Remembering Houston’s White Knight in Blue Shades
Flamboyant. Loud. Caring. Compassionate. In Houston, those words could only describe Marvin Zindler. The colorful television personality, known for his trademark white hair and blue sunglasses, died July 29 following a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
For nearly 35 years, Houstonians welcomed Zindler into their homes as he delivered daily consumer advocacy stories and his famous weekly restaurant report on KTRK Channel 13’s evening news broadcasts.
Ask anyone in southeast Texas about Zindler, and they are sure to belt out some of his trademark catchphrases — “It’s HELL to be poor,” or the seemingly world famous (all together, gang) “SLIIIIIIME IN THE ICE MACHINE!”
His style was all his own. While Houstonians could imitate Zindler’s distinctive voice and catchphrases, no reporter could copy the legend’s style.
“How did Marvin change Houston journalism? He didn’t. He was unique. Nobody could copy him. So it wasn’t like he introduced consumer news reporting – there were others before him. He didn’t do anything new – he just did it differently. So differently that no one dared copy him. He was simply, wildly off the charts popular,” says Ken Hoffman, Houston Chronicle columnist.
“Marvin didn’t consider himself a journalist, which was a convenient way for him to avoid the boundaries of the profession. He was show business and a televised complaint window. He broke all the rules. He didn’t have the face or voice for TV news. He wasn’t slick. But he had charisma and viewers sensed the innate goodness of him,” continues Hoffman. “He was awkward and flamboyant and ridiculous; and wonderful and gracious and self-effacing. He was the embodiment of Houston in many ways. We have no idea what we’re doing, but people seem to be happy here.”
Reputation preceded the legend
“I remember the first time I saw Marvin Zindler on TV here in Houston,” remembers Fran Peterson, former Houston news anchor. “It was the 1970s and I was visiting my sister Kelly, and she couldn’t wait to show him to me. His unique broadcast style was well known in the industry, but I had not seen him live. I was amazed and knew instantly he’d be a fixture forever on Houston television.”
Although they work at competing stations, many of the city’s reporters and anchors share a mutual respect, and that respect forges life-long friendships.
“I met Marvin very soon after I began working in the Houston market in 1986,” Peterson says. “He was very welcoming. I would see him at various events and functions and always enjoyed chatting with him. Once, as we were sitting waiting for something, the conversation turned to microphones and volume, and I asked Marvin why he spoke so loud when he signed off. He replied, ‘Loud? Do I speak loud when I sign off? Well, I’m a little hard of hearing.’ I loved it! That loud sign-off was his trademark.”
Helping out the little guy
Beyond the catchphrases and dynamic on-air personality, Zindler is remembered as a true champion of the common man. For decades, viewers contacted Zindler for assistance in solving consumer complaints, addressing concerns and cutting through bureaucratic red tape.
“Marvin was one of a kind,” says Dave Ward, colleague and ABC 13 anchor. “He was one of the most compassionate people I have ever met, and deep in his heart he believed in helping folks who needed someone on their side.”
Zindler came to aid of countless Houstonians in need of assistance dealing with companies or the government. However, his heart embraced those in need around the world. Along with an army of doctors, dentists and specialists, Zindler tirelessly worked true medical miracles with his group, collectively known as “Marvin’s Angels.”
Among the doctors who traveled with Zindler to care for the indigent was plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Agris. The pair established the Agris-Zindler Children’s Foundation, which delivers badly-needed care to children and their families in the United States and all over the world. This encompasses medical care, surgery, medications and prostheses, as well as family support.
“The Foundation will continue,” says Agris. “We do everything we can in Harris County, and if there is money left, we go overseas.”
Agris, Zindler and other doctors and medical professionals traveled the world, repairing cleft palettes and other abnormalities in less than ideal locations.
“There were times that the sound of the machine guns firing was closer than we would have liked,” Agris recalls.
But still, the team of doctors worked tirelessly, sometimes using makeshift hospital rooms and using camera lights for lighting. Zindler, who like the doctors, paid his own way to each third-world destination, would file stories focusing on the plight of the country’s citizens. He confronted politicians and royalty trying to find answers on why their citizens were treated poorly.
“One thing about Marvin, you didn’t side step questions with him,” Agris says. “Sometimes you see people dance around people’s questions. It didn’t matter if you were the king, a president, the owner of a business or a consumer. Marvin would always get a straight answer.”
Lending a hand
While Zindler’s rise to fame came from exposing and eventually closing the famous Chicken House brothel in La Grange (inspiring the Broadway musical and movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”), he endeared himself to Houstonians by listening to their concerns and helping solve their problems.
“If Marvin was going to help you, he didn’t talk to the secretary or a manager. He went straight to the top to make sure your problem was solved,” Agris says. “But if you were a consumer and you tried to make an unfounded claim, he called you on it. That was one of the things that was so great about him. He was fair to everyone, whether you had money or not.”
But the greatest of Zindler’s stories were the ones that didn’t make it on the air.
“He did so many things behind the scenes, things that he didn’t talk about on TV or to anyone,” Agris says. “He would literally get a hundred letters a day from people asking him for help.”
Agris recalls sitting in Zindler’s office when Zindler read a letter from an elderly woman who had her electricity shut off because she could not pay her bills. In the letter, the woman wrote that in the daytime, temperatures would exceed more than 100 degrees and she was not sure she would survive the summer.
“Marvin called the electric company and found out she was past due by a couple of hundred dollars. He said for them to turn the lights back on and he wrote them a check on the spot,” Agris says, fighting back tears. “I can’t tell you how many times he did that, and not once did any of those stories get on the air. He did so much for so many people, but his best work was behind the scenes.”
Final Sign off
Zindler used his nightly Eyewitness News segments to expose substandard care at nursing homes, obtain special medical care for those who couldn’t afford it and help many more successfully resolve their consumer problems. It was Zindler’s investigation into restaurant health violations that resulted in a nationwide requirement for salad “sneeze bars.” His weekly “Rat and Roach Reports” improved cleanliness and food safety in restaurant kitchens.
Even after Zindler revealed he had pancreatic cancer which spread to his liver, he continued to file stories from his hospital room. As the cancer took its toll on his body, a visibly weakened Zindler still had had the strength to give his trademark sign off “Maaaaaaarvin Zindler, Eyewitness News,” for a final time.
While his voice is silenced, his legacy continues in newsrooms and through the Agris-Zindler foundation. He is remembered as a fearless and trail-blazing broadcaster who brought attention to a new genre of broadcast journalism that became a staple in television newsrooms across the country. But more importantly, he helped bring rays of hope to third-world countries and a peace of mind to Houston consumers, a fact that is not lost on those who knew him best.
“I have always felt lucky with how I have done in my profession,” Agris says. “I always wanted to give back, but through Marvin, I learned exactly what it meant to give. There is always a path to give back. Sometimes we need a man like Marvin Zindler to pull us down that path. There will never be another one like him.”