HEAR TRACY BRIGGS NARRATE THIS STORY:
FARGO — She was Fargo's version of Kelly Ripa, long before Kelly Ripa was even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes.
As the host of "Party Line", Verna Newell was the queen of talk in Fargo-Moorhead from 1957 to 1979. One of the first faces children would see when they got home from school in the afternoon, Newell with her blonde, bouffant hairdo and sweet smile, was as welcoming as a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk.
"Party Line" was the definition of a hometown talk show featuring a little news, guest interviews and lifestyle segments. Through her long tenure with the show, which aired from 3-4 p.m. weekday afternoons, Newell shared hosting duties with a handful of male co-hosts including Bill Weaver, weatherman Dewey Bergquist and even news anchor Marv Bossart. Her longest running co-host, however, was popular sportscaster Boyd Christenson. The two complemented each other well.
Former WDAY Program Director Sue Eider says Christenson was a strong interviewer who could ad lib and "fly by the seat of his pants" a bit, while Newell was very organized and preferred to take a backseat.
"Verna really produced the show. She'd line up all the guests," said Eider. "I remember Boyd coming in saying 'Okay, Verna Noodle what do we have going today?'"
Eider says it wasn't that hard to find guests.
"It was really a big deal to get on 'Party Line'. It was a great outlet for people to promote what they were doing," Eider said.
And sometimes that included some pretty big stars in the world of show business and sports including Gregory Peck, Dustin Hoffman or boxer Joe Louis.
Eider has very vivid memories of Tiny Tim coming for a visit in the early 1970's. The "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" singer was still a big star, but Eider remembers him not acting like it.
"I remember him walking in, and he was just so gracious and humble. He had no problem waiting (to be taken to the set). He just couldn't have been nicer," she said.
Of course, North Dakota native Lawrence Welk was a good fit for the show. In this 1974 clip, Newell starts dancing when Welk starts playing his accordion. Welk then asks fill-in host Marv Bossart to play so he can dance with Newell.
But the charm of the show lay in the fact that 10 minutes after a TV or movie star would come on, Newell and Christenson might welcome a local person in to talk about their church fundraiser or do a cooking demonstration.
The show also featured an in-house organist, makeovers, crafty gift ideas and tips on how to stretch the family budget. And all of it was broadcast live in front of a studio audience.
One of the things that made "Party Line" somewhat unique for the time was that Newell called the shots, not only becoming one of Fargo’s first television personalities, but she was also a maverick of sorts, helping shape local broadcasting, a field dominated by men.
Bossart once said, "She was a major figure in television in our area; everybody knew Verna. Her work helped women become more visible in the television world here. "
As big a star as she was here, Newell was said to be a homebody and remained down-to-earth, a fiercely private woman who hated to have her picture taken and rejected the idea of an on-screen alias as "too fancy for her". She reportedly turned down at least one offer from a Los Angeles station because she wanted to stay in Fargo.
And why wouldn’t she? The show looked like a bonafide blast. In 1960, for example, they brought viewers along for the "Party Line Hawaiian Tour". It looks a wild bunch, right?
They’d also go on location to local events, like homecoming at what was then Minnesota State College in 1973.
But Newell and her co-hosts also took on serious topics including interviews with civil rights leaders and returning soldiers from Vietnam. In January of 1969, Christenson had a long interview with astronaut and West Fargo High School graduate Tony England. Among other things, they talked about the moon landing in just eight month and the hope that one day that England would get to go to space. (He would make it there in 1985 as part of a seven-man crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger.)
"Party Line" went off the air in 1979. Times were changing. It was more affordable to put on syndicated television shows in the afternoon. School kids would now eat their afternoon snacks while watching “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Gilligan’s Island”, or “The Brady Bunch”.
Eider says throughout the 1980's and beyond, they really missed having the show as a place to promote what was going on in town.
Christenson continued working in broadcasting at WDAY, Prairie Public Television and KFGO radio, before he died at the age of 73 in 2009.
Following her retirement from "Party Line", Newell kept busy. She became a tour guide for a local travel company, and according to her husband, Bill Erwin, she continued to get recognized. He says she always took the time to visit and talk to her fans.
She, like Christenson, died in 2009 and left behind years of memories for viewers who enjoyed their afternoon party.
I sure do! I even watched it occasionally. 81% I vaguely remember it, but I was just a kid. 16% "Party what?" - No, this is new to me. 3%
Do you remember "Party Line?"
Thank you for voting!
I sure do! I even watched it occasionally.
I vaguely remember it, but I was just a kid.
"Party what?" - No, this is new to me.
All the film in this story is courtesy the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
In the next installment of "Do You Remember": As diverse as "Party Line" was with its subject matter, one woman in 1969 probably caught the hosts off-guard with comments that were definitely ahead of their time.
Other Do You Remember stories by reporter Tracy Briggs: