Blazing His Way on D.C.'s Airwaves
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Legendary broadcaster Petey Greene sits on the set of his television talk show, "Petey Greene's Washington," burying his face in a huge chunk of watermelon.
"I just can't understand why black people started eating watermelon in the closet," he announces, eyes stretched wide with wonder. "I've seen y'all cut it up in little slices . . . but all you got to do is pick it up like this here. . . ."
So begins "Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene," which tells the story of the D.C. radio and TV personality who overcame poverty, drug addiction and multiple arrests to take his hometown by storm in the late 1960s (and continuously for 16 years).
The "Independent Lens" documentary is narrated by actor Don Cheadle, who played Greene in another film about the broadcaster, the 2007 theatrical movie "Talk to Me."
"Adjust Your Color" features clips that highlight the range viewers saw when tuning in to Greene's TV talk show. There's Greene with shock jock Howard Stern in black face, but still not out-shocking his host; Greene interviewing Midge Costanza, then a special assistant to President Carter; and Greene as a proud parent talking with his then-young children about their future dreams.
Interspersed among those scenes are interviews with D.C. notables -- including Ben's Chili Bowl owner Virginia Ali, sportscaster James Brown, city council member Marion Barry and actor Robert Hooks -- talking about Greene and how he touched their lives.
"Petey Greene brought a special genius to the talk show genre. He did things no one had done before or since," said Dewey Hughes, who gave Greene his start in radio and worked on both "Adjust Your Color" and "Talk to Me."
A natural comedian who could rhyme off the top of his head, Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene started broadcasting in 1967, two years after getting out of Lorton Reformatory, where he served time for armed robbery. At Lorton, he built on his already locally well-known talent as a stand-up comic by spinning tunes and talking jive as a DJ over the prison's public address system.
Upon release, he took a job as a community organizer at the United Planning Organization, an anti-poverty agency, and worked there until he died.
Once a week, the District native got his chance to elevate civic issues, first on R&B radio station WOL. His shows combined biting humor, homespun advice he learned from his beloved grandmother, information for poor people to find social services, and unusual political commentary. They also showcased how well Greene knew the District's streets, its people and the problems they shared.
By the time Greene launched his Sunday talk show "Petey Greene's Washington" on WDCA-TV in 1972, he'd developed a following that could chant his signature closing lines ("I'll tell it to the hot, I'll tell it to the cold . . .").
And when cable network BET launched in 1980, Greene's show was selected for the initial lineup. "Petey Greene's Washington" aired nationwide for four years.
In the early days, televisions had rabbit ears and red, blue and yellow tones fading in and out on screens. Hughes said the documentary's title plays off a line in Greene's opening monologue. He'd rap: "Sit back. Relax. Adjust the color on your television and get ready to groove with 'Petey Greene's Washington.'"
One bit of footage in "Adjust Your Color" atones for a scene in "Talk to Me" that assigns fears to Greene that he did not hold, Hughes said. The movie scene fictionalizes Greene explaining why he won't appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. He says: "I'm nervous because I've never been in front of this many white people before."
The documentary reveals that line as a joke Greene delivered to the 1982 graduating class of Bethesda's largely white Walt Whitman High School. Against their parents' wishes, students had insisted on having Greene speak. So he opened with: "I know y'all are nervous because you don't know what I'm gonna say. And I'm nervous because I ain't never spoke in front of this many white people before. So y'all might as well relax, 'cause I'm gon' be all right."
When Greene died of cancer in 1984, thousands of people lined up in freezing weather outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church on Michigan Avenue NE to pay their respects.
"He definitely earned his place in history," said Sandra Butler, a former broadcaster who worked with Greene at the United Planning Organization. "His contributions to life in the nation's capital were exceptional, and against tremendous odds."
Lurma Rackley is the author of "Laugh if You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny: The Life Story of Ralph 'Petey' Greene as Told to Lurma Rackley."
"Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on PBS 26.