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Entertainment reporting pioneer to discuss social journalism

By ARLENE FINE
Senior Staff Reporter

Published: Friday, June 3, 2011 1:08 AM EDT

Rona Barrett, a pioneer in entertainment reporting and publishing, is “old enough to be Violet Spevack’s daughter, but we are definitely on the same page,” she told the CJN from her California home. “We both are groundbreaking women who accurately and fairly reported the news.”

Barrett, 75, will be the keynote speaker at “Vi-Vi-Vi-vacious! A Cavalcade of Memories in Celebration of Violet Spevack’s 95th Birthday” on Thurs., July 14, at Executive Caters at Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights.

The event will benefit the CJN Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the CJN. Proceeds will create the Violet Spevack Internship Endowment Fund, enabling the CJN to train young journalists far into the future.

“Rona Barrett is a nationally known writer who will highlight, amplify and validate the importance of social commentary that Violet pioneered in her weekly Cavalcade column,” said CJN Foundation president Susan C. Levine.

Barrett’s feisty spirit was apparent at an early age. Born with a degenerative hip condition caused by a rare form of muscular dystrophy, Barrett (née Burstein) spent her early years going to movies in her hometown of Queens, N.Y., with her parents and daydreaming about movie stars.

At age 13, determined to accomplish “something important with my life,” she said, Barrett initiated two successful nationwide fan clubs for then-teen heartthrobs Eddie Fisher and Steve Lawrence.

Her efforts helped launch Fisher’s career, and in 1957 Barrett moved to Los Angeles, where the Bell-McClure newspaper syndicate hired her. The youngest reporter on staff, she was assigned to write about and interview Hollywood and other entertainment personalities.

Suddenly Barrett was on a first-name basis with movie stars and celebrities she had admired on screen and stage. In Miss Rona: An Autobiography, she describes transforming herself from “a fat Jewish kid” whom children liked to tease to a “Miss Somebody,” who was friends with such stars as Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and Bobby Darin.

In 1966, Barrett became a prominent TV personality, helping transform the way media delivered entertainment news. Through her close, personal association with Hollywood and a reliable network of celebrity “tipsters,” entertainment reports became a regular, nightly television news feature.

With her Cheshire cat smile and perfectly groomed short blond hair bob, Barrett brought the latest news about stars and celebrities into people’s living rooms. “Not to mention high ratings and big dollars for the ABC network,” Barrett said with a laugh. By introducing young Hollywood stars like Natalie Wood, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Neil Diamond, she brought a new and larger generation of people to TV entertainment news.

In 1975, Barrett helped launch “Good Morning America” as the show’s arts and entertainment editor, where she developed the first in-depth TV specials about celebrities of film, television, music, sports and politics. She interviewed such notables as Bette Davis, Liza Minnelli, Raquel Welch and John Wayne.

These interviews paved the way a few years later for TV news reporter Barbara Walters. “In 1976, Barbara had a $1 million contract as the first female news anchor alongside Harry Reasoner,” Barrett said. But when the ratings fell, Walters was reassigned to do the type of personality interviews pioneered by Barrett. “I’m proud that I opened the door wide enough for other women like Barbara to slip in and open wider,” Barrett said.

During Barrett’s 30-year career, which also included reporting for “The Today Show,” “Entertainment Tonight,” magazines and syndicated columns, she resented, as did Spevack, being called a gossip columnist or the “queen of gossip.”

“If a man held the same job, he would be have been called an entertainment commentator; however, a woman like me who gives the inside scoop is called a gossip,” she said.

Although Barrett was the first to report some major Hollywood revelations, she always waited until she had enough evidence and the personality’s consent before breaking the news. She, like other Hollywood insiders, had known Rock Hudson was gay for years, but she did not reveal his secret on her nightly shows or in her popular newsstand magazine Rona Barrett’s Hollywood.

It was only in 1985, after Hudson fainted in a hotel lobby in Paris because of AIDS complications, “that I called him and got his permission to announce he was gay and had the disease that he died from a few months later,” she said.

During the President John F. Kennedy White House, reporters around the country knew about the president’s “frequent infidelities, but we respected our president and the U.S. government too much to leak this type of damaging news,” she said. “In this age of Internet news, Kennedy’s actions would have gone viral within minutes.”

Although Barrett retired to her ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley in 1991, she has used her high profile and media connections to advocate for aging adults and to promote the Rona Barrett Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the aid and support of senior citizens in need of housing, medical care, food and other services.

“The great crisis in this country is that 70 million people are entering the senior population and we don’t have adequate housing or enough people to care for them,” she said.

Currently Barrett is heading an effort to create a senior care facility in California’s Santa Barbara County. Her foundation is focused on the development of innovative combined housing, adult day care, short-term caregiver respite, and a community center model called “The Golden Inn.”

“This pilot program will be a replicable model to serve low-income seniors in communities throughout the United States,” said Barrett. “Not everyone can age as gracefully as Violet Spevack; so my goal is to provide help to those seniors who need assistance the most. And here’s an insider’s scoop: I’ll get it done.”

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WHAT: “Vi-Vi-Vi-vacious! A Cavalcad of memories in Celebration of Violet Spevack’s 95th Birthday” to  create the Violet Spevack Internship Endowment

WHEN: Thurs., July 14, 6:30 registration; 7:30 program and dessert

WHERE: Executive Caterers at Landerhaven

REGISTRATION: Use the invitation enclosed in today’s CJN, visit www.blacktie-america.com (enter event code CJN714), or contact [email protected] or 216-454-8300, ext. 263.

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