Sonny Eliot, beloved Detroit broadcaster, dies at 91

Sonny Eliot, a Detroit broadcasting legend, passed away today. He was 91.

Sonny was, simply put, a Detroit institution. Sonny was a local icon, up there with anyone else.

Sonny was a radio weatherman for generations, to the point that I (a 24-year-old) have fond memories of listening to him on the way home from school, or while going down to the Joe Louis Arena. On the afternoons before a Red Wings game, Sonny would include a segment called, “the Barky Report,” in the weather, where trumpets would herald his prediction of that night’s score. And of course, Sonny was never wrong.

Sonny was one of the first true characters in Detroit television, with his weather forecasts changing the news business into something personable and entertaining, yet also witty and smart.

Sonny was the host of the Thanksgiving Day Parade television broadcast, he was a local pitchman for local companies, he was the face of the Detroit Zoo, he was versatile enough to always be on your screens (or airwaves) somewhere.

And with all of that, Sonny was renowned for his social life around Detroit, from the Lindell AC bar to Red Wings and Tigers games, from the Detroit Zoo to his City Airport restaurant. If something special was going on in Detroit, Sonny was there.

In the words of Jim Brandstatter, color commentator for the Lions and Michigan football, “the landscape of Detroit radio and television was built around Sonny Eliot.” That quote came from a Free Press article, unique in the sense that our newspapers were the only thing that Sonny didn’t have some lasting influence in.

This feels like a death in the family for Detroiters everywhere. For the generation before me, this loss is probably different. Sonny was the person with whom they grew up, the age of a parent or grandparent, and a constant presence around the city. But for those Detroiters who are my age, who love this city and our great history, Sonny’s death is another irreplaceable part in our city’s culture. The legendary voices of my childhood, the men whose voices were the narration of Detroit, are all starting to pass away. Ernie Harwell, forever the voice of the Tigers, passed in May of 2010. Budd Lynch, the voice of the Red Wings and PA announcer of the Joe Louis Arena, died in October. And now Sonny. The people who were the faces of Detroit from the glory years into the next generations are all starting to go.

All of those guys started here in the 1950’s or 1960’s, lived their dreams with sparkling careers in Detroit, and are now gone, with no one to replace them. Yes, there are still great broadcasters in this area. There are still great things to do in metro Detroit too. But an entire generation of decline and decay have ruined so much of Detroit’s culture. Metro Detroit went from a thriving culture in the age where Eliot, Lynch, and Harwell came up, to a generation that largely contributed nothing to the Detroit experience.

Where are the great traditions that started in the 1970’s? Where are the unique local companies and local figures that came up then?

What about the 1980’s? What legacy came out of that decade here?

Sadly, in the great cultural tapestry of Detroit, there is a gaping hole from the time our parents’ generation abandoned the area for the generic business park of suburbia. Nothing was added. Many things were taken away, consolidated, bought out. And what remained because even more important, because they were the living symbols of what we were, and what we want to be again. Now, after another 10-20 years, all of those, from our personalities to our landmarks, are starting to go.

Everything now is generic. It’s all corporate-owned, for the most part, stripping any and all character out of the equation. Our stores are mostly the same, our products are mostly the same, and our media is mostly the same. All of it taught from a style guide, focus-grouped to oblivion, and presented as the best that we can do. On top of that, everything is splintered to the point where there’s so little to actually connect us.

No one has the influence of Sonny, because no one has anything close to the platform of Sonny. While new media is amazing (for example, this site!), it’s increasingly splintered. Sonny was the string that connected everything in Detroit, because everything had Sonny. He was part of the Detroit experience, in a way that just does not happen today, because we unknowingly don’t allow it to happen.

Everything now is negative, in our media. Everything now has to be edgy, or “edgy”. It’s all still generic, the same infantile sex jokes or repurposed YouTube videos to hopefully get a gracious laugh. And the reaction is just as generic, with every idiot with a negative opinion shooting uniqueness down. There is barely any room for sincerity, for genuine emotion. It’s much easier to just badmouth everything and everyone.

No one has the personality of Sonny, because every media entity seems too concerned with the criticism of vocal idiots to allow for something unique. Instead, everything is dumbed down and inoffensive. It’s not bad, but it also isn’t good. It just exists, taking up time and ad dollars. Sonny’s personality shines even more today, because it stands out even more in the current media climate.

Which brings us to what Sonny’s legacy ultimately will be, what we should learn from having him as a part of our lives for decades.

Sonny will be described today as someone who always had time for people, who was always looking for a laugh, who always had time for others. Before his great career, Sonny was a B-24 pilot in World War II, who was shot down over Germany and held prisoner to the Nazis for 18 months. 18 months, with “Judem” on his identification card. It’s safe to say that his captors were not the best to Sonny. He had every right, after that experience, to shut himself off from others, to basically become the jaded old man that so many of our elders become. Instead, Sonny spent his entire life, in some way, trying to make others happy.

And that, Detroit, is the lesson to learn from Sonny Eliot. We have every opportunity to treat each other badly, to reinforce the virtual segregation of our city limits, to make things worse because things were bad for us. Or we can work to make things better, one day, one person, one act at a time. For Sonny, that was one joke, one gag, one moment with someone else. Over 91 years, that added up into a fantastically-lived life.

There won’t be someone there to tell the one-liners over the weather report, Detroit. There won’t be someone whose presence was as ubiquitous. But there is always a spot open to make someone’s day, with the simplest of actions.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.