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Obituary: Nick Perry / TV bowling kingpin, dies

Thursday, April 24, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Nick Perry, a Pittsburgh broadcasting pioneer who became a household favorite as host of "Bowling for Dollars" but fell from grace when he was linked to the rigged "666" Daily Lottery scheme, died Tuesday. His death came two days before the 23rd anniversary of the fateful drawing.

Nick Perry at a reunion in 1999 for WDTV, the city's first television station and forerunner of KDKA. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Mr. Perry, whose full name was Nicholas Perry Katsafanas, was 86. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Perry steadfastly maintained his innocence long after he had served two years in prison for his conviction in the lottery fix. He was host of the statewide telecast of the Daily Number drawing, which then originated from the studios of WTAE-TV in Wilkinsburg.

Earlier in TV career, Mr. Perry hosted live polka parties and an afternoon variety show on WDTV, the city's first television station and the forerunner of KDKA. He joined WTAE as a staff announcer in 1958 where he solidified his position as a Pittsburgh celebrity with "Bowling for Dollars" and "Championship Bowling."

In its prime, "Bowling for Dollars" drew more viewers than the nightly network newscasts that aired at the same hour. Mr. Perry was introduced on the program as "the man with all the dollars! The kingpin himself!"

"I just couldn't think of anybody who fell farther from grace than Nick," said Jean Connelly, another Pittsburgh television pioneer who worked at WDTV, KDKA and WTAE.

"Nick was the first friend, the first person who became my friend when I came to Pittsburgh to work at DuMont [Broadcasting, owner of WDTV] and he stayed my friend forever," said Connelly. "He had so much going for him, it just broke our hearts, those of us who were fond of him," she said of his arrest and conviction.

A graduate of Peabody High School and Duquesne University, where he received a degree in business administration, Mr. Perry got into broadcasting after his wife, Georgia, saw an ad recruiting radio announcers. His first broadcasting job was in Charleston, W.Va.

Retired newsman Stu Emry, who worked with Mr. Perry at WTAE for many years, said the bowling show was "very Pittsburgh and he was very Pittsburgh in his questions and the kinds of people who were on the show. He was down-to-earth and humorous and fun, and his strong personality came through. And he was just about as dapper a dresser as I had seen."

Whenever Mr. Perry was out in public, Emry said, "he was just always surrounded by well-wishers and people who loved him."

Joe Rovitto, WTAE's news director at the time, said, "Nick became a local star with 'Bowling for Dollars.' That was his real breakthrough to the public. He did a beautiful job with it -- he was very knowledgeable, a bowling enthusiast, he took it all very seriously. It was a big deal to him, and he was a very conscientious guy, as a reporter, anchor, host of that program."

Mr. Perry became host of the lottery broadcast in 1977. He was suspended from that job, as well as from his WTAE duties, in September 1980 after the grand jury linked him to the rigged drawing.

Rovitto remembers that day all too well. Mr. Perry was in the announcer's booth, but had to be bypassed when WTAE broke into programming so that Sally Wiggin, now a fixture but then a newcomer, could report the story from the newsroom.

"I knew he was sitting right upstairs, a guy I had known, worked with, it was a very difficult period," Rovitto said.

"Personally, professionally, it was a tough juggling act to do the right thing. Because of the fact we were the station that carried the lottery, because of the fact we knew Nick, we felt we had to pursue the story aggressively."

Rovitto, who said he never saw or spoke to Mr. Perry after the announcer left the station, said, "The way I always felt about it, it was sad. It was a sad thing because here is a guy -- you wipe that off the slate -- who was a really terrific guy. He was a terrific employee. But you can't wipe that off.

"This one thing has ruined this guy's life. It will smear this guy's life, he's done and I knew it that day."

Emry, now retired from KDKA-TV, covered the lottery trial for WTAE. When word first circulated at the station about the lottery fix, Emry said, "Nobody believed it."

He had not seen Mr. Perry since a retirement party for the late KDKA newsman Bill Burns, but recalled yesterday the comments he would hear from viewers on the street. "It was always a question, 'Do you think he could have done it?' No matter what you might say, they would be convinced of his innocence."

Soon after the Daily Number came up 666 on that spring evening, rumors about a fix began to surface. Many of them came from illegal bookmakers, who took bets on the lottery and had to pay off.

The Daily Number is drawn from three machines in which numbered ping-pong balls are randomly distributed by a column of air. One ball in each machine pops to the top when a trap door is opened and the three numbers, read consecutively, form the winning number.

In the so-called 666 fix, every ball except those numbered four or six was injected with white latex paint so it would not rise high enough to be drawn. The idea was to wager on every combination containing fours and sixes.

A grand jury called Mr. Perry the mastermind behind the plan, and a jury in Harrisburg convicted him in 1981 of criminal conspiracy, criminal mischief, theft by deception, rigging a publicly exhibited contest and perjury.

He was sentenced to up to seven years in prison. He served two years at Camp Hill State Penitentiary and spent another year at a halfway house in East Liberty, not far from his home in Highland Park.

Also convicted in the case was lottery official Edward Plevel. Two WTAE stagehands, Fred Luman and Joseph Bock, pleaded guilty to participating in the fix. Two other men who cooperated with prosecutors received fines and probation.

Decades after the event, the lottery fix inspired a movie, "Lucky Numbers," starring John Travolta as a Harrisburg TV weatherman desperate for cash who rigs a Pick Six lottery drawing.

Mr. Perry, who didn't testify during the trial, later complained about his legal representation and that he never got to tell his side of the story in court.

Days after he was convicted, he told KDKA's Burns, "It's a nightmare. I can't believe it. I wake up at night shaking my head. Why would I get involved in something like this? I was making good money. They were the best years of my life, actually. I had too many things going for me. I didn't need this."

He continued the theme in a 1988 Post-Gazette interview, the first time he spoke in depth about the case after his release from prison.

"No one in my family and none of my close friends ever hit the three sixes," he said. "Why wouldn't I give it to them -- my family, who could have used the money?"

After his release, Mr. Perry remained on parole through March 1989. He took a job as a salesman for Wissman Bowling Supplies, which provided the equipment used on "Bowling for Dollars."

"I couldn't have had anyone better. He was an asset to the business," owner Robert Wissman said at the time.

Beginning in 1985, he worked as supervisor of couriers for Med-Chek Laboratories in Ross. He also became host of BPA Jackpot Bowling on KBL, a cable sports network that was the forerunner of Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh. The show was taped at the BPA studio in the basement of the Fraternal Order of Eagles aerie in McKees Rocks.

In the 1988 interview, Mr. Perry said the bitterness he once felt was gone and he tried not to fret about the past.

"My philosophy is just work in the present and look forward to the future. When you try to live in the past, you grow old too fast and there's no gain. I can honestly say I have no vindictiveness in me. I don't hate the people involved, and I feel God willed it that way."

His bitterness began to abate as he sat in prison and read what a minister passed along to him -- the Bible and a book by Charles Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who found religion while in prison for Watergate. "I put myself in mind that I was back in the service and that this was another stint in my military life," he said.

Still, he endured taunts from inmates who saddled him with the nickname Triple Sixes. Describing the process of stripping down and being doused with bug repellent and handed a foul-smelling soap to wash his hair when he entered prison, he said, "It's like taking the spine out of a person."

In 1980, Mr. Perry's son Chris wrote a letter to the editor of The Pittsburgh Press proclaiming his father's innocence.

"He couldn't. He wouldn't. Not Nick Perry," the letter said. It went on to mention two honorable medical discharges from the Air Force and Navy in Mr. Perry's scrapbook. He had blacked out during a training flight, and the problem was diagnosed as a heart murmur. He re-enlisted in the Navy, only to have the murmur found again.

He said his dad worked on Christmas morning even though he didn't have to, because it wouldn't be fair to ask someone else to take his place.

In a 1982 letter to the editor published in the Post-Gazette, Chris Perry said his father was made into a scapegoat and offered his theory as to why.

"I am one of many who watched helplessly as the state manufactured a case to shift the publicity away from one of their own and on to another. Not just any scapegoat would suffice. This person would have to have a high profile. Someone who could corner the entire attention of the media. Someone who could transfer the public focus from political corruption and coverup to a soap opera drama of a man's life falling into ruin before the camera."

Mr. Perry is survived by his wife, Georgia; his sons Chris and Paul; and five grandchildren.

Friends will be received at John A. Freyvogel Sons funeral home, 4900 Centre Ave., Oakland, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to the American Parkinson's Disease Association.

Staff writer Barbara Vancheri contributed to this report. Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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