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Ricki Wertz, star of WTAE-TV’s ‘Ricki and Copper,’ dies

Ricki Wertz, one of the original stars of Pittsburgh TV as the host of WTAE-TV’s “Ricki and Copper” and “Junior High Quiz,” died Wednesday in Chicago. She was 86. The cause of death was not immediately available.

A Wilkes-Barre native, Ruth Elizabeth Wertz Bordenkircher came to Pittsburgh to study acting. At one time she was the roommate of Smithton native and actress Shirley Jones (“The Partridge Family”), who called and spoke to Wertz earlier this month after Wertz entered hospice.

Wertz performed in productions at Pittsburgh CLO and the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Her first job in broadcasting was in 1953 on WENS-TV, the Channel 16 forerunner to WQEX-TV and now WINP-TV. Wertz was the Quaker State Coca Cola Girl and “Girl Friday” DJ sidekick on an “American Bandstand”-like dance and music show.

During her time at WENS Wertz met her future husband, Tom Bordenkircher, who helped sign WTAE-TV on the air in 1958 (he shortened his last name to Borden for convenience when manually inputting credits on TV programs). They married in 1954.

Wertz and Bordenkircher developed and Wertz starred in children’s show “Ricki and Copper,” which ran on WTAE from 1959-68 and then “Junior High Quiz,” which had a seven-season run beginning in 1962 and pitted teams from two Pittsburgh-area schools against one another.

John Poister, former WPGH-TV news director and current afternoon news anchor on radio’s WHJB (107.1 FM), first met Wertz in 1966 when he was assigned to cover Sewickley Academy’s appearance on “Junior High Quiz” as the school newspaper’s photographer.

Years later, Poister would work at WTAE-TV and WTAE-AM.

“It’s a funny thing about Channel 4, when you work out there it’s kind of like a fraternity and once people know you worked there, you become friends no matter what era you were from,” Poister said. “That developed with Ricki and I when she was on a couple of [radio host] Doug Hoerth shows at WTAE radio and then again at Renda Broadcasting.”

Poister recalled laughing with Wertz when he brought up her 13-week stint anchoring weather segments on WTAE’s late news in 1959, an era when sponsors largely dictated how their product would be showcased in broadcasts, including newscasts.

A mattress company wanted Wertz to be “the Sleepy Time Weather Girl” and so she was, offering a weather forecast while seated on the edge of a mattress, dressed in a negligee.

“She would give the forecast and talk about the comforting attributes of the mattress,” said Poister, who recalls being a wide-eyed 9-year-old when he saw Wertz’s weather segment after wandering into the room where his parents were watching TV one night.

In the 2007 WHYY-TV-produced statewide PBS special “Pennsylvania’s Favorite Kids Show Hosts,” Wertz recalled how for a wedding gift she asked Bordenkircher not for jewelry, but for a dog. That turned out to be Copper, a whippet-golden retriever mix.

“Children like dogs a lot better than people,” Wertz said in the program. “I started to work for [Copper] in 1958 and I had a great career with her.”

“Ricki and Copper” episodes featured cartoons, Wertz singing to the children, celebrating their birthdays and interviewing the kids and asking them to tell a joke.

“She probably heard, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ a billion times,” Poister said. “And she would react as if it was the absolute first time she’d ever heard that. She was dealing with kids who would suddenly clam up and she would find a way to get them to open up a little bit and tell their joke. … She never ever talked down to them; she always was on their level.”

On “Pennsylvania’s Favorite Kids Show Hosts,” Wertz recalled the origin of tributes to childrens’ birthdays on “Ricki and Copper” (Wertz said her mother put an emphasis on birthdays) and how the boom microphone became a character on “Ricki and Copper.”

Wertz’s husband had the idea to decorate the boom mic and make it a character on the show “so they could get it down into the picture and pick up the kids whispering [their responses to Wertz],” Poister said. “It’s a very simple premise but very difficult to pull off and Ricky always made it work.”

Before he was Handyman Negri on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Joe Negri played music on many shows at WTAE, including “Ricki and Copper.” In addition to accompanying Wertz on standards and children’s songs, he also tried to play along as the children sang.

“My big joke as a musician was trying to find the key [the kids were singing in],” he said, laughing. “It was always very tough to accompany them.”

Poister said “Junior High Quiz” was one of the more complex shows to film due to the need to sync up camera shots with just the right timing.

“But Ricky was so smooth on the air,” Poister said. “She could handle just about anything and her ability to ad lib through almost any situation came in real handy on this show, because sometimes the kids would freeze up or sometimes they would come out with outrageous answers and she just had to keep the show moving. Nothing fazed her on the air. She was in control and always level-headed.”

Greg McDonald of Forest Hills got to know Wertz after she went to work at WQED-TV with McDonald’s wife, Mary Beth Mueller. That evolved into a friendship with the couples often meeting for meals at the Eat’n Park in North Huntingdon. McDonald credits Wertz and Bordenkircher with helping him become a better gardener. He recalled sometimes Wertz would get recognized and be asked, 30 years after “Ricki and Copper” ended, “How’s Copper?”

“Dead,” Wertz would respond succinctly with a smile on her face. (Copper died in 1968.)

“I love my dog but I certainly don’t expect any dog to last another 20-some years,” McDonald said, recalling Wertz’s cheerful, “Oh, honey,” an expression she frequently started sentences with.

“She was just always so positive,” McDonald said. “Even when I called to console her [earlier this month after she entered hospice], she ended up consoling me.”

In addition to her most prominent work on WTAE, Wertz worked at WQED-TV from 1982-99 as outreach director and national director of the Public Television Outreach Alliance, which was based at WQED. She worked on “The Chemical People,” a two-part 1983 national public television series on adolescent addiction. First Lady Nancy Reagan traveled to Pittsburgh to record narration and tape portions of the program and later invited Wertz and her daughter to The White House.

Wertz was also involved in “Project Literacy,” “The Breast Care Test” and “The Prostate Puzzle.”

In 1988, Wertz hosted “Pittsburgh’s Original TV Stars” on WQEX-TV, featuring Dave Murray, Jean Connelly, Eleanor Shano, Nick Perry, David Crantz, Adam Lynch, Marie Torre, Josie Carey, Joe Negri, Hank Stohl, Paul Shannon and Fred Rogers.

In the ‘90s Wertz hosted pet show “Your Creatures” on WQEX-TV and organized the first WQED Community Advisory Board in 1996. In retirement, she became a painter; her painting of Copper was donated to the Senator John Heinz History Center in 2015.

Wertz and Bordenkircher, who died in February 2020, moved from North Huntingdon to Chicago in 2015 to be closer to their children, Tom Bordenkircher and Kristin Reilly.

You can reach TV writer Rob Owen at [email protected] or 412-380-8559. Follow Rob on Twitter or Facebook. Ask TV questions by email or phone. Please include your first name and location.

You can reach TV writer Rob Owen at [email protected] or 412-380-8559. Follow Rob on Twitter or Facebook. Ask TV questions by email or phone. Please include your first name and location.

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