Louis Rukeyser, who for 32 years presided over PBS' "Wall Street Week," a landmark financial advice show developed distinguished by his keen insights, wry puns and idiosyncratic musings on the market, died yesterday at his home in Greenwich, Conn.
Rukeyser, who was 73, died of multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the bone marrow, said his brother, Bud Rukeyser.
An imposing but likable on-air presence with a deep voice, silver-white hair and mischievous smile, Rukeyser left the airwaves in October 2003 when he started undergoing treatment for cancer.
The former Baltimore Sun London bureau chief and ABC News correspondent spent his last 18 months in television presenting his show on cable channel CNBC after a nasty public battle in 2002 with Maryland Public Television, which had produced his show for more than three decades.
At its peak in the 1980s, "Wall Street Week" was carried on more than 300 public television stations and boasted a weekly audience of 4.1 million viewers. The 30-minute program was public television's longest-running weekly prime-time series, second only to CBS' venerable "60 Minutes" in overall TV tenure. The series was canceled by MPT in June 2005 after three years of audience erosion that followed Rukeyser's departure.
"Before Louis Rukeyser, there was no such thing as a financial advice show on television," says Douglas Gomery, professor and media economist at the University of Maryland. "Along with 'Sesame Street,' 'Wall Street Week' was one of the first shows on PBS, a landmark series by anybody's definition. The reason for its success was Louis Rukeyser. He was the franchise -- proof that the star system worked even for PBS."
Rukeyser's ability to translate economics into compelling television talk helped make investors out of millions of Americans: "In essence, what he did was bring Wall Street to Main Street -- he made Wall Street understandable in terms of Main Street," says Frank Cappiello, a money manager who appeared as a panelist on Rukeyser's first PBS telecast in 1970 and his last in 2002, as well as his first and last on CNBC.
"You have to remember when the program started in 1970, we had just been through the Vietnam War and rising inflation, and so much changed financially during that 10-year span from 1970 to 1980. And every week, Lou would be there on TV explaining the changes -- from commodities to money market funds -- in very simple terms to millions of viewers, many of whom became investors as a result of what they learned from him and the experts he brought in."
A wide-ranging economic expertise only begins to describe the formula that made Rukeyser one of public television's first major stars -- along with Alistair Cooke, host of "Masterpiece Theatre," and "Sesame Street's" Big Bird.
The New York City native, who was dubbed "the dismal science's only sex symbol" by People magazine, was known within the ranks of PBS as "The Big Bird of Prime Time" because of the underwriting support, ratings and viewer pledges that he brought to the fledgling public broadcasting lineup in the 1970s.
In an interview shortly before his own death in August, Baltimore financial analyst Julius Westheimer, who was a recurring panelist on "Wall Street Week" for 29 years, said Rukeyser never forgot the audience: "Lou always said that the best educators throughout history were in part entertainers, and he stressed that to those of us who were regulars on the show. He also told us to talk about money, not economics. 'Economics puts people to sleep; money wakes them up,' he used to say."
Louis Richard Rukeyser was born Jan. 30, 1933, in New York City, the second of four sons of Merryle and Berenice Simon Rukeyser. He was raised in the suburban community of New Rochelle, where he attended public schools and found his vocation at a remarkably early age.
"All I wanted to be when I grew up was a newspaperman," Rukeyser wrote in personal reference file for The Baltimore Evening Sun. The paper hired him for $55 a week in 1954, the year he graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. "I have been engaged in newspaper work since the age of 11, and getting paid for it since I was 16."
The New Rochelle Standard Star gave Rukeyser his start in the news business at age 11 by publishing a report he filed about his elementary school. By his sophomore year at New Rochelle High School, he was stringing as a sports reporter for several daily papers in the New York City area. His senior year at Princeton, Rukeyser was elected president of the Press Club.
He entered the Army for a two-year hitch in West Germany just three months after being hired by The Evening Sun and served as a correspondent for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, before returning to Baltimore in 1957 and a job as chief political reporter.
After stints in London and India for The Sun, Rukeyser left the paper in 1965 to join ABC News -- first as Paris correspondent and then chief of its London bureau. He returned to the United States in 1968 as chief economics correspondent for the network.
Two years later, when Anne Truax Darlington, a producer at MPT, was casting about for someone to serve as host of a show she was developing on economics and financial management, she thought of Rukeyser. She knew him from his work at The Sun and remembered seeing him on a BBC interview program in 1966 when she was in London as a Fulbright scholar: "Once I got Louis in my head, I couldn't get him out. Louis knew both economics and TV, and I knew we needed someone with an expertise in both if we were going to succeed," Darlington says.
Rukeyser and Darlington persuaded his bosses at ABC News to let him moonlight at "Wall Street Week," but by 1973, "the tail was wagging the dog," as he put it, and he left the network.
"Wall Street Week" debuted on Nov. 20, 1970, and its impact was immediate, with New York Times TV critic Jack Gould asking in print three days later: "Who would have thought that the financial press would have some rivalry from Channel 67 atop a Maryland hill?"
"Wall Street Week's" format, which was as ritualized as that of Johnny's Carson's "Tonight Show," always began with four or five minutes of remarks from Rukeyser directly addressed to viewers. It included the latest business news of the day along with the host's commentary and explanation of the market's behavior.
The show's second segment took Rukeyser across the set to a large conference table that featured the rotating cast of recurring panelists such as Cappiello and Westheimer answering questions about money, markets and investing. The host was not shy about challenging their answers.
Additional segments involved Rukeyser answering letters from viewers, and Rukeyser and his panelists interviewing influential economists, executives, entrepreneurs and government officials such as Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Malcolm Forbes, H. Ross Perot and John Kenneth Galbraith. There were also predictions as to how the market would behave in coming weeks from Rukeyser's "Elves," a group of technical experts he regularly sounded for their opinions.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times