Eric Rhone didn’t start out to be in the ‘funny’ business. Growing up in Normandy and Pine Lawn as the son of a Bi-State bus driver and city school district employee, he probably did not see himself running an entertainment company, making multi-million-dollar decisions and living in a palatial home in Frontenac.
His unlikely path to success is something that amazes Rhone himself. “Isn’t that something?” he says with a genuine smile as we sit at a grand table in his home’s dining room. “That’s what makes this country great, because only in America could a guy from Normandy High with humble beginnings—like most folks—make it. But if you work hard and get an education, the world can open up for you.”
Rhone is wearing a designer suit for our visit, but admits that it’s only because he knew he’d be posing for a photograph—he’d rather be in jeans and a sweater. The photo shoot took place just moments ago in the study, where there’s incredibly fine woodwork and 16-foot ceilings. Atop the fireplace, Rhone proudly points to the framed pictures sitting on the mantel: On one side, there’s a shot of him with President Obama; the other side has a photo of him with former President George W. Bush. He notes the display is symbolic of his views. “We’ve gone to extreme positions on both sides and what we’ve lost is the common ground—the gray area where I think we need to be.”
His opinions count: Rhone is on the board of a number of nonprofits and civic organizations, including the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association and the Missouri Tourism Commission.
Are you laughing yet? Remember that Rhone is in the ‘funny’ business: It all started when he met Cedric Kyles, a Berkeley H.S. grad and comedian wanna-be, in their freshman year at Southeast Missouri State University in 1983. The two became best friends and roommates, and had dreams of being in show business. After graduation, they moved back to St. Louis, where Kyles went to work for State Farm and Rhone got a good IT job at Monsanto.
On the side, Rhone used his business sense as Kyle’s manager and helped him book gigs at local comedy clubs. Rhone later landed his friend a spot on HBO’s Comedy Def Jam, then in Superbowl ads for Bud Light.
Today, we know Kyles as ‘Cedric the Entertainer.’ Rhone, whose enterprises include Visions Management Group and Bird and a Bear Entertainment, is still managing things: The duo is shooting the second season of The Soul Man on TV Land, starring Cedric, with Rhone as executive producer. They’ll take another big step this fall when Cedric becomes the new host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, replacing Meredith Vieira.
“My job is to quarterback and look at his career in its entirety,” states Rhone about his friend. “Ced is a very highly motivated individual; but in this business, it takes someone to look at the big picture and to really understand how to build your brand. Cedric’s brand is like St. Louis: middle-America, great values, great family and strong community. When he’s on TV, people see him and say, I like this guy. I know him, he reminds me of my school teacher or my uncle—just a normal guy.”
Rhone’s wife, Angela, comes into the room; and of course, we recount our North County roots. “Paul went to McCluer,” Rhone announced, and his wife’s face lit up. “I went to Aquinas,” she proudly said. (We were rivals in soccer once upon a time.) Then the conversation turns to the kids: Their boys are 6, 8 and 19. Rhone says success really hits him when he thinks about them. “When I see how they get to grow up versus how I grew up,” he muses. “They have all this technology and they talk to their friends about going skiing on spring break—what?!” He adopts a back-in-the-day tone. “We would just get a trash bag and go slide down a hill, and make our own ski slope. In our generation, we had to make things happen. But the benefit for kids today is that they are totally exposed to so many things.”
The fact that many other young people—especially African-American males—don’t succeed isn’t lost on Rhone, either. “We try to be positive role models; but at the same time, we don’t come off as stuffy. We’re normal guys. Hey, I’m just like you. I could have made bad choices, but I made choices that were good. There we knucklehead guys running around and I decided I wasn’t going to run with that crowd—and that’s what it comes down to: making good choices.”
The phone begins to ring. It’s time for an important conference call from one of his boards. Soon, he’ll be back to business in L.A., where he owns a second home in North Hollywood.
It seems to me that it’s a bit funny—and somewhat ironic—how Eric Rhone’s success is certainly nothing to laugh at.