There's a "Laura." There's a "Nola." There's even a "Ramona." But there's no "Rona." There ought to be a "Rona."
Let's see . . . "Ro-nahhh, is the face in the misty light . . ." No, not quite right. "Everything nice like sugar and spice is Ro-na . . ." Not really. "Ro-Rona, I hear the mission bells above . . ." Absolutely not.
Of course, there's always, "My Sha-Rona, oooh, you make my motor run, you make it run . . ."
Or, "Rona Lisa, Rona Lisa, men have named you . . ."
Near the end of a meeting in a leafy hotel lobby, to a reporter she had considered hostile and unappreciative of her talents, Rona Barrett says, as if to a kindergarten student she'd just taught how to fingerpaint, "You can write whatever you want, but now at least you know me. You may walk away with the same feelings that you had before, and that's perfectly all right, but now it's not like you're typing in the dark. Hopefully. I mean, you may say exactly what you said before, that's okay now -- you understand what I'm trying to say?"
Well darn it, there is a certain charm to her, this feisty and diminutive crusader on behalf of more respect for herself. Miss Rona made television safe for a certain strain of banality it didn't really have before, and her talent is making viewers think they need it in their lives. In five years of reportage on ABC's "Good Morning America" and now on NBC's "Today" show, Rona has without question blazed a trail. She has made Hollywood poop marketable on national TV. One may question whether this was a trail worth blazing, but not the fact that she did it.
Born in New York City 45 years ago, Miss Rona eventually heard the money-voiced call of Hollywood and by 1960 was syndicated in 125 papers. Metromedia stations aired her Hollywood reports in 1969, and she was picked up by ABC in 1975, the year after she published her autobiography, "Miss Rona," which chronicled her triumph over the childhood illnesses that had left her with a slight limp.
On television, she has a curiously effective way of leaning over the nation's back-yard fence (she really does seem to be leaning forward, in official confiding position) and making frivolous piffle sound urgent; and she has broken many a legitimate piece of solid entertainment-industry news. For this reason, she shrinks from that onerous appellation, "gossip," like it was an icky old, smelly old thing. She insists she be called a journalist and hopes to demonstrate this yet again with a series of prime-time specials for NBC, starting Dec. 5, called "Television: Inside and Out."
In her liquid, New-Yawkish, Betty-Boopy voice ("Good mawning David and good mawning Amairwicka") and being very careful to be achingly precise, Miss Rona explains, "I think of gossip as a word that is used to describe something that is trivial, and trivia, as opposed to its larger context, which is the dissemination of news before, perhaps, the news occurs.
"I don't report on the social scene per se; I don't cover parties and say, 'So-and-So was with So-and-So wearing a Chanel suit.' I don't do that. That's social chitchat. And I don't write one-liners -- you know, 'Last night at George Bush's party Sen. So-and-So punched So-and-So in the mouth for no reason whatsoever' and then never explain what the fight was all about.
"That is what gossip columns do -- one-liners: 'Hot new twosome, whozee woozee woozee.' I just don't do that, and that's how I think people think of the word gossip, and therefore, since I don't do that, why should I be called a gossip columnist?"
Let's grant her the point, or she may go on forever. Whether she is a gossip or not, she has been the subject of some. She left ABC in a great big huff and then, this year, did a similar swan dive off NBC's "Tomorrow" show, where resolutely obnoxious Tom Snyder was unable to conceal his dislike for her. Of ABC she says, "ABC, after doing what I did there, never realized what it was that I did. And then they tried to demean it. To me, that hurt more than anything."
As for Snyder, Johnny Carson asked Rona about that big feud on his "Tonight Show," and Rona responded with a dippy "No comment." And this was her big chance to call Snyder names, too. "But I wasn't going on there to talk about Snyder; Johnny knew that. I was on there to help get a plug for my special." Ah Rona. She has all the warmth of a self-service gas station at 2 a.m.
"And I decided, why bother to keep fanning a flame that really deserved a long explanation because basically it would be an analytical one as opposed to just saying that 'Tom Snyder is a son of a bitch.' I don't feel that way about Tom Snyder. I do have lots of feelings about Tom Snyder. Some of them are very sad feelings. But now you're going to tape this and say, 'Rona has very sad feelings about Tom Snyder.' "
Yes, Rona, that would certainly make headlines around the world. Does she take any pleasure in the fact that Snyder's ratings are worse than ever? "Well, it's no secret. We all read the Nielsen rating books. I don't know why. Maybe Tom's tired. Maybe Tom's burned out. Maybe things are foisted upon him that he never felt really comfortable with. I don't know. We all have our time."
Rona says she is not bitter about the experience and the very public tiff. And you know why? Because it taught her something about herself. And in L.A., the land of the blond, that's considered higher education.
"I learned more about myself than I did about almost anything," says Miss Rona. "I am grateful for the experience. It taught Rona Barrett a lot. About Rona Barrett. About her profession. About what she could do, and what she couldn't do. And also, it taught Rona a lot about liking Rona, and standing up for what Rona believed was right." Say, who is this "Rona"? We'd like to meet her!
All is not inner peace, however. Miss Rona feels she's being ripped off left and right, and before you say "Who would bother?," take a look at the way show-biz news is inundating television: on early evening "magazine" shows, on regular newscasts, and of course in the fabulously insipid new syndicated series "Entertainment Tonight."
We are all being told much, much more about Hollywood than any sane person could possibly want to know.
Barrett cleared the way for this epidemic with her distinctive, business-like reports on network TV; the woman has her own style, it must be admitted (though there's a touch of Gracie Allen in there), and it is very safe to say she is absolutely and without question the best at what she does. So she has a right to look down her nose at those who imitate her.
Of "Entertainment Tonight," she says, "I think it's awful. It's a wonderful idea and very horrendously executed. It perpetuates the myth that Hollywood is silly, that Hollywood has no substance -- and what's the purpose? There's no point of view on that show."
Miss Rona had come to Washington to be dangled in front of bureaucrats at an NBC party hosted by new company chairman Grant Tinker. "Now 'Entertainment Tonight' wasn't at that party," says Rona, "but if they were, I guarantee you they never would have said what should have been said about a party like that. They would have said, 'Oh, guess who was here last night!' It's 'Guess who' and it's so surfacey. And I think the American public wants more than that."
Another Rona imitator, and one who quickly got Le Boot, was Ruth Batchelor, hired as Rona's replacement when Rona left "Good Morning America" for NBC. "I feel very sorry for her; that's all I want to say about that," says Rona of her successor, although a TV Guide article in late October had them sniping at each other.
Rona says she was quoted out of context and that she bears no grudge against Batchelor, who was baldly inadequate as a replacement. The problem may have been that, for better or worse, there is only one Miss Rona. Certainly Miss Rona subscribes to this theory.
"They should try something different," she says of ABC. "I mean, everybody should try something different. Johnny Carson is Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson is not Jack Paar. And Jack Paar is not Steve Allen. And Steve Allen is not, going back to the morning show, Dave Garroway. And Dave Garroway is not Hugh Downs. And Hugh Downs is not Tom Brokaw. And Tom Brokaw is not . . ." Rona, STOP!!! Stop, before we go MAD!!!
Being ripped off is nothing new to her, either. "For years, I watched Time and Newsweek rip me off all the time. I'm not talking about their "People" section. I'm talking about major entertainment stories they would do. They would never give credit, or, if they did, it was in such a snotty, nasty way. It was very grievous to me. A lot of that has changed, and a lot of it is due to my standing up for myself. I felt I had to stand up."
Rona says that when she was off "GMA" for two months of illness, the ratings went down, although the show seems to have survived her departure and now teeter-totters with "Today" for first place in the early morning. Rona, meanwhile, has been tossed by NBC the placating bone of those upcoming "TV Inside and Out" specials. On a recent "Today" show Rona told viewers they could write in with questions for the high and the mighty to be answered on the specials. But hurry, warned the old phrase-coiner, because "time is of the essence."
"It would be nice to have a successful series," she says. "It would be the first time that a woman has been given that kind of responsibility in prime time."
No one who bothered to give it a thought would deny that Rona is a good reporter, that she often gets stories or facets of stories that elude other reporters on the same beat. After 25 years as a professional tattletale, she has reached the point, she says, at which "I don't feel I have to prove anything anymore. I don't." But there is one more thing she wants. Respect. Rona has the hots for respect.
"I'd like to be respected. That's what means the most to me," she says. "On the 'Today' show they treat me with enormous respect." And, "I think Grant Tinker would be the first to tell you he has enormous respect for me."
No Rodney Dangerfield she. Rona may ask for too much respect. Success in television is often interpreted as a license to overreach. Rona's demands for respect sound a little like David Hartman's insistence on being mistaken for a journalist.
There is also the distinct possibility that American TV viewers are getting so overloaded with empty information about the stars and the studios and how much money Gary Coleman is making that information as a commodity is losing its value. Perhaps we have contributed to this ourselves with our attention to Rona Barrett but then, there's more to life than David Stockman. There's got to be.
"Miss Rona, I just met a girl named Miss Rona! And suddenly that name, will never be the same, to me!" She came, she talked, she talked, she talked, and she smit. "If it has no importance, then don't say it -- that's my point of view," she lectures in her twinkly-spunky way. And, so profoundly, "I say, you have to take it all into perspective." Asked if she feels chummy enough toward Snyder to send him a Christmas card, she tells the once-hostile, now grudgingly resigned young reporter, "I don't send Christmas cards. So don't expect one, Tom."