Atlantic City had always lured me. Since childhood it had seemed so glamorous. My parents took Gene and me there often. So, not making it in Philadelphia in the summer of ’56, I contacted Atlantic City stations.
Amazingly an AM pop music station, WOND, Pleasantville, on the mainland across from Atlantic City, was looking for an overnight d.j. to take over in the fall.
“WONDerful music,” was the slogan. It featured the kind of thing adults would love, not rock and roll. The sounds of Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, Patti Page, Lawrence Welk, The Four Lads, Pat Boone, Gogi Grant, Perry Como, Doris Day, and some of the same stars whose records I’d already featured just a few years before on WNAR. Clearly I knew something about that stuff already.
I got the job. Hired by Program Director John Struckell.
I found a furnished apartment in Ventnor, NJ, but also had to devise a way to complete my B.A. degree at Temple. No more performing in plays. Driving 65 miles each way and dovetailing that with my shift wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t want to deal with morning rush hour traffic for daytime classes. I didn’t want to hunt for a daytime parking space near Temple in the afternoon. The best choice was early evening courses. Not every day. I’d sleep in the morning and return to A.C. no later than 9 p.m.
The drive was never easy. About two-and-a-half hours along the Black Horse or White Horse Pike. There was no expressway.
My second-hand 1947 Chrysler was as unreliable as I was as a driver. My parents had never driven. Nor had my brother. We had never had a car. The only people in my family who did were my New York aunts, and they only used them in the summer. I had gone to driving school and had to take extra courses; I didn’t have the aptitude or the coordination, failing several driver’s tests.
I acquired the Chrysler without anyone’s knowledgeable advice. Why that car? Because it had a “semi-automatic” shift, which I thought would make it easier to switch gears. The clutch was less essential, a good thing considering my lack of driving talent. Plus the red plush seats looked classy.
The Chrysler had been getting me to and from WFLN, but I had to struggle to find street parking near my one-room apartment in Center City.
Collecting a few tickets, causing a couple of accidents while not being insured, my WFLN salary had always dwindled. After leaving FLN, I drove as little as possible so as not to have to pay too often for gasoline, frequently parking at a friend’s house way out in Frankford.
Soon after I started at WOND, I noticed that I was regularly running out of oil. An Atlantic City car mechanic told me that a piston ring job would solve the problem. When he told me the cost I was floored. But oil was cheap. So I kept a carton of cans in the trunk. So long as I didn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour, one can of oil would get me from Philly to Atlantic City, or back. Of course, it did slow the trip.
WOND was on a short street named “Old Turnpike” that tapered off into a dirt road on the edge of marshes. The two-story frame house sat on pilings designed to save it if the marshes flooded. There were no other buildings nearby.
The on-air studio looked out on a wooden catwalk over the marshes and out to the transmitter, pile-driven into soggy soil amid waving fronds. Way out there, I learned, the station signal could travel easily out to the ocean, carrying the broadcasts as far away as eastern Long Island. I’d be heard in New York!
Like d.j.s John and his brother George (“George Anthony”), Larry Carle, and Bob Richter, I could play any records I wanted so long as they were “wonderful.” No jazz.
And, especially, no rock and roll. The station was beginning to get a lot of that from record companies, usually on the new 45 rpm format, little discs with only space enough for about four minutes’ worth of non-wonderful music. Any such arrivals were immediately handed over to Chief Engineer Milt Thurlow who had orders to thoroughly scratch them with a screwdriver and throw them out.
So, I had my first all-night show. Midnight to 6 a.m. It felt glamorous, as if there were an intimate connection between me, completely in command of the studios, with people out there in the dark hanging on to my every word and every note of every record I chose to play for them.
Being in the station totally alone was different than being at WFLN with everyone always busy in the offices, or at WHAT with visitors constantly dropping in. This was deep night on a deserted road with stars clearly shining overhead, far enough away from Atlantic City but close enough to be able to see its bright lights twinkling across the bay. And, every so often, someone would call, a person of the night, and we’d have a friendly chat. I developed fans, of course. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t have to do or say anything special. I just had to be there.
Never feeling sleepy, I was alive and happy all through the fall and winter, managing a few classes without much difficulty, able to keep up with the cost of oil. Filling up the oil and checking the gas.
Changes in the Air
My first spring at WOND things changed. I married Vene Cipriotti, my beloved girl friend from Temple, from where she had just graduated, even though I hadn’t yet. We had met when performing in plays, although she was a journalism major with ambitions of being a writer. Given that she had considerable typing skills already she found a job as a secretary working at the Steel Pier for the Hamid family, which owned it and many local movie theaters. She started writing their advertising copy. Which I would then read on the air.
We rented a top floor motel apartment in Ventnor. Furnished, of course, with an arrangement to pay summer rates, $150 a month (equal to about $1,225 in 2012) for six months, getting the other six months free. Meanwhile I was still taking evening classes back in Philadelphia.
And my hours at WOND radically altered; I took over the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. Bob Richter became the morning show host when John Struckell left to work at WFPG. Station Manager Howard Green who’d liked my style and radio personality asked me to take over the slot. It also meant that the station could use me in producing its own commercials, working with Traffic Director Alan Israel who wrote the copy. That meant I’d do trick voices in comic commercials. Fun.
Of course, the music would have to be livelier and less soothing than overnight’s. I also had to come up with charming, brief chatter, sounding friendly, not serious, instead of more laid back as the source of gentle companionship in the deep night. Add some Bob Newhart, Stan Freberg, and Andy Griffith comedy LPs. I also found ways to do little comedy bits with my trick voices and using sound effect records and had fun with recorded open-end interviews, voice-tracks where the celebrities’ answers were heard but we could read the scripted matching questions live as if we were the interviewers. Or, in my case, coming up with original questions rather than the intended ones; e.g., Boris Karloff: “I’ve been working like a demon on all sorts of parts.” GS: “Boris, what have you been doing in your garage?”
I missed hearing jazz, though. Oh, I had kept a few LPs I had solicited from record companies while at WFLN, but I wanted to share them with other people, not listen to them alone. I proposed to Howard a two-hour evening show at 10 o’clock. At no extra pay. He agreed to let me have one on Tuesdays.
WOND didn’t have jazz records. There were some LPs that were considered pop music, such as those featuring Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughn singing, or Stan Kenton, Les Brown, and Billy May leading their orchestras in dance band arrangements.
Among them, too, was something by a kid a couple of years younger than I, a singer named Johnny Mathis. Billed as “A New Sound in Popular Music,” his debut was really a jazz record. It had arrangements by Gil Evans, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, and Teo Macero who’d worked with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. The bands featured Buck Clayton, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Tony Scott,* Phil Woods, and more great artists. What a range and what a talent Mathis had! He could have been a great jazz singer. But Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller had other plans for him.
*Actually listed as “A.J. Sciacca,” his birth name being Anthony Sciacca (“I’m a Sicilian and proud of it,” he said to me some years later). This was a time when record companies were serious about exclusive contracts, and musicians like Tony couldn’t appear with the same names as on those contracts. He had a major gig with RCA as Harry Belafonte’s music director. Phil Woods, by the way, became “Phil Funk”; Art Pepper “Art Salt”; Art Farmer “Kunst Bauer” (German for “Art Farmer”); Charlie Parker “Charlie Chan.”
Anyway, with my own minor collection of jazz LPs, that wasn’t enough for a weekly show on a regular basis. Since WOND already had an arrangement with two of our sponsors, the Pleasantville Music Shoppe and Ocean City Records, LPs were given to the station as partial payment for advertising. So jazz LPs were added. I selected them. What a golden opportunity. Free records. Some of which I kept; no one at the station cared. I still have a few, collectors’ items now.
We d.j.s had another trade deal. Each of us was allowed to find a gas station which would give us a free fill-up once a week in exchange for daily commercials that we’d read and produce every day during our shifts. Mine were for Risso and Graham’s Sunoco Service Station on Ventnor Avenue across from Atlantic City High. Perks, huh?
I thought I should have some theme music to start and end the jazz show, like many d.j.s. A pensive, lyrical one called “Spencer’s Song” seemed perfect, not only because I was a Spencer but also the mood seemed right. It featured one of my favorite trumpet players, Ruby Braff. The LP I used was from RCA featuring the music played on a 1956 Alcoa Hour TV drama called The Magic Horn. Braff had the role of a legendary musician, Spencer Lee. Another of my favorites, trombonist Vic Dickenson performed in it, too. He and Braff were together on some great Vanguard Records sessions around that time. Trumpet player Jimmy McPartland was likewise in the cast. I’d interviewed him at WFLN the previous year. What better choice could there have been?
I called it Just Jazz and each program began with an ad-libbed intro, something like this. “The little man with the battered hat stood outside in the rain falling gently on 52nd Street that warm spring evening. He clutched a folded newspaper under one arm and was able to keep it dry while he pondered which club to go to. There were so many choices. All of them great. Great because so many great musicians were there. The paper had told him who. He loved them all. He loved their music. So where would he go? Into which club? Actually it didn’t matter, because wherever he went, he’d find what he came for. Jazz. Just jazz.”
Like that little man, I loved that music too.
As spring merged into summer, other things changed. On the air. Larry Carle and Bob Richter, who, in addition to being d.j.s, also sold station advertising and started bringing in a lot of business. Peak season. Which meant that there had to be enough space on the air to squeeze in every possible spot announcement. Which meant less talk about the music. And less music. And more advertising. But the problem was, even though WOND was the highest rated station in the market, management was convinced that other stations could offer lower rates to grab those clients. You’d think that management would have just raised the rates instead of cramming in more.
In July and August we often had so many commercials that we had to use radio library transcriptions which had been specially produced for radio stations, featuring well-known performers’ tracks edited down to about two minutes each. Or we’d cue up the track* from other LPs somewhere in the middle of the song, usually where there was an orchestra bridge between early and later vocal solos. More than once, I’d say, after a slew of back-to-back commercials: “Now, here’s something special: Music!” Nobody at the station minded. But I kept wondering who would be listening to all that talk without much WONDerful music. Probably the advertisers. Or salesmen from other stations hoping to get leads.
*Normally, by the way, we’d cue up the tracks, after putting down the tone arm, by turning the LPs counter-clockwise two turns. The turntables did not pick up complete speed immediately and no one wanted the music to “wow” if not given enough time to get up to full speed.