Whether giving a Sgt. Sacto “double pumper” salute,
scaring the pants off people as Count Scary or amusing listeners with his
hilarious radio antics, Tom Ryan has been making Detroiters laugh for nearly 50
Tom Ryan grew up in the Herman Gardens housing project on the
northwest side of Detroit, where he attended St. Gregory High School. Ryan’s
childhood dream was to be a sportscaster, so he practiced his baseball “play
by play” in front of the family TV set with the sound turned down.
Ryan majored in communications at the University of Detroit,
where he was the replacement for NBA great Dave DeBusschere on the U of D
basketball team. He also spun records a couple of nights a week on the campus
radio station. After college Ryan found employment at WKMH radio (later to
become WKNR), where he worked his way up from the mailroom to the
traffic/production department. In 1965 Ryan was working the nighttime
switchboard when Keener’s new hire Dick Purtan arrived at the station to work
the 10 PM to 1 AM shift. Purtan was impressed with Ryan’s vocal impressions,
so he began incorporating them into his radio show. Before long Ryan was also
producing and writing comedy bits for Purtan’s show.
Ryan was working as a copywriter in the promotion department at WKBD-TV
when he was asked to host Channel 50’s kids show Captain Detroit.
Johnny Ginger, the show’s former host, had recently left the station and
Kaiser Broadcasting was looking to make a change. A new spaceship set was built
and a spacey looking jogging suit that Ryan had picked up when he played
European Basketball was pressed into service. A pair of pointy “Mr. Spock”
eyebrows completed the transformation from Tom Ryan to Sgt. Sacto. Ryan was
given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted between the Little Rascals and
Three Stooges shorts and Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
The revamped Captain Detroit show made its debut on May 1, 1967,
airing every Monday thru Friday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:00 PM and again on
Sunday morning. It was initially planned as a summer replacement show but the
ratings went thru the roof, thanks in large part to the ever popular Three
Stooges and the birthday wishes segment.
Sgt. Sacto used to ask his young viewers to send in their
pictures on their birthday so he could show them on-air and wish them a happy
birthday. A college student sent in
his buddy’s picture as a gag, other high school and college students followed
suit and the show developed a cult following among the older kids.
The famous Sgt. Sacto salute (saluting from the middle of your
chest) is a “bit of business” that Ryan came up with one day that caught on.
The special “double pumper” was two salutes from the middle of your chest.
The Captain Detroit show was trimmed down to an hour in September of 1967, then to a half hour in January of 1970. Sgt. Sacto disappeared into the stratosphere forever on September 3, 1971, a victim of Kaiser Broadcasting’s budget cuts.
Ryan continued his radio work with Dick Purtan when he moved
to WXYZ-AM in 1968, then to CKLW-AM in 1978
In 1982 WDIV obtained the broadcast rights for the 1954 3-D
movie Gorilla At Large. Program manager Alan Frank approached
producer/writer Tom De Lisle to come up with a vehicle to showcase the film.
Both De Lisle and Ryan were fans of the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV,
especially Joe Flaherty as the bumbling horror movie host Count Floyd.
They decided to do a takeoff of Flaherty’s vampire character and name
him Count Scary, after Count Floyd’s tag line, “Oooh, that’s scary!”
Wendy’s distributed the 3-D glasses needed to view the film. The special was
the biggest TV hit of the summer, earning a 49 share, with 50% of the viewing
audience tuning in.
Count Scary was a combination of Bela Lugosi meets Richard
Nixon meets Steve Martin’s "wild and crazy guy." His alter ego Val Scary,
also played by Ryan, was once voted the “coolest guy in Detroit.” Nobody
came in second. The Count cruised the streets of Detroit in his Scarymobile, a
pink, 1955 Chrysler Imperial that frequently overheated. He would warn viewers
to wear multiple pairs of pants, because the movie would be so scary that it
would scare your pants off. Except for when he hosted Bikini Beach where,
according to the Count, “You didn’t need any pants, I’ll tell you that.”
It was mindless, silly fun and Detroiters ate it up.
Ryan played Count Scary in nine prime time specials for WDIV
before taking the character to WXYZ and WKBD, where he hosted Night of the
Living Dead with another Detroit horror icon, the Ghoul.
Hamtramck was billed as “Detroit’s first situation
comedy,” but a good number of Polish-Americans, including the mayors of
Hamtramck and Warren, failed to see the comedy in the situation. The show was
based on a series of humorous columns written by Tom De Lisle for The Detroit
News about growing up on the city’s east side. Ryan played “Pop,”
patriarch of the working class Hamlin family, whose daughter was about to marry
a boy from the upper class city of Farmington Hills. He also played Stan the
Polka Man, leader of the Polka Rascals. The show was filmed on location in and
around Hamtramck and was filled with local jokes and references, which bothered
some Polish-Americans. When local Poles got wind of the project they took the
program as a personal attack and picketed the station. Hamtramck aired on
May 14, 1987. And although the ratings were huge, WDIV ultimately issued an
apology at a press conference, which put the kibosh on future episodes of
Detroit’s first, and unfortunately last, situation comedy.
When Dick Purtan left CKLW in 1983, Ryan took over as host of
the morning show. Tom moved to WOMC-FM in 1984, where he again hosted the
morning show, and then Riding Home With Ryan in the afternoon until 2007.
He still does occasional work for the station, like the pre game show for the
University of Michigan and the yearly Woodward Dream Cruise radiocast.
A Ryan credit that few know about is Santa Claus, who Tom played for
twenty years in America’s Thanksgiving Parade, formerly the J.L. Hudson’s
Thanksgiving Parade, before retiring in 2010.
Ryan has an amazing talent that can win him a free beer in any
bar in metropolitan Detroit. He can name the school colors for practically any
high school in the tri-county area, due to his 35 years of refereeing high school
Over the years Ryan has donated his time and talents to many
charitable organizations, including the Beaumont Hospital Leukemia Telethon, the
Catholic Youth Organization, the March of Dimes and the Michigan Humane Society.
In 1999 he made the ultimate sacrifice by donating a kidney to his wife, Joan.
We salute Tom Ryan with one of his trademark Sgt. Sacto Double-Pumper salutes. And in the words of Count Scary, Tom Ryan is a “fine boy.”