Fame: Hurricane Schwartz

You think Hurricane Schwartz is a celebrity now? Just wait till his steamy new novel comes out (yes, steamy).

They were tall and short, fat and thin, old and young. They wore army fatigues and crisp suits and rhinestone-encrusted t-shirts that read “Queen Bitch” tight against prepubescent chests. They came from Russia and the Dominican Republic and the Main Line, by train, by car, on foot; by wheelchair, by walker, escorted by interpreters from the School for the Deaf. On a Sunday afternoon, they braved the record rainfall and 45-mile-an-hour winds of a nor’easter to stand under the sallow fluorescent lights in the faintly chemical-smelling air of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, just for a few moments with him.

“Who is this?” At the head of the receiving line, a petite mother with light-brown hair jiggled a toddler, who shyly inserted his fist in his mouth. “Do you know who this is?” she prodded. The boy nodded. He seemed dazed. A small stream of drool dripped languorously onto the collar of his tiny polo shirt. “It’s the Hurricane,” she said.

The man they had come to see, NBC 10 weatherman Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, who was clad in a similar shirt — although his was drool-free and embroidered with a bow tie in red and blue, the bow tie being his signature look — leaned over the booth and posed for a picture with mother and son. Then, his arm still aching from recent surgery on his rotator cuff, he scrawled a cheerful signature on a black-and-white head shot and turned to the line of mostly adults awaiting their turn with the man who was clearly the most popular NBC personality at the station’s annual Fit Fest. One by one, they paid homage, and made offerings and requests.

“HurriCANE! My man. How about this weather?” asked a Glaxo employee whose name tag read “Jamaal.”

“I’m a costume designer. I’m going to send you some bow ties, okay?”

“She wants to know, what happened to your arm?”

A Middle European accent, sultry: “You are my fahvoreet star. I luf you.”

When the queue got held up, as it often did when someone spent more than a passing moment with fellow NBC 10’er Doug Kammerer, who sat to his left, Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz pre-autographed more head shots, so the people at the far end of the line wouldn’t have to go home empty-handed when he ducked out to have lunch with his nieces.

“Just a couple more snow days next year for the teachers, okay, Hurricane?” a middle-aged blonde pleaded. “My mother is a teacher, and they have a shrine to you in her classroom. They have a Snow Club, and they worship Hurricane Schwartz.”

IT SOUNDS ABSURD, but “worship” is actually an apt description of what was in the air surrounding the NBC 10 booth at Fit Fest. The culture as a whole is enamored with fame; we’re so lousy with celebrities that practically anyone can stand in a booth and a line of autograph-seekers will form in front of him like lemmings ready to go off the cliff. But at Fit Fest, the lemmings were there for a reason. The people sitting in the NBC 10 booth weren’t flash-in-the-pan reality stars or pop stars — they were our people.

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 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.

As one might imagine, these were not the preferred after-school activities of his peers, who saw him, one former classmate says, as a “geek.” Nor was there much empathy for his bond with nature in the grown-up world. “Adults acted like it was something strange,” says Schwartz. “But when you have that kind of love of weather as a child, it’s a gift.”

Schwartz stayed the course: His Central High School yearbook prediction is “meteorologist”; when a hurricane prevented him from making it to his Penn State graduation, it seemed like divine intervention. But love of weather and model good looks don’t necessarily come hand-in-hand, and as television news was becoming more about looks and personality and less about skill, Schwartz, a five-foot-six bespectacled nerd with a strong Philly accent, was having a hard time fitting in. The Albert Brooks character in Broadcast News would have empathized with his early work: There he is during Hurricane Elena, hunched around the microphone, a baseball cap pulled down over his thick, black-framed glasses, his small body being buffeted by 100-mile-an-hour winds. (Hence the nickname “Hurricane.”) Several times, he was fired — from stations in Cincinnati, New York and Raleigh — for, he says, “not being pretty enough.”

It wasn’t until NBC 10 executive Steve Doerr — the self-same producer who would, years later, encourage former Philly anchor Sharon Reed to pose in a nude group photo shoot in Cleveland during sweeps week — called in 1995 to offer him a job that he was able to embrace his nerdiness. “We’ve got this guy up here, John Bolaris,” Schwartz recalls Doerr saying. “He wears these $2,000 suits, he’s so good-looking he could be on the cover of GQ, all the women love him.” Pause. “I see you as the anti-Bolaris.” Schwartz giggles again.

Schwartz became George to Bolaris’s Jerry — literally, in the Seinfeld-themed commercials the station ran to promote the duo. Playing the clown came naturally to him; it was something he learned he could do in the fifth or sixth grade, when he tripped and fell on his face in the school auditorium during an assembly. “Five hundred kids laughed,” he says, leaning forward in the booth at Chops, “and I liked it.” His zest for humiliation notwithstanding, the memory of having been misunderstood as a child and undervalued as an adult seems to have instilled in him a desire for redress. Project H.O.P.E.S., for instance, a club he founded for minority children, seeks to lessen the stigma of being a “weather nerd” by bringing kids who have a passion for weather together with like-minded souls. “Other kids might tease us about it,” he says of his group, with whom he meets once a month, “but we have each other. And there are thousands of us out there.”

When Bolaris fled to New York in 2001, it seemed for a while that Schwartz, who was promoted to replace him, might soon go the way of Jason Alexander. Instead, he has come into his own. He’s beloved by his audience, and with global warming on the international radar, he has carved out a respectable place for himself as the local go-to person for talks about climate change.

And now, of course, there’s the novel.

THE WEATHERMAKER — THE CONCEPT for which Hurricane says came to him fully formed one night shortly before he separated from Wynette — is being shopped to publishing houses as a “thriller featuring tornadoes, hurricanes and floods all over the planet, a romance between a classically handsome TV personality and a famous actress, and a story of personal, ethical and moral conflicts.” In the first installment of what Schwartz says will be a four-part series, a handsome young Philadelphia meteorologist named Neil Stephenson discovers he has the ability to control the weather. One of his early acts is to bring snow to Philadelphia to save his station, USB 8, from embarrassment after a storm it has hyped appears to be moving away.

It’s tempting to imagine Schwartz as the hero of his own wish-fulfillment saga, a kind of Walter Mitty of meteorology whose innermost fantasies are about controlling the elements. Schwartz says this isn’t the case, and that Neil is actually based partly on his younger co-star and station-buddy Doug Kammerer, who has lately taken over the station’s role of resident hot guy. Schwartz says he himself is more like Phil, the older meteorologist in the book. A reading of a few chapters bears this out.

Phil shook his head. “I was wondering what took her so long. I can’t believe all the women who are after you. You can have anyone you want. I wonder what it would be like.”

Neil looked pleased, but surprised. “It wasn’t always like this. Sure, there would be girls who would flirt with me at parties or bars, but now that I’m on TV, it’s gotten crazy. I get several pictures each year from women who are totally naked and spread-eagled, with attached notes saying ‘Come get it anytime.’ Hot women just come up to me at these bars and rub into me, grab my ass, whisper or lick my ear, and directly proposition me. Some of them even put their hands down my pants and grab my package. Others put their hands down their own pants and say, ‘This could be you.’ I love this attention, and I have certainly taken more than a few of these girls up on their offers, but I’d never want to marry one of them. I prefer the ones who are shy and need some coaxing, and they hardly exist anymore.”

But as his power increases, Neil’s ego increases, which some suggest is a real-life parallel to Schwartz. “He’s become incredibly egotistical,” says one NBC 10 employee who asks not to be named. “Like whenever there’s weather, he thinks the show should revolve around him.”

According to the employee, Schwartz has lately become a bit of a newsroom diva, someone who condescends to producers and his fellow employees. Last year, he made the papers when he shamed Vince DeMentri during a live broadcast for standing waist-deep in floodwaters, which Schwartz said was dangerous. DeMentri was livid at being interrupted, and the two nearly came to blows in the newsroom. Schwartz titters uncomfortably when asked about the incident. “It was an unfortunate misunderstanding,” he says. “Vince and I get along well.” Spoken like a true celebrity.

But that Hurricane in a teapot was followed by a larger one. In December, the Inquirer ran an item alleging that Schwartz was refusing to mention Christmas on the air. “There was a shot from our helicopter showing all the holiday lights on the houses lit up,” says one NBC colleague. “And he was supposed to say something like, ‘This is lit up so well, Santa should have no trouble finding your house this year!’” According to the source, Schwartz refused to say the line. Being Jewish, he said, and furthermore a scientist, he did not want to acknowledge Santa Claus in his broadcast.

News of Schwartz’s Santa-denial broke, and sent viewers into a frenzy. According to an NBC source, the station was inundated with e-mails and calls demanding the weatherman’s resignation, and Schwartz was directed by his bosses to read an on-air statement in which he called the Inquirer item “absolutely untrue,” signing off, “Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous Kwanzaa!”

Schwartz says he was never directed to read anything, and adds, “It was all misunderstanding. It was exaggerated.”

“A bald-faced lie,” says the NBC source. “What you read in the paper was true.”

Prior to these incidents, Schwartz had been nothing but a friend to the print media. “I have never dealt with anybody so eager to have their divorce written about,” says Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross, who led a September column with the headline, “The forecast is divorce for NBC 10 meteorologist Glenn ‘Hurricane’ Schwartz.” “Usually you have to beat someone over the head to get that information.” Under the impression he was getting an exclusive, Gross had asked Schwartz if he was planning on speaking to any other media outlets. “The next day,” Gross says, “two other papers also reported his split and quoted from a ‘statement’ released by Glenn. The guy’s issuing a press release about his divorce. You really don’t see that shit ever. I asked him if he planned to become a pussy-magnet like John Bolaris and he joked it off, but I wonder if that’s what he was trying to do. To let women know he’s out there swinging.”

Schwartz is dating now — since he’s such a recognizable personality, he tends to rely on being set up by friends — but he met his one true love a long time ago. “I will love the weather until the day I die,” he says.

THE DINNER FOR THE FREEMASONS LODGE at Colleen’s on the Parkway is a lavish affair, with a seafood buffet and a canopy decorated with white tulle and flickering strobe lights arching over a parquet dance floor. Schwartz, tonight’s guest speaker, sits on a dais next to the podium, where the Worshipful Master of the Lodge, clad in a suit and tails, is presenting an accountant with a crystal statue in front of a crowd of mostly senior citizens.

Once introduced, Schwartz opens by telling the audience a little bit about himself (“I see you as the anti-Bolaris!”), then segues into his global-warming speech. Afterward, he sits down to eat, and the waitress flutters her hand on his pinstriped shoulder. The weatherman turns around. “Before you eat, can I just ask you one question really quick?” she says nervously. “My family’s gone on a cruise to Puerto Rico, and with this nor’easter and everything, and I haven’t heard from them, I’m just a little bit worried? And I want to make sure they’ll be safe?”

“It’ll be choppy,” he says. With his salmon cooling beside him, he elaborates, stressing that all will be well. “But they might not want to go on a cruise again anytime soon!” he finishes, giggling. They waitress thanks him profusely, and as she walks away, there’s a little less tension in her posture. If Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz told her it was going to be okay, then it was.

It’s a touching moment, and it makes you wonder if Hurricane Schwartz’s celebrity isn’t as closely related to the silly, shallow stuff he’s wrapped up in — the bow tie, the gossip columns, the ridiculous publicist — as it is to a somewhat purer form of celebrity, the real kind, the original kind. He’s the guy in the city, or the village, or the collection of caves, who knows about the way the Earth works — the guy the regular people trust to inform, direct and comfort them.

In the midst of Fit Fest’s madness, back at the Convention Center, a family had approached the NBC 10 booth. With them was a frail, elderly woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank strapped to it. Tubes were snaking into her nose. “Every night I watch you,” she said quietly to Schwartz and Doug Kammerer, who were chatting amiably with her daughter and couldn’t hear her over the noise. “You do that little wave at the end, and I wave back every night.” She lifted her hand, so thin and white it looked transparent, and imitated a neat sign-off arc. “Every night I do it,” she said again, as her daughter wheeled her away. She’ll wave back to them tonight, maybe for many more nights, until one night, when she won’t anymore. But the weathermen will continue waving, and someone who needs them will always be watching.

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