Sixty years ago, on May 1, 1957, the man who would be King was born in a small booth in a Miami Beach radio station.
Moments before Larry Zeiger was to deliver his first radio broadcast for WAHR (now gospel station WMBM 1490 AM), the station’s general manager told the eager 23-year-old gofer that his name was too ethnic and would be difficult to remember. Zeiger, who had dreamed of a career in radio and who arrived from New York with $13 in his pocket, eyed a copy of the Miami Herald. He saw an ad for King’s Wholesale Liquor.
King. Larry King. The name stuck.
Sixty years later, King, now 83, is famous for conducting more than 50,000 radio and television interviews. He has talked to U.S. presidents (every one since Richard Nixon), world leaders including Yasser Arafat and King Hussein, and such celebrities as Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and LeBron James. He currently hosts the internet interview program “Larry King Now.”
Now, he feels, is a good time to come back to where it all started, where King rose to national prominence while confronting personal demons that almost destroyed him.
“I have a special place in my heart for Miami, and I’m still a Dolphins fan,” he said. “I’ve been out of Miami for 40 years and had a great time there. Began my career there.”
King visited Miami from his Los Angeles home base for four days in early April to film several interview segments for his digital program from the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. He came, too, to celebrate his 60th anniversary in broadcasting by revisiting his old South Florida hangouts.
The interviews, with Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh, and Enrique Santos, chairman and chief creative officer for iHeart Latino radio, will begin to air with Bosh’s segment at 2 p.m. Monday and Santos’ on May 15 on the Larry King Now digital channel and Hulu.
King’s ability to think fast on his feet developed two weeks after he went on the air at WAHR when he had to apologize to a barrage of irritated callers. Earning $55 a week to act as DJ and read news and sports reports, King was seduced off the airwaves by a lustful listener who cajoled him to her house 12 blocks from the station. Because he worked alone in the studio, he figured he could put a Harry Belafonte record on the air and make it back to the mic before the music stopped in 33 minutes. He didn’t count on the needle getting stuck in the groove just as the two fell into an embrace at her place.
Job perks aside, three more years would pass before King’s new surname would reflect his status in Miami’s media empire. The unlikely setting: a booth at Pumpernik’s on Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue near the Fontainebleau.
There, amid the knishes, chicken croquettes and baked goods at the defunct restaurant chain, King, now working for WIOD 610 AM, conducted his first celebrity interview in 1960. The lessons learned from that initial spontaneous chat with “Beyond the Sea” crooner Bobby Darin served King for the rest of his career.
For WIOD, where he’d last on and off until he left Miami for Washington, D.C., in 1978, the station had him broadcast from Pumpernik’s, the “Surfside 6” houseboat that was moored across the street from the Fontainebleau off Collins Avenue and at the station on the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village. No matter the location, King interviewed anyone and everyone: President Nixon, Jimmy Hoffa, Don Rickles, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra.
“They pay me to get an education,” King said from his ocean-view room at the Loews. “That’s a model of mine: ask short questions, listen to the answer, follow up. It started at Pumpernik’s when I was a DJ. One day Bobby Darin walked in. That’s the way I started. Bobby Darin. Jimmy Hoffa. We didn’t book them. I couldn’t prepare for them. I didn’t know they were coming. It was from the seat of my pants, and I love the whole idea of asking questions and getting answers.”
His practice hasn’t changed. “I’m always, ‘Why?’ I don’t have an agenda. I don’t assume the answer. I don’t know the answer. I have a motto that’s been with me all my life. I never learned anything when I was talking. Listening is as important.”
Three days before his friend Rickles died at 90 on April 6, King seemed wistful. “I tell you, I love comedy. . . . I love standing on a stage and making people laugh. If I was starting out now I might be a comic,” King said. “They used to call me Zeke. They’d call me Zeke the mouthpiece.”
But “why” was always King’s favorite word.
“You can track it to my youth,” King said. “When I was 9, I was the kid who asked the bus driver, ‘Why do you want to drive the bus?’ It’s insatiable. Affects my whole life. ‘What did you play?’ ‘What was the score?’ Every day is learning. I’m 83 now, and it keeps me young. I’ve had a 60-year education. I never went to college. I was poor. Miami gave me a break.”
Now, for the Return of the King, his guests are not unlike the magi as they bring unto him gifts on the set: size 14 1/2 red and black Nikes from Bosh; a 1920s Underwood typewriter from Santos.
“I still have goosebumps,” Santos said. “This is someone I’ve admired all my life as a broadcaster. He started in Miami as a broadcaster, same as I. So to be interviewed by the king of media, someone who has always kept a step ahead and done things right — be it radio, TV and now in his new venture on the internet — is mind boggling. God bless him, 83 years old and still going, so sharp.”
Adds Bosh, who was sidelined this year due to blood clots: “He’s an obvious figure with big interviews and interviewing people at crucial times. It’s memorable for me. I always watched TV as a kid. I’ve been able to do all these cool things in my life, so this is definitely up there. When he reached out, it wasn’t anything to think about. I decided to jump in.”
To watch King tape his segments while seated at a table inside the hotel, with an old-fashioned tube mic sitting between host and guest as a prop, is to be transported back to Pumpernik’s. This must have been what it was like 60 years ago.
“I’m doing what I always did, just delivering it differently,” said King, who still uses a flip phone. “It was delivered with radio wire and satellite and now the internet but I’m asking questions and receiving answers.”
As King tools around town with a driver, he marvels at Miami’s changing skyline. “I’m amazed by all the buildings. My God, look at those!” His head swivels in the back seat as the car slides through Biscayne Boulevard traffic. “Of course, Miami Beach has grown so much.”
So much is familiar, too — many of the thoroughfares, a gas station here or there, hotel row on Collins Avenue, the Freedom Tower and the Torch of Friendship monument on Biscayne. Joe’s. The feel of the place.
“It was all so loose and open. Nothing seemed permanent. Tourists and girls. And it was easy. Anything goes. Miami is the only place Lenny Bruce never got arrested. We accepted. It was very free, open, liberal. It was a terrific place. Then the Cubans came in, and they actually improved the city,” King said. “They say you can’t go home again, well, you can.”
Back then, at the height of his local fame, King simultaneously worked in every media format: radio, television and print. In 1965, Miami Herald publisher John S. Knight hired King to write a column. “He used to go on my TV show. Very conservative,” King said. “I would deliver my old column to the Herald building on the causeway. Those were great days. I was on WTVJ, the No. 1 TV station. WIOD, the No.1 radio station, and the Miami Herald was the No. 1 newspaper. I was on all three and making speeches and running around Miami. I paid more attention to my work than home. Work became home.”
That lifestyle led to disaster. In December 1971, King was arrested for grand larceny. Financier Louis Wolfson, who had been convicted in 1967 of conspiracy and illegal stock sales, accused his former friend of ripping off $5,000 in a deal involving Jim Garrison, the New Orleans prosecutor who was conducting a conspiracy investigation on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Although the larceny charges against King were dropped due to statute of limitations, he was fired from WIOD, where he did color commentary for the Miami Dolphins during the team’s 1970 and ’71 seasons, and WTVJ. He had already lost his Herald column in 1970 when then-managing editor Larry Jinks became uncomfortable with some of the people King plugged in his columns.
King was later charged with passing bad checks, put on probation and struggled to find work for a couple years. By the mid-1970s, he rebounded. WIOD took him back. WPLG, the local ABC affiliate, hired him. The Miami News gave him a column.
By the time he left in 1978, King was bigger than ever. The Mutual Broadcasting System gave King a national nightly interview and talk show that aired locally on WIOD and later on WGBS, along with 240 other stations to an audience of four million listeners.
The Herald’s former Tropic Sunday magazine called King “the hottest radio property in the country” in a 1981 cover story. Four years later, “Larry King Live” bowed on CNN and for the next 25 years he was the most sought-after interviewer in the country.
Still, when King left Miami for Washington he left behind $332,186 in debt. He’d resisted declaring bankruptcy while in Miami but filed in Virginia in February 1979.
“I had to be a big man to prove to myself I was a big man. I was on a colossal ego trip,” King told the Herald in 1981.
Moments after he finished the Bosh interview, King expressed regret. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “The whole Lou Wolfson episode. Garrison. Getting involved in all that thing. I wish I had not been involved in that.”
Today, controversy centers on the distribution of “Larry King Now.” In March 2012, King and Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim co-founded Ora TV, the production company that airs “Larry King Live” and “Politicking with Larry King” and other programs on its website and the digital Hulu TV.
In 2013, RT (formerly Russia Today), a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government, licensed content from Ora TV, including King’s programs. Critics suggested that King was on Russia’s payroll.
“RT has no control over my programs, period. None at all,” King said. “Ora Media, in which I have part ownership, is solely responsible for each program I do and none of my producers or production team is employed by RT. RT is one of several dozen companies who license my programs for distribution around the world. That’s really all there is to it. I do my program, and it gets sent to licensees and they, in turn, broadcast it or stream it.”
King’s greater concerns now are more personal: His last decade.
“The biggest problem I have is short-term memory loss.” He repeats the line twice for comic effect. But his smile also fades.
The old work sites King hoped to visit in Miami are all gone. WIOD, for instance, is now a part of the iHeart Media conglomerate, and its studios are in Miramar. “Sad,” King said with a frown as he tugged on the door of the station’s shuttered building on North Bay Village.
“Everyone I worked with on the air is dead. I outlived them all,” he said wistfully. “This still amazes me that I’m 60 years in the business where I started here — seven decades. I can’t believe I’m 83. When I was a kid no one was 80. I never knew anybody 80. When I was a kid, 60, you were pretty old. I’ve had heart surgery, prostate cancer, Type 2 diabetes. The two things I’ve never had that everybody my age has had is a backache. And I never had a bad headache. Had everything else.”
King jokes that a doctor recently told him he had the goods to make it to 90. But that’s just seven years away.
“The time. Where the f--- did it go? I don’t know. I’m lucky. I love the whole give and take. I love dinner conversations. I love TV and radio and love to read print. Fascinated by it all. I don’t want to die, to not exist. If I die, what’s going to happen with Trump? Who’s going to win the World Series? What will happen in the NBA? I’m a rabid sports fan. I go to a movie, I don’t know how it’s going to come out. Where is this all going? It’s all fascinating.”
For more on King click on MiamiHerald.com/Entertainment.
The wit and wisdom of Larry King
On smoking: “My only regret was the day I started smoking. I was 17. If I had one day in my life to get back I would take that day. From the age of 17 to 53, when I had a heart attack 30 years ago and I had to have bypass surgery, later that year I never smoked again. My daughter drove me back from the hospital and in my jacket pocket was the cigarettes I had smoked on the way to the hospital. I threw it into the Potomac and never reached for another one. I liked smoking. I liked smoking before sex. I liked smoking during sex. I liked it when I was on the phone. I liked it when I wasn’t on the phone. I liked it when I was typing my column. I liked it when I wasn’t typing my column. I had two lit at the same time. I smoked in the shower. I kept it on the soap dish. My daughter Chaia, when she was 9, she said to me, ‘Why do you smoke? Don’t you want to watch me grow up?’ No. The heart attack stopped me.”
On bad interviewers: “I see the dumbest interviews after athletic games when these interviewers ask insipid questions. ‘When did you think you had it won?’ ‘How did it feel to win?’ Terrible! The non question question. That annoys me when I see those kind of things. I used to say you could put me in a locker room after a game and the first five or six minutes you don’t have to tell me what the score was or if the team won or lost. Basketball, baseball, football, hockey, the game is over and I’m in the locker room with coach. I don’t know what the game was. I don’t know what the sport was. I would ask questions like: ‘What surprised you tonight?’ ‘Could you take what happened tonight and use it in the next game?’ ‘How much luck was involved?’ I still don’t know if he won or lost and all of these are curious questions that can be answered without my knowing. Now, if I’ve seen the event, my God, the questions should be endless. ‘Why did you throw that pass?’
On athletes: “I like athletic competition because there’s a final score. Most of us in life don’t get a final score. You die, that’s your final score. Team A, 6. Team B, 5. That’s their final score. I won’t have a final score today. I can have some interviews better than others but I don’t have a winning and a losing. Athletes get their answer. I respect the athlete. Another thing I respect about the athlete, their careers end as most careers begin. If you’re 38, you’re old. If you’re 38 in life, that’s young. I have no athletic ability. I was manager of my high school basketball team. I ran the scoreboard.”
On meeting mobsters: “Meyer Lansky lived in a house up in Hollywood and used to come to the Fontainebleau a lot. Little Jewish guy who invented Murder Inc. here. So I said to him, ‘Can I interview you?’ he said, ‘I’m a simple businessman, what can we talk about?’ First time I met him I was at The Forge having dinner on a date and he comes in with Jimmy Blue Eyes [Vincent Alo]. They’re sitting over there and the maître d' says, ‘That’s Meyer Lansky. I’m saying, ‘Jesus!’ He was a legend. The only man extradited from Israel, the only Jew. He came back and was found not guilty. I’m sitting there and he tugs my sleeve. Meyer Lansky is tugging my sleeve and I lean over and he says to me, ‘You making a living?’
On modern means of communication. “I don’t text. I believe in the human voice. I like the back and forth and communicating verbally. I love the whole idea of touching people and it all started down there in Miami.”
On dressing for Miami Beach: “What did I wear? Clothes. I wore pants and shirts and rarely wore jackets. I wasn’t big on shorts. Another thing everyone wore that I never liked, short sleeves. I always liked something over my elbows.”
On working for a living: “I haven’t worked in 60 years. It’s not work. The last time I worked was United Parcel Service, helping our truck driver who delivered all the packages for New York department stores. I’ve never worked. The bitch part of this is I speak all over. I was just speaking in Norway, speaking to Stephen Hawking. He had a conference and invited me to moderate the panel. I’ve been speaking in London. In Israel. I don’t like flying there. I wish I could appear. Once I appear and once the light goes on and once I’m on stage I love telling stories. I love comedy. I love communicating.”
On opening Dadeland: “I would emcee the opening of Dadeland and the opening of new movie theaters. I was like Mr. Miami. We were laughing. Who’s going to go there? It’s way south. Now it’s the center. It was outdoors, wasn’t enclosed.”
On loving hurricanes: “I was on the air all by myself [on WIOD] for the hurricane that turned around, was 1960 something. I had one engineer with me. We were the only station with a generator so you either listened to us or heard nothing. So I was a riot. For example, I was a big smoker. I had no cigarettes so I broke the cigarette machine on the air. Me and the engineer pushed the machine over and we got our cigarettes and we got candy because there was no food. I wanted to do it on the air so we’d involve the audience. I was so crazy. I would take the mic, walk it downstairs and say, ‘I can give you the latest report on the hurricane but why don’t we listen to it?’ I stick my hand out the window. The wind’s going 100 miles-per-hour, all the trees are blowing. Boy, those were some wild days.”
Why Miami worked so well for a young broadcaster: “It was New York South. I had a New York accent. I was here when the Cubans came in. I was on the air on New Year’s morning 1959 and broadcasted that Fidel has marched into Havana. Batista had left. I remember reading that. I remember watching the tanks and military go down Biscayne Boulevard during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Miami was a very interesting city. In the winter so many people came here from New York, Chicago. And all these acts who played the hotels came on my show. We got great guests. The word was if you go to Miami, you go on Larry King and one thing led to another. We had Vic Damone and Bobby Darin and Lena Horne. Did Cosby here. My first Cosby was here. He opened for Peggy Lee at the Americana. Streisand, I didn’t know who she was. We put her on and I whispered to the producer, ‘Just another pretty face.’ She remembers. I interviewed her many times. During that interview she said to me, ‘You don’t know me, Larry King, but you’re going to know me.’”
On interviewing style: “The part I never lost is I keep my ego at the door. I rarely use the word ‘I’ in an interview. The guest counts. I’m going to be there the next day. I want to learn the most I can out of a guest, I’m incredibly curious. You don’t want to sit next to me on an airplane.”