Saturday, May 30, 2020

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff

Mort Nell armed with a 16mm camera.
One of the most beloved programs in early Detroit television was Michigan Outdoors hosted and produced by Mort Neff. The original outdoor show debuted in 1951 specializing in hunting and fishing segments. It ran for twenty-three straight years and 1,196 shows before it was cancelled in 1977. Michigan Outdoors has the distinction of being the longest-running outdoor and sportsman show in American television history.

Mort Neff graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in journalism and electrical engineering. Upon graduation in 1927, Neff began writing an outdoor sports column for a small newspaper in Detroit. In 1942, the Michigan Conservation Department asked Neff if he would be interested in doing a recorded radio show. At first, he did his recording from a small studio, but Neff drew upon his background in electronics to devise a battery pack to power a wire recorder for remote reporting from the fields and streams of lower Michigan.

In 1946, Neff learned to fly and used his single engine Piper Apache to cover outdoor stories all over Michigan including the Upper Penisula, which at that time was accessible only by slow-moving ferry boats that took hours of waiting in your car before boarding. Neff surprised ice fishermen by landing his plane on frozen lakes and interviewing the anglers with his battery-powered wire recorder.

Mort Neff and his Piper Tri-Pacer on Brighton Lake with ice fisherman.
By 1951, Neff ran an advertising agency specializing in outdoor films for the commercial and industrial market when he was approached to produce a show called Michigan Outdoors. Neff recalled, "Fran Congdon--ad manager for Altes Golden Ale Brewing Company--asked me to produce a TV show. Two weeks before the show debuted, the chosen host had a conflict of interest and was dropped from the program. Fran insisted I do it."

Neff's only experience was behind the camera. Of his early days in television, Neff said, "I was awful. Who had any idea how to do a television show? Nobody!" But despite his lack of experience as on-air talent, the show became an immediate Thursday night hit and one of the most popular programs on Detroit television. 

Mort Neff soon became a local television personality and a much sought-after luncheon and banquet speaker around Detroit. Michigan Outdoors brought out the ham in Neff. He enjoyed his new-found celebrity and soon sold his ad agency. Mort had discovered his life's work.

Neff and his various cohorts over the years filmed segments on sportsmanship, hunting, and fishing, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation. Michigan Outdoors prided itself on giving accurate, up-to-date information on current hunting and fishing conditions in Michigan. The Catch of the Week feature was one of the most popular segments of the show.


If Neff mentioned on his Thursday night show an area where hunting was good or a lake where the fish were biting, 200 to 300 Detroit area sportsmen could be expected for the weekend trek up north, which sometimes caused problems for local residents. Often county roads were not adequate to handle the onrush of city traffic. Getting "Neffed" was not always welcomed by county officials. After some negative publicity, the show developed a policy of not reporting specific hotspots in favor of regional locations.

When Mort worked for the Michigan Conservation Department decades earlier, he learned that the South American country of Chile imported rainbow trout eggs from them in 1918. The eggs were hatched and the fry released into the Chilean mountain river system. Neff always wondered what happened with that forty-year-old project. Now, he was in a position to find out. He organized a two-week expedition with a film crew and a few friends to report on the original project and catch some rainbow trout.

Mort and his cohorts discovered that Chilean rainbow trout grew larger and faster than their Michigan cousins. "On average," Neff said, "a two-pound rainbow would reach six pounds in Chile. When we cleaned our first catch, their bellies were full of crabs the size of half-dollars found only on the river beds of the Andres Mountains. My fishing friend Buck Newton from Traverse City caught a rainbow over 21 pounds. It sounds like a fish story, but we have film and the photos to prove it."

On the strength of his successful Chilean fishing trip, Neff was recruited as an outdoor correspondent for ABC's American Sportsman hosted by Curt Gowdy. ABC producers financed Neff and a film crew for several more South American fishing trips which were featured on the network show giving Neff national exposure.


In 1971, Michigan Outdoors moved from WWJ-TV (channel 4) to WXYZ-TV (channel 7). As the 1970s wore on, American attitudes about hunting changed. Sportsmanship and conservation were always central to Neff's outdoor narrative, but his audience was aging and younger viewers were not tuning in.

In response to this new trend, Neff told reporters, "I think the hysteria over ecology has been overdone. Sportsmen and conservationists were working on the environment long before it became fashionable. I do think it is good that more people are aware and interested in preserving our natural resources and protecting the environment." Michigan Outdoors continued to lose audience market share until it was cancelled on January 7, 1977.

Neff wasn't bitter. He told the Detroit Free Press that "My wife Maureen and I decided twenty-three years was long enough to support the tremendous burden of a weekly television program, and we're ready to move on. I've been lucky. I've had one of the most golden careers ever." The Neff's retired and built a beautiful summer home just north of Harbor Springs.


Mort Neff passed away from a stroke at the age of eighty-six on Wednesday, August 15, 1990 at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petosky. Ten years before he died, Mort selected the tree to make his coffin, had it sawed into planks, and asked his neighbor Bill Glass to build it. Bill kept telling Mort it wasn't time yet. Mort brought the subject up one last time two weeks before his death. Bill Glass began building the pine box on Thursday for Friday's private funeral service at Harbor Springs Presbyterian. Mort was laid to rest in the coffin lined with cedar boughs cut by his family members.

World Adventure Series hosted by George Pierrot 

Friday, May 22, 2020

World Traveler George F. Pierrot

Detroiters who grew up watching television in the 1950s and 1960s are no doubt familiar with George F. Pierrot, the gravelly-voiced, rotund host of the World Adventure Series on WXYZ (channel seven) which debuted in 1948 and George Pierrot Presents on WWJ-TV (channel four) which debuted in 1953. Pierrot holds the distinction as the only Detroit television personality to host shows on two local stations concurently. Pierrot instilled the desire to travel in many of its younger viewers.

From the point of view of the audience, Pierrot's job seemed easy enough. He introduced his guest travelers who showed and narrated their 16 mm films of the Western United States and exotic world location with speakers like Don Cooper, Stan Midgley, Dennis Glen Cooper, and Lowell Thomas. Behind the scenes, Pierrot booked the speakers, viewed and edited their films for content, and handled all negotiations and background arrangements.

"I demand a good reporting job," Pierrot said. "Sure, I want good films, but the speaker must have his facts straight. Viewers want indepth lectures and documentaries on what it is like in different countries." Like Pierrot himself, all of the commentators on his shows belonged to the Circumnavigator's Club whose headquarters was in New York City. The show was sponsored by Edward Brink of The Mutual of Omaha insurance company.

World traveler, author, and raconteur, Pierrot was born in Chicago on January 11, 1898, but his family moved to Seattle where his father practiced medicine and introduced his son to globetrotting. George studied journalism at the University of Washington before becoming the editor of the Washington Daily, but he left to write for a national magazine based in Detroit called The American Boy in the early 1920s. Pierrot became a regular luncheon and banquet speaker at service organizations and non-profits all over the city making him a much sought-after personality in Detroit.

When The American Boy went out of business in 1934, Pierrot pitched the idea of a weekly travelogue program to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to boost the museum's poor attendance during the Great Depression. In those days, world traveling was a much bigger deal than it is now. Travel was impossible for the average person. Pierrot became the director of the World Adventure Series. For a yearly membership fee of one dollar or a charge of ten cents per lecture, the public could attend the Sunday afternoon travelogues. The programs were a big hit and set Pierrot up with his life's work. The DIA series ran in the Longfellow auditorium until 1979.

With the start of World War II in Europe, Pierrot complained in October 1939 that "It's hard enough under normal circumstances to assemble world celebrities for lecture programs, but now the war is disrupting every travelogue series in the country. However, we do have the war to thank for our first feature of the season. A motion picture newsman returning from Poland will show two of his films this Sunday. 'Poland Under Fire' at 3:30 pm and the 'Defense of Poland' at 8:30 pm."

The DIA suspended The World Adventure Series in October of 1942 because of gas rationing and the curtailment of public transit on Sundays when the programs were held. Gas stations were closed and drivers were asked to stay home in an effort to save gas for the war effort. Forty-five percent of the program's audience came from the suburbs, so the museum shut the program down. The DIA resumed its Sunday World Adventure Series the following year when the ban on Sunday travel was eased. Rather than travelogues, documentary films from the battlefronts where Americans were fighting and dying dominated the lecture program until the war ended.

One-millionth USO serviceman winning a day on the town. Saturday, April 24,1943.
Pierrot did his part for the war effort by becoming the director of the Detroit Branch of the United Service Organization (USO) in 1942. He ran one of the most extensive and successful programs in the country. Activities for American soldiers and sailors included weekly dance parties and an entertainment unit that showed free motion pictures with special features like Movietone News and cartoons. Pierrot reported to the Defense Department that the Detroit USO entertained 40,000 G.I.s a month.


Three years after the war ended, Pierrot took his World Adventure Series to the new medium of television. For twenty-eight years--1948 until 1976--he brought the world of travel to Detroiters in their living rooms. In 1979, the DIA's World Adventure Series went dark after forty-two years.

Pierrot lead the way for television travelogue hosts like Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain. In addition to travel, George was known for his love of food, drink, and off-color limericks. On February 16, 1980, George F. Pierrot suffered a heart attack at his Indian Village home and died forty-five minutes later in Henry Ford Hospital. He is buried at Elwood Cemetery in Wayne County.

World Adventure Series with George Pierrot circa 1960 

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne Namesake--"Mad" Anthony Wayne

Protrait of Anthony Wayne painted by Thomas Pauley
Throughout the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan the name Mad Anthony Wayne resonates in communities far and wide. Scores of towns, cities, counties, schools, parks, hospitals, streets, and businesses have been named after this Revolutionary War general.

General Anthony Wayne led his soldiers in essentially rear guard actions harassing the British behind their lines. In several successful skirmishes with the enemy, he ordered surprise "bayonet only" attacks at night that inflicted many casualties. He was known as a courageous general--decisive and quick to act.

The legend behind the sobriquet "Mad" Anthony Wayne owes little to the general's military achievements. It has more to do with a drunk and disorderly colonist--known as Jemmy, the Rover--who the general sometimes used as a spy. A constable arrested the man who began to drop the general's name. When the general heard this, he threatened Jemmy with "twenty-nine lashes well-laid-on if this happens again."

In disbelief, the now sober Jemmy replied, "He must be mad or else he would help me. Mad Anthony, that's what he is. Mad Anthony Wayne." The story made its way around town and became a favorite among the troops. The general's nickname had a rhythm and bravado that was repeated in the ranks until it stuck.

President George Washington called Major-General Wayne out of retirement to command the newly formed Legion of the United States. Wayne established the first basic training facility to prepare  regular army recruits into professional soldiers.

Wayne mustered and trained a fighting force of 1,350 American soldiers and led them to the Northwest Territory (Ohio and Michigan) where they won a decisive victory against British forces and the Indian Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, just south of modern-day Toledo, Ohio. The war ended and Major-General Wayne negotiated the Treaty of Greenville between the tribal confederacy and the United States signed on August 3, 1795.

While returning to Pennsylvania after the conflict, Wayne died from complications of gout on December 15, 1796. He was buried at Fort Presque Isle. His body was disinterred in 1809 at the request of his family to be buried in a family plot. His bones make the journey to Radnor, Pennsylvania in saddlebags. For that grisly bit of history, consult the link below.

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Aerial View of Old Fort Wayne.

The star-shaped fort in Detroit, Michigan--which bears Anthony Wayne's name--began construction in 1842 at the Detroit River's narrowest point with Canada. Fear of a territorial war with British Canada prompted the fort's building. It was named to honor Major-General Wayne's defeat of the British at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory resulted in the United States occupation of the Northwest Territories. Diplomats were able to settle territorial disputes, and the war with Canada never materialized. The new fort never fired a shot.

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Fort Wayne was first used by Michigan troops in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. It became the primary induction center for Michigan troops for every field of American combat from the Civil War through Vietnam.

During World War II, every truck, Jeep, tank, tire, spare part, or war ordinance manufactured in Detroit went through the docks of Fort Wayne to the battlefronts. Also, Italian prisoners of war from the North Africa Campaign were housed at the fort. After Italy's surrender, Italian POWs were given the chance to return home. Many chose to settle in Detroit where there was an established Italian-American community and greater opportunities awaiting them.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Fort Wayne's grounds were open to assist and house homeless families. During the Cold War of the 1950s, Nike-Ajax missiles were installed to prepare for a nuclear war that never came. And during the Detroit riots in 1967, the fort was again used to house displaced families, the last families leaving in 1971.

Today, the Detroit Recreation Department operates the fort with the help of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, the Friends of Fort Wayne, and the Detroit Historical Society. The grounds are the home of the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, the Great Lakes Indian Museum, and historic Civil War reenactments. Special events are held throughout the year.

Fort Wayne was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The State of Michigan wants to upgrade the property into a multi-use facility while maintaining the fort's historical significance. Once the new International Transport Bridge is built in old Delray, the United States customs plaza will be located near the historic site. More information on restoration plans can be found in the Detroit News link below.

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Bruce Wayne--Millionaire Industrialist
While researching, I discovered that Batman's alter ego--Bruce Wayne--was named after Scottish patriot Robert Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne. In DC Comics, Bruce Wayne is said to be General Wayne's direct descendant, and stately Wayne Manor is built on ground given to General Wayne for his Revolutionary War service.

Another little known fact is that in 1930, stunt man and young actor Marion Michael Morrison was originally given the stage name of Anthony Wayne by director Raoul Walsh. Fox Studios changed his name to John Wayne because Anthony sounded too Italian.


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For more information on preservation plans for Historic Fort Wayne:
The story of General Anthony Wayne's exhumation may be more noteworthy than his military achievements. For more details, check out this link: http://www.americanrevolution.org/wayne.php