It was 1962, and Carl Pellonpaa was just starting as host of the community TV show, “Finland Calling.” He and his colleagues didn’t have high hopes for its longevity.
“We thought to ourselves, and spoke to each other about it, that when the old Finns would die, the program would end,” Pellonpaa said in a phone interview with ivoh.
Originally, the show was conceived as a partnership with a local tourism agency. “We agreed on the name ‘Finland Calling,’ because that’s exactly what we were doing,” Pellonpaa said. “Finland was calling for people to come and visit.”
But what started out as a plug for Scandinavian tourism ended up as an anchor for a community. For 53 years, “Finland Calling” — or Suomi Kutsuu in Finnish — remained on air, keeping the area’s large Finnish residents connected with their culture.
An outpouring of fan appreciation greeted the show’s final episode. It was a testimony to the impact “Finland Calling” had in fostering the Finnish-American community.
One viewer wrote on the show’s Facebook page, “I am told that my (100%) Finnish great-grandmother (Laitinens & Marttinens) used to weep when she heard [Pellonpaa’s] program on her tiny radio in Ishpeming and Negaunee. Bless you!”
Historically, Michigan has served as destination for the largest number of Finnish immigrants in the United States. Many came to work in mining communities like Marquette County, home of “Finland Calling.”
Located on the shores of Lake Superior, in Michigan’s jutting Upper Peninsula, Marquette County was a hotbed for Finnish culture. In 1960, the U.S. Census documented 5,618 Finnish immigrants there. Even more Finnish-Americans were born to Finnish parents, like Pellonpaa was.
Though he grew up far from Finland, Pellonpaa felt tied to his parents’ homeland through Finnish-language media.
“The Finnish connection was there all the time, especially during the Winter War from 1939 to ’40,” he said, referring to a conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland. “My Dad would read the Finnish newspapers and be concerned about the Russians. So I had that insight into the pride of being a Finn.”
Pellonpaa himself did Finnish radio broadcasting before joining the news team at Marquette’s NBC affiliate, WLUC-TV6.
The television craze had swept the country at that time. By the 1960s, almost 90 percent of American households had a television set, up from only 9 percent in 1950.
According to Pellonpaa, WLUC-TV6’s general manager seized the opportunity. There were only Finnish radio programs locally, no television shows. “Finland Calling” would be the first. It started in black and white, a live TV series with a modest half-an-hour in the 8 a.m. slot.
Fast-forward 53 years, and Pellonpaa has become one of the longest running TV hosts in American history. He and the legendary late-night comedian Johnny Carson both got their start hosting in 1962, but Pellonpaa has surpassed Carson’s TV tenure by nearly 23 years.
And while many TV talk shows rely on celebrity interviews, “Finland Calling” had a different approach. The show took its cues directly from the Finnish community it served.
“It was not my selection as to who was going to be interviewed,” Pellonpaa said. “It would be up to the viewers who would have [Finnish] guests coming into their homes to arrange to bring them in.”
Ordinary people– visiting relatives, exchange students, even entire choirs– would often end up in front of the cameras, on local TV. But “Finland Calling” also hosted the highest echelons of Finnish society, including two presidents, Urho Kekkonen and Tarja Halonen. Even a Finnish horror-film producer dropped by.
The show had come to represent a crossroads for the community, a celebration of the Finnish life that flowed through Marquette.
“That turned out to be lots of fun. Especially starting in April, right through until November, there would always be somebody visiting,” Pellonpaa said.
The “Finland Calling” set was itself a small enclave for all things Finnish. Pellonpaa and his staff kept the set decorated with little Finnish flags and tourist tchotchke, like Finnish-blue teddy bears and ceramic souvenirs. And during the tapings, traditional music and religious hymns would echo through the studio.
Pellonpaa would sometimes appear camouflaged against the baby blue backdrop, sporting a blazer as bright as the Finnish skies. He claims he has only missed taping the show once, and even then, he directed the show from his house, sick with the mumps.
The show was conducted largely in Finnish, but Pellonpaa said he would often explain what was said in English too. He wanted his program to be accessible, and that meant taking Finnish culture to the people.
“I started the dances so I could reach out,” Pellonpaa said, referring to the parties he hosted for Finland aficionados and fans. “I never got to meet any of those people unless I happened to be shopping in the grocery store or the furniture stores.”
The message, Pellonpaa said, was one of open arms: “I’m not just somebody on the tube. Let’s come and meet and greet and get to know each other.”
Together, the community dances and the TV show made Pellonpaa recognizable throughout Upper Michigan’s Finnish community. Even while riding a train to Finland’s Arctic stretches, Pellonpaa said a viewer recognized him.
“This woman stopped me and said, ‘Are you Carl Pellonpaa?’ I said yes,” he recalled, starting to chuckle.
“She said, ‘I didn’t realize you didn’t have much hair.’ And I said, ‘Well, pleased to meet you.'”
But years of taping the weekly show have slowly taken their toll. In November, Pellonpaa said he fell and fractured his left leg. His wife Doris recently underwent surgery. The decision was clear: it was time to end the show.
“I’m still waking up to the fact that I don’t have to run in on Wednesday morning and sit in the studio and tape ‘Finland Calling,'” Pellonpaa said. “It’s a little tough to digest. It was a part of our life, for my wife and I and our kids.”
Letters have flooded in with messages from viewers, he said. Some writers claim to have seen the show from its very first episode. Others say their grandparents got them hooked.
Pellonpaa may have started the program believing that “Finland Calling” would be short-lived, a swan song for an aging Finnish-American community. Now, after receiving so many cards and meeting so many viewers, he thinks differently.
“Gee whiz, the old Finns never died. They’re still here. Generation, after generation, after generation.”