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"Time goes by..." A conversation with Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett had absolutely no plan the day she started on the road to her destiny. Her high school diploma was barely in her hands when she abruptly left home in California, and the idea of going to college didn’t even slow her down. As soon as she drew her first paycheck she was out of the house and on her own. The Bible says, “Without a vision the people perish.” Not in Ronni’s case.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Bennett said. “But there were a lot of jobs in those days, so I started typing…”How could you envision a life like Ronni Bennett? It’s impossible. But to get an idea you might consider the character “Zelig” from the Woody Allen movie. Zelig had a capacity for showing up at great events with famous people. The thought of this makes Bennett laugh, but she does admit it sounds like her. She stood right in the middle of the whirlwind that was the 1960s, became a producer and writer for some of the biggest stars in radio and television, and was present at the creation of the Internet. She met kings, queens, movie stars, heroes and villains.

When retirement finally arrived, instead of resting on her laurels and basking in her fond, fun and funky memories, she became a blogger of a column for the people in her age group – elder citizens – called “Time Goes By.” Once she was an authority on the youth culture, now she is an authority on the perils and opportunities of growing old. Even if she wasn’t much of a life planner, Bennett was a gifted communicator with a ravenous curiosity about life and people. She was a great networker long before the phrase came into existence.

“My life has been a complete accident,” Bennett said. “I was always waiting for the next opportunity and making the most of it. The phone would ring and there would be another job opportunity on the line.” Ronni the working girl went through half a dozen years of typing jobs (still no plan) and had a vigorous social life that reached its apogee when she suddenly received three marriage proposals at the age of 24. The three candidates were of extremely diverse quality.

One was a Satanist. “He was not a nice guy,” Bennett said. Because Bennett was a nice Jewish girl, it was easy to turn him down. The second man seeking Ronni’s hand was so nondescript that today she cannot remember anything about him. The third suitor, though, had possibilities. His name was Alex Bennett (originally Bennett Schwarzmann). He was a rubbery faced young man with a terrific sense of humor, and he had a great big wide outlook on life. He envisioned greatness as radio personality. Looking toward the future for once, Ronni discerned having a most interesting life with Bennett. They soon became wedlocked.

“I followed him all over the country,” Bennett said. Alex Bennett had a super gimmick in which he pretended to be British and even called himself James Bond at one stop. In 1966 the young couple arrived in Houston, and soon billboards all over town were proclaiming his greatness. But Houston was only the first stop. Success soon followed in Minneapolis and Chicago. Each city was progressively larger.

"We were in the right place at the right time,” Bennett said. “Our goal was to make Los Angeles or New York.”

However, an example of not being in the right place at the wrong time came in downtown Chicago in 1968. Another American Revolution seemed ready to break out during the infamous Democratic Convention, but Bennett and her party weren’t being wild in the streets. They were just out on the town and wanted to find a place to have a drink and talk. The petite, peaceful and polite Ronni asked a Chicago cop for directions to her destination. Instead, the lawman slammed a billy club over Bennett’s head and she went down in a heap.

It took more than a clobbering to slow down Bennett. Soon she and Alex attained radio paradise in New York City. He joined the crew of the mega popular “Good Guys” at WMCA and his “Rock N Roll and Anti War Show” sparked the station to the top of the ratings. Ronni helped him get there. Early in their ascent, she had become Alex’s producer. “The station didn’t have it in the budget to pay a producer,” she said, “so I did it for free. I started out answering the phone because Alex couldn’t do the show and answer phones at the same time.”

After a couple of massive on-the-air embarrassments, Bennett became an adept operator. “You develop a sense for who the jerks are,” she said. More important, Bennett steadily grew into the role of producer and her career really took off. Since WMCA was such hot stuff, all the big names wanted to be on Bennett’s show; including the super stars in all fields. The show had a veritable Who’s Who of the 60s.“We had Gloria Steinem, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and David Dellinger,” Bennett said. “We had the biggest people in civil rights, the women’s movement and anti-war (Vietnam). There were the Grateful Dead and John and Yoko Lennon.”

While Bennett was living a career beyond her wildest dreams as a professional, her life with her Good Guy husband was going badly. Despite the vast success of the show “Alex spent every dime that came in.” Thus, financially, Ronni was pretty much at the same status she had been the night she graduated from high school. Finally, she packed two suitcases and bid farewell to her marriage. She also had to leave her job as his producer. She had instantly gone from being a semi-big shot to a nobody. “I was on my own with no place to go at the age of 31,” Bennett said. But she did not drift for long. One day the phone rang and she received an offer to join the production staff of the Dick Cavett Show. “I was one and a half years on the Cavett show,” Bennett said. “I started out as a lowly little production assistant.”

She did not stay lowly long. Bennett soon picked up the experience and savvy to become a successful television producer, and at one point “I had done every damn morning TV show in New York City.” So she was ready when the phone rang again and she received her biggest break of all. “I got a call from a person who I worked with on the Cavett show,” Bennett said. “We didn’t even like each other. But she told me she had become executive producer of the Barbara Walters Specials and asked me, ‘Would you be my producer?’ ”

What followed were 11 years working for one of TV’s biggest stars and meeting even bigger celebrities than she had in her Good Guys radio days: Burt Reynolds, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Walter Matthau, and her old pals John and Yoko Lennon. Sure, a lot of the celebrities were jerks, but for the most part the fun meter stayed quite high for Bennett.

“I had no idea Burt Reynolds was so funny!” she said. “He was so much fun to be around. A lot of the stars went off to be alone in a room, but Burt Reynolds hung around our crew the entire time.”

After her wonderful time with Walters and a stint on the Lifetime network, Bennett was ready for another career change. Again, it was the career move that sought her.

“The phone rang and I got another job offer,” Bennett said. It was from media powerhouse CBS, which was starting up a brand new internet news site. “It was the early 90s and the very, very, very beginning of the Internet. For the first time photos were being put within news stories we didn’t know anything. No one knew anything. The only other similar site was CNN. We would steal ideas from them and they would steal ideas from us.

“We would be working way past midnight putting photos into a story. When we finished we were high fiving each other. A few years later we looked at our first pages and couldn’t believe how bad they were. It was so awful. It was so primitive. It was the beginning of a brand new medium. Just like television was in the 50s”

Ultimately, old age creeps up on even such spirits as blithe as Ronni Bennett. “I had gotten old enough that I wasn’t being hired anymore,” she said. “I thought about getting married again for years, but I decided I didn’t want children, so it was not worth it. “I had lived in New York City for 40 years and had loved every second of it. It was a magnificent, magic place. But since I wasn’t working I didn’t have quite enough money to stay there.”

Thus Bennett came back to where it all started for her in 1941, Portland, Oregon. Later, she moved to Lake Oswego and became active at the Adult Community Center. Ronni is still a great communicator. She blossomed into a popular blogger, whose blog "Time Goes By" is read by thousands. She looks back upon her life with gratitude. What a long, great trip it was.

“I had a great career,” Bennett said. “But I didn’t have a lot of choice. Everything just happened to me!” Unfortunately, cancer happened to Ronni last year. She had to undergo an operation that debilitated her for months, and she is still fighting the effects of the disease. Still, Bennett has done to cancer what the Chicago cop did to her 50 years ago. Most of her days are good, and it is hard to imagine anyone else being so vibrant.

“I’m not done yet. I’m not finished,” Bennett said. “That’s what upsets me about cancer.” Yes, Ronni Bennett is ready for the next round of life.


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