FELIKS BANEL

Beloved kids’ show host turned meteorologist M.J. McDermott hangs up her barometer

Oct 6, 2021, 9:49 AM | Updated: 11:02 am
MJ McDermott...
From left to right: Rosco T. Raccoon, Winslow Barger, and M.J. McDermott on the 'ranger station' set of the kids' show "Rosco & Ronnie" at KSTW Channel 11 in the early 1990s. (Courtesy Winslow Barger)
(Courtesy Winslow Barger)

When meteorologist M.J McDermott retires this week from Channel 13, not many people will remember her early years hosting a kids’ show on Channel 11.

McDermott was the human star of Channel 11’s Rosco & Ronnie in the early 1990s, prior to heading back to school at the University of Washington to get her atmospheric science degree and become a broadcast meteorologist.

“I was Ronnie, the delivery person who brought Rosco stuff to his little house there in the woods,” McDermott told KIRO Radio. “I will never forget working with Rosco T. Raccoon.”

Rosco was a raccoon puppet who lived in a ranger station, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks to a young audience in person and over the air from a perch on a conveniently located window.

“The hand within Rosco and the voice behind Rosco was Winslow Barger, who is one of the sweetest, most creative people in television,” McDermott said. “I loved working with Winslow and doing that kids’ show. We were the last children’s show in the market to have a live children audience.”

“End of an era,” she added.

Keen TV “observers” – such as radio historians and other introverts who pay slightly more attention than mere “viewers” – will recall that M.J. was actually the third human host of the show, which was originally called “Ranger Charlie” when it premiered on the longtime Tacoma TV station in the late 1980s, and which then became “Ranger Charlie and Rosco.”

That KSTW made the move to create a new local kids’ show in that era – with its satellite feeds of syndicated programs and ubiquitous toy-driven cartoon franchises – seems like a counterintuitive throwback. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to learn that credit for making it happen, says Winslow Barger, goes to legendary KSTW kids’ TV show host “Brakeman Bill” McLain, host of a kids’ show on KSTW from 1955 to 1975, and later head of promotions for the station.

“He kicked it off for us and was behind it starting,” Barger told KIRO Radio.

Barger also says that before there was “Ronnie” – that name, by the way, was inspired by Barger’s childhood friend, Ron Jensen – there were two different performers who portrayed Ranger Charlie at KSTW.

“There was Charlie Bird, and then Robin Nicholson, or Robin Lee Noll now,” Barger said. “And they were both great to work with. That’s something I was very lucky about – every co-host I had was wonderful to work.”

When Charlie #2 Robin Lee Noll left, Rosco T. Raccoon – with assistance from Barger — helped find a replacement, and reworked the format and name of the show.

“We were pretty successful up to that point, so it was kind of a big deal” to find a new human host, says Barger. “We probably auditioned at least close to 50 people, I think, for it. [M.J.] ended up getting the position. She blew us away. She was very funny.”

“It was kind of an easy choice,” Barger said.

Like so many thousands of people who grew up in the Puget Sound area in the late 20th century, Barger grew up watching J.P. Patches on KIRO TV, and the many YouTube clips of “Rosco and Ronnie” reveal a good amount of “JP DNA.” Rosco and Ronnie showed cartoons and performed slapstick stunts and skits involving members of the young audience gathered in front of the ranger station, and prior to M.J. joining the show, the unseen delivery person who became Ronnie was inspired, says Barger, by Bob Newman’s “Miss Smith’s Delivery Service,” as seen on the Patches program.

But, as had also happened a generation earlier, television rules changed in the early 1990s and forced many programs to shift gears. Rosco and Ronnie adapted, dropping the live audience and morphing into producing public service announcements and educational bits about topics such as famous people in history. Production of the show ended in 1995.

It was not long after that when M.J. – which stands for “Mary Jean” – enrolled at the UW to study weather. She was born in Florida, and grew up in many places as an Air Force brat, but always loved science and wanted to be an astronaut. In her first time around at college, M.J. studied theatre at the University of Maryland.

As she was finishing up her meteorology studies at the UW in 2000, M.J. got a TV job doing weekend weather for Northwest Cable News and KING 5.

“And then, the news director there, Bill Kazarba, came over to Q13,” McDermott said. “And because I wasn’t full time on contract at Northwest Cable News/KING 5, he said, ‘Do you want to come over to Q13?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’”

“And so I started here doing weekends in January of 2003,” McDermott said. “Wow. It’s a long time!”

And M.J. says during that “long time,” morning TV weather has been all about three or four basic things.

“Number one, I want to make sure people are safe if there’s dangerous weather, and number two, how to make sure people are just prepared for their day,” McDermott said. “If it’s going to rain, I want you to go out with your jacket with the hood. I want you to be prepared, and I want kids to be prepared as they go off to school. I want people to know if the roads are icy or [if there’s] fog, they need … to be reminded to slow down and use your low beams.”

Rain or shine, McDermott is now 62, and is not fond of getting up early in the morning and doing all the hair, makeup, and wardrobe necessary for TV. She’s not ready to slow down much, but she is ready for a different sleep schedule.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t things M.J. is going to miss about working the early shift at Channel 13.

“Strangely enough, I actually am going to miss seeing the early, early morning sky,” McDermott said. “I like going out when I get up in the morning to look at the sky and the weather, and I like the early, early mornings – but not that early.”

How early is “early” for M.J. McDermott?

“When a viewer asked me what time I get up and I said, ‘2:15,’ he goes, ‘Oh, that’s almost yesterday,’” McDermott said, laughing. “[I said], ‘You know, you’re right. It’s not even today.”

McDermott is respected and admired by the other meteorologists she’s worked with, and by her colleagues on the other stations. Contacted by KIRO Radio, former KING 5 meteorologists Larry Schick and Jeff Renner shared congratulatory messages, as did Kristin Clark of KOMO TV and Nick Allard of KIRO 7.

And while not a trained meteorologist, there was one more former colleague who wanted to congratulate M.J. McDermott.

“Oh, M.J., I just wanted to tell you how excited I am that you’re retiring,” said Rosco T. Raccoon by phone earlier this week. “And it’s gonna be really fun, too, because all you have to do is sit around and eat liver pizza all day and you don’t have to do nothin’. And you can get that husband of yours to take care of manicuring your feet and all those kinds of things. If you want to come visit me at the ranger station, come by any time, OK? Love ya! Good luck on that retirement thing.”

Though she’ll be officially retired as of Thursday morning, M.J. won’t be hitting the golf course or becoming a habitué of the senior center any time soon. Her next project is a musical that she’s been working on based on a children’s book she published a few years ago. The story is about where Frankenstein really went at the end of Mary Shelley’s novel when he disappears in the frozen reaches of the Arctic, not far from the North Pole. She’s working with a composer and they’ve recorded a number songs for a show to be called, like McDermott’s earlier book, Frankenstein Meets Santa.

Meanwhile, M.J.’s replacement working mornings at Channel 13 is Brian MacMillan, who she has been training during her final days at the station. As far as anyone knows, MacMillan, who most recently worked as a meteorologist in Portland, Oregon, never starred in a children’s TV show.

But if he did, we’ll have the story here on KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest a few decades from now when MacMillan retires.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Beloved kids’ show host turned meteorologist M.J. McDermott hangs up her barometer