(These are excerpts from my memoir)
“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.
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 in Philadelphia (of course), New York, Albuquerque. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Right. Change is a constant in the broadcasting business. For me: nine times quitting to move on, six times fired or let go.
And, 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. They didn’t want to name me Junior, so as a little kid, I was usually called “Sonny.”
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, aka Mike Nichols and Gilbert Morris…see below) some confusion arose. The Kahn name was the same for two people publically 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 reveled it was actually by Leopold Mozart) 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.
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 on stage prior to an Edgar Kennedy short to be followed by Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita. Kaye’s tour 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 “O.K. 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 conveyer belt past the counter where we sat. I chose one with cinnamon,
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. 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.”
Then announcers started to sound almost significant. Listening to day- time 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 “Captaaan 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.
(I wrote about how I loved performing for my New York family, Dad’s mother and sisters Marion and Erminie as well as Mother’s sister Fanny.)
We rented a tiny, one-room furnished apartment on upper Riverside Drive, beyond the fashionable zones, bordering on grimy, noisy side streets. But we had an income; Vene quickly landed a job as editorial assistant at Mademoiselle Magazine. Her boss from the Hamid group, Bill Rolley, knew someone on the staff, high enough up to have influence. It wasn’t a major job, but she was thrilled, always hoping to be a writer on the staff of a major magazine.
WNEW Program Director Mark Olds invited me to come over to make an audition. Walking into the magnificence of WNEW was like walking into some kind of fantasy. The station felt like the BIG time, a far cry from WOND, down a dirt road in the marshes, or WHAT’s narrow dark hallways or WFLN’s simplicity in Roxborough far away from Center City bustle.
This station, perched high up in a mid-town skyscraper had gleaming offices, subdued lighting, glass everywhere and pictures of the d.j. stars lining the hallways: Willliam B. Williams, Lonnie Starr, “Jazzbo” Collins. Olds came to greet me in the lobby, dressed in a crisp white shirt within an expensive looking suit, and gleaming black shoes which made no sound as we walked down a corridor to his office. I felt out of that league, a 25 year- old kid among adults in the big time real world. It seemed impossible that I’d ever be part of that monument.
We entered the giant record library where Mark told the librarian that I could take as many as ten LPS for an hour or so. Then we walked along another corridor to a small studio. It had two turntables, a mike and a console. Mark handed me a sheaf of written commercials and told me to put together a show anyway I wanted. And when I was ready, he’d have an engineer, across a glass window, tape the whole thing. Mark said he might listen while it was happening, if he had the time.
I enjoyed the sound of the records I’d chosen. The music made me feel good. Doing a couple of reads-through with the copy, hearing my own microphone voice through the headphones, nervousness left me and confidence returned. My audition went well, I thought, polished, friendly, articulate, a whiz at ad-libbing.
When I finished, Mark came into the small studio. “That was great! ” he said. “You sound really good. I think I may be able to find something for you. We have an affiliate in Cleveland. I can get put you in touch with the program director and send him this tape. I think they’re looking for someone.”
Cleveland? I wanted to be in New York. Trying to hide my disappointment, (what did I think? I’d get a slot, even part time at WNEW? Naïve. ) I thanked him for his compliment and his offer but explained that, having just moved to New York, that’s where I wanted to try my luck. He wished me all the best saying to keep in touch. But I never got back to him; I don’t know why.
There was also WMGM where I called Dean Hunter who hosted programs there. He, formerly known as Gabe Millerand on KYW, Philadelphia, had met my father backstage after a concert and invited him and me to drop in any time at the studios. We did go to see him once when he introduced us to singer Felicia Sanders, stopping by to plug her big hit, “Where is Your Heart?” the theme from Moulin Rouge. That was the only connection I had had with him.
Reminding him of that, he seemed to remember, and told me whom to contact for an audition, even though I’d already sent a tape. I could hear him thinking “Who is this kid, anyway?” I tried to get an interview with the program director using Dean’s name but never could get through.
Well, I’d only been a New York a couple of months and Vene had a job.
I began making phone calls to stations outside NYC. One of them, WNRC, a pop music station in New Rochelle, made me an offer: a d.j. slot on weekends. Mort Fega had a jazz show there; that was impressive; he was major name in jazz circles. However, the program director cautioned me that he was not sure how long the job would last, that people were trying to buy the station and the deal might go through any day. No one knew for sure what would happen to WNRC then.
I took the job. Two weeks later the sale came through, WNRC became WVOX, part of a chain of other stations carrying the same programs. Everyone on the staff at WNRC was fired.
My name however, did appear in a New York newspaper due to the WNRC/WVOX changes. That paper was the weekly Show Business where Ed Rudy in his column, “Records, Radio and TV Notes” wrote (November 24th, 1958) “That seems like a heck of a way to do business.”
I guess he didn’t know that that was business as usual. Changes in ownership are as common as changes in format in radio, although both occurred together that time.
So in four years, five stations. The longest job, which I had quit to seek my fortune in New York, was two years. Some kind of record? Probably not. Eventually I ‘d work at four other stations with ownership changes and, like other colleagues, find myself once again, on the street.
But Show Business reminded me that pounding Manhattan pavements was the route to my other goal: becoming an actor.
Show Business was the major source of casting information, where producers posted notices about the shows they were casting, the kinds of roles, the requirements for singing or dancing, which usually were separate, when the show were scheduled to open and where the auditions would be and where to send pictures and resumes. Most actors relied on Show Business. Especially those of us who didn’t have agents.
How to get an agent? The standard way was to get a role in which agents might come see you perform. Naturally, if an agent thinks you might get regular work, there’s profit in it for the agent. So to get a job, get an agent, to get an agent get a job. Simple!
Minimally directors and producers wanted those “pics and resumès” mailed to them, unless there were open calls, or phone numbers where we could contact the people casting and try to set up interviews or, if really in luck, auditions.
Show Business made its profit from such listings. But it also had plenty of ads for acting coaches, singing coaches, resume coaches, and photographers who specialized in the standard format 8 & 10 glossy pictures.
I had pictures made. It meant setting up a session with a professional photographer, with all kinds of poses and wardrobes from which to choose the best face that looked like me but also looked special and distinctive. Not cheap.
As for a resumè, having created a few when I had been hopping from station to station, I thought I knew how to do that. There was a problem, though: no New York acting credits. So I listed roles I had played at Temple, without specifying where. And listed only three radio stations.
I had to pay for at least a hundred copies of the picture and of the resumè, straining Vene’s and my budget.
We decided to sell our Fiat. That made sense. What’s the point of young people with small incomes trying to maintain a car in Manhattan? It hadn’t been all that useful in those first few months, except to get to New Rochelle. And then, during our first winter in New York, I’d spent a lot of energy and time moving the car every other week day to stay within alternate-side-of-the street legalities. “ Mon.Weds.Fri. No parking 8 am to 5 pm” or the same, instead, for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I had been able to collect a small amount of unemployment insurance from New Jersey those first few months. I qualified because I could claim that I had to leave my job at WOND to be with my wife when we moved to New York so she could take a job there. And my tiny stint at WNRC proved that I had been looking for work.
During that winter and even into early April, I landed five acting roles. All minor. Two were off-off Broadway, on West 71st Street in a church basement where actor/producer Sumner Kernan regularly produced plays for Players West and where he starred in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. He played the Captain. I played a Scot, Leslie Rankin, replacing John Lovelady who’d moved on to something bigger. My skill at accents and my resumè credits (albeit college) made me look like a good choice. Perhaps my beard did too.
This was also my introduction to theatre in the round. I wasn’t used to being that close to audiences; proscenium stages had always kept us comfortably separated. It also meant that sometimes I had to step over audience feet.
Likewise this was my introduction to real New York theatre people. An older chap, Anton Spaeth, was among them. He seemed so elegant and sophisticated. Backstage he and the rest of the cast joked about other actors and about directors. They seemed to know so much about things I didn’t understand, as if they were some kind of exclusive club. But once, alone with Adreinne Leigh, she told me “confidentially” that she thought I was much better in the role than John Lovelady had been. She said that he had played Rankin as silly, whereas I gave him believable seriousness which made the character much funnier. I was flattered.
Then, given my radio-skilled speaking voice, I landed another part there at Players West, Narrator in Edmond Rostand’s The Woman of Samaria, translated, of course.
Although I invited agents, none came. And I hadn’t learned how to network with other actors.
Still the character actor, I also personified an elderly man in a group of other old guys in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata starring Meg Mundy. We had a few lines, but we were basically an ensemble without specific roles. But that was real off-Broadway. Producer Day Tuttle directed it in his new playing space, the East 74th Street Theater, converted from a Czech social club clubhouse.
During rehearsals, Mundy spoke up in front of all of us asking Day for guidance in how to play the role; she was having trouble figuring it out. “I don’t believe in telling actors what to do,” he replied sweetly.
Later, another actor would tell me that that statement most likely meant that Day didn’t know what to do.
The show closed in one week. All the big newspapers covered it and their reviews said it had no style, no point of view. That seemed valid. The playing space, however, got praise, perhaps Tuttle’s principal goal.
Next tiny Blanche Marvin, who ran Merrimimes, a children’s theatre group, at the lower East Side’s Cricket Theatre, saw possibilities in me to play the father in a seasonal attraction Meet Mr. Easter Bunny. My mature sounding voice and my face gave me the kind of somber sound and look to play Father, one of those initially mean dads so common in children’s plays and stories, who would, of course, come around to be a nice guy after all.
I was the cause of a near-disaster during the run. I got tied up in a major traffic jam on the way to the theater and arrived much later than I should have. By the time I got there, the play was already underway. That wasn’t so bad in itself, since Father didn’t come on until the very end of the first act. But, while I was in the dressing room backstage still putting on my costume and make-up, I could hear the cast going through some of the act’s final dialogue.
That act was supposed to come to a dramatic conclusion, as Father walked in on his kids hanging out with a six-foot tall, goofy rabbit who, unlike Mary Chase’s Harvey, was entirely visible.
The final words had been reached. I harshly yelled out from backstage, putting on my shoes, “Children! What’s going on in there?”
The cast ad-libbed some simple stuff in response.
I tied my shoes and buckled my belt. “Children! What are you doing?”
More ad-libs out front.
Finally I strode in. Curtain.
Years later I still have a few residual nightmares about arriving on stage late.
Film extra work finally came: once again as part of a group of guys. This time in a sleazy situation, as members of a “photo club” who were really there to stare at nearly nude women in the low budget horror feature The Head That Wouldn’t Die (later known as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.) One girl got totally nude for the “European version.” A bonus for all of us who could concentrate. When the film emerged several years later, my head was no longer to be seen, nor any of the rest of me. Editing.
By then I had joined AFTRA, the television and radio performer’s union and had certainly been getting paid, I was a professional actor, at last. And, like so many, barely employed.
Oh, and CBS Radio still had a few dramas. I auditioned using my own choice of material to show off my range of voices and accents. Director Himan Brown then asked me why I hadn’t better displayed my own voice. Every one in the business could do voices and accents, he explained.
Radio. There it was again. Maybe that’s where I still belonged, even if not as an actor. But in New York? It didn’t seem possible. But it happened.
From automation to stardom
Sometimes I listened to WQXR which reminded me how much I’d been missing hearing classical music. But becoming part of that staff didn’t seem like reality especially since my last connection to classical music radio seemed so far away in time and place. Plus having been fired by WFLN hardly seemed like admirable experience or a source of a good reference.
Yes, that was only three years before, but time must have had different dimensions. Perhaps it was the intensity of so much happening in such a short period. And perhaps time was also measured by not having lived that many years.
Late one night, though, I tuned into another classical station I’d never heard or heard of. WNCN. Some guy with a nasal, squeaky voice was making minimal announcements about the music. No commentary. Surely I could do better than that.
The next day I called WNCN and asked to speak to the program director. There was none, I was told. Anyway, I let the receptionist know why I called. So she passed me along to the Chief Engineer, Dave Passell. Right away I knew that voice. It was the same I’d heard on the air the night before. What? The chief engineer announcing? Quite a low-budget operation, it seemed.
After I told him that I’d hosted programs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New Rochelle and that I knew something about classical music, he asked if I had an FCC Third Class Radio Operator’s license. Of course I did; it was required at every station where I’d worked. Like most announcers, the FCC required us to take tests to prove that we knew how to run broadcast equipment.
Satisfied that I met that first fundamental requirement, Dave invited me to come to the WNCN offices off Fifth Avenue on West 44th Street and take an audition, saying he might be able to use me.
Wow! What a break. I knew he’d be impressed with my sound and my talent. Once I arrived and I’d told Dave again about my experience, somehow avoiding being too specific about WFLN, Dave handed me a WBCN program guide asking me too read some listings. No microphone. That was my audition. I did better than just read the listings; I ad-libbed introductions to the music. There was no indication that he was impressed. But he did say, in his dry way, that he thought I’d be OK.
And that there was an opening. But he also explained that there wouldn’t be much announcing since WNCN was an affiliate of Boston-based Concert Network’s WBCN and that 12 hours every day of New York’s programs originated there, re-broadcast, delayed, on tapes. The other 12 were on different tapes. That is, I’d be more like an operator than announcer.
While most people think of radio networks as being based in New York, this wasn’t. WNCN, WXCN Providence and WHCN Hartford were part of WBCN’s “bicycle network,” a term I later learned, meaning the tapes came in the mail. It was applied to a few other similar operations. Dave didn’t call it that, of course; the term suggests something cheap. Which it was.
Basically Dave needed someone to run the tapes but who’d know enough about classical music to be able to handle emergencies, such as broken tapes, when it might be necessary to actually speak on the station. The Boston tapes aired from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The other 12 hours consisted of tapes that WNCN or WBCN had prepared. So Dave had produced a few tapes on his own. My job was to run those non-BCN tapes and take transmitter readings, standing by, midnight to 6 am, Tuesday through Saturday mornings i.e. Monday through Friday night, since the hours of the day start in darkness.
The acting career was hardly flourishing. Getting paid for five six-hour nights meant an actual income, meaning that, if daytime acting work turned up I could do it, so long as the show didn’t run past 11:30 pm.
Dave and I made an appointment to meet where he could show me the operation. It was not on West 44th Street. The tapes and WNCN-created announcements came from the same space as the one housing the transmitter. That was at a high-class location: Fifth Avenue near 61st Street on The Hotel Pierre’s 40th floor. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?
A perfectly groomed, superbly uniformed elevator operator whooshed us as high up in the hotel as we could go where a grimy concrete stairway led to a massive, anonymous, thoroughly locked metal door.
Dave opened it.
This was not Sesame cave filled with luxurious goods. A large concrete-floored, high-ceilinged room with one small open window perched above it, had all kinds of partially open, sometimes torn cardboard boxes, in which mysterious pieces of equipment and giant tubes stuck out in every direction. Massive metal shelves held more such arcane pieces. In the middle of the space, a worn-out, big, stuffed leather armchair sat next to an old desk covered with scattered papers.
Meanwhile I could hear Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” coming from speakers behind a less imposing door. There Dave ushered me into a smaller space where a guy who looked about my age sat on a wheeled office chair next to a desk on which there was a small console, a turntable, a radio board with dials for pots plus a small reel-to-reel player. No microphone.
Dave introduced me to Jeff Kuklin, the noon to six “announcer” who oversaw the broadcasting of half a day’s worth of Boston programs.
Behind Jeff, against one wall, sat four giant reel-to-reel tape machines, whose tapes were larger than any I’d seen before. A tape was running on #1. Against another wall, stood racks and racks of blinking lights, dials, knobs, buttons, similar to WFLN’s transmitter equipment.
“Uh,” Dave said, characteristically clearing his throat, “you have to take transmitter readings every hour. The logs are in there.” He pointed to the desk next to Jeff and reached over to open a drawer, Jeff pulling away. Another drawer held program logs plus a sheaf of papers, listing Tapes 101 to 150 with various amounts of check marks next to them.
Suddenly a sound like an enormous raspberry reverberated throughout the room. “What’s that?” I asked, astonished
“That’s the air compressor. It keeps the transmitter from overheating,” Dave explained.
“How often does it go off?”
“Whenever it needs to.”
“But wouldn’t that interfere with the announcing?”
“Yes. But you’ll only announce when you have to.”
“And where’s the microphone?”
Dave pulled open another drawer and withdrew what looked like something out of airport scenes in 1940s movies, a flat microphone on a handle, a lollypop. “You just plug it in here,” he said, putting the jack into an opening above one of the pots. “You use it during an emergency and say ‘One moment please.”
Was he telling me even what to say? “But what if the compressor goes off while I’m talking?” I asked.
“Oh, this mike is not very sensitive. That’s why we use this model.”
“I see a turntable,” I said, “but where do you keep your LPS?”
He pointed to the wall next to the table. There were four LPS there. “Andre Kostelanetz: Strauss Waltzes” was one. “But you’d only play them in a major emergency,” he said. “They’re pretty scratched. ”
“Your commercials are there,” he went on, gesturing to the small tape reel player on the desk. “They’re all recorded.” There must not have been many.
“Who records them? ” I asked, hoping for a chance to actually speak on that station.
“Usually Roger does. He’s our sales manager, But sometimes Bob Ricci, one of our announcers, does a few.”
So, high up in a classy hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, my job was to run tapes and take transmitter readings surrounded by all kinds of equipment in two concrete- floored rooms, one window high above each room to let in the night air. Or rain. Or snow.
Why were any of us operators called “announcers” ? I didn’t ask. Anyway, I’d try it for a while.
My first night on the job, I learned that not all of those 150 non-WBCN tapes were playable. I’d open a box, curious to know what music was on the tape, hoping to select something I’d enjoy hearing, since I could play any one I chose, and discover a hand-written note saying “Defective.” Or I’d see a typed page or just a handwritten one naming the music, sometimes even the performers, but without any timings. Each tape could run three hours and, somewhere between the music and the announcements, my job was to stop the tape, play a recorded station break on the small reel-to reel player. “This is The Concert Network. ….This is WNCN, New York.” Maybe a commercial, but probably not.
I also soon learned that my predecessor had fallen asleep too often in the big leather armchair in the front room. Maybe he should have brought an alarm clock. I brought one and often selected the longest intact tapes, so I could sometimes nap for at least an hour. More than once a night. I never overslept.
As I mentioned above, I had joined AFTRA, the union for broadcast performers. This had no bearing on working for WNCN, where actually I was the first union member there. AFTRA members have never been required to work only for broadcast stations with AFTRA contracts. True, it’s always hoped that, when enough AFTRA members start working for a station, they can collectively unionize that station. But it’s up to them to vote- in the union and thereby get the best salaries, working conditions, health care and pensions.
Meanwhile, daytimes, I kept going to auditions. After a while I also discovered that I was seeing the same would-be actors over and over again. We’d make fun of other actors and casting directors, just as Anton Spaeth and the actors at Players West had done. Except now I was on the inside of the acting scene, even without work.
Soon, some of us decided we ought to try to get acting lessons, just to keep in practice, even though we all believed we had talent and experience. We didn’t think we could afford to pay for courses at any of the acting schools, so, one of the guys, Arnie Weiner, was friendly with a director who’d had a few minor shows, Zeke Berlin. We asked Zeke that, if we each paid him $10 per class, would he conduct a two-hour session once a week? He agreed, so long as he didn’t get a real job.
Arnie was the first of us to get a role on Broadway. Seven years later he (as “Arn Weiner”) had a small part in a play starring Alfred Drake, Michael Stewart’s Those That Play the Clowns.
It was a backstage look at the acting company hired by Hamlet to stage the murder of his father. At that point Americans hadn’t seen and had barely heard of another backstage Hamlet story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Americans had barely heard of Stoppard actually.
Naturally, like other friends of Arnie’s I went to the opening. While waiting outside after the curtain came down, as Arnie emerged from backstage, an older woman we didn’t know went up to him holding a book. It was The Talent Guide, in which all professional actors could pay for an insertion with names, photos, a list of our credits and phone numbers.
The woman cornered Arnie.
“Hello, Mr. Weiner,” she said, “Congratulations! It’s your first Broadway, show, isn’t it?”
Arnie looked shocked. And delighted that she knew.
“Would you sign my copy of the book for me?” she asked.
Arnie signed it. And we learned that she always did this to other actors making their Broadway debuts.
While that was unusual, the history of the production was not rare; it closed quickly, Bad reviews. Four performances only.
As far as I can tell from on-line research Arnie was in only one other Broadway show The World of Sholom Aleichem 16 years later. Wow! He hung in there. Evidently he also had off-Broadway roles in 1967 and 1976. One ran for five performances, the other for 12.
Once or twice Dave asked me to cover day-time shifts when Jeff or someone else couldn’t make it. Then Dave would go up to the Hotel at night to work on the transmitter or do some kind of other tech thing.
That’s how I started hearing the Boston tapes. One of the program hosts was a guy with a deep. rich voice, Joe Marzano, who sounded like he knew what he was talking about. There was also nasel-voiced John Adams, the program director. And there was a woman! Women didn’t host radio programs in the 1950s, although the NBC network feature Monitor did have “Miss Monitor” give breathy (i.e. sexy) weather forecasts. This WBCN program host wasn’t doing sexy shtick. She had some sort of English accent and when she said her name it sounded as if she was mumbling: “Nrml Dnyr.” Later, when I met Marzano, he said that she was East Indian and named Nirmal Daniere.
When a long piece of music was airing on those days, the timing being clear on a cue-sheet, I sometimes strolled down one flight of stairs to a radio station that looked like a radio station, not a storage room and hobby shop for engineers. That was WBAI. With an attractive receptionist who spoke with an English accent…such accents for women receptionists were thought cool then…and well-lit offices, double-glass windowed studios, air conditioning. A pot of fresh coffee on a hot plate. Sometimes I’d hear them featuring jazz. Or modern concert music. Or comedy records. Or plays. Well-dressed Les Davis and Sid Shepherd hosted such shows. I wished I could be there instead of upstairs running tapes.
Eventually, if fact, I would be on the air on WBAI, a few years after owner Louis Schweitzer donated it to Pacifica Radio. Les and Sid? Gone, of course. The old ownership/format change thing.
WBAI’s 1959 format got me to thinking. Maybe I could do something similar on WNCN. After all, I still had some jazz LPs from those days at WFLN and WOND and I’d find a way to get classical music LPs, perhaps starting with some from the New York Public Library since it appeared that WNCN had none of its own.
Since I was at WNCN for six hours overnight, I wondered if Dave or someone else in the management could be convinced to let me host my own show for the same amount of money I was already paid. And if the program included classical music, that would fit right in with what the station already featured. As for the other elements, maybe they’d go for that too, even if it seemed unusual. Perhaps it would even attract attention to the station. Plus I’d make clear that I’d hosted jazz programs before on WHAT and WOND, remaining silent about WFLN.
Mulling it over more, tying selections into some kind of actual program idea seemed an even more special idea. Limiting everything to the 20th Century, for example, sounded good, maybe adding to the classics poetry recordings, film scores, musicals, things about which I already knew something.
As it turned out, surprisingly, Dave sounded interested. He said he’s talk it over with Fred Cain, the General Manager.
Excited, I began to plan how to present the different elements, for example pairing symphonic music by Leonard Bernstein with selections from “West Side Story” and Manny Albam’s jazz arrangements of the same scores plus Moss Hart reading part of his autobiographical theatre reminiscences Act One.
Or Laurence Olivier reading scenes from his movie version of Shakespeare’s Henry V on a 10 inch LP which I treasured. Plus it had some William Walton’s great music for the film which I could also program. Then maybe something by Vaughan Williams and other English composers and LPs by English jazz musicians. Of course, I didn’t have most of the LPs yet to do all of that, but I’d find a way to acquire them.
When Dave and I met with Fred Cain, Cain seemed interested. “But what will you use for records?” Fred asked. “We don’t have any.” I suggested that I could borrow some, on my own time, from the Public Library and that, also on my own time, I’ d contact record companies to see what they could send me and the station. Most major labels had headquarters in New York.
Fred went for it. Especially because it would mean that WNCN would start having its own LPs.
Naturally there first had to be some changes up there on the Pierre’s 40th floor. Dave moved the console and the board away from the transmitter room and its air compressor and put all of it onto the desk in the front room. There he set up two new turntables and a good microphone facing away from the other room. He also put some sound-proofing strips around the door between the rooms. Sitting there and my new studio, I could barely hear the air compressor.
Consequently, in late April 1959 WNCN had its first live broadcasts. From high atop The Hotel Pierre. “Sounds of the 20th Century.” I was 24 years old.
I used my own records for the first program. They included Stravinsky’s Petrouchka conducted by Leopold Stokowski as well as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring conducted by Pierre Monteux, both among my favorites for years. Plus Bill Russo’s somewhat Stravinsky-like ballet, The World of Alcina followed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra playing Russo arrangements, then Kenton alumni as members of Shorty Rogers and His Giants plus a jazz and poetry record featuring West Coast musicians.
That’s when I discovered a problem.
The turntables sitting there on the desk. This was not a WFLN or WBAI high class set-up. When I opened a drawer in that desk, it made the tone arms shake; they had no padding or cushions. Although I had always taken good care of my LPs and they were unscratched, there were slight interruptions in the music when the tone arms wobbled. At first, when that happened, I quickly faded down what I was playing and set the tone arm back to the right place. That took only a couple of seconds, but still the flow of the music was interrupted. After a couple of times, I figured out that I should just leave the drawers open. Duh.
Was I nervous? Probably. But I also realized that most likely few people were listening that night, since I had appeared from nowhere out of the darkness. Or maybe they’d be so drowsy that they might not notice anything that went wrong. Oh, yeah, that was a city of 8 million people. Maybe somebody was listening to my New York debut. I never found out if anyone did.
Another problem emerged when borrowing LPs from the Library. Some had not been taken care of. They were scratched. Or dirty. I went to Sam Goody’s and bought some cleaning brushes and cloths. My expense, of course, That helped some.
Quickly the whole project became a passionate obsession. I slept hardly at all those first few months, calling and/or visiting the offices of every record company in town. A great place to do it, New York.
I collected for the station and for my program post -1900 music by Puccini and Mahler plus works by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius and more. I kept for myself the more obscure and modern works knowing that WNCN would never broadcast such things anymore than would have WFLN: that’s be too risky for most classical music stations, alienating conservative audiences. Sure, it would be all right for my program; it was overnight, quirky time in New York.
That’s also when I discovered Composers Recordings Inc. which featured nothing but the work of modern American composers. They gave me everything they’d published.
And I began collecting jazz from Blue Note, Columbia, RCA, EmArcy, comedy records by Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, former colleague Mike Nichols, film music by Rosza, Tiomkin, Korngold. I borrowed Library LPs of poets reading their own works. And discovered Spoken Arts Records, which specialized in exactly what the name indicates. And I broadcast LPs by Ruth Draper, following in Mike Nichol’s footsteps after all.
I needed more record shelves at home, although much of what I collected started the WNCN library.
Meanwhile domestic life went awry. Vene was working at Cosmopolitan Magazine as Assistant to the Fiction Editor and we were only seeing each other for dinner, after which I usually had to take a nap because I’d been up much of the day, planning and working on creating the show. But sometimes we’d find a way to go to the theatre, after which I’d hurry home to get ready for my show, packing a lunch.
Those six hours overnight became my life. My joy.
Listener reaction? I don’t remember getting letters so long as the broadcasts came from the Hotel. Letters and phone calls would have gone to the office; that was the station’s official address. And the phone at the transmitter had a different, unlisted number.
WNCN may not have been on most people’s radar yet. People would have to stumble on it just as I had done. Sure, I was offering something original and different. But modern classical music, jazz, poetry etc were hardly mainstream radio and probably WBAI had already cornered such an audience.
Actually I hadn’t done or said anything to encourage people to contact me. I wanted to do the show my way, not play requests. And not talk on the phone so as to concentrate on what I was doing. I was following Jean Shepherd’s example on WOR whom I’d heard remind listeners not to call. “I’m at work,” he’d explained. Moreover I wanted to listen to all those wonderful recordings.
But I did get a letter from a magazine writer who wanted to interview me. Roy Hemming of monthly Music Life was working on a feature about New York all-night classical music broadcasts for the October issue. And he’d heard my program.
I was thrilled. It meant somebody actually knew what I was doing, doing it my own way, and liked it. And maybe such publicity would attract a bigger audience. It wasn’t so much that I wanted people to pay attention to me; I wanted to get people to like what I liked, to share the enjoyment, as I had with my jazz shows in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Hemming came to our tiny Riverside Drive apartment where we offered him coffee and cookies. Still a couple of naïve kids. He knew a lot about the program and said he enjoyed listening.
“We think Gordon Spencer’s Sounds of the 20th Century is one of the most imaginatively conceived and presented FM shows being heard in New York these days,” he wrote.
It was the only time and place that I knew of serious public attention that year.
Meanwhile WNCN had moved. To One Park Avenue. By the end of 1959, Dave had created a real studio there with a professional-looking board, cushioned turntables, good microphones and several tape decks. Next to it was a glass-windowed room with the large tape decks brought down from the Pierre, all the big tapes were on orderly metal shelves. The rest of the jumble of equipment remained at the transmitter.
The rapidly filling record library, now that record company promotion people began to take us seriously, was several long corridors away on the same floor at the business office. The rooms were rented from Ziff Davis Publishing which owned one whole floor.
When I told my Dad that we’d moved to One Park Avenue he thought that I’d really come up in the world, rather than down, as from up on Fifth Avenue at The Pierre. One Park Avenue is where Park Avenue narrows at 32nd Street, merging into utilitarian Park Avenue South, a business district.
At night I had the whole floor to myself and, when airing a long piece of classical music, I’d wander into the dark Ziff Davis offices, switch on a few lights and look through pictures, or borrow magazines to return the same night. Being alone in those hushed, vast rooms or walking along dim corridors could feel a little spooky. Once or twice I was actually startled, coming across lumpy, grey Eastern European cleaning ladies putting away their buckets and mops, their gold teeth glinting in the shadows.
By then I was broadcasting a few interviews with musicians, taping them in the room next to the control room or taking to them my own portable 7 inch Revox reel-to reel recorder. That’s when I talked to Roy Harris, actually my uncle’s brother-in-law. (My uncle, Julian Kahn, indicative of so much of my family, was also a musician, playing cello in Hollywood movie studio orchestras.)
Other interviews: Morton Gould, Vincent Persichetti and Cannonball Adderley. When Cannon and I met he came along with a young saxophonist/clarinetist of whom I’d never heard, Eric Dolphy a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Since Dolphy was there, I decided to do him a favor and interview him; at least that’s how it now sounds on the tape. The soft-spoken, unassuming man, in the course of my questions, told me he liked the music of Stockhausen and Schoenberg, music I‘d never program, not liking or understanding it.
There I was again, getting jazz musicians to talk about classical music. Adderley said he liked the work of Honegger, by the way.
Then there was Moondog. I had come across a few of the records of this tall, blind street musician while at WOND, finding his sound unique and fascinating, as fascinating as the photos on the record jackets, with his strange cloths and biblical prophet look. I had learned that he liked to spend much time on New York streets, especially on Sixth Avenue near the main offices of CBS and around the corner from NBC at Rockefeller Center.
I went to find him, saying I’d like record an interview for broadcast. He readily agreed, inviting me to his apartment on West 44th street off-Broadway. It was a tiny two room space in a dingy walk-up hotel. But then, he couldn’t see the dinginess could he? We spoke again several times on the street and I featured his music and the interviews during my second stint at NCN in the late 60s as well as in 1970 on WBAI.
That broadcast can be heard on-line as “Moondog-The Man on the Street” https://archive.org/details/AM_1971_07_03
Early this century, Robert Scotto was writing a book about Moondog and tracked me down to ask me for copies of the interview as well as about what I remembered of our mutual encounters. Moondog had told him to get in touch with me. Astonishing. More than 30 years had elapsed since my last contact with Moondog.
Then the Concert Network bought its own building on East 47th Street just off Fifth Avenue and started day- time live programming. Why? And why the earlier move to One Park Avenue? No idea. Probably I didn’t ask anyone. Perhaps Concert Network President T. Mitchell Hastings thought it was time for the Network to have a more noticeable New York presence.
I’d met him a couple of times, probably not intimidated, probably indifferent, as if my on-air talent was so irreplaceable that we were some kind of equals.
But you have to consider that my programming may have been making a difference. Maybe that’s why Hastings had decided to give NCN a bigger presence in New York, first at One Park and then with its own building. Certainly I’d put it on the map somehow. Moreover its initial record library was due to me.
Had I made a public impression for the station? I don’t know. Perhaps nobody in management wanted me to realize that and, consequently, ask for a raise, thinking myself significant. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, loving it, and still so young that I never thought about that and never asked. You have to wonder, why I didn’t ask more questions?
For this incarnation of WNCN, Joe Marzano came down from Boston to host programs. Which was fine by him; his family home was on Long Island. Station Manager Cal Miller hosted programs. So did Johnny Lang.
WNCN was making some money with brokered programs just as had WHAT with Sunday morning gospel shows when hosts aired commercials for restaurants, hair dressers, clothing stores etc. for which they got paid and could defray costs of buying air time.
One WNCN feature was “Lunch with Casper Citron;” he interviewed celebrities and footed the bill. Another was “Music and Opportunity with Bernard Haldane.” That zingy -titled show featured Haldane’s classical music choices paired with him talking about his firm’s professional job counseling. Another program presented ruminations by members of the Theosophical Society.
Plus, a d.j., who seemed younger than I, bought himself two hours once a week to play mainstream pop music, on which WNEW was thriving. A little unusual since rock and roll was more and more becoming the trend. (Eventually, he’d actually become a star on WNEW which stuck with that kind of pop music.) He’d talk about the songs in a friendly, casual way often digressing into personal musings, Jean Shepherd-like, except not doing that with equal specialness . He had an unconventional name considering that most program hosts were disguising ethnicity. He was Jonathan Schwartz, the son of famed Broadway and movie song-writer Arthur Schwartz.
His show came on at midnight, when mine had been starting. And I had to be present; he didn’t know how to run the equipment; he just knew how to talk. So I had to be his engineer. While he sat a glass window away from the control room, he’d watch me for reactions to his comments, thinking me, fascinated, of course, when all the time I was actually pissed-off that he could pay to pre-empt me. Still the actor, though, I sometimes faked a grin and a smile. Once I walked out of his view while he was talking on the air. He yelled “Gordon! Where are you?” as if fearing he’d lost control. Or maybe he was angry that I didn’t seem to be hanging on his every word.
Clearly you can see that WNCN was not exactly a traditional classical music station. Look at what I had been doing.
Then Jonathan himself was pre-empted. And so were two of my overnight hours. A new four hour, daily jazz package took over from 10pm to 2 am, likewise financed by the producers. They called themselves Communicating Arts Corporation. Tom Wilson and DeDe Daniels, executives at United Artists Records, were up front.
UA had been producing some great jazz records then. Coincidentally one featured Bill Potts’ arrangements of music from Porgy and Bess, one of several spins-off of the current movie starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. (Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded another.) In the movie Crown was played and sung by Brock Peters. He was DeDe’s husband.
On the air was quite a line-up of alternating commentators/hosts, some of the biggest names in jazz criticism : Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler and Martin Williams.
Jazz humorist Ed Sherman was there as “George Crater.” (His pseudonym was a goofy spin and the name of Judge Crater who’d become famous by mysteriously disappearing after a jolly night in town. Despite lots of newspaper coverage about that he was never found and his story and that of murdered people connected to him makes for fascinating reading.) Ed provided lots of funny bits on the air, often dealing with jazz musicians. And more biting commentary, social, satirical came from Paul Krassner, who’d recently started a newsprint magazine The Realist which gained fame as a counter-culture gem for about 10 years. Krassner and I would encounter each other, in passing, during the late 60s at WBAI.
Meanwhile two d.j.s anchored, hosting most of the playing of records which made up the bulk of the programming: Les Davis and Sid Shepherd. Except that Shepherd had changed his name to Chris Borgen which, he told me, was actually his wife’s name. Later Chris would become a CBS news reporter. Les would keep on being a jazz d.j. The fact that I knew a lot about jazz was irrelevant as far as those producers were concerned.
I was always around, on duty, waiting my turn to follow the moneyed guys, in my dwindled niche, to hear Chris sounding slick and smooth, more like a pop d.j. than like the intelligent informative person I believed myself to be. On the air, he spoke of songwriter Frank Loesser as “Frank Lohser” and referred to Phineas Newborn Jr.’s take on Avery Parrish’s 1940 bluesy “After Hours” as “traditional jazz,.” My superiority felt confirmed. I had sometimes broadcast real traditional jazz, New Orleans style, early in the morning, around 5 am.
Meanwhile Joe Marzano and I became friends, both harboring sardonic views of society. Together we’d record ad-lib comedy bits while in the recording studio during my shift when a long record was on. Then I’d broadcast them overnight. We did a send-up of Casper Citron’s show, “The Horace Hepple Lunch,” in which I, as a nasel- voiced take on Citron, interviewed Joe as “Sal Pepe” a gravelly-voiced Noo Yawker who sold frozen pizzas to be eaten frozen on sticks, like popsicles. The major bit was talking with our mouths full and asking each other to pass things like napkins and glasses of water or commenting on the bread and butter, making sure to crunch our food loudly. No burps, though. We had taste.
My Second Firing
Since I was still expected to arrive at the studio at midnight, a new task was assigned, selecting in advance recordings to be broadcast Monday through Friday from 10am to 2pm so that they could be submitted two weeks ahead for listing in entertainment weekly Cue Magazine. That meant going into what had become a substantial LP library and deciding what to feature, identifying composer, work and record label, not choosing too much music so as to leave time for commercials. I also pre-programmed some of my own selections.
For the other program hosts I selected what I thought were obscure, boring baroque works so as to contrast with what I deemed my own special, colorful overnight offerings, not realizing that baroque music, Mike Nichols-like, was so entertaining and non-threatening that it would remain a mainstay for classical music stations forever. Anyway, no one at the station seemed to care what I had chosen.
But one week when Cue arrived, nothing I’d chosen that week for myself was listed. I was so pissed off that I hurled the copy against a wall, not noticing that Cal Miller saw me do it. Repercussions were to come.
In October 1961 Vene and I decided to visit her family in Philadelphia and leave on a Friday morning, which meant that I wanted to tape that Friday night/Saturday morning show, already listed in CUE Magazine. I took such listings seriously and had arranged with Cal to have someone air the tapes, a part-timer, Bill Watson who hosted two shifts Saturday night/Sunday morning and Sunday night/Monday morning.
I had told Cal that I’d need access to the recording studio after the jazz people left and that I would record my program before I left Friday morning.
But I found the studio locked and had no key. I tried forcing the lock. It didn’t budge. Finally I leaned against a hallway wall and furiously tried kicking open the door with my feet. I was pissed off.
The lock did not yield. The door stayed shut. The particle-board wall shattered.
I left Cal a note that morning explaining what had happened, saying I’d pay for the repairs.
The following Monday, returned from Philadelphia, Cal called, saying he had to fire me, that management felt my behavior was too unpredictable. Who knew what I might do next, possibly in anger, possibly on the air?
Thus, after two and a half years, my overnight glory, my joy, my pride vanished into thin air. The time had seemed longer; it was so intense.
That’s New York for you. The New York space-time continuum. On the jammed island of Manhattan, where space is at a premium, crowds throng tightly on the streets and people learn how to make the most efficient use of the confines and the time it takes to move efficiently through it all, with no wasted motion, no wasted minutes.
Watson took my place. He seemed a lot older. He was. 11 years older. Who knew what he might do next? In his 15 years with WNCN, until the station’s first demise, Bill became far more unpredictable than I had ever been, telling off listeners on the air, making fun of commercials which he had to read, offering opinions on politics, verbally excoriating modern music.
He adored the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn. And would never program anything he didn’t like. In that regard, we were actually alike. Different strokes.
Certainly his selections would have had wider appeal than mine, that music has long been the backbone and the body of what most classical music listeners want, not what I felt were my esoteric challenges, my threats to peaceful sleep. Watson was also a more interesting on-air personality than I had been.
We did get around, though, to liking each other, six years later, both working for a different WNCN management.
So, in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, 1961, age 28, I was unemployed again.
This felt less painful and less shocking than my departure from WFLN. Since then I’d been let go by WNRC, albeit not unexpectedly, and had quit WHAT and WOND to move on. A sense was creeping in that radio careers ebbed and flowed. Besides, having a program from 2 am to 6 am felt like being in some dark, obscure corner where hardly anyone could notice me.
Yes, Watson, I’m sure, was in the Jean Shepherd, Steve Allison league, the rare ones who stood out and captured audiences’ imaginations, the league to which Jonathan Schwartz had aspired.
My style had probably been more reserved, obviously, from what I’ve already told you, taking myself and my conceptions seriously. Back then I rarely used “I” or referred directly to myself or offered opinions. The content was the message, the content which I thought was great and didn’t need to say so. Sure, I was comfortable at an open mike, able to talk freely without notes or scripts, as I had always been. My public persona was not in some made-up style; it was one part of who I was, whoever that may have been. But I still felt like a kid even if sounding mature.
It was time to try an acting career again. I knew there were no permanent jobs there. I knew that I had talent. I also knew that I needed a lot of luck.
The Actor Part 2
I decided that, in order to be a professional actor, I had to behave like one and market myself, which true professionals already knew and practiced. Given Vene’s income and a residue of mine, plus qualifying…again…for unemployment insurance, I could afford a few career necessities.
Joining the Screen Actors Guild was one, meaning I could, presumably, get more, better- paid film work. It also meant shelling out for an initiation fee plus regular dues.(FYI: In 2011 the initiation fee is $2,277; a 1960 equivalent was about $300.) SAG has always had eligibility requirements; it’s never been possible to join on a whim. But my membership in AFTRA made me eligible.
I also paid for a listing in The Talent Guide, a book available to all union performers in which we were allowed one photo and a short resume. Casting agents were known to go through the pages, or look us up if our names came to their attention.
Plus I hired an answering service, Hayes Registry, recommended by other actors I’d met. Given that neither Vene nor I were at home during the day to answer the phone, there was no other way to know which leading director or major casting person was urgently trying to reach me for a big role or a significant audition.
Buying sheet music of some songs I knew and liked, I took them with me to a couple of professional vocal coaches to help me learn how to sing them in case I got a chance to be in a musical. I had a good ear. No surprise, coming from a family of musicians and immersed in all kinds of music on my own radio programs. I couldn’t actually read the notes but could tell, looking at scores, where they went up and down, and how to hold the notes long or short.
Meanwhile out there all over the microcosmic fragments of Manhattan where theatre thrived, Broadway, off-Broadway, I was making the rounds, going to as many open casting calls as possible. An open call, FYI, is something publically announced by producers, usually giving cast requirements, telling what roles are open, inviting anyone interested to show up for auditions at a published time and place, the listings posted in Show Business Weekly or Variety.
In late November 1961, at such an open call, I got my first role. Brooklyn Theatre Arts was producing Lerner and Loewe’s musical “Paint Your Wagon.” My beard, a rarity, must have suggested the kind of character you’d see in the Old West mining camps which the show portrayed. The singing audition, my first, followed the standard pattern. A pianist was provided to accompany my choice of song, i.e what my coaches had prepped me for. So I sounded as if I knew what I was doing.
My seemingly authentic English accent could have helped; I landed the supporting role of Englishman Edgar Crocker who figures in a few subplot developments, with a little dialogue but no songs of his own, vocalizing in the choruses.
A plus: I could walk to rehearsals, a few blocks away from my home. Brooklyn Theatre Arts was undertaking this new project in the magnificent, historic landmark The Brooklyn Academy of Music, evidently trying to develop an audience there for theatre.
Members of Actors Equity were in the cast, although I hadn’t yet qualified to become a member. The union contracts allowed for some non-Equity people. The production ran for two weekends.
Where was I going? I don’t know. What would I do there? I’m not certain. All I knew was I was on my way. (A paraphrase from Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics from the show.)
Around the same time Suzari Marionettes posted a notice in Backstage, a new and second weekly newspaper like Show Business, that the company was casting Jack and The Beanstalk, a children’s show over the Christmas holidays and was looking for someone to play The Giant.
Ah-hah! My beard again would make me look right.
My resume got me in the human-sized door and I was invited to the Suzari workshop and studios on Irving Place.
Inside a small office, within what looked like a large, converted garage, I was introduced to two short, older women who ran the company, Dorothy Zaconick and Ruth Waxman. They looked more like somebody’s aunts than show business producers.
They asked about my experience in children’s shows so I referred to Meet Mr. Easter Bunny, which was on my resume. Then they wanted to know if I could perform in voices other then my own, indifferent to my radio-style resonance. I grabbed a newspaper from a nearby desk and read a New York Times story about airlines going to Bermuda and Frankfurt sounding like an older cockney woman and a gruff, dynamic German.
They gave me the script.
Not wanting to be a standard story-book Giant nor frighten kids too much, spontaneously, I played him as a goof. “Fee, Fi, Fo…duh,” I said, even though that was not the way his line was written. “Duh…Fee, Fi, Fo…Phooey.” Dorothy and Ruth howled with laughter, so much so that cigarette-smoking Ruth couldn’t stop hacking and coughing.
The Giant, they explained, would appear on stage live, towering over the 18 inch high marionettes. But, since he wouldn’t always be on stage, I’d also have to voice a few other roles while maneuvering a few marionettes. Could I do that, they asked?
The role was mine.
I’d never touched a marionette in my life but they didn’t seem worried, convinced that I could learn and would get enough training during rehearsals.
The pay was even better than for Paint Your Wagon.
The show was to run 10 days in Lazarus’ Department Store in Harlem, two performances a day on weekdays and three on one weekend. We’d get a lunch break every day…Ooo! Ribs!
But I had to supply my own tights. That figures. Who’d want to wear used underwear, even if it had been thoroughly laundered? I was also expected to provide my own makeup, but that was standard. Thus, I had another expense, buying and supplying my own makeup kit, something I hadn’t done yet. However Suzari would give me the rest of the costume.
I quickly learned the simple script. There was nothing fresh in it. Except my new take on the giant. During rehearsals Nick Coppola, the director would voice and manipulate Jack. And a seemingly frail older woman, Mary Morris, would do the same for Jack’s mother and The Giant’s wife. They also loved my interpretation. I was even allowed to ad-lib some of his dialogue, so long as it didn’t take up too much of the hour that the show was supposed to run.
Less easy was learning how to manipulate a marionette. I had to operate the little guy with the beans, while also voicing his dialogue into a microphone suspended over the puppet stage, facing the mike directly, trying to look down at the puppet’s movements.
This while bending over the stage from a platform eight feet above it. That height was necessary to make sure that no puppeteer’s hands would show manipulating the controls and high enough that puppets’ feet would sit naturally on the stage. Fortunately my back was in good shape and, since I went up and down the ladder to go on stage as The Giant, I didn’t have to stay bent for the whole hour.
The control was shaped like a cross, with an upper bar clipped to the rest of the body. All of the control connected to the puppet with fish line attached to various parts of the body. The clip bar controlled the legs by lines attached just above the knees. Tilting it up and down moved the legs. The bottom end of the cross had a line attached to the puppet’s back. Pulling that up made the puppet bend at the waist. At the front were two lines connected to the sides of the puppet’s head; moving back and forth suggested talking. And underneath the front of the cross was a single line connected to both hands; it ran through two eyehole screws. Pulling the line right raised the puppet’s left hand and vice versa.
The show was a hit, with kids yelling from the audience at The Giant, making fun of his mistakes, happy that they were smarter than he was. I loved it.
At the end of the run, Ruth and Dorothy asked me if I’d like to perform with them again, after the New Year started. They were planning a TV series of Suzari shows with Jack and The Beanstalk as the pilot, with me, of course, as The Giant. Naturally I was delighted.
Late in January, they called to say that they were going to shoot it in March, asking if I was free. I was.
Then, early in February, I got a call from Audrey Gellen of Talent Associates.
Talent Associates! That was a major TV producing company, headed by David Susskind.
That sounded as if I was on my way to stardom.
Audrey asked me to come into the office; she thought she had a role for me. And that, without even an audition.
She had seen my picture in The Talent Guide and thought I looked like Major Henry Rathbone, one of the two other people with the Lincolns in the box at Ford’s Theater the night of the assassination. Taking a look at me in, she said, “Yep, you’re just right.”
They were producing a DuPont Show of the Month: The Lincoln Murder Case. A one week rehearsal would start in two weeks, for broadcast on February 18th. And right away I had to go for an early costume fitting because I/Rathbone would be in advance publicity photos. Oddly, she didn’t give me a script
The pay: $400, equal to about $2, 940 in 2011. A windfall.
At the costume shop I could tell immediately who Drummond Erskine was going to play. He was thin as a rail, tall and angular with a bony face. “Wow!” I exclaimed to him. “You’re gonna play Lincoln! Congratulations!”
“Oh,” he replied, “it’s not a starring role. It’s one of those ‘five lines or under parts.” That was a term of art meaning any SAG or AFTRA performer in that category worked for a minimum scale different from that for any larger role.
“So you read the script?” I asked.
“Sure. I have a few lines. Actually, the script is mostly about Booth and the conspirators.”
“I’m playing Rathbone,” I said.
“Uh-huh. He doesn’t say anything at all. He’s just in a couple of shots.”
So much for my big break.
The photo session was for five of us: Drummond, Dulcie Cooper as Mrs Lincoln, Kathy Shaw as Clara Harris and Roger Boxhill as Booth, the only big role. The publicity picture showed Booth pointing a pistol at Lincoln’s head with the rest of us laughing as if enjoying the play.
It appeared in a lot of newspapers. When my father saw it, he telephoned, delighted, but asked me why I hadn’t told him yet about this big role. I explained the facts to him.
When I walked in on the first day of rehearsals, director Alex Segal looked at me and said “Who are you?.”
“I’m Gordon Spencer.”
Impatiently he responded. “No. I meant which character are you supposed to play?”
“Rathbone,” I answered, surprised that he didn’t recognize my resemblance.
“Rathbone didn’t have a beard.”
“Oh. But, Audrey Gellen at Talent Associates said I look just like him.”
“ I don’t care what she said. You want the part? Take off the beard.”
That shook me up. My very specific face felt like part of my identity. And how would I play The Giant in a few weeks looking so average and younger than 28?
Who would turn down $400 for a week of work? And, after all, the hair would grow back again.
The show was narrated by Alexander Scourby, a man whose voice and style set a standard many of us narrators and announcers aspired to. Luther Adler had the pivotal role of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who according to Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the book The Web of Conspiracy by Cliff Englewood, implied that Stanton was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Andrew Prine and House Jameson were also in the cast.
Most of the rehearsal time I just hung around talking to some of the actors and reading books since all I would have to do was to pose for a few front face camera shots when the narration referred to Rathbone. The actions: Smile as if enjoying the play. And, at one point, Rathbone would take Clara’s hand and press it. Neither she nor Rathbone nor Mrs. Lincoln would be seen reacting to the murder, nor would there be any depiction of Rathbone grabbing Booth and getting stabbed, as actually happened.
Everyone in the production knew that this would be broadcast live. That was not unusual. But we were all hoping to see the tape later. Then we were told that that DuPont Show of the Month would not be taped.
The previous month’s production, the elaborate costume drama The Prisoner Of Zenda starring Christopher Plummer and Farley Granger, had run way over budget and costs for February’s had to be severely curtailed.
The broadcast was at 9 p.m. that Saturday night and we had to arrive at the studio at 5 to get into our costumes and makeup. This was the big time. No one if the cast did his/her makeup. Famed Dick Smith and his staff did that, putting wigs, beards, mustaches on most of the men.
Earlier in the day I had shaved my entire face in preparation, shocked at what I saw in the mirror and hadn’t seen for more than three years. And the bare skin of my chin, jaws and upper lip seemed so naked. And chilly.
So while so many other men were getting facial hair, I had lost mine. Plus, for the next five hours, I had mutton chop sideburns and a fake mustache.
I had been able to look at all of the scenes and hear all of the dialogue during rehearsals. But for the actual performance, I just had to sit in the set and wait for a little red lights to go on in cameras in front of me, when Alexander Scourby said a few words about Rathbone and Clara. I wasn’t nervous. It was so quiet on the sets and there was no live audience sitting out in front. It was like being on the radio. Except that I didn’t speak.
So, how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln? I have no idea. Vene told me that I looked fine. That Sunday my in-laws and my father also telephoned, congratulating me for such a good performance, convinced that I was on my way to a major acting career.
The next week rehearsals started for the new version of Suzari’s Jack and the Beanstalk.
Walking into the shop, worried about how I looked and that perhaps the beard had been crucial to being Giant-like, I wondered if the role was still mine, what with my short, rounded chin and that bland face.
Nick greeted me. “Hey, Gordon, you look different somehow. Did you just get a haircut or something?”
I was astonished to see that what was so significant to me was not more noticeable “I had a lot of hair cut,” I replied. “I had to take off the beard for a TV role.”
“We’ll work something out,” Ruth said. “Do you know how to make one?”
I did. And, since we still had two weeks of rehearsals, I thought maybe a real one would grow back by then. Or, perhaps, the Giant could look even more menacing if he had the kind of stubble that made him look like a slob.
Dorothy took the role of Jack, Nick, Mary and Hal Oakley would voice and manipulate the other puppets. All I had to do was concentrate on the Giant. Great!
Dorothy was the principal designer of all the marionettes, and decided to devise a new, more detailed version of Jack, adding extra strings to get more subtle movements.
And Frank Devlin was hired to direct; he had TV children’s show experience.
Camera rehearsals were scheduled for the same night as the shoot, at the studios of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, “Roland’s” former haunt, where Ruth had managed to get bargain rates for the rental. We would have the studio from 10 p.m. until 5 am to rehearse in the new space and turn out a one-hour show.
Those seven hours were full of problems. Dorothy kept getting extra strings tangled and tied up and was getting anxious and irritated. Soon, Ruth was getting irritated with Dorothy. The rest of us plugged gamely along, rehearsing and taking snack breaks using WCAU’s vending machines down the hall.
At various times, when our characters were not on camera, we looked at the monitors to see how everything looked and what Frank was doing with the two camera men. Most often it seemed that he didn’t know how to make the magic of puppets work on camera. He constantly shot close-ups. Which, of course, made it clear that the marionettes were not moving their mouths or their eyes. We did a hell of a lot of re-takes as he tried to come up with something better. But he didn’t come up with something better.
The final take looked boring. And, exhausted, all of us checked into a nearby hotel in the early morning knowing we did not have a hit on our hands.
Not long thereafter, Ruth and Dorothy split up their partnership. Dorothy had first choice of puppets, validly; she had designed many of them. She also kept the Suzari name. Ruth got a few good puppets and retained the studio and workshop as well as the right to use any of the performers she wanted. She named her company Nicolo Marionettes, evidently to honor Nick, who’d been with her from his teens.
Over the next five years I would perform intermittently for Nicolo Marionettes. Usually when other acting work didn’t seem to be coming along. Which was often.
I became quite a skilled puppeteer. And experience as an ad-libber on the radio stood me in good stead for all the times when we had to improvise due to minor problems backstage. Strings got tangled, delaying the appearance of some characters; other puppets would have to hold the stage and fill in with dialogue. Or a puppet would fall off the rail; someone would have to leave the bridge and pick it up off the floor and make sure the strings were not tangled while the remaining cast members had their characters say something to fit the story’s development that far. Or someone would forget some lines or say something in the wrong voice. Or we’d be asked to shorten the show because of a change in the clients’ schedules.
Sometimes improvisation went too far; we started having more fun adding verbal or visual gags for our own amusement. Sticking to the script many times in a row could have seemed boring to those of us who lacked discipline. We’d forget that the audience had never seen the show before and might have trouble following it as it derailed into something barely resembling the original.
For any professional stage show, during the run, the director usually gone elsewhere, there’s always a stage manager backstage making sure that the original concept stays intact. But the stage manager has no say in what actors do when they think that they’re improving roles when the run keeps on going. The actors may think they’re making everything fresher. But the internal sense of the show can fall apart. Nicolo had no stage managers.
Our directors never traveled with the three-person casts, so we were on our own. But, by the time I had become an on-the-road manager, I had gone with Nick to see a performance by the returning national company at a booking in Brooklyn of The Tinderbox. Hardly any of the script was left. The cast was doing its own thing. No one was fired. But everyone was warned. That’s how learned how we could ruin our own shows.
Most scripts did not call for human sized actors, although I was one in The Emperor’s Nightingale and in Hiawatha. And women in our casts of Alice in Wonderland took the stage as the big, transformed version of Alice.
Sometimes, on the road, we had three shows with us, a repertory cast of marionettes, several doubling in more than one show. There was often a witch. Nick loved playing her. He tended to be edgy, so, constrained from being too nasty with those of us sharing the bridge with him, skinny Nick would channel his feelings into those skinny creatures in black. After all, in many ways it was his company. He took that seriously and had a hard time with anyone’s mistakes, including his own.
Our total repertory: the above plus Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz (each with a witch) and of course, Jack and the Beanstalk.
Each performance needed three hours, one to set up, one to perform the show, one to tear down. The entire show traveled in a van, with the three of us sitting up front. We had to unload the van, set up the stage, the lights, the sound system including speakers, the bridge behind and above the stage. That’s a lot for three people to do quickly. So Ruth’s contracts with clients required ten volunteers, usually boys, to assist before and after the show. But only we would unpack the marionettes suspending them on the bridge’s wooden rails with s-hooks, bent wire hangers. It was strenuous. But we were young. And we had a great time.
MAKING THE ROUNDS AGAIN
Despite my enjoyment, I didn’t think doing puppet shows was enough of an acting career. So I only played in them intermittently, able to turn down roles, or step in when needed, less as a career, more as a source of income for over five years.
I still went to open calls. One was when Screen Gems was looking for supporting actors to appear in a 1961 episode of Route 66 to be shot in Philadelphia.
I joined a roomful of young guys sitting anxiously, quietly, in a waiting room, hoping our faces, our resumes would impress the people casting. A new guy, looking younger than I, walked in bubbling with charm and vitality, accompanied by his agent. That part of the room lit up as if he were a star and the rest of us were somewhere in the empty darkness.
I didn’t get a role. No one I knew got a role either. That guy did, though. A good role. That made sense, based on how much personality he brought into that waiting room. He was Martin Sheen. He appeared in an episode airing in December that year. A big fan of the show, I just happened to be watching it.
Clearly I wasn’t developing as an actor. I needed to be in something challenging. Since nothing like that was coming. I decided to take acting lessons to keep in practice.
I applied at Hagen-Berghof Studio, a well-known incubator of talent, with a teaching staff including Broadway stars Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, William Hickey, Charles Nelson Reilly and Earle Hyman. I had to audition for Hagen in order to get in. She didn’t intimidate me. She didn’t try to. My audition was part of the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet which I’d retained and loved since my days at Temple playing Romeo on WFIL-TV.
Hagen warmly accepted me into her orbit, suggesting I study with Earle Hyman. Hyman had major Broadway and British credits.
On the floor below our class Reilly was conducting one in musical comedy performing. Laughter from down there regularly bounced up to us. But then Reilly was a stitch himself on stage.
For one of my class scenes with Earle I chose Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart. ” After playing the madman with what I considered the right kind of dark, intense craziness, Earle kindly told me that it might work better if the narrator acted less crazy, as if believing himself sane which would underscore his craziness. Good advice. Advice also valid when playing a drunk, suggesting the drunk doesn’t know he’s drunk.
In March 1962 I got another off-Broadway role, certainly not major, at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village in a one-act by often-absurdist Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, The Women at the Tomb. It was paired with another one-act Philoctetes by Mark Schoenberg, a re-working of a play by Sophocles about a legendary ancient Greek hero. Clearly this was an esoteric double bill. I was delighted, of course, to be cast, even though it was in a small role.
Our play was originally conceived for marionettes (not that my work for Nicolo had any bearing on my being cast) a kind of comment suggesting that the characters are manipulated by fate and by history, no longer ordinary human beings.
In it 11 women share their thoughts about Christ when brought together after The Crucifixion. Mary, Christ’s mother, is there with another son, John (my role). DeGhelderode mocks many of these people. Most are not nice. This modern-dress, modern language English version by George Hauger was adult and blunt and included profanity, not all that common on stages in 1962. Frank Aston of The New York World Telegram and Sun (one of several attempts to meld New York’s daily newspapers) wrote that the script commented on such people with “harsh novelty.” He didn’t say anything about me. No other critic did either. We had a short run.
After we closed we were invited to stage one performance in Judson Memorial Church, a few blocks away. During that, a well-dressed, affluent-looking, middle-aged man rose from his pew and headed for the exit angrily yelling “Not in God’s house!”
Our costumes were designed by Polly Platt who, a few years later, became a costume designer and collaborator on films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, her husband. After that, she went on to an even more significant film career as co-producer of other movies.
Having a beard again was still rare enough that it seemed that it could make me so visibly noticeable that more than one stranger on the street derided me as a beatnik, even when I was well-dressed. In fact, once a man emerged from a Times Square throng and grabbed my arm, pulling on my hand and aggressively stuck a quarter in it, saying angrily, “Go get yourself a shave.”
Another actor making the rounds with me was Harry Parkins provoking strangers into asking him if he were a girl because he had shoulder-length black hair. He was proud of it, combing regularly while waiting for interviews, as if, in pushing it away from his face, he was pushing the fact into everyone else’s faces.
We both knew, as did most actors, that casting people usually responded to how we looked. They weren’t required to use imagination. Consequently many of us went to auditions trying to be dressed for the parts when we had some idea of what the roles were.
So, no doubt, seeming a beatnik landed me a spot as Greenwich Village color, an extra in a 1962 G.E. Theater half hour show called Acres and Pains starring Walter Matthau and Anne Jackson. The evening it aired, just before it started, a CBS booth announcer said “Stay Tuned for G.E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, Anne Jackson and Walter Matt-TOO.” Clearly Matthau hadn’t yet made a big enough name for himself. Reagan was still mostly known as an actor. Reagan was a major public spokesman for GE then, not yet very active politically. Acres and Pains turned out to be a pilot for a series which was never produced.
The day of the shooting in The Village, much of the cast including Matthau, Jackson and me, hung out in a studio set designed to look like in the interior of an apartment. After everyone was told what would be shot that day, I was sent to West Charles Street along with a guy who actually had a small role, playing someone delivering take-out food to the apartment. Cameras rolling, he was the subject, I was in the background.
Vene and I eagerly awaited the telecast at home. But a couple of minutes before, I decided to go to the bathroom. After all, I expected that the show would start with Reagan talking plus a commercial from G. E. and that my face would turn up later.
Vene called to me, “Hurry up! It’s starting.”
“I’ll be right there!”
A minute later I walked into the living room.
“You missed it,” Vene said. The show had opened not with Reagan or a commercial but with the first scene. A tracking shot of the delivery guy on his errand. Passing me. I’ve never seen how it looked.
But I was quite visible in my next movie job, getting hit by a riding crop and having famously-breasted British actress Sabrina chuck me suggestively under my hairy chinny chin chin.
Staring at Tits
Bernie Styles was a casting agent who worked with lots of TV and movie producers supplying extras. He had my picture and resume on file and that spring called me saying he needed a small crowd for a nightclub scene a movie called “Satan in High Heels” which was shooting in a club on West 57th Street. He also wanted to make certain that all of us looked sophisticated and well-dressed, so I should wear a good shirt, suit and tie. The call was 8 a.m.
I joined the crush hour on the IRT 7th Avenue line heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, hoping that my tie wouldn’t wrinkle too much and that my freshly polished shoes would not get too scuffed.
The set was an actual room in the club. It was suffused with cigarette smoke and bright lights from every nook and cranny. I was assigned a seat at a table in the club, sitting next to a woman I’d never met and would never encounter again. We were part of the hordes of extras all hoping for big breaks, a few meager lines, some special business, maybe even actual roles.
During camera set-ups or when various scenes were rehearsed, the woman and I and other dressed-up human scenery were able to learn something of the plot. It was a sexploitation movie, i.e. sensuously suggestive but not explicit. After all, this was at the tail-end of the Eisenhower years and JFK was just making his presence felt, publically as well as privately.
Meg Myles, a statuesque, fine looking woman around my age, but looking more mature, , starred as a woman named Stacey in a story involving drugs, murder plots, lesbianism, betrayal, deception and, just to keep it interesting, a few songs.
The nightclub was where Stacey was making her New York singing debut, dressed in a tight-fitting leather vest, leather riding pants, leather boots and leather gloves, wielding a small riding crop. In this subtle outfit she strode the dance floor challenging us sophisticated, horny men with her open mouth and alluring tongue.
During this stroll, she occasionally slammed the crop on the pure white tablecloths. But once she missed and hit someone. Me. On one of my hands. “Cut!” the director yelled. “Sir?” he called from somewhere out in the club’s darkness behind the lights, “Are you alright?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” she crooned to me. “I’m so sorry” and caressed my wounded flesh on her impressive
I called back to the director, “I’m fine, thanks.” Right. I was more than fine. I had touched one of Meg Myles breasts. It was compensation enough.
Somewhere in those two days of shooting various parts of the nightclub scene, a British blonde movie star around Myles’ age and mine named solely Sabrina (born Norma Ann Sykes) became part of the act. Incidentally, despite similarities of age, I felt a lot younger and innocent.
Sabrina was known widely for her superstructure. When she paused at my table, I didn’t get to touch her assets. But she touched me, caressing my face with one of her long-white-gloved hands. What had she to do with the story? No idea. And, according to Wikipedia, she appeared in the movie without a character name, but rather as Sabrina.
For an extra I was certainly getting a lot of attention. But no extra money.
Oh, and I haven’t yet seen that production either. Now, though, with a copy at Netflix, who knows?
In the fall the movie emerged. I only accidentally learned about that. Vene and I and her visiting uncle Tony, aka “Junior,” up from sunny Florida, were walking along that stretch of 42nd street which gave Times Square it reputation for sleaziness. The long block between Eighth and Seventh Avenue had perhaps as many as 10 movie theaters almost all showing exploitation-type stuff or low- budget sensational crime films or generic Westerns, often as double-features. As we hurried by, Uncle Junior wide-eyed and shocked, said “Gordie! Look that’s you!” as he pointed to a still photo posted outside one of the theaters. It was Sabrina and me. The feature was “Satan in High Heels.”
“Wow!, he exclaimed, “ I didn’t know you were starring in a movie! That’s great!”
I tried to explain to him what it meant to be an extra. I decided not to disillusion him as to why my face was there, knowing full well that the reason was Sabrina’s potential wardrobe malfunction. Anyway, I was able to fend off his inquiries about the story in the film. I didn’t think he could deal with it, being a devout Catholic, a momma’s boy and not used to immersion, post-baptism, into the murky waters of sins of the flesh, fictional or real.
Bernie Styles called me with another job. I was to show up at 8 am on West 56th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues for a movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie. The Hustler
Arriving at a police barricade, I was stopped by an officer but Bernie passed me in. He told me to join a bunch of people further down the street, sitting in folding chairs on a sidewalk next to what looked like the entrance to a night club with a narrow front awning.
The whole street was blocked off. There were trucks and spotlights everywhere. And in the street was a small railroad-like track with a large camera sitting on a moveable platform at one end.
There was also a truck with an open side window where a man was handing out coffee and doughnuts to the crew and to any of us wanting them. And there were at least 20 of us extras.
Paul Newman was wearing a sports jacket and conversing with someone by the large camera. It was Piper Laurie.
I wasn’t near enough to hear what they were saying, but they were gesticulating as if running lines.
A man with a clipboard came over. “OK,” he said pointing to three of us “I need you and you and you.” Not me. “Come on over to the club.”
At 9 am, it started to rain. Fake rain, coming from a small truck with a large tank on top, spraying the entire front of the club. Piper Laurie, holding an umbrella, stood under the awning, talking to Paul Newman while the three extras rushed by as if trying not to get wet.
This was shot from a lot of different angles.
Mr. Clipboard gathered five more of us. Not me. They peopled a scene in the rain with Paul Newman and Piper Laurie walking down the street, while the camera on tracks followed alongside them.
Lunch break. The coffee and doughnut truck served us sandwiches, chips, coffee, cookies.
While we were having lunch, George C, Scott showed up. He and Paul Newman shook hands and started talking to each other, having some good laughs.
The water truck had left the scene. And from what we extras could understand, the truck had broken down and another one would soon be on the way.
To pass the time George C. and Newman started passing a football up and down the empty spaces along the sidewalk nearest 9th Avenue. At one point he caught the ball right in front of me. “Hey!” he said. “How are you doing?”
“Fine. Thanks” I replied. A little too overawed for someone who was supposed to be a professional actor.
There were takes of George C and Newman talking standing in front of the same club, in different clothes, and without rain. But, although other extras represented passers-by, I was not among them.
By the end of the day, eight of us hadn’t done anything but sit on the chairs and talk, except when nearby dialogue was running.
Mr. Clipboard finally came over to us. “O.K. That’s it for now. Thank you all. We’re taking a dinner break. We may shoot some more stuff this evening, but I guess that’s it for you, huh?
Bernie wasn’t there. After having walked away disappointed, I called him on a pay phone and told him that I didn’t get into any shots, asking him if I could stay for the evening if I could be used,
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he answered.
The night scenes were like the day ones. Fake rain again. I was not in them.
Nonetheless in my resume I put The Hustler as a credit. Well, after all, I had been hired to be in it. I got paid to be in it. Twice. I could legitimately say that I had worked on it.
You can hardly call being in those three productions significant acting. Maybe there could have been more work, Bernie Styles had casually told me, if I didn’t have the beard.
Vene and I talked it over and decided that I should offer a smooth face as well as a hairy one by getting a professional wigmaker to duplicate my beard and then shave off the real one
One of my classmates at Hagen-Berghof suggested very highly-regarded Bob Kelly to create a false but convincing- looking beard.
The cost: $150. That’s equal to more than $1000 as I write this nearly 50 years later. But the result looked great. It wasn’t a complete match actually, coming in two sections, the beard and the mustache. Joining them with spirit gum, however, completed the illusion.
It looked good in a new array of professional photos taken by Carol Lynley’s brother Daniel Lee, some with my again-naked face, some with the new beard, some with just the mustache. Quite a collection of faces, trying to suggest versatility. A wiser, more mature choice would have been to stick to whatever face best represented who I was. But to do so, I would have had to have a clearer picture of that, something I never pondered, until therapy a few years later.
All those pictures and beard were costly. Yet, Vene had that good job at Cosmopolitan Magazine and still believed my talent would land me plenty of jobs, despite limited success so far. Moreover, the work I had had, including for Nicolo Marionettes and in a few films, meant I qualified for a small amount of unemployment insurance compensation. Plus, the professional expenses would be tax-deductible.
That same year, beardless, I landed a few roles in summer stock at Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse. Genuine stage acting at last.
Auditions included singing; the opening show was Rick Besoyan’s off-Broadway hit Little Mary Sunshine a send-up of Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald type musicals.
I delivered a deliberately hammy version of “Were Thine That Special Face” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate trying to milk Alfred Drake’s larger than life style. The producers and director howled with laughter.
They asked me if I was a member of Actor’s Equity, sounding as if they thought I must have been. Knowing that if I said “yes” and got an Equity contract, not only would the pay be better but that contract would be a way of joining the union.
I said “Yes.” I got the contract. I was on my way to earnest professionalism.
Room and board were part of the deal. So was meeting and working with actors who went on to good roles on and off-Broadway such as Margaret Hall and Jim Oyster as well as director Edward Payson Call. Call has since had careers with American Conservatory Theatre, The Minneapolis Theatre Company and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Not only did I perform as an older man in Little Mary Sunshine, General Oscar Fairfax ,but had multiple roles in a stage adaptation of James Thurber’s whimsical fairy tale The Thirteen Clocks. Thurber had lived in nearby Lakeville.
And I got to show off my English accent as one of the husbands in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels. By then I was feeling as if I were already a regular member of the company. So, during one performance, I thought I’d try to break up the other actors by ad-libbing a couple of goofy lines. Only one person broke up: me. After the performance no one said anything about it.
Each new show ran for one week’s worth of evenings; rehearsals for the next show took place during the day. i.e. We were gainfully employed, full time.
During the run of The Thirteen Clocks I was offered a fourth role in Agatha Christie’s Toward Zero. I declined the offer, missing Vene. She was back in New York at home and at work. We had no car, so no way to connect in person.
Turning down another week of work clearly wasn’t the wisest choice. I still had a lot to learn.
Back in New York I continued making the rounds, with my variable face. Once, looking clean-shaven and far younger than 29, I auditioned for a role of a teenager, no doubt I’d been contacted based on the photos I had mailed the producers.
On stage, I read the script full of passion and understanding. The director remarked how impressively mature I sounded. i.e. I was playing my age. A throwback to my Temple U. performance as Romeo when I hadn’t the skill to seem young and foolish enough.
During that time, my clean-shaven face was somewhere in the backgrounds of the TV shows Naked City and The Defenders. But I still wore the beard when it looked like the best choice for specific casting. At one open call, though, the director looked at me and said bluntly “No beards!” Why waste words? That’s New York. I took it off right there. He looked shocked. I didn’t get to read for him
With the same fake face, in November 1962 I went to audition for a hit musical from London, scheduled to open on Broadway in January, Oliver ! There was an open call for the chorus. I figured my beard would make me look appropriate for a Dickens story.
Standing in a long line with other dozens and dozens of other hopefuls outside the Imperial Theater, I wondered which of my prepared songs to sing. Given my seemingly impeccable English accent, I decided to stand and deliver my Sharon, Connecticut zinger, “Were Thine That Special Face.”
“Next 20 people,” an assistant director called out. 20 of us walked in, lining up across the stage, facing the unknown deciders of our fate out there in the theater darkness. The A.D. walked the line, like a sergeant in a military drill. “You stay,” he said to someone further to my right. “No, sorry, ” he said to the next three. Taking a quick look at me, he said the same thing. He wasted no words or time with anyone. Two people were chosen to audition. Us other eighteen filed out into the real life lights of West 45th Street.
“Shit,” one young guy walking beside me said. “They didn’t even give us a chance to audition.”
“They did us a favor,” I replied. “They didn’t think we looked right, saving us a lot of useless time auditioning for something we’d never get.” Remember, I was 29. Mature.
“Come on. Every audition is useful,” he answered. “It’s practice under tension.”
He may have had a point. But the producers of Oliver weren’t in business to train us. We were expected to do that on our own.
Earlier that fall I got one of the best stage roles I ever had: Shylock (beardless, by the way). Paul Davison had put together an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice to tour New York public schools. Paul’s staging was simple and utilitarian, not heavy on costumes or sets. He and I decided that my interpretation would make Shylock as dignified and earnest as possible.
I loved playing such magnificent words. And always will. Once, leaving a school after a performance, I overheard one teen age girl say to another, “Wow! Look how young he is!”
In retrospect, it looks as if 1962 was not a bad year as an actor.
I never ceased to hope that there’s be other Shakespeare roles. It had only been eight years since my Temple/WFIL-TV performances as Romeo and Leartes, although those seemed ages ago. Consequently, when notices appeared in January’s Show Business that Stratford Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival was auditioning for its 1963 season, I burned with ambition, supposing myself within the girdle of those walls.
I applied. An audition was set up in March. Naturally, with as little money as Vene and I had, there was only one option. To drive.
We had a car by then. It was a very used but good 1956 Chevy Bel Air. We’d bought for $375 in Philadelphia on the advice of Vene’s stepfather, Joe, who really knew cars. It ran exceptionally well and, unlike when I’d been driving back and forth from Philadelphia to Atlantic City in the year that that this second car was new. I had also become a better driver. So what if it had three different colors among one fender, the hood and the roof?
Researching the route I 87 north to I 90 west to Ontario, I learned that it would take me at least 10 hours. So I packed a big lunch, including my favorite, self-created pork and cornbread meat loaf, and set off north ahead of most morning rush hour traffic, arriving in Stratford by late evening.
I awoke the next morning in my motel to discover that my alarm clock had stopped, not having been sufficiently wound after my long tiring drive. I panicked. Had I driven all that way and missed my audition? I turned on the TV. It was only 9:20. I still had an hour and 10 minutes before my appointment. After a nervous shower and a quick breakfast, I got there on time.
Needless to say, I was not relaxed when an assistant director asked a few questions about myself, despite my resume in his hands. He was very friendly and polite, making me feel much more at ease.
Finally I took the stage in that mighty wooden O, thrilled to be there. In ringing tones, resonating throughout the hall, I unleashed my conquering sword, the stirring prologue to Henry V. Then, s a gentle, sweet contrast, I reprised Romeo’s first lines from the Balcony Scene, still alive in my memory, no doubt more full of passion than eight years before. It all felt confident and good.
The A.D. thanked me for coming all that way and told me that many decisions remained about casting but that the Festival would certainly be in touch soon. Actually, he never said anything about call backs, i.e. when candidates subsequently read for specific roles with other actors.
Not that I noticed. Had I done so, that would have made clear what I later concluded. The audition was a courtesy. They couldn’t very well turn me down in advance by saying, for example, that all roles were cast; that could have been questioned.
Of course, I did get a form letter a few weeks later, telling me something kindly generic about not getting any roles. By then, despite my fractured dream, I was not surprised. Not getting a part was such a regular experience, one all of us actors had to learn if we were to persist.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I discovered that Stratford rarely gave Americans major roles preferring to foster and support Canadian actors whenever possible. Logical, of course. But I found that American Jake Dengel had had a few good roles. Evidently a rarity.
That summer, by the way, Vene and I took the long drive together to Stratford to attend performances and were thrilled by John Colicos in Timon of Athens. Our seats were so close to him that, due to backlighting, in one scene, we could see his spittle flying while angrily denouncing his fate from knee-depth in a dirt-arrayed ditch in the stage floor. And we loved William Hutt as Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. The casts included Douglas Rain as Ulysses; his name stuck with me up to and beyond his voice as HAL in Kubrick’s 2001 five years after seeing him live. FYI: Len Cariou had a small role in that.
Lee Kalcheim had posted a notice in Backstage, saying that he was forming an improvisational comedy group with plans to start a company in New York and put on productions. He was auditioning candidates, with no immediate promise of money but that he had the experience and ability to train them. I was invited to join five other people for the first workshops, perhaps due to my ability to come up swiftly with character voices and movements to match, as well as my ad-lib skills. Kalcheim had studied with Viola Spolin, founder of Chicago’s Compass Players, from which emerged The Second City company.
He taught us basics and, meeting for two hours once a week for a year, we had a ball.
Lee had planned an off-Broadway opening for December of 1963 when the group fell apart. President Kennedy was killed; the sorrow and confusion made our continuing hard; coming up with funny stuff felt wrong.
One of us went on to a major movie career, Pete Boyle.
When hanging out with him over coffee I learned that he was from Philadelphia. “Hey!” I exclaimed to him, “ are you connected to Uncle Pete Boyle on KYW-TV?” I had seen some kids’ shows with Uncle Pete as the host around the same time that Ernie Kovacs was starring in his shows on the same station.
“He’s my dad,” he smiled happily.
In 1963 there were two more stage roles. The small one was at Equity Library Theatre, producing a farce by Arthur Wing Pinero, The Magistrate. I played a French waiter Isadore.
That also called for me to sing a song by John Duffy who emerged as a celebrated, much-awarded composer. The production ran just nine performances, the standard for shows at ELT.
Completely bearded again, I so much resembled stage manager George Wojtasik that several people said they couldn’t tell us apart. George, FYI, went on to become E.L.T’s Managing Director for 21 years.
Lots of agents were always invited for productions at E. L.T. considered amounted one of New York’s best showcases for emerging talent. It was a way that agents could spot someone whose career they thought might go places, with the agents fostering and promoting such clients from whose earnings the agents would earn their keep.
After we opened I called those whom I invited. Standard response: “Keep me posted.” i.e. No rush to add me to their rosters.
The bigger role was for the Group of Ancient Dramatists, putting together a production of a play by Aristophanes, one I’d never heard of, Plutus. Given my significant off-Broadway experience playing a stumbling old guy for the one-week disaster Lysistrata four years before, I figured I had it made.
And I did. And played somebody near my age. Greek actress Aliki Nord, who had major stage and film credits in her homeland, and her playwright husband Paul liked my goofy sense of fun (developed playing in Nicolo shows) and they cast me in the comic role of a wise-guy servant named Cario. Paul had written the adaptation.
The pay was Spartan; it was another non-Equity show. Several of us in the cast were in Equity, but Equity waived the rules. I did get to eat free avro lemon soup, stuffed grape leaves, skanokopita and baklava because we rehearsed above an 8th Avenue Greek restaurant owned by a friend of the Nords.
Taking the opening night at the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street, the house was jammed with Greeks and near-Greeks, dressed, of course, in their finest robes. Boisterous enthusiasm. They loved me. I got a standing ovation. So did everyone else. We were a hit.
For one night only, Sunday, April 28th. That was the only scheduled performance. But Aliki and Paul vowed by all the gods that we would come together triumphantly again.
Four months later they us hired for a return engagement, four public (i.e. free) performances presented by the New York City Department of Parks. The place: the East River Park Amphitheatre at South Grand Street and FDR Drive. In August. Good old hot New York August.
The sound of traffic on the Drive and on nearby streets provided a very different sonic environment than April’s. Our first rehearsals made it clear that we’d never be clear, even those with mighty lungs capable of the kind of projection that actual Greek actors back in Aristophanes’ day didn’t need.
Sound director Michael Landis came up with a solution. Sort of. He rented a sound system, with standing microphones and small speakers, making us audible, I’d say, as far back as the eighth row. It also meant that we had to curtail any physical business that took us out of the microphones’ range. Thus we had to hover near the mikes for our scenes, like radio actors. A lot of the hot cement rows ringing us were unoccupied while kids and locals wandered up and down the aisles, as if actors were just a backdrop to their more interesting self-generated entertainments. We were not a hit.
The producers of Beyond the Fringe, though, had a big hit on their hands. That evening of sketches by a quartet of very clever Englishmen sent up British life and British theatre starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook who both had major movie careers subsequently, Alan Bennett who became a significant playwright and Jonathan Miller, soon a very much sought-after stage director.
Towards the end of the show’s first year, the producers wanted to send out a road company. Having called them, using a seemingly convincing English accent, they invited me to audition. I prepared some of my own comedy material, spinning off of Irwin Corey’s act as The World’ s Foremost Authority in a lecture I created, making fun of Othello. I could tell that the people in the house were having a good time. They laughed heartily.
“That’s great!” one of them said out beyond the stage lights. “Tell us about yourself.” Talking about my credits, I dropped the accent, trying to show them how skilled I had been to sound English when I wasn’t.
“Thank you very much,” the same voice said. “We appreciate your coming to see us. But we’re only looking for people with authentic accents.” Once again I had made a stupid choice. Would I never learn how to market myself effectively?
For most of that year, actually, I played in puppet shows.
In early 1964, a medical doctor’s secretary named Kathleen Ambrose was able to get a leave of absence to assemble actors to tour nursing homes and mental hospitals performing a one-act play. Her major reason was not to do something meaningful for the sorrowful occupants. She wanted to take a shot at acting, singing, producing and directing, probably figuring that such audiences wouldn’t be too critical.
She chose Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, a nasty little piece about a couple of married performers George and Lily Pepper who not only have a tacky act playing in minor gigs but bicker and insult each other backstage. Kathleen cast herself as Lily and me as George. I had the right accent and my few stage credits certainly looked right. Her NYU undergrad son Bobby had a supporting role.
At times during rehearsals Bobby seemed distracted and kept forgetting his lines, Kathleen charitably forgave him. She privately reassured me that he’d be alright for the performance; he was just having a few medical problems. But, she said, she had been able to help him by providing some of the prescription drugs her doctor-boss had in his office.
We had a major booking: Bellevue Hospital. They don’t come any bigger than that for treating off-the-wall cases.
During our one and only performance, which included Lily and George getting partially undressed in the backstage part of the story, the captive audience howled and giggled wildly. They also seemed to enjoy how the married couple kept fighting with each other, shouting encouragement to each of us. An orderly had to come in and quiet them down.
Why Kathleen chose that show, I’ll never know. But it certainly didn’t lead to future such engagements.
That year my beard and I were “beat” background in a Greenwich Village bookshop (back to the scene of my triumphant walk-by in Acres and Pains) in Diary of a Bachelor.
Most of the time during the shooting I sat there actually reading a book, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
Somewhere in there I was also an extra in the short-lived TV series Mr. Broadway starring Craig Stevens, the former Mr. Lucky.
Late that year I joined an all-star cast in a TV screenplay by Rod Serling Carol for Another Christmas directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This anti-war re-working of the Dickens story had an underpinning trying to promote the United Nations. Among the stars were two actors who’d already worked together in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Eve Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Robert Shaw and Pat Hingle were there too.
Who did I play? No one special. Just the ghost of a soldier killed in World War One, standing in a long line of similar ghosts on a ship deck. No dialogue. This was all actually filmed on sets at Grumman Studios in Bethpage. Oddly, I find my name listed in the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb) as a character.
And now, having searched or a photo on line, , I see that my name was in TV Guide. That is so odd. On the other hand, it just occurred to me that my name couldn’t be entirely unknown; I’d been a New York radio program host for a short while.
The effects people filled the set with fog, spraying water on massive hunks of dry ice. The soggy air was permeated by the soft smell of the dissolving carbon dioxide. In my long, heavy wool coat I felt damp and chilled, as if truly on board a looming troop ship outward bound, as in the play of that name. To this day, encountering that smell again, it’s as if I never left the deck.
For two days, all of us ghosts did was hover in the gloom while Hayden and Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past, talking about war, walked the line of us ghosts. I never saw the other stars. And they never saw me. How could they with all that fog?
Not that I could play the sax, but that wasn’t considered important. I had the look. A struggling musician played by Marco St, John was auditioning to join the quartet. In two pages of dialogue my part called for me to tell the kid that he didn’t have what it takes.
I tried playing the saxophonist as cool and understated. You know, laid-back. The director wanted me to play the scene angrily. But I didn’t think a jazz musician would talk way. Like cool, a common stereotype, forgetting such fiery guys as Charles Mingus. I never gave the director what he wanted. As if he didn’t have the right. Jesus Christ! What a smart way to foster a film career.
I’ve never found anything on-line about the movie; I don’t know how it turned out, nor remember who was the director, or the names of the characters.
I’ve just discovered, during an on-line search, that there’s a CD of jazz from a movie of that name from 1962 with Yusef Lateef, Jimmy Knepper, Richard Williams, Tommy Flanagan, and Max Roach. Maybe that’s the same film but the date doesn’t match. I was not bearded in 1962, I was in 1965.
A movie from that year which is still around and in which I appeared is Across the River starring famed Broadway character actor Lou Gilbert. He played a goat-owning rag picker, Obadiah, who sells goat milk to prosperous people. He turns up at a lavish party given by one of his clients who, at one point, tells him “that guy over there is a famous beat poet.” He motions towards me. Aha! The beard again.
Also as an extra, I was visible as a juror in Peter Falk’s pre-Colombo, short-lived TV series The Trials of O’Brien.
At last, though, I had a chance to play a speaking role in a radio drama, my long-deferred dream. Not that there were many opportunities left. Radio drama had pretty much faded into silence, resonating mostly in people’s memories. But the ABC radio network came up with a fresh series of concise radio plays, broadcasting five days a week at 5 pm Eastern Time, hence called Theater 5.
Current info on-line reports that these were scripts designed to take up about 21 minutes within half-hour blocks, also containing ABC news and commercials. Evidently there were 260 of them running from August 3rd 1964 to July 30th 1965. All but five can be heard on line: http://www.archive.org/details/OTRR_Theater_Five_Singles
Having sent an audition tape, I was called in to perform in what I was told by director Ted Bell would be one of the last shows. It was the only role I had in the series. I played an emotionally upset man trying to get help from a doctor. In the first read-through Bell said “Break him up, Gordon.” Even though the phrase was new, I realized that he meant not to read the lines straight. i.e Not “Doctor I’m really feeling terrible.” But rather “uh…Doctor…I…I’m really feeling terrible.”
We had just one read-through before taping. After all, we were professionals. And besides, it was on tape. Re-takes were possible. So was editing.
I haven’t been able to find that show among the final down-loads going back to early 1965. Four of the still missing ones were in June of ’65; I imagine mine is one of those.
Who was in it with me? No idea. But the series regularly featured some of the most famous radio actors whose names I knew as a thrilled, listening kid: Jackson Beck, whose wife, Bea, would eventually become my agent. Leon Janney (Allison’s dad) , Brett Morrison (“The Shadow” ), Santos Ortega and George Petrie.
And there was also Fred Foy.
There’s a legend for you. Starting back when I was in my teens he was the announcer at WXYZ in Detroit saying “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty, ‘Hi! Yo! Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!”
That silvery voice emanated from a guy who looked like a star. He towered over me, hovering around six feet, three inches. At age 44 his wavy long hair and his classy clothes gave him the glamour of the golden radio days of yesteryear. Those days before the speeding lights of television eclipsed the sounds of drama emanating from little square boxes and all the scenery and all the action unfolded in our minds’ eyes.
By 1965 Fred was still most often unseen, a seemingly anonymous staff announcer for ABC, on the radio and TV networks and local New York stations. Where I would join him about a year later.
I’m a movie co-star.
Ever since those last days at WNCN in 1960, Joe Marzano and I had been friends. We’d hang out together at his home on Long Island. His parents’ home really. His father owned and operated an Italian restaurant in East Rockaway, Cappy’s. Joe had his own room upstairs. Free room and board.
His walls were covered with stills from movies, especially those of Orson Welles, whom he idolized. Many photos were from his own movies, going as far back as when he was in his mid-teens, some 8mm and some 16 mm…when he could afford them. They were not “home movies” but attempts to create and develop genuine narratives. By the time we’d met some of his short features had played in New York venues featuring experimental films, although his were not wild and far out. Some were imaginative and skillfully filmed. One had received a lot of praise, a simple little piece called From Inner Space, about wire hangers gone berserk. Joe’s buddy Bob James (not the jazz fusiioneer) had the principal human role.
Bob and another buddy, Joe Regina, were married to the Passarelli twin sisters. Bob made decent money as a wedding photographer and gave his clients a special deal. He would also sing at the weddings for a reasonable rate. And he had a good voice. He even got a significant singing role in an off-Broadway production of Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me in which Merle Louise had a leading role. Louise became much celebrated for her powerfully moving performance as The Beggar Woman in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Bob often turned up in supporting roles in Joe’s movies.
1965 was the year Joe decided to make his first feature-length movie, starring himself, as usual, but also giving me a major role. It was Man Outside
You can read about it at the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb). Joe publically described it as about three young men “caught in the vortex of this….country of the blind… men outside the world at large, (who) seem to belong nowhere…they reject the life of both square and beat as anti-life…. each senses the profound loss of something he has never had….” It sounds like it could have substance, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen it in many years, but tend to believe it’s not all that brilliant, despite Joe being a close friend.
My role: Troy Dedseed. Marzano always had a flair for coming up with obvious names in his scripts, perhaps designed to be ironic or amusing.
I remember very little, except that Troy gets beaten up and killed by a street gang. During the filming Joe got a bunch of local high school students to play the gang. They weren’t good at faking punches. They actually hit me. Joe had to yell “cut” a few times to tell them to not really punch. At least when he yelled “cut” they knew that they weren’t supposed to pull out and use knives. I wasn’t seriously hurt.
And there was also a scene with Troy making love with Lucy, played by one of Joe’s regulars, Beverly Baum, a generously proportioned woman around our age. Although I actually had lusted for her, I was too inhibited to show that, especially with Vene sometimes on the set.
“Gordon,” Joe said. “Come on. Look like you’re enjoying this! …uh… try thinking of her as one of those great Chinese meals you’re crazy about.” That helped. Of course, it also meant that in the re-takes I could do it all over again, given the legend that Chinese meals never fill you up.
When the film was finished, attending the first screening, I didn’t admire it that much. Nor my own performance.
Joe was always trying to come up with money and ways to make any films he could. You can read much more about him from Ray Young at http://home.comcast.net/~flickhead/Joe-Marzano.html.
He refers to Cool It Baby.
In that instance, Joe convinced the producers of the original film, which was going nowhere, that he could improve it. With clever editing and some new dialogue, Joe turned the original into an off-the-wall send-up of chintzy “exploitation” movies of the 60s. Those were soft-core porn at a time where hard-core was never shown in public movie theaters. The most such films could be was suggestive while staying devoid of nudity. Legend had it that such features would attract lonely men to the audience while they sat in large raincoats covering their furtive masturbation while being turned on by the screen images.
Marzano got word that a small movie theater in Queens has booked the movie so he, Regina, James, their wives, Vene and I went to see it. It looked as if we nearly out numbered the rest of the audience, scattered widely from each other in that dreary location, leading Joe to posit that some of them were raincoat-men trying to be as invisible as possible.
We howled at the funny bits, probably more aware of them than anyone else there. But about mid-way in the screening, the screen suddenly went blank, then white and the house-lights came on, While the other patrons quickly scrambled towards the exits, we sat there laughing. Then we found the usher who was assembling his cleaning equipment, a broom and dust pan. “What happened?” producer/director Joe asked the usher.
“Oh, the projectionist had to go home. He got a call from his wife which he said was urgent,” the usher unapologetically explained. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow night? I think we’re showing it then…..No. No. Wait a minute. That’s wrong. This was the last night.”
More laughs from us. Joe: “This is so typical of my fate. I’m doomed to be unknown for the rest of my life. Curses.”
But he gamely went on. He made another feature, Venus in Furs whose title and not much else was derived from a novel of that name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch the source of the word “masochism.”
I had a supporting role during my acting career days. Not being convinced that this would turn out to be any good, I used a pseudonym: Gresham Law. I’ve since seen this movie. It’s dreadful.
Marzano loved to talk about his ideas for his own movies. But, being family-supported, never having to seriously earn a living, he wanted everything easy. He could never stir himself to actually write the scripts for his movie ideas. One he came up with, though, intrigued me. I proposed to do the actual writing using mutual ideas. We called it The Leather Girls, having seen, a few years before, The Leather Boys, a 1964 British movie about motorcycle-riding gay guys.
Our plot: tough young women form a motorcycle gang and go around robbing easily aroused men such as a movie theater manager and a diner owner (deliberately evoking Hemingway’s The Killers.) There was an implication of lesbianism. But the main idea was to portray empowered women exploiting male lust.
Joe and I paid a lawyer to incorporate us as Markon Films (MARzano-KAHN) Then, to secure ownership of the concept and of the treatment synopsis I’d written, we used the “poor man’s copyright.” I mailed myself a copy in an envelope not to be opened unless proof of ownership became an issue.
Until I started writing this, I assumed that the project went no further and threw away the faded, decades-old, soiled envelope. However, researching Joe on-line, I discovered that he’d made a version of the movie in 1978 without ever telling me during that year, nor while I was still in New York. Nor later. Actually I don’t much care. It certainly never became a hit nor an award-winner. Characteristically a principal role was named Patty Melt, Joe still coming up with silly names.
Gresham Law had a comeback, though. I used the name in a later stage production called Byronic Readings, A German man, Peter Grafmann, was convinced that Byron’s work was so powerful that Peter’s selections from that work as staged readings would rock the theatre world. Self-financing, he hired actor Steve Rubin and me as the cast. Steve and I tried to improve it in rehearsals by ad-libbing scenes portraying actors who got angrier and angrier with the director, as if stirred by Byron’s famed furies. Peter, rather than cringing or feeling abused, believed we were making the show better. I think we intimidated him. After a few backers’ auditions and no takers the most Peter could do with his project was get WBAI to allow him to broadcast it.
Within a few years I’d be heard on WBAI again, not as Gresham Law, but as myself. Hosting my own radio programs.
That was the year that I rang down the curtain on attempts at a real acting career. In seven years (with a 20 month intermission at WNCN) I’d had thirteen stage roles, ten off-Broadway, three in summer stock; only two of the thirteen could be considered big. What else? Actually roles in three movies, all of them obscure. I’d been an extra in five genuine movies and four TV shows, with a tiny role in another. There was one role in a professional radio play.
Why did I not get consistent regular work? The most obvious answer is that that is what happens to most would-bes. There could be further explanations.
For one thing, I had no obvious, distinctive physical presence, despite the beard. And, inside that almost bland surface, I did not brim with memorable personality. I had always gravitated to character roles, where I could take on specific identity doing that better than playing someone like myself. Whoever that was, because that was not clear to me until a few years later when I started therapy with a psychologist.
Still another factor could be that, coupled with not much self-assurance, I had never learned or seriously tried to aggressively,consistently promote myself as an actor. As if I thought what I had to offer was enough. That resembles too how I hid behind a WNCN microphone enjoying my music, sitting there in the isolated privacy of a studio in a darkened building during the New York night. I hadn’t socialized with the staff. Just as I had rarely hung out with other actors making connections to a supportive, valuable network.
Income? Trivial amounts from the above. What had I done to keep me and Vene in pasta sauce, low-budget wine, professionally dry-cleaned clothes and make it possible to live in a small one- bedroom walk- up apartment? Actually what made that possible were noticeable intermittent earnings working for Nicolo Marionettes for five of those years. I suppose I could have kept on doing those puppet shows. But having passed age 30 it looked as if I should get more serious.
Back to Radio
Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eye-lid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate nor across the Hudson.
WHLI, Hempstead needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.
Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is…..” “That was…” “We just heard….” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.
WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard ,who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us twenty-two minutes; we’ll give you the world”) was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.
Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.
I started looking for something better.
Within a few weeks I had started relief announcing at WJRZ, Newark and WQXR, New York plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.
By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my resume mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: Seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job, an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, and hadn’t yet left it, there was a position of strength; I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.
THE NEW WNCN-Part 1
WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Froehlich Advertising Agency which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.
According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena and KMPX in San Francisco.
The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Froelich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded.
In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies, whose commercials were included.
WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off 5th Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state of the art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director.
Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge, and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back.
No further questions were asked.
Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the way and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.
Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared with him, everyone else on WNCN was a day time shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR. But QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still under-rated and not taken seriously.
Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather short period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J. S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.
Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a current hippie phrase). Instead Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.
That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background such as when I was a baby -sat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’ elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne.
I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, “Listening with Watson” ; most if the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.
In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence and the glory of the works he presented, a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.
He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.
He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven hour broadcasts and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.
In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.
Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Froehlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.
Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?). Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.
Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.
But there was the other kind of response, people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.
Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.
You could ask why he would even pick up the phone since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation, and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.
While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.
He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements which brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard
During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in- person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose, and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.
In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.
I liked him.
In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.
He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income, in fact he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012) which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.
WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn” ) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!” )
I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks, nor use the WNCN studios either; I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark.
*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.
Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.
My WHLI, WOND experience got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”
Eventually Les would show up on WRVR too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.
I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you too.”,
I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?
Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.
The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “ a joy ride ” and they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.
A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at Newark storage lot.
Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond, a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.
While I waited for the boss, call him Mike, I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”
Grubby-looking, stomach- spilling, shave- needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”
“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.
I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn? ” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.
“But it was stolen” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”
“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”
I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s….that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…..”
“You said that already, buddy.”
“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”
Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”
“But why is it missing so many parts?”
“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”
“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”
“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”
“But it hasn’t been here a week.”
“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”
I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.
The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.
By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.
Rising into the stratosphere: WQXR, “The Voice of The New York Times”
That same summer I worked up my courage to audition for WQXR. From the magnificent, world- renowned, steel -encrusted tower on West 43rd Street known as The New York Times, that beacon of classical music radio radiated throughout New York and hundreds of other nearby towns and cities. How could I presume?
I had been too timid before to audition, only dreaming of such glory while at WFLN and WNCN, never believing that anyone there would take me seriously, especially while sitting at a make- shift control board in a dim and dreary hallway atop The Hotel Pierre.
But my easy acceptance back into the fold of the new WNCN, and getting on the air at WJRZ convinced me I could walk into such storied halls and look and sound as if I knew what I was doing.
QXR was owned and operated by the New York Times, a sturdy, profitable underpinning. The station’s program sponsorships and spot announcements also earned good money. Being on QXR was about as prestigious as you could get in classical music radio. Many of the announcers had become enduring New York legends, most having been there for years and years. There was perky George Edwards (born George Steinhardt) the host of the morning show “Bright and Early,” 25 years older than I when I was added to the standby announcers list.
Then there was elegant and distinguished Peter Allen (born Harold Levey),13 years my senior.
I thought that maybe I could get occasional fill-in work, just as at WNCN and WJRZ, After all, across the country there weren’t that many of us specialists in knowledgably announcing classical music, given the need for us to sound as if we knew what we were talking about and could breeze through foreign names and pronunciations with fluency and expertise.
The audition script looked like the same copy from eleven years before at WFLN. It probably was the same. A snap.
Chief announcer Al Grobe (30 years older than I) told me that I sounded just right and he would put me on the standby list. That felt good! The list was posted on a wall in the announcers’ lounge, a small, comfortable, lamp- lit room with an easy chair and sofa, across the hall from two of the four on-air studios. Grobe also introduced me one of the announcers on duty, soft- spoken, elderly- looking Chester Santon (age 50.) Another was on the air.
Two announcers on duty at the same time! Grobe was a third. This was one of many things that made it clear that WQXR was a major operation. In fact, its operation was bigger, more complex and thoroughly organized than any radio station I had ever seen or would ever see in the future.
It was also immediately clear that there would be plenty of chances to fill in with so many men* needed every day.
The standby list had eight names. I became number nine. It didn’t look all that hopeful, especially once I learned that Bob Lewis, whose name was at the top, unshakably was always called first.
But I did get called. And, after a few successful stints on the air, my name rapidly moved up the list and hovered near the top through March 1966. Later, my name went up and down the list for another five years. And, after returning from living in Europe, that same variable pattern repeated during 1976.
*There were no women announcers there or anywhere else until, the next year, 1966, when WNEW-FM featured four of them as a novelty in a pop music format.
When I started at WQXR, genial Mel Elliott, another announcer, said that Grobe must have liked my work but that the list always kept changing. Substitute announcers who were readily available when Grobe called them got higher placement than those who turned down work or weren’t available. In one way that made sense; Grobe wanted to use those people on whom he could rely at the last minute; he had other important things to do, reading many hourly WQXR newscasts on weekdays.
There was a special booth for the newscasts, a very small studio, along an H-shaped corridor within sight of the main control room where engineers ran every piece of equipment. They operated all the microphones, all the turntables and tape machines and controlled the volume as it went out on the air. A strict division of labor. WQXR was seriously unionized.
The news booth had one window facing the hall. Its walls were covered by the same kind of particle board I’d destroyed at the 47th Street WNCN, except that the board was thicker and punctured with tiny holes. Soundproofing.
A large clock loomed over the only desk. On the desk: a sturdy ribbon microphone, a headset and a simple, curved table lamp. A solitary, cushioned, armless metal chair sat under the only drawer in the desk with a small metal box attached to a leg. The box had a button, resembling one for an elevator. When the booth button was pushed, it activated a small gong. Whoever was reading the news started the newscast precisely on the hour sounding the gong over the open microphone.
A long tube came up from the floor. It was the end of the line in a pneumatic tube system. A small, sealed glass cylinder whooshed and popped into a small opening in the tube. In it were as many sheets of onion skin paper as it took for each story to be on a separate page to become a newscast. Times staff on another floor wrote the stories.
That was a cramped little room. Anyone looking over and rehearsing a newscast usually left the door open so as to get some air. Grobe and some other announcers even loosened their belts to breath better. Especially during the noon and six pm 15-minute broadcasts.
Eventually I broadcast from there and would find Grobe’s scripts in the wastebasket. He’d underlined almost every word, with one line, or two, or three, clearly to indicate degrees of emphasis for himself.
As for the closeness in that booth , in the middle of a newscast one evening, I struggled to speak while on the air, my voice cracking, devoid of its usual resonance. I could barely breath. 25 minutes earlier an elderly engineer had a heart attack while on duty and died in the control room. Police had wheeled out his grey-faced stiff body, laid out on a canvas stretcher. I hadn’t seen much death yet and that might have affected me. That’s what Peter thought.
The loss of voice worried me, knowing the fluidity of the on-call list. There were also constant rumors that executive v.p. /general manager Elliott Sanger was somewhere listening, ready to air his criticisms about even the smallest deviations from on-air perfection.
But I survived to breath again; my status as a relief announcer didn’t change after that evening. Perhaps death in the hallway got all the attention.
Another time, though,23 years older staff announcer Bill Strauss warned me that my name was probably going to drop on the list. Tall, thin, dark-haired Strauss seemed quite severe, especially due to a permanent frown. Not that he had any influence on the list. He was trying to be helpful. I had deviated from the norm one afternoon on the air. Reading a jolly, humorously-written commercial, the copy suggested a friendly laugh. So I laughed. Afterwards, back in the announcer’s lounge, when that part of my shift was over, Bill said. “Boy! Did you step over the line!”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.
“You laughed on the air. We don’t do that. Mr. Sanger doesn’t like it. ”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but the copy seemed to call for it.”
“Gee. I hope he didn’t hear it,” Bill added. “I’d hate to see you not among us as often. You usually do such a good job.”
I survived that too.
If he or one of the regular announcers had laughed, they might have been reprimanded but they wouldn’t have been fired for such a minor infraction. They had a strong AFTRA contract. A number of those announcers were rare examples of longevity in our business. They knew how to protect their jobs. Moreover, the Times had a very strong labor structure.
The contractual shift was eight hours, longer than those at most other stations. There was an hour for lunch. And some mighty good food was available on the 11th floor in the Times cafeteria. Moreover, since we knew we’d have, say, half an hour during a concerto on the air with no other duties except to announce, we could also zip upstairs and grab a sandwich and coffee and bring them down to eat in the lounge. But not in the studios.
Also contractually required were 15 minutes of “preparation time” when the shift started, so that the announcer could get his records, or look over the first commercials he’d have to read. George had a special contract; he got an hour preparation time, because, among other things, he had to wait until the station went on the air with his sign-on. His on-air duties ran from 5 am to 12 noon. Daily, after “Bright and Early,” he’d just be another staff announcer, reading spot announcements, or hosting other programs. And at the end of his final announcement of his day, he reached over to a lamp on his desk and audibly clicked it off. His talisman.
Among our spelled-out duties, we had to go down a hall to the music department and pick up the records whose music we’d announce. Music was programmed by Martin Bookspan or someone on his staff. People in the department pulled the individual LPs from the shelves; announcers didn’t do that. The LPs were placed in slots for announcers to pick up and take to engineers in master control. Each program came with typed sheets on which were written the names of the selections and the performers, as well as the timing for each piece. Usually there was no written script; we were expected to announce the pieces simply, unembellished by commentary.
But, after I’d been around for a while, feeling comfortable and assured, I looked over the LPs and their liner notes and decided to say a few words about the backgrounds of the pieces, based on what I’d read. Nothing complicated, but something like I had been doing at WFLN and WNCN, ad-libbing a few concise, presumably interesting things about the music.
Another announcer, Bill Gordon, heard me talking on-air about the music. “Don’t do that,” he cautioned. “It’s not in our contract. If the management hears you, they’ll start expecting all of us to do that.”
The rules of how to communicate with the engineers in the control room were very precise. There were hand signals, the simplest way to communicate, given that the on-air studios were all separated by glass windows and hallways in a u-shape surrounding the control room.
The signals: pointing to the microphone for announcing, signaling to cut off the microphones with the famed simulation of cutting the throat, pointing directly at the engineer for him to play a record or a recorded commercial or to turn the broadcast over to another announcer in a different studio. The only equipment we were allowed to touch were the “cough buttons, ” called that because, if announcers needed to cough or sneeze while on the air, we could push a button next to the microphone and it would cut off the signal as long as it was held down.
Grobe scheduled which announcers would host standard broadcasts and newscasts. There were some which were not considered standard, of course, such as “Bright and Early” with George or “Cocktail Time” hosted by Duncan Pirnie, 10 years older than I.
In a rolling baritone he playfully said just a few sly words during the only QXR program resembling pop music. Duncan, by the way, was physically the largest on the staff at a time when obesity was less common than it is now. And, coincidentally, his father Donald had been a successful concert baritone whom my aunt Marion had sometimes accompanied. Later he became part of the faculty at Sanford Prep when I had been a student there. (see above material about my boyhood.)
We had one unusual assignment, Technically it was voluntary. Of course, I participated. Each day one of us would record a few personally-chosen articles from the Times for The Lighthouse Association for The Blind. The tapes would be played back at double speed for Lighthouse-served blind people, given their heightened acuity.
The recordings we made on our own time, whenever we were not assigned regular announcing duties. We did that on a small tape recorder in the studio just outside the announcer’s lounge. Given union rules, this process could not involve staff engineers. The tapes went directly to The Lighthouse.
The pay was really good, especially if I got talent fees, standard in some of the best contracts at the biggest stations. The fees were extra money when assigned to sponsored programs. We had to fill out daily forms for the fees and submit them with our record of how many hours we had been on the air each week.
I got a substantial fee for one evening’s hosting of a live performance by the WQXR piano duo of Jascha Zayde and Leonid Hambro. Marty had written the script; I was not required to ad-lib anything. But there was a live audience in the WQXR auditorium and I became incredibly nervous with the responsibility. This was THE NEW YORK TIMES. Live musicians depending on my cues and my words which had to be delivered in the exact time allotted. No reading the script too fast. No reading it too slow. Certainly I’d appeared as an actor many times before in front of live audiences but in this case I wasn’t playing a character. I was appearing as Gordon Spencer. Alone with a microphone in a studio, no one looking at me, that was easy. This was different.
I survived that too.
Of course, to be in front of a live audience, I wore a suit, a good shirt, tie etc. But that was not much different from how most QXR announcers dressed when on duty but in the studios. Peter Allen often had on a suit. Grobe wore dress shirts and ties. Mel wore sport shirts, good pants and shows. Duncan seemed the least well-dressed in a casual shirt and comfortable rather than well-creased trousers.
Normally one announcer would host the music program and another would be on hand to read live spot commercials during the broadcast.
One late afternoon in early November 1965 I was in the middle of reading a commercial on the air just prior to Chester Santon’s 5:30 newscast when the light went out in the studio. I stopped reading. In Master Control the lights went out. And in all the studios. And in the halls.
We were curious what was happening and if other parts of the floor and those of The Times were also dark. Chester and the engineer asked me if I could outside the studio and look, while they waited in case we went back on the air soon.
I took an engineer’s flashlight and found the outside halls totally dark. The elevators were not running. And, looking out the windows, the QXR studio having none to outside, I could see that all the nearby buildings also were totally dark.
I went back to the studios and told everyone. Then we turned on a small portable radio to check to see if other stations were likewise affected, first tuning to WINS (“All News All the Time”). By that time it already had a report about a major blackout all along the Eastern Seaboard, although no one knew yet who or why it happened. Several of us couldn’t help thinking of some kind of science fiction scenario. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-great-northeast-blackout
My shift ended at 6pm. So, with the station still off the air, I went home. Taking a jammed bus all the way down to City Hall, the subways not running. Then I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to likewise unlit Brooklyn Heights.
Sometimes I also worked late evenings before the station signed off for the night. Since Grobe was not present to supervise and make sure everything ran properly, someone had the responsibility, being called a “night manager” or a “weekend manager.” Most often it was one of us standbys from the list. We were not considered management of course, since, if necessary, we could fill on the air during an emergency. We had to do such things as set up recording news features for later broadcast. We didn’t run the equipment. But we acted as producers making sure that the reporter was comfortable, had everything he needed (right, “he”). We signaled the engineer. We checked to make sure no re-take was needed. And we filed the script for future reference.
That’s how I got to talk to Clive Barnes who was then The Times major theatre critic.
We would chat briefly after he’d finished recording. I told him about my theatre background. He listened politely, neither bored nor fascinated. As I’m sure he’d done many times with many other people. He has a rather squeaky voice and stuttered a lot and, given that, and a gap in his front teeth, he reminded me a Peter Sellers character. Not that I ever told him. The on-duty engineer edited out the stutters.
Certainly I was pleased to get so much work at QXR and my experience there confirmed my thorough professionalism. I was proud of being on WQXR, the top of my profession, but being there was not a source of enjoyment. It didn’t compare with what I was doing at WNCN whenever I was called; I got to choose some of the music and to talk about it; everything was more relaxed. Yes, the pay was less; it wasn’t even an AFTRA station yet. I’ve always gravitated to broadcasting which I could thoroughly enjoy, where I could contribute something personal, but never very practical regarding income.
I would return to QXR from time to time thereafter but not be there as often as during those first nine months. I was dropped down, way down on the list after I turned down work too often. I was busier elsewhere. At first, that meant joining the staff of ABC.
In The Heights
Vene and I were seeing less of each other with my hopping around at both stations, often in the evenings, but we were delighted by my increased earnings. Meanwhile she’d been getting more interested in performing again. When we’d first met, she’d been acting in plays at Temple, appearing in a couple with me as well as at Atlantic City’s Center Little Theatre in Out of the Frying Pan.
In late 1965 she started getting a few roles in The Heights Players, a community theatre whose productions were staged a few blocks from where we lived. That also expanded our social life; we became friends with regular performers there including an openly gay couple Randy Kim and Chuck Bright. Randy later went on to a major career in movies and on Broadway as Randall Duk Kim.
He, Chuck and Anne Occhiogrosso founded one of the US’s great summer theatres, American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Tiny Randy had an amazingly deep voice and was a master of make-up. He, Chuck and Vene all starred in Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland at the Heights Players.
And I performed in fund-raising variety shows there as The World’s Oldest Living Beat Poet, reading simple-minded comic verse I’d written. Plus some of my comedy sketches were acted by Heights Players regulars.
One was about a guy turned on by a woman in a bar because she had a copy of Masters and Johnson’s just-published Human Sexual Response. He figured she’d be an easy conquest given that book; he brings that up with a sly grin. She responds by quoting him some of the book’s gross, analytical descriptions of bodily functions. So much so that he has to leave for the men’s room to throw up.
Speaking of bodily functions, through The Heights Players I connected with Lester Bergman who published medical books. And he hired me to narrate a couple of films about procedures during operations. I didn’t have to look at the films, though.
By early 1966 Vene wanted to quit her job as assistant to Cosmopolitan Magazine fiction editor Bill Guy. She really liked him and also admired new editor in chief Helen Gurley Brown, but wanted to try an actual acting career. Considering how much money I’d been making from announcing on two stations, it seem only fair that I should support her shot at fame; she had been the major source of income when I was an infrequently employed actor.
Why not? She might succeed where I hadn’t. She bubbled with personality, was cute and, being quite short, still seemed girlish, although she was my age.
She joined a children’s theatre group whose regular cast included Bill Finn and Danny Goldman.
Tall, rangy Bill went on to write musicals as William Finn with his first success about ten years later: In Trousers. Later he’d become lauded and awarded for his Falsetto trilogy, A New Brain and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Danny became a film actor, specializing in voices, including that of Brainy Smurf and also became a Hollywood casting director of television commercials. Vene also got roles in summer stock in Rochester, New Hampshire.
I join ABC
Early in 1966 WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy told me that he was moving on to become program director at WABC-FM; they were broadcasting some classical music. I asked if there might be a way I could join him.
He said that he had no authority to hire me but that, in March, ABC would audition people as relief announcers and certainly I could apply. It would mean a chance to be heard on all of ABC’s New York operations, the TV and radio networks plus the local stations. The minimal six month gig was to cover regular staff vacations. And, if anything full-time opened, Ed believed the relief guys (right, men only) would most likely be considered.
Six months of big money sounded like a great idea. And how much higher could an announcer go than being on the ABC staff?
There was a massive line-up of superbly-dressed, deep-voiced candidates at the audition. Suits. Ties. Polished shoes.. They’d come from Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis for this major opportunity. I felt overshadowed, as if I was still a kid and they were the big time, even though I was 33.
The audition material included a newscast, commercials and a classical music script. Exactly what I’d been doing at WQXR.
While waiting to record my shot at fortune, a six foot two, supremely well-dressed, perfectly groomed guy next said to one of his peers. “Shit! ” he said, waving a page of the audition, “What the hell is this?”
The other resonated back “Some kind of classical music stuff. How the fuck are we supposed to know that?”
They warmed the cockles of my soul.
I got in.
April 1966 I joined the staff.
Oddly, though, I rarely announced on WABC-FM. Within a couple of months its format changed and classical music was minimized. Instead I did what all the staff announcers did, live booth station breaks and five-second on-air promos on the two TV networks and WABC-TV, and live newscasts and commercials on the radio network and on WABC-AM.
Relief announcers’ assignments seemed random; we filled in slots normally covered by regular staff who’s been re-assigned wherever there were talent fees. Their contract required minimum fees every week and ABC had to guarantee the minimum. So, if the announcer didn’t get enough fees from regular assignments, ABC had to make up the difference, hence the re-alignments to minimize what ABC had to make up. Audiences wouldn’t know the difference anyway, most of us sounded like each other, anonymous, mellifluous, resonant, manly voices.
So were did I most turn up? The classical music expert? Usually over nights at one of the highest- rated pop music radio stations in town, even in the U.S. WABC-NEW YORK! as I often punched up the call letters. An acting assignment. Moreover, once an hour, I had to read live, 60 second commercials for a new sponsor, Dennison Clothes on Route 22, Union N.J. The copy always began with “The president of Dennison Clothes says…” and included the phrase “Where money talks, nobody walks.”
The copy was fundamental selling, so I decided to punch it up, have fun, almost a parody, the way Jerry Carroll would do some years later on the ubiquitous Crazy Eddie spots. I started each commercial with a serious intonation, sounding as if I was going to announce something portentous and newsworthy, Cronkite-like: “Ladies and Gentlemen The President of …(but then not “The United States” ) and spin off into absurdity without altering the copy. The first time I did it, Charlie Greer and the other guys on duty howled with laughter. Eventually Charlie would introduce me as “The voice of Dennison Clothes.”
Primarily my major job was to read newscasts written by Webb Kelley. When we first met, he told me that, at one time, he’d been writing for the TV network but that they wanted someone who could also look good on camera and that he was too old. I often felt that he was frustrated and unhappy, diminished to five minute scripts overnight. Sometimes he even sounded as if he’d been drinking. And sometimes he just took AP wire copy and stapled it to my scripts. He called me “Beatley,” a reference, no doubt, to my beard, still uncommon, and the resemblance to the by -then outdated and bypassed beatniks, superseded by hippies. Old news.
Most often I was the news and commercials reader when Charlie Greer was the d.j. in a powerful signal radiating across more than 38 states. He was in his sixth year at the station and kept telling me, off the air, and everyone else within earshot, engineers, visitors, anyone who’d listen, that he’d been there longer than any of the other guys and it made him nervous as hell; he expected to be fired any day. He, like every other d.j. at WABC NEW YORK, had six-month contracts, fabulous money but under conditions designed to make sure they delivered the goods. Longevity depended on the ratings.
As for the music, everyone had a playlist; they could only choose something from it. All of that week’s selections were on cartridges played by the engineers, sitting across from the d.j.s separated by a console. The d.j’s announced the songs with non-stop enthusiasm, as if they loved hearing the same things over and over, and they came up with a little chatter and read a few commercials which required their personalities, talent-fee compensated.
Program Director Rick Sklar decided which music to broadcast, and each week held a meeting with the d.j.s where they could give him input. Evidently the weekly playlist was very short. According to Sklar in his book Rocking America, the records on the list were determined by studying sales at about 550 record stores. Then, at each meeting, the list was revised. Songs which hadn’t moved up in sales were dropped. Songs at the top of the list were broadcast more regularly than the others, about once at 70 or 80 minute intervals. Some of this info and more can be found at Allan M. Sniffen’s Musicradio WABC Website http://www.musicradio77.com
Among the hits I heard repeatedly: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Wild Things” by The Troggs, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel in “I Am a Rock,” “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and Papas.
Sometimes too I’d be assigned to read news while Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy or Chuck Leonard were on the air. Chuck always looked nervous and had a habit of vigorously yanking off his headphones once the music was playing.
Dan sounded intelligent and clever. While reading a commercial for a furniture store selling ottomans he ad-libbed, “Hey! Remember their empire?” Or once, the copy being for a steak house whose meals “stick to your ribs…” he added “…bypassing your stomach.”
TV booth announcing was new to me. Sometimes I’d be on the networks, sometimes on WABC-TV. Those studios were on West 66th Street just east of Broadway, while WABC-AM was a block and half south of there in an office building at 1926 Broadway.
The booths were small rooms, each with a TV monitor, headphones, a microphone, a table with a lamp, a program log, whatever copy was to be read, and a plain chair. Utilitarian. Many booths were below street level, seeming dark and truly subterranean. Perhaps they were there so ABC could keep on broadcasting during an atomic attack.
Once, when going on duty, I encountered Milton Cross in one of the booths.
I had come to relieve him. When he spoke to me, I was shocked, recognizing that Metropolitan Opera broadcast voice, sadly, in that dreary, underground cell. It seemed like such a diminishment for him. I hadn’t known that he was on the staff. He told me that he had left a few magazines in case I wanted to read them. It was the only time we saw each other. In fact, we relief announcers also rarely crossed paths. We didn’t team up the way QXR announcers did.
TV production directors were somewhere else in the building; I never learned where and never saw them. They directed booth announcers, communicating through headsets. Arriving to announce, we had to call on a house phone and check in with our directors, not being visible, confirming that we were in the right place at the right time and that our names matched those on the logs.
Then the director made sure he could be heard through the headphones and have his engineer, wherever that man was, check our microphone, having us read the copy to be heard on the air. E.g. “Stay tuned for ‘F Troop’ coming up next on ABC.”
That’s a characteristic five second promo. It had to be delivered within five seconds because a computer somewhere would then switch to the network or to the station and the next event. Announcers could get into serious trouble if the computer cut them off. Consequently, even some of the regular staff read the copy as fast as possible, a kind of urgency. None of those announcements were pre-recorded, nor the station breaks either. Everything was live. I subsequently learned,a few years later, that ABC finally got smart and recorded a lot of the breaks, meaning, no doubt, less work for announcers whose ranks, I believe, were diminished by buy-outs.
“Standby for the station break, Gordon. Coming up in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. ANNOUNCE!” Yes, that order often sounded as if ours lives depended on it. You can imagine how an announcer would intensely, anxiously, do his five second thing.
WABC-TV signed off overnight then, following a late movie. Once, on the late night shift, I looked at my few pages of copy and found that the last thing before reading the sign-off announcement was a prayer by Reverend David Burns of Calvary Protestant Church in Baldwin, Long Island. Having watched late night TV in the past, I’d seen film clips of ministers reading short prayers. I assumed that all I had to do was introduce Father Burns, although I had a copy of the prayer.
My mike open, I read the introduction and waited for the film. “ANNOUNCE!” the director yelled. I paused. Was I supposed to read the prayer myself? I couldn’t ask. My mike was live. “ANNOUNCE” he yelled again. It was a wonder that his voice didn’t leak through my microphone.
I hadn’t read over the prayer, of course, So I read it cold, nervous a hell. Heaven knows what it said. But, by God, I never stumbled, never lost my way.
I followed it immediately with the sign-off script, which I had rehearsed.
Once we were off the air, the director called me on the phone. Uh-oh. He was going to chew me out for one and a half seconds of dead air. Nope. Instead he said “Wow! That was a great reading of the prayer. You sounded like you believed every word. Hey, have a good night, huh?” He hung up.
And I walked out into the night’s cool and shiny streets, gleaming from the lights on Broadway.
Soon I’d be pounding the pavements again, looking for work. When the vacation season was over I was not one of the two relief guys ABC got hired full-time. I was disappointed, sure. But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take me to be thoroughly bored in such a nearly anonymous job.
Yet, in those six months, I felt proud that I’d made it at ABC. Yeah, ABC: six months; WQXR, nine months. Intense, colorful blips.
My two year stint at WOND still held the record for the longest job. And that, as well as my 20 months at the first version of NCN, were the only jobs I had really enjoyed. As far as ABC went, I was proud of my skill and felt significant, even though my name and presumed personality usually were only public at night.
WBAI and WNCN
I had become friendly with Matt Edwards (born Mario Stutterheim in Argentina) sometimes on the air at WNCN; he was also filling in at WBAI which had been donated to Pacifica Radio in 1960 by Louis Schweitzer, the former owner of the old WBAI, with which I’d had encounters up in the heights of The Pierre Hotel. Matt suggested that I contact program director Frank Millspaugh to see if I could do some announcing there. Millspaugh added me to the stand-by list.
BAI had always been radically different from all the other stations in the city, And the word “radical” fits. By 1967 it was becoming quite an outlet for left-leaning opinions, including plenty of anti-Viet Nam War broadcast comments. Would I fit in? Well, I was opposed to the war but not an active protestor. I’d followed the movement and what it was doing and saying, as well what was coming from similar anti-establishment political causes. I believed in what they believed. But whether I chose to be active or not didn’t matter to the people at the station, where non-conformity was the essence. So many people at the station wore clothes that looked like left-overs from Salvation Army sales, Matt always wore a suit and a tie. That was how he was most comfortable and, since that was his thing, so be it. And I was accepted for whatever I believed or didn’t believe.
Most other stations have always deliberately had easily identifiable formats. But the programming varied from day to day, depending on who was hosting what they wanted to do, Start times varied too. BAI was already being considered a pioneer in what was yet to be called “free-form” radio. How did I fit in? I hosted whatever pre-planned recorded music was scheduled or ran the equipment for someone else while they presented their shows.
Coming in to take over at 10 am, I’d encounter Larry Josephson finishing his morning show. We’d exchange a few pleasantries, even though he was not known for being all that pleasant on the air. His program dovetailed with BAI’s unconventionality and was unlike nearly all morning radio elsewhere, often called “morning drive,” Such formats are as much service as entertainment, due to taking place when listeners are presumably driving to work. Typically this means including vital information for that part of the day, frequent time-checks, weather forecasts and details, plus traffic reports. At music stations, classical included, this means short selections.
Josephson’s persona and programming were actually close to Watson’s except that they had different kinds of music. Bill’s was always classical. Larry’s could be anything. Both aired personal opinions. But Larry talked more often about himself and often said things that people would describe as “cranky” humor, plus he took phone calls on the air and interacted directly with listeners. He too had quite a following.
Mornings when he’d left the studio I’d find the trash basket under the console overflowing with take-out food detritus, greasy Styrofoam containers on the floor and plastic take-out coffee cups half-filled with swirls of curdling milk sitting almost anywhere including the edges of turntables. I always assumed that Larry left them and maybe he did, but he’d been preceded by Bob Fass overnight (“Radio Unnamable”) and, in time, no matter when I arrived at the station, Larry having been there or not, the same kind of mess could often be found.
I suppose that many people would conclude that such slovenliness was in keeping with the hippie-like nature of what the station most seemed, re a public image. But I’d encounter equal disdain for order and cleanliness at other stations subsequently, regardless of the more conventional nature of the programming. Such conditions offended my sense of order, and trying to be relaxed, polished and presentable on the air, I wanted my surroundings to be as comfortable as I could make them. So I often cleaned up, unasked. As for wiping down microwave ovens in Albuquerque, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, I was disgusted to think that my food could be contaminated by someone else’s smears of tomato sauce, burned-in cheese, and other disgusting weeks’ old garbage.
Somewhere during that time BAI posted a public notice that it was interviewing people as candidates to be the next station manager. With my major credits I thought I would have been a good choice, even though, realistically, longevity at any job had not been such a strong suit. Also I’d no leadership experience. How could that have been a problem?
Frank interviewed me on behalf of the station’s board of directors and asked me about what changes I might come up with. One of the first was to have Josephson do time checks and weather forecasts so as to attract a larger audience.
Frank: “And what would you do if he refused?”
Me: “Oh, fire him of course.”
Frank: “As popular as he is, you’d fire him?”
Frank: “I don’t think that would work well.”
Naturally, I didn’t get the job. Interestingly, about ten years later, Larry had a brief shot at doing such a morning show on that decade’s version of WNCN. It wasn’t his forte. He was replaced within a week. By me. More later.
In early 1968 I cut back on my availability for WBAI, Bernie Alan left WNCN to take a higher-paying job as a booth announcer at WPIX-TV and I was offered his slot: 6 am to 2:05 p.m. Thus I had a morning show following the glory of Watson. It was a somewhat unconventional starting time for morning drive. But then we didn’t have traffic reports, but plenty of time checks and forecasts amid Music Director Maurice Essam’s rather conventional programming choices.
That meant that late afternoons and evenings I was free, so sometimes I’d fill in not only on WBAI but also WQXR.
My earnings were good. And that money was important because Vene and I had separated in early 1967 and I was living by myself elsewhere in Brooklyn while giving her a third of anything I made. I had agreed to do so, thinking that that was only fair, given how often in our years together she’d been the major source of income, especially during my intermittent acting career. This arrangement meant she was free to do something about her own performing ambitions if she chose to do so. Such payments were open-ended but by early 1971 we came to a mutual understanding that I had done well enough by her that they need not continue. We had a truly amicable relationship. It remains so more than 40 years later, even if contact has become infrequent.
Despite being a lover of classical music, the wider freedoms of jazz seamlessly connected me to so many sounds and styles emerging in pop music and rock, finding fascination and delight, discovering the marvels of The Beatles, John Mayall, Richie Havens, The Doors, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Berry and more. Plus Indian classical music, becoming a major fan of Ravi Shankar.
WNCN had opened wide its aural doors to much new music and I had considerable programming freedom during “Entr’acte” from noon to 2 pm. The staff included Carly Simon (not the singer/songwriter) who had an office job, but was also a performer, a professional belly dancer and dance instructor. She knew Ravi Shankar personally and set up for me a broadcast interview with him.
Thus that and some of his recordings were featured on “Entr’acte.”
I never was permitted to present rock in the program, but could share various kinds of ethnic music such as that played on Japanese wood flutes or a Persian santoor. And my enthusiasm for contemporary concert music connected me via interviews to composers I admired. Once, when programming some of the work of Alan Hovhaness, I mentioned on the air how I’d wished I could interview him.
He heard about that comment and called me.
It was as if WNCN and WBAI were closer to each other than ever before. And I moved seamlessly between them. NCN station manager Stan Gurell, Maurice Essam and, later, music director David Dubal were also personally open to all the fascinating things happening in so many kinds of music of the time, even if we didn’t broadcast them all.
From them I got permission to also host my own weekly program on WBAI which I could pre-record on NCN equipment and tapes.
That feature I called “American Music”; it much resembled “Sounds of the 20th Century” about ten years before on the old NCN: contemporary “classical” music, jazz, film scores, cast recordings of musicals. My only self-chosen parameters were to focus only on what was American. That was the implied point: there is so much richness, so much variety, so much creativity in our own nation and I wanted listeners to become aware of that.
Was that deliberately patriotic and, if so, how would it sit with BAI’s focus, dwelling on the distressing, sometime evil problems within our own nation? That issue never arose. BAI, like America, was open and free to anyone who wanted such openness and freedom. Politically conservative groups, or even ones such as the libertarian YAF (Young American for Freedom) had slots.
Due to my continuing love of jazz and including it in my BAI program, I got press passes to the Newport Jazz Festival a couple of times. The one of 1969 stays memorable, with a couple of near -riots. The concert bill was George Wein’’s attempt to broaden his audience base by including rock groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Jethro Tull. That worked: tickets ran out. So many people had come for the concert that many were sitting on the grass on hills above the site. And getting restless. Some claimed that the event should be free to “the people” and tried to gate-crash. The police had to be called. Then, when Sly and The Family Stone got into one of their numbers, “I Want to Take You Higher,” yelling to the crowd, the people surrounding me started jumping on the seats, raising their fists and chanting in unison. My date, a rather shy English lady, was terrified. But I loved hearing John Mayall as well as Dave Brubeck plus Miles Davis’ early ventures into fusion.
I was somewhat involved with what many people at BAI most stood for or against, agreeing that the Vietnam War was a tragic, horrid, criminal act by our nation. Although I went to a few station staff-organized protest gatherings. It would be a mistake to call me a true peace activist. I devoted more of my time and attention to dating.
Nonetheless, when asked by the station’s Chief Engineer, Tom Whitmore, if I’d help run some sound equipment at a Central Park peace rally, I enthusiastically agreed.
It was in April 1967 and called “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam”. There was a big stage set up inside Central Park’s southeast corner, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Those of us from BAI were there to broadcast and record the speeches. I could see a number of very straight-looking men in conservative suits and ties taking photos of us. Clearly the FBI. We smiled at them and waved.
The speakers included Martin Luther King. “White Americans are not going to deal in the problems of colored people,” he said, “when they’re exterminating a whole nation of colored people”. There were other speakers talking about racism, Native Americans calling attention to injustices against many tribes, Abbie Hoffman speaking against police hounding hippies. They and other speakers kept on saying that their causes were the most important ones of the day. I felt that they diminished the significance of what they had essentially come to protest: the war. The issue was obscured by every one, using the phrase du jour, “doing his own thing” I was dismayed. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was there to operate audio equipment, nothing more. Well, at least, I must have had my photo filed with the FBI.
I’ve since learned on-line (Wikipedia) that number of demonstrators was estimated to be perhaps as many as 400 thousand and people carried characteristic placards “Don’t Make Vietnam an American Reservation” “Make Love not War” and “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger”. About 75 young men burned their draft cards. But there were few arrests and those were of counter-demonstrators staging an Anti-Communist rally.
“Huge Peace March Spans Wide Social Spectrum” Village Voice April 20, 1967
On a Thursday night, almost a year later, March 1968, Abbie Hoffman was a guest on Bob Fass’s show. There I heard him talk about The Yippies, declaring that he and other members of this growing group plus anyone else interested should convene on Friday night shortly before midnight at Grand Central Station just “to be together.” (“It’s a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller-skating rink, a theatre, with you, performer and audience.”) Hoffman reasoned that that Grand Central wouldn’t be crowded with commuters, given the weekend waiting out there along the tracks and in quiet suburban homes. This was not to be a protest meeting.
That Friday evening turned out to be taste of things yet to come in August: The Democratic national convention, Chicago.
In fact the Yippies as a group, if such an amorphous collection of random association can be called a group, had only been around since the start of the year, beginning with that name spurred by Hoffman, his wife Anita, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan and Paul Krassner.
Hoffman later explained ”If the press had created ‘hippie,’ could not we five hatch the ‘yippie’?” But it was Krassner who claimed the origin the name, according to a Wikipedia piece.
You may recall that I wrote about having had a little contact with Krassner at the old NCN during the jazz package evenings in the early 60s. Since then he’d become even more famed, due the accumulation of so many sharp, funny and provocative articles, editorial and cartoons in seven or so years of The Realist’s reality. Among his most memorable moments for me was the cartoon “One Nation Under God” showing the naked hairy deity raping a scrawny, pathetic man wearing an Uncle Sam hat (art by Frank Cieciorka).
Certainly Hoffman and Krassner in particular offended conservative people who believed in their own version of patriotism (“Our Country, Love it or Leave It” was one of the anti-hippie slogans). The idea of “counter-culture” had cachet as an alluring, adventurous alternative to straight life, especially for young people disillusioned with the way so many older ones were heading our nation in the wrong direction. I felt empathy, albeit by then not nearly as young as these converts to this form of freedom. Hanging out at times with these good, sweet people made me feel, as they did themselves, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, belonging, embraced emotionally and physically. They welcomed me, no matter how little I actually joined them in protest events. One more body showing support for the right causes. So, hanging out with some of them in a famed public place, glamorous Grand Central, seemed a good way to warm a few chilly night March hours.
Arriving I was astonished to see vast amounts of police vehicles and what looked like hundreds of helmeted, armed police standing near the 42nd Street entrance. I also noticed TV and radio station vans. Clearly, this was turning out to be a newsworthy event. Abbie Hoffman had provoked a mighty big reaction.
Inside, the Grand Concourse was densely packed with noisy, chattering, babbling , smiling, happy people, most younger than I, eagerly enjoying being together, hugging, kissing, some sitting in in small circles as if Native Americans vivifying the Circle of Life, one person each facing north, south, east and west.
The hall was like a massive version of a rush hour subway car, everyone tightly squashed together. Except that these people loved being together and loved being there with no hurry to go anywhere else. This wasn’t their stop. They’d already reached their destination.
The police were still outside.
Then two young man climbed up onto the information booth under the big clock and tried to move the hands. Instantly a mob of police stomped into the hall, boots and shoes making a counter-din. Without warning.
They swung their hardened billy clubs into whatever faces, heads, arms, legs were in their paths, north, south, east, west. I was immersed in sudden panic, the marble halls echoing with screams. We were like stampeding cattle, too densely packed with nowhere to turn. I suddenly felt as if I was no longer in charge of my body, but part of some surging, swaying organism over which I had no control.
“It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,’ Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference that Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being unleashed,” Levine added. According to the March 28th edition of The Village Voice, he had seen people running a gauntlet of club-wielding cops who “spitting invective through clenched teeth” saying that “It was like a fire in a theatre.”
Among the wounded was Voice reporter Don McNeill, pushed into a glass door by police despite press credentials pinned to his jacket. Five stitches. He was not the only member of the press assaulted by the police.
My feet propelled me into a pocket of thirty or forty people who’d somehow broken free of the main crowd. I was running breathlessly to keep pace with them. We rushed to an exit emptying out into Lexington Avenue. Where no police waited. We escapees dispersed, stunned, into the night air.
The next morning I wrote a letter to Mayor John Lindsay.
“I have never written to a public official before, but I am so upset by things I’ve witnessed that I feel I must say something…..
I respect law and order. The absence of it on the part of police is a deeply distressing thing. I was in Grand Central last night and am distressed as never before about something that always has been just a cliché to me: ‘police brutality.’
It was in full swing last night, with clubs and fists. Against whom? Not members of the underworld, not a horde of psychotics who only understand violence, not against an organized rebellion armed to the teeth. No, the police were hitting innocent boys and girls, many in their teens, hitting anybody else who protested about what they were doing.
…..I knew that there would be a large gathering of young people….call them ‘hippies if you like….but they didn’t seem to be there to protest anything. There were a few who would have liked to mold that crowd into a solid mass about something, but there was no organization and little sparks of socio-political distrust never caught fire, smothered under the weight of endless milling….
I don’t know if their gathering was legitimate, legal or in violation of some law. But I heard no policeman tell us to go home, to disperse. There was no use of the station’s public address system saying anything of that nature. There was no use of bull-horn cautions that the crowd was subject to arrest. There was just a sudden outbreak of police violence.
Yes, I went to Grand Central last night to learn. I felt that those kids there may have had something to tell me about myself, about our society. I did learn things: fear, distrust of police, pity, remorse.
I found my heart pounding with fear, a kind I’d never known before as some of the crowd broke and ran at the first police charge and I was caught up in the panic. I felt fear that I could have been caught in that whirlpool.
The pity comes for those whose heads were cracked and bleeding, about whom I read in this morning’s newspapers, pity for the bodies dragged along the concrete floor or flung up against the walls, shoved into a gauntlet of blue uniforms with pummeling fists and kicking feet.
And I’m filled with remorse that I did not protest this uncalled for eagerness to cause harm.
…My faith in law and order, in justice, died a little last night. God help us all”
Village Voice columnist Howard Smith, writing in Scenes, said that the police didn’t seem to have any plan about what to do, wondering why they hadn’t talked beforehand to The Yippie organizers. “Why was a warning never issued to the crowd…primarily high school age—an age particularly sensitive to arbitrariness in other people?”
He reported that the police made no attempt to clear the areas of the station they had already cleared before and, instead, let the crowd fill them in again. He saw no fixed barricades, no demarcation lines.
He saw them drag out people who weren’t resisting and when those people asked to be allowed to walk, the police called that “resisting “and clubbed them.
Smith reported that plainclothesmen had been circulating throughout the crowd before the trouble started and then “actively assisted” in the clubbing” asking “Is it correct for a plainclothes cop to act as a uniformed policeman without wearing his badge…(a) license to be particularly vicious since he can’t be identified?” He also pointed out that when press people asked for plainclothesmen’s names, they were threatened or arrested, or ignored. “When I asked two who were particularly rough over and over…..and showed my police press card I was told to ‘fuck off.”
On April 10th a letter from Mayor Lindsay was sent to me at WNCN. It seems a form letter.
“…I share your concern over reports of the incident….
I have asked the Civilian Complaint Review Board to conduct a full investigation….and report the findings to me….
We will take all necessary precautions to ensure proper police action the future.”
I’ve since learned from Wikipedia that one month later the Yippies organized a “Yip-Out,” in Central Park that drew 20,000 people and was entirely peaceful, according to Neil Hamilton, in The ABC-CLIO companion to the 1960s counterculture in America.
Interestingly, I don’t remember that. Only the negative stays seared in my brain. I think it’s mostly because I had genuine experience of “crowd psychology” and what it feels like. But certainly keeping a copy of Lindsay’s and my letter marks something where I was on the fringes of counter-culture, even if not a serious activist. My letter was meant to have an impact. I thought that the injured people deserved respect and should not have been harmed. Moreover I had escaped, not stopping to fight or resist. No hero. And, actually, did not retain fear of the police and had no hostility towards them thereafter.
Growing out to connections to WBAI, Matt Edwards invited me to join him at The Alternative Media conference at Goddard College in Vermont in June 1970. We hung out with people far more hip-looking than either of us. There were, of course, many FM radio d.js.
(I think that that’s me on the upper right in the white shirt) Jerry Rubin was there. So was Baba Ram Dass and members of the Hog Farm Collective along with noticeably toothless founder Wavy Gravy aka Hugh Romney.
BTW, his son, now called Jordan was born the year after the event as Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, according to Wikipedia.
Mostly we all sat around and talked about whatever interested us. I don’t remember being part of any serious discussions about society-enhancing concepts involving plans of action. That makes sense. I was never that much of an activist.
The highlight for me, actually, was meeting actor Barton Heyman. I had seen him on Broadway not long before and much admired him playing Wild Bill Hickok in Arthur Kopit’s Indians a superb, ironic view of show business and exploitation of Native Americans, a play which now seems to have been buried in the dust. (FYI: Stacy Keach starred as Buffalo Bill, Charles Durning was in the cast as was Raul Julia). And I seen and been impressed by Heyman playing Puck in John Hancock’s 1967 off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a deliberately decadent, suggestive-of-evil version. Heymann had been a friend of a puppet-theatre companion from a few years before, Amy Vane.
Heymann sang the praises of William Reich’s orgone energy theories, saying that an orgone box had improved his performances on stage and made his sex life a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Heymann and I also congenially shared our mutual enthusiasms for Indians while he lamented things that went wrong on stage and the failure of New York critics to see the many virtues of the script. It ran only two and half months, about twice as long as the Broadway take of Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad in 1963, one year after its 1962 off-Broadway run, That starred Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Harris and Austin Pendleton. Jerome Robbins had directed. I saw it and was astonished, puzzled and delighted.
(Here I’m skipping details about changes in my personal life except to say that Vene and I divorced and that, in time, I fell in love with Austria-born Helga Wohlmeyer. We lived together for a few years before deciding to move to Europe.)
War and Peace and Stokowski
In September 1970, the tragedy of the war unceasing, Kathy Dobkin of WBAI came up with an astonishing project: a complete on-air reading of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In English, of course. She had recently read that the final volume had been sent to the publishers on December 4 of 1869 and felt that December 4th, 1970, could be its centennial year.
I participated in that, ultimately major event, a non-stop marathon reading of the entire novel for four and half days. All kinds of celebrities were enlisted to read parts of the first American translation by Anne Dunnigan. Dobkin got Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra to participate.
Some readers were invited. Others, like me, volunteered. The phenomenal cast included Richard Avedon, Ann Bancroft, Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks, William F. Buckley, Bennett Cerf, Dustin Hoffman, Mitch Miller Joe Papp, Rip Torn and Dalton Trumbo. Included were the afore-mentioned Stacey Keach and Barton Heyman from Arthur Kopit’s already-closed three-month running Indians. BAI staff members read, as did WBAI subscribers, truck drivers, telephone operators, doctors, lawyers, salesmen.
(The entire list of names: http://pacificaradioarchives.org/1970-war-and-peace-cast-list)
Kathy assigned each of us our pages of the 1455 in Tolstoy’s 15 books within the novel. We readers didn’t necessarily encounter each other. Every part was pre-recorded. I recorded my own at WNCN, using music by Nino Rota as underscoring.
He wrote it for the 1956 Dino De Laurentis/King Vidor movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer.
This was yet another way I stayed involved with WBAI. A further one: a 1971 broadcast about Leopold Stokowski, including an in-depth interview with him from December 1970.
Actually, that October, Stokowski’s management had contacted WNCN to ask if the station would be interested in broadcasting an interview with him to promote a concert by the American Symphony Orchestra which he had founded in 1962 and of which he was very proud, especially due to his hiring and encouragement of many young musicians including women, blacks and Asians.
NCN Station Manager Stan Gurell and Music Director David Dubal decided to have Bob Adams conduct the interview. I was not chosen. There was no reason that it had to be me. Perhaps they felt safer with Bob talking to such an enduring icon as the venerated 88 year old conductor. Bob was a sweet and gentle soul, unassuming and modest. My interviews tended to be more probing, perhaps less safe and respectful.* So Bob, Stan, Station Manager Tom Bird, David and Chief Engineer Ralph Olsen all went off to Stokowski’s. They took with them one of the station’s high quality Teac reel-to-reel recorders. Quite an entourage.
It didn’t go the way they had hoped.
Bob said that right away Stokowski started talking about his orchestra and pulled out a list of the musicians, reading their names, saying something about each person. On and on. Then after name and bio number 14, he just stopped. He thanked everyone from the station from coming over. And walked them to the door.
When Bob spoke of the visit, he looked a little hurt, as if it had been his fault. David was more critical, angrily saying something about the maestro being senile.
Privately I was amused. I knew I would done better. And resolved to try. BAI Program Director Bob Kuttner told me he’d be interested when I proposed it to him.
In a letter to the maestro, requesting a meeting, I pointed out that my father had performed under him in the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I asked Stokowski if he’d be willing to discuss not only the American Symphony Orchestra, but also the current state of American music and modern music in general along with his celebrated, newsworthy, first public performance ever (1965) of the complete Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives and the subsequent recording.
Stokowski’s written reply agreed to meet and talk about those things, inviting me to his apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue, just south of the Guggenheim Museum. When I arrived, he greeted me kindly at the door, dressed in a loose-fitting tieless dark shirt, with a grey sweater over his shoulders. What else he was wearing I did not notice, except that later, when he got up from the desk where we had been talking, I saw that he had on soft slippers.
He ushered me into his subtly-lit library where two walls were lined with LPs and 78 rpms of his recordings. On a desk, I put down my small Panasonic cassette recorder (BAI didn’t have enough reel-to-reels to lend me one) and its tiny microphone. A far cry from NCN’s classy equipment.
I wanted to look at the recordings to find those I already knew and admired so as to praise him. There was no chance. “Please sit down over here,” he said in a soft, gentle voice, motioning to where he had already set up two chairs opposite each other.
“Now,” he continued, “before we start, I must ask you to not cut out anything that I say or talk about. The conversation must be broadcast in its entirety.” It sounded more like a command than a request. He was used to being in charge, of course.
“That’s fine,” I answered. “May I turn on the recorder?’
He nodded “yes.”
Naturally I began by asking him about his orchestra; that was the reason he wanted to do this. Immediately he pulled out a program from a desk drawer and, opening, began to do the same thing that he had done with Bob. But, after he had spoken about two musicians, I quickly cut in with “You must be very proud, especially because you’ve done so much to include women and black people.”
He smiled, evidently pleased about the subject, put away the book and began to explain his thinking behind such choices. Soon he was extrapolating, making clear his distress at the way American society was going, including the “dreadful” war.
Perfect. He had moved into BAI territory. I knew everybody there would love that.
The conversation flowed, covering American and other contemporary music. And, of course, the movie Fantasia where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been re-arranged for the film. I asked him how he felt about what Disney had done. “It would be better, if you asked Stravinsky” closing the subject.
He spoke slowly, deliberately, never seeming critical of me. More patient and polite than challenged. At one point, he asked me to excuse him. He wanted to go to the kitchen to get some tea which he had prepared earlier. Returning with his cup, he set it down gently, as if aware that the still running tape recorder might hear the sound. Of course, I hadn’t turned it off, given his instructions, knowing full-well that I would nonetheless edit out the silence before broadcast.
After about an hour talking, he held up his hand, as if asking for silence, then moved it in a waving motion, left to right, clearly conducting me to stop talking.
Walking me to the door, thanking me for my interest, he asked when the talk would be broadcast. I didn’t know yet but said that I would call him and let him know. I had been thinking already about which of his performances I would feature on WBAI, including Roger Goeb’s Symphony No. 3 and Lou Harrison’s 1951 gamelan-influenced Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra. Both relative obscurities were among my all-time favorites. I told him so on my way out, hoping he’d be pleased and perhaps impressed with my knowledge. “I’m certain that will be fine,” was his only response.
The broadcast didn’t air until four months later. I taped it in January at NCN, turning it to BAI just a couple of weeks before fulfilling a plan to leave New York to try to settle in Europe. The delay was deliberate. I had turned the program into something personal, as if some kind of a swansong, influenced by my belief that I might never return. I talked about my father and his connection to Stokowski, about how my brother had almost been named Leopold. I discussed family background in music and my recent years with NCN. That included a discussion about how the interview came about, including telling about Stan, David and Bob’s failed attempt to get one. Not a kind thing to do, certainly, in retrospect. I’d always been treated well at NCN. They’d even allowed me to tape that feature there. It now seems childish. Moreover, what if I had returned to New York broadcasting at some future date? That could have tarnished my reputation.
And I did return to New York. 4 and a half years later. And no one ever said anything to me about that BAI broadcast. As if it had never happened. But so much had transpired at NCN in that time, that, if anyone from there had heard the Stokowski feature, they’d had more important things on their minds. Perhaps that broadcast was so insignificant that no one cared.
From WBAI folio April 1971 “ A very strange and personal kind of documentary by the former WNCN producer and commentator.” Interestingly, there’s no reference to my connection to BAI.
Helga and I started had making plans to leave in late 1969. In part, the cause was my own feelings about the same kind of thing Stokowski saw, the falling apart of America. That had been underscored by such experiences as in Washington D.C. and at Grand Central Station. It felt as if the Viet Nam War and the killing of young American men in a lost cause would never cease. And the many people from all walks of life spent time and energy vigorously protesting in the streets, in public meetings, in the press, in letter-writing to people we’d elected without seeming to have any effect. The phrase often used was that Washington was not “listening.” Of course it was listening. It just wasn’t responding the way so many of us wanted. I could remove myself from where it hurt the most. It took another four years after our departure before that tragedy ended.
(Here I skip parts of the memoir about some of first months in Europe)
And I got myself a legitimate press card, so that I could report on any news event I encountered, a document which could perhaps smooth my way into public events, perhaps also getting free tickets. Tom Washington, WPAT’s News Director, gave me that card after I asked him for it, telling him that I was going to Europe but was not certain where I’d be in the months to come. He thought it might be interesting to have a couple of stories from me, having used me a few times as an on-street reporter in recent years. But he told me that I should only call in if there was a major breaking news story.
I never did send him anything. Nothing that significant occurred when I was present. The card did, however, temporarily legitimatize my residing in Italy until I was told to leave the country. And it also garnered a few gratis movie tickets in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Lisbon and Paris. Plus those to shows, concerts and operas in Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome and Genoa.
We (me age 37-Helga age 30) did not know where we’d settle, or even if we would. Pure spontaneity. An adventure.
Neither of us had any idea how or if we’d find jobs. We just assumed we would. It seemed unlikely that I would be a radio announcer on nationalized stations where everyone spoke languages not my own. As for being an actor, that seemed another improbability.
In time, I would get an interview with Armed Forces Radio, perform Shakespeare on the stage of the Roman Arena in Verona, have a shot at appearing in a Fellini film, be in a play in Genoa, Italy and audition as a jazz d.j. for Radio Monte Carlo .
Mostly though when it came to performances I was in audiences, although with my eventual job as a teacher of English to Italian adults, my outgoing personality clearly made my classes popular.
Personal fragments from four and half years in Europe
Ever the performer, though, I still thought about reporting and so brought along my cassette recorder to gather sounds of the various places we’d go and to talk about and over those sounds,
I knew that, without some kind of radio station commitment to broadcast anything I recorded, the only people who might ever hear my descriptions and experiences would be Joe Marzano, Bob James, my family and friends. I’d send them tapes. Nonetheless, it would be a kind of reporting.
Further documentation was to be with a simple, single-lens Canon Super 8 movie camera. I was also eager to photograph everything for myself in any case, Collecting memories.
THE ALLEGED JOURNALIST
My first use of the press card was for admission to a movie in Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station). I explained to the woman at the ticket window that I was researching how movies sounded in German. Absurd, of course. But she didn’t care and let us in.
The reason was not to see the movie. We had nearly a day-long wait ahead of us to take a night train to Berlin, invited to stay at the apartment of Helga’s friends Cristina and Peter Witt. The night train was the cheapest option. Spending time at the movie theater was to keep out of the cold and the rain without having to take a hotel room for the day and to be in a place dark enough where we could rest and close our eyes without hearing too much noise, rather than in the Wartesaal (Waiting Room).
One theatre looked promising, seeming to attract only few people during that day. Mostly men. Maybe it was the feature: Partnertausch und Gruppensex (Partner Switching and Group Sex). The dialogue, which I heard while awake, tended to be soft, almost whispered. Given my language barrier, I couldn’t follow it, making for relaxation. Occasional loud orgasmic screams did create an alteration in the dynamics. Nonetheless, we both were able to doze off in our cramped isolated seats, far away from customers with their raincoats
The train left at midnight, scheduled to arrive in Berlin at 7:17 am. We slept fitfully on hard third class wooden seats. No one there with us.
As we neared Berlin a, conductor told us we would stop in Falkensee for East German guards to inspect our documents and our luggage. That was the last stop before crossing The Wall to enter Berlin.
I peered outside the window and, in the fog, I could see a uniformed officer pacing back and forth. I grabbed my camera to take a quick picture.
Helga yelled “Are you crazy? Put that away. What if he should see you?” By then I’d already taken a quick frame or two. Quickly I turned off the camera and stowed it with the rest of my luggage. Next to the tape recorder. I did not turn that on.
Helga had already prepped me what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do when an East German guard would arrive and question me. Don’t say I was a reporter. Don’t show my press card. Don’t speak German, which really wasn’t much of a problem anyway, Don’t’ speak unless spoken to. Allow her to do all the talking. Be sure to say that the reason for our trip was only as tourists. Say that we’d been invited by friends and try not to mention Peter and Cristina’s names. A performance. One which made both of us nervous.
A severe-looking officer, circa age 32, stomped into our compartment. His dark grey pants were so severely creased that they looked as if you could easily slice dark German bread on them. The skin on his face gave the impression that he had just shaved about 10 minutes before. Helga greeted him with a smile. He did not smile back. He asked to see our passports, looking at us closely to make sure we were the same people as in the photos. He asked all the questions Helga anticipated and she translated for him and for me where required.
He wanted to know if I had a camera. When I offered to show it to him, he told me not to touch it but to point to it. He then took it down from the luggage rack, opened the case and looked through the lens. Then he noticed the tape recorder. He wanted to know why I had one. I explained why and he accepted the answer.
He left. Soon we arrived in Berlin.
Once, standing on a platform overlooking The Wall into East Berlin, Peter saw me start to take out my camera. “Please, don’t do that,” he warned. “They might shoot you if they see you trying to take a picture.” I put it away.
So much for being a press card-carrying journalist.
A Job Interview
We went back to Munich by way of Frankfurt, following up on an application to be an announcer on the Armed Forces Radio network whose base was in that city. So soon in Europe, I wasn’t sure about where I might call home or if such a job would be interesting. But why not look into it?
Before leaving the U.S, the program director at Voice of America had mailed me the name and phone number of whom to contact.
I’d auditioned for the Voice Of America when still in New York, figuring, incorrectly, that announcers for VOA would be in European studios. VOA sent an eighteen page form to fill out and a script to record on my own. It contained, among other things, a page from James Agee’s Knoxville Summer 1915 some of which was already familiar from Samuel Barber’s composition of that name. One part has stuck with me.
“A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints ; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.”
I thought that I gave a good, eloquent reading. A polite thanks but no thanks.
In Frankfurt David Mynatt was the AFN connection. He’d already received my resume, and replying to my New York letter had said to come see him when in Germany.
In retrospect, it could seem strange that, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, I’d want to connect to the military. But, actually, I was against the government maintaining the war and had nothing but sorrow and sympathy for our young men sent there to die. In some kind of oblique way, maybe my broadcasting could take a turn towards solace, had I some choice on how I could perform.
Mynatt was very friendly, asked the usual questions about my experience and background but, clearly, was curious about why I’d come to Europe. Naturally, I didn’t talk about my negative feelings about where our nation was going but rather explained that my girl-friend was Austrian and we’d come to spend time with her family and to look into settling down.
He gave me audition material to look over. A 15 minute newscast. A piece MC-ing a concert by the Armed Forces Radio Network Orchestra. A short script giving Americans directions on how to drive from Munich to Frankfurt, explaining road signs.
After I recorded everything, Mynatt listened to the tape, saying he was impressed with my German pronuncations of the signs and that I sounded really good reading the news and the concert script. But that there were few openings for civilians in general and none at that moment. He wrote down my only European address so far, in care of Helga’s mother in Vienna. And said to keep in touch, especially if I decided to live in Germany. I never followed up.
Helga and I knew that we’d not have enough money to splurge on travel until deciding where to live, assuming that we would. We’d buy a used Volkswagen van, go wherever we felt like going and mostly stay at camp grounds in as many parts of Europe as we could afford.
During our two-day stay at dreary Romeo e Giuletta campsite just outside Verona that month, I stood on the stage of L’ Arena di Verona.
The 1st Century A.D. structure is a still-active and famed venue for summer opera performances. When we walked onto the grounds, carpenters and electricians were constructing sets. Hammers banging. Drills squealing. Then everyone took a lunch break at noon. Quickly I ascended the platform, telling Helga to take the tape recorder and sit on one of the seats within a distant curve distant from the stage. Eschewing the Balcony Scene from fair Verona where we laid our scene, thinking that it didn’t call for enough volume, I declaimed the Prologue to Henry V. After having spoken to an audience of six, Helga and five puzzled workers eating their sandwiches, we listened to the tape. My voice was faint but the words could be understood. Natural acoustics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verona_Arena
In Venice a few days later I tried using the press pass to get into a movie, not just any movie, but a link to my past as an actor 11 years before. In a way-off-the-tourist-beaten path, Dorsoduro, we’d found a reasonably inexpensive pensione. Exploring the little bridges along tiny canals, wandering among the winding, mysterious, dark and damp alleys, we’d come upon a small neighborhood movie theatre, showing La ballata della città senza nome (The Ballad of the City Without a Name.) Not a title you’d recognize. But, looking at the poster, we could recognize that it was Paint Your Wagon. In late November 1960 I’d been in a production of that musical at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. How could we not go in to see it?
The somewhat unshaved, middle-aged man in the ticket booth was friendly enough, but English was not among his responsibilities. This wasn’t a tourist zone. Why would he have to know English? This wasn’t Germany of Austria, either, where so many people knew some of my language. I showed the man the press card. It made no sense to him. I said “giornalista.” Useless. With a shrug and a smile, he made it clear that he didn’t understand what I wanted, We paid.
The movie was already in progress. The chorus was singing “They Call the Wind Maria” It was in English. Then the dialogue started. Dubbed Italian. I figured I’d be able to follow what was happening, story-wise, but it turned out that the 1969 movie had scant resemblance to the very familiar original which I knew so well having presented the cast recording on WNCN and WBAI. Most of the time, I had only the slightest idea about what was happening. Not that it was all that easy to catch every word. The house was full of its own Italian dialogue, neighbors gabbing with neighbors, getting up to sit somewhere else to talk with someone else. There was almost as much action in the theatre as there was on the screen.
Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg’s characters seemed to have some remote connections to characters I knew from the 1951 version. There was no one resembling my role, Edgar Crocker. Ray Walston was recognizable amid the cast. Later research revealed that he played Mad Jack Duncan, another invention in the new script by Paddy Chayefsky. And new songs had been added by Andre Previn and the original’s lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.
Later, back in the U.S. in the mid 70s there was no immediate chance to see the movie. Nor much interest. I still haven’t seen it. Certainly it was no classic. “It just lies there in my mind—a big, heavy lump,” said Roger Ebert that year. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/paint-your-wagon-1969
Fellini and me
I had a chance to be in an Italian movie. Fellini’s
We were in Rome for eight days. I’d tried getting interviews at schools which taught Italians English, exploring possibilities for the fall if we decided to live in Rome. The Shenker School, at a great location right above the Piazza di Spagna, gave me a test. Amid the multiple choices, grammar-wise, were questions about the Present Indicative, the Present Subjunctive, the Conditional Imperative and the Future Conditional. In English. Huh? Those words and their meaning were totally alien. Following my complete disqualification, the young Englishman who interviewed me was very helpful in suggesting where to earn a few lire in Rome, saying that there was usually something going on at Cinecittà where actors, such as I, might find work dubbing into English or, at least, getting parts as extras. Even though the sword and sandals epics no longer were being made.
Heading to Cinecittà, steering the van through crazy Roman traffic was a great game. No terror for this fearless weaver of New York streets. Given that the VW tended to dwarf so many little cars, such as the little Fiat 500, nicknamed Il Topolino (Mickey Mouse), I could be as charmingly aggressive as the Romans. Never looking right. Never looking left. Few side-view mirrors. Tooling along in traffic lanes whose lines were taken as suggestions, not imperatives, I followed the examples around me. Rule of the road: sempre diritto (always straight ahead).
Besides, what was the hurry? I was on vacation.
Green fields, many pine trees and for-off stone fragments looking like ancient ruins surrounded the Cinecittà gates. The parking lot was not crowded. Probably nothing happening that Friday circa 7 pm. I drove through the entrance without hindrance and found an office with a sign over it: Ultra Film Federico Fellini Produzione: Roma. Inside, the office about six men sat around talking. They didn’t seem curious why I, such a stranger, had entered their space. I asked for someone who spoke English and a man, seeming in his mid-20s said “I speak. I am Tonino. Fellini’s assistant. Can I help you?”
Apologizing for not speaking Italian, I asked if anyone at Cinecittà was making a film currently.
“Oh, yes. Fellini is making film about Rome”
“Does he need actors?”
“It could be. Are you actor?”
“Have you picture of yourself?”
“Get one and bring; Fellini likes looking at pictures.”
“OK. Where? When?”
“Tomorrow is OK. Come here. We shoot something tomorrow afternoon. Probably finish 6pm.”
I drove back to the campsite and told Helga. She suggested that we find a photo kiosk at Termini station and take pictures. It looked less glamorous and exciting than it did in that De Sica’s Indiscretion of an American Wife. Johnny Mathis’ version of a song from it ”Autumn in Rome” resonated in my head.
In my six small pictures, sometimes I was looking straight ahead, sometimes doing goofy faces.
With my name inscribed on each, I took them to Cinecittà that Saturday afternoon at 6pm. Entering the same office I didn’t see Tonino. “C’è Tonino?” I asked what looked like some of the same men as on the day before.
“Non c’è,” said one.
“But I thought he’d be here,” I responded, disappointed of course, Not that I expected anyone to understand.
“Può essere là,” the same man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the studios. I understood “là.” (there) which was enough. So he meant, I guess, that Tonino was not in the room, rather than that he was somewhere else in the vicinity.
I went walking through the nearby lots. Open-doored, empty studios. A costume shop full of all kinds of elaborate, ecclesiastical robes. Within the vast hall, it felt as if the costumes were waiting for actors to parade in them on religious festival. Two women sewing in the vastness.
“C’è Tonino?” I asked. They looked up and smiled and shrugged.
Another studio seeming to be an unfinished living room. No one there.
I passed a group of five work-clothed men carrying tools and a ladder. “Tonino?” I asked.
“Non c’è,” replied one.
Maybe that meant he’d gone, Or maybe just not near us.
After wandering enough, without ever encountering spectacular outdoor sets, as I’d hoped, I returned to the office.
“Ciao, Gordon!” Tonino greeted me. “How are you? Have you pictures? ”
He told me to write a phone number on them. Explaining that we had no phone, he said. “Well maybe Fellini can talk to you today. Maybe a part for you.”
I nearly fell over.
Then he laughed. “No. I’m joking. Fellini is not here. But leave photos and call me, next week, maybe four or five days.”
In retrospect, the whole idea of me being there at all seems pointless. What did I expect? That instantly Fellini would be thrilled to see my face and ask me to hang around for a few days until filming started? I was a tourist after all, with no plans to stay in Rome much longer. We’d been there five days already and had many cities, towns and villages ahead waiting to be explored, along the Italian and French Rivieras, in the vastness of Spain, in Portugal, southern France.
We stayed three more days. Before leaving I called Tonino. He wasn’t there.
Then, late in 1972, the movie came out. It was called Roma. A long,colorful, ecclesiastical fashion show was in it, priests modeling all kinds of bizarre clothes, on roller-skates. That must have been the wardrobe I’d seen stumbling around the back lots. One of the priests looked like me. My role! Except I would’ve fallen on my face. I never learned to roller-skate.
Before we left, I’d been leafing through the Rome Daily American, an English language newspaper. There was a small ad saying that Tony Scott, one of my long-time favorite jazz clarinetists, was appearing at a night club. The ad also mentioned pianist Romano Mussolini, The family name was certainly familiar. Naturally I hoped to hear Scott, even meet him, minimally to express my admiration.
Entering the darkened club during the day, I found a bartender setting up glasses and bottles on the shelves. He spoke English. I asked if Scott would be performing there that evening. “He’s American playing with Mussolini, yes?” Different reputations, no?
“Yes. When will they play this evening?” I asked.
“Oh. Sunday was last night. They have left.”
“Do you know where they’ll perform next?”
He didn’t know.
The following year, living in Genoa, Scott and Mussoliini had a gig there, I introduced myself to Tony and we became quite friendly, hanging out together quite a few times. More later.
NEW ROLES IN AN OLD CULTURE
Clearly, what comes next is not about performing. It’s about adapting to Italian ways.
We settled in Genoa and got an apartment in the city’s oldest section Centro Storico (Historic Center) a place full of life and vitality. Open balconies looked out over the tiny Piazza San Luca, where a small church had bell-ringing worship on Sundays, something we late sleepers hadn’t foreseen. Weekdays, the narrow streets below thronged with shoppers and visitors from morning to evening, people entering an appliance store,the cigarette- tobacco-candy-stamps-postcard shop (“Sale e Tabacchi” a national government-run enterprise controlling the legal sale of tobacco, salt and stamps) the narrow-framed place to buy women’s dresses with its “Entrata libera” (free admission)sign and the man hustling illegal cigarette lighters, calling out “Abbiamo la bella Margherita”(“We have the beautiful Margarita”)while scanning the territory to make sure no Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) would spot him and haul him off. All that kept buzzing, humming and vibrating except from noon to 3pm during le ore di riposo (hours of rest). Plus Monday mornings when everything was closed, a fire-eating street performer who also escaped from chains in front of the very eyes of passers-by did his act, his exhortations reverberating across the walls of the buildings surrounding him. We loved it. Most importantly, in 15 minutes, I could walk to The British School from there.
When Clegg hired me, he said that there was a procedure I had to follow, obtain a permesso di sogiorno (Permission to Stay)from La Polizia. He didn’t say why. But, as I later learned, his Genoa school, started in 1970, was not yet legally recognized by any local Italian authorities. And never was while I taught there. I had no contract. Payment in untaxed cash. I went immediately to the Questura, a branch of the national Police. Italy has two separate, equal police forces La Polizia and I Carabinieri. Municipal police are I Vigili Urbani and La Polizia Municipale. And don’t forget the above-named Customs Police. At the Questura, I filled out multiple, much-stamped documents declaring that I was a journalist.
Helga got a genuine job. Clegg suggested that she look into working for the big international shipping and container company Sealand, a major presence in this biggest port in the nation. Being multi-lingual and already an experienced secretary, Helga was quickly hired. To start in October.
First, we needed to get thoroughly settled. This being Europe, we had to buy a refrigerator and stove plus pay someone to install light fixtures and a hot water heater. A strain on our finances. We lacked furniture. All we had to start was the removable VW bed, the camping table and chairs plus a few kitchen utensils, mostly plastic. Camping indoors.
Helga’s brother-in-law, Peter, had told us that he’d be happy to give us furniture abandoned at his moving and storage company warehouse in Vienna. We’d have to import it. With documents. Helga’s future boss at Sealand gave tips on how to navigate through intricate Italian customs processes. The documents required, among other things, the name of the recipient, the “capo di famiglia.” Legally, that could not be me. I had no legal status. No evident financial responsibility. A living man not the head of the family? That didn’t belong in that culture. It took a lot of dramatic pleading and some Sealand recommendations to have a woman’s name listed as capo di famiglia.
After resolving that, Helga set off in the van for Vienna to choose furniture to be transported and acquire other things which her family would donate such as lamps, dishes, silverware. The one-day-990 km (620 miles) trip would take about 10 hours.
After lunch together in Verona, Helga drove north and I bought a train ticket to Genoa. The train departed Verona at 15:12. It never got me home. All passengers had to get off in Milano. Uno sciopero having stopped us in our tracks. Not, as it turns out, a rare event. “Sciopero” would be translated as “strike” except that such strikes often have been unlike American ones. They usually are work stoppages. Sometimes shorter than a day.
When an announcement came over the train loudspeaker upon arrival in Milano, I didn’t understand enough Italian to grasp why everyone, grumbling, was getting off. But a Genoa-bound newly- wed young woman spoke enough English to explain. She said that everyone would get rides home in I Pullman. Weren’t they some kind of trains? Sleeping cars? No. The words mean large inter-city buses. Ours stopped outside every local train station all the way to Genova. I arrived home at 3 am.
It became clear that scioperi were most often to demonstrate the power and meaning of unions. The reasons could be about working conditions, of course, or just statements to remind the government, which usually was financially invested in the big companies where they worked, that such unions had enough political significance to influence the frequent elections. There was even a regular phone number to call for an automated recording about which strikes were imminent in the next few days. Moreover, during a bank strike in Genoa, one bank stayed open so that no citizen would be completely inconvenienced.
We took on the roles of innocent foreigners, even after we became completely fluent in Italian, learning to smooth the way by seeming not to understand what authorities, such as police, were saying. E.g. Driving in Genoa, I took a forbidden left turn, not having seen the sign prohibiting it. A vigilo urbano pulled me over. Some of what he said was not clear. I replied “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian.” He waved me off. Annoyed of course. An object lesson. At customs barriers, we’d pass as ignorant Germans, the license plate and our seeming language puzzlement breezed us through. We regularly parked illegally half a block away from home at a piazza reserved for commercial vehicles and never got tickets. And one of The British School teachers, a Scot, Paul Fraser, had been driving a 1965 Citroën with an expired English license plate for at least five years without problems. We soon learned that foreigners often were considered welcome guests. Tourism = big business. This was one of many ways we learned how things were done.
In 1973, after a visit to Vienna, Helga discovered that she has left some clothes at her mother’s home and asked to have it mailed to Genoa.
A few months later, the Italian postal system, a legend in its time, delivered an official much-document-stamped card, saying that the package must be retrieved at a Customs branch in the main post office, I took the notice there. Not being able to prove that I was Helga, the package was denied me.
At home, then, I wrote a two-page letter, in long-hand English, consistent with the Italian belief that more is better, identifying the writer as Helga, explaining that the clothes were vital to domestic life, especially the night gown, whose absence compromised our marital intimacy. She signed it. At the nearby Sale e Tabachi I bought multiple document stamps and used, one of my American X- Stampers (“Photographs-Do Not Bend of Fold”) stamping it multiple times, to make the letter as official-looking as possible. The package was handed over without question. Our marital intimacy thrived anew.
Despite such smoothing of the ways, that same year, two years after having filed for permesso di soggiorno at the Questura, I was called in. And told that I must leave Italy I was required to depart within a week. My permesso had expired. Leave? But, I explained, we had a home and my wife had a full-time job! How could that be? The Chief Superintendent said that he was very sorry. That was the law. Patiently, he added, that it might be possible for me to return sometime and perhaps get another permesso, so long as it was provable that I had left. Perhaps a stamped passport? he suggested. He regretted that he could not make it clearer. And could not lengthen the deadline.
Oh, I got it. Two days later, I drove to Lugano, Switzerland,(two and a half hours, 136 miles) having done so before to shop and had my passport stamped at the border. Back home, no one came to arrest me. Then, several weeks thereafter, seeing there was no urgency, I applied for a new permesso and got one.
In early 1974, a letter arrived saying that the Comune Di Genova was making a survey of apartments in Centro Storico to make certain that there were no fire hazards, requiring us to allow an inspector to visit. Finding that puzzling, we told friend and neighbor Jerry Reichman, a long-time American resident who earned his living as an Italian/ English translator. He thoroughly knew the intricacies of Italian ways. He was very amused. “Oh, That’s actually the city tax office. It’s about yearly city residence taxes. Have you paid them anything?” Huh? We didn’t know we had to. “They’ll come in and look at how you live and ask seemingly friendly questions about what you own, almost as if it were a conversation. That way they can assess how much you should be paying. But they’ll never say that’s the reason for coming.” What about inspecting for fire hazards? “Sure, they’ll make it look like that.”
An Inspector played his role. We played ours. When asked if we owned a car, we explained we had borrowed the VW from a German friend.
About a year later, Italian procedural time, we were summoned to the tax office of the Comune. Legal papers showed that we owed 58,750 Lire, about $840, That was a shock, of course, Jerry had coached me, however, to contest the decision. Another performance: As an American journalist, this inhospitality was dismaying. That, as only with a free-lance income, my earnings were intermittent and that was the only work on which I could count. Moreover, we regularly sent money to my dear old mother back in the U.S. (That was true, a check for $25 on holidays and for her birthday.) None of this was verifiable with documents. No one ever asked about my teaching. Helga’s work was documented, of course. The tax collector then asked what payment we thought would be reasonable. I suggested 30,000 lire. Instead of rejecting the idea or the offer, he gave us appeal papers to sign, saying that the office would contact us about its decision. We were bargaining.
When we preparing to return to the U.S in August 1975, a letter arrived telling us to pay 41, 700 lire no later than October 21st We followed Italian traditions and ignored it. And left town.
Jazz: Tony Scott, Joe Venuti, Stan Kenton
Tony Scott came to play in Genoa in the summer of 1972. His and Romano Mussolini’s Quartet had a weekend gig at the Estoril Beach Club. (Yes, “Beach,” a word in English. Hip) I’d read about them in Il Secolo XIX, the daily newspaper.
Arriving at the club, I had trouble recognizing Scott, but the clarinet gave him away. Photos on my LPs showed him with combed-back black hair, beginning to thin in the 1964 one with Shinichi Yuize and Hozan Yamamoto, enduringly famed “Music for Zen Meditation.” By the time he was visible in person he was totally bald and had a long, scraggly black beard.
During a break, I introduced myself, telling Scott how much I’d admired him and that I’d often broadcast his LPs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. He was delighted, of course, especially to encounter an American fan in Italy. We set up a taped interview for following day. He asked to meet at the club at 7 pm before warming up for the 8:30 show.
You might legitimately ask what I’d do with the interview. I had no radio show, And didn’t anticipate any in the future. Certainly not in Italy. With current intention of returning to the U.S. It didn’t matter.
But I did return. And hosted a jazz program for RAI.
Tony and I really hit it off. He was very impressed with how much I knew about him (“How’d you get into my life ?”) And my aunt Erminie’s connection to Shinichi Yuize solidified the connection. She managed Yuize’s U.S. career for about ten years before she passed away in 1969, giving copies of “Music for Zen Meditation” to potential concert presenters. Scott didn’t know that, having been internationally peripatetic starting in the early 60s with rare visits to the U.S.
In our interview he said that he loved playing with Mussolini (of course) and that the pianist’s name sometimes got them club dates, given that people were curious about the son of the dictator (and violinist.) But it was clear that sometimes that name would turn away potential audiences. Certainly there were many jazz fans in Italy, In fact there was il Louisiana Jazz Club in Genoa. For such people, Tony’s name meant something. He pointed out that he was actually Italian himself, “I’m Sicilian and proud of it!” A way of challenging the idea that to be Sicilian in Northern Italy was seen as equal to being an American red-neck. Actually, Tony was Italo-American, born Anthony Sciacca in Morristown, N.J. His parents were Sicilian immigrants.
After we finished the interview, he suggested that we keep in touch, giving me his phone number in Rome, asking for mine, He also said that he’d let me know when he’d play again along my part of the Italian Riviera. Plus an invitation to drop in on him and his family the next time we were in Rome.
Mussolini sounded good. Sometimes, when he moved his head, it looked as if he was jutting out his jaw reminiscent of photos of his father.
The next spring Tony called, saying that he had a gig in San Remo, a famed festival location on the Italian Riviera, west of Genoa. He wanted to hang out, and see more of Genoa the day before the gig and to meet Helga. We invited him to stay overnight in the spare bed in our office.
Arriving at our door, he had no instruments with him. “They’re in my van, under the sopraelevata.” That section of highway runs above streets in the port, teeming with trucks loading and unloading merchandise to and from warehouses or to be carted into the narrow alleys of Centro Storico where no trucks or cars could maneuver.
“Gee, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “This neighborhood is not all that safe. I’ve had our van broken into twice.”
“What did they steal?”
“Nothing. It’s totally empty.”
“You’d be better off doing what I do. Come on. I’ll show you.”
The inside of his scuffed FIAT van had broken bottles, torn cardboard cartons a few rags and crumpled newspapers scattered all over the inside. “No one thinks there could be anything worth stealing there, right?” he asked. “My saxes and clarinet are in their cases underneath that fake floorboard. They couldn’t be any safer.”
“But you could bring them up to our place.”
“Nah, I don’t feel like carrying them. They’ll be all right for the rest of the day and tonight I’m sure. I’ve never had any break-ins Rome.”
While we were walking in the evening along Via San Luca, running by our Piazza, a few shops were closing, the owners pulling down and locking the iron gates as usual. During the night, by the way, hired patrolling watchmen would stop by, look in and put self-identifying slips of paper under the gates to show that they’d been there. And, as was sometimes true, at part of this evening, babbling men were clustered around a high cardboard box on the paving stones, evidently watching and participating in a card game, in which one man was flipping cards as if trying to fool anyone naïve enough to bet on winning laid-out cash waiting for a lucky winner.
“Look at that!” Tony laughed. “These guys are playing Three Card Monte. That scam is centuries old!”
Meanwhile the five men around the box kept up a constant dialogue as if they couldn’t hear or understand anything Tony was saying. Since part the game is to make it look as if an innocent bystander has figured out a way to trick the trickster, one man turned to me with a wink to show me how he was going to win. He folded over the edge of one card. Meanwhile another man kept looking up and down the street as if checking to make sure no police were around.
“OK! Watch this!” Tony said. “That guy with the cards is going to unbend the presumed marked card and replace it so fast, you wouldn’t notice!” I didn’t notice. Meanwhile the cast of this performance kept on babbling, as if we were now a part of the show. We watched for a little longer but no real potential victim showed up.
Tony and I drove separately to San Remo. That weekend he also had a gig an hour west in Monte Carlo.
When I arrived at the small beach-front club ahead of the performance, it was clear that Romano Mussolini was not the pianist. No surprise, actually. Tony had told me that he and Mussolini sometimes had separate gigs. Backstage in the tiny dressing room, he ran an electric razor over his bald head.
Meanwhile, recorded music was playing within the club. Not straight-ahead jazz, but rather something that sounded like a saxophone electronically modified to create echoes of itself. Later, I realized that that was John Klemmer using an echoplex, a then-new concept. Tony grabbed his baritone sax and went into the club, playing his own notes to mingle with Klemmer’s. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
The last time we saw each other was in 1974 during a spring trip to Rome. Tony invited us to his house to hang out and, later, to have dinner. I met Tony’s two sweet pre-teen daughters. Nina introduced herself as “Nina Sciacca Scott” and then called over her younger sister Monica. Monica would later have a jazz singing career as Monica Shaka http://www.monicashaka.com/monicashaka/Home.html. Nina was the inspiration for “Nina’s Dance” which Tony recorded in 1969 during one of his rare late 1960s visits to the U.S.
Their mother, Pauline, asked Helga and me if we liked Chinese food. Being Chinese , she wanted to cook some for us. What a delight! We had no genuine Chinese restaurant in Genoa, only one where Chinese cooks created something more Italian than Asian. And, except for one good Chinese meal during a visit to Bologna, there were no other Italian options about which we knew. Actually, our Italian friends were shocked that we’d eat Chinese food in what many consider the cuisine capitol of their nation.
I told Pauline that I wanted to learn to cook Chinese but that I hadn’t been able to find many special ingredients in Genoa. So she took us shopping with her to an open market filled with Asians, where we could find many elements I wanted. I loaded up. Then, preparing dinner, she taught me techniques.
Not long after, Helga and I went to the U.S. for a visit. We came back carrying extra luggage, clothing masquerading sauces, fresh ginger and a great Chinese knife. Plus a few cookbooks. At Zurich airport there were no customs problems. And none driving across the border into Italy.
It took some doing for our Italian friends to try my new-found cooking skills. Not because it was me. But because of the alien ingredients and the strange blending of vegetables with meat or fish and unusual sauces. They were nervous and only, on reflection, delighted.
As for Tony, when we left his sweet family and his warm hospitality he gave us his newest LP, one side his, one side Mussolini’s; he was trying to market it during gigs. It sounded great but I had no idea how I’d ever broadcast it. I did so a few years later, though. On Italian radio.
That fall another famous jazz musician had a gig in Genoa. He too was Italo-American. Actually he might have been born in Italy. Joe Venuti was not only a legendary violinist; he was also renowned for varying his stories about where and when he was born. Lecco, Italy (not far from Milan) was one such place. Another was on-board a ship heading to the U.S. And Philadelphia was often mentioned. The years? 1896 to 1904. Whatever the exact year was the real one, he was close to my father’s age.
When he came to town to play at il Louisiana Jazz Club in January 1975 I had had no jazz show for several years and was not following what was going on in jazz. Most of what I knew about him went back to the Paul Whiteman/Bix Beiderbecke days, although I did have his 1960 Golden Crest LP of Gershwin’s music with pianist Ellis Larkins. There had been a major comeback in his career, stretching back several years.
I later learned that he had two 1970s recording sessions in Milan with Italian musicians. One session featured three performers with him the same year we met : Paolo Tomelleri on tenor, Tony Parisi playing bass, and drummer Giorgio Vanni. Also present were Nando DeLuca at the piano and Gianni Coscia with his accordion. (I kept my notes.)
Venuti talked about his early days and about how he came up with the idea of playing jazz on the violin. According to his story, he’d been on the last stand in the second violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1921 (“about age 15”) studying with concertmaster Thaddeus Rich and felt that didn’t look like a promising career, causing him to be interested in a popular music career. Was that true? He didn’t seem to remember Stokowski was the conductor. And to not remember one of the most famous conductors ever seems odd. FYI: Venuti’s history would mean that he had been there four years before my father joined the Orchestra in 1925.
Of course, we discussed Venuti and Eddie Lang’s influence on the Stephane Grappelli/Django Reinhardt groups about ten years thereafter. I pointed out that I regularly heard Grappelli’s recordings on nearby Radio Monte Carlo, but never heard Venuti’s. His only comment was that he thought Grappelli always sounded great.
Other jazz musicians who turned up were Stan Kenton and his orchestra for a one-night stand. I went backstage, proud of being a hip American who knew their music and knew the city. Backstage, I asked some band members if they’d like to see some of the city sights. “Nah. Just tell us where there’s a good restaurant near here,” the bassist said. A classic story. A one-night gig. Who’s got time for tourism?
GS on stage. Not on the radio.
In 1974 I actually performed myself. At Genoa’s British Club. It came about through fellow American Don Ferguson who had been a teacher with me at The British School. Don knew the Club manager. The two of them thought it might be rather droll to stage a one-evening club performance of Tom Stoppard’s one-act The Real Inspector Hound. The manager drafted a few club members to take supporting roles, while Don and I played the leads, with, of course, acceptable English accents. My role: Moon. Don’s: Birdboot. No director. It was quite informal. The audience included a few fellow-teachers and others from The Overseas School (more about that later). Certainly, given that Genoa was a major seaport, there had been other native English-speakers in town to swell the scene. All in all, about 20 people sat around us in comfortable chairs and on sofas to witness our endeavor. Were we any good? Possibly. There were no reviews to stir any recollections now.
That was the only time in Italy that I had an acting role.
There was a brief, tentative attempt to be on the radio. Helga and I frequently listened to Radio Monte Carlo, whose multiple signals were both in French and Italian. Mostly we loved the jazz on the French station. I’d had a wild fantasy that I could become a d.j. on the Italian station. And the headquarters, after all, were not very far away, west of the Italian Riviera. Why not? I was an experienced jazz d.j. with an good library of LPs which had been shipped to us by then.
So, after a phone contact in the summer of 1973 with station director Noel Coutisson, I got an invitation to drop by and bring an audition tape. I slapped together the best I could using my LPs and recording my voice on the only recording equipment at home, a cassette deck.
The station was as elegant as any I’d ever seen, recalling my visit to the broadcasting OZ of WNEW about 15 years before. Coutisson, speaking impeccable English, was very friendly and courteous, asking if I’d want to settle in Monte Carlo, should he think that I’d fit in on his station. The idea of living in that slick, high-rise-dominated city didn’t feel all that attractive really. It had none of the personality of everything I loved about Italy. I didn’t say so, though. I said that I was more interested in having a show once a week, since a daily drive each way of two and half hours would be hard to manage.
I left the tape and he promised to get back in touch with me .After we parted I stopped in one of the many nearby casinos where I won 40 francs, about $18. (Monte Carlo is geographically and culturally most tied to France.)
Coutisson never contacted me and I never followed up.
In the audience
As for Italian radio, it never went further than listening (until 1979 when I had my own weekly taped jazz show on a Genoa station.) We often enjoyed classical music programs on RAI 3 where that was the feature.
When starting to listen, we also were amused and entertained by RAI 2 which had quite a variety of programs. Most fun were easy-to-understand talent contests and quizzes, with live audiences. “Corrida” had amateur singers whose audiences cheered or jeered contestants, then voted for the winners. In “Le piace il classico” contestants had to answer questions about classical music. Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was the show’s theme music.
Both had prizes in gettoni d’oro (gold tokens). Since Italian law prevented gambling (uh-huh) no government entity, such as radio, could pay in cash. So the prizes (200,000 lire in one case, ca $250 then, $1,425 in 2015) were in gold coins equal to that value in gold at the time of the award. The award would not be sent until six months later, when the recipient could sell the gold at the then-current price. Selling to the Bank of Italy was not advised; it didn’t offer good rates compared to private/business buyers. These complications were characteristic of Italian baroque ways of doing things, given fractured history and separate regional identities where independence and individuality were prized.
My favorite was a radio play designed, it seemed, to teach English. The first episode of “Tarzan” mixed a cartoon-like dramatization, with sound effects and music, involving occasional interspersing of English phrases in the narration where the action stopped and a woman narrator said, for example, “Tarzan was the son of an English lord,” followed by a male narrator: “Tarzan era un figlio di un lord inglese.” Then she and he took turns repeating each word several times, adding such enrichments as “son, daughter” (pronounced “dowter”) “figlio, figlia.” Other useful English phrases included “The father of Tarzan was sailing to Africa” “Il padre di Tarzan navigava verso l’Africa” supplemented by repetitions of “mother-madre” and “ a sailor saved the parents of Tarzan” “un marinaio salve i genitori di Tarzan.” Actually none of these three translations were completely literal, as it turns out. The villain of the piece was growling “Black Michael ” who spoke only Italian. Tarzan narrated in Italian as well, as if an old man. The show ended with a rock song in English with a young male voice singing “My name is Tarzan.” I could find no source for it on-line. Years later there was such a song in Disney’s 1999 Tarzan. The naiveté of the whole radio show was such fun.
There were other radio plays and many deliberately back-to-back commercials in clusters, often read by men and women duos. The cluster concept was very common in state-run broadcasting in much of Europe then.
Il Teatro Comunale was a short walk away from our apartment through the narrow alleys and streets to Via XX Settembre. There, being a journalist, press tickets were available for a performance by Genova’s Teatro Comunale Opera Company of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Carlo Bergonzi was the visiting star. I’d always admired his recordings but neither of us were much devoted to live opera, often finding staging and acting stilted and forced. So we couldn’t help laughing at Bergonzi’s hammy movements, despite his fine singing. That didn’t endear us to people sitting nearby. We loved the music.
Another time we went to a concert there by l’Orchestra Sinfonica di Genova. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was on the program. What we most noticed was how the string sections never bowed in unison. It seemed so Italian to be independent and personal. The sound was OK.
One of the first movies we saw in Genova was Gli insospettabili (The Unsuspected Ones) starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It was actually Sleuth. The dialogue was all dubbed into Italian and we understood virtually none of it. We did enjoy a toothpaste commercial, though, before the feature started. It was for Close Up, pronounced in the voice-over as Cloh-zay Oop.
In the next couple of years, more fluent in Italian, we saw two other dubbed films. Hitchcock’s Frenzy which kept the title. We exited the theatre truly shaken. And I Sopravvissuti (The Survivors) aka Soylent Green, equally understandable and disturbing.
(I was fired at The British School when another American teacher and I tried to organize the staff into a collective group to get better pay. I succeeded, however, in keeping many of the people I’d taught as my personal clients.
I also started teaching at The Overseas School where children of American, English and others took classes. It was only as a substitute but I loved every minute and decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life.)
Consequently we decided to return to the U.S. so I could get a teaching certificate. With plans thereafter to return to our beloved Italy. We did come back. Only as visitors.
We took a passenger freighter to New York, bringing along only essential household goods in the hold. Most of my LPS, for example, were left in storage.
Why New York? Helga’s former boss had said, when we left for Europe, that there would always be a job for her with him should she want it. She contacted him and he affirmed his offer.
Back to New York
I got a teaching job. There was a last-minute opening to teach 5th Grade at The Bentley School on Manhattan’s East Side. I was offered a yearly salary of $8,000 (equal to about $36,000 in 2015.) Forget New York sustenance.
I was fired five months later.
My experience at The Overseas School had not prepared me for trying to control sometimes spoiled New York City kids, from affluent families. Students in Genoa had nowhere else to go. They were on their best behavior. Students in New York private schools had many choices. Competition. Such private schools did everything they could to make sure that the parents got their money’s worth.
I started without any experience in establishing control. The wrong foot. Moreover, I arrived suffused with European-influenced politeness, devoid of my former New York edge. Certainly that made me appear soft to some kids. Later, though, I was able to frequently take charge. And some students loved me.
My departing letter of reference: “….high ideals…stimulating and challenging…personal integrity. ” I had been very creative, innovative, and original. But my imaginative extrapolations from the curricula got further and further behind the school’s intended schedule.
Moreover, I struck a student. Johnny Callaghan had been one of the most disrespectful and disorderly students in the class. I’d kept him after school more than once, to the dismay of his mother and of school director Katherine Cantwell. The last time he was sequestered, he’d reached over onto my desk and tried to take a pen out of my hand. I slapped his hand. Lightly.
That did it. Gone.
We’d come back to New York so I could get my teaching degree. But, during those first five months all my time outside of class was preparing the lessons and studying books with which to teach.
Helga’s salary wasn’t enough to sustain us. I needed another job. No time yet to study for a teaching degree
General Development Corporation was looking for sales people. I applied. The product: land on newly developing communities in Florida. Real properties. In my training class, other candidates were convinced I’d be a success, coming across as outgoing, friendly, fluently verbal. Yeah. I could talk. Never closed a sale.
Next I joined the sales team selling XStampers, a newly emerging self-inking product developed by Shachihata Inc at a time when rubber stampers always needed ink pads. My training included a “sure-fire” script. Working my assigned territory, Manhattan businesses north and west of Washington Square, I always felt I could do better improvising on the script. My sales did not flourish.
I got career advice from an unexpected source. A psychic. Via Helga, who’s always given a lot of credence to non-rational experiences, intuition, forms of spirituality, the possibility of the exchange of unspoken thoughts and so on. To some extent, I shared such beliefs, especially regarding my own regular intuitions.
Helga had read a New York Times article about this man who’d recently moved to Westchester. Call him Walter Siegmeth. Siegmeth had made it clear that offering psychic readings was his calling and his profession.
Out of curiosity, Helga contacted Siegmeth to make an appointment. Perhaps, if he had insights, those would help us clarify what we were doing with our lives or might do, something we felt we needed to do. Before her visit, she encouraged me to go if her own experience justified the idea. She also planned to deliberately avoid mentioning my name and to say nothing revealing about me. She stuck with her plan and, after her visit, returned impressed.
So I went.
Siegmeth told me that, when he gave readings, they were things that he could sense about people but that he never intended to project anyone’s future.
While I sat, he paced his living room, twirling what looked like a broken strand of a wire hanger. Among other things, he correctly perceived that I had a serious circulation problem in one of my legs. He didn’t specify what it was. It was postphlebitic syndrome which I’d had for many years. Given that I had never limped or favored that leg, there was no obvious way to intuit that.
Soon, he looked puzzled. “You know,” he said, “ I cannot tell at all what you do professionally.”
“I’m a salesman,” I told him.
“No. No/ You are not a salesman.”
“But, it’s true. That’s what I’m doing these days.”
“I understand. But, even so, you are no salesman.”
He was right there; I was not a success.
“What else have you been doing?” he asked.
“Well, I was a teacher.”
“No. You are also not a teacher.”
I replied. “But I was a teacher and I loved it.”
“Then why are you not doing it now?”
“I was fired,” was my answer. Upon later reflection, that question makes me ask myself why I didn’t keep on trying to be one, if it was so important and meaningful.
“So then, you are not a teacher now. Yes?”
He twirled his wire more. “No. I see you doing something else. Something to do with music.”
Interesting, yes? “I hosted music programs on the radio.”
“Aha!” He said. “Then, why are you not doing that now?’
I explained to him that I felt teaching was more important.
“Forgive me,” he replied,” but I perceive you as belonging with music.” Well, yes. That was my professional past since 1955 and at the core of my being, given my love of music and my family history.
Twirl. “I also see you as some kind of administrator connected with music. Have you ever done that?”
“Yes. Well, I see you writing down a lot of numbers somehow connected with the music. Does that mean anything to you?”
It didn’t. It seemed totally alien.
“You know, it is not my prerogative, nor part of what I do, to tell people how to manage their lives. Perhaps what I see is in your past, of course, but it sounds like that is what you should be doing in any case.”
I left distressed. Not that he was counseling me, or that I needed to take seriously his suggestion. But going back into radio still seemed too insignificant, valueless to society even if smething easy and fun. ,
A few months later, I went back to WNCN and WQXR. And every day, when I was on the air, I had to write numbers, start times and finish times of music and commercials in the logs and schedules. I used to do that in the 1960s but had forgotten.
A radio performer again.
Helga and some New York friends had more than once told me that I should return to a radio career. Given Siegmeth’s comments, she had further underscoring.
Naturally, I first contacted WNCN’s David Dubal. He was still the music director. But the word “still” conjures up fascinating events which had occurred while I was in Europe.
For about eight months, WNCN didn’t exist. A rock station took over its frequency. Starr Broadcasting had bought NCN, lock, stock and frequency in May 1973. Trying to make profits, in 1974 Starr turned it into WQIV, “Q” for quadrophonic, “IV” Roman “4” for four channels.
Loyal long-time WNCN listeners were up in arms, feeling that New York was being deprived of a major cultural treasure, that WNCN had served different classical music audiences than WQXR which had always maintained more conservative main -stream programming. Certainly, in my previous days there, WNCN had been different (as you can see above.)
Thus were born The WNCN Listeners Guild and Classical Radio for Connecticut. They raised private funds for a lawsuit against Starr, also taking the issues to the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court. By then Starr was having problems. The SEC levied heavy fines and censured some principals. Plus a potential buyer challenged the FCC license renewal. Starr flickered and faded and accepted a Guild-engineered offer from GAF Broadcasting.
WNCN returned in June 1975 under owner number three.
Much of the above information comes from Matt Edwards, who was quite involved with the Listeners Guild. He also is behind the maintenance of wncn.org where his writing is full of all kinds of interesting information about the station’s history through it final days in 1994. Another source of clarification: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WAXQ#WNCN
In fall 1976 I was glad to come back as a part-time substitute announcer, thanks to David. It was a compromise; it meant having decently paying work even if it was insignificant as a meaningful contribution to society.
The programming had undergone a major change. GAF’s station became much more WQXR-like despite the Listeners Guild’s intentions and wishes. Guided by management, David chose well-known, well-loved compositions. Nothing too modern. Nothing too challenging for the listeners. Accessible. Safe. Some Guild members expressed their displeasure. This was no longer like the last NCN. But there was nothing the Guild could do about it.
And, to increase ratings and keep listeners tuned in, there was an avoidance of modern or experimental music.
Plus no vocals were permitted, meaning no opera arias, no Renaissance songs, no sacred works with singing. There were always listeners who’d complain about what they perceived as annoying screeching.
Unlike at the previous NCN, none of us on-air hosts chose any music for broadcast. The management wanted total control. That had always been the pattern at QXR and such control has been standard for many years in most commercial radio stations, and even in many public ones. The station also published a monthly program guide, Keynote, a classy looking magazine which was a successor to the same-named publication started in the 1960s.
However, station manager Bob Richer and program director Matt Biberfeld wanted all announcers to have a lot of freedom in how they hosted programs and for us to think of ourselves not as announcers but as disc jockeys. Personal, personable, relaxed, casual. For classical music radio that was still rather rare. That, at least, was different from QXR, where only George Edwards and Duncan Pirnie would be considered personalities, albeit, by then, rather predictable and conservative-sounding. Like someone’s uncles. FYI: In 1987 QXR fired them both for “not having enough audience appeal” according to the station. Both filed age-discrimination suits. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/27/arts/tv-notes.html
Also rare for a classical music station, we were expected to frequently mention the call letters, just as most pop music stations did. QXR didn’t do that. And to repeat the letters whenever or wherever possible. The reason: when telephone ratings surveys were taken, the idea was to imprint the name on the listener, or Arbitron ratings where listeners had to write in the call signs of the stations to which they listened. That’s something wide-spread in radio now, e..g: “Here’s the WNCN weather forecast.” “The time at WNCN is 6:46.” “On WNCN, that was Rossini’s Overture to La Gazza Ladra.”
Relief announcer Dick Jayson had trouble with repeating station IDs. In the 70s he was doing the same sort of thing I’d been doing in the 1960s, filling-in on many stations. When he came into the control room he exuded a palpable sense of nervousness. I asked him why. He explained that he was always anxious about giving the wrong call letters on the air, so he wrote down the kinds of things mentioned above and pasted a big handwritten sign on the board with “WNCN 104.3” in bold letters. In truth, giving the wrong call letters is no disaster. I’ve done it a few times, given my vast range of radio hosting. Nonetheless, such a mistake still regularly turns up in my nightmares.
When I first joined NCN, Matt Edwards hosted the Morning Concert, Bob Adams, the Afternoon Concert. Those SOP imaginative program names again. Former stage and movie actor Oscar Buhler was the regular staffer during 6pm to midnight’s various programs. Midnight to 6 am there was “Music Through the Night with Fleetwood,” a continuation of what he had been doing at WNBC for numerous years. Other part-timers and relief announcers regularly included Max Cole, Lucien Ricard, Frank Coffee and Clayelle Dalferes (There are multiple references to Matt, Bob and Max in my pages above about the 1960s)
In late 1976 Bob Richer fired Bob Adams, dissatisfied with his performances. I took over Afternoon Concert. I was back to full-time radio, despite my reservations about that meaning anything important. Well, yes, it seemed where I belonged. And soon, continually immersed in the kind of music which I loved I was once again delighting in sharing it with audiences.
Then, in the fall of 1977, Matt quit, for personal reasons.
Here we go again. Staff changes in broadcasting. Almost as many turnovers as Pepperidge Farm.
Richer came up with what he thought would be a coup. To replace Matt with BAI’s much-enjoyed and quite famed Larry Josephson, who loved and broadcasted classical music. That is, when Larry felt like it. His program had always been more personal than anything any of us announcers could do on NCN.
The publicity over Larry’s hiring certainly generated interest. And public dismay. Even before Larry arrived. But his advance reputation as a curmudgeon didn’t help. Classical music listeners tend to prefer sunshine and warmth in the morning. Moreover, being from BAI, there must have been lingering anxiety that Josephson would start advocating the overthrow of commercial broadcasting, popular culture, Jimmy Carter and the American Way of Life, underscored by readings from Karl Marx.
Larry hosted for one week.
As you can see from what I wrote about him re the 1960s, he was out of his element. He had to present someone else’s choice of music, provide weather forecasts and time checks, stick to schedules, read commercials, the standard format for most morning radio. Even the word “format” must have been an anathema. And, apparently, he even derided commercials, on the air.
Listeners had proof of their fears. They called the station. They wrote. They telegrammed. They won.
Bob Richer has since acknowledged his mistake.
Next up on Morning Concert, Bob tried me. Public enthusiasm. Calls. Letters. Telegrams? Nah. People who complain are always more numerous than those who compliment. I became the newest morning star. Jim Pinckney was hired to host Afternoon Concert.
Morning Concert had two parts. 6am to 9am was basically “morning drive,” i.e. where Josephson stumbled. 9 to noon featured longer pieces.
I decided that I would have as much fun as possible, taking Richer at his word about us as disc jockeys. Why be deadly serious in the rather formal, restrained approach of the time? Certainly QXR’s George Edwards would never dream of making jokes. But plenty of compositions up to the present day are jovial, entertaining and light-hearted. Back in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, for example, audiences cheered and applauded cadenzas, sometimes stomped for encores between movements and were rarely as reserved as worshippers in churches. Think of the majority of baroque music. Or Mozart’s irrepressible sense of humor. Or Strauss polkas.
So I had fun with spoonerisms e.g. Offenbach’s “Orpheus in His Underwear” Overture. Or Handel’s “I Know That My Liver Redeemeth.” Goofy background stories emerged, such as a scherzo (Right. Joke) for piano four hands, me saying that it was for four-handed German virtuoso, Hans Keinfuss. Or reporting that Johann Strauss’s “Wine, Women and Song Waltz “was a companion piece for his brother Eduard Strauss’ “Bier, Männer and Schreien” (“Beer. Men and Yelling.”)
I pointed out that one of Chopin’s Nocturnes was published posthumously, because has had been dead when he wrote it.
On an April Fool’s Day I presented a “very rare” recording of “Salome’s Dance” by Richard Strauss, aka “Dance of the Seven Veils” where audiences would be able to hear the dancer. Over an open mike (mine) while Reiner with the Chicago Symphony performed, “Australian exotic dancer Mildred Dawkins” was heard ripping fabric and becoming increasingly out of breath.
We sometimes had Japanese- imported LPs with liner notes entirely in Japanese except for the name of the writer. Calling attention to one such LP’s notes, I observed that Alan Rich wroteこれは素晴らしい記録で, which I “read” in my best John Belushi-like samurai warrior voice. A caller chastised me, saying that I should not have done so, that the Japanese were “a peace-loving people.” Huh?
Certainly, this being New York, sloppy pronunciations of foreign words were a nein-nein. But my alleged Japanese was never criticized as being wrong. Imagine.
Sometimes, incidentally, in 1982, when quoting liner notes on-air I credited them to Hannelore Rogers instead of the actual writer. We were dating at the time. Later we married. Much later, she actually wrote liner notes.
Since NCN catered to knowledgeable, sophisticated listeners, I also decided to invent a cataloguer of works by Vivaldi, baroque compositions being a staple of non-threatening music. His concertos have been ubiquitous on accessible classical music stations. I wanted to see if I could put one over on a Vivaldi nerd. And I did.
Vivaldi was rather casual, even disorganized, about dating or otherwise identifying what he wrote. No opus numbers, which was not unusual in his day. Given more than 500 concertos, it became difficult to be precise about them especially given that there are multiple works in the same key for the same solo instruments. Musicologists have delighted in creating their own catalogues, most prominently Marc Pincherle’s P” number, Antonio Fanna’s “F” and Peter Ryom’s “RV”.
I added “S” for Sondaggio, as a person’s name. Sondaggio is actually an Italian word meaning “search.” The numbers I used were record company catalogue numbers.
Eventually, I landed a fish. There was a fascinated phone inquiry about Sig. Sondaggio. I replied that I had met that remarkable scholar while living in Italy and that he came up with a fool-proof system which he permitted me to use. The caller wanted a copy of the catalogue but I demurred, explaining that I had only one, on very frail onion skin paper and didn’t want to let it out my sight. Disappointed, he hung up. And then he called back a few months later to say that l had given the same “S” number to two entirely different works. And to express his doubt about the whole idea. Perhaps Sondaggio had made a mistake, I suggested. “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” he asked, dismayed. I reassured him that it was genuine and he never called again. He was the only one who took the bait.
Every hour from 6 to 9 am, David Dubal deliberately programmed at least one extremely popular and familiar piece, I’d call attention to it by calling it a “Classical Hit” and then ding a nearby metal lamp with a pen.
During 9 to noon, with my more free time between selections, I’d copy recorded promotions for upcoming syndicated national/international orchestra programs and then dub, edit and re-use conductors’ comments such as Carlo Maria Giulini, talking about words Beethoven wrote on one of his scores, Giulini saying “What is meaning? Is a mystery. Can we say this is great music? Yes. Is.” Transposed to “This is great music? Is a mystery.” It aired occasionally after pieces I thought trivial.
Although, inevitably there was pleasure listening to, or at least overhearing good classical music, there were duties. For example, giving traffic and transit reports during drive time. We had no one on the streets calling in, but doing my own research was not required. Biberfeld felt that we needed to give listeners a sense of what was happening, so that they’d stay tuned and not seek truly useful information at “all-news” WINS or WCBS. All I had to do was call New York City Police’s Traffic Control Division and get some kind of report twice each hour. Not to overburden me, given that I was already announcing, running the equipment, monitoring volume, taking hourly remote transmitter readings, searching liner notes for informative supplemental comments, ripping copy from the AP news printer, assembling and editing the copy for broadcast, writing everything in the log and cleaning LPs (see below.) Thus I had friendly daily phone connections with Sergeant Tom Washington at Traffic Control.
Early on, Washington told me that he got his information from listening to WINS (“All News, All the Time. You give us 22 minutes; we’ll give you the world”). Fine by me.
On a Tuesday ca 7:22 am, Tom told me that nothing was happening. I didn’t believe it. New York on a workday morning? I didn’t say so to him; in my next on-air report, I announced that Sergeant Washington of the City’s Traffic Control Division said that there were no problems. Whoops! At my subsequent call he sounded truly nervous. “Hang on, Gordon! Hang on! I’ll get something,” he said. Clearly word had gotten back to him about my mentioning him on the air. Thereafter he always had some kind of information. Was it accurate? Up to the minute? Who cares? We’d both done our duty.
Being up to the minute also meant giving weather forecasts and time checks. One morning an angry caller said “What the hell’s wrong with you? You said it was 6:41!. It was 7:41!” To which I replied “I don’t get your problem. You knew what time it was.” Later that morning, Richer told me that he had been the caller. Not angry. We both let it pass.
Actually, answering the phone while on the air was not required. But we did it sometimes.
Speaking of time, the station format at the new NCN much resembled that of QXR. All programs were broken up into hourly segments. Certainly that made sense during drive time when we had to prepare and read wire news copy at 6, 7, 8 and 9 am. But not at 10 or 11am, for example. And Jim didn’t have newscasts at 12, 1, 2 or 3. At the previous NCN, we had longer works lapping over the top of the hour, say a 25 minute piece starting at 12: 50. And that was a much better idea; it served the music, instead of serving the format.
This hourly format exists today in many stations and still makes no sense. It means that music directors have to squeeze everything into hourly bites. And being a commercial station means having enough breaks between pieces to fit in commercials. i.e requiring time for non-music. Since no NCN announcer was permitted to do any programming, the way to fill a rare shortage of music was with extra talk. Easy.
But, if something were to run over that was a problem. We had found solutions for such problems. For example, we’d delete a movement from a baroque concerto. Who’d notice? Or we’d skip a section from a ballet suite, etc. But sometimes there was only one option: make the tone arm jump while playing the LP, by tapping the turntable, or banging on the counter next to it and then fade down the music and re-set the tone arm further in. (This bounces back into memories of my overnight show on an even earlier NCN in 1958 when opening a drawer under the turntable. See above) Yes. We did that. Who came up with the idea? No idea. The practice was already on-going when I joined the staff.
Another responsibility was to “cushion” intense, recorded, ad agency commercials whose aggressive productions were deemed insufficiently civilized to be heard immediately within earshot of classical music. Sure, NCN was a commercial station, but management was sensitive to criticism. So we announcers had to make sure that we sandwiched such spots in between more restrained ones, read by us live or ad agency generated. In fact, early in my years there, Richer had even asked such agencies if they would allow us to read the copy instead of having to broadcast their productions. After being turned down too often, he felt that he couldn’t pass up the revenue.
Richer was truly a hands-on station manager. He had to be. Commercial success depended on him. NCN had never made a true profit in all of its twenty years, regardless of management. That may have accounted for his seeming edgy much of the time. His demeanor felt different than Stan Gurell’s at the 45th Street NCN. Gurell often came across as congenial.
Of course, GAF had put a lot of money into this new version of the station, just around the corner from the last one. 1180 Avenue of the Americas. It didn’t look radically different. But daylight streamed through windows; the previous NCN had been encased by walls and hallways. Yet, although the new offices were larger, nothing seemed stylishly modern.
Clearly, a hell of a lot of money had gone into the sound quality of broadcasts. Audio engineer Dick Sequerra had been hired, and paid handsomely, to design everything in the on-air studio and all the equipment that it needed for maximum high-fidelity. Sequerra had been a designer for Marantz electronics, producers of high-end audio equipment and had his own company as well.
The on-air studio felt like a sacred inner sanctum. One entered through a door leading to a slightly upward-inclined hallway to a second door. The studio was actually suspended above the floor underneath and supported by pads to eliminate any vibrations from the street or the subway below the building.
Once the building got a serious bomb threat, not against us specifically but we were all warned to evacuate. I was on the air at the time. I chose to stay. Not only to be defiant, I also felt that the way the studio was suspended and cushioned, I was entirely safe. There was no bomb, by the way.
The studio didn’t look unusual. Except for two extra turntables not next to the board. They didn’t play LPS; they cleaned them on on a Keith Monk’s machine. We had to clean every record before it aired. This meant that the first turntable’s tone-arm circulated water-dampened groove-sized threads into the LP at high speed and then the second one’s threads dried the grooves. Fastidious attention.
Two massive speakers loomed against a wall facing the console. When Richer would bring in visitors he’d often point with pride to such equipment, calling attention to the cost. At times, he did so while I sat there at the console, unacknowledged, I’d identify myself, pointing out that I operated this magnificence and that, jovially, of course, there was some cost for my services.
All of us had AFTRA union contracts. Never having discussed the amount with any of the staff, it was never clear if everyone got paid the minimum required as I did. In 1977 that was $27, 000 a year (in 2015=$109,000). Although we were union members, we rarely concerned ourselves with issues, or contractual digressions. This was not the same as how QXR felt back in the 60s (see above); QXR was part of The New York Times, a thoroughly unionized operation. Moreover, QXR announcers were among that rare breed who didn’t run their own equipment while on the air. Union engineers’ duties include lowering tone arms on LPS, moderating the music volume on-air and opening and monitoring what announcers said on microphones.
I had been an AFTRA member as far back as the early 60s and had seen the benefits whenever I’d subbed at QXR. There was good pay and there were good ancillary benefits, such as some medical insurance. I always took pride in being a member of the union all through the years and was an active participant in national and local union meetings, mingling with celebrities far better known than I but feeling like an equal.
Come 1979, GAF’s contract with us was due for renewal. Bob Adams had been the last shop steward. No one had volunteered to replace him. But that role needed filling when the contract issue emerged. I volunteered to be steward which was to everyone’s relief; they didn’t want the responsibility nor the risk of seeming militant.
Not that this meant that I was in charge of anything or a labor organizer. The steward linked the staff and the union, making personal decisions but might be called upon to talk to management on behalf of the staff or the union.
I called a 1978 meeting for the announcers to collectively decide what we wanted in our new contract, which I would then convey to AFTRA. Other than more pay, we wanted little else, except maybe time and a half for working holidays or getting compensatory days-off. AFTRA’s Irv Lewis worked on our behalf and advised us that getting raises plus that time and a half- deal might not be easy. The negotiations stretched out for many months. Ultimately we got slight raises plus an agreement about the time and a half, neither Richer nor us becoming combative.
During that same year, Richer called us four full-timers together to talk about some “really bad news.” First and foremost, bad news for him and GAF. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled on the AFTRA/Bob Adams suit about his firing and ruled against GAF. “So we have to take Bob back,” Richer said, clearly dismayed. “This is a problem; we only have slots for four full-timers, so I have to let one of you go. Gordon, you were the last one hired, so, I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you on full-time staff.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; this was more astonishing than threatening. How could Bob think he’s get away with it? AFTRA would have instantly contested about dismissal without cause, especially due to my being shop steward. Maybe he thought I’d not contest what he said. But I did. “Bob,” I replied, “Jim was the last one hired.” Sitting there, Jim was clearly distressed.
Richer looked even more dismayed. “OK. Sorry, Gordon. My mistake. I’ll have to think this over. Jim, you can stay for now.”
Of course, Richer must have known that Jim was most recently hired. And he couldn’t find any other way to justify dropping me. Certainly he wouldn’t have dared to get rid of Jim. Jim was black; it would look like racism. Who knows? Maybe Jim and AFTRA would have filed suit over that.
Pinckney remained. And two weeks later, Bob Adams returned to WNCN but not as a program host. He was given a news shift with no connection to the music which he loved as much as we all did. We had no regular on-air news reader; we had always assembled and read the newscasts ourselves. Bob was also given a special schedule: Wednesday through Sunday 4am to 10 am. i.e. No weekends off. The dark hours of the dawn. Clearly this was meant to make him dislike the job so much that he’d give up and quit. He didn’t quit while I was at NCN. I’ve since learned that he was even hosting “Music Through the Night”, according to Keynote in 1984. Where was Fleetwood then? I have no idea. An on-line obituary says that Harry continued on NCN with “Music Through the Night” into the late 80s. Bob died, by the way, in 2010 at the age 0f 92.
Some incidental moments:
I’ve since learned from Bob Richer, with whom I’ve become friendly, that Fleetwood liked to turn off all the lights in the offices and hallways and leave on only a tiny lamp next to the console. Harry had contended that the VU meters gave him all the illumination he needed. And evidently, he occasionally took timed short naps. But how long could they have been? Maximum: one side of an LP, i.e. approximately 25 minutes at most. Back in my early NCN days, we’d had as much as an hour given those long tapes. Now that was a real nap.
There was an announcers-only utilitarian bathroom which was immediately outside the Master Control entrance. It had a toilet and a sink, so that an announcer could rush and flush quickly when needed. There was no other facility in the offices which meant the rest of the staff had to take a long walk past all the desks to a hall in the building. Couldn’t the big budget have afforded something more convenient? Staffers, of course, would yearn to use what was more readily available, the announcer’s perk. Once, while I was in there, a couple of the women knocked on the door hoping for access, as if I’d been there too long, meowing like kittens. I opened the door, pants on the floor, and said “Be right out.” They dispersed.
Pleasures and perks
In 1980 I became friendly with Beverly Sills and a number of stars from New York City Opera. Bob Richer had developed a new close relationship with the Opera, further enhancing our reputation in the New York classical music scene. We program hosts went on the air with interviews and conversations with company members, broadcasting from the New York State Theatre, helping to pitch subscriptions in Operathons, events similar to now-current public broadcasting stations’ on-air fund drives. Thus we felt close to the people at the Opera, including Sills who had just become the company’s new general manager. Bob had proposed the tie to Peter Sharp, president of the Opera. They worked out a deal for NCN to broadcast Opera performances and syndicate them. Subsequently, the Operathons repeated for several years.
As an outgrowth of that, we also fielded a softball team (“The Brahms Bombers”) to play against an Opera team in Central Park. The NCN staff was certainly much smaller than theirs; we might have had, maximum, 15 employees. I played, but the station turnout was small; we were able to field only eight players. So, the Opera team lent us some ringers. Of course, they had plenty of people with athletic abilities. Think of stagehands, for example. The Opera team was so eager to play that, at one point, an umpire had to stop the game; the Bombers had 13 people on the field, of whom five weren’t us. The Opera won, of course, especially due to two home runs by Sam Ramey, in both cases when the bass emptied loaded basses.
NCN was certainly doing well by then, sometimes surpassing QXR in the ratings. Sometimes they were slightly on top. Not that there were major differences. Together we had only a fraction of a market as big as New York. But under Richer’s guidance and Biberfeld’s as well as with true p.r. savvy, we were taken seriously. This was certainly different from the days of a niche audience, albeit truly devoted, in the late 60s early 70s.
We got major coverage in the classical music world when, April 21st 1982 we had a four-hour live broadcast featuring as guests and performers Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Morton Gould, Ruth Laredo, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Eugenia Zukerman and more. Beverly Sills was there, of course, along with NYC Opera’s Carol Vaness and Alan Titus singing selections by Bizet and Gounod. There was also a reception at the station for the broadcast connecting it to inaugurating a new studio from which we could broadcast live performances, as we did that day. Beautiful, expensive sound-proofing, of course.
By then, NCN was finally making some real money. At the end of 1981, we’d celebrated the first year ever when the station had made a genuine profit, twenty-five years after the station went on the air. Each of us got a commemorative marble and brass paper weight inscribed “With thanks for your help.”
Walking into that new studio, separating myself from the milling, jolly guests, sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, having glad-handed many and received lots of compliments for my expertise, I saw an elderly, balding man sitting all by himself. No one else there. He looked forlorn, so I wanted to cheer him up. “Mr. Thomson,” I said, “ I’m so glad to meet you and see you here.”
“I’m Aaron Copland,” he said gently. So much for my expertise.
It’ s actually contradictory that we had those contemporary composers as our guests, since GAF’s NCN avoided broadcasting programming contemporary music for fear of turning off listeners, turning their dials elsewhere. I’m sure David had never scheduled any of Ned Rorem’s beautiful songs for example; music emanating from singers lips would never be allowed to cross that audience’s ears.
In the Science Network days David and all of us had been deeply involved in airing music of our time and he had had many connections with such composers. No wonder the Listeners Guild was stirred to get NCN back on the air and no wonder they were distressed that the content had been so down-sized into easily accessible listening.
Sure, at the latest incarnation of the station, we often aired interviews with such major living members of the concert music world, even as we had done in the late 60s and early 70s. We just didn’t air their music. In one such interview with Charles Wourinen, I asked how he felt about such an absence of his compositions on NCN. He replied that meant people would be stimulated to go hear it live.
When I met Corigliano in 2015, discussing the reception 33 years ago, I hadn’t remembered that he had been at that 1982 event. He also told me that he’d been the Music Director at at WBAI in the early 1960s and had likewise participated in the War and Peace reading project. When talking about the Wourinen interview, I actually had forgotten with whom it had been, Telling Corigliano about the above comment. “Yeah, that had to have been Charlie Wourinen.” I was shocked. How did he figure that out? “That’s the kind of thing he would say. ”
Throughout all of those years, it was great to feel so much a part of New York’s classical music life, to even feel significant in my own way, not as some kind of minor celebrity, but more part of a community, as if we were equals.
Moreover, ever since my first days at NCN, I was regularly offered free tickets to theatre and concerts or was given them when they had been requested. That was marvelous. Example: One day I was presenting music from Khachaturian’s ballet “Spartacus,” music which, incidentally, I admired. Saying so on the air I mentioned equal admiration for the movie, and how it had marked the return of blacklisted screen writer Dalton Trumbo, adding that equally disgraced Howard Fast deserved much credit for the great book on which the script was based. A few days thereafter a package arrived at the station from Fred Bass at Union Square’s famed Strand Bookstore. He’d sent a copy along of the book , autographed by Fast.
Another time a package containing eight bottles of Martini and Rossi vermouth was sent to me, after I’d been reading live copy for the product on the air. Who sent it? No idea. I gave away all but two bottles to other people at the station.
WQXR and WBAI again.
Bill Watson was on QXR in 1976 when I was added to the substitute announcer list once more, not that we ever encountered each other at the station. He had a weekly pre-recorded program sponsored by American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s NCN broadcasts and personality and, not only paid to have him host three hours once a week on WQXR, but also hired him to select and announce all the classical music recordings heard on American’s in-flight music services.
I’m sure QXR required Bill to tape his show to be certain that Bill would not do something radical on the air for which he’d become so well-known during 15 years at NCN. I heard one such program while I had an evening shift. Bill said something about having received a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. That was all he said about that person, no thanks, no comment, moving on to announce his next music selection. Had this been the old days, he would have most likely excoriated the listener on the air for something in the letter. I asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “Yeah. All the time,” he answered.
Matt Edwards says that when Bill no longer had the American Airlines broadcasts, he was out of radio permanently and told Matt that he’d become a janitor at a New Jersey shopping mall. A New York Times 1992 obituary said that Bill died at age 77 in a Westchester County nursing home. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/21/nyregion/william-watson-eccentric-host-of-classical-music-is-dead-at-77.html
At QXR I became friendly with Earl Bradsher (aka Earl Bradley) who regularly broadcast weather features sponsored by Con Ed. Earl was one of the few out gay men I knew and was critical of closeted others such as those at WNCN. He was planning to start a classical music radio station in St. Petersburg and kept urging me to consider becoming his program director. Since I had no intention of leaving New York, when he moved to start up WXCR (Tampa Bay Concert Radio), he asked me to record station IDs for him. Which I did gratis. In December 2015 I searched for his name on-line and found it in a 1983 piece in the St. Petersburg Times. Clearly at that time he’d started the station. What happened thereafter is yet to be found.
QXR dropped me from the substitute list when I went full-time at NCN.
Reunited with Jazz
At BAI I got to renew my weekly American Music series, again featuring contemporary concert/ “classical” music, jazz, film scores and cast recordings of musicals. Since at least half of my 1960s LPs were in still storage in Genova, I was in touch with record companies and began to re-build my library. Also there were a lot of new modern music LPs at NCN, never to be aired. I incorporated them into my broadcasts with David’s tacit acceptance because they never left the station and were only played on NCN equipment. Bob Richer OKd my taping there.
There were a few pop records coming into NCN. Among them was one by Gino Vanelli, Canadian pop/rock singer/writer who’d created a symphonic piece “Pauper in Paradise” which had a lot pf appeal and seemed just right for the BAI program where any kind of musical cross-over fit right in. With that and other Vanelli discs, I became a fan.
This was a time when jazz musicians were into the trends of what sold best, latino sessions, fusion, funky hard-bop. Sure, I liked some of that and programmed it, but the mainstream was still my stream.
Of course, substantial audiences remained for much of what jazz greats were still doing in person but on fewer records than in the late 50s and early 60s. Plus there were younger musicians who were carrying on such traditions, especially those debuting on newly-emerging Concord Records such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché, both of whom I interviewed (Hamilton in 1981 and Vaché in 1985).
During that time Lionel Hampton had started his own label “Who’s Who In Jazz” great sessions where Hamp performed separately, with Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman. JJ Johnson, Charles Mingus Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman and more. Impressive line-ups and lots of good playing. The production of the LPs left an indelible impression. They were the sloppiest such product ever seen, with misspellings of artists’ names, strange and varying typefaces, wrong composer credits for some of the songs, including Hampton’s taking credit for something called “Short Ribs” which was really Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” In one instance, a jacket cover made it look as if Coleman Hawkins was on the recording. He wasn’t. Margaret Mercer was listed as a co-producer for some LPs; she had been an assistant to David Dubal around that time and later became Program Director at WQXR.
I hosted a jazz radio show in Italy, taped at NCN.
In 1978 I went on a holiday revisiting Genoese friends from the time when I’d lived among them. They included painter Gianni Ghiazza. When I told him about my jazz shows in New York he introduced me to Marco Remondini who had recently started his own radio station Radio Genova Sound. English words. Very hip.
Marco had started the station in 1975 at a time when RAI owned and controlled all Italian broadcasting. His was one of a number of private stations that started cropping up around that time. They weren’t legal. But, since no government agency made any moves to close them down, such owner/operators continued broadcasting based on the widely- held Italian modus operandi that anything not officially prohibited was tacitly acceptable. Soon the private stations were being fined as unauthorized businesses but still not prohibited from broadcasting. They opted to pay fines and several decided to appeal their rights legally. In 1976, the Italian Constitutional Court, in a case involving a Florence station, held that the RAI monopoly was unconstitutional regarding local broadcasting. Radio Genova Sound was officially on the air. http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Broadcasting_in_Italy-Overview.pdf. These stations called themselves “public” radio to contrast with state radio. They also sold advertising, as did RAI.
Marco and I discussed producing a monthly two-hour bi-lingual show on tape and mailing it. He could only afford to pay me 40,000 lire per show (ca $50 then and about $190 in 2005) plus mailing costs. He thought it was equally hip to have someone on his station speaking some English. This is a characteristic intro: Allora, qui abbiamo un disco da Duke Ellington. This is the 1959 orchestra with Johnny Hodges, sax alto as soloist e dopo Jimmy Rushing canta and Dizzy Gillespie plays la tromba. The titles “Fillie Trillie” e “Hello Little Girl.”
The show was called “Jazz Da New York con Gordon.” It was a hell of a lot of fun.
On a second trip in 1980, I decided to take two boxes of tapes, 12 inch reels recorded at 7.5 ips, which equals one hour of the show per tape. I was carrying six months’ of shows and traveling by train from Germany, as opposed to my previous visit in a rented car. Arriving at the Italian border, two members of the Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) asked me what was in the boxes. In Italian. Stupidly I replied in Italian, forgetting my old practice of speaking English when confronted by Italian authorities. Usually in such instances I was left to go on my way, being considered thereby to be a tourist i.e guest or because the authorities usually spoke very little English. This time I was taken off the train and questioned about the legality of transporting unauthorized recorded material, as if it were a product for sale. (At least I was smart enough not to mention that Marco paid me for the shows.) The Guardia guys felt that I should pay customs fees. But after some friendly discussion, given that I was an American and could prove it, and that I didn’t actually live in Italy, they decided to let me go and put me on the next train.
Then in 1981 I met Carla Verdacci of RAI during a party at a friend’s apartment. I mentioned my on-going show. She suggested that I send her a copy of one of the tapes; she might be interested enough to propose it to RAI back in Rome. She liked it. She pitched it. “Jazz da new York con Gordon” became a monthly RAI feature all across Italy for two years until I was no longer in New York. At double the payment rate.
Reversing directions, two close Italian friends came to visit in 1976 and were eager to hear Woody Allen play his jazz clarinet. They knew the dates and the place. Allen appeared at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. We went. His group of musicians, some of whom were familiar to me on records, got into traditional New Orleans style. Allen sounded quite capable but not distinctive. But my friends didn’t care about that; they just loved being there. After one set, Allen took a chair on the stage and, sitting by himself, shook hands and held brief conversations sequentially with any people in the audience who wanted that personal contact. Sort of a Santa Claus line. My friends were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him, me translating. He was courteous and polite.
I did a few interviews for my BAI program. Two stood out. One with Ruby Braff. The other with Gerry Mulligan.
Braff was my all-time favorite trumpet/cornet player and I’d cherished his recordings for more than 25 years. He was appearing in the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Having never seen nor heard him in person I was looking forward to that. And decided to try to get an interview. With his phone number from the Festival publicity office, we made an appointment to meet at his apartment in the Bronx.
It was clear from the start that he was delighted for the attention. He was jolly and outgoing. We both had a great time. When the taping finished he gave me a couple of two new LPS he’d recorded in England. One was on the Pizza Express label, “Braff Plays Bing.” He told me a story Crosby told about himself. In the early 70s when Crosby was in his, in a New York taxi where the driver asked him “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” To which he replied, “Nah. Must be some other fella.”
Braff also told me a Benny Goodman story. Braff had played in some of Benny’s 1950s groups, in person and on records. Eleanor Steber had gone to Goodman’s house to go over some music they were planning to perform together. Steber told B. G that the room felt very cold. Benny agreed. Excused himself and left the room. And returned wearing a sweater. Without further comment. Steber told this to people she knew.
Ruby and I became something like friends. He suggested that we keep in touch and that we should hang out together. He’d call me. Which he did. He invited me to join him at Jimmy Ryan’s where one of his favorite trombonists Vic Dickenson was playing. They’d had some great sessions together for Vanguard Records in the 50s. Being a big fan of Dickenson, I looked forward to going.
I’d never been in Ryan’s, despite its reputation. It usually featured traditional jazz, aka Dixieland. Even though I loved such music along with all other styles, going to any club was not something I did. Ruby and I stood at the bar talking during the music. Conversation under such circumstances seemed normal. This was not a venue for a serious concert. At a break, Vic Dickenson came over to the bar near us. Despite his vigorous outgoing manner on the stage, he looked serious. “I’d like to go over and tell him how much I admire his playing,” I told Ruby.
“Don’t embarrass him. Don’t embarrass him. He hates having to play here, ” Ruby replied. Then Ruby went over to Dickenson, wordlessly shook hands and returned to me.
Soon we were conversing about musicians playing in clubs, competing with all the noise of talking people. “They’re listening,” he said. “They hear what we’re doing. And I know when to play softly to get their attention, if I want it. That’s what it’s like in clubs.”
A month before, I’d gone on a Thursday evening to hear pianist Roland Hanna play in a small club near Washington Square. There were only a few people there to eat, drink and listen. Always a Hanna admirer, I was once again impressed with his gentle, lyrical pieces. Clearly a party of six, really partying, wasn’t listening. Gabbing. Laughing loudly. All of a sudden in the middle of one piece. Hanna got up from the keyboard and went to a table by himself. Going over to him, I told him how much I liked his playing on records and just a few minutes ago before he’d stopped. “Yeah,” he said, sadly, “but how could you hear it?” I replied that I could hear it and asked why he walked away from the keyboard. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I can’t compete with that.”
Telling Braff about that, Braff commented “Jesus Christ! What did he expect? It’s a club.”
And we talked too about Charles Mingus who’d eventually given up such live gigs, laughing together at a Mingus’ recording, “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus” where Mingus wanted to give the feeling of a club date and begins by telling the audience how to behave.
Another time Ruby invited me to one of his small clubs gigs in Fort Lee. He performed with a guitarist and a bassist and kept loudly calling out key changes after a few lines of notes in the same tune. It was very distracting.
In April 1982 he invited me and my girlfriend/eventual wife Hannelore to hear him at The Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. Pianist Dick Hyman performed with him, a pairing with great results already on records. That afternoon Hyman played the church’s pipe organ. The idea for both of them was not entirely new; Hyman had recorded in 1977 on a studio organ with Braff in a set of Fats Waller-connected tunes (“Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive.”). This time Braff was facing downstage, his back to Hyman, whose back was to his. They played magnificently. How did they coordinate without seeing each other? I asked Hyman afterwards. He showed me two mirror’s he’d set up on the organ wings.
Braff had told me by then he hated playing in such out of the way places as that one in Fort Lee, but that he always tried to avoid big clubs where there was a lot of smoking; he was developing emphysema, making it increasingly difficult to get the most out of his horn. FYI: He died of it in 2003, more than twenty years after we’d connected.
Having left New York for New Mexico later that year, I didn’t try to stay in touch. Frankly I made no effort to do so, just as I’d neglected to sustain a similar friendship with Tony Scott.
However, just a few years later, Ruby was appearing at one of Dick Gibson’s famed jazz parties at Denver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel which I regularly attended. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB117434857526842076.
Waiting for a set to begin, while standing in a hallway, drummer Bobby Rosengarden walked by. I recognized him from when he’d played with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. “Hello Bobby,” I said. “You’ve played with Ruby Braff, right? “ He said that he had. “Is Ruby anywhere around? I’m a friend of his.”
“Yeah?” Rosengarden replied. “Probably the only friend he’s got.” And walked off.
I soon found Ruby in the hall, talking to bassist Michael Moore. I went over to them.
“Hello, Ruby!” I said. “I’m Gordon Spencer. Remember? We met in New York.”
“Yeah. How you doing Gordon? Good to see ya.” And he turned back to Michael Moore. Dismissed.
Certainly my feelings were hurt. But I let it pass. I’m sure Ruby had met a lot of people in New York and elsewhere. Given that this was at least three years since we’d last been in touch, it might have been natural that he didn’t remember me.
But what did Rosengarden mean? In time, I learned that Ruby was becoming more and contentious with every one he knew. He accumulated quite a negative reputation, being called by some colleagues “Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde” no doubt also inspired by one his favorite Robert Louis Stephenson book. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/feb/12/guardianobituaries.jazz. You can likewise see him being nasty in an interview with Brit Jim Godbolt. lhttps://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/jim-godbolt-interviews-ruby-braff. However, there Braff is also full of praise for many jazz greats and turns out to be eventually quite congenial. It’s a great interview.
Interviews with musicians can often turn out to be challenging. Even those of us who come fully prepared have to expect many variables. Some musicians are so outgoing and friendly, such as Louis or Duke, about whose interviews I wrote above, that the interviewer is almost superfluous. Yet there are other artist who are not that articulate, or are distracted, or bored, or even annoyed especially when dealing with the same questions that they consistently get asked.
My interview with Gerry Mulligan had a much different feeling than the one with Ruby. In January 1981 I’d seen an article in New York Magazine about Mulligan, mentioning that one of his quartets was to play at Eric’s in February. I called the club to see if I could get Mulligan’s phone number so as to set up an interview. That made it possible to call Mulligan. I told him that I’d admired him for years and that I often played his records on WBAI, WNCN, WOND, WFLN. Politely he said he wasn’t much available because he was working on writing new orchestral arrangements for a concert with the CBC Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in June. But that, if he had some free time later in the month, he’d get back to me.
As the date for the gig at Eric’s became imminent, not having heard from him, I decided to call again. Responding, said, “Well, as I think I told you I’m really busy. But, all right, if you want to come up to my home in Darien, I guess I can spare about an hour. But no more. Would that be acceptable?”
Yeah, if I’d thought about it better, I might have realized that this was something of an imposition. But I was so eager to talk with him that I didn’t want to miss the chance. It was clear from what I’d recently read that Mulligan was, off the stand, an intellectually alive person with many interests in all kinds of things including (like me) classical Indian music and yoga, theatre, literature, movies. I felt as if we might bond. Well, anyway, I hoped we would. That was certainly naïve.
Arriving at his house, I was warmly welcomed by his wife Franca. We exchanged a few words in Italian and she led me into their living room. Mulligan told me (again) that he hoped we could keep the talk to no more than an hour.
Every so often in the conversation I felt that he was a little put off by the questions, not that they were in any way personal, but rather, as if, the answers were so obvious that they needn’t be asked.
It wasn’t a bad interview by any means, but listening to it later, he sounded impatient at times. I concluded that he hadn’t really wanted to be bothered but had felt it was an obligation, being, after all, somebody famous who needed to not be dismissive of the press.
We ran into each other again in February 1995 at a gig. He fronted a quartet playing in Milwaukee where I was living, hosting jazz shows and was part of advisory board for a series of jazz performances at the Pabst Theater. I was the m.c. I didn’t expect him to recognize me after 14 years but went up to him to say hello and to remind him of that encounter. Remembering that Franca spoke Italian I thought it would be cool to talk to him in Italian because he must have known some. When I started speaking, he looked totally unsettled, as if facing an obstacle that threw him off-balance. I guess he didn’t understand. Apologizing in English, and told him my name. Then, when introducing him on stage, we shook hands as if old friends. It had never occurred to me that backstage he could have been nervous before a performance. So many people are. Why shouldn’t he be?
Clearly we never bonded.
In 1978 I’d gone to a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Stan Getz was on stage. (“That’s some kind of genius,” Ruby said to me once.) Before Getz started playing, he went over to the microphone stand then walked away from it. Calling out backstage, he said, “Would someone take this thing away from here? We don’t need it. This is Carnegie Hall for Chrissakes!” A stagehand came and moved the microphone to the side of the stage. Many of us cheered. I vowed then I’d find a way to tell him of my admiration.
In late June 1982 I had that chance. He was to appear at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a reunion concert with Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. The “Four Brothers” shared the bill with younger, further-out guys, the World Saxophone Quartet: Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and David Murray.
Through the concert promoters, I’d been able to phone Getz and he said to meet him backstage after he, Giuffre, Cohn and Sims had practiced out front.
They ran through a few arrangements, deciding who would solo where, Getz then came to where I was sitting, leaving the other men still on stage talking, occasionally playing a few notes, as if trying out things.
He seemed gentle, almost serene. Quite a contrast to ebullient Ruby Braff and opaque Gerry Mulligan. I told Getz of my admiration for his Carnegie Hall comment. He smiled. “Yeah. You’d think they would have known better. Horowitz wouldn’t have had a mic.”
I took my tape recorder out of a bag and plugged in a microphone. Immediately a tall, grey-bearded man in sloppy street clothes walked over to us.
“What are you guys doing?” he challenged.
“I’m going to interview Mr. Getz,” I replied, showing him the microphone and the tape machine.
“What do you mean?”
“You have permission from IATSE?” ( The backstage tech union.)
“Gee, no. Do I need that?”
“Goddamn right you do!”
“Well, I’m an AFTRA member.”
“And I with the AFM,” Stan added.
“Look,” the IATSE guy said, getting pissed off. “I don’t care what unions you belong to. This is an IATSE space. You can’t record here. We do all the recording. You know, I could confiscate that equipment you’ve got. So you better the hell out of here right away if you know what’s good for you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“Well, you should have.”
I was flustered and distressed, not able to think what to suggest next to Stan as we walked out of the building. Upon exiting, we ran into bassist Marc Johnson who just happened to be passing by. Johnson had played with Bill Evans at the same 1978 Carnegie Hall as Getz. Stan hugged him tenderly, said something I couldn’t hear and we continued heading toward Columbus Avenue.
I knew that Getz had used an echoplex a few times and I’d had felt that saxophonist John Klemmer, well-known for that device, sometimes had Getz-like tenderness in his playing. “ I was wondering,” I said to Stan as we walked, “Do you think that John Klemmer was influenced by you?”
“God, I hope not” he replied grinning. Before I had a chance to ask what that meant, he’d hailed a taxi. Getting in, he asked, “Can I drop you off somewhere?”
Oh, I thought, he’s through with me. “If I go wherever you’re going, maybe we could talk there?” I suggested.
He directed the driver to an address in Greenwich Village. “Look, I’m staying at Irwin Corey’s house. I shouldn’t bring in any uninvited guest. Maybe we could do this some other time.” Perhaps he’d been put off by that IATSE encounter. Certainly I was.
He left me off near Times Square and I walked cross-town to my apartment, dejected.
Incidentally, long an Irwin Corey admirer, I always loved his Professor act (“The World’s Foremost Authority”) having seen it numerous times on TV, especially on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen where the routine ended with Corey being chased through the audience i.e. “Stop that madman!” I’d even used some of his style in my Beyond the Fringe audition back in the 60s (see above). Plus something in Corey’s face reminded me of my father in a jovial mood.
Actually I met Corey in 1978. Gary Gumpert, an old friend from days at Temple University, had heard me on NCN and called to re-connect after so many years. He invited us to a party at his home in Great Neck. On a balmy April evening we sat in a small garden outside his house where Gary introduced me to some neighbors. Corey was one of them.
Corey looked just as I thought he would, except that his hair was combed and he was wearing clothes more casual than the falling apart semi-formal attire of his standard act. Naturally I told him how much I’d enjoyed his performances. “They are terrific, aren’t they?” he asked with a serious expression on his face.
Used to talking to famed people, mostly musicians, I wasn’t star-struck. Rather than pepper him with questions, I told him about how Gary and I knew each other and about Temple U and my own performing background. Corey seemed interested. Soon we dispersed into the party. But I kept subtly watching him to see how he behaved off-stage. He seemed very much like the Professor. At one point all of us started earnestly discussing politics. There Corey rambled on in the same tone as the Professor, throwing in non-sequiturs, making little sense. No one laughed. Maybe he was serious. But it was as if he and the Professor were interchangeable. Maybe doing that act so often, they’d merged somehow.
Speaking of old friends, in 1980, Jean Desjardins (aka John Gardner) a buddy from the 1960s, called and invited me to his wedding celebration at his home in suburban Philadelphia, an isolated house surrounded by woods and trees. It was one of the most original parties I’d ever attended. He’d not only hired caterers but wandering entertainers, including a double-talking comic who threaded and chattered among us. Plus, all of a sudden, a bagpiper, completely kilted, dramatically came marching through the woods. Rufus Harley, a black man who’d billed himself as the World’s First Jazz Bagpiper. I knew who he was; he played on a Herbie Mann concert LP from about ten years before. Evidently he was one of John’s neighbors.
During those days Fleetwood, Marzano and I collectively became friends with Gladys Buchman, a regular NCN listener. She sometimes called us and sent us holiday greeting cards and a few times invited us to dinner at her apartment. Together we eventually decided to take her up on the offer out of curiosity. It turned out that she was in her early 60s and lived in Alphabet City… Avenue C, I think….in a public housing project with her husband Morris.
They were both very jolly people and seemed to be unendingly fascinated hearing our stories about ourselves. So us three minor celebrities had a great time hanging out together, which we’d never done elsewhere or before. Plus Gladys and Morris would tell us about their kinds of lives about which we had no inkling, except to learn that they loved going to live concerts despite living on pensions.
Naturally, I invited Gladys and Morris to dinner in midtown and once asked them if they’d like to see my cat, Sulu, given that they had three cats of their own.
Gladys couldn’t get over Sulu’s beauty. He was indeed magnificent. A 9-year old chinchilla, with deep blue eyes, beautiful white fur under light grey stripes. Many friends had remarked on his exceptional looks. Some had even said that he should get modeling jobs. A potential show business cat. Gladys thought so too. A friend of a friend of hers knew an animal talent agent.
Gladys gave me the name and phone number. Sulu and I got an appointment.
The agency was in a large office building on west 54th street. A tiny office, seeming to have one room, one agent. Nothing unusual about the place except for an open cardboard box full of wriggling, chirping chicks on the top of a small bookcase.
“Before you let the cat out of the case,” the agent asked, “do you think the chicks are in any danger?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “He’s never seen any before. It’s hard to say. But I can probably get him back into the case if there is a problem.” Nonetheless, I scanned the office to see where Sulu might run and hide if he panicked. Not that chicks would scare him, but the agent’s reaction to threat could turn out to be too energetic.
“OK.,” the agent said. “Why don’t you let him out?”
Sulu was not eager to emerge. He had certainly not enjoyed the cab ride nor the ascension in the elevator. He was a house pet, not a traveling companion.
As in the past, I had to turn his carrying case on its side to, in effect, dump him out. The trick was to pick him up thereafter before he scampered away. Of course, he was nervous. Not because he was auditioning. That would have been my effect on him, wondering if Sulu was on the brink of a performing career.
I was able to lift him to my shoulders where he stared at me, as if to say, “What the hell is this?” Then he scanned the room. His ears picked up, hearing the chicks. He was very close to them. He looked. No other reaction. He turned to me, still puzzled. That was his audition. He passed.
The agent called me the following week telling me that Sulu had a job. A photo shoot. All I had to do was take him to a photo studio in the Garment District at the scheduled time.
There were several rooms in sequence at the studio. The receptionist sent us to one, saying Sulu would be up soon. The waiting room was full of cats, some sitting on human laps, others hiding under chairs. None of them seemed to be congenially mingling with the others. Stuck up felines. Nothing unusual there.
A man with an occupied cat-carrying case joined us, looking discouraged and picked up his coat.
“How’d it go?” a rather glamourous lady cat-companion asked.
“He didn’t make it,” the man replied.
I took Sulu out of his case and held him, stroking him, getting him resist the urge to hide under another chair.
Talking with the other cat people, I learned that we were all there for the same job. This was Sulu’s gig? I didn’t get it
A gruff male voice called out. “OK. Gordon. Bring Sulu in.” Certainly someone there knew what the star animal’s name was.
That room glared with spotlights. They were illuminating a draped wooden box on top of which was a different shaped box containing the delights of Tender Vittles Gourmet Dinner.
“OK, Gordon, here’s what we want,” said the man identifying himself as the director. “ We just want Sulu to sit next to the box, with one paw on it and look straight-ahead at you. Which is toward the camera, under which you’ll sit. Do you think the lights in his face will scare him?”
As before at the agent’s, I knew Sulu was unpredictable. He was a cat. “Gosh. I don’t know,” I replied in a confident show business voice.
“Right,” the director said. “Could you take him over to the box, set him down next to it, put his right paw on it and slowly walk back?”
Sulu’s paw was placed. I backed away. Subtly.
“Camera ready?” the director whispered.
From somewhere behind me behind and the lights a voice answered “Ready.”
Sulu left the box and walked over to me and sat in my lap.
“Do you think he can do this?” the director asked gently, not at all aggressive.
As before, I pleaded innocent ignorance.
Same routine. Set the camera. Ready for the shot. Sulu back to my lap. Well, at least he didn’t hide under a chair.
After the third try the director said. “Sorry, Gordon. That’s a great looking cat, but this won’t work.”
I asked if I could stay and watch the next candidate and was told that that was all right, provided that Sulu didn’t fight with his competition. Sulu and I took a seat together off to the side where he remained secure in the place he most wanted to be: my lap.
The next cat was striped black and white and didn’t look all that special. The lady who brought him placed his paw on the box and walked away. This animal could have been stuffed for all the movement it didn’t make. Multiple photos were taken. The cat never moved that whole time. Show business. There’s no business like it. I know.
I made no other attempt to further his career.
As for mine, I had a couple of minor roles in advertising.
I had an agent, Bea (Bernice) Beck, who would every so often get me auditions. She was the wife of one of the most famed voice-over performers of all time, Jackson Beck. Not that his name would be remembered by most audiences. Rather actors and announcers much admired and envied him; he got a lot of work. Those of us who experienced the great days of radio drama knew him as narrator for The Adventures of Superman for many years. And he provided loads of voices for everything else, including cartoons, e,g. “Bluto” in “Popeye” movies. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackson_Beck
Bea did get me one memorable job. It was for voicing an Arby’s TV commercial. Young and Rubicam producing.
In the luxurious, classily decorated offices, I joined five other men in a waiting room going over the script. We said “hello” to each other. Plenty of resonant voices there, pretending that we didn’t mind that one of us could come away with the big cash which we deserved, given our massive talent, even if none of us was in Jackson Beck’s league.
The script: one page, one sentence: “Get your free Norman Rockwell glasses now at Arby’s.” What a challenge. Incidentally, almost 40 years later, they’ve become collectors’ items.
My profound reading took the day. Subsequently the session took one day. All day going over and over that one sentence. The director had me say more variations that anyone could imagine.
Bea got me a buy-out. i.e Rather than receiving residuals over the time that this commercial aired, I got a flat fee. AFTRA rates, of course. I don’t remember how much money that was; it might have been something like $700, given the fee of $2000 in early 2016.
For a couple of years I also produced and voiced radio commercials for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts. This was a pattern I thereafter repeated for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Aside from my expertise with such content, I blew away the competition; Hannelore was a top executive in the marketing departments for the last three.
Change in the air, again.
In May of 1982 someone had posted an ad from Broadcasting Magazine. The classical music radio station in Albuquerque, KHFM, was looking to hire a morning program host who would also be Chief Announcer.
New Mexico! I’d seen it and loved it when, in the summer of 1977 as a vacation, I had driven that far west, camping in my new VW van (a descendant of my cherished European one). I was enchanted by The Land of Enchantment. The dramatic vast spaces, the beautiful spacious skies, the purple mountain majesties, such a compelling contrast to the tight little island of Manhattan. I had yearned to live in New Mexico, but couldn’t think of how to do it.
This was the chance. No second thoughts. No doubts. I knew that they were bound to be impressed; I was a New York classical music radio host.
By then, Helga and I had split. I had been living alone in Manhattan, on East 46th Street in a tiny, expensive one-room apartment ($475 a month or $1465 in 2016). A ten minute walk to NCN. And I’d fallen in love with Hannelore Rogers, a rare, lively, intelligent woman who’d done something rare, written me a fan letter. Classical d.j’s didn’t get them often. When I told her that I was going to look into the job, she was truly distressed. She loved New York, having only lived there two years.
I applied. After hearing my air-check audition tape, KHFM invited me to come for an interview, paying for the flight and hotel room. I was offered the job. At a much lower salary. By then I was earning $32,000 a year at NCN (ca $80,000 in 2015) * KHFM offered me $18,000 (ca $45,000 in 2015). Of course, I knew that living costs in Albuquerque were radically lower than those in New York but I didn’t think that that was enough, never letting on that living in New Mexico would have been my joy at any price. I asked for $22,000 ($55,000 in 2015). They thought it over. One day later we had an agreement.
- Above I pointed out that in 1977 at $27, 000 a year the 2015 equivalent was $109,000. This reflects the constantly changing fluctuation of the dollar’s value in different years.
Hannelore traveled with me. She was offered a job, working for the same man who was one of two major owners of KHFM. Bill Weinrod, also the Executive Administrator of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. She was hired as Marketing and Development Director, a new position at the Symphony, then undergoing expansion in an improving local economy. We moved into a small adobe-like house (i.e. it was cement but had a shape designed to look like a characteristic adobe house.) We did not marry.
My final performance on NCN was on July 30th 1982
There we go again. In and out. In and out. In and out. My 12 collective years at WNCN had been in small increments, about three years starting in 1959 (fired), about four years starting in 1967 (quit), about five years starting in 1976 (quit).
And during those final five, inevitably, there were changes in the NCN staff: Bob Adams: fired. Matt Edwards: quit, Larry Josephson: hired and fired. Jim Pinckney: hired. Bob Adams: rehired. Gordon Spencer: quit. Six realignments. Broadcasting.
There’s no question that shifting from New York to Albuquerque seemed like a radical change. A welcome one. Plenty of gorgeous sky unimpeded by tall buildings. To the east there were unobstructed views of the glorious Sandia Mountains, glowing deep violet in the evening. The air felt fresh. And traffic noise, such as I heard constantly outside the midtown Manhattan apartment I’d just left, was minimal.
I’d often wanted out of New York ever since returning seven years before. Not that I’d not had a great life there then, but always earnestly, constantly yearning to be closer to nature and away from the inevitable pressures endemic to New York.
As for being a performer, I thoroughly enjoyed having programs on WBAI and producing jazz shows for Italian radio. But, on a day-to- day basis, most of the time I was just making the best of the WNCN full-time position. Making the best wasn’t enough.
Thus, when interviewed for KHFM, I told Bill Weinrod and station manager Mike Langner that I wanted to be able to do my own programming for the morning show. We discussed the obvious limitations. E,g, No difficult modern music. No non-classical music. But it was OK, for example, to present some singing. They agreed.
Two layers of freedom. Magnificent.
The station was a self-contained one-story cinder-block building, on a small side street, the transmitter tower looming above and behind it. 5900 Domingo Road. Incidentally, in 2015, a drive-by revealed that the building had become a private home. With the tower still standing. KHFM had become part of multi-station ownership at 4125 Carlisle Boulevard sharing the space with, as far as I could tell, three other stations.
On the first day walking into 1982 KHFM, I’d brought an umbrella; the skies suggested rain. The receptionist, Shirley Davis, laughing, found it funny because, she said, it never seriously rained there.
Shirley’s desk in the reception area faced large plate glass windows looking out to the unassuming street with its modest ranch style houses and a few scruffy trees . The on-air studio, just off that, had a window looking out to a sandy, stony yard on small street perpendicular to Domingo Road. Offices were on two sides of the building, between which was an open space with more stones and sand. The only other special feature of the building was a dusty back room with wooden shelves holding a major array of tubes, dusty discarded turntables, miles of electrical cords and cables and other equipment about which I knew little. An echo of 1959 NCN at the top of Hotel Pierre, especially given that Mike’s major background was as a broadcast engineer just as had been Dave Passell.
Charlie Maldonado was the program director. Given that Bill and Mike had agreed to programing freedom, I had been told to check with Charlie if some choices might be questionable. I rarely consulted him. Neither he nor Mike were likely to question Bill’s decisions. Probably they wouldn’t dare; he was a co-owner. Life in that part of New Mexico seemed to lack the tension and competitiveness back east. Easy-going.
My show was from 5 to 9 am. I had to arrive by 4:30 to turn on the transmitter and prepare a wire-copy newscast. A throw-back of 27 years to WFLN. Given the size of Albuquerque and environs it wasn’t necessary to have traffic reports. KOB-AM’s morning drive and afternoon -drive pop music shows covered that.
My last newscast was at 9:00 am. And most Monday mornings members of the staff were laughing loudly outside the not-well-sound-proofed studio door. They weren’t guffawing over international disasters or tragic current events. They were at the weekly staff meetings. Early on, I mentioned the problem to Mike. Characteristically he said that would take care of it. Note the word “would.” It was equal to another phrase: “Yes. We could do that.” Implication: it’s not urgent and worth thinking about. Quasi-italiano. Soon I tried to take care of it myself by stuffing a crumpled newspaper under the door. It made no difference. Eventually, after repeated requests, Mike added some thick felt to the bottom of the door. It made no difference either.
My show was about music. Not about me. Programming choices covered all periods from Renaissance to modern , as long as they were accessible. Parts of ballet scores. Symphony movements (provided they were scherzos, or nocturnes, or not something marked allegro, or adagio etc; that was my own musicological fastidiousness.) Piano pieces. String quartet movements. Guitar pieces. Choral works. Symphonic movie music. Art songs, primarily featuring baritones, although when on occasion presenting a woman singing I’d issue a “soprano alert,” tapping a lamp, just as I had done for NCN’s classical hits. I loved every minute. Oddly, there were few listener complaints.
Certainly my music choices were quite varied and unconventional as compared to, say QXR and NCN’s. More than once, Sales Manager Roxanne Allen would mention her concerns during management meetings. She said she could have trouble with sponsors if they heard something they didn’t like. Not that she ever mentioned specific examples where someone declined to advertise with us due to the music. In any case, neither Mike nor Charlie ever suggested that I program differently.
I tried not to talk too much or too long, a carry-over from NCN and QXR. And rarely spoke about myself. However, there were occasionally short conversations with unusual studio visitors whom I made up and personified with character voices. Bill, Mike and Charlie had no problem with that. The prized New Yorker had almost carte blanche.
Thus I exchanged niceties with motherly Cockney cleaning lady Flora. Was halted in my tracks by an Italian couple disagreeing about the weather, in Italian, untranslated. Texan Merle Noir (merle noir in French means blackbird) would stop by to deliver dairy products. There was commentary about the music by stuttering, happily enthusiastic Clove Parnes, who speaking style was inspired by my encounters with Clive Barnes at WQXR. And there were fake ski reports by Jean-Claude Silly.
Once Jean-Claude reported on the ski area in Los Alamos. There was a real one called Pajarito, but in the 1980s it seemed to be out-of-the-way and under-publicized. In fact, it was known then to have very few lifts. This suggested that visitors were discouraged and that the area was primarily for residents. Or as if it were Top Secret, Los Alamos being principally a government town, famed for work on atomic bombs.
Jean-Claude said that he had trouble finding the ski area because there were no signs pointing the way and street names were almost non-existent. Those he could find seemed to be numbered in code. And when he asked people for directions, they whispered unintelligibly. He thought that he’d found it near a statue of J. Robert Oppenheimer, wearing dark glasses and pointing toward the sky. But it turned out that that was at a trash dump full of shredded paper. Finally J. C. was invited into someone’s house, after he had signed a three page document vowing secrecy. And, as he looked out of the occupants’ plate glass window, he could see a bunch of children skiing. He was told that that was the place he was looking for. This may seem like a lot of talk, but he gave this report in installments one February morning. Listener response: none. Not even from Los Alamos.
Having only to be on duty four and a half hours, I sometimes had the freedom to use the recording studio wherein I created short comic productions, each no longer than about three minutes. One item was “A James K. Polk Portrait”, a send-up of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” My version set to music by Jerome Moross from the movie “The Big Country”
“James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States of America. Born November 2, 1795 in a log cabin in North Carolina. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said. ‘Don’t light a match mother or the house will burn down.’ James K. Polk studied the law at age 23 in a Nashville office. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said. “I must have a pen. This pencil is broken.’ James K. Polk stood five feet two inches in his stocking feet and this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said “Sarah, where are my shoes?’ James K Polk never carried a pistol in the White House and this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said “My servant George always carries my gun.”
There was a report from Vienna by investigative reporter Herbert von Holznagel, who, speaking with a German accent, reported on a recently unearthed tool shed once used by Beethoven. Herbert rattled around all the clinking objects in the station’s back room discovered fascinating things such as piece of parchment covered with ink blots which looked like a trail of blood or maybe they were blood which looked like ink blots, an unfinished sausage sandwich on seeded rye where the mustard had dried out, and many pounds of ground coffee which he touched to get a sound like rustling straw. The last item was a send-up of what was actually in the station’s back room. KHFM had a trade deal with coffee roaster/seller Norman Whiting, which meant for one daily no-cost commercial the station got one free bag of coffee. Shirley would go once a week to Norman’s and come back with seven bags. She stored them in the uninsulated back room. The coffee dried out under the southwest sun in about 10 minutes.
Once I created a radio commercial touting a film called “Oberheim, ” (the name of an electronic audio synthesizer). In it a kid, Bobby, was passionately in love with his computer. (In the 1980s it was already possible to own a personal one.) Bobby didn’t want to leave his bedroom; the computer was jealous of any other relationships and spoke with Bobby with a whinny, high-pitched voice. “Starring Richard Burton as a talking fireplace.” Here I dubbed in Burton saying “…they do hear some sub-human monster yowling at him from inside,” dialogue from an LP promoting the movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Obviously I was having fun. I recall few listener responses. Except once Mike took issue over my fake interview with a dopey basketball player whom I said was from New Mexico A & M. The 6 foot 11 player was trying to figure out how many points he scored in the last game and couldn’t do the math. Mike said I shouldn’t have insulted A & M that way. But there was no A & M. Turned out that there used to be many years before; but the name had been changed in 1960 to New Mexico State. Obviously some people remembered the bygone name.
As Chief Announcer I had few duties other than to sometimes find replacements for on-air shifts by calling a few volunteers we had. I did train everyone to frequently mention the call letters as we had done at WNCN. Plus I wanted them to talk a little about the music, suggesting they quote or use a sentence or two for the liner notes. Dave Fisher, a volunteer program host, a kindly local auto repair mechanic who loved music and had some understanding of it, had trouble with that idea. Probably he was not comfortable having to ad-lib. He demurred saying “I thought that the music was the most important thing,” meaning to let the music speak for itself. To which I countered, “Right. But it’s not the only important thing. And talking about it shows how important it is.” He struggled for a while trying to do it right. I never criticized; he got better in time.
Mike eventually brought in a young woman, almost a girl, named Suzanne Bernadette. She had been a member of the congregation at Hoffmantown Baptist Church and that’s where they’d met. Evidently he thought that it would be good to someone so young on the air. Suzanne always sounded innocent when announcing. However, I lamented to him one day that I couldn’t get her to stop deleting slow middle movements from some Baroque concertos, she claiming that doing so kept everything more lively. That maybe she would listen to him and correct the practice. He replied that he thought that was a clever idea. I also tried to change something else she did: constantly promoting the next piece to follow a commercial break “after I return.” I pointed out that the commercials were part of the program as much as she was. Mike saw nothing wrong with that either. She was his protégé, I guess and she could do no wrong.
This is one of several times in those years when I expressed perhaps unwelcome opinions to Mike. Perhaps they seemed if I was being critical. Maybe I couldn’t disguise my underlying attitude. Having been a New Yorker for the previous seven years or so, I was trying my best to seem accommodating and less impulsive. I’m sure that over time, I got better at it, but being outspoken was most likely too direct for that culture. I tried applying Italy-learned ways of being indirect, but don’t think I always succeeded.
My attitude toward Mike probably showed. I had trouble with his too-easy agreeability with everyone and everything. He didn’t conform with my conception of station management.
In time I learned that his major qualification for running the station was due to an incredible ability to come up with solutions to technical and engineering problems; he often invented unconventional, inexpensive fixes, a sort of duct- tape approach. It turned out that he was known all over New Mexico radio for such special talents.
He told a story about himself, having been called by an engineer at KRST to try to solve a transmitter problem. The engineer told Mike that a switch repeatedly kept getting stuck, and that the engineer had tried everything he could think of but, despite considerable knowledge and skill, nothing corrected the problem. “Mike,” he said, “I know this won’t make sense, but, could I hold up the phone near the transmitter for you to say something? Maybe just hearing your voice would make it work.” Mike thought the idea was funny, but having understood the details of the problem, he replied “Well, it’s worth a try. Move the switch down and up again.” The engineer did so. It worked.
The on-air staff included gentle, unassuming sweet Don Hoyt, who seemed much older than I but probably wasn’t, being bald and chubby Don loved classical music and knew a lot about it. He was also a member of Roger Melone’s New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Don had one defect. Living alone as he did, he must not have taken good care of his clothes. He often smelled as if they needed a thorough washing. The effect seemed to be the reason at choral concerts why people never seemed to never stand directly next to him, as if leaving spaces on either side.
KHFM had a Saturday night jazz show from 11pm to 1 am hosted by young volunteer Rick Fletcher. Every so often, I’d listen to hear how he was doing it. After a few months, I noticed that he regularly would give obviously wrong information, such as who were the soloists or what the titles of the music were.
One evening he aired what sounded like Billie Holiday at a studio rehearsal. She talked to the musicians, made suggestions, ran over a few bars. It was more talk than music. But worse, she seemed off-mike; the sound was execrable. Rick let it play for half an hour. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t notice how bad it was and let it run so long.
I asked Don Hoyt about Rick, since they had known each other for a long time. They also had a mutual friend named Marsha. Evidently Rick was having an affair with her. She was married and in the NMSO Chorus. She and Rick apparently had telephone liaisons during the jazz show. Moreover, I learned that Rick always appreciated listener calls while he was on the air and encouraged them.
Being Chief Announcer I asked him to meet me to discuss what I thought was wrong with his performance, telling him that he had to pay more attention to what he was broadcasting, citing some of his obvious errors with information. He said he would try to do better. But for the next couple of months nothing changed.
Mike Langner agreed that Rick wasn’t very good at hosting the show, but didn’t want us to stop broadcasting jazz. So I told him that I would take over the program, although that was not the reason for me wanting Rick to leave. It was not an ideal choice; it meant having to give up late Saturday evenings, despite my love of that music. Even with initial reluctance, the re-connection with jazz was great.
Soon I also noticed on many of the station’s LPS that there were tiny little numbers in pen next to some of the track listings. They were dates. Bill Weinrod not long thereafter told me that he used to play those records when he had the jazz program. He’d given it up to have more free time. He wrote the dates so as to make sure he didn’t play the same selections too often and too soon.
Weekdays at 9:05, after my newscast, we aired a nationally highly popular syndicated program “Adventures in Good Music” hosted by genial Karl Haas. We had started carrying it on WNCN in 1970.
Some NCN listeners and staff had felt that it was too simplistic and that Haas talked down audiences. Certainly it didn’t appeal to certain more musically sophisticated people. Bill Weinrod felt that way too. But he didn’t want to interfere with KHFM programming. As a spot-commercial carrier it was as successful as anything else on the station. Personally, I felt that New Mexico was more fertile ground for Haas’ concept, presumably being less discriminating than New Yorkers. Not that I listened to those broadcasts that time around either. Yet, at that stage of my maturity, I was more accepting.
We hosted one of his concert/lectures in November 1985. That weekend he came to the studios to record one of his broadcasts, beginning by choosing some of our LPS to use. Clearly he didn’t need a script. Then he went into the recording studio where Cindy Abrams produced the program for him. Cindy later told me that Haas had placed a clammy hand on one of her legs, but that she gently removed it and that was that. He was about 72. She in her early 30s.
I also used the recording studio to produce and tape my jazz shows for RAI, those I had started in New York, then called “Jazz da New York,” renamed “Jazz con Gordon.” Although I was well-paid, I tried to save money by not buying new tape, but took much which I found on shelves in several places, including the back room. Since many reels were not full, I’d splice together what I needed. Some already had splices. Not all of the tape was the same brand or of the same formula, or of identical colors, but I didn’t know that much about tapes and had thought that they were all the same. Which is to say that, in trying to save money, I was probably producing programs whose sound quality was not the best nor uniform, especially if some of what I used had been stored in the hot uninsulated back room.
In any case, about a year after I had been sending my KHFM-produced shows to New York, RAI’s Carla Verdacci contacted me to say that they decided to drop the program, especially since I was no longer in New York. Some years later, I became convinced that the sound of the tapes themselves was not consistently up to the best quality and that was the reason for dropping the show.
Of course, KHFM had a strong connection to the New Mexico Symphony, given that it was Albuquerque’s only classical music station. No surprise either given that Bill Weinrod was a major station owner as well as Executive Administrator of the Symphony. This meant that we carried promotional programs featuring interviews with visiting conductors and soloists along with other features such as those featuring Music Director Neal Stulberg as host. Plus commercials. Written by Hannelore. Announced and produced by me. In the same recording studio. Later, even after I’d been fired (see below) I still used the studio for such productions.
Given the relationship the NMSO, we attended all the concerts plus many social events, becoming friends especially with Bill his wife Kate. We spent many times together in mutual homes hosting meals, or going to concerts, movies and the theatre together. We also became close to Resident Conductor Roger Melone, as well as to Neal Stulberg and his wife Lea Shamoon. We kept up regular contact all of them for many years after moving away.
I sometimes hosted post-concert talks, mostly as an M.C.
Once I was invited to be Santa Claus for a Christmas concert, being asked if I’d like to conduct the orchestra while in costume. I jumped at the chance.
So, pillow-stuffed and red suited with a belled hat cotton hanging over the ears, and a low-budget white beard covering my own, I ho-ho-ed up the aisle and, turning to the orchestra, picked up my baton.
No Bach, of course. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” was my gig. I’d heard that as much as I’d ever want to hear on radios and sound systems everywhere as such times of year. But this was different. I was to lead the musicians, many of whom I already knew.
I raised my baton and the orchestra started doing its thing. Often I could detect, only fractionally delayed, what was coming next musically, where the main melodic line was coming from. So I was able to make it look like I was cueing in the musicians. And, when it came to the clip-clopping sound, I even anticipated that and pointed to percussionist Chris Shultis. Or for the trumpet sounding like a whinnying horse, I was ready to point to Kenny Anderson. I didn’t have any ability to wave my stick to mark tempo, of course. But afterwards several people whom I knew said that they were really impressed with my conducting because it looked like I knew what I’d been doing.
Quite a contrast to my day as a nine year old conducting Sammy Kaye’s Swing and Sway Orchestra. (See way above.)
This was a time when I met and interviewed many visiting artists, those who appeared with the Symphony and those connected to the Santa Fe Opera and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
For example when Mstislav Rostropovich brought the National Symphony for concert, I was there at his press conference. His program looked very conventional, and despite being the official Washington D.C. orchestra, there was no American music in it. I asked him why. He affectionately reached out and grabbed my hand, saying “Because, darling, that is what your concert producers choose from repertoire.” He grinned, not at all offended.
Clearly, I was still the kind of edgy New Yorker. But, after all, I’d been a news reporter and an interviewer for years and didn’t believe in so-called “softball” questions.
When Ned Rorem came to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, we connected for the third time, having done so in New York in the 60s and 70s. By then Rorem was regularly lamenting that his kind of music, melodic, neo-romantic, was being overshadowed by more complex, sometimes atonal, avant-garde compositions. He got around to that again in the course of this interview. “Ned,” I asked him, “given how you feel, has anyone ever called you a crybaby?”
“It’s my function to be a crybaby,” he replied. And that, yes, he’s heard that, but his laments were about the plight of many American composers and that, despite much critical appreciation of his work, “I’m still a crybaby.” As for getting such attention and how that might get him more attention, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”
From a different sound spectrum, Philip Glass came to Santa Fe in 1983. He and his ensemble gave a concert of his onw music at Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater. Hannelore and I went to that concert and, after about an hour and a half without an intermission decided we’d heard enough of what sounded like the same thing over and over. AND REALLY LOUD. We left.
Prior to going I’d interviewed him for broadcast at KHFM and some of that was also printed in the Santa Fe- based magazine Notebook.
“Do people find your music boring after it goes on for a long time?” I asked.
“People say that about Bruckner,” he responded. “They say it about Satie or Beethoven. You always have people who like it and don’t like something. It can’t be for everyone. There’s almost no work of art of any kind which has had that kind of success.”
We talked about changes in concert music, from a previously dominant trend, “not particularly accessible,” I called it. He agreed that that was true. But then there was a new movement towards tonal music, such as Rorem’s. How were they related?
“I think that what’s happening in my music is part of the whole general thing. This is one of the most exciting times to be around and writing. You know, we can even just be openly entertaining.”
“Would you call what you’re doing experimental?”
“Well, when we talk about experimental music, we don’t mean that it will be something people aren’t going to like. These days audiences don’t expect uniformity; diversity is something which has become one of the hallmarks of our time.”
“Do you have a label for your style?”
“I don’t know of any composer that would care to label himself….The music I write is what means something to me, that speaks to me and speaks to other people. I don’t need another label.”
Glass came to Albuquerque in October 1987. The Hiland Theater was the site for two screenings of Koyaanisqatsi which was a film with live music. Friend David Noble, the music critic for the Albuquerque Journal, wrote that there were 13 musicians and technicians to perform the score. The film was conceived and directed by Santa Fe’s Godfrey Reggio.
The full title was actually Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It primarily consists of slow motion and time lapse footage of cities and natural landscapes, in effect transposing them to make a statement. There was no dialogue. Only music. Actually the Hopi word means “unbalanced life.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koyaanisqatsi.
David said that some of the footage was shot in the Four Corners area.
A few years later, in 1988, I interviewed Terry Riley, a sort of Glass musical cousin. We discussed, of course, 1964’s “In C,” which is often cited as the first minimalist piece to get wide-spread attention, before that term actually was used. He agreed with the definition and that what he created had a major influence on the idea of minimalism which came along not long thereafter. “It was a totally new concept,” he pointed out, partially influenced by North African music and experiments with tape loops.
We spoke about “A Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969) which I personally admired and had broadcast during my second WNCN years, when the station was at its least conservative programming best. Riley described that piece as becoming popular in an unexpected way, that people told him about putting it on automatic replay on record changers and that he got mail from those who said that they listened to it all day.
“Trance Music, right?’ I asked. “Did it bother you that people were getting stoned to your music?”
“No, I’m happy when people get stoned on my music. That’s one of the best ways.”
The interview with Riley was one of several at a composer’s symposium in Telluride Colorado August 1988. The setting was magnificent and the conversations fascinating.
Particularly interesting was a conversation with Lou Harrison, who reminded me and listeners that calling Asia the Far East made no sense, that that was Eurocentric, and for him especially, living in California, Asia was The West. He also pointed out that his music often had Asian influences, so much so that critics heard those influences even when they weren’t there.
We discussed at length his decade-long connection with Charles Ives. After an initial letter to Ives, expressing interest in his work, Ives sent Harrison “a crate”: of Photostats of scores, especially chamber music, asking Harrison for assistance in editing and copying. Eventually Harrison even completed some of the works, with a few insertions here and there.
Ives, of course, paid Harrison but chided him about getting paid, writing “You sure know how to compose but you don’t know how to write bills.” Ives, as is well-known, had supported his own writing with proceeds from his highly successful insurance agency. Harrison said that, given such-self underwriting, Ives believed that music should be free for everyone and so, regularly gave money to contemporary composers. And even made Harrison one of the heirs to the royalties, along with other composers. “That sure helps sometimes,” Harrison laughed. Harrison perpetuated that practice, apportioning some of that money to younger composers. “I must say I’ve made some good choices,” he added. Harrison declined to name any of the recipients.
Actually by the time I interviewed Lou Harrison and Terry Riley I was no longer with KHFM, having been fired in January that year. Consequently there never was a time thereafter to broadcast our conversation. Perhaps I thought an opportunity would appear. I never did much to find one.
Why was I fired? The simplest answer would be to again point out that that’s the nature of broadcasting. As elsewhere in the business, new owners took over.
Months before my dismissal, there had been rumors to that effect. As 1987 drew to a close, it was announced that the New York-based Concert Music Network was buying the station. Despite our personal friendship, Bill Weinrod had told me nothing about why he and his ownership partner, Phil Hart, were selling until the official announcement was made to the staff and the newspapers. Of course, Bill may have wanted to make sure that nothing went public via me, but you’d think he would have trusted me to not reveal anything.
At an October staff meeting we were all introduced to Peter Besheer who would become one of the new owners. He was executive V.P. of Concert Music Network. There was no actual network in the sense of linked broadcasts of programs and, evidently, the group is long since gone. Besheer in person seemed rather cold and unapproachable. New York state of mind? Perhaps. But maybe that was his reaction to me, knowing that he had staff changes in mind, wanting to not be misleadingly congenial. Or maybe he’d heard me on the air and didn’t like what he heard. Who knows?
In any case, he, Bill and Mike all assured us at that meeting that Besheer had no staff changes in mind. Given familiarity with past ownership changes, I didn’t take them at their word.
Mike met with me in January, and, not surprisingly, spoke about why I was on my way out. Despite an evaluation report the previous January, full of praise, this time in his mild reasonable-sounding way, without anger or rancor, he cited that I’d never been easy to get along with, was too independent, not enough of a team player, etc. He said nothing complimentary.
Nonetheless he wrote an excellent letter of recommendation. It referred to “a very professional manner” and for being “interactive and communicative” in staff meetings, “freely sharing …ideas.” You could read between the lines, of course. He further said that I being dismissed due to “a change in sound…desired by the new owners.”
Certainly it’s possible that the cause (“sound”) could have been my far from conventional morning show for such a format, both in music selections and in indulging in comedy bits. And although my interactions with the staff could have been the reason, as Mike had said, it is equally likely that my salary was a factor. By New Mexico standards, I was expensive talent. The morning show was taken over immediately not by someone newly hired, but rather by Program Director Phil Dougherty who, therefore, got extra duties for, presumably, a pay adjustment. Maybe none. I listened to him a few times and he sounded both bewildered and inept. He was fired very soon thereafter. He was replaced by Suzanne Bernadette, a part-time secretary and part-time announcer who’d always seemed dippy on the air, but at least she knew what she was doing.
Mike’s letter of recommendation said our parting had been “amicable” and that I was welcome to use the studios for any production work which I might want. That was generous. And certainly valuable to the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, given that I continued to produce their broadcasts on the station as well as radio commercials for the market.
Consequently through November 1990 I was in and out of KHFM studios as a producer, always welcomed in a friendly manner. And I never attempted to file any kind of lawsuit about being fired. That was in my interest and the Symphony’s.
As for what to do on radio thereafter, seeing the possible change coming, I auditioned in October as a newscaster at Albuquerque’s KKOB, the top-rated station in town. It had a full-time news staff of reporters and anchors. Given my daily, wire- copy, self-edited newscasts on KHFM, I’d had recent experience. So, I was added to the staff as if part-time or for relief work, thus, through the rest of 1987, there were a few assignments depending on my availability. And with the new year, of course, there were more. Within a year, I was hired full-time.
Being fired again turned out to be more instructive than ever. In a short time, I discovered that through my own efforts I’d never again be equally vulnerable.
Through the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboist Darrel Randall, a radio fan who also taught at the University of New Mexico, I contacted the Chair of the Music Department proposing a Jazz History course. I started one in the fall. It was a credit course. One of the highlights was inviting our friends local jazz saxophonist John Magaldi and his singer/wife Joan Steels to perform for and talk to a class.
Through another friend, Beth Gard Salimbeni, I connected with the head of Continuing Education and started teaching Italian.
Combining these activities with the work I was doing for the Symphony and the part-time reporting and anchoring on KKOB meant satisfactory earnings, albeit not substantial.
Plus, I contacted KUNM’s ( a function of the University) and volunteered to host a jazz show. By April I had one, for three hours every week.
So I remained connected to jazz and in those two and a half years before moving to Milwaukee, met and interviewed quiet a lot of famous artists who either had gigs in Albuquerque, in Santa Fe or in Denver at Dick Gibson’s Jazz Parties.
Thus encounters there or previously with Gary Burton, Eddie Daniels, Mercer Ellington, Woody Herman, Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jay McShann, Bud Shank, Buddy Tate and more.
One wonderful surprise was also a chance to interview singer June Christy. I’d always loved her smoky, sweet sound given her records with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and thereafter.
At a 1989 Gibson Party, when talking to composer/arranger Johnny Mandel, he told me that Christy was attending and directed me to Christy’s husband tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper. Christy and Coop had been married since the late 1940s.
The little lady looked old, although, as I later learned, she was only 63 when we met. In fact, only recently I discovered that she died the next year. And that she had had problems with alcoholism.
Speaking, she still retained that sweet, smoky sound while seeming full of happiness, Coop standing nearby looking on lovingly.
About her sound, she agreed that Kenton favored such a quality, from Anita O’Day before her and Chris Connor thereafter. And that that may have been one reason Kenton liked her after he’d heard a demo disc she’d brought to him at age 17 and ½ when the band was playing in Chicago.
Although she’d loved those years with Kenton, she said, the constant traveling, the one-night stands, caused her to decide to retire more than once, even though she loved the feeling of being part of a family with all the guys on the buses. “I can’t tell you how many time I retired,” she laughed. But she’d go back to touring, for example, “because the house needed new drapes.”
Speaking of recording with Kenton, I reminded her of one unusual recording from 1947 (age 22) “This is My Theme” a Pete Rugolo score setting a poem, I’ve just learned, by Audrey Lacey. Conceptually it was very much a part of Kenton’s “Innovations” concepts, modernism in orchestrations much removed from dance music and pop. Not usually the kind of thing in which Christy took part.
In this case, Christy mostly narrated, dramatizing such phrases as
“… carrying me to one high screaming peak, it drives me on…crystal sheets of hysterical laughter rising to a maddening pitch.” Christy told me that she hated that piece and eventually told Kenton. So, he promised her that she’d “never have to sing it in front of an audience again.” For the next performance, he had her delivering the piece from a backstage microphone.
Regarding her records, we spoke about her being one of The Metronome All-Stars in 1946 when she and Nat Cole performed together. The jazz magazine’s readers voted for their favorites each year from 1931 to 1961. Then the musicians were collected into a studio to record one or two tracks together.
Evidently not all the musicians chosen showed up for the session on time, so, according to Christy, Nat Cole told her that they’d have to just wing their duo with the other performers. “That frightened me. I wasn’t used to being that spontaneous. I didn’t know what to do. But I’d always loved Nat’s singing, so I was happy to sing whatever he suggested.” He suggested a blues (“Gee, but I’m lonesome/Feel like I’m wanna cry (repeat) cause the man I loved has done gone and said goodbye.” It worked. After she took one chorus and Nat took one, each of the other All-Stars got solos: Charlie Shavers, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges etc.
A couple of years before, I had a chance to talk to Woody Herman who’d brought his big band to play at Santa Fe’s St. John’s College. It was a one night gig on a chilly March night. Woody was 73 then. And he certainly looked frail and sounded so in our conversation. I’d read stories that reported him in ill health and that he was hanging on because he had major financial problems, owing the IRS millions of dollars due to his long-time bookkeeper’s multiple failings. http://people.com/archive/with-a-1-5-million-debt-to-the-irs-woody-herman-plays-on-to-pay-the-piper-vol-26-no-9/
I brought up the issue about the bookkeeper. Reports had said that Woody didn’t hold it against the man, Abe Turchen, who’d been a close friend. “It’s nothing,” he told me. “I don’t have anything to cry about.” He also mentioned that he was living well, but had to rent his house, one he’d previously owned for 40 years, from the IRS.
Nonetheless, he was still up front and center leading and playing his music, just as Basie and Ellington did in their 70s. “It’s still what I like to do. And I’m too old to retire. But money and fame aren’t really why we’re in music. We love it. It’s a great hobby.”
About what influenced the sound he sought in the band, he mentioned the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra but most especially the feeling of Duke Ellington’s, Although Ellington always had a specific sound derived from the special styles of soloists whose replacements tended to have similar styles, Herman said he was never looking for that in his own group.
As for his own playing, he cited Coleman Hawkin’s conceptions but continued to feel that he hadn’t yet mastered the clarinet, “I’m still trying to find something easier to play.”
I also asked him about the idea of a Herman ghost band. FYI: the term refers to bands which continues playing essentially the same books and arrangements associated with the leader’s concepts after the leader died. Actually it appears that Woody came up with the term according to his biographer Gene Lees.
By the time Woody and I talked, there were quite a number of such bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra (which had been around for decades) plus Basie, Ellington (see below), Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown and more.
Woody felt that, if someone wanted to front an orchestra in his name, and that did something for the new leader that would be fine.
Woody died about seven months after we met and, shortly before dying, delegated the band leadership to the reed section’s Frank Tiberi who kept the flame alive.
When it comes to what might be called a ghost band, consider The Duke Ellington Orchestra led by Mercer Ellington. I interviewed Mercer likewise in 1987. He had taken over the orchestra right after his father’s funeral in 1974.
The year we met means that 68 year old Mercer had kept it together already for 13 years. The Orchestra was sharing the stage with The New Mexico Symphony. That was also the year in which Mercer and the Orchestra recorded the GRP LP Digital Duke which garnered the 1988 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.
I was curious to know how he dealt with inevitable questioning focusing more on his father than himself. “Talking about Ellington,” he answered, “is like talking about myself. I find my voice, mannerisms, even my movements have become like his. He’s taken over my existence.” By the way, Mercer would sometimes talk about Duke as simply “Ellington” or “Dad,” or “Pop. ”
Mercer had not only been a member of the family, but of the Orchestra, with ten years in the trumpet section, up until Duke’s death, but also as composer, arranger and band manager. He was part of the organization.
He had had a separate musical life of his own. From age 20 and for the next 20 years he fronted groups which at times included Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, and Carmen McRae. But another group called The Ellington Band didn’t work out too well. It made his father uncomfortable. “He thought it was bad luck.” At times, too, Mercer said, Duke hired people away from him, meaning Mercer attracted major talents, but, since they’d hoped such a gig would be a stepping stone to Duke, and they were, it meant that Mercer kept losing the best players.
Sometimes he was also able to get musicians into his father’s orchestra. E.g the return of Cootie Williams. Cootie had been one of Duke’s biggest stars for 11 years. But, in 1940, Benny Goodman hired away Cootie for much more money than Duke could pay. That switch became famed in the jazz world.
Cootie didn’t stay long with Benny, having left to form his own rather successful group, which, at times, included Charlie Parker, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Bud Powell. Mercer became Cootie’s road manager for a while. By the late 40s. however, that small orchestra fell apart. Cootie continued to get some gigs and record dates through the 1950s and stayed in touch with Mercer. But, by the early 60s, Williams was reduced to being part of a backup band for comedienne Belle Barth, whose specialty was raw blue humor.
“That is ridiculous,’ I told Cootie,” Mercer said. “You need Ellington and Ellington needs you. There’s a record date coming up and I’d like you to be on it.’ I didn’t really know what the hell I was talking about. I didn’t even know if Ellington would welcome him back.” When Cootie showed up for the gig, though, Mercer “reminded” Duke that that was at Duke’s request. Duke didn’t question it, and pointing to a chair in the trumpet section, told Cootie to have a seat. During that session he even gave him a few solos. Cootie stayed with Duke for the next twelve years, up to the time of Duke’s death. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cootie_Williams
Was his father the only reason that Mercer became a musician? No. “From age 8, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was always hanging out with the players from Duke’s earliest group and, when I was on the road with them in 1927, I saw that they were having so much fun. That’s what I wanted to do. So I hung out with them to learn as much as I could.”
Mercer actually started writing and arranging for Duke around the same time that he had started his own group. And, during the early 40s, Mercer came up with several of his best known pieces “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Moon Mist” and “Blue Serge.” Certainly “Things” became a regular part of his father’s book. So often, in fact, that record labels often credited it to Duke. “I didn’t care too much as long as they sent me the money.”
As for the origin of “Things,” Mercer devised it in 1942 for a 9 am recording session, after Duke telephoned him at 4 am and told him the band was set to lay down four numbers and he only had three. Evidently Duke knew that Mercer “had been out on the town, staggering. I’d had a lot to drink. And he said ‘I need a fourth side. Write it.”
Evidently Duke tried to never spoil Mercer and to make sure nothing was easy for his son. “He’d say ‘I gave you an opportunity and you weren’t prepared for it.’ I even raised hell with him because he wouldn’t often play my tunes.” So after that dark-of-night call, “I was determined to do it. I wrote down everything I could think of which sounded like clichés, all the things I could remember in my condition.” Hence the title. The tunes incorporated weren’t what they used to be.
As for “Blue Serge” and “Moon Mist,” they too became part of his father’s regular book. The origin of all three was due to Duke being unable and unwilling to record anything of his own for about two years. In 1942 there was a strike against the all the major record companies by The American Federation of Musicians, due to disagreements about royalty payments. No union musician could make commercial recordings in that strike which went on until 1944. That’s when Duke, being a union member, got Mercer and Billy Strayhorn to do all the writing; they were not AFM members. That was the time, by the way, of Strayhorn masterpieces “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Chelsea Bridge” and “Day Dream.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1942%E2%80%9344_musicians%27_strike
I asked Mercer if he continued to write his own pieces and that the Orchestra would play them. Overall, it seemed, he was constrained to feature his father’s best known pieces, because that’s what audiences came to expect. Nonetheless he came up with “Carney” for the 1975 LP “Continuum” on a session which included Cootie plus, in 1989, “Danske Onje (Danish Eyes)” and a suite whose title is the same as Duke’s autobiography, “Music is My Mistress” for Musicmasters records. “Yet, whenever I write something that I think is new, I run into something similar to what Ellington wrote before, ” he said.
Mercer kept some form of the Orchestra going right up until the year of his death, 1996.
Jay McShann also had led an big band at one time, but when we met that was a long time ago. Charlie Parker has been a member of that group, so inevitably our conversation, like that with Mercer Ellington, dealt with someone who was more a major part of jazz history than himself. This was at the same 1989 Gibson Jazz Party where I’d spoken to June Christy.
“The first time I heard Bird was in Kansas City. I was passing by a club one night when I heard him playing. I went up and had a chance to talk with him,
McShann told me. ‘I thought I knew all the cats in town,’ I said to him. ‘Where you from? You sure sound different”
“He said ‘Oh, I’m from Kansas City, but I’ve been away down in the Ozarks with George Lee’s band. I’ve been woodsheddin’ down there where it’s real quiet, you know, away from where most cats want to be, away from where the happenens is. Maybe that’s why I sound different.”
“Bird had it together the first time I heard him,” McShann added. “That’s why I got him to join my band.” When that happened seems to be a matter of opinion. I’ve read bios which say 1937, 1939 and 1940. In any case, McShann’s group started up in 1937. And clearly Parker stayed with it until 1942. He can be heard soloing in his recording debut on six numbers recorded in Wichita for a 1940 radio broadcast with an eight-member group. “The guys at the station said that they couldn’t afford to pay for more people,” McShann explained.
We also talked about the influence on Charlie Parker by legendary alto player Buster Smith aka as “Professor.” Evidently Buster mentored Bird in what some jazz writers feel was a sort of father and son relationship. Buster was 16 years older than Parker.
“I remember a time in Kansas City,” McShann pointed out, “ when Prof got mad about playing in a club where they were broadcasting. He was supposed to get a raise and they didn’t give it to him. Anyway, I was listenin’ one night and thought that ole Prof sure sounded good. The next day I ran into him and told him so. ‘That wasn’t me; that was Bird,’ he said. He’d asked Bird to sit in for him.” ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Smith
McShann’s 11 member band was swinging in K.C. around the same time as Basie’s. It must have sounded special. You can hear how because it got recording dates with Decca Records Dave Kapp in 1941. The first session was four tunes, Parker soloing. “We tried to record a lot of our original stuff, but Kapp said of it was too modern. ‘Listen, he said, ‘ I can’t sell that. It’s good; but I need something I can sell.’
“We was very disappointed, ‘cause we wanted to record what we wanted to play. So Kapp says ‘Can you play a blues?’ We said we could. ‘OK. Play me a blues.’ After we did that, he said ‘Play me a boogie-woogie.’ We did that. Then he said, ‘Play me one more blues and I’ll take one of them funny tunes.’ That was ‘Swingmatism.”
The band broke up in 1944 when Jay was drafted into the U.S. Army. But he never had another; the band business was not thriving anymore, although he fronted some pick-up ones as heard in a reunion with Jimmy Witherspoon in 1958’s “Goin’ to Kansas City Blues.”
Kansas City was where it was all the happenings were for him. He settled there in 1936 after gigs all over the midwest and southwest. And went back after he got out of the Army. But his career got off the ground in Tulsa. “At first I couldn’t get a job anywhere. But I heard a band rehearsin’ in a club and I listened real well. I didn’t hear a piano So I went up there. And I said to the leader ‘Do y’all still need a piano player.’ So he told me to take a seat and play something. They put music in front of me. And I started playin’ But I couldn’t read a note as big as a house. They thought I was readin’, but I was just playing the same music I’d heard them playing.
So then the leader said, you know, ‘Take off on something.’ I sure could do that. He listened and then told me I had a job cause he wanted a guy who can read and play and make up something.”
After the Army, McShann was pretty much out of the national picture, except for a few record dates. He stayed in K.C. because he had young kids in school. “Maybe goin not further 300 t0 600 miles.” But he started coming back in the late 60s, not just as a pianist but also as a singer. “I started singing because I didn’t have any singer with me, you know, and people wanted to hear one.”
When we met in 1989, at age 73. he spoke about how he’d been flourishing. “”I play more often these days and I enjoy it just as much as I ever did. But I sure do miss havin’ a big band. I got such a great kick outa it. I loved that sound. Specially when I had so many great cats in it.”
The Phil Woods Quintet performed in Albuquerque at the Kimo Theatre in 1984. The wonderful Pueblo Style/Art Deco building from 1923 had been restored in 1977 following disrepair that went with the disuse of downtown. By the time we arrived in New Mexico, it and downtown were picking up again and the Kimo had become a major venue for live on stage performances. That same year the newly formed New Mexico Repertory Theater made the Kimo its home. (More below)
Two things I remember most from the Woods performance. One was seeing trumpet player Tom Harrell for the first time. His physical movements looked strange, as if he was not entirely there. No signs of enjoyment, no sense of his body responding to the rhythms around him. I later learned that he had paranoid schizophrenia and was on drugs to control the problem. The other thing that struck me was Woods, after naming the first piece, turning to the audience to tell us that he always believed in identifying the music, that an informed audience was the best audience.
That statement resonated with me a few years later, in the late 80s during a Miles Davis gig and two by the Basie Orchestra, the second one with Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine. The first two events were at Popejoy Hall on the University of New Mexico campus, the biggest venue in town, where most NMSO concerts took place, plus those of touring ballet, opera and Broadway-centered shows.
Miles didn’t speak to the audience, not only not identifying the music but also not the performers with him following their solos. Consistent with Miles’ famed disdain for making nice. Every so often he did hold up one of several large signs on which, each time, one word was written. One said “Foley.” I had no idea what that meant. Later I learned that that was the name for one of the guitarists. And, somewhere around that time, I also learned that Kenny Garrett was the alto player and Marcus Miller was playing electric bass.
The physical activity on stage seemed as indifferent as the lack of communication. This Chicago Tribune description about a 1991 performance, i.e. not that much later, sounds the same “Backed by a band that owes more to funk and rock than jazz or blues, Davis roams the stage, tossing in a melodic fragment here, At one moment he huddles with guitarist Joseph Foley MacCreary, trading musical phrases as they walk the stage together; at another, Davis ambles over to a bank of electronic keyboards, hitting an appropriate chord now and then. In solo passages, he generally turns his back to the audience, hunches his shoulders over and points his horn to the ground.”
The Kiva resounded with HIGH VOLUME. So much so, that, when I reviewed the event for Zounds, a weekly newspaper, I wrote the whole thing IN CAPS. I later acquired a CD of a 1989 session from Warner Brothers called “Amandla” with Foley, identified by only one name, Garrett and Miller. It sounded very similar to what I’d heard that evening. I like it.
The Basie Orchestra was led Frank Foster. Both times he rarely used the microphone to name the tunes or the soloists. When he did so, he did it when the applause was at its strongest, thereby uselessly. During that first gig, I went down a back hall at intermission to try to speak with him about that. Encountering him, I said how dismaying it was to not hear and understand him, asking him to delay the information until the applause died down. In a pissed-off way, he said “We don’t have time to wait that long,” whatever that meant.
For the second appearance a later year, at the Kiva Auditorium, “Dizzy and Mr. B. Salute the Count,” Diz was already in his 70s and Billy in his mid-ones. You’ve got to hand it to them for being up there. Especially when their ages meant that they were no longer in their primes and that they would have had a tough time living up to their reputations.
Here are parts of what I wrote in a review for Zounds:
Those who hope for continued golden moments in the name of the past may be trying too hard to hold on to their glittering recollections. Am I? By expecting them to better than they were at this concert? Sure, if this was supposed to be an evening of good music.
Hey! This is the “re” decade: recycling, reliving, revisiting, the 1980s wrapping-up nostalgia packages; this show was right on the money for such a marketing product.
When the band lit into Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” the focus of the rest of the event was symbolically foretold. It was clear that crowd-pleasing was the game as the spotlight fell for one of many times on drummer Duffy Jackson, a head-nodding, arms-flailing visual spectacle, showing how fast he could play.
There were other displays of what the band could do, with a few more solos bordering on interesting with a hell of a lot more of Duffy. They crowd dug that. Lucky them.
Foster still lacked the skills as an m.c., consistently naming the soloists while applause drowned out his every word. Then he trotted out that old cliché “little lady” to present singer Carmen Bradford. Little she ain’t, daddy. She sang rather well at times, particularly in “See See Rider” which lifted the band above solid and dependable gloss into a few moments of drive and fire.
Then it was Diz’s turn. Foster went off the stand leaving the band to back up Diz in whatever way it could without an obvious leader. Diz’s playing was more uneven than good. The notes flurried with as much skill as ever, but the tone was often strained and the pitch not much on keel. He spotlighted his own excellent arrangements of “Round Midnight” and “Manteca” which he’d arranged at one time for Count. That was as far as the title “Salute to Count” went from him. No verbal statements of tribute. There Diz soloed with taste. He didn’t hold back. He gave as good as he could. That should have made the real music lovers feel that they’d gotten their money’s worth.
A standing ovation, of course. Why not? Probably as much for the fact that he was still alive and playing as for what he’d just done.
After intermission the band, Foster up front, fielded a few more pop-ups, such as “April in Paris” (“one more time”, for chrissakes. How many times do we need?) along with other mementos.
Then came the Eckstine set. “Where the hell are we?” he asked, grabbing the microphone. Feeble laughter from the band which may have equally wondered the same. They were out on the road propping up memory. This time, a frail version of The Act. Straining to hold on to the voice, wandering up and down the stage with as much presence as a sad marionette in the hands of an apprentice. This was a legend of great popularity built on records, and off-stage unseen appeal. Wobbly knees now. An inadequate smattering of patter and a story to tell about Duke arriving in heaven, which got befuddled in telling and more told a story about the teller.
To Mr.B’s credit though, he didn’t do too much memory-land stuff, trying to remind us of his old hits. His choice of material and the arrangements played by the band with an unidentified leader other than Foster were often tasteful. Too bad that Eckstine is no longer able to sing with quality equal to the material chosen. After about six such numbers, gathering diminishing polite applause, some people in the audience began drifting out.
There will be more good performances, I’m sure, by the Basie band. Maybe even at a time when it’s mostly a backup group in such road shows. Diz will still have a few glowing moments, I’m certain, but probably the best are now behind him. Ahead of him and Mr. B. is more of the road. Too bad that they need to go out on it, that punishing jostle, an astigmatic jump-off vision of America. Time out of joint, their own joints shaky and not what they once were, any more than are mine, any more than for many others there at the Kiva in search of an illusion of time standing still.
There were also several Santa Fe Jazz parties, similar in concept to Dick Gibson’s at Denver. These were produced by Bumble Bee Bob Weil. He featured a lot of younger greats, such as Howard Alden, Dan Barrett, Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski and Warren Vaché. All of whom I interviewed and whose interviews I’ve never since broadcast, alas.
In New Mexico I became involved in theatre for the first time since performing in Genova about ten years before. In New York I’d seen a lot of theatre, but Albuquerque was different. There were three roles during my eight years there. Two were at The Adobe Theater in Corrales and The Vortex, companies/venues which are still flourishing today. Plus one at the Santa Fe Actors Company.
KHFM’s Roxanne Allen and her husband Kip were appearing in Ernest Thompson’s well-known On Golden Pond at the Adobe, a small space at that time within San Ysidro Church in a rather rural area. They suggested I audition and that got me the role of Charlie Martin, a family friend of elderly Norman Thayer Jr. the aging man whose memory is fading, the central focus of the story. Roxanne had the role of Norman’s daughter, Chelsea engaged to Billy Ray played by Kip. On stage they didn’t seem to have much chemistry, as if strangers rather than a married couple.
Through Barrett Price, a friend of theirs, I learned about a play reading group run by Jim (“Grubb”) Graebner. Barrett, officially known as V.B. Price (Vincent Barrett), had a performing background in his family. His father was movie star Vincent Price. I got to know Barrett slightly and had the impression that his choice of name was so as to be accepted for himself. Of course, I can’t help wondering if he might have been embarrassed; some of us think that his overly elegant dad was not that much of an actor, an almost arch caricature on screen. I never talked to Barrett about that of course.
Re Grubb, our group met irregularly and did not perform. We just read among ourselves for our own enjoyment. But Grubb was a playwright and decided to produce his own play Night of the Bull Moose Connection. In 1985 at the Vortex Theater. Like the Adobe it was a venue, not performing group.
As for my Santa Fe performance, I did not appear person in a production of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in The Clair De Lune, although I was in the cast. I’d been asked to be the Voice of the Radio Announcer to which F & J listen during the play. It didn’t require me, of course, to be on stage or backstage, just to tape record the voice.
The biggest draw in town was Albuquerque Little Theatre Company which produced local performances with occasional guest stars, such as Sandy Dennis in Agnes of God in the 86-87 season. They offered fairly standard repertory, such as The Hasty Heart and Wait Until Dark in that season. I don’t remember attending often.
Another significant venue was The Wool Warehouse, now a National Historic Landmark. Starting in 1929, it had been sheep rancher Frank Bond’s storage area. In 1984 Betty and George Luce bought it and made the second floor a theater restaurant. Very classy. Another venue at the time was the Barn Dinner Theatre in Cedar Crest. Very rustic.
There really wasn’t a lot happening in local theatre then. So, in 1984, when New York theatre director Andrew Shea announced that he was forming New Mexico Repertory Theater, this sounded like something significant. It established offices in downtown’s relatively recently restored Kimo Theater, a wonderful Pueblo Style/Art Deco building from 1923. Bill Weinrod and other locally influential makers and shakers had been doing all they could to make downtown a more viable destination for residents and visitors alike and started a drive to get public funding and support. Naturally they enlisted me to do what I could to give them on-air press coverage at KHFM. I interviewed Andrew and made sure that, whenever possible during my morning show, I’d mention what the group was doing. Later I did as much as I could on KKOB.
The first production was Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys which Andrew directed. It was exceptional. And was also surprising, given its need for two black actors and we had so few black people in the city then.
The Rep mostly cast actors from the state, primarily from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Kip among them. New Mexico Rep debuted Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, originally developed from workshops and showcased at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where Medoff was on the faculty. It also presented Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love while he was living in Santa Fe and an imaginative production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Macbeth was costumed to look like Fidel Castro and the rest of the cast equally resembled Cubans from the same time and place.
The Rep tended toward more cutting edge and new scripts than anyone else in town such as Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
A KKOB Newsman
My job as anchor and reporter came at a time when personal computers were just becoming standard office equipment. Basically what we were really doing was writing stories on versions of word processing. Our desks had screens and keyboards, and those were almost all we needed to know. For our newscasts there were pre-recorded energetic sounding intros such as “Now, from the KKOB computerized newsroom, here is Gordon Spencer.” Sitting in the news booth we had the option of reading what we’d printed or reading directly from a computer screen. I never took the risk of reading from the screen, as did morning drive anchor Frank Haley. Frank was part of what was sometimes called “The Morning Team.” the other members being program host Larry Ahrens and traffic reporter Brian Ward. Whenever I filled in for Frank, I was expected to do what Frank did with Larry, exchange banter after the newscast.
News director John Geddie required that our newscasts regularly contain audio clips recorded by our reporters and/or statements from some one who’d responded to our questions over the phone. Ideal length :45, given that these “cuts” had to fit in five-minute time frames. In order to include them on air they were already set up on audio cartridges to play during the broadcast. Multiple clips for the same newscast would follow each other on the same cartridge; there was no way to use more than one; it would have meant too much distraction while reading copy live and no doubt would have been noisy.
To edit the cassette tapes for broadcast, there was no editing equipment. We’d simply choose the part we wanted, copy that onto the cartridge and stop it at the precise moment by pressing the cassette players’ pause switch. Primitive by today’s standards, but it worked.
We had police radio on in the newsroom at all times, listening for the codes identifying where and what police were being called to: 10-10- a fight in progress, 10-15-civil disturbance, 10-72-a shooting, 10-80- pursuit in progress, 10-100- dead body and 10-4- message received. A standard phrase used was that someone “advised” the police about something instead of “informed” or “told.”
As reporters, we drove our own cars and had no direct contact with the station while away from it. No hand-held mobile phones. No CB radios, although our traffic reporters had those. We’d use pay phones to call the news editor on duty and tell him/her what was happening. Between the two of us, we’d then decide if it was worth coverage. If it was , the editor would decide how much coverage to give it, and how soon. Perhaps a return to the station to write the piece or pieces. If it seemed a story best covered ASAP, we were to phone in what we’d write on the spot. We also were instructed how many separate cuts we should file and how many seconds each should be. In setting up to record our copy over the phone, after identifying the subject we’d say “coming down in 3,2,1,” so that editor could tape it instantly. At some point, I became so adept that I didn’t always have to write the story but could ad-lib it, much as you see TV news reporters do regularly.
Once, when covering a trial, I interviewed one of the jurors. When asking his name, I was astonished that he was Mark Rudd. His was a name well-known from my New York, WBAI days in the 60s. He had been a famed anti-war activist, quite involved with the Weather Underground as well as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Not bringing that up, I didn’t even ask him how he came to be in New Mexico. It didn’t feel right. It could have been a complex issue which had no bearing on that moment. Later I learned that he had been in Albuquerque since 1978 and taught at Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute, later re-named Central New Mexico Community College
Eventually John gave me a regular beat, a new one for KKOB, but, as a concept, a vital service to the community, not that that was my idea. I covered evening meetings of the Albuquerque City Council and the Bernalillo County Commission. Unlike some of my colleagues and other people I knew, who generally seemed cynical about all politicians, I admired what these people were trying to do and found their meetings and the ideas discussed constantly interesting. Clearly there were factions and antagonisms among them but I never tried to report on that. Given how short the few reports had to be, I tried to emphasize what they were accomplishing, believing that it was most important for listeners to know what their local governments were actually doing.
There were lots of friendly contacts with people whose names have stayed familiar. The two which stand out most are Hess Yntema and Michael Brasher. Hess was one of the more vocal members of the City Council and made a name for himself by often making public comments to the newspapers about issues which he felt were important. Moreover his actual name struck some people as so unconventional that they assumed he was more quirky than he actually was. Michael I had had contact with because he was active in local radio as the manager of Albuquerque Public Schools’ radio station KANW and he hung out with Mike Langner. Brasher always looked, sounded and seemed young. I admired him for wanting to give his time and energy to local government. He too was one of the more vocal members of the Council.
Upon deciding to leave Albuquerque in the fall of 1990, the Council presented me with an award, a document citing my “fairness and objectivity” as the first “Electronic Reporter” to be so recognized.