Mark Russell -
Humorous Thorn in Washington’s Side

by Joseph H. RADDER

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Mark Russell is uniquely successful in making fun of Washington politics and politicians. His Mark Russell Comedy Specials have been on the PBS network for 28 years. The idea originated when Mike Collins, Fred Dentinger and John Hutchinson of WNED-TV caught his show at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington.

Unaware that Mark was born and raised in Buffalo, they asked him if he would be interested in doing a pilot show for PBS. "Sure," he said, "and if we do it in Buffalo I can stack the audience with my relatives." As it turned out, the pilot was taped in the Hotel Statler ballroom, on the 1974 day that President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Unfortunately this news hadn't reached Russell, or hardly anybody else, before the show began, so it wasn't very topical. That's when Mark and the producers decided that, if this show was to work it had to be done live. This concept has proven to be very valuable to the success of the show. "Sometimes news will break at the last minute before the show, and I'll quickly put together a song about it."

At the time, Mark Russell had already been entertaining audiences for nearly fifteen years at the Shoreham Hotel, and he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column, still going strong, and appearing in 80 cities. Before the demise of the Courier-Express, the column appeared in Buffalo, but for some reason, the News has not elected to pick it up. Perhaps, if enough Living Prime Time readers write to the News about this, they'll realize just how popular Mark Russell is in western New York. He also wrote a book some twenty years ago called "Presenting Mark Russell". It's still available in the humor section of many libraries.

Unfortunately for viewers, the Mark Russell Comedy Specials contract has not been renewed for the new year. Too bad, it's one hour of happy talk out of hundreds of hours of bad news. We suggested PBS might repeat some of his shows, or occasionally do "The Best of Mark Russell." Mark indicated that there is a precedent for this in his annual "Best Of" programs aired each year around New Years day.

Mark Russell's Comedy Specials are known world-wide. Indeed he has toured many countries, England, Ireland, France, Italy, and even Siberia, with the Buffalo crew.

Even though he won't be doing the show after this year, there's no thought of retirement. In addition to the newspaper columns, he has a heavy schedule of speaking engagements. He's booked in 32 cities between September and December of 2004.

Mark Russell (Mark Ruslander) was born in Buffalo in 1932. His parents were Marcus Ruslander of Buffalo and Martha Perry from St. Paul, Minnesota. Marcus' father (Mark's grandfather), had been a labor organizer of railroad workers, and was sent here to set up the Buffalo organization. Later he would go into the stove and refrigerator business, specializing in restaurant equipment. This company was called Ruslander and Sons. In time the firm was merged with the Jewett Refrigerator Company and the Jewett name survived. Where Ruslander & Sons had specialized in restaurant equipment, Jewett concentrated on hospitals. It was a natural fit.

Mark has one brother, Dan, who is a musician in Washington DC.

Mark Russell met Alison Kaplan when she was working for NBC. Mark and Ali were married in Washington in 1975.

Mark has two sons , John, who manages a credit Union in Logan,Utah, and Matt, who owns and operates a Public Relations firm in Tuscon, Arizona. His daughter, Monica Welch, has been a lobbyist in Washington for seventeen years. Mark tells a funny story about Monica:

"When she was just an infant," Mark remembers, " I took her to dinner with us at one of my favorite Washington restaurants. A political hack, who was three sheets to the wind, and smoking a big cigar, staggered over to our table to propose a toast to the baby. In so doing, he spilled some of his martini on the baby's forehead. Now, when she talks about the possibility of leaving Washington, I tell her she can't do it because she was baptized with gin by a politician, that she is the quintessential beltway kid. In fact she was a beltway kid before there was a beltway."

Now, the Russells have a big family including seven grandchildren.

We asked Mark about his philosophy of life, and he said "To those who see the glass as half empty, I say get a smaller glass."

Although he's been away from Buffalo for many years, Mark Russell is still very much interested in his home town. "We had a Control Board in Washington," he said, "and it was a disaster". On the subject of Buffalo's leadership, he said "When the mayor starts calling gambling gaming, you know where he stands."

On September 28, Mark Russell was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasters' Hall of Fame. "This was a real honor, " he says. Other awards he has received, and there are many, are not treasured that way. "In fact, I don't even put them on the wall, but have two piles of plaques. You see, a lot of organizations give you an award just to get you to come and give them a speech - free."

Another award of which he is proud, however, was the Theodore Roosevelt Award presented by those Buffalo folks "who genuflect when they pass the Wilcox Mansion" (where Roosevelt was inaugurated as president after McKinley's assassination.)

What did we fail to ask? "What I want on my tombstone," was his witty reply.

"OK, "we said, "what do you want on your tombstone?"

"Racing stripes, and this legend 'He was a comedian and this isn't the first time he died."

Yes, we can be pretty sure that Buffalo's Mark Russell will keep us laughing for many years to come.


Joseph H. Radder, a frequent contributor to Living Prime Time, is author of the book, Young Jesus, the Missing Years. For more information, phone 1-888-280-7715 or visit www.1stbooks.com

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