Enter Poorman

Life's a (bikini) beach for KDOC's returning late-night host

One thing most people will tell you about Jim "The Poorman" Trenton: He's never on time.

Arrive at his editing bay at the appointed hour, ask if he's around, and the staff just laugh. Show up at his house on schedule, and you're likely to encounter a note scrawled in neon-orange marker informing you he'll be back in 15 minutes and to go on inside. The Poorman never locks his house; he believes there's nothing worth stealing inside, though some might think a big-screen TV and a PlayStation 2 are obvious targets. For him, the house itself is his only prized possession—it's right on the beach in Newport.

When he finally shows up, he seems surprisingly normal for a man of his reputation. A middle-aged guy in good physical shape (he surfs and runs every day), shorn of the turd-shaped dreadlocks he used to sport on earlier episodes of his TV show, Poorman's Bikini Beach, he even has a decent smile when he's not mugging or sticking his tongue out for the cameras. He's polite and calm to all, and even if you didn't know he had been a DJ, it wouldn't be hard to guess—not only does he speak in that Casey Kasem style, but he also has certain prerehearsed bits he says over and over. During the time spent with him to write this article, he must have mentioned at least seven times that Bikini Beach is starting to get ratings among women aged 18 to 45 and he can't figure out why, or that he's like Rupert Murdoch on a small scale, or that he's so unemployable that even he wouldn't hire himself to host the show if he didn't own it. His cell phone rings almost constantly, a hazard that comes with plastering his number all over TV and the Internet. "I get calls all the time," he says. "Horny dudes just call—they can't believe it's my phone number, so they just hang up."

The Poorman. Photo by Jack Gould.
The Poorman. Photo by Jack Gould.

Presumably, he's the envy of those dudes, and he admits the job is pretty good. "As far as the on-camera part, you can't beat it," he says. "The part that doesn't make it the greatest job in the world is the fact that I have to sell all the ads and do the business part. But as bad as that is, it makes it my own network, so nobody can kick me off." In eight years of doing the show, the Poorman claims to have slept with only two of the bikini girls, one of whom ended up being his girlfriend for three years. But that's still a major achievement, he says. "If I didn't have a camera, I don't think I'd ever have a chance to talk to these girls like I do."

*     *     *

It's audition day for the special Halloween episode of Poorman's Bikini Beach, a show completely self-financed by the Poorman since he started it in May 1999 and now airing six nights a week on KDOC following a recent move from KJLA, which he says didn't have as strong a signal. KDOC—once the home of Wally George's Hot Seat—was happy to have him: "Girls in bikinis—that's good old wholesome fun," says KDOC owner Bert Ellis. The show is as basic as you can get: The Poorman either puts on or attends events that feature girls in bikinis—or occasionally naked girls, with their naughty bits digitally covered—offers commentary, frequently has the girls humiliate him in some way, then rates the event with a "Poor thumb up" or "Poor thumb down." (Don't tell Roger Ebert, who trademarked the whole thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing back when Gene Siskel was still alive.) The Poorman sells all the advertising time himself and has the show syndicated in nine markets, including Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta, not all of which are as forgiving as KDOC of the show's content or the ads, which often feature controversial products such as medical-marijuana assistance or Ron Jeremy adult DVDs. KRON in San Francisco, furious that Jeremy might be seen plugging porn on their station, recently pulled all the ads from one of the episodes and replaced them with station IDs, a decision that hurt the Poorman financially. "A liberal city like San Francisco—they're the worst!" he notes.

Auditions are held in the upstairs living room of his house, which is mostly empty of furniture and possessions and has a great seaside view. The main goal of the process, it seems, is to see how the prospective starlets walk. No screen test, no speaking . . . just walking. The Weekly photography equipment set up in the corner actually makes this audition look about 200 percent more professional; without it, all you'd have is the Hawaiian-shirted Poorman and a bag of iced cookies. Most of the girls read about the show via L.A. Casting and have never seen the actual program. Victoria Brown recalls the casting notice as having advertised a "bikini fashion show"; Erin Micklow says it explicitly said, "hot girl in a bikini." Both will ultimately be among the seven who are finally cast, and each will have entirely different expectations.

Because this episode will tape at Knott's Halloween Haunt, a key question asked of all girls is whether or not they have a problem with horror makeup, as they will be turned into "vampiresses." All say that will be fine. Given that the auditions go for three hours, with prospective bikini babes constantly walking in and out, the Poorman has to be careful to ensure that all of them get to hear his basic spiel, like the part where he describes the upcoming Knott's antics as "a bikini-contest-fashion-show-slash-skit."

*     *     *

Trenton first became the Poorman as the author of a book, The Poorman's Guide to Gourmet Dining for Under Six Dollars, which received a favorable notice from Art Buchwald. (During one of our interviews, he claimed he wrote the book in his teens; asked to confirm this later, he responded, "I don't tell anybody my age. Put whatever you want.") He maintains the tradition somewhat with a section on his website, Poorman.com, titled "Cheap Eats." But it's laughably small: Only seven restaurants are recommended, among them Denny's, KFC and El Pollo Loco.

It wasn't until he got a DJ job at KROQ in 1983, where he would work for 10 years, that the moniker truly became famous. Initially host of the station's morning show, he soon became best-known as the creator and host of Loveline, a call-in show that offered comedic and serious advice for listeners with love and sex problems. Originally co-hosted by DJ Swedish Egil, the show really caught on in 1984, when the Poorman brought in a med student named Drew Pinsky, whom he met at a party, to give the show some serious credentials. Pinsky became accredited as a doctor a few months later and has since shot to fame as "Dr. Drew," having appeared in movies opposite the likes of Tim Allen and the Olsen Twins, as well as on TV news and opinion shows as an expert on addiction.

The Poorman's not without his own cinematic credentials. At the height of his KROQ fame, he appeared in Heathers playing himself, more or less. "I didn't like it, to be honest with you," he says. "I couldn't even watch it all the way through; I couldn't even get to my scene. I just thought it was too weird."

The conservative Pinsky and the rowdy Poorman made a compelling on-air odd couple, though outside the station, the Poorman says, "We were best friends. We were in each other's weddings." But struggles with management would ultimately bring the gig to an end. As the Poorman tells it, he was upset that by doing Loveline five nights a week, he lost the chance to make personal appearances, which paid good money. To spite the higher-ups for not duly compensating him . . . well, let's let him tell it.

"Our bosses at KROQ also were Howard Stern's bosses, and I wore a shirt that said, 'Howard Stern' with a big, 800-pound woman's ass, and it got published in a radio magazine. I got suspended for poking fun at the teacher's pet, Howard, which is hard to believe." Later, he would get in trouble again for walking out of the Loveline studios when Pinsky tried to press him on-air for details about his divorce.

Now on some seriously thin ice, the Poorman got pranked by fellow DJs Kevin Ryder and Gene "Bean" Baxter, who sent a character named Michael the Maintenance Man to the Poorman's house at 6:30 a.m. to wake him up. "KROQ was built on pranks," he says, "and I said, 'The master's gonna show you how to do a real prank.' So I got on Loveline that night and said I was gonna have my birthday party at a celebrity's home. I found out where Bean lived and told people to meet me at the station, and we caravanned to his front lawn at midnight on a Thursday, and 300 people showed up. We were live on the air, his wife opens the door, and she's just freaking out. The chants are going: 'KEVIN AND BEAN SUCK!' That was the last day I worked at KROQ." He says he's never listened to a minute of the station since.

When asked for comment by the Weekly, Baxter e-mailed back: "I can't speak for any of my colleagues, but no comment here."

Trip Reeb, KROQ's former general manager who's now working for Magic 92.5 in San Diego, disputes the notion that a T-shirt was the sole reason for the Poorman's initial suspension, saying that "if that happened, it predates me." Though he declined to get into specifics, Reeb told the Weekly that there was no one reason for the suspensions or the firing, saying only that "he was difficult to work with" and it "was not the result of any one act" (referring to the Bean incident). Though Reeb admits the FCC never disciplined KROQ for anything the Poorman said or did, "that is not to say that there weren't some things that, if they had discovered them, would have gotten us in trouble."

The Poorman concedes there's some merit to the "difficult" rap. "If you're doing a talk show two hours a night, and you're No. 1 by over double the No. 2 station in the market, and you've got to be live and funny no matter what's going on in your life, it's a lot of pressure!" he says. "Quite honestly, I probably was difficult, and I realize that, and now that I've sat on the sidelines for a couple of years, maybe I could have been a little less difficult . . . but I don't know if that warranted me losing my career. I did a lot of good things for people, too."

If the Poorman expected Dr. Drew to stand by him, he was mistaken. Pinsky stuck with KROQ, and his stock kept going higher, first with Riki Rachtman as his new co-host, and later with Adam Carolla, with whom he would take the show to MTV and co-author a tie-in book. The Poorman still talks about Pinsky with the kind of anger that can only come from a place of lost camaraderie.

"It's funny seeing [Pinsky] on TV now," he says. "He's suddenly become his dad, with his gray hair and his self-righteousness. And the thing that'll always be in the back of his peanut is the fact he had to use somebody else's show to get his career going. Am I bitter about it? I will never not be bitter—it'd be like somebody getting their car stolen and watching 'em drive in front of your house in your stolen car every single day. I invented the whole concept, and anybody could host it. I call it the rhesus monkey theory: A rhesus monkey used to be able to pilot spaceships—you can put anybody in there, and they'll be able to glom off the publicity. It's an automatic publicity machine."

The Poorman sued KROQ for his legal due, but the station moved for a summary judgment, and the case never went to trial. "I had a really bad lawyer," the Poorman says.

Dr. Drew could not be reached for comment for this article, but a Los Angeles Times article from August 1993, shortly before the Poorman received his walking papers, hinted at some tension between the two, with Pinsky quoted as saying of his co-host that "the reason I am lucky enough to be welcomed into this environment and listened to by these kids is because I tolerate the impish child [the Poorman]" and that he was "very uncomfortable" with the show's tone. The article implied Pinsky martyred himself for the show in hopes of doing good, describing his voice as being "filled with anguish" while discussing the show and saying he "puts up with the show's shenanigans because he believes in Loveline as a place for young people to turn to on their own turf, free of charge, paperwork and embarrassment."

*     *     *

It's a cool Friday evening in Newport Beach, and in keeping with expectations, the Poorman is 45 minutes late. In the lot opposite his house, a massive tour bus is parked, driven by a tall, Goth dude who goes by the name Chris Motion. This was supposed to be the "Bikini Bus," but only one of the bikini girls, a busty model named Charlene, has shown up; the rest decided to drive their own cars, possibly uncomfortable with hanging in the back of a bus with an all-male crew. But Charlene isn't intimidated, and the crew are courteous; the Poorman's regular director—25-year-old Dorian Coss, who met the Poorman when he was trying to get his band's CD some airplay—may look like a ladykiller, but he has a regular girlfriend, so hitting on the bikini babes isn't an option.

It's dark by the time the Bikini Bus heads for Knott's, with exactly one bikini babe, the Poorman, a small crew of kids who can't be older than their early 20s ("If you put my personality with their head, then I'd probably be hookin' up more," says the Poorman) and one Weekly reporter. Perhaps they should rename this vehicle the Jockstrap Jaunt.

We enter Knott's via the back way, parking beside a slatted fence beyond which one can glimpse inside a horror maze full of strobe lights, eerie music and a monstrous mad scientist periodically emerging from the darkness to snatch at passersby.

The girls gradually arrive, having braved all kinds of traffic—one stays just long enough to take one of the free bikinis offered by a TV sponsor, then leaves without explanation. "It's the bikini flake factor," explains the Poorman. "I think what you see with a lot of girls, they just want to be pampered models. I mean, to me, with Bikini Beach, they gotta show some character. That's why it doesn't work with everybody." He has hired seven girls for the night with the expectation that maybe five will stay. We're already one down, and another has not shown up yet.

It took KROQ a decade to fire the Poorman, but his subsequent employers proved to be much quicker on the draw. Power 106, Star 98.7 and KIIS-FM were among the major LA stations to hire and fire him—though the latter only dropped him as part of a mass layoff of Rick Dees' staff. During his KROQ days, the Poorman used to insult Dees, branding him "Dick Cheese," but he changed his tune when a steady paycheck as Dees' sidekick was offered. "I'm sort of a hooker for the business," he admits.

A casual observer might assume the Poorman has had a career death wish, but, he says, if he did, it wasn't conscious. "While I'm doing it, I'm like a little kid on the mic, and you don't really think about all the people listening—you're just having fun. Off the air, I'm a mellow, relaxed guy. Just get a mic in front of me—I don't know what happens. It endears me to people who follow my career, but it's a double-edged sword."

Bikini Beach program engineer Martin Wright thinks the Poorman doesn't actually set out to push boundaries; it simply doesn't occur to him they're there. "You will see stuff on his shows where people get perturbed with him and go, 'Just get out of here!' or, 'Hey, you screwed up this thing I was doing!' He's like, 'I did?'"

In 1994, the Poorman infamously appeared live on KDOC wearing nothing but a baseball cap over his crotch as part of a sweeps-week stunt. He swears he had no idea it would get him fired until right after he did it. "I just thought it would be a really awesome thing," he claims. "It made the news; I was getting nationally noticed. Now, I look back on it, and I think I was really stupid. The nice thing about Bikini Beach is that it's an edited show." Many of the same employees who worked at KDOC then are still there, but the Poorman says they stuck up for him—"They all like me; they just know I was a little bit reckless back then"—and encouraged new manager Ellis to give him another shot, which Ellis was happy to do.

Wright used to get perturbed with the Poorman's constant tardiness and distracted qualities, but he now takes them sarcastically in stride. The Poorman is "somewhat oblivious to what's going on around him a lot of the time," Wright says. "But it's weird: In a lot of ways, he's a real smart guy. He has fairly creative ideas, but with some things, the wires hook up, and with some things, they don't. That's how he works; that's just who he is." He describes the Poorman as "like Hansel and Gretel, but he leaves a trail of shit everywhere he goes. He brings tapes in, and I open them, and sand falls out, and I'm like, 'You know, these tapes are supposed to play in these video decks; they don't need to be on the beach.'"

The Poorman decided to try his hand at TV after a 1998 radio show called Anti-Radio, on which he played songs by unsigned SoCal bands, failed to take off. His initial concept was called World Premiere Television and consisted of unaired pilots and public-access shows—but he found that test audiences only cared about the show IDs, during which sexy bikini girls would coo, "You're watching World Premiere Television." That became the entire show.

*     *     *

"Fairy Tales" doesn't seem like the scariest concept for a Halloween maze, but given Wright's Hansel-and-Gretel comparison, perhaps it's appropriate that this Knott's horror attraction is the first one entered by the Poorman and his crew, who might arguably be described as the trail he leaves behind him. Cheesy wooden blacklight sets are inhabited by painted performers dressed as pigs, witches and fairies, all of whom have been cast for their ability to jump out suddenly and bang on the walls. The "Sleeping Beauty" here is a corpse on a bed that occasionally jumps to life and starts shaking. Sensing an opportunity, the Poorman immediately lies down on the bed beside the body, gesturing to bikini babe Micklow that she do the same. This is too much for our Knott's liaison: "Keep it family-friendly!" she admonishes.

With the maze done, it's time for the ladies to get in vampire gear, and with Girl No. 6 having finally arrived, everyone gets taken to makeup. The girls get cloaks and vampire face paint, while the Poorman gets a goofy-looking top hat for his role as "Poor Helsing." Most of the crew grab some cheap eats and free soda from the employee cafeteria, which tonight looks like something out of Star Wars, as we casually dine among zombie cowboys, aliens, mythological beasts, and one ornery dude in a red wig and a yellow shirt who takes it personally when asked if he's supposed to be an evil Ronald McDonald.

A couple of hours later, we're backstage at a Western-themed arena, wondering if the show will even go on because of the light rain. Some of the girls pass the time by texting, while others have fun with a nearby punching bag. The Poorman, meanwhile, is testing out some fake drool, as he licks a prop chain saw for the cameras.

A few days prior to the Knott's event, the Poorman had said we could expect "a bikini contest where they're gonna all be vampiresses, and then each time a girl's eliminated, I'm gonna blow her away with a prop shotgun onstage, but she'll go up in a cloud of smoke and blood—and then the winner is going to be blowing me away—so it's a pretty cool choreographed routine." With minutes to show time, there are a couple of problems. One, there won't be any smoke or blood. And two, the routine has not been choreographed in the least. But as the rain eases up, we get word that, yes, the show will happen. Time to go into the audience and see how it plays.

The Poorman mentioned an audience of thousands during the audition process; it's unlikely this outdoor venue could hold 1,000 if it were full, which it isn't. Despite the weather, a decent-sized crowd funnels in, many of them clearly longtime fans of the Poorman.

The introduction is abrupt—before he's ready, the Poorman is announced, and he comes out wielding the shotgun. He fires off a couple of fake shots, with sound effects that are noticeably out of sync. He asks if there are any DJs who can play some entrance music for the ladies, to which a rather pissy voice responds, over the P.A., "We're sound people, not DJs!" The rain falls harder. The Poorman gets his entrance music for the bikini girls, but only three emerge. He calls out for the other three, but they're nowhere to be seen.

Knott's employees gesture that the show needs to wrap up due to the rain, so the Poorman has the girls do a quick pose, then asks the crowd to pick their favorite. Charlene—who not coincidentally has the biggest breasts—is the clear favorite, but the Poorman declines to choose, declaring instead, "We're all winners!"

"That probably was our worst event, so it's kinda humorous that you guys were there for that!" says Coss, a couple of days later. "It was actually a funny shoot. It could have been really rockin' if the girls were into it, if things were organized a little better."

*     *     *

Previous Bikini Beachevents have looked like fun, judging from the broadcasts. There have been bikini-girl tricycle races; a deodorant "sniff-off" contest that got the Poorman ejected from the old Crazy Horse nightclub at Irvine Spectrum when police pre-emptively showed up expecting a riot that never actually materialized; the Bikini Mile, taped at Hollywood Park racetrack, in which swimsuit-clad women engaged in a footrace after bolting from the same starting gates the horses do; naked-porn-star bowling; and margarita wrestling. That last event featured a particularly unpleasant scene in which the Poorman pretended a drunk girl had vomited on him and proceeded to taste the fake puke. A running theme is that the Poorman seems to do his best to point out how unappealing he is. "I always tell him that it's not a good quality," Coss says.

With Wright about to go off on a business trip, it's up to the Poorman to get six shows together before his colleague leaves. This is harder than it sounds, simply because there's no consistency to the archived shows. Wright, whose back-and-forth with the Poorman at times feels like the bickering of a married sitcom couple, complains the Poorman is actually getting worse at understanding the edit process, to which the host responds, "I try as hard as I can." He pleads that selling ads is such a full-time job that it makes it hard to focus on the other aspects.

His work pays off, though. "I would say it averages maybe $3,000 a week in profit, but that doesn't account for production, doing new shows. I've made up to $10,000 in a week," the Poorman says. "I have not lost money. The worst I've done, at all, is break even, after I've paid Martin and the station." One of the benefits of leaving KJLA for KDOC is that sponsors are more interested in advertising on his current home.

But so long as he still causes difficulties in the post-production process, Wright remains unimpressed; he actually went so far as to start fining the Poorman $500 every time he made Wright stay in the editing bay past midnight, which, he says, has improved the procrastination factor somewhat.

KDOC owner Ellis says he's never had a problem with the Poorman being late. "He's met all his obligations as a businessman," he says.

Wright has a response: "[Jim]'s only been there now for two or three weeks, so they're still figuring, 'Oh, it'll probably get better.'"

And the Poorman has big plans for KDOC, where he wants to buy even more airtime; next up, he says, he'd like to do a show called Poorman's Sex Line, which would be similar to Loveline, but with a sexy doctor friend of his named Venus Ramos, whom he calls "the new version of Dr. Drew."

He still misses radio. "I think I'm the best radio guy in the country, even though I'm not on the air," he says, "but I don't think anybody in radio will even give me a chance now, at least until my popularity becomes like American Idol."

But the Poorman has a dream. . . . "This is what motivates me," he says. "I wanna make so much money—I'm not even close—but I wanna make so much money that I can buy KROQ. My first meeting, I'll have everybody gathered, and I'll fire 'em all right there. Even if I'm in the building alone after that, that's my ultimate dream—so they can experience what it feels like. I just want them to feel the joy."


lythompson@ocweekly.com

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