Rich, right, invites local chefs like Rappahannock Oyster Company’s Jean Paul Sabatier to cook and chat on his 30-minute public-access show, “Rich’s Place.”
On a recent episode of “Rich’s Place,” the 30-minute cooking show Rich Massabny has been hosting for decades on Fairfax Public Access, guest Jean Paul Sabatier, general manager of Rappahanock Oyster Company, made an offhand comment about his exotic-sounding name.
“It’s a famous-person name,” he quipped as he whipped up some crab cakes in the studio’s cheery kitchen. “Hopefully, I'll be famous one day!”
A lucky break
Jean Paul was joking around, but in all seriousness, when it comes to ‘famous people,’ 77-year-old Rich Massabny is no stranger.
“I interviewed a lot of big people,” he says. “Carol Channing. Phyllis Diller. Nelson Eddy. And just so many others!”
It all began in April 1961, about seven years after Rich had moved to Arlington, Virginia, from his native Brooklyn, New York (and fans of Rich will know he still retains quite a thick accent). Rich was in his mid-20s, and looking for a job, when he ventured to the offices of the Northern Virginia Sun newspaper.
Little did he know he was about to have his big break.
“I walked in the door and some guy coming to the door, he says to me: ‘Kid, do you know showbiz?’” Rich recalls. “I'm from New York; what am I going to say? ‘No’?”
Even though Rich didn't know a thing about showbiz, his New York nature led him to say yes.
“So he takes me by the hand and walks me over to a guy named Ed Campbell, a boss there,” Rich recounts. “And he says, ‘Ed, I’m leaving.’ It was the first [Ed] had ever heard of that. So he was stuck.”
And that’s when the big moment happened. Ed asked Rich if he could go to the Shoreham Hotel — a major venue in town — and interview Sophie Tucker.
“[She] was the last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Rich says. “You know, she was big.”
Rich wound up getting a personal interview with Sophie Tucker, up in her hotel room.
“She invited me up to her room and we had corned beef sandwiches and Budweiser beer,” he says. “She was a two-fisted babe. And then I reviewed the show, too. So that’s the way it got started!”
Rich Massabny served as entertainment editor for Playtime Washington, the precursor to Washingtonian magazine. (Rebecca Sheir/WAMU)
Break once, break twice
Rich’s big break with television was also a case of right-place-right-time. 30 years ago, he was at the Arlington County Fair when a TV producer saw Rich on a monitor.
“He says, ‘Gee, you look good on the screen. Do you do television? Do you understand about interviews?’” Rich recounts. “I said, ‘Yeah.’”
The producer asked Rich to go to the Arlington cable station and talk with a man named Don Hammond.
“He wasn't too impressed,” Rich admits. “[So] I figured that’s dead. And then some guy comes running out of the control room and he says, ‘Don, what’s-his-name didn't show up! And we've got six minutes we have to do something with!’”
Just like at the newspaper, Don Hammond turned to Rich, and asked “Can you do six minutes?”
Next thing Rich knew, he was talking about local restaurants on the air, “and I did it all off the top of my head,” he says. “And [Don] said, ‘Well, come back next week.’ So I've been coming back ‘next week’ for the last 30 years!”
Indeed, in addition to Rich’s two public access shows (“Rich’s Place” and “Conversations With Rich”), he has a six-minute segment on Arlington Weekly News TV.
“In those days,” Rich says, “everybody wasn't a critic like today. Almost everybody I meet is a reviewer. It wasn't that way then. It was just a few of us, and I was one of them.”
He says when he was at the Sun, he began writing his column, “Sundown,” under a different name, at the urging of one of the switchboard operators.
“She said, ‘What’s your middle name?’ I said, ‘Joseph.’ She said, ‘Okay, from now on, you're Dick Joseph.’ And I was too young to argue!
“So I was known around town as Dick Joseph and I was known quite a bit; I couldn't go to a restaurant or a theater where people didn't know me.”
Rich also had a radio show on WAVA: “Inside Showbiz with Dick Joseph.” And after his stint at the Sun, in 1963 he got a gig at the brand new magazine, Playtime Washington, as the entertainment editor.
“I did that for maybe three years,” Rich says. “But being the young guy and everything, [I was] moving around all the time.”
A past remembered fondly
Rich says thinking about “those days” makes him “awfully nostalgic.”
“I don’t know if it’s because I was younger or whatever it was, but people were more accessible,” he remembers. “I could see anybody I wanted. I can't today necessarily. And look at it, I'm so experienced.”
So “experienced,” in fact, that — by his estimation — he’s interviewed approximately 4,000 people in 30 years.
“It might be over that,” he says. “But 4,000 is a nice figure. I've got good memories. I wouldn't trade it. I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing.”