Foreword: A Personal Tribute to My Husband Gordon Spencer

Hannelore and Gordon

Gordon Spencer had been working on this memoir for many years, reflecting his lively, fascinating, and sometimes turbulent professional life, passionately devoted to radio and theater. At one point in our married life I had suggested he do this. Sadly, he got only as far as his years in Milwaukee, leaving thirteen years in Pittsburgh and five in Omaha not documented because he died in February 2018 at age eighty-four.

Gordon loved Omaha—though he was understandably reluctant at first to make such a big cross-country move from Pittsburgh at the age of nearly eighty. But he did it for me so we could live near my family.

As his widow, I finally read Stationbreaks2bygordonspencer “from cover to cover,” recognizing some of the stories he’d shared with me over the years but also encountering many I knew nothing about. I knew also that there was much more to this wonderful man that wouldn’t have made it into a memoir about his professional life, and so, in this foreword, I want to tell you a little about that side of Gordon who was truly the love of my life.

I first fell in love with Gordon’s beautiful speaking voice when he was the morning-drive host on New York’s biggest classical music station at the time, WNCN. Newly single, I decided to pursue the man behind the voice. I wrote him a bold fan letter. He told me later, “Classical music DJs don’t get a lot of fan mail!” Our first date—a blind date—was a four-and-a-half-hour lunch at an Indian eatery in 1981. Less than a year later he accepted a job as morning-drive host on the classical music station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Gordon had dreamed of living—partly because he felt a profound spiritual bond to Native Americans and partly because of the state’s indescribable natural beauty.

Gordon was smart, funny, and well-read. He was incredibly knowledgeable about theater, movie and film scores, literature, history and world affairs, and, of course, jazz and classical music. He had a collection of 2000+ vinyl recordings, mostly jazz, that he knew intimately. He could walk to the shelves and within five seconds pull out any record you asked about. And there also were hundreds of CDs, cassettes, and open-reel tapes of interviews he had conducted with renowned jazz and classical performers and composers throughout his radio career.

He was a performer—having spent most of his work life in radio—a puppeteer, and an actor who was happy and comfortable on the stage. I marveled at his ability to memorize lines. In fact, when we were first courting, he recited to me, from memory, the long poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning; another time, it was the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—both roles! And once, while we were visiting Sicily, he headed straight for the stage of a Roman amphitheater and declaimed the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, as a group of French girls on a school trip looked on and applauded.

He was an excellent writer, as you’ll see, and a perceptive editor of some of my work for clients. He was a photographer with a keen artistic eye who took thousands of stunning photos on our many travels.

He was an avid and fast reader with amazing retention and had at least one book and four magazines going at any one time, including the weekly New Yorker. There was a funny incident he related to me during President Obama’s first term. Gordon was shopping at Trader Joe’s with his New Yorker shopping bag; at the checkout, the clerk commented on it, and Gordon told him that he never read a current copy of any magazine until he had caught up on all previous issues and was now about four years behind. The witty clerk remarked, “Well, sir, did you know that we elected a Black president?”

Gordon taught Italian to English speakers, and English to Italians when he lived in Genoa, Italy, for four-and-a-half years; he could get by in French, German, and Spanish, too. He also taught jazz history. He knew how to hook up multiple pieces of stereo equipment, but was not quite as good with computers—though his intuition occasionally helped him figure things out. Most often he followed the rule that said: just turn the computer off and then turn it back on. That often did the trick.

Gordon was a wonderful cook and loved grocery-shopping and couponing—how many men do that?! He taught himself how to cook Chinese food—when he lived in Italy. On our third date he cooked filet mignon and green beans in his postage-stamp-size kitchen in Manhattan. I was impressed!

While I was recovering after cancer surgery on a Valentine’s Day many years ago, I lamented to him about the hospital’s bad food. The next morning he arrived with a foil-wrapped package that held an English muffin slathered with butter and jam. When I asked him how this sublime treat could still be so warm on a cold February day, he said: “I carried it inside my jacket, next to my heart.”

We loved to travel together. He was a fearless explorer, though not a particularly good navigator—never afraid of getting lost or even just daring to drive in Italy or Germany or Spain, which often meant taking our lives into our hands. And we spent many an hour after dinner back home reminiscing about a dish we had eaten somewhere in Peru or Egypt or Iceland. That was my cue to get out the relevant travel diary in which I had documented every meal we ate en route and read passages out loud to relive the experience.

Gordon loved cats and I learned to love all of our feline children, starting with the stunningly beautiful chinchilla cat he had in New York with hair that was, I swear, three inches long. When he brought Sulu (as in Mr. Sulu from Star Trek) to check out my apartment, I was mostly worried about fur getting on my dark furniture. Gordon had great respect for, and fascination with, all creatures—especially the smallest ones, and loved watching spiders spin their webs on our patio. And when I got terrified at seeing a spider in the house, he rescued me by lovingly wrapping it in a tissue and carrying it outside, explaining: “Hey, it was just lost.” I now also take spiders outside.

Gordon was incredibly generous. About a month after we met, he gave me, for my birthday, a huge boom box: a portable radio with a tape deck and two big speakers. Over the years he presented me with many other wonderful, thoughtful gifts. But the most beautiful gift Gordon gave me was his devoted companionship and unconditional love. I never questioned that and consider myself so very lucky to have had him share my life for thirty-seven years. He was truly a blessing.

After Gordon’s death I was faced with deciding what to do with his LPs, CDs, cassettes, taped interviews, short stories, poems, and two unpublished novels, as well as the memoir you are reading now. I researched the possibilities and was thrilled to be able to donate The Gordon Spencer Collection to the University of Missouri/Kansas City’s Marr Sound Archives, part of the university’s Miller Nichols Library (https://library.umkc.edu/marr/about). Gordon’s memoir is now also a part of The Gordon Spencer Collection.

I am sincerely grateful to the University and to Chuck Haddix, curator of the Marr Sound Archives, for making such a worthy home for Gordon’s materials and thereby making it possible for anyone to access his legacy.

I hope that scholars, researchers, and readers in general will explore The Gordon Spencer Collection and this memoir to get a glimpse of the man who made my life so beautiful and meaningful.

—Hannelore N. Rogers

    Omaha, Nebraska

    October 2020

Starting the Trip to Many Stations

“My dear children, each character in this tale is represented by a corresponding instrument in the orchestra…” So begins one of many narrations in English for Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf, one I often heard as one of those enraptured children. Little did little Gordon realize that, one day, he’d be telling the same tale with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

I heard those words multiple times, when various actors performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra. My father, Gordon Kahn, was a violist in the Orchestra, and regular visits to the Orchestra Children’s Concerts were part of an immersion into the music integral to my life.

                                
Young Gordon Kahn
   
Young Gordon Spencer Kahn

Even then I dreamed of being a performer, not yet certain what kind or where. Always interested in acting, there was a brief career in New York for seven or so years with roles off-Broadway, in summer stock, marionette shows, TV, and movies. More marginal than significant. Even a brief appearance in radio drama in its waning days. Really, radio was my prime and continuing source of income, even becoming a minor celebrity from hosting classical music broadcasts on stations in Philadelphia (of course), New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Omaha. Right. Change is a constant in the broadcasting business. For me: nine quits to move on, six times fired or let go. Breaks.

My career intersected with many famed musicians: Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Ruby Braff, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Tony Scott, Joe Venuti, Mercer Ellington, Woody Herman, Jay McShann, and more, jazz-wise. Other musicians such as Moondog, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Ned Rorem, Ravi Shankar, Alan Hovhaness, Leopold Stokowski, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, John Corigliano.

Here I am again narrating.

I was born Gordon Spencer Kahn. I didn’t drop the family name to deny being Jewish. I’m not Jewish. My mother was a Christian and as for my father’s side of the family, you’d call them ethnic Jewish; they practiced no faith.

Dad and Mother had wanted to christen me Leopold, after my father’s father, but decided that the choice might look sycophantic; Leopold Stokowski was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director. (FYI: I met and interviewed him in 1970. See below.) They didn’t want to name me Junior, so as a little kid, I was usually called “Sonny.”

Sonny, Dad, Mother
Gene & Sonny 1

By the way, my brother was named Eugene in 1936 shortly after Eugene Ormandy became the Orchestra’s music director. I don’t remember hearing any explanation about that.

Through my early college years, I was also known as Gordon Kahn. But, once I started to host classical music programs on Philadelphia’s WFLN (alongside Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky and Morris Goldberg, a.k.a. Mike Nichols and Gilbert Morris…see below), some confusion arose. The Kahn name was the same for two people publicly involved with classical music. Dad suggested that I use my middle name to become Gordon Spencer.

The Performances Begin

I started out being prepared for a musical career, a tiny tot scratching away at a miniature violin, hating Orlando Cole’s lessons, resolving never to be a musician. All that practicing. Playing an instrument didn’t sound like fun. It sounded like work. Hard work. “God damn it!” Dad said, every time he missed a note or a beat practicing at home. It was work. His work.

I had no idea why he would be tense. I didn’t know that a trained artist, emotionally connected to music, music which means something personal, not abstract, could have exacting standards for him. It took time to discover that sitting on a chair in a symphony orchestra encompasses psychic perils which audiences rarely consider. No hiding in a crowd there. Hit a wrong note, or come in late on a cue and your colleagues can get thrown off and the whole sonic structure could come apart at the seams. Plus you’ve got that guy up front, the conductor, who doesn’t miss much when there are so few of you within his gaze. He’s the boss. Intimidating. Job-threatening. No wonder Dad practiced at home.

Finally my mother got me out of my lessons. She may have saved me from ending up as an adult, verbally flagellating myself because of similar professional terror. Dad said she was spoiling me. She was. Thank goodness.

Nonetheless, little Gordon stood on stage holding a little trumpet next to adult Gordon with his viola in a newspaper photo because Fabian Sevitsky, Serge Koussevitzky’s brother, news-worthily, had conducted a bunch of us Orchestra kids playing toy instruments with some of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in what was then known as Haydn’s Toy Symphony. (Later research revealed it was actually composed by Leopold Mozart.)

GS & Dad

I didn’t know how to play the trumpet; my gig was with a ratchet, but it didn’t make a good picture. Show business.

Dad was always proud of being a member of one of the world’s great orchestras. And he loved how that connected him to many famed people who appeared with the Orchestra. In fact, he introduced little me to a couple of them, Ray Bolger and Oscar Levant.

Ray Bolger w name

Bolger narrated a performance of Peter and The Wolf. So when I went backstage, thrilled to stand in the tall shadow of the former Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, I looked up at his magnificence and saw something I’d never seen before. Long hair in the nose. That’s all I remember from that encounter.

Oscar Levant w name

Levant was to solo with the Orchestra at a summer Robin Hood Dell concert. Dad took me to Levant’s dressing room. “Oscar,” Dad said proudly, “this is my son, young Gordon.” Oscar was trying to put on his suspender-suspended pants but he let them drop to reach out and shake my hand. “Hi there, sonny,” he said. “Oops. Excuse me: I’d better get dressed.” The rest of that connection with fame has also faded.

Sammy Kaye

At the age of nine I led the Sammy Kaye dance band (“Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.”) By the way, he was born Samuel Zarnocay, Jr. (more show business). We merged our talents on the stage of the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. The band was featured live prior to an Edgar Kennedy short to be followed by Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita. Kaye’s tours always featured “So You Want to Lead a Band,” wherein selected audience members competed for prizes, such as free tickets. When Sammy called out to the audience, “OK, fellas and girls, who wants to lead the band?” I waved my hand like crazy from the front row, having arrived early enough with my mother to grab one of those seats.

“Me! Sammy! Me!” I squealed.

“OK, Sonny, c’mon up.” “Sonny!” He even knew my name! I zipped up the steps to the stage to stand in front of a bunch of guys who played music I knew very little about. Pop music. I was a symphony orchestra kid.

Sammy also invited three other people, including a chunky, middle-age, grey-haired lady who must have been at least 45. Plus a soldier in uniform.

Kaye lined us up, side by side, and walked down the line, microphone in hand, asking each of us a few questions about ourselves. He asked me who I was. “I’m a housewife,” I said. Big laugh from the audience. Wow. I was going to sweep that contest.

My turn to lead. Sammy gave me a foot-long baton, the lower part black, the upper white. He told me and the band that we were going to present the wartime hit “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” I lifted the baton and the band started playing that bouncy tune. Once I started waving my arms, the musicians followed my tempo. Which wavered. Which varied. It sounded almost like Spike Jones. Lots of laughs again in the darkened house. But now they were laughing at me when I didn’t want them to. I was no Stokowski.

When the soldier conducted, the selection was Sammy’s own wartime hit, the sweet ballad “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” The band sounded great. It was a perfect fit. The soldier who might never come home to his sweetheart.

Soon thereafter, Sammy walked along us, holding his baton, sequentially over each contestant, asking the audience to applaud for their favorite. The soldier won. Of course, he should have, no matter how he conducted. It was wartime. I wasn’t disappointed to not get the biggest applause. Sammy let me keep my baton, a sort of prize. It was autographed in INK. I treasured it for many years.

Afterwards, as compensation, Mother took me to the nearby Mayflower Donut Shop which had fresh donuts popping onto a conveyor belt past the counter where we sat. I chose one with cinnamon.

Georgeus George w name

Some time in those early days I had another encounter with a famed performer. When I was in my teens I introduced myself to pro-wrestler Gorgeous George. This was relatively early in the wide-spread popularity of pro wrestling and he was one of the best-known villains, given his on-mat preening and superior-to-everyone attitude. He was standing on a train platform opposite mine in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and wearing an elegant camel hair topcoat. I just wanted to say hello to him but couldn’t resist a kid-type question. I approached him, asking with a smart aleck grin, “Really, what is your actual first name?” Neither snide nor showy, he earnestly replied. “It’s Gorgeous, of course.” End of that story.

The Glamour of Stage and Sound

Growing up with music

The sounds of wonderful records filled our home. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, Debussy’s Fêtes, Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah “Bacchanal.” Or, my mother’s favorite, Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne. Plus there were live, in-person string quartets at other people’s homes where I was babysat as my father joined friends playing just for the hell of it. I’d drift off into sweet slumber to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Brahms, whose names I already knew.

Plus my father’s New York family was musical. When Dad had been a kid, his equally young sisters Erminie and Marion were the other two-thirds of Jacksonville, FL’s Kahn Trio. Grandmother had pushed them into starting careers, even though no one else in her family or my grandfather’s were musicians. Grandmom figured there was money to be made with a novelty act: little prodigies dressed all in white playing serious music.

Marion continued playing the piano for the rest of her life, accompanying singers and teaching. And she continued to love performing music. Aunt Min went into managing performing careers of other musicians, admiring their talents, loving them: composers Henry Cowell, Elie Siegmeister, and Vladimir Ussachevsky, lutenist Suzanne Bloch (composer Ernest’s daughter), guitarist Rey de la Torre, the Stuyvesant String Quartet, and others.

Marion had two grand pianos in her big Riverside Drive apartment. And even though I couldn’t play the piano, she’d invite little me to sit at one, tell me which keys to play, and together we’d bang out a stirring version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or something that sounded like Debussy. I loved that. She also introduced me to jazz. Not that she played it. But she admired Duke Ellington. Just before Christmas 1944 she bought us tickets for an Ellington Orchestra Carnegie Hall concert. Neither of us could get over how debonair drummer Sonny Greer looked. We liked the music, too.

At Marion’s apartment, my brother Gene and I would put on shows for the family where Gene and I would act out scripts that I had written, those resembling the kinds we heard on the radio with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, the Great Gildersleeve. I’d take the character voices, allowing Gene to be the announcer. Announcers weren’t interesting enough. Poor Gene, I was the pushy star; he was the shy younger brother.

On one such visit my mother’s sister Fanny bought theatre seats for Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town—the original cast—starring co-creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The music sounded great. But I didn’t understand the story. She also took me to Carousel, which got to me, making me cry through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after seeing John Raitt’s Billy Bigelow go off to heaven and leave his sweet young daughter.

John Raitt in Carousel w name

As a pre-teen, convalescing from complications following what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy, radio constantly supplied entertainment. And re-connected me with jazz, still not knowing the word when Duke Ellington hosted a program, sponsored by Pio Wine with the singing jingle: “Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine, Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine. Ask for Pio Wine each time. There’s port, sherry, and muscatel, Jack, the flavor sure is swell, a wine that no one can decline, keep some handy all the time.”

Doug Arthur w name

Then announcers started to sound almost significant. Listening to daytime disc jockeys nearly convinced me. From Glenside, PA, WIBG’s Doug Arthur (born Lexington Smith), for example, every day said the same thing: “Doug Arthur. Danceland. Records,” introducing his show. No further words. That was polish. That was modesty. Over the years many d.j.s would do the same kind of thing: little signature phrases or sentences to start or end their shows. I did something like that myself eventually.

And there were transfixing radio serials with Pierre Andre making the most of “Captaaain Midniiiight, brought to you by Ohhhvaltine.” Or Del Sharbutt’s creaminess making rich, hearty Campbell’s Soup sound resonantly nourishing. And there was The First Nighter. He hung out with actors! Going to plays at a little theatre off Times Square where he mingled with such stars as Barbara Luddy and Les Tremayne. Another performing future seemed glamorous: radio actor.

Aunt Fanny knew how I loved the radio and bought me a radio play set with scripts and a wooden microphone. Plus sound effect equipment: a wire brush to scrape on a table, simulating moving train wheels, a rack of wooden pegs to move up and down suggesting a marching army, little rubber plungers to bang on the chest and conjure horse hooves, pieces of plastic to crinkle and make a sound like fire. And I developed quite a repertoire of voices: French accents, old ladies, tough guys, faking a man’s deep voice before I hit puberty. My New York family got regularly startled by getting phone calls from strange people they didn’t know, until I revealed the boy behind the vocal curtain. Were they humoring me? Maybe.

The voice was on its way.

The Kid Starts Starring…Sort of

Youth

(Partial entry)

In the 8th grade at Sanford Prep, our teacher Mrs. Russell wanted the class to put on a performance of The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders.

Knave of Hearts

I knew I was destined to play the lead; I just didn’t  realize which one.

Cute, giggly Pamela was to be Lady Violetta, the future queen who made the tarts. Actually I was assigned to be King Pompdebile The Eighth, not a lead role after all, because I could sound like someone really old with a cracked voice. Young people always think people’s voices change when they age. Only when we get to be that old do we realize that’s one of the few things that often doesn’t change.

When we started reading the script out loud it became clear that Pamela just didn’t have it to be Lady Violetta. She sounded like she was struggling even to read the words.

“Does anyone here think they can help Pamela?” Mrs. Russell finally asked. Good teacher, huh?

Guess who?

“OK, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “Let’s go back to her first lines. Pamela, read them, please.”

Pamela made a face. I don’t think she wanted help. Especially not from me.

“Am I late?” she began reading. “I just remembered and came as fast as I could. I bumped into a sentry and he fell down. I didn’t. That’s strange, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because he stands in one position so long…”

By now we had all heard those lines often enough that we didn’t laugh. But Pamela read it all in a sing-song voice and missed all the chances to be funny.

“All right, Gordon. What do you think?”

I didn’t want to say that she really stunk; I had a crush on Pamela, not that she was interested. So I said, as friendly as possible, “Uh, Pamela, you should probably not make every sentence sound the same. Like when you say ‘as I could’ you should say ‘could’ like it’s the most important word. And the same with ‘sentry’ and ‘down.’

“Do you understand, Pamela?” Mrs. Russell asked.

“No,” Pamela said, pouting.

“Could I read it for her, Mrs. Russell?” I asked.

“Certainly. Go ahead.”

So I pitched my already deepening voice higher and read the speech. I was really good.

Everyone laughed. Including Pamela.

“That’s wonderful, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you read the part for now and let’s see how the rest of it sounds.”

I did get a lead role. One I didn’t expect. Lady Violetta. Mrs. Russell thought it would be strange for me to dress up as a girl—real boys didn’t do that sort of thing—so we’d perform The Knave of Hearts as a radio play. My medium, at last. I also provided sound effects and vocally doubled as one of the heralds. We set up microphones in the basement under the school auditorium and broadcast the show to everybody upstairs in the auditorium. No one in the class was allowed to tell anyone else that it was me playing Lady Violetta until after the performance.

I was a hit. But it didn’t make Pamela like me any better.

For the next five years I’d be on stage in class plays, plays for the French Club. In French. Plus plays for the Spanish Club; one  was Ollantay about one of the great Inca warriors. I played him in a cast that included Ecuadoran Frank Tosi and Venezuelan Leonore Garcia, native Spanish speakers.

Mary Rose

I had always gravitated to foreign languages; it was such fun sounding like someone from another country and pretending to be someone more special than who I found myself to be. I specialized in portraying fathers and other elderlies, not romantic leads.  

I played the father in J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose and an elderly  priest, Father Hart, in William Butler Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire. One part of a speech from that  stays with me still:

“Put it away, my colleen;

God spreads the heavens above us like great wings.

And gives a little round of deeds and days,

And then come the wrecked angels and set snares,

And bait them with light hopes and heavy dreams.”

Why does it stay with me? No idea. And the play was such a mystical and odd choice for such a non-denominational school.

The school motto “No Talent Lies Latent” had another application. I became a different type of performer: a member of the football team. Until I got to Sanford, I’d never play any sport except tennis and only against my father. He always complained, when I hit to his backhand, that I was taking advantage of his need to preserve his right arm for bowing his viola.

Sanford w words

In my first year at Sanford, starting there in the 8th grade, I was still 12 years old when arriving in September 1946. We boys were all expected to play football. One reason was certainly to get good exercise. Another was probably to build character. And a third was so that Sanford could actually field enough players to make genuine teams. There were not a lot of us.

Given my age, I was qualified to join the Midget team. Midget teams were, as the name implies, little kids, grade school kids. To be a part of such a team we had to be younger than 13 at the start of the season. That’s how I made it, being born in October after the season started. I weighed about 145 pounds and was around 5’ 10.”  I qualified, becoming a tackle. Terrifying the little kids at some of the schools where we played. But against The Church Farm School I faced some tough-looking guys around my own age.

With this start in the sport and thus advantaged, I came to love the idea of knocking down other boys with minimum danger to myself. Those were days, incidentally, when there was no such thing as an offensive or defensive team. We played the entire games. And by the 10th grade, starting at age 15, turning 16 in October, of course, I’d made it to the Junior Varsity and the next year as a regular sub on the Varsity team, a tough guard who’d knock ’em down whenever possible.

Part of this performance was what our coach, Phil Sawin, Dean of Men (!) taught us: to mock the opponents across the scrimmage line from us. With such menacing and disorienting phrases as “Look out! The play is coming right over you.”

To build up credibility in our own power, the head of the school and its founder, Ellen Q. Sawin—mostly thereafter called “Mother” by many of us, given that we all lived there from September to June—hand-wrote encouraging notes to us. They were on small pieces of paper which could be folded up and put into our helmets (no pockets). They’d say such things as “Dear Gordon. I know Phil and the boys are counting on you to do your best. And you will. Love, Mother.” On the other side of the paper was a short prayer of which everybody had a copy. Then, before the game started, we’d gather in a huddle and read it all together aloud, but softly.

In my last game against Germantown Friends, in a Philadelphia neighborhood where I’d briefly lived (5th grade at Fulton Elementary), I was looking forward to heroic tackling and fierce blocking. But I never stepped onto the field. I’d left my cleats in the dorm and couldn’t play with street shoes.

Fight song: “A Sanford warrior is a big bold man and his weapon is a pigskin ball. When on the field he takes a big firm stand; he’s the hero of large and small.” So much for my heroics.

Sanford 2 (2)

Extracurricularism and Two New Stations

Swarthmore College produced a lot of plays every semester. That was one reason I applied there. But more, it had a radio station. WSRN. Did I think that Swarthmore was academically interesting? I never thought about that. I liked the fact that it was a small college and had an attractive, small-town campus. Sort of like Sanford. It didn’t turn out to be like Sanford, though, when it came to learning and studying. The College was out of my league; it took some time to learn that.

So I jumped right into campus extra-curricular life. In my first semester, I was all over the place, acting in plays, hosting radio shows, playing bridge, dating, and writing for The Phoenix, the campus newspaper, sometimes edited by the future editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky, and the future editor of Variety, Peter Bart.

Hamburg
Cordonices

I quickly became a familiar person on campus connecting with so many students outside of classrooms. In fact, that actually saved me from being asked to leave at the end of my first semester. The dean of men told me that I had made quite a good impression from all the things I was doing. But that I was not doing nearly enough when it came to getting acceptable grades, and that if I didn’t shape up there, I was on my way out.

More than anything, I wanted to be in radio. I grew up with such glamour. I yearned to broadcast on the air at WSRN. That was totally extra-curricular.

I didn’t have to audition. I just volunteered and the student managers told me I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. Thus I started hosting my own classical music programs using records from the college library and, playing them on the air, announced the names of composers and performers with considerable authority. After all, I could speak French and Spanish and had been around classical music since childhood. I knew a lot of composers’ names and had heard much of their music. Librarian David Peel helped me choose the music. He had his own morning show for a couple of years, Yawn Patrol. I never heard it so I’ve no idea what he did during it. I rarely listened to anybody’s show. I was too involved in my own.

In my mind I was also hearing myself doing the same thing in the future, professionally attired with just as much class as an orchestra member. I would do that in the future, but by then most of us announcers were dressed in casual street clothes.

wsrn w name

That was play radio. The AM signal broadcasts were available only on campus, transmitted over phone lines. The year I arrived at Swarthmore, 1951, FM sets, most often just tuners connected to tube amplifiers, were rare and expensive, equal to around $435 in 2014. How many students could afford that? But SRN did carry FM broadcasts. They came from Philadelphia’s commercial classical music station, WFLN, converted to an AM signal for campus broadcast by some clever engineering major. That was probably illegal but I doubt that anyone at Swarthmore cared. Maybe Franklin Broadcasting, the owners of WFLN, didn’t care either, if they knew. 

The FLN broadcasts via SRN were actually the station’s most popular features. Disappointingly, hardly anybody on campus was interested in listening to something original from those of us trying to do something creative. I took it kind of personally but it didn’t stop me, even though one of my roommates, Paul Baumgarten, said I was wasting my time and should have been studying. And also not regularly falling asleep, for example, when trying to grasp the alleged brilliance of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for one of my English courses.

There were some regularly scheduled programs on WSRN, such as transcriptions, pre-recorded programs sent on 16-inch LPs. I signed up to be on duty to broadcast a couple: Masterworks from France and The U.N. Today. Masterworks came on red translucent vinyl LPs with a half-hour program on each side.

The U.N Today was more prized. It came on just one side of an acetate LP, rather than on plastic. The second blank side could be used to cut another recording and WSRN had such a record cutter.

In fact, the station library consisted primarily of in-station transcriptions made on the back of The U.N. Today. Some of them were things we could never play on the air such as “Friggin’ in the Riggin” or a Bing Crosby outtake of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” where he sang to the same melody with the orchestra still playing, “They cut out eight bars, the dirty bastards/And I didn’t know which eight bars they were going to cut/Why doesn’t somebody tell me things around here?/Holy Christ, I’m goin’ off my nut.”

And someone had hidden a microphone at a sex lecture for women where one of the girls asked, “If I had an orgasm, would I know it?” followed by peals of girlish laughter.

Real in-station programming relied on students or faculty bringing in their own records, e.g., students such as Bob Gumnit hosting a folk music show or Dan Ross presenting mambos played by Perez Prado…Boo! Or me airing contemporary classical music from the library.

Buddies Ron Axe, Roger Levien, and I created a short-lived comedy series, The Men.

Gordon: “…brought to you by Wiretap Incorporated. Hear how fast we get results.”

Roger: (on phone) “Hello, this is Professor Green.”

Ron: (on phone) “Hello, Professor. How are you?”

Roger: (on phone) “I’m a communist.”

Gunshots highlight.jpg

And, after a visit by the Princeton Handbell Choir, we offered a performance by the Texas A & M Handgun Choir, punctuating Teresa Brewer’s recording of “Ricochet Romance” with gun sound effects from the station’s files. We had a lot of fun. And someone actually heard us. My roommate, Paul Gottlieb. He said we were great.

In no time I found myself subbing for other students who couldn’t cover their shifts because they felt they had to spend more time studying. WSRN had two on-air studios, the small booth with two 16-inch turntables, a microphone, and a small console to control the volume of each component. The other was master control, a much larger studio with more and bigger equipment. It directly controlled what went out on the air. So the signal from the small studio passed through it. I liked the small one better than the large one and, being there alone, always preferred it.

On a quiet Tuesday evening, Ralph Rinzler, who hosted a folk music show (and would later go on to be part of the highly successful Greenbriar Boys), asked me to cover for him. Since I knew nothing about folk music and didn’t even like it, I decided to borrow some of David Dulles’ (his uncle was J. Foster) jazz recordings.

I was on the air in the small studio when Pete Jentsch, one of my buddies, walked into the station. And while I was talking on the air, Pete switched on the mike in master control and said, “Hey Gordon? Are you really on the air? Fucking around again? You shouldn’t be playing this shit!” That microphone was on the air.

On my own mike, likewise on the air, I said, “Folks. That was the voice of Peter Jentsch. Now back to our music.”

Pete turned bright red. But we never heard anything from anybody about his language.

Probably, as was often the case, hardly anyone was listening. At that point, few people took Ralph seriously, so probably he had no regular fans. Besides, the smartest students were studying.

They made the right choices. But I was hooked on being in front a microphone, hoping to share the kinds of music I enjoyed, always thinking that someone was listening. No one ever called me or spoke to me about my broadcasts. I had a long way to go.

I liked hearing myself speak in a voice which sounded good on a microphone and I liked listening to the music I broadcast. Music, other than classical? Whatever records I could borrow from guys in my dorm. Some of it was jazz, but I still didn’t know the word. Until, one day, Swarthmore hosted a concert by the Wilbur De Paris New New Orleans Jazz Band. I knew the instruments, of course, but until then, I didn’t know such music could make me want to dance and shout and clap my hands instead of sitting still in respectful silence, behaving myself between movements. And that’s how the word “jazz” finally reached me.

Shortly after that concert I noticed that WFLN had a two-hour Saturday show called Concert of American Jazz, hosted by Morrison Crowley. I started listening. He seemed sort of serious, even if the music was often fun. Little did I realize that, in a few years, I would take over the program.

The College Kid Becomes a Professional D.J.

In my third year at Swarthmore, I got my first professional radio job. Part time.  One day a week for four hours. I learned that pop music station WNAR, Norristown, PA, had been looking for a Sunday disc jockey to cover a weekend slot while the regular guy was away.

Norristown High Speed

Not owning a car, I had to take a local bus from Swarthmore to get there. Arriving at the vast, modern-looking 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby, a place smelling of fresh coffee and warm cinnamon donuts, a tiled walk-through corridor led to the gleaming electric Norristown High Speed Line. 

Was I nervous? Probably not. After a simple audition, I was told that I had the slot, 2 p.m. Sundays, following  Cousin Larry’s Polka Party, a big hit in Norristown, hosted by an older guy named Larry Mullenaro. But then, who wasn’t older?

The following week, whizzing along the track, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone sitting near me would later listen to my debut and think, considering my mature-sounding voice, that I was somebody older and more experienced.

I had been told I could play anything in the record library. Shelves and shelves of 78s and LPs. A candy store.

I quickly gravitated to the pulsing percussion of Les Baxter’s ventures into exoticism, the haunting melancholy of Jo Stafford (“See the jungle when it’s wet with rain, just remember till you’re home again, you belong to me”), the sparkle of Hugo Winterhalter’s “Vanessa,” Guy Mitchell bouncing along atop Mitch Miller French horn choirs, the wash and weave of the waves coloring Frank Chacksfield’s “Ebb Tide,” the way-out-front emotional wailing of Johnny Ray (“Please Mr. Sun…send her a rainbow”), and more and more.

Liberace 78

I saw records by someone of whom I’d never heard and was fascinated by his ornate signature on the label, Liberace. I pronounced it “Lye–ber-EHZ.” I never asked Cousin Larry who that was and didn’t care, I had too many favorites already.

Every Sunday, after my show, I’d return to Swarthmore, proud of what I had done, knowing I was already a paid radio announcer, even though probably no one on campus had listened to me on WNAR. The absence of comment and praise from listeners to either station seemed unimportant. I imagined that, anyway, someone out there somewhere heard and liked what I did as much as I liked doing it.

Moreover, other WSRN people weren’t impressed. They were more wrapped up in their own programs, knowing that they were just on-campus hobbies, that getting degrees and being sturdy scholars was more important.

A Break at the First Major Station

During that time, after I’d transferred to Temple University in Phildelphia, I learned that WFLN was looking for announcers and decided to audition. Yes, the WFLN, which I had often heard as a student at Swarthmore. After all, I knew something about classical music, knew fairly well how to pronounce a few languages or to sound as if I did. Moreover, I had a pleasant, resonant microphone-ready, normally required speaking voice.

At the studios in an up-scale suburb, I was given a script to look at and rehearse. I may have been a little nervous. After all, this could have meant being salaried by a professional radio station while actually still in college. Bigger and more significant than several months of Saturdays following Cousin Larry for a few hours at WNAR while still at Swarthmore. This wasn’t Norristown. It was Philadelphia. It would also mean earning much more than at previous summer jobs in restaurants and delis.

The script contained all sorts of foreign words and phrases, many of which I knew. Moreover, my training as an actor helped me understand how to read the whole thing as if it were not just a collection of verbal hurdles.

Clearly I had left an impression, because that same day I was asked if I knew anything about jazz. Of course I did. I didn’t explain why; I’d listened to Morrison Crowley hosting the WFLN jazz show when I was at Swarthmore. I answered “yes.”

Not long thereafter I got the call. A shift, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., plus the one-hour Saturday Concert of American Jazz. Where had Crowley gone? Why? No idea. But I didn’t ask.

I was told, however, that two previously regular staff announcers would get their jobs back if they wanted them after serving in the Korean War. One was Mitchell Krauss, later of CBS News.

For $50 a week (about $460 in 2017) my responsibilities included doing my own programming, that is, choosing the recordings I wanted to broadcast, standard at most stations then. Program Director Mike O’Donnell, of course, had to approve the choices, although selecting the jazz records was entirely up to me.

In the filing system everything was easy to find. All the recordings were filed by label and by the label’s catalog number. To find them we only had to look in The Schwann Catalog, a monthly listing of all the records known to be available in the U.S. It was invaluable for record stores. And for WFLN, too.

GS at WFLN

I also had to do what announcers did at most stations during broadcasts: keep a log of every element, noting when each record started and ended, plus when each commercial was read and its length; run the turntables; operate the console (called a “board”) that controlled the volume of the signals from the turntables, tape machines, and microphone while on the air; watch the VU (volume unit) meter on the console to make sure that there was no over-modulation causing distortion; read commercials live; gather news from an Associated Press news printer in another room; edit and read the news on the air; and, every hour, write down on a transmitter log the readings of the dials displaying the power of various components to make sure that they were within the correct ranges, plus, of course, talk to listeners on the phone if they had questions about something we broadcast. 

And, at WFLN, there was an added duty for anyone on the air at 12 noon, that is, to have finished the music and the talking at precisely noon so as to connect via the board with WQXR in New York for a New York Times 15-minute newscast. Eventually, by the way, I’d be the one of those newscasters.

Actually, hardly any of these procedures were new for me; I’d learned about most of them in my radio course at Temple.

I hosted Morning Concert from 10 a.m. to noon and Afternoon Concert from 12:15 p.m. (after The New York Times news) until 3 p.m. Then, an older guy who looked to be in his 50s, Gil Morris (a.k.a. Morris Goldberg, as mentioned above), would take over Afternoon Concert, and Evening Concert until sign-off, when the transmitter tubes were turned off to cool overnight. Dig those clever program names.

Mike Nichols w name

The early morning show, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., was hosted by Mike Nichols, who, as I mentioned above, was actually born Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky. I learned that many years later. Yes, the famous Mike Nichols, just a few years prior to national fame. His show was titled Morning Potpourri. And his music selections seemed very interesting. Songs from the Broadway production of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s Street Scene, theatre monologues by Ruth Draper, music by Alec Wilder conducted by Frank Sinatra. Plus lots of Baroque music.

Mike, only a couple of years older than I, always acted as if he didn’t like me. Why would he? I probably seemed like a know-it-all college kid. He also knew that, waiting to take over the console, I was staring at his ca. 1950 toupée. Me, feeling superior because I had real hair. Me, feeling superior because I thought I knew better than to play all that repetitive baroque music. And all that theatre stuff. That wasn’t classical.

In time, though, I’d learn to love Street Scene and Ruth Draper. By then, no commercial classical music radio station wanting to keep listeners would dream of broadcasting singing or talking that extensively in the early morning.

Mike was fired not long after I arrived, even though his program was very popular. It had been his duty to warm up and get the transmitter tubes humming one half-hour before he could broadcast. But he came in late once too often.

I became the host of Morning Potpourri. Most radio programs began and ended with theme music, the same music every day. Sort of a signature. I chose a dance from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Lively contemporary music, the kind of music people should notice rather than that Baroque stuff. I was more interested in the kinds of music that I rarely heard in concerts than in the usual Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin. Nothing too modern, though. It took me years to get around to loving earlier music.

Meanwhile, I reveled in how many jazz LPs had already accumulated in the library. The mid-’50s, as it turned out, were great years for jazz recordings. By the early ’50s long-playing records, LPs, made it possible to re-issue and improve what previously had often sounded like scratchy 78s. An LP turned at 33 and 1/3 revolutions per minute. 78s were at 78 rpms. 78s could at the most contain about five minutes per side. LPs could hold around 20. This meant that jazz musicians could stretch out their ideas to whatever length they wanted, as they had always done live when not compelled to think about doing their best under 78-rpm constraints. The mid-’50s saw the birth of jam session recordings, of audio visits to live concerts, as far back as Carnegie Hall concerts of the 1930s. And the brilliant informative liner notes were a godsend to someone like me, who, actually, had to learn about the artists to be able to share the information with listeners.

I began listening to jazz while the classical music was on the air, by listening on my headphones to a separate channel on the board. I had so much catching up to do. And it was such fun, listening to Bessie Smith’s urgent, sturdy blues, Jimmy Lunceford’s bouncy band, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, Eddie Condon’s catchy groups, Buck Clayton’s jam sessions, Herbie Mann’s not-yet-folky flute, the incredible, fleeting fingers of pianist Mel Powell, jolly Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker’s pungencies, as well as performances by two much-admired artists I would later meet, interview, and hang out with, clarinetist Tony Scott and extraordinary cornetist Ruby Braff.

I pored over the information in Barry Ulanov’s History of Jazz in America so much so that the weekly, two-hour program, Concert of American Jazz,  became as much a focus of my time and energy as all the rest of the hours combined, even though I didn’t like the title I’d inherited. There were many great recordings by artists from other countries, such as Django Reinhardt and a French pianist newly arrived in the U.S. to settle in Philadelphia, Bernard Peiffer, whom I interviewed. There were Swedish musicians, English musicians, Australian musicians, Cuban musicians.

Meanwhile, was my morning show programming as creative as Mike’s? Probably not. Did I do everything right? Probably. Was I ever late getting the station on the air? No.

One day Program Director Mike O’Donnell told me that a jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith, was in town to play at the Blue Note and asked if I’d like to interview him. Smith would come to the station. I quickly read about him to prepare for my first-ever interview. Perfect. He had the right background for talking on a classical music station. He had played Schoenberg and Gershwin with the New York Philharmonic.

WFLN had been getting letters and phone calls complaining about the jazz program even before I inherited it. The complainers hated the idea that their station, the only one in Philadelphia to present classical music, would not have classical music every minute of the broadcast day. I never found out if they had also resented Mike Nichols’ choices on his morning show; they probably did. Moreover, to some of them, jazz was like that noisy, intrusive pop music you could hear on other stations. FM to them meant Fine Music. And how could a growling trombone, bouncing boogie-woogie piano, a wailing trumpet, or Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice possibly be considered fine?

But I was going to show them how wrong they were. An interview with Johnny Smith would do it. This gentle, well-spoken man, of course, explained how he loved classical music and went on to point out that the guitar was an instrument of choice as far back as the Renaissance.

Did that stop the complaints? Of course not. It never occurred to me that listeners who were against jazz wouldn’t be listening.

Johnny Smith w name
Bernard Peiffer

Billie Holiday. And My First Firing

WFLN Program Director Mike O’Donnell then asked me if I knew that Billie Holiday was performing in town. I didn’t. Nor did I know much about her. “She’s a singer, right?” I asked Mike.

So I started studying about her career. Nothing that I read said much about her personal devils.

I called Jack Fields, the owner of the Blue Note, and we set up an interview. I took the WFLN portable reel-to-reel tape deck.

The Blue Note was on Ridge Avenue, right in the center of a black ghetto. Why was such a club in such a run-down neighborhood instead of someplace more elegant, befitting the marvels and joys of jazz? The place smelled of dead cigarettes, spilled beer, and sour wine.

Jack took me to a small dressing room back of a tiny stage where Ray Bryant was playing the piano. And Jack introduced me to a haggard older lady with all of her 40 years looking like a heavy load. She smiled sweetly.

Gracious and charming, gentle and kind, sounding as vulnerable and sweet as the way she sang, she told me how much she admired the music of Debussy and Ravel, how she’d always loved classical music. Yeah. Right. Trying my damndest to convince those anti-jazz listeners that they were wrong to look down their noses at such great music.

After what seemed like a long and wonderful time talking, I felt we had had a good talk and stopped the tape.

billie-holiday w name

“That was really interesting,” Billie said. “Can we listen to some of it?” 

“Sure,” I said, thrilled that she was impressed.

I rewound the tape and started it.

Silence. There was nothing on it. I don’t know what happened. Probably in my nervous eagerness, I’d forgotten to push the right buttons.

“Oh, honey, that’s too bad,” she sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to do it over.”

More graciousness warmed that tiny room. I didn’t realize yet that re-takes were a part of her everyday life.

Ray Bryant was playing again: “Cubano Chant,” one of his more famous tunes. Jack left the room. I forgot to ask him to hold off until after the interview. I’d already started, not smart enough to wait.

Nor was I relaxed enough or experienced enough to go over the same questions again. Maybe I thought she’d be bored. Maybe, I thought, what the hell, we already talked about Debussy and Ravel and we should explore other subjects.

So, having read enough about her to know her background, we talked about her career.

It did record. And I left Lady, joyous that I had met her. A life-long fan, long after she found eternal peace. It was love. It still is.

Since then I’ve broadcast my edited version of that tape over and over again on jazz programs in New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee. And, sometimes on TV documentaries about her, I hear the exact same words and inflections I know so well and recognize that someone copied my interview and is re-using it. That’s fine. I don’t own Billie. She belongs to all of us.

One day, a 30-something, very civilized-looking friend of a friend, Joseph Seaman, who lived near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in an elegant house, asked me if I thought he should audition for WFLN; he knew a lot about classical music. Or as he put it, “What…what about my…(yelling) MOTHERFUCK…SON OF A BITCH…trying out to be a…SHIT SHIT…announcer?” I thought he was putting me on. He wasn’t. His subsequent conversation was equally peppered with similar outbursts. I didn’t know about Tourette’s Syndrome, coming across the term only in later years. And I didn’t know how to tell him that the station would never hire him.

Mike O’Donnell asked me about Joseph before his audition; my name had been given as a reference. I told Mike about the spontaneous outbursts. The audition took place anyway. Afterwards, Mike said that, as long as the mike was open, everything sounded fine, there was never a pause, never an obscene word. But of course, WFLN couldn’t take the chance.

Back when I took over the morning show, a classmate of mine from Temple, Steve Yedenock, had joined the staff to take over my previous shift. He, too, had been alerted that a returning veteran could take back his job.

Then it happened. Mitchell Krauss was coming back from the war. It meant either Steve or I would have to go. I was given notice. Why me? I don’t know, but it might have been due to my tendency to be outspoken or to be open about disagreements of opinion, given that, at my young age, I knew so much about everything. Maybe it was the listeners’ antipathy to the jazz show and my connection with it.

Naturally, on my final jazz show, I told the listeners, over a lugubrious guitar solo by Johnny Smith, that the management had decided to cancel the series and, with it, my presence on the station.

Calls of anger and disapproval of those decisions swamped the station. Letters, too. Great, I thought, the management will see how popular I was. I didn’t think any further than that. In my first job ever as a professional radio personality, I didn’t know the rules. You go public with that sort of thing and you get long-term consequences. You don’t become known as a star in the business. You become known as a trouble-maker. That year I certainly gained a reputation in broadcasting, and it wasn’t a good one.

I was emotionally devastated. I’d never been fired before. And I was making good money for someone my age. Plus there was all that prestige on campus and in public, making me feel like someone significant. It was as if someone robbed me of my identity.

Little did I know that being fired in broadcasting goes with the territory. Historically, being a radio or TV station personality means always walking on thin ice. Ratings ebb and flow. Formats crack and sink. Managements get nervous. New ownerships decide to go in different directions. They change whatever they think is not working, which, most often, means what’s called “the talent”—us.

Face it, over a couple of years, Crowley was gone from WFLN, so was Nichols, and so was I. But FLN was in a tiny niche with little relationship to the big stations in town. My swansong may have meant something important to some listeners, as well as a pain in the ass to the management, but it got very little notice elsewhere. After all, I was not an established personality on a big Philadelphia station, like say, Steve Allison, Bud Brees, or Art Raymond on WPEN.

1950s Philadelphia Radio Stars. WHAT and Me.

They were the big time. Steve Allison (“The Man Who Owns Midnight”) hosted a late-night live talk show with celebrity interviews, broadcasting from a Center City restaurant on the ground floor of WPEN’s Walnut Street building. That was glamour, I thought, taking dates there a couple of times. The restaurant served sandwiches, coffee, New York-style cheesecake.

Ensconced on simulated-leather banquettes, our tables facing Allison sitting at his own table on a raised stage, we stared at his cheap-looking blonde crew-cut toupée and his hairy arms exposed in a short sleeve shirt beneath a sports jacket. He loved to talk about himself, often referring to his own Broadway career, especially when talking with theatre people. He’d been in one show, the 1946 musical Call Me Mister, that featured returning World War II veterans. Clearly I didn’t admire him, but I envied his fame and success and, taking dates to his live broadcasts, felt like being close to show business glamour.

Every so often, Art Raymond, a.k.a. “Pancho, The Man in the Black Sombrero” who hosted a WPEN mambo d.j. show, looking slender and elegant dressed in black, sporting a sporty black hat, would stride into the restaurant from the upstairs studios.

Bud Brees w name

Bud Brees, another d.j. on the station, had his own shtick, too. His theme music was “I’m Just Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,” and he sang along with it to intro and outro his show.  Sometimes he’d also sing along with pop music instrumentals. Naturally that got him attention, which the management must have loved. He also generated anger; some people felt he was a show-off or that he couldn’t sing well.

Steve Allion

Allison was actually the major generator of full time, nasty heat. He expressed his opinions on the air. And, since he took live phone calls from listeners, he’d disagree with them, eventually building up quite a negative following out there in the city’s darkness. He’d tell them off right on the air. “Go back under that rock where you came from” was one of his standard retorts. Man, that was celebrity.      

So, while developing enemies who’d never met him, Steve Allison had it made…for a while. But he got involved in a scandal involving teenage girls, despite being married and having his pregnant young wife sometimes appear on his show. He was too famous to be forgiven. His hatred club rejoiced.

Somewhere in there, still a student at Temple, I became a fan of late-night radio monologist Jean Shepherd on KYW, fascinated, amused, and envious of his verbal talent. I went to watch him perform a live broadcast from a hotel restaurant in West Philadelphia, where Penn students also hung out. Shepherd always started his program with Eduard Strauss’s “Bahnfrei Polka.” I had a chance to briefly talk with him…which seems odd in retrospect, since he’d often remind listeners that he couldn’t talk to them while he was working/performing. I asked him why he chose that music for his theme. “Because it expresses complete mediocrity,” he answered. I sat down, trying to figure out what that meant. Some days later, I had several explanations, including that he was putting me down.

Jean Shepherd w name

Shepherd remained a rarity in broadcasting, not offering up samples of someone else’s talents, but being the talent. Few of us in this business will ever equal him. By comparison most of us program hosts remain generic, offering maybe a few personal touches, in fragments, sandwiched between presenting sequential musical creations of actual artists, rarely representing a complete, real person. We might become memorable over time, though, if we stayed in one place long enough to have our names and voices identified with the same station.

For many years, prior to the emergence of talk radio, sounding too quirky or specific inevitably led to annoyed listeners, always prone more to complain than compliment. In such cases people were more likely to say they hated the broadcaster, rather than hating what was said or how it was said. Managements were often of two minds about such ire. Generally, bland was better for selling advertising; too much hatred could have rubbed off on the stations themselves.

I was not in Shepherd or Allison or even Art Raymond’s glamorous league. I had been a one-year host on the margins of broadcasting. Not pop music. Not news. I was nowhere.

And it felt like nowhere.

WHAT’s That?

Hy Lit w name
Reggie 2 w name

Then another foothold materialized. Ivan Shaner (a.k.a. Gene Shay), a WRTI classmate who sometimes hosted shows with me on that Temple U. station, had a few weekend hours on WHAT and told me that the program director had been looking for someone to cover a Sunday shift. And since jazz was a regular feature there, maybe I could get in. Newly emerging rock and roll was the big deal, hosted by such stars as Hy Lit. He was white, although WHAT aimed much of its programming at black people with a couple of very popular black d.j.s, Jocko Henderson (“Tell ’em JOCK-OHHH sent you”) and Reggie Lavong (“A pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a microphone”). 

I got in. Maybe it was because it was clear I knew about jazz and, having said that I was a fan of pianist Herbie Nichols, it marked me as someone really hip.

I’d also listened at times to WHAT. And one commercial had stuck out. It was for Tappan’s Jewelers. There was a compelling sound effect. While the d.j. read the name, he spelled it out, “T A P P A N S,” and with each letter there was a perfectly timed tapping sound.

I’d expected some remarkably skilled coordination with a sound effect disc. Instead, on my training day, I saw how that was done. Mundanely, the d.j. just held a pencil in one hand tapping on the console while reading the copy on the air.

There was a very special duty on my Sunday morning shift. I had to engineer a two-hour live, black preaching and gospel music show. The host arrived with his singers—so many that they sweatedly crowded the studio next to mine. But before they could go on the air, they had to first give me all the money—cash—they paid the station for renting the time slot. They got their money from selling advertising on the show, a concept known in the trade as “brokered broadcasting.” Most important, WHAT owner Dolly Banks told me that if they didn’t pay they would not be allowed on the air, and that I had to count the money, put it in a zippered bag, and throw the bag over the transom into her locked office.

They always paid. But no one had ever told me what I should do if they weren’t allowed on the air. There were no gospel records standing by. And if there had been, I wouldn’t have had any idea which were the good ones.

As for my own jazz shows, I got friendly calls from black listeners who really dug what I was presenting. One young man, after a few weeks, asked me if I needed “a sidekick” to help me on the show, that he’d do things like bring me coffee or help me select the music. I invited him to visit to watch me perform but turned down his offer.

And for several weeks I was getting calls from a very friendly woman suggesting we get together for drinks some time. I decided to take her up on it. She asked me if I knew she was black. Of course, I’d assumed so and didn’t care. I grew up without prejudice. I’d never dated anyone black and had no black friends, but, as a lover of jazz, I idolized black artists. I also pointed out to her that I was white; she’d figured that out.

We went on a date and, on a hot summer night, went up to my one-room apartment, where she said she felt too hot and took off a few of her clothes. I saw more of her than I had expected, but didn’t know what to do about it. I remained a virgin. And we never saw each other again.

But no longer at WFLN and with only a few hours at WHAT, I still had the ongoing costs of college, meals, clothes, subway fare, and maintaining a car I wasn’t using much. One way to pay was a job making sandwiches in an industrial cafeteria, meaning getting up at 3 a.m., taking the Broad Street subway and then a bus to arrive at 4:30 to start ahead of the morning shift. By 10:30 a.m. I was on my own. Plus, there was such a thing as a free lunch.

Not very glamorous. But it freed me to act in plays at Temple in the evening, so long as I was able to nap in the afternoons.

Still, I wanted to be in broadcasting full-time.

The A. C. D.J. “J” Also Means Jazz

WONDerful Music

Atlantic City had always lured me. Since childhood it had seemed so glamorous. My parents took Gene and me there often. So, not making it in Philadelphia in the summer of ’56, I contacted Atlantic City stations.

Amazingly an AM pop music station, WOND, Pleasantville, on the mainland across from Atlantic City, was looking for an overnight d.j. to take over in the fall.

“WONDerful music,” was the slogan. It featured the kind of thing adults would love, not rock and roll. The sounds of Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, Patti Page, Lawrence Welk, The Four Lads, Pat Boone, Gogi Grant, Perry Como, Doris Day, and some of the same stars whose records I’d already featured just a few years before on WNAR. Clearly I knew something about that stuff already.

I got the job. Hired by Program Director John Struckell.

I found a furnished apartment in Ventnor, NJ, but also had to devise a way to complete my B.A. degree at Temple. No more performing in plays. Driving 65 miles each way and dovetailing that with my shift wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t want to deal with morning rush hour traffic for daytime classes. I didn’t want to hunt for a daytime parking space near Temple in the afternoon. The best choice was early evening courses. Not every day. I’d sleep in the morning and return to A.C. no later than 9 p.m.

The drive was never easy. About two-and-a-half hours along the Black Horse or White Horse Pike. There was no expressway.

Chrysler

My second-hand 1947 Chrysler was as unreliable as I was as a driver. My parents had never driven. Nor had my brother. We had never had a car. The only people in my family who did were my New York aunts, and they only used them in the summer. I had gone to driving school and had to take extra courses; I didn’t have the aptitude or the coordination, failing several driver’s tests.

I acquired the Chrysler without anyone’s knowledgeable advice. Why that car? Because it had a “semi-automatic” shift, which I thought would make it easier to switch gears. The clutch was less essential, a good thing considering my lack of driving talent. Plus the red plush seats looked classy.

The Chrysler had been getting me to and from WFLN, but I had to struggle to find street parking near my one-room apartment in Center City.

Collecting a few tickets, causing a couple of accidents while not being insured, my WFLN salary had always dwindled. After leaving FLN, I drove as little as possible so as not to have to pay too often for gasoline, frequently parking at a friend’s house way out in Frankford.

Soon after I started at WOND, I noticed that I was regularly running out of oil. An Atlantic City car mechanic told me that a piston ring job would solve the problem. When he told me the cost I was floored. But oil was cheap. So I kept a carton of cans in the trunk. So long as I didn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour, one can of oil would get me from Philly to Atlantic City, or back. Of course, it did slow the trip.

WOND was on a short street named “Old Turnpike” that tapered off into a dirt road on the edge of marshes. The two-story frame house sat on pilings designed to save it if the marshes flooded. There were no other buildings nearby.

The on-air studio looked out on a wooden catwalk over the marshes and out to the transmitter, pile-driven into soggy soil amid waving fronds. Way out there, I learned, the station signal could travel easily out to the ocean, carrying the broadcasts as far away as eastern Long Island. I’d be heard in New York!

Like d.j.s John and his brother George (“George Anthony”), Larry Carle, and Bob Richter, I could play any records I wanted so long as they were “wonderful.” No jazz.

And, especially, no rock and roll. The station was beginning to get a lot of that from record companies, usually on the new 45 rpm format, little discs with only space enough for about four minutes’ worth of non-wonderful music. Any such arrivals were immediately handed over to Chief Engineer Milt Thurlow who had orders to thoroughly scratch them with a screwdriver and throw them out.

So, I had my first all-night show. Midnight to 6 a.m. It felt glamorous, as if there were an intimate connection between me, completely in command of the studios, with people out there in the dark hanging on to my every word and every note of every record I chose to play for them.

A C at night

Being in the station totally alone was different than being at WFLN with everyone always busy in the offices, or at WHAT with visitors constantly dropping in. This was deep night on a deserted road with stars clearly shining overhead, far enough away from Atlantic City but close enough to be able to see its bright lights twinkling across the bay. And, every so often, someone would call, a person of the night, and we’d have a friendly chat. I developed fans, of course. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t have to do or say anything special. I just had to be there.

Never feeling sleepy, I was alive and happy all through the fall and winter, managing a few classes without much difficulty, able to keep up with the cost of oil. Filling up the oil and checking the gas.

Changes in the Air

Steel Pier

My first spring at WOND things changed. I married Vene Cipriotti, my beloved girl friend from Temple, from where she had just graduated, even though I hadn’t yet. We had met when performing in plays, although she was a journalism major with ambitions of being a writer. Given that she had considerable typing skills already she found a job as a secretary working at the Steel Pier for the Hamid family, which owned it and many local movie theaters. She started writing their advertising copy. Which I would then read on the air.  

We rented a top floor motel apartment in Ventnor. Furnished, of course, with an arrangement to pay summer rates, $150 a month (equal to about $1,225 in 2012) for six months, getting the other six months free. Meanwhile I was still taking evening classes back in Philadelphia.

And my hours at WOND radically altered; I took over the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. Bob Richter became the morning show host when John Struckell left to work at WFPG. Station Manager Howard Green who’d liked my style and radio personality asked me to take over the slot. It also meant that the station could use me in producing its own commercials, working with Traffic Director Alan Israel who wrote the copy. That meant I’d do trick voices in comic commercials. Fun.

Of course, the music would have to be livelier and less soothing than overnight’s. I also had to come up with charming, brief chatter, sounding friendly, not serious, instead of more laid back as the source of gentle companionship in the deep night. Add some Bob Newhart, Stan Freberg, and Andy Griffith comedy LPs. I also found ways to do little comedy bits with my trick voices and using sound effect records and had fun with recorded open-end interviews, voice-tracks where the celebrities’ answers were heard but we could read the scripted matching questions live as if we were the interviewers. Or, in my case, coming up with original questions rather than the intended ones; e.g., Boris Karloff: “I’ve been working like a demon on all sorts of parts.” GS: “Boris, what have you been doing in your garage?”

I missed hearing jazz, though. Oh, I had kept a few LPs I had solicited from record companies while at WFLN, but I wanted to share them with other people, not listen to them alone. I proposed to Howard a two-hour evening show at 10 o’clock. At no extra pay. He agreed to let me have one on Tuesdays.

WOND didn’t have jazz records. There were some LPs that were considered pop music, such as those featuring Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughn singing, or Stan Kenton, Les Brown, and Billy May leading their orchestras in dance band arrangements.

Mathis

Among them, too, was something by a kid a couple of years younger than I, a singer named Johnny Mathis. Billed as “A New Sound in Popular Music,” his debut was really a jazz record. It had arrangements by Gil Evans, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, and Teo Macero who’d worked with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. The bands featured Buck Clayton, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Tony Scott,* Phil Woods, and more great artists. What a range and what a talent Mathis had! He could have been a great jazz singer. But Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller had other plans for him.

*Actually listed as “A.J. Sciacca,” his birth name being Anthony Sciacca (“I’m a Sicilian and proud of it,” he said to me some years later). This was a time when record companies were serious about exclusive contracts, and musicians like Tony couldn’t appear with the same names as on those contracts. He had a major gig with RCA as Harry Belafonte’s music director. Phil Woods, by the way, became “Phil Funk”; Art Pepper “Art Salt”;  Art Farmer “Kunst Bauer” (German for “Art Farmer”); Charlie Parker “Charlie Chan.” 

Anyway, with my own minor collection of jazz LPs, that wasn’t enough for a weekly show on a regular basis. Since WOND already had an arrangement with two of our sponsors, the Pleasantville Music Shoppe and Ocean City Records, LPs were given to the station as partial payment for advertising. So jazz LPs were added. I selected them. What a golden opportunity. Free records. Some of which I kept; no one at the station cared. I still have a few, collectors’ items now.

We d.j.s had another trade deal. Each of us was allowed to find a gas station which would give us a free fill-up once a week in exchange for daily commercials that we’d read and produce every day during our shifts. Mine were for Risso and Graham’s Sunoco Service Station on Ventnor Avenue across from Atlantic City High. Perks, huh?

the-magic-horn

I thought I should have some theme music to start and end the jazz show, like many d.j.s. A pensive, lyrical one called “Spencer’s Song” seemed perfect, not only  because I was a Spencer but also the mood seemed right. It featured one of my favorite trumpet players, Ruby Braff. The LP I used was from RCA featuring the music played on a 1956 Alcoa Hour TV drama called The Magic Horn. Braff had the role of a legendary musician, Spencer Lee. Another of my favorites, trombonist Vic Dickenson performed in it, too. He and Braff were together on some great Vanguard Records sessions around that time. Trumpet player Jimmy McPartland was likewise in the cast. I’d interviewed him at WFLN the previous year. What better choice could there have been?

I called it Just Jazz and each program began with an ad-libbed intro, something like this. “The little man with the battered hat stood outside in the rain falling gently on 52nd Street that warm spring evening. He clutched a folded newspaper under one arm and was able to keep it dry while he pondered which club to go to. There were so many choices. All of them great. Great because so many great musicians were there. The paper had told him who. He loved them all. He loved their music. So where would he go? Into which club? Actually it didn’t matter, because wherever he went, he’d find what he came for. Jazz. Just jazz.”

Like that little man, I loved that music too.

gs at WOND

As spring merged into summer, other things changed. On the air. Larry Carle and Bob Richter, who, in addition to being d.j.s, also sold station advertising and started bringing in a lot of business. Peak season. Which meant that there had to be enough space on the air to squeeze in every possible spot announcement. Which meant less talk about the music. And less music. And more advertising. But the problem was, even though WOND was the highest rated station in the market, management was convinced that other stations could offer lower rates to grab those clients. You’d think that management would have just raised the rates instead of cramming in more.

In July and August we often had so many commercials that we had to use radio library transcriptions which had been specially produced for radio stations, featuring well-known performers’ tracks edited down to about two minutes each. Or we’d cue up the track* from other LPs somewhere in the middle of the song, usually where there was an orchestra bridge between early and later vocal solos. More than once, I’d say, after a slew of back-to-back commercials: “Now, here’s something special: Music!” Nobody at the station minded. But I kept wondering who would be listening to all that talk without much WONDerful music. Probably the advertisers. Or salesmen from other stations hoping to get leads.

*Normally, by the way, we’d cue up the tracks, after putting down the tone arm, by turning the LPs counter-clockwise two turns. The turntables did not pick up complete speed immediately and no one wanted the music to “wow” if not given enough time to get up to full speed.