The following information came from many sources, and is not guaranteed to be complete or correct. A great deal of information came from perusing the collection of early TV magazines held by the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, located in St. Louis Park. This task can be difficult, as the collection is both large and incomplete. It is also easy to miss entries, especially since Mel had so many different shows in many different time slots. A man as prolific as Mel Jass is understandably difficult to document. Many thanks to the Pavek Museum for providing access to their materials.
If you’re looking for a bona-fide Twin Cities celebrity, look no farther than Mel Jass. Talk show host, pitchman, actor – Mel was someone that absolutely everyone in the broadcast area knew. His long tenure hosting the “Matinee Movie” on Channel 11 has reportedly inspired the Coen Brothers to try filmmaking, which they did at an early age at their St. Louis Park Home.
Mel was born Melvin Frederick Ferdinand Jass on March 24, 1917, in St. Paul, and grew up in Rosemount. In a life full of exploits, an early one was a doozy. At nine years old he claimed he sold St. Paul newspapers to the likes of John Dillinger and Ma Barker. He dropped out of Harding High School in St. Paul and worked his way west to Montana, where he was the manager, program director, salesman, and equipment repairman at a small radio station. [Butte or Helena] His first full time radio job was in 1939. Mel served in the Air Force during World War II.
TWIN CITY TELEVISION LAB
After the war Mel participated in the Twin City Television Lab, which was opened by industry expert Joe Beck in April 1947. The Lab’s purpose was to train personnel in the skills needed in the new television industry. Located in the Lyceum Theatre Building at 85 Eleventh Street So. in Minneapolis, the complex occupied over 11,000 square feet of studios, classrooms, and offices. Mel planned the television production training unit. In an article in the Fall 1979 issue of Minnesota History, Beck had this to say about Mel:
And there was Mel Jass, my loyal right hand and close confidant for almost ten years. He had made the trip to New York in early 1947 to help pick a staff. Like many others who made the transition to TV, he began his own broadcasting career as a radio announcer and joined Beck [Radio] Studios in 1946. In our young organization Mel was incredibly the right man in the right job at the right time. The only thing stereotyped about his multiple functions was his job title: director of public relations. He was a lot more; he had to be. Maybe it is mixing metaphors, but if I were the company’s “spark plug” (so described by others), Mel Jass was the catalyst that kept things running.
In May 1949, Beck was in a horrific traffic accident that killed his wife and put him in the hospital for five months.
With characteristic concern and loyalty, Mel Jass, the one staff member competent to carry on, labored long hours to salvage what could be saved of the daily operation, if not the ultimate purpose, of Beck Studios, Inc. and the Twin City Television Lab.
Due to the accident and an FCC moratorium on new TV licenses that lasted three and a half years, the Lab had to close in the fall of 1950.
[A note about early local TV stations: The first TV station in the Twin Cities, KSTP, went on the air on April 27, 1948, on Channel 5. WTCN, which at that time was on Channel 4, first aired on July 1, 1949. On August 19, 1952, WTCN changed its call letters to WCCO. A new WTCN emerged on September 1, 1953, on Channel 11.]
Mel Jass may have worked for WTCN, Channel 4, in 1949 or 1950, although he was probably busy with the TV Lab up until it closed in the fall of 1950. Copies of TV Times, precursor to TV Guide, are available starting on June 24, 1950, and his name is not mentioned in the 1950 volumes, although he may have been working without a byline.
Mel does show up in the TV listings starting on December 30, 1951, when he took over “Show People” from Jim Boysen. The TV Guide noted, “Mel Jess (sic) emcees this original presentation.” The show aired on Channel 4 on Sundays at 11 pm. On April 20, 1952, the show was renamed the “Kieffer Club,” and the TV Guide again noted, “Mel Jass emcees this original presentation.” Mel hosted the “Kieffer Club” until September 20, 1952. [The show reverted to “Show People,” described as “Talent on Parade,” with no host listed. The last “Show People” was aired on September 11, 1953.]
Overlapping “Show People” was the first “Mel Jass Show,” which aired from April 28 to December 8, 1952, on Channel 4. This show was first aired at 1:30 pm, Monday-Friday. The description was “Hit tunes of the week, guest interviews.” In August 1952, he alternated with Johnny Dugan. On September 29, 1952, the show moved to 11:30 weekdays.
On August 17, 1952, Channel 4’s switch from WTCN to WCCO did not affect Mel’s shows, as he stayed at Channel 4 when it became WCCO.
On December 15, 1952, “Mel’s Almanac” appeared, again on Channel 4. It aired at 8 am, or sometimes 11 am, weekdays. The description given on April 11, 1953, was “Informality is the Word.” On November 6, 1953, TV Guide said: “Mel Jass’ early morning gang play tunes, sing and read viewers’ letters.” Another promo said “See Mel Jass – [musician] Toby Prin and Newsman Don Padilla – as they bring you local news, weather flashes, household hints, and plenty of easy-going humor – plus a song or two.” The last show aired on March 5, 1954 (replaced with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club”).
Starting in about May 1953, Mel had a “Mel’s Almanac” column in the TV Guide. It mostly consisted of submitted jokes and household hints.
On April 30, 1954, a new “Mel Jass Show” debuted on Channel 4 at 2:00 pm, M-F. On July 9, 1954, the show moved to 11:00 am, M-F (although it was sometimes shown at 8:30 am.) We’re not sure when it went off the air – there are missing issues, but it was some time between September 10 and November 24, 1956.
There is a show called “Game of the Day” listed on November 15, 1954 on Channel 4. This may have been a one-time assignment, but maybe not.
The January 7, 1956, edition of the TV Guide reports:
A new show makes its debut on Ch. 4 sometime in January: Your Reserved Table. The show will feature top amateur and professional talent in a continuous contest to pick the top performer. The show will be done live remote from the Twin Cities. Emcee, Arnie Walker; Commercial man, Mel Jass; and “Girl Friday,” Lucy Cook, will keep the show rolling. Auditions will be held by Toby Prin…”
Although Jass and Prin’s pictures are shown, a search for this show is disappointing. The first mention is on Friday, February 10, 1956, at 11:15 pm, and it is hosted by “Ringabuk,” who hosted the previous show in this time period, “Dateline Europe.” The name comes up one more time, the show is anonymous a couple more times, and by June 29 it is gone.
A program note from October 6, 1956, indicates that Mel’s “Hobby Showcase” show was moving to a new time (12:30) on Channel 4. It premiered on or before January 1956 through at least December 1956.
For at least a few months, from April 1 to August 9, 1957, Mel hosted “Popeye’s Clubhouse” at 5:30 pm on WCCO Channel 4. He appeared with a sailor hat and a special jacket monogrammed with the name of the show.
Also in April 1957, starting on the 7th, Mel hosted a new weather program that aired Sunday-Friday after the Hollywood Playhouse. That’s midnight.
By May 1957 Mel had been recruited to Channel 11 (WTCN-TV). One of his first jobs was to host a hobby and sports show.
Another early job at Channel 11 was to anchor the news. An August 1957 Channel 11 program guide shows that Mel Jass News was broadcast at 6:00 pm, followed by Stuart A. Lindman on weather at 6:10, and John Daly News at 6:15. Mel also presented a ten minute news show at 10 pm., all Monday through Saturday.
The Mel Jass Matinee Movie probably began as soon as Mel came to Channel 11. Although the TV Guide mostly listed the program as “movie,” most everyone new it by its rightful name. (We may also remember Mel’s “Dialing for Dollars,” but that show was primarily on Channel 5, except for a short time in 1971.) The August 1957 program guide tells us that the Mel Jass Matinee featured “Outstanding Warner Bros. Productions.”
In December 1957, Jass anchored the 6:25 evening news, taking over from John Daly. His delivery was reported to be “bizarre” – perhaps he oversold the product. The show lasted at least until May 30, 1958, but was gone by February 2, 1959. The 6:25 show identified Mel by name. There was also a 10:00 pm news segment listed, but Mel’s name is not associated with it in the TV Guide.
Mel left Minnesota in 1960 to try his luck in Hollywood. He had been an actor in local stock companies. He found a part on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” playing the [court] “Reporter” in the 1962 episode “I Saw the Whole Thing.” He also had parts in the shows “87th Precinct,” “Keyhole,” “Detective for the Defense,” an others, according to an article about Mel in the February 9, 1963, issue of TV Times. He also hosted movies on KTTV-TV in Los Angeles and he may have been on a soap opera.
Mel and his family moved back to Minnesota in 1963 and he started hosting Mel’s Matinee Movie that January. Mel would show films such as “Blondie and Dagwood, “Tarzan,” and “Ma and Pa Kettle” – plus a horror film or two.
For awhile in 1963 Mel had to fly back to L.A. on weekends to honor contract obligations to tape commercials and “host” movies.
An interview show called “Mel’s Notebook” was shown on Channel 11 in the early afternoons (usually 2:45, right after the movie). This program apparently came and went: we find it listed sporadically from late 1965 to spring 1969. It may have been shown at other times as well.
There’s a school of thought that says that Mel worked for every local station except KSTP-TV, but then again someone said he worked for KSTP in 1987, in the aftermath of a purge at that station.
In addition to his regular shows, Mel was often out on assignment, interviewing beauty queens, hosting celebrities at the Aquatennial and Winter Carnival, representing sponsors’ products at the Indy 500, and generally being there when the station needed him. One early assignment (September 16, 1955) had him emcee “Pioneer Days,” a celebration for folks married 50 years or longer, at the Emporium Department Store in St. Paul.
Mel was best known for his bellicose delivery of commercials. Mel sold soap and cereal and spinach and the Furniture Barn, always with an irresistible pitch that may not have sold you a room of furniture, but made you smile at the man’s enthusiasm. He said he used or tested all of the products he sold, and was renowned for his ability to improvise 60-second pitches without rehearsal or cue cards. Many times Mel’s commercials were more entertaining than the movie.
Mel was also known for his catch phrase “He’s got a good job,” often spoken to some kid who has just told Mel what his father does for a living. (They say he accidentally said that to a woman who told him that her husband was dead.)
Again acting, he played himself in a 1974 movie called “The Wrestler,” which was made in the Twin Cities with local actors (with a couple exceptions, including Ed Asner).
Patrick Sweeney offers this bit of Mel trivia: Mel’s last two Matinee Movies aired in early March of 1979. They were, in order, “Born Yesterday” with Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford, and “Cheaper by the Dozen” with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. The show was replaced by soap operas when the station became an NBC affiliate.
Mel died of heart failure at his home in Mound on January 20, 1997 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, Lorraine, daughter Deborah Ash (Naugatuck, CT), and sons Tom, David (both of San Diego), Paul (Salt Lake City), and Dan (Brooklyn Center).
In 2005 Mel was awarded the Silver Circle by the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television.
In 2007 Mel was inducted into the Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
MEL LIVES ON
There are many examples of Mel’s work on the Internet. Follow the Museum of Broadcasting’s link to see a reel of Mel’s brilliant pitchmanship! And those characters at TCMedia Now have unearthed a racy commercial that never hit the airwaves. YouTube must have many spots as well. Love him or hate him, he’s still a much-remembered Twin Cities local celebrity!
For more information on local television, see Twin Cities Television Milestones.