Philadelphia has a fascination with its television personalities, perhaps more so than the citizens of most other cities. While Schwartz was clearly the most popular personality at the NBC 10 booth that day, he isn’t by any means the only local TV personality who gets this kind of treatment. The stars from channels 10, 3, 6, 29 are like our Brat Pack: They’re beamed into our homes; their hobbies and love lives and catfights are dished about in the newspapers and magazines; press releases trumpet them as “celebrity guests” at events; they’re honored with awards grand and obscure.
Of these, it is weather people who seem to hold the populace in particular thrall. And why not? They’re the number one reason people tune in to local news, since the information provided is most relevant to one’s daily life. All over the city, weather personalities join the comforting rhythm of everyday rituals: They’re in the room while a family eats breakfast, reflected in the eyes of a man as he dresses for work, the last faces a lonely woman sees before she goes to bed.
It’s not surprising, then, that viewers might find themselves with an emotional connection to the weather people. Of course, those emotions can change in the time it takes a rainstorm to roll across a summer sky, which is what Philadelphia’s original weatherman-as-celebrity, Schwartz’s predecessor John Bolaris, found out in the winter of 2001 after he spent a week hyping the Storm of the Century — and it failed to appear. The tokens of appreciation he’d grown accustomed to receiving from fans — the lacy underwear, exotic pictures, poems — were supplanted by trinkets of discontent: pages torn from the Bible, anonymous death threats, a beer bottle stuffed with dead crabs. One night at a bar, a man urinated on his leg, snarling, “It doesn’t look like snow.” His only recourse was to flee the city. The incident clearly still haunts him. “People use me to vent their frustrations,” he says, on the phone from his current job at CBS in New York. “I still don’t take full blame for what happened that day. Everyone was bracing. I’m just the one who took the hit. And if anyone would ever look at the tape, what I said was I compared it to the blizzard of ’78, which … ”
Schwartz, according to NBC, gets a lot of fan mail. He has received bow ties made of mink and bow ties carved out of wood. There are letters and photographs and drawings from children, and every month or so, there’s a breathy phone call from a certain woman, the content of which he declines to reveal. “It’s very flattering,” he says, giggling. In the time since he’s taken over Bolaris’s role of Chief Meteorologist, he’s elicited help from viewers on whether or not to shave his mustache (he did) and appeared with his now-ex-wife Wynette onscreen, where she tried to quit smoking permanently (she did not), and his celebrity has grown.
And lately, Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz has done a few things befitting an actual celebrity. In July, he had a publicized run-in with anchor Vince DeMentri. In December, Schwartz made headlines again for reportedly refusing to mention Christmas on the air. And then, one night at 4 a.m., not long before news of his divorce from Wynette hit the papers, Schwartz sat straight up in bed and decided to write a novel.
AS BEFITS A highly coveted celebrity, it takes four months for me to set up a lunch with Hurricane Schwartz. First, there are endless rounds of phone calls and discussions with NBC 10’s publicist, whose attitude is like one whose protectorate is an international commodity such as Brad Pitt, rather than the local weatherman at the second-ranked station. She insists on being present for an interview, and finally, after canceling our first three meetings, has arranged for us all to meet at Chops steakhouse, just down the road from the NBC 10 studios in Bala Cynwyd.
When Schwartz, 55, arrives, he looks like he’s been Queer-Eyed. Who knows whether it’s the divorce or the new condo, or if this is just what he looks like in his off-time, but his still-dark hair is more orderly than when he’s excitedly motioning at the green screen. His glasses are rimless and modern, and the lavender shirt that’s warming his naturally pasty complexion looks expensive. And though he punctuates his sentences with infectious, scratchy little giggles that are almost a parody of dorkiness, he is not wearing a bow tie. Even without it, he’s recognizable; a dull murmur rolled across the room when he came in. “Wearing the bow tie is like wearing a neon sign,” he giggles. “But people do recognize me anyway. I can be on the beach and people will ask me, ‘Where’s the bow tie?’”
Schwartz was not always a wearer of bow ties. Nor was he always so beloved. Before he was famously dorky, he was just a dork. For much of his childhood in Mount Airy, he was alone, scribbling in his weather journal and fiddling with weather instruments he kept outside his bedroom window. At night, he knelt in front of the TV set in the living room of his rowhouse, twisting the dial from network to network, studying the forecasts of local meteorologists.