Righting Wrongs With Marvin Kindler

8:12 pm Profiles

ABC Ink

By Dawn Shurmaitis

It’s Friday night in Houston at the city’s No. 1 TV station. Marvin Zindler is on the air delivering his weekly “Rat and Roach Report,” detailing health code violations at area restaurants. Moldy cheese. Kaput coolers. And “sliiiiiiime in the ice machine,” one of Zindler’s favorite segments, jazzed up by a sensational graphic and dramatic voice-over.

“This is Maaarrrrrvin Zindlerrrrrr. Eyewitness News,” he bellows at the camera, working his long familiar, oft-imitated trademark sign-off to KTRK-TV viewers. Imagine John Barrymore cloned with Paul Harvey, and you’ll get a feel for the thespian flair intensifying each Zindler expose. “Television is show business,” he says. “We put on our finest clothes and do our hair, and it’s show business.”

For nearly 25 years, Zindler has delighted and inflamed KTRK viewers five nights a week at 6 and 10 with his consumer reports, specials and commentaries. Through the years he’s measured foot-long hot dogs (and learned they were only 10 inches) and shamed rich doctors into performing free operations, all the while transforming himself into a broadcasting fixture. “I don’t care who they are,” he says of miscreants he snags and half-truths he debunks. “When I came to work here I was promised no sacred cows, and there are no sacred cows. I even put the station’s own coffee shop on the air.”

To the world at large, Zindler is perhaps best known as the flamboyant newscaster whose 1973 reports led to the much-ballyhooed closing of 129-year-old Chicken Ranch, a brothel that earned its name during the Depression by accepting payment in poultry. In the movie and Broadway musical, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Zindler’s character is a villain, mocked by the sheriff as a “pip-squeak prairie dog.”

Today, that “pip-squeak” receives 1,500 letters a week from people hoping for help. With the aid of his long-time staff — producer Lori Reingold, photographer Bob Dows and secretary Betty Berry — Zindler gets fences mended and hamsters fixed. In his commentaries, no topic is off-limits, whether it be electric shock therapy or Congressional attacks on free lunch programs. While some critics accuse him of playing with, or ignoring, the facts, Zindler shoots back that he’s never claimed to be a journalist.

“I’m a cantankerous old man, just like my father — the first Jewish mayor in Texas. He was the kind of guy who spoke his own piece,” says Zindler, 76. “My thing is inequities. That’s the kind of story I do. I take care of the little guys.”

The son a clothing store owner, Zindler wanted no part of the family business. In 1945, he started driving to crime scenes in Houston, armed with a wire recorder. Back at a local radio station, he’d add sound effects and a voice-over for a Saturday night broadcast. Soon, a fledgling Houston TV station recruited him to cover cop stories. “I didn’t know anything about cameras. I certainly wasn’t a reporter,” Zindler says. “So one day I became a cameraman and a reporter.”

As Zindler tells it, the station manager eventually told him he was too ugly for on-air work. After a look in a three-way mirror, Zindler decided he was right. Since then, he’s undergone four facelifts, two nose jobs, three chin implants, an eye job, collagen injections and cheek implants. The blue-tinted glasses he always wears help disguise an eye problem.

A Pee-Wee Herman look-alike in his youth, Zindler now resembles a well-preserved, and dandily-dressed, Ted Baxter. Proud of his personal reconstruction, Zindler is open about his numerous operations and cosmetic enhancements. “I buy 12 hairpieces a year,” he boasts. “I change hair every day. I don’t want to get in a rut. When I get up in the morning, I put on my make-up, and I keep it on all day. That’s the way they see me on TV, and that’s the way I’m going to look.”

Zindler was 51 when he started working at KTRK, which hired him after politics forced him from a job in the sheriff’s Consumer Fraud Division. There, the deputy learned just how to milk a story and get his face on TV. Before handing out fines, Zindler tipped off every reporter in town.

Today, everyone in the city knows Marvin Zindler, the wigged crusader. When he told his viewers he had prostate cancer, the news graced the top of the next day’s front page. Characteristically, when Zindler underwent radiation treatments, he took cameras in with him to educate viewers on the latest cancer-fighting techniques.

Broadcasting has taken Zindler all the way to Russia, which he first visited three years ago with a group of reconstructive surgeons. When he reported on free surgeries performed by the Houston doctors, Zindler was compelled to offer a strong editorial comment as well. “Here we go, all over the world, to do these operations, when we won’t do charitable work right here in our own town. They won’t do it unless I put them on TV,” says the man known as “the champion of the poor.”

In 1988, Zindler signed a lifetime contract with KTRK — in front of 500 advertising executives — vowing to remain on the air, at the same salary, until his death. He continues to live in the same house he’s lived in for 38 years. He’s stayed married to the same woman for 56 years. Zindler’s wife claims she’s never even seen him without his wig. The couple has five children and 10 grandchildren.

In January, Zindler celebrates his 25th year with KTRK. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m satisfied,” he says. “I’m a fixture.”

 

 

 

 

 

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