The Men Who Sold the World

Two men. Father and son. One dead, one living. Both entertainers, choosing different paths in show business to make their mark. The father was Mel Jass, television ad man without peer, best remembered as the host of Matinee Movie and the Wonderful World of Movies with Mel Jass on WTCN Channel 11 (later KARE-11). The son is Daniel Jass, the youngest of Mel’s six children, who has worked as a troubadour and guitarist, on his own as well as for numerous bands, for over thirty years. Like any relationship between two generations of entertainers, theirs had its highs and lows.

Make no mistake, Dan loved and admired the father who blazed a trail across local television in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, shouting out the titles of the movies he was presenting with all the subtlety of burlesque-house barker. The films would be interrupted not by standard commercials, but by pitches from the host, himself, that, in addition to being shot live with no rehearsal, often involved him banging the products with the palm of his hand. Being the most recognizable TV personality in Minnesota, and an unashamedly corny one at that, was both a blessing and a curse for his kids, especially during the times in which they lived in the state he made his empire.

“I wasn’t real happy a lot of those years,” Dan told me at Java Jack’s, where he was to play a Hootenanny with columnist Jim Walsh and several others. “My experience in grade school was kids coming up to me and saying, ‘My mom just hates your dad. He keeps interrupting the movie!’ Even as a little kid I told them, ‘Well, there’s gotta be commercials!’ Even worse, a new friend would take me over to somebody’s house and then tell all their friends who my dad was. It was as if the fact that my name was Dan wasn’t important.”

Dan responded to these slights by devoting his life to the ultimate medium of rebellion — rock-and-roll — first as an acolyte of Elvis and, later on, The Beatles. “I grabbed a guitar at seven and never stopped playing. When I was nine, The Beatles took over my mind, the first time I saw them on Ed Sullivan.” By his late teens, Dan was a professional guitarist for a revolving roster of bands, including The Rudy Lopez Quintet, which gigged every Tuesday at Uncle Sam’s, a fabulous night club that later became a dive called First Avenue. ”I was stickler for doing only originals, and, back in the seventies, it was tough to get gigs unless you played covers. It wasn’t until punk came along that the bands were supposed to play only originals.”

And punk he did with abandon, flailing his ax for crews like The Pooties, Baby-Fit, and Staggerlee. The “Jass Butcher” did mellow out occasionally to take part in Curtiss A’s annual John Lennon tribute, the Cabooze’s yearly Johnny Cash celebration, First Avenue’s Acoustic Garage Sale, Grumpy’s Northeast Folk Festival — and a cable TV show for the fearsome sounding Mr. Smiley. The punk beast could not tamed, though — not even by marriage and fatherhood — and he continued thrashing his way through the nineties as a member of Two Tears.

If the path his youngest child chose didn’t appeal to the Swing Era sensibilities of Mel Jass, Dan’s pursuit of music was not a complete left-turn from family tradition. The elder Jass, himself, performed for amateur bands that played, yes, jazz; and his own father, Fred, was a church organist. As Dan tells me, “When Mel wanted to be an announcer, Fred got really upset. He didn’t want him to be an announcer for the talent, he wanted Mel to be the talent.” The way things turned out, Mel probably became as big a star as his father wanted him to be. His ubiquity came not only from hawking soap, cars, and furniture and MC’ing movies, but also appearing at public events like the Aquatenniel and Winter Carnival. It was on such occasions that he would interview kids for the cameras, asking them what their father (never, mind you, their mother) did for a living. No matter how banal the occupation the kid related, Mel would shout with boundless joy the line for which he is most remembered, “He’s got a good job!”

Jass even added a little Hollywood glamour to his resume by acting in a smattering of network shows when he moved his family out to California in the early sixties to work as an announcer for KTTV. His most prominent role was as a court reporter on an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Dan recalls: “It used to freak us out in the seventies, when (I and my friends) would have hippy parties, and the old Alfred Hitchcock [dad] was on would come on TV. What was really strange was that he delivered his lines in this fake English accent.”

But Melvin Frederick Ferdinand Jass was Minnesotan, born and bred. He, in fact, started his media career in Saint Paul selling newspapers to gangsters-in-hiding, like John Dillinger and Ma Barker — soon leaving that racket behind when he came across a dead body on the street. As an adult, he cut his teeth at the Twin City Television Lab training center, and did announcing for a number of years at WCCO, before moving to his future kingdom of WTCN. It was at this network-free broadcasting center that he found his niche, earning $50-$75,000 a year as a de facto film teacher for those of us forced to grow up in the Pleistocene Epoch before home video. The photo plays our loud, boisterous and apparently broadminded professor unveiled ran the gamut from “HOUSE-OF-WAX!” to “THE-GUNS-OF-NAVARONE!” to, of all things, “LAST-YEAR-ATMARIENBAD!” A personal favorite of mine, which, in tribute to Mel’s ability to outshine his flicks, I remember not for the feature itself but for how he bellowed the title: “THE PAD …. AND-HOW-TO-USE-IT!”

An oft-cited exaggeration about his father that sticks in Dan’s craw was borne by Mel’s two most famous students, St. Louis Park natives and this year’s Oscar giants, Joel and Ethan Coen: “I hate to let the cat out of the bag, because there are so many Coen Brothers interviews where they’re talking about how Mel’s selection of movies guided them into their filmmaking habits. The truth is that WTCN just bought movies in lots of 300. They were the absolute cheapest ones you could find because WTCN was a low-budget independent channel, and Mel’d just show them in the order that they were shipped.”






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