling has been known as the head weather honcho at Chicago’s WGN-TV; in Milwaukee, he’ll forever be known as the man responsible for the declawing, neutering, and eventual elimination of “Albert the Alley Cat.” Skilling was hired by WITI-TV in 1975 as the station’s 10 p.m. weatherman, and was immediately partnered up with the finicky feline. He wasn’t happy with the assignment, telling the Chicago Tribune in 1995: “The main problem I had with Albert was that he always told a joke at the end of the forecast and I never knew if it was going to be a one-liner or something longer, so it was difficult to time my forecast to fit the segment.” The American Meteorological Society wasn’t a fan of Albert, either, and gave Skilling 90 days to stop appearing with the sock puppet, or risk losing his seal of approval. Milwaukee viewers sent in over 10,000 pro-Albert letters when they learned of the threat, and Skilling lost his seal. He soon left for Chicago, but the damage was already done: because of the dust-up, Albert was sent to live on a nice farm in the country in 1981.
4. Vince Gibbens
Years active in Milwaukee: 1978-1981, 1982-1986, 1989-1995
What’s the deal with Milwaukee TV news and guys named “Vince”? There’s Vince “That guy with Susan Kim” Vitrano, Vince “Rocking the Zubaz in ’92” Condella, and the late Vince “The Legend” Gibbens. For nearly two straight decades (save for stints in Sacramento in Baltimore), Gibbens was a pillar of Milwaukee “action news,” first at WISN-TV (Channel 12), then at WITI-TV, and then at WITI-TV again. No matter the story, Gibbens was always there: reporting on outrageously high gas prices ($1.24 in 1990), or Brookfield’s devastating 1990 ban on “cruising.” Sadly, Gibbens died in 1995 of a heart attack. He was 46.
5. Terry Meeuwsen
Years active in Milwaukee: 1978-1981
For nearly 50 years, the increasingly decrepit and insane Pat Robertson has lorded over his Christian-rific 700 Club like a mad king prone to mumbling hateful remarks about homosexuals, women, or foreigners (when he isn’t drooling or shitting his pants). Sitting and smiling next to him since 1993 has been De Pere, Wisconsin native Terry Meeuwsen, a former Miss America (1973) and a former reporter for WTMJ-TV (Channel 4). Meeuwsen hosted “A New Day” for the station until 1981, when she decided to split for the Christian Broadcasting Network and promote a life of God, faith, and blaming 9/11 on feminists.
6. Jerry Taff
Years active in Milwaukee: 1979-2005
If you grew up watching Milwaukee TV news during the ’80s and ’90s, your kindly nightly news uncle was undoubtedly Jerry Taff. The affable Texan was a familiar and reliable presence on WISN-TV for over 25 years, always ready to lift the city’s spirits with a wish for “better tomorrows.” He was partnered with Kathy Mykleby for much of his impressive run, but it was an earlier pairing that led to some classic Milwaukee TV news fireworks…
7. Marty Burns-Wolfe
Years active in Milwaukee: 1985-1996
On the surface, Jerry Taff and Marty Burns-Wolfe seemed like the perfect TV news team: Taff was older and measured; Burns-Wolfe was young and driven. But behind the scenes, the two were (allegedly) at war. A Milwaukee Magazine piece notes that in 1990: “The battle of egos between WISN-TV co-anchors Jerry Taff and Marty Burns-Wolfe has hit the heights. After Taff cranked up his chair on the newsroom set to relieve pain suffered from a knee injury, Burns-Wolfe reacted by raising her chair, too.” The spiteful chair-raising lasted until 1996, when Burns-Wolfe resigned amidst flagging ratings and whispers that she was a “terror in the newsroom.” For her part, she denied any feud with Taff, telling Carole Meekins in 2001: “I can count on one hand the disagreements we had and they were minor. I love him. I love him very much. I’m glad he’s in Texas ’cause I know he’s happy.”
8. Duane Gay
Years active in Milwaukee: 1988-2004
Remember when WVTV (Channel 18) had a nightly newscast? Weird. The 9 O’Clock Nightly News ran from 1989-1994, and, though rather undistinguished in its day, did manage to produce one breakout star: Duane Gay. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay alum served as the station’s news director for several years before leaving to become a general assignment reporter for WISN-TV in 1993. There, Gay cut his teeth on “It’s Your Money” and “The Inside Story” segments. In 1997, he was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer and went on medical leave, though he continued to file reports on various subjects—including his health—up until his death in 2005. He was 49.
9 and 10. Rebecca and Joel Kleefisch
Years active in Milwaukee: 1994-2004
If you’re willing to accept a world in which a Terminator can be a California governor, or a Saturday Night Live writer can be a Minnesota senator, then you also have to accept a world in which a former WISN-TV reporter can be the current Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin. Yes, Gov. Scott Walker’s right-hand gal used to be a lowly TV news reporter before finding her true calling as a conservative politician who once likened gay marriage to marrying a table or a clock. What’s more, her husband, State Assemblyman Joel Kleefisch, also used to be a reporter at WISN. So thanks, WISN, for getting these two opposite-sex humans together.
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