Starting the trip to many stations

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

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

                                Young Gordon Kahn   Young Gordon Spencer Kahn

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

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

Here I am again narrating.

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

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

Sonny, Dad, MotherGene & Sonny 1

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

Through my early college years, I was also known as Gordon Kahn. But, once I started to host classical music programs on Philadelphia’s WFLN, (alongside Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky and Morris Goldberg, 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 revealed it was actually by Leopold Mozart.) GS & DadI didn’t know how to play the trumpet; my gig was with a ratchet but it didn’t make a good picture. Show business.

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

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

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

 

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).Sammy Kaye We merged our talents on the stage of the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. The band was featured live prior to an Edgar Kennedy short to be followed by Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita. Kaye’s 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,

 

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

 

The Glamour of Stage and Sound

Growing up with music

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

As a pre-teen, convalescing from complications following what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy, radio constantly supplied entertainment. And re-connected me with jazz, still not knowing the word when Duke Ellington hosted a program, sponsored by Pio Wine. 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.   Doug Arthur w nameNo 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.

The voice was on its way.

 

 

The kid starts starring…sort of

YOUTH

(Partial entry)

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

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

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

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

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

Guess who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Pamela said, pouting.

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

“Certainly. Go ahead.”

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

Everyone laughed. Including Pamela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put it away, my colleen;

God spreads the heavens above us like great wings.

And gives a little round of deeds and days,

And then come the wrecked angels and set snares,

And bait them with light hopes and heavy dreams.”

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

 

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

Sanford w words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sanford 2 (2)

 

Extracurricularism and Two New Stations

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

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

HamburgCordonices

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger (on phone) “I’m a communist.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The college kid becomes a professional d.j.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw records by someone of whom I’d never heard and was fascinated by his ornate signature on the label, Liberace. Liberace 78 I pronounced it “Lye –ber- EHZ.” I never asked Cousin Larry who that was and didn’t care, I had too many favorites already.

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

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

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

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

A Break at the First Major Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

For $50 a week (about $400 in 2011) my responsibilities included doing my own programming, that is choosing the recordings I wanted to broadcast, standard at most stations then. Program Director Mike O’Donnell, of course, had to approve the choices, although selecting the jazz records was entirely up to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Smith w nameBernard Peiffer

Billie Holiday. And My First Firing

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was really interesting,” Billie said. “Can we listen to some of it?” billie-holiday w name

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

I re-wound the tape and started it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1950s Philadelphia Radio Stars. WHAT and Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Shepherd w name

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

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

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

And it felt like nowhere.

WHAT’s That?

Then another foothold materialized. Ivan Shaner, (aka Gene Shay) a WRTI classmate who sometimes hosted shows with me on that Temple U. station, had a few weekend hours on WHAT, and told me that the program director had been looking for someone to cover a Sunday shift. And since jazz was a regular feature there, maybe I could get in. Newly emerging Rock and Roll was the big deal, hosted by such stars as Hy Lit. Hy Lit w name He was white, although WHAT aimed much of its programming at black people with a couple of very popular black djs, Jocko Henderson (“Tell ‘em JOCK-OHHH sent you”) and Reggie Lavong (“A pair of horn-rim glasses and a microphone”). Reggie 2 w name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still I wanted to be in broadcasting full-time.

The A. C. DJ. “J” Also Means Jazz

WONDerful Music

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

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

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

I got the job. Hired by program director John Struckell.

I found a furnished apartment in Ventnor 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 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. Chrysler 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” which 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 minute’s 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 was 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. A C at nightAnd, 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 which 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 skill 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.  Steel Pier

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 $1,225.00 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 am 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 also 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 which were considered pop music, such as those featuring by 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.  Mathis  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 has other plans for him.

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 which 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.  the-magic-hornBraff 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.

*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, become “Phil Funk,” Art Pepper:  “Art Salt.”  Art Farmer: “Kunst Bauer.” (German for “Art Farmer”) Charlie Parker: “Charlie Chan.” 

As spring merged into summer, other things changed.   gs at WONDOn 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.

n 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 LP 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. 

 

Jazz and Other Show Biz

Changes At The Station 

By September of 1957 then I had been on WOND for more than one year. Longer than on WFLN and not facing replacement. Fame? Well, when I talked to local people and mentioned being on WOND, they were often surprised, saying that they listened all the time but didn’t recognize my name. “Larry Carle is on there, right?” was often a question. What did he have that was so memorable? On-air he was, I thought, rather bland and boring, when ever I heard him.

Not that I listened that often. Why would any of us want to listen to the same commercials, the same kind of chatter, the same records? Being away from the microphone was being away from work. But Larry had a major advantage: longevity. Repeating his name on the air for years. In broadcasting, enduring at the same spot on the dial remains a rarity.

Meanwhile the jazz show was developing a following, including kids from Atlantic City High. And Howard was always telling me not to “push” jazz on my other shows, so that if Bob featured Stan Kenton, it was fine. If I did it, I was chastised.

Those were good years for jazz. WNEW in New York was featuring a show with increasingly popular Al “Jazzbo” Collins who had even cut a few sides narrating Steve Allen’s Bop Fables.  And Allen often presented jazz musicians on The Tonight Show on NBC. Moreover, on TV there had been not only The Magic Horn but, live, Duke Ellington’s jazz history fable A Drum is a Woman  on The U. S. Steel HourA Drum is a Woman And Leonard Bernstein’s live, musician-illustrated lecture on Omnibus: “What is Jazz?” Or on The Seven Lively Arts, on CBS, live performances in The Sound of Jazz with Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing and my beloved Billie Holiday, sounding frail.

Not long thereafter, early in 1958, Billie cut an LP with a string orchestra in lush, slick arrangements by Ray Ellis, “Lady In Satin.”  No doubt an attempt at commercial success. A bad match. The other dj.s aired it. I didn’t. “She can’t sing,” Bob Richter observed. Right, in that instance. She was on the downswing of her deteriorating health. She died five months after she recorded it.

1956, 57, 58 were also good for live jazz. Duke Ellington came with a small band sharing the bill with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln at The Cotton Club on the part of Kentucky Avenue that stretched far away from the Ocean. A.C.’ s  black ghetto. Dizzy Gillespie came too.

And the summer of 57 the Hamids brought in a two-evening concert produced by Lionel Hampton featuring him, his big band, Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars plus Ella Fitzgerald.   warner-theaterThey played on The Boardwalk at the Warner Theater.

That’s when I interviewed Duke, Dizzy, Louis, Ella and Hampton.

Duke: “The band is my instrument. When I write something today, I want to hear it tomorrow, I’m kind of impetuous that way.”

Dizzy: “I feel comedy.”

Louis (about performing in Europe) “ A note’s a note in any language.”  Louis & Ella

Louis’ All-Stars included Louis’ New Orleans contemporary, clarinetist Edmund Hall. I was already an admirer of his playing, hearing his gutsy sound on sessions with Ruby, Vic and Buck Clayton.

While back stage to interview Louis, I saw distinguished –looking Hall, a thin, balding, solemn-looking man sitting solitary in a corner. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his playing, but I had to talk with Louis first.  Edmund Hall w name

After my interview with Louis, Hall was nowhere in sight. To this day I remain disappointed that I hadn’t talked to him.

My interviews were improving. Of course, with Duke and Louis, how could they be bad? Those natural showmen were always great, jolly, accessible talkers. But Ella was shy and uncomfortable. When asked about being a “jazz singer” she didn’t like the term.

But then, as Leonard Bernstein had asked “What is Jazz?” Duke often said there were only two kinds of music, “good music and bad music.”  Louis had said that jazz was whatever he performed.

But every question to Hampton about his own history found him turning around the answer to promote the concert, e.g “Why did you start playing the vibes?” Answer: “I just loved the sound. And I’m going to play them at the Warner Theater and I know everyone will just love the sound too.”

Unfortunately, having been a big fan of Ella and Hamp, I got turned off by their lack of responsiveness. It took me a few years to realize that they were not obligated to speak well, or to even talk at all. They were musicians whose great performances should have spoken for themselves. Just because Duke and Louis were so wonderfully gregarious with me, a local d.j. in his mid-20s, didn’t mean everyone else had to be like them. In time it became clear: there were only two kinds of interviews, good interviews and bad interviews. Sometimes I was at fault. Sometimes the musician couldn’t respond well, or really didn’t want to be bothered.

Incidentally, two days after that evening at the Warner Theater, the Atlantic City Press reported that a man had walked onto the stage at the second night’s concert and punched Ella in the mouth. That’s all I remember of the story.

However, in an August 1957 recording session, Louis, performing with Ellla in “Stompin’ at the Savoy”  ad-libs  “He musta been lookin’ at Lionel Hampton when we was in Atlantic City. Oh, we won’t talk about that.”

In my second December at WOND, letters reeking of cheap perfume started coming to me. They were written in a florid hand where someone named Dorothy referred to how happy she had been when we had been together, calling me “darling” or “sweetheart”  and saying that she couldn’t wait to see me again. I had no idea who this person was. And there was no return address on the letters. Amused and surprised, I showed the letters to Vene. She got really upset, especially since there were some problems already in our marriage. Although it was probably not a good choice to show her the letters, it would have been worse and suspicious if they had remained secret.

Then, around Christmas, a big package from Dorothy came to me at the station, full of presents wrapped in thin, crinkly paper smelling of the same strong perfume. They were not only for me but for Bob and Larry. For me: tacky-looking pajamas, a small bottle of Aqua Velva after-shave lotion and a package of flimsy handkerchiefs. For Bob: a pair of floppy soft bedroom slippers. For Larry, a much too small V-neck cotton sweater. Clearly Dorothy didn’t know Larry was a large guy. Since Bob already knew about the letters and had been amused, he thought that this was even funnier.

There was an actual address this time with a full name on the package. I wanted to return everything, but Bob, laughing, said he was going to keep the slippers. I made a package to send back my gifts. I’d do so in person so I could see where Dorothy lived, maybe find a way to talk some sense to her.

She turned out to be a resident of a Ventnor mental health home. When I arrived, a nurse in charge thanked me for bringing back the presents and said she’d talk to Dorothy to see if she could be convinced to stop sending the letters. It should have been funny to think that such a devoted fan was a mental patient, but I found it sad. And the letters did stop.

That summer,  20th Century Fox offered the Hamid office the chance to present the South Jersey premiere of a new, creepy horror movie The Fly starring Vincent Price. I was hired to create a radio commercial and to host a broadcast with a visiting troop of ghouls which would mingle around the Shore Theatre at the opening.

My 30 second spot was a winner. “Help me! Help me!” my thin, tiny high-pitched voice whimpered.

Then with a deep sinister voice intoned, over weird music by Leonard Rosenman for “East of Eden” , “What a piteous cry. What a hideous fly. The Fly starring Vincent Price is at the Shore Theater. Dare to be there.”  A $25 triumph ($206 April 2015.)

I was alerted that a Philadelphia actor calling himself Igor was due to arrive in town with a large cast of ghosts, goblins and horror characters to appear with me for the opening at the theatre and that I’d tape record a few choice words with them for subsequent broadcast.

Driving over from the mainland, I caught an interview with that star on Jack Lawyer’s WFPG afternoon show. “Wow!” Jack said to Igor. “That’s some scary make-up! How long did it take you to put that on?

“More than three hours” Igor replied in a kind gentle, rather cultured voice.

Not long thereafter I saw his facial art work in person. I’d say 20 minutes would have been enough.

The collection of characters he’d brought with him looked like a bunch of high schoolers he’d drafted off the streets. I tried talking to one, aiming to look like Frankenstein’s Monster.    The Fly w names

“You are certainly terrifying,” I began. “Are little kids afraid of you?”

In a creaky voice, the kid replied, “Un. I hope not. I haven’t seen any. Anyhow, when Igor hired me, he said that I’m supposed to just stand around and not talk to anybody.”

Igor rushed in to intervene and pulled me away towards himself and talked about how he’d been especially sent down to A.C, by Roland who truly regretted he couldn’t attend himself, but never went out in the daylight which was bad for his skin.

Zacherle

Yes, Roland, the big celebrity would have made that appearance a major mob scene. Roland  (pronounced rol-AHND) hosted “Shock Theatre” on Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV a weekend hit show where he mocked and sometimes made quick cut-in appearances in horror movies that Universal Studios leased out to TV stations as a package encouraging local actors to host them. He and his director came up with truly funny bits.

Roland, dressed in a black undertaker’s frock coat, had cheekbones and eyes accented by dark shadows. Although he was always the only character on screen,  he often referred to two other people, sometime speaking to them as if they were within earshot. One was “My Dear” evidently his wife. She was represented by a motionless bundle within a burlap sack hanging on doorknob.  The other was “Igor’ no doubt a name borrowed from the original “Frankenstein” movie. Also probably the source for this low-budget visiting spin-off.

Around the same time, a woman calling herself Vampira was already a major success doing her much more renowned and similar thing in L.A. Soon the concept would catch on nationally in many cities.

Roland, FYI, was the invention of Philadelphia actor John Zacherle who got his first big break in live westerns, “Action in the Afternoon,” shot on the wooded big back lots of WCAU.

Soon, he took his act to New York where he became known as Zacherley. He and I crossed paths, indirectly, as performers eleven years later when both of us read our own separate chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on a WBAI, New York. More re that later.

As for other acting, Vene and I were still very interested in theatre, of course, and got roles in a community theatre production of Francis Swann’s Out of The Frying Pan.  By then I had grown a small beard.  Since I’d always had a baby face.

I felt it made me look more mature. Thus, a newspaper review of the show described me as playing “the bearded George, ” as if that were a definition of character. But beards were so uncommon that that must have seemed worth remarking.

Frying Pan (2)

The play is set in New York City, the place both of us yearned to live in. We went there a few times to take in some plays, driving in our brand new 1957 Fiat 1100. We traded in the old oil-leaking Chrysler, getting a credit of $75 (about $620 in 2012). Not that I knew that much yet about driving,  but I hadn’t had any accidents since moving to Atlantic City and, after all, the car had a warranty and was in perfect condition when we  bought it.

These trips got us talking to each other about how to move to New York and began setting aside a little money to do that, in case we went through with the fantasy.

We were also big fans of the Cape May Playhouse, where professional actors from New York appeared in plays during the summer. The Playhouse sometimes advertised on WOND and was trying to get the most out of publicizing a production of Tennessee Williams’ sensational Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Playhouse had brought in Broadway star Bern Hoffman to play Big Daddy.    They had asked the station to send someone to interview him. That turned out to be me, the sometimes actor.

Hoffman had had an important role in the original Guys and Dolls and had played Earthquake McGoon in L’il Abner. Bern Hoffmanw nameI was impressed. Conversing after recording the interview, I told him that I’d been an actor in college and was thinking about an acting career in New York. Did he have any advice? “Yes,” he said, “don’t go. You’ll be very disappointed and discouraged about how hard it is. And, even if you get a little work now and then, you’ll have to find some other way to pay your bills, some kind of job you won’t like.”

I was crestfallen. “But,” he added, “if you have the passion, if you can’t help yourself and you want to go no matter what, no matter what I or other actors tell you, then no one can stop you. But just remember that you were given some friendly advice. I wish I could encourage you. But I can’t.”

Somehow, I thought, if we go to New York, maybe I can find some part-time work at a radio stations and combine that with being an actor. Naïve? Considering the competition, you’d think so.

Just in case, I recorded some of my WOND performances and sent a few tapes to New York stations WNEW and WMGM, places about as big as you can get in the kind of pop music shows I’d been hosting. Mark Olds at WNEW wrote back to me that he liked what he heard and invited me to drop in on him sometime when I was in New York. It wasn’t a job offer, of course, but it was encouraging.

Then, after I finally graduated from Temple in August 1958, Vene and I decided to try our luck in New York. And soon I’d get a few small roles. And soon I’d also get on the air.