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Radio Homemakers : Mike Roy, My Pop

September 01, 1994|ROBIN ROY GRESS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than 10 years, my pop, Mike Roy, spent his days in the kitchen at KNX across the microphone from his good friend and foil Dennis Bracken. Picture this: My padded papa, who reportedly "loved food but loved better food best," and rail-thin Denny, who adored baloney, loathed cheese and hardly knew a Dutch oven from a Dutch uncle.

Chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking endless paper cups of coffee, the two gave out recipes and restaurant news, talked about wine and seemed to read each others' minds as they coaxed shy and tongue-tied callers to ask their questions.

Their conversation, so seamless and effortless, looked like child's play. It was not until I spent a year in radio myself that I realized what pros they really were.

Radio, Pop used to say, was in his blood. Television was fun, but radio was his true love, which is not surprising, as he'd been behind a microphone since his late teens. (His first broadcasts were trial-by-fire play-by-play coverage of the high school basketball team back in Jamestown, N.D., in 1929.)

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During World War II, he came to Southern California while emceeing "The Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands" tour. As the war wound down, he moved here and became the emcee for such national radio shows as "Duffy's Tavern," "Abbott and Costello" and "Screen Gem Theater."

In 1950, KTLA asked Pop to try his hand at an experiment called "daytime television." Thus, "Mike Roy's Kitchen" started out inauspiciously on a hastily thrown-together set.

"They figured he could play some records and mix something up in a chafing dish," Mom recalled. "And he chatted. And chatted and chatted. There was a lot of time to fill. At some point, he took a call. Then there was another. And that was the beginning."

Within two weeks, "Mike Roy's Kitchen" had become a full-blown cooking show. Within two months, the Roys had a private telephone number, after a curious viewer called at 5 a.m. wanting to know how to can peaches.

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Our whole family was on the show at one point or another, and Los Angeles got to know his nearest and dearest, including Eleanor ("the Baptist sister") and Thelma, "the drinking sister." And then there were the kids--me and my brother, Dana, to be exact.

One Easter, Pop took me and some friends to the station for a special show. Every now and again, the camera would segue to us dyeing Easter eggs and then go back to Pop in the kitchen. At one point--remember, this was live TV, and I was about 4--I called out, "Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom." When Daddy did not immediately drop what he was doing, I repeated myself. The audience loved it. The letters poured in.

Pop continued in television until 1957 and then left the field. He took an unsuccessful flyer at building and running restaurants, but by 1960 he was back in radio, doing weekend news broadcasts for ABC and CBS. One day, he got a call from the late Ralph Story, who had a daily radio show called "Storyline." Ralph asked Pop to be a guest on the show, which included, among other things, calls from listeners. People remembered him. Story invited him back. And then again. Every time he was on, more people called.

The Food News Hour made its debut in 1965. It would run for 11 successful years, ending with Pop's death in 1976.

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Pop had no use for people who refused to share recipes or tried to mystify what went on in the kitchen. (I've often wondered what he would have made of the far-out foodies of the '80s.) Good food, he often said, was within reach of everyone, and he was bound and determined to help everybody prepare it themselves. To the listener who wanted to bake bread or fricassee chicken or bake a pie from scratch, he said, "Go to it. You can do it."

He had an astonishing memory and an even more astonishing recall, and he often answered questions off the top of his head--aided by 40 years of food experience that started when he was a boy watching his mother cook. The 12 cookbooks he wrote didn't hurt.

But he never entered the studio without a battered briefcase--his beloved "file of falderal." Its contents varied but there were two constants: "The Joy of Cooking" and the two deep-red Gourmet cookbooks.

He and Denny usually began the show by hashing over the previous night, when Pop would have been "out amongst 'em." He'd talk about where he'd been, what he'd eaten, whom he'd seen. If he didn't like a place . . . a dish . . . a wine, or a person, he simply never mentioned them.

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"I cook for the ear, especially on the radio," he once told an interviewer. "When you say words like whipped cream or almond roca , it sounds good right away. If you do a stew and you talk about stuffed olives, it says richness. You see, it's as much a word game as a cooking game; I love words."

Make no mistake. He loved cooking too. My fondest memories were of the holidays, when he stuffed and roasted--always breast-side down and always rubbed with lots and lots of butter--a turkey that never weighed less than 25 pounds. Gravy, however, rich and silky and unforgettable, was the piece de resistance .

He would start with a flour and butter roux (he described a roux almost weekly to his radio audience, refusing to let its French name intimidate a new cook) and then add quarts of stock that had simmered all morning. He'd stir and taste, and lecture Dana and me on the evils of lumpy gravy and gravy mixes. And then it would be done. Ever the boy at heart, he'd take a taste and a beatific smile would spread across that ever-young face. "Ah," he'd declare, "I don't know how I do it."

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