The Role of a Lifetime
‘First Lady’ of MPT Signs Off After 50-Year Careerby Liam Farrell | Photo courtesy of MARYLAND PUBLIC TELEVISION
Rhea Feikin ’56 grew up wanting to be an actress, but it turned out the role she was always meant for was just being herself.
After nearly 50 years at Maryland Public Television, the first lady of MPT retired in March after a career that saw her go from hosting a game show for the Maryland Lottery and appearing in the 1988 film “Hairspray” to being the face of MPT pledge drives.
“I sort of had a talent for begging,” she says.
The Baltimore native turned her UMD degree in speech pathology and theater experience at Maryland into a gateway to TV. Working as a speech therapist, she volunteered for an educational program at WBAL, hosting “Betty Better Speech” and then writing, producing and starring in the local children’s show “Miss Rhea and Sunshine.” That collaboration with puppeteer Cal Schumann led to their pairing for evening weather reports.
After the station fired them—prompting a mischievous Feikin and Schumann to walk off set midway through their last show—Feikin began freelancing and started at MPT with the 1970s staple “Consumer Survival Kit.” She had to fight for her place as a female host in that era, particularly as an on-camera presenter for corporate videos, and when someone told her women weren’t authoritative enough for those roles, she’d retort, “Your mother wasn’t authoritative?”
Over the following decades, her responsibilities at MPT grew, including hosting the series “Artworks” and “Chesapeake Collectibles,” interviewing celebrities and remaining a singular presence for on-air pledge drives.
She eventually became comfortable bucking the convention of maintaining relentless cheer on air. On one occasion, she told viewers that she didn’t particularly like “Doctor Who” or care if the program went off the air, so fans had better make the pledge phones ring.
She’s always been an open book, says Linda Taggart, who began working with her as a producer in the 1980s and is now vice president of development for MPT. The pair made sure pledge segments were a show within the show, and Feikin’s welcoming presence put guests at ease.
“You can feel her sincerity,” Taggart says. “She has taught us well.”
Feikin’s last on-air appearance was for a March 1 pledge drive, fitting for the true believer in the mission of public television. While she has always been active in the arts world, helping found Baltimore Center Stage in 1963, Feikin says MPT is one of the best avenues for people of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds to see everything from opera to museum exhibits without leaving home.
There are some things Feikin won’t miss, such as arranging and packing 13 outfits for two days of shooting a season of “Chesapeake Collectibles.” And a well-earned retirement will give her a chance to catch up on—what else?—binging television shows.
“I’m not a bit guilty about spending hours doing that,” she says.
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