Sally Jesse Raphael is an American talk show host born on February 25, 1935 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Raphael studied broadcasting and acting while in college. She began as a correspondent in Puerto Rico before working in the U.S. in radio and TV during the 1960s and '70s. Raphael debuted as the host of Sally Jesse Raphael in 1983. Recognized by her trademark red frame glasses, the show became a hit and aired until 2002. Since then Raphael has hosted shows on the internet and radio.
Talk show host Sally Lowenthal was born on February 25, 1935, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Her father was a prosperous business executive, who Sally claims was “the last of the men who wore Dunhill suits and silk ties,” and her mother was an artist whose paintings still hang in city museums. Raphael grew up in Westchester County, New York, until she was 12. The family then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where her father owned a rum-exporting company. Raphael had a very privileged upbringing, but after her family moved back to the U.S. in the 1950s, her father developed a heart condition, and the medical bills eventually drained the family’s finances.
Enchanted by radio, she landed a job reading the junior high school news on WFAS-AM in White Plains, New York, at the age of 14. After high school, she got a broadcasting degree at Columbia University, then took a turn towards acting at The Actor’s Studio, where she studied with Lee Strasberg. At 18, she married and moved to San Juan with her new husband, Andrew Vladimir; they had two daughters, Allison and Andrea. Soon after, Raphael began her roller-coaster career in broadcasting that would eventually take her through more than 24 cities. She found Puerto Rico to be a fertile starting point because “they let me do everything…I was the girl reporter, standing in front of the burning buildings. I was the morning man, doing comedy, weather, and news for WHOA above a garage.” She also served as a correspondent for the Associated Press, hosted a cooking/chatting show in “Spanglish,” and eventually scored her own talk show at the poolside of a posh hotel. While starting out in broadcasting in Puerto Rico, she decided to change her name, taking her father's first name, Jessy, and her mother's maiden name, Raphael, because, as she told People magazine in 1992, "most people in Puerto Rico have three names."
Aspiring Talkshow Host
After her first marriage ended in the late '60s, Raphael left Puerto Rico with her two daughters, a foster son and her new companion, Karl Soderlund, who had become her manager and greatest supporter. They first settled in Miami, but eventually headed north, traveling town-to-town in search of broadcasting work—living meagerly, and often sleeping in the car. She accepted a variety of broadcasting assignments, including a few stints as a rock-‘n’-roll disk jockey and hosting a television puppet show. However, Raphael failed to find steady employment and was fired over eighteen times during this period. Raphael reflects on this time, “I was not so blessed, but I was stubborn . . . and I didn’t know how to do anything else!”
In 1969, Raphael finally landed a secure position, anchoring a morning television show and an afternoon radio program in Miami. She held the job until 1974, and in 1976 moved to New York City, where she co-hosted a morning radio talk show with Barry Farber. Five years later, Raphael grabbed the attention of Maurice Tunick, producer of Talknet--NBCs syndicated package of nighttime radio call-in shows. He decided to test her on a one-hour trial run on WRC in Washington, D.C. Raphael’s warm and personal take on the forum bowled him over and she secured a job that would establish her as the American public’s favorite neighbor they never had. For three hours every weeknight, Raphael broadcast live from Rockefeller center, taking cold-calls. She was a trustworthy confidant on national radio, expertly bridging private and public spheres with her caring, but professional manner.
In 1983, Raphael substituted for a television talk-show host in Cincinnati, Ohio and was spotted by Burt Dubrow of Multimedia Entertainment--producer of Donahue. Immediately impressed with Raphael’s easy rapport with the audience, Dubrow offered her a half-hour daytime show to be broadcast in St. Louis, Missouri. Sally Jessy Raphael debuted on October 17, 1983 to overwhelming public favor and, after only six months, was offered for national syndication. By 1989, over 170 U.S. stations were carrying the show, which also aired in Canada and the United Kingdom. Raphael lived in New York, but commuted to St. Louis to tape five shows in three days and she simultaneously continued to broadcast her radio talk show for Talknet. With her manic schedule and over seventeen and one-half hours of TV and radio time a week, Raphael had more airtime than any other woman in broadcasting.
Just when Raphael’s career was at its peak, and she could finally begin to enjoy her success, tragedy struck her family. In the winter of 1992, her 19-year-old adopted son, J.J., was in a serious automobile accident. J.J. remained in a coma for three weeks and just as he emerged, Raphael and Soderlund received word from their executive producer, Burt Dubrow, that Raphael’s eldest daughter, Allison, had died of respiratory arrest, induced by a combination of alcohol and legally prescribed back pain medication. Raphael was traumatized and immediately cancelled the taping of her show for an indefinite period. She had enjoyed a very close, but challenging, relationship with Allison, who always struggled to live up to what she believed were her mother’s expectations. Raphael later told People magazine, ''There's no solace, no comfort. There is going to be an ache as long as my body is alive.''
In 1997, Multimedia Entertainment moved Sally Jessy Raphael to New Haven, Connecticut, then eventually to Unitel Studios in New York City, which made Raphael’s life a lot easier. She also began broadcasting her weekly three-hour radio show from the New York studio of ABC Talkradio in 1988. On both programs Raphael delved more deeply into the subjects that concerned her personally: domestic violence, childcare, and problems confronting working mothers. She continued to take an open and liberal approach to abortion, premarital sex, and homosexuality and showcased opinions that made it into the darkest corners of the Bible Belt. When approached on the topic of her determination to expose America’s most controversial issues, Raphael responds, “I hate that Hallmark greeting-card vision of America…If people can accept me, I’ll sure accept them.”
Raphael has received some major criticisms for her morally marginal work on Sally Jessy Raphael, and although she has no illusions about the show being, first and foremost, “popular entertainment,” she believes she has also helped people. If nothing else, the show exposes problems and social taboos that were never before discussed. Raphael once called her show, “a modern-day morality play which often serves as a wake-up call for guests who are on the wrong track.” After 19 years on the air, Sally Jessy Raphael ended its run in 2002. She went on to host an Internet radio show, which she broadcast from upstate New York. The program was a family affair—her second husband Karl Soderlund and her daughter Andrea worked on the show.
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