Q: Please solve a 50-year mystery: Was Johnny Rabbitt the voice of his sidekick, Bruno J. Grunion, on KXOK (AM-630) in the 1960s? Also, there were two Johnny Rabbitts, right? To me, the second wasn’t as popular as the original.
Michael Smith, of O’Fallon
A: I’m sure your warm memories of him make Ron Elz’s bunny ears perk up.
Now in his 63rd year on radio, Elz was, after all, the original Johnny Rabbitt and still uses the moniker on his “Route 66” show every Saturday night on KMOX. In fact, his favorite picture may be one of him in a top hat sporting those floppy rabbit appendages.
But for old-timers like me who would religiously pick up his KXOK Top 40 list every week from the Record Bar, there is only one real Johnny Rabbitt: Don Pietromonaco, who, with his Mr. Grunion, helped catapult a once obscure radio station into the national limelight. And, fortunately, St. Louis radio historians agree with me.
“Pietromonaco ... was perhaps the most theatrically gifted broadcast talent in the history of St. Louis radio,” Larry Hoffman wrote in the St. Louis Journalism Review when Pietromonaco, just 61, died of emphysema on April 18, 1997.
“In the ears and eyes of thousands of St. Louis radio listeners, (he) was the definitive Johnny Rabbitt,” his St. Louis Media History bio says in tribute. “He commanded the nighttime radio scene, inviting his listeners to phone in and ‘blab it to the Rabbitt.’”
Yet even today, discussions over the true Johnny Rabbitt — or even who dreamed up the character — can get folks hopping mad.
On a recent edition of KMOX’s “Profiles,” Elz continued to maintain that the idea was all his in early 1962 when he joined KXOK. He said he was looking for a gimmicky name because “Ron Elz” is just too hard to understand on radio. He once used Pete Bunny in San Francisco, so he came up with Rabbitt (yes, two t’s) because it was cute and he actually knew of a St. Louis man named Easter Rabbitt. Because St. Louis is heavily Catholic he decided on John as a first name, but since “John Rabbitt” was too stilted, he settled on Johnny. Making it even better, it coincided with the opening of the St. Louis Playboy Club.
But Bud Connell argues it was he who pulled the Rabbitt out of his hat and turned it into a St. Louis radio legend. In a letter to the Journalism Review in 2001, Connell wrote that in December 1960 he created the character, which hit the airwaves during an Easter 1961 promotion at WFUN in Miami. To derive the name, he mixed the popularity of the Playboy bunny with TV’s newest sensation, “Johnny” Carson.
“I should know because I was that first Rabbitt voice,” he wrote.
Four months later, Storz Broadcasting brought Connell to St. Louis as KXOK’s new operations manager to turn around the station’s anemic ratings (about 4 percent of all listeners). He figured bringing the Johnny Rabbitt character along would help.
“How could we miss?” he wrote. “Only by hiring the wrong radio actor to play the part.”
That’s why, he wrote, Elz lasted only a year or so before the station brought in Pietromonaco from Phoenix in 1964. Around him, they crafted a show with laugh-tracks, contests, sound effects, gags and dedications that ruled the airwaves from 7 to midnight for six years. By the mid-60s, Pulse Inc. ranked KXOK among the nation’s top five stations.
Elz, meanwhile, tried to continue his Rabbitt persona at WIL, but was sued in court and lost because the name was ruled the property of Storz. (Elz, who certainly should be praised for his love of St. Louis history, can use the name now because Storz eventually relinquished ownership, according to local media watcher Mike Anderson.)
As for your other long-standing mystery, yep, they’re one and the same.
“Often, Pietromonaco would get to the studio early and record his Bruno drop-ins before the show, then converse with (his) pre-taped voice on the air,” his St. Louis Media History bio reads. “Other times he did both voices live.”
And it’s not quite true that Bruno never showed up live. Remember the station’s deep-voiced news director Robert R. Lynn? He once agreed to pose as Bruno during an appearance, complete with hairy costume and several stick-on pimples. Somehow, a couple of those pimples wound up on the cake later served to the crowd.
“Hey, you’re not Bruno!” Lynn remembers a smart-alecky kid yelling. “And one of your zits is in my cake!”
Want to turn back time? Listen to part of the July 27, 1968, Johnny Rabbitt show at www.stlouismediahistory.org. Click on “radio,” and “personalities” and find Pietromonaco. For other KXOK memories, go to www.630kxok.stlmedia.net.
Can you name either of the two teen-oriented nightclubs Pietromonaco once opened in St. Louis?
Answer to Sept. 25 trivia: So “Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?” as trivia maven David Feldman once asked in a book title? That seems to be a dispute still churning. English author Samuel Johnson alleged that the name arose because butterflies appear in the spring, the season when butter is first made. Others allege it came from the insect’s excrement, which apparently is yellow. A more popular theory says it resulted from England’s most popular butterfly — the brimstone — being yellow-colored. But for romance, you can’t beat the medieval tales that had witches and fairies turning themselves into mischievous winged insects at night to steal butter.