A couple of ‘critical’ importance
Rich Massabny owes his long career as a critic — as well as his long marriage — to a serendipitous visit to the Northern Virginia Sun newspaper 50 years ago on the off chance they might be hiring.
“I was walking in to look for a job and this guy said, ‘I’m leaving this place. Do you know showbiz, kid?’ And what do you think I answered?” Massabny recalled. Although he had no experience writing about the arts, Massabny replied, ‘Sure!’
One of the departing writer’s bosses asked him to write a review of a show featuring Sophie Tucker at the Shoreham Hotel that night. He did so, and was hired as the paper’s theater critic.
But a new career wasn’t the only thing Massabny found at the newspaper. He met his future wife Judy, a reporter, there as well.
They’ve now been married for 43 years, and the Arlington couple has become well-known in Northern Virginia. Rich Massabny, 76, has hosted three public access television shows for the past 25 years, while Judy Massabny, 71, now works with Arlington County’s Office of Senior Adult Programs to raise the visibility of county senior center programs. She also represents Arlington County on the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics Committee, serving as co-coordinator.
A star turn
Rich Massabny’s unexpected turn as a theater critic wasn’t the only time that being in the right place at the right time furthered his career.
He and Judy attended the Arlington County fair in 1987, when a cameraperson with Arlington Cable Television said he looked good on the station’s monitors as the station filmed fairgoers.
“In those days I had nice, black wavy hair. Not the way it looks today,” he joked about his now-gray locks.
So he went in to the station for an interview and was told they’d let him know about a job in the next few weeks. But just as he was about to leave, a producer came out of the control room in a panic because one of the hosts for a program called “Arlington Weekly News” didn’t show up that day.
The executive producer, Don Hammond, who is still with the show, asked Massabny if he could come up with something to fill six minutes of air time. So he talked extemporaneously about Northern Virginia restaurants.
“So then [Hammond] said, ‘Not too bad. Come back next week.’ And I’ve been coming back ‘next week’ for 25 years,” as the show’s theater and restaurant reviewer, Massabny said.
Around the same time, he began two shows on Fairfax’s public access channel: “Rich’s Place,” a half-hour cooking show with local celebrity chefs, and “Conversations with Rich,” a one-hour interview show with a wide variety of guests.
“Rich is living proof that you can go on and on, no matter what your age, if you really like what you’re doing,” said Judy. “And he just loves all this stuff.”
Rich puts it this way: “When I was 25 and did my first column, I didn’t have any background. But when you get older, you can’t help it. You’ve been here, you’ve been there, so that after a while you’re sort of an expert. No one’s around older than you who’s done all these things.”
He’s also proud of his off-the-cuff style, saying he never prepares for interviews, whether they be with ambassadors, art experts or doctors. The resulting free-flowing style makes the interviews more like conversations, he said.
For example, in an interview with the Lebanese ambassador to the United States at the time, Riad Tabbarah, the two discovered while on the air that they shared a background in New York. Brooklyn-born Massabny moved with his family to Arlington when he was 18 and still retains vestiges of a Brooklyn accent, and Tabbarah drove a taxi when he was a grad student at Columbia University.
“So we got off the subject of important matters. But you want to know something? People remembered that, they loved that. They called to tell me how down to earth and personable he was,” Massabny recalled.
Massabny also puts nervous guests at ease — in his trademark humorous way. A recent guest about to appear on “Conversations with Rich” admitted she had stage fright.
“I said to her, ‘Sometimes I get nervous, too. Sometimes I faint during the interview. But I’ll recover quick, so just keep talking.’
Massabny’s unorthodox trick worked, and the guest focused instead on his fake infirmity rather than herself.
His genial personality comes across in his reviews as well. Massabny lobs any criticism much more gently for community theater than for the larger professional theaters like Arena Stage or the Kennedy Center, for example.
The same goes for restaurants. He acknowledges the brutal business environment for restaurant owners and never completely pans an establishment.
“I don’t think I’d be around this long if I made enemies or didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “To be frank, I don’t think anyone knows more about restaurants than I do.”
In acknowledgment of his expertise, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington paid tribute to Massabny’s 25 years as a restaurant critic at their awards in April.
So what restaurants does he recommend? In Arlington, he likes Chasin’ Tails Crawfish and Seafood Bar and the mom-and-pop pizza joint called Goody’s.
In Montgomery County, he’s fond of El Andariego in Olney, with Mexican and Salvadoran food, and the more upscale Normandie Farm in Potomac.
Chefs from restaurants throughout the region cook three dishes on the half-hour show “Rich’s Place” at the Fairfax studio’s newly remodeled kitchen. Surprisingly, there have been no culinary disasters over the years, Massabny said.
The worst problems have been the chefs who don’t talk while they cook — clearly not candidates for “Food Network Star.”
In those cases, Massabny turns on his considerable banter skills full force, asking questions and commenting on sauces and techniques to fill dreaded silence.
“It’s a gift,” said Judy Massabny. “Rich brings new meaning to the term, ‘I never met a stranger.’ He can walk into a room of 100 people and be perfectly comfortable.”
Indeed, that’s how they met at the Northern Virginia Sun, with Rich Massabny lighting up the newsroom with his bubbly personality.
Judy moved to Arlington in 1961 with family from a small town in western Pennsylvania. She and her father, who had been the general manager of the newspaper in their hometown, both started working at the Northern Virginia Sun.
Judy moved on to serve as public relations director for 30 years for the 500,000-member national trade organization the National Grange, a fraternal, farm and community service organization.
“I loved the organization and who it represented — small family farmers and rural Americans, and its American ideals and values. I was lucky to find my niche in life early,” she said.
Not the retiring sort
But after retiring, “I said, ‘This is not for me, just sitting around.’” So she “sort of fell into a job” as marketing and leasing manager for a new seniors apartment building. And that led her to her current work with Arlington County’s Office of Senior Adult Programs.
Before starting the job, “I didn’t really realize that Arlington County had six senior centers. So I said to myself, this is going to be my mission, to make sure than everyone in Arlington County becomes aware of the senior centers, because they have so much to offer, not only for the senior seniors, but for the younger seniors as well. All kinds of fitness programs, education, travel, hiking, biking, all sorts of things,” she said.
The only problem is that Massabny has been so busy doing her job that she hasn’t had time to take advantage of the facilities herself! Most recently, she’s been involved in promoting the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, which drew the largest number of participants ever this year.
When Judy’s not working, she likes accompanying Rich to the plays and restaurants he’s reviewing. And they also enjoy attending musical events together.
They went to a Taylor Swift concert at the Verizon Center a couple of years ago and were interviewed by the Washington Post because, “we were undoubtedly the oldest people there,” Judy said.
And that doesn’t bother her one bit.
“Both of us have always been involved with seniors. When I worked for the Grange, most of the 500,000 members were over the age of 50. We were both lucky enough to have grandparents. I had great-grandparents.”
While they don’t have children, they enjoy their six nieces and nephews.
“We have always enjoyed working with seniors, and now that we’re seniors ourselves, we can appreciate even more what they were thinking and how they were feeling.
“We love being active and being out talking to people. We kind of want to be role models, too, for others to do that.”