Media personality who was 'giant' of Minnesota entertainment dies at 91
ST. PAUL—William Franklin Diehl always considered himself a newspaperman, first and foremost. But his 53-year tenure covering entertainment for the Pioneer Press was just the start of the résumé of a man who changed the way pop culture was covered, and consumed, in the Twin Cities.
Radio listeners knew him as "Bill Diehl, the Rajah of the Records, the Deacon of the Discs, the Purveyor of the Platters and the Wizard of the Wax, with all the musical facts." When he wasn't ruling the AM airwaves, he appeared on local television, emceed teen dances and concerts, booked and mentored young rock bands, introduced local audiences to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, befriended Hollywood stars like Grace Kelly and Judy Garland, collected everything from records to World War II memorabilia, and traveled the world while documenting it all on 16 mm film.
"I can't believe there were enough hours in the day for him to do all the things he did," marveled Rick Shefchik, a former Pioneer Press writer and columnist who devoted an entire chapter to Diehl in his 2015 book "Everybody's Heard About the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota."
Diehl died Wednesday in hospice care at St. Paul's Sholom Home East. He was 91. He is survived by his wife, Helen, who said Diehl died of complications after a fall that left him with limited mobility. There will be no funeral or memorial service, per his wishes. His cremains will be spread at Lake Itasca, where he proposed to Helen, whom he married in August 1967.
"He loved St. Paul and he loved the newspaper," said Helen Diehl. "He was a workaholic and he was always on time. We loved the same things and we had a great life together. I'm thankful I had him for as long as I did."
A St. Paul native, Diehl got his first taste of the newspaper business as a carrier at the age of 11. Each morning, he'd get up at 4 a.m. and was on the streets a half-hour later delivering what would eventually become a route with 250 customers. That attracted the attention of associate publisher Hal Shugard, who summoned Diehl to the Pioneer Press and Dispatch office. Diehl thought he was going to be fired but instead was offered a job at the newspaper upon graduation.
After completing his senior year at St. Paul Central High School in 1943, Diehl started working at the newspaper while taking night classes at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. His first job was serving as a debt collector for the circulation department, but he soon angled his way into a copy boy position in the newsroom.
Almost from the start, Diehl made an impact.
"War was taking its deadly toll at the time, and death notices were dominated by fallen servicemen," he wrote in his final Pioneer Press column in 1996. He persuaded the editors to print an image of the flag as part of any death notice involving a member of the military. It caught on so quickly that the Minneapolis Star-Journal started doing the same thing a month later. "I was told by our want-ad executives that my flag idea quickly spread to papers across the nation," Diehl wrote. "But it started here, and it continues. And (yes, I'm boasting) I am particularly proud of that."
Diehl also adored the English language and puns, and as a copy editor, he brought new flair to the previously stuffy approach to writing headlines. One of his first was atop a story about a saxophone player who was arrested for drunken driving after a particularly wild night. Instead of "Drunken musician is fined," Diehl went with "Sax player goes on toot."
"Bill was one of those guys who was always willing to try new things," Shefchik said. "He was a very witty, live-wire kind of writer and reporter, and he helped change the flavor of the newspaper."
In 1950, Diehl pitched then-managing editor Fred Heaberlin an offer described by late Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer as such: "Bill said he'd write a daily column, handle all television listings and write a Sunday column, plus a gossip column, a record column and cover nightclub acts. All for about $2 a week and a peanut butter sandwich." Heaberlin's response: "Who could refuse a deal, or a Diehl, like that?"
Diehl took full advantage of the position, earning sources inside Hollywood and, at one point, reviewing five or six new films a week. He talked about some of the stars he met during a 1965 interview with Twin City 'a Go Go, a "magazine for Twin City young adults on the go." As Diehl said at the time: "Grace Kelly and I had to share out of the same lemonade glass. I've stayed at Robert Mitchum's house numerous times and I've hobnobbed with Bing Crosby."
Shefchik called Diehl a larger-than-life character. "He had a big voice; he was kind of a big guy. He didn't slink through the newsroom — he strode. He really was a showman. I think every time I had a talk with Bill, I ended up learning something. He was always willing to share his experiences, but he was never overbearing about it. He thrived off the energy and attention he got from being with people," Shefchik said.
"Legendary" is how Boxmeyer described the sheer number of Diehl bylines in the newspaper. But Diehl was about much more than cranking out column inches. His radio career began in 1948 at WMIN when he was offered a gig subbing for a vacationing DJ who asked Diehl, "You know how to do a radio show, don't you?" Diehl lied and said he did and then hit the public library and read a book about how to become a broadcaster.
That was just the start of Diehl's radio career, which included a decade at WDGY helping to establish the Top 40 format as the "Rajah of Records," and 26 years at WCCO, where he did Saturday morning remote broadcasts for an Oldsmobile dealer. "You could pop right on out to Wally McCarthy's (Lindahl Olds) showroom and have a hot dog with Bill," wrote Boxmeyer.
In 1950, Diehl also made his television debut at KSTP, Minnesota's first commercial television station. He hosted a summertime show, "Screen Story," about the entertainment business. He once again learned the ins and outs of the position through the public library. Diehl impressed station owner Stanley E. Hubbard so much, Hubbard offered him a full-time job. Diehl offered to work nights and weekends but refused to leave the newspaper, and Hubbard wasn't interested in sharing him.
"I picked the Pioneer Press," Diehl told Shefchik in his book.
Diehl turned his radio fame into another job, making personal appearances and emceeing live events. In 1958, Diehl introduced Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson on stage in Mankato and at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, six days before the three musicians died in a plane crash. In 1964, Diehl emceed the Rolling Stones' first local performance, in the Danceland ballroom at the Excelsior Amusement Park. The following year, he did the same thing for the Beatles at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. He accompanied the Fab Four for their entire stay in town, which he later wrote was "48 hours of unparalleled excitement."
Local bands benefited from Diehl's influence as well. He played their music on the air and helped them book live shows. "If you were a local band, you knew you had made it if Bill Diehl was emceeing your gig," said Shefchik.
Mike Waggoner's Twin Cities band the Bops was one of the first groups Diehl took under his wing.
"Bill was almost a spokesman for a generation," Waggoner said. "We were just a bunch of kids trying to play music in roller rinks, on flat-bed semis and wherever we could. He championed what we did. He was tremendously busy, but also generous with his time. He not only enjoyed what he did every day — writing for the newspaper and playing records on the radio — he enjoyed seeing the rest of us develop our skills.
"Bill was a very caring, very sensitive fellow who wanted people to do the best they could with whatever they had."
Diehl's tireless schedule took a toll on his personal life. In his early years, he lived with his first wife, Marilyn, in a $75-a-month furnished apartment in Highland Village. "That's all I could afford," he said in Shefchik's book. "I didn't have any money. ... (Marilyn) gave up after a while. She wanted a divorce."
And while Diehl championed the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement, he was also a conservative unafraid to take entertainers to task.
An early supporter of Elvis Presley, Diehl was unimpressed after seeing the 21-year-old play the St. Paul Auditorium in 1956. "On stage, Elvis, you were nothing but a male burlesque dancer," he wrote. "Your gyrations were straight from strip-tease alley. Happily, you did leave your clothes on." He went on to praise Presley as a fine example to kids for not smoking or drinking but then asked: "Why, Elvis, do you then resort to your 'Pelvis Presley' routine?" He ended the column in a huff, concluding that "in show biz, nothing grows in dirt."
An immaculate dresser himself, Diehl took Mick Jagger and company to task about their lack of grooming. "They looked like they'd slept in their clothes for a week and hadn't eaten for two," Diehl wrote of the Rolling Stones. "Soap must have been a dirty four-letter word to them."
Diehl also kept readers fully informed on the sexual content and politics of films he reviewed, warning of "total frontal" or "rear male" nudity. At the same time, he wasn't afraid to champion movies he loved. In 1977, he raved about a film by the name of "Star Wars."
George Lucas' space epic, Diehl wrote, "brims with suspense and interest for everyone, and in every age bracket. ... Its storyline is simple and direct and marvelously executed. Spellbinding and captivating, the footage in stunning style shows the potential of screen Entertainment with a capital 'E' (as opposed to those dreary, mindless offerings in which the cast can do nothing more than disrobe and engage in sexual gymnastics). You'll want to see 'Star Wars' again and again."
Diehl's film writing even made an impact on St. Louis Park natives Joel and Ethan Coen, who paid tribute to Diehl in their 1996 film "Fargo." In the scene where William H. Macy's character Jerry Lundegaard tries to strike a business deal with his father-in-law, he gets rebuffed with the line: "If I wanted bank interest on $750,000, I'd go to Midwest Federal. Talk to old Bill Diehl."
Stan Turner knew Diehl professionally for years and formed a friendship with him in the '80s when Turner was the main news anchor at KSTP-TV. Turner had the opportunity to sit down for a one-on-one interview with President Ronald Reagan, and Diehl was impressed with the results.
"Bill wrote me the nicest note, saying he appreciated that I treated the president with respect at a time when many were not," Turner said.
The pair soon bonded over broadcasting, pop music and other shared interests, and Turner became "a very privileged member of his circle of friends."
Diehl and wife Helen did not have children and were able to spend their free time traveling the world, hitting every continent except Antarctica. ("Bill said he didn't want to go somewhere where the birds were dressed better than he was," said Helen Diehl.)
"They didn't go to danger zones, but if you name any other place, they'd have been there," Turner said. "They went into China, Southeast Asia, northern Europe and North Africa. He had a great interest in World War II and visited many battle sites."
Over the course of the last handful of Saturday nights each year, Diehl and his wife would invite friends in groups of eight or so for dinner and a screening of footage Diehl shot around the world.
"He would narrate the films, reading from a travelogue script he wrote in his own hand," Turner said. "There were three reels, and Helen would serve dinner between them. It was mesmerizing and always a great evening. Just like in his movie reviews, Bill loved puns and wordplay. They were such gracious hosts, we often would stay until midnight. I don't know how they had the stamina."
In his final Pioneer Press column in 1996, Diehl wrote that "I have been granted more fun, thrills, excitement, more of just about everything than any reasonable human being could expect."
Diehl dealt with health problems in his 80s but still managed to get out from time to time. A year and a half ago, he was Waggoner's guest of honor at his 75th birthday party. "He was in a wheelchair and relatively immobile, but still sharp as a tack," Waggoner said. "It was uncanny how his recollections were absolutely bright and articulate and on point. He loved to tell the stories, and we all loved to hear them.
"He became influential without trying to be influential. He believed strongly in youth and reinvention. I don't think the man ever gave up on trying to be current. He personified professionalism and was always a very modern man. He was a gentleman and a friend, not only to me, but to so many others.
"He was Bill Diehl. He is Bill Diehl, and he meant so much to all of us."