Radio Daze

Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eyelid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate or across the Hudson…although soon enough I was under that river.

WHLI, Hempstead, NY, needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND, and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.

Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is….,” “That was…,” “We just heard…,” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.

WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard, who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”), was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.

Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.

I started looking for something better.

Within a few weeks I had started relief-announcing at WJRZ, Newark, and WQXR, New York, plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.

By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my résumé mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job—an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And, when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, not having left was a position of strength. I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.

The New WNCN

WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Frohlich Advertising Agency, which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.

According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMPX in San Francisco.

The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Frohlich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded. In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies whose commercials were included.

*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.

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WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off Fifth Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th Street station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state-of-the-art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director. Maurice Essam was his assistant.

Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re: FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back. 

No further questions were asked.

Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the why and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.

Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared to him, everyone else on WNCN was a daytime shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR, but QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still underrated and not taken seriously.

Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather narrow period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.

Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a then-current hippie phrase). Instead, Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.

That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets, especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background, such as when I was a babysat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’s elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne, PA.

I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, Listening with Watson; most of the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.

In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”

His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence, and the glory of the works he presented—a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.

He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like, “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.

He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven-hour broadcasts, and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.

In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.

Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Frohlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.

Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?) Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia, and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.

Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.

But there was the other kind of response—people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.

Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger, telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.

You could ask why he would even pick up the phone, since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d  been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.

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While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.

He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements that brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard.

During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was a great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in-person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.

In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.

I liked him.

In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR, whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz, etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson, NJ, was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.

He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income; in fact, he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012), which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.

WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e., sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn”) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, like weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!”).

I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks or use the WNCN studios. I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark, NJ.

 Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.

My WHLI and WOND experiences got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”

Eventually Les would show up on WRVR, too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.

I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you, too.”

I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?

Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.

The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “a joy ride” and that they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.

A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at the Newark storage lot.

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Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond—a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.

While I waited for the boss—call him Mike—I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled, “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”

Grubby-looking, stomach-spilling, shave-needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition, saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”

No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”

“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.

I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn?” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away, especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.

“But it was stolen,” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”

“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage, and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”

I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s…that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…”

“You said that already, buddy.”

“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”

Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”

“But why is it missing so many parts?”

“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”

“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”

“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”

“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it.”

“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”

“But it hasn’t been here a week.”

“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”

I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.

The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.

By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle, which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.

Two Big Breaks: WQXR and ABC

That same summer I worked up my courage to audition for WQXR. From the magnificent, world-renowned, steel-encrusted tower on West 43rd Street known as The New York Times, that beacon of classical music radio radiated throughout New York and hundreds of other nearby towns and cities. How could I presume?

I had been too timid before to audition, only dreaming of such glory while at WFLN and WNCN, never believing that anyone there would take me seriously, especially while sitting at a make-shift control board in a dim and dreary hallway atop the hotel Pierre.

But my easy acceptance back into the fold of the new WNCN and getting on the air at WJRZ convinced me I could walk into such storied halls and look and sound as if I knew what I was doing.

QXR was owned and operated by The New York Times, a sturdy, profitable underpinning. The station’s program sponsorships and spot announcements also earned good money. Being on QXR was about as prestigious as you could get in classical music radio. Many of the nine full-time announcers had become enduring New York legends, most having been there for years and years. There was perky George Edwards (born George Steinhardt), the host of the morning show Bright and Early, 25 years older than I when I was added to the standby announcers list.

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Then there was elegant and distinguished Peter Allen (born Harold Levey), 13 years my senior.

I thought that maybe I could get occasional fill-in work, just as at WNCN and WJRZ, except with such a large staff of WQXR announcers, it looked as if there’d be plenty of chances. After all, across the country there weren’t that many of us specialists in knowledgeably announcing classical music, given the need for us to sound as if we knew what we were talking about and could breeze through foreign names and pronunciations with fluency and expertise.

The audition script looked like the same copy from 11 years before at WFLN. It probably was the same. A snap.

Chief Announcer Al Grobe (30 years older than I) told me that I sounded just right and he would put me on the standby list. That felt good! The list was posted on a wall in the announcers’ lounge, a small, comfortable, lamp-lit room with an easy chair and sofa, across the hall from two of the four on-air studios. Grobe also introduced me to one of the announcers on duty, soft-spoken, elderly-looking Chester Santon (age 50.) Another was on the air.

Two announcers on duty at the same time! Grobe was a third. This was one of many things that made it clear that WQXR was a major operation. In fact, its operation was bigger and more complex and thoroughly organized than any radio station I had ever seen or would ever see in the future.

It was also immediately clear that there would be plenty of chances to fill in with so many men* needed every day.

The standby list had eight names. I became number nine. It didn’t look all that hopeful, especially once I learned that Bob Lewis, whose name was at the top, unshakably was always called first.

But I did get called. And, after a few successful stints on the air, my name rapidly moved up the list and hovered near the top through March 1966. Later, my name went up and down the list for another five years. And, after returning from living in Europe, that same variable pattern repeated during 1976.

*There were no women announcers there or anywhere else until the next year, 1966, when WNEW-FM featured four of them as a novelty in a pop music format.

When I started at WQXR, genial Mel Elliott, another announcer, said that Grobe must have liked my work but that the list always kept changing. Substitute announcers who were readily available when Grobe called them got higher placement than those who turned down work or weren’t available. In one way that made sense; Grobe wanted to use those people on whom he could rely at the last minute; he had other important things to do, like reading many hourly WQXR newscasts on weekdays.

There was a special booth for the newscasts—a very small studio, along an H-shaped corridor within sight of the main control room where engineers ran every piece of equipment. They operated all the microphones, all the turntables and tape machines, and controlled the volume as it went out on the air. A strict division of labor. WQXR was seriously unionized.

The news booth had one window facing the hall. Its walls were covered by the same kind of particle board I’d destroyed at the 47th Street WNCN, except that the board was thicker and punctured with tiny holes. Soundproofing.

A large clock loomed over the only desk. On the desk: a sturdy ribbon microphone, a headset, and a simple, curved table lamp. A solitary, cushioned, armless metal chair sat under the only drawer in the desk with a small metal box attached to a leg. The box had a button, resembling one for an elevator. When the booth button was pushed, it activated a small gong. Whoever was reading the news started the newscast precisely on the hour sounding the gong over the open microphone.

A long tube came up from the floor. It was the end of the line in a pneumatic tube system. A small, sealed glass cylinder whooshed and popped into a small opening in the tube. In it were as many sheets of onion skin paper as it took for each story to be on a separate page to become a newscast. Times staff on another floor  wrote the stories.

That was a cramped little room. Anyone looking over and rehearsing a newscast usually left the door open so as to get some air. Grobe and some other announcers even loosened their belts to breathe better. Especially during the noon and 6 p.m. 15-minute broadcasts.

Eventually I broadcast from there and would find Grobe’s scripts in the wastebasket. He’d underlined almost every word, with one line, or two, or three, clearly to indicate degrees of emphasis for himself.

As for the closeness in that booth, in the middle of a newscast one evening, I struggled to speak while on the air, my voice cracking, devoid of its usual resonance. I could barely breathe. Twenty-five minutes earlier an elderly engineer had had a heart attack while on duty and died in the control room. Police had wheeled out his grey-faced stiff body, laid out on a canvas stretcher. I hadn’t seen much death yet, and that might have affected me. That’s what Peter thought.

The loss of voice worried me, knowing the fluidity of the on-call list. There were also constant rumors that Executive VP/General Manager Elliott Sanger was somewhere listening, ready to air his criticisms about even the smallest deviations from on-air perfection.

But I survived to breathe again; my status as a relief announcer didn’t change after that evening. Perhaps death in the hallway got all the attention.

Another time, though, 23-years-older staff announcer Bill Strauss warned me that my name was probably going to drop on the list. Tall, thin, dark-haired Strauss seemed quite severe, especially due to a permanent frown. Not that he had any influence on the list. He was trying to be helpful. I had deviated from the norm one afternoon on the air. Reading a jolly, humorously-written commercial, the copy suggested a friendly laugh. So I laughed. Afterwards, back in the announcers’ lounge, when that part of my shift was over, Bill said, “Boy! Did you step over the line!”

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“You laughed on the air. We don’t do that. Mr. Sanger doesn’t like it.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “but the copy seemed to call for it.”

“Gee. I hope he didn’t hear it,” Bill added. “I’d hate to see you not among us as often. You usually do such a good job.”

I survived that, too.

If he or one of the regular announcers had laughed, they might have been reprimanded, but they wouldn’t have been fired for such a minor infraction. They had a strong AFTRA contract. A number of those announcers were rare examples of longevity in our business. They knew how to protect their jobs. Moreover, The Times had a very strong labor structure.

The contractual shift was eight hours, longer than those at most other stations. There was an hour for lunch. And some mighty good food was available on the 11th floor in The Times cafeteria. Moreover, since we knew we’d have, say, half an hour during a concerto on the air with no other duties except to announce, we could also zip upstairs and grab a sandwich and coffee and bring them down to eat in the lounge. But not in the studios.

Also contractually required were 15 minutes of “preparation time” when the shift started, so that the announcer could get his records or look over the first commercials he’d have to read. George Edwards had a special contract; he got an hour preparation time, because, among other things, he had to wait until the station went on the air with his sign-on. His on-air duties ran from 5 a.m. to 12 noon. Daily, after Bright and Early, he’d just be another staff announcer, reading spot announcements or hosting other programs. And at the end of his final announcement of his day, he reached over to a lamp on his desk and audibly clicked it off. His talisman.

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Among our spelled-out duties, we had to go down a hall to the music department and pick up the records whose music we’d announce. Music was programmed by Martin Bookspan or someone on his staff. People in the department pulled the individual LPs from the shelves; announcers didn’t do that. The LPs were placed in slots for announcers to pick up and take to engineers in master control. Each program came with typed sheets on which were written the names of the selections and the performers, as well as the timing for each piece. Usually there was no written script; we were expected to announce the pieces simply, unembellished by commentary.

But, after I’d been around for a while, feeling comfortable and assured, I looked over the LPs and their liner notes and decided to say a few words about the backgrounds of the pieces, based on what I’d read. Nothing complicated, but something like I had been doing at WFLN and WNCN, ad-libbing a few concise, presumably interesting things about the music.

Another announcer, Bill Gordon, heard me talking on-air about the music. “Don’t do that,” he cautioned. “It’s not in our contract. If the management hears you, they’ll start expecting all of us to do that.”

The rules of how to communicate with the engineers in the control room were very precise. There were hand signals, the simplest way to communicate, given that the on-air studios were all separated by glass windows and hallways in a u-shape surrounding the control room.

The signals: pointing to the microphone for announcing, signaling to cut off the microphones with the famed simulation of cutting the throat, pointing directly at the engineer for him to play a record or a recorded commercial or to turn the broadcast over to another announcer in a different studio. The only equipment we were allowed to touch was the “cough button,” called that because, if announcers needed to cough or sneeze while on the air, we could push a button next to the microphone and it would cut off the signal as long as it was held down.

Duncan Pirnie

Grobe scheduled which announcers would host standard broadcasts and newscasts. There were some that were not considered standard, of course, such as Bright and Early with George or Cocktail Time, hosted by Duncan Pirnie, 10 years older than I.   

In a rolling baritone he playfully said just a few sly words during the only QXR program resembling pop music. Duncan, by the way, was physically the largest on the staff at a time when obesity was less common than it is now. And, coincidentally, his father Donald had been a successful concert baritone, whom my Aunt Marion had sometimes accompanied on the piano. Later he became part of the faculty at Sanford Prep when I had been a student there. (See above material about my boyhood.)

We had one unusual assignment; technically it was voluntary. Of course, I participated. Each day one of us would record a few personally-chosen articles from The Times for The Lighthouse Association for The Blind. The tapes would be played back at double speed for Lighthouse-served blind people, given their heightened acuity.

The recordings we made on our own time, whenever we were not assigned regular announcing duties. We did that on a small tape recorder in the studio just outside the announcers’ lounge. Given union rules, this process could not involve staff engineers. The tapes went directly to The Lighthouse.

The pay was really good, especially if I got talent fees, standard in some of the best contracts at the biggest stations. The fees were extra money when assigned to sponsored programs. We had to fill out daily forms for the fees and submit them with our record of how many hours we had been on the air each week.

I got a substantial  fee for one evening’s hosting of a live performance by the WQXR piano duo of Jascha Zayde and Leonid Hambro. Marty had written the script; I was not required to ad-lib anything. But there was a live audience in the WQXR auditorium, and I became incredibly nervous with the responsibility. This was THE NEW YORK TIMES. Live musicians depending on my cues and my words which had to be delivered in the exact time allotted. No reading the script too fast. No reading it too slow. Certainly I’d appeared as an actor many times before in front of live audiences, but in this case I wasn’t playing a character. I was appearing as Gordon Spencer. Alone with a microphone in a studio, no one looking at me, that was easy. This was different.

I survived that, too.

Of course, to be in front of a live audience, I wore a suit, a good shirt, tie, etc. But that was not much different from how most QXR announcers dressed when on duty in the studios. Peter Allen often had on a suit. Grobe wore dress shirts and ties. Mel wore sport shirts and good pants and shoes. Duncan seemed the least well-dressed in a casual shirt and comfortable rather than well-creased trousers.

Normally one announcer would host the music program and another would be on hand to read live spot commercials during the broadcast.

One late afternoon in early November 1965, I was in the middle of reading a commercial on the air just prior to Chester Santon’s 5:30 newscast when the light went out in the studio. I stopped reading. In Master Control the lights went out. And in all the studios. And in the halls.

We were curious what was happening and whether other parts of the floor and those of The Times were also dark. Chester and the engineer asked me if I could go outside the studio and look, while they waited in case we went back on the air soon.

I took an engineer’s flashlight and found the outside halls totally dark. The elevators were not running. And, looking out the windows, the QXR studio having none to outside, I could see that all the nearby buildings also were totally dark.

I went back to the studios and told everyone. Then we turned on a small portable radio to check to see if other stations were likewise affected, first tuning to WINS (“All News All the Time”). By that time it already had a report about a major blackout all along the eastern seaboard, although no one knew yet why it happened. Several of us couldn’t help thinking of some kind of science fiction scenario. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965

My shift ended at 6 p.m. So, with the station still off the air, I went home. Taking a jammed bus all the way down to City Hall, the subways not running. Then I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to likewise-unlit Brooklyn Heights.

Sometimes I also worked late evenings before the station signed off for the night. Since Grobe was not present to supervise and make sure everything ran properly, someone had that responsibility, being called a “night manager” or a “weekend manager.” Most often it was one of us standbys from the list. We were not considered management, of course, since, if necessary, we could fill in on the air during an emergency. We had to do such things as set up recording news features for later broadcast. We didn’t run the equipment. But we acted as producers making sure that the reporter was comfortable, had everything he needed (right, “he”). We signaled the engineer. We checked to make sure no re-take was needed. And we filed the script for future reference.

That’s how I got to talk to Clive Barnes who was then The Times’s major theatre critic.

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We would chat briefly after he’d finished recording. I told him about my theatre background. He listened politely—as I’m sure he’d done many times with many other people—neither bored nor fascinated. He had a rather squeaky voice and stuttered a lot and, given that, and a gap in his front teeth, he reminded me of a Peter Sellers character. Not that I ever told him. The on-duty engineer edited out the stutters.

Certainly I was pleased to get so much work at QXR, and my experience there confirmed my thorough professionalism. I was proud of being on WQXR, the top of my profession, but being there was not a source of enjoyment. It didn’t compare with what I was doing at WNCN whenever I was called; there I got to choose some of the music and to talk about it; everything was more relaxed. Yes, the pay was less; it wasn’t even an AFTRA station yet. I’ve always gravitated to broadcasting that I could thoroughly enjoy, where I could contribute something personal, but that was never very practical in terms of income.

I would return to QXR from time to time thereafter but not be there as often as during those first nine months. I was dropped down, way down, on the list after I turned down work too often. I was busier elsewhere. At first, that meant joining the staff of ABC.

In The Heights

Vene and I were seeing less of each other with my hopping around at both stations, often in the evenings, but we were delighted by my increased earnings. Meanwhile she’d been getting more interested in performing again. When we’d first met, she’d been acting in plays at Temple, appearing in a couple with me, as well as at Atlantic City’s Center Little Theatre in Out of the Frying Pan.

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In late 1965, she started getting a few roles in The Heights Players, a community theatre whose productions were staged a few blocks from where we lived. That also expanded our social life; we became friends with regular performers there, including an openly gay couple Randy Kim and Chuck Bright. Randy later went on to a major career in movies and on Broadway as Randall Duk Kim. 

He, Chuck, and Anne Occhiogrosso founded one of the U.S.’s great summer theatres, American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI, where I often went while living in Milwaukee.

Tiny Randy had an amazingly deep voice and was a master of make-up. He, Chuck, and Vene all starred in Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland at The Heights Players.

And I performed in fund-raising variety shows there as The World’s Oldest Living Beat Poet, reading simple-minded comic verse I’d written. Plus some of my comedy sketches were acted by Heights Players regulars.

One was about a guy turned on by a woman in a bar because she had a copy of Masters and Johnson’s just-published Human Sexual Response. He figured she’d be an easy conquest given that book; he brings that up with a sly grin. She responds by quoting him some of the book’s gross, analytical descriptions of bodily functions. So much so that he has to leave for the men’s room to throw up.

Speaking of bodily functions, through The Heights Players, I connected with Lester Bergman who published medical books. And he hired me to narrate a couple of films about procedures during operations.

By early 1966, Vene wanted to quit her job as assistant to Cosmopolitan Magazine Fiction Editor Bill Guy. She really liked him and also admired new Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown, but wanted to try an actual acting career. Considering how much money I’d been making from announcing on two stations, it seem only fair that I should support her shot at fame; she had been the major source of income when I was an infrequently employed actor.

Why not? She might succeed where I hadn’t. She bubbled with personality, was cute, and, being quite short, still seemed girlish, although she was my age.

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She joined a children’s theatre group whose regular cast included Bill Finn and Danny Goldman.  

Tall, rangy Bill went on to write musicals as William Finn with his first success about 10 years later: In Trousers. Later he’d become lauded and awarded for his Falsetto trilogy, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Danny became a film actor, specializing in voices, including that of Brainy Smurf and also became a Hollywood casting director of television commercials. Vene also got roles in summer stock in Rochester, NH.

I join ABC

Early in 1966, WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy told me that he was moving on to become program director at WABC-FM; they were broadcasting some classical music. I asked if there might be a way I could join him.

He said that he had no authority to hire me but that, in March, ABC would audition people as relief announcers, and certainly I could apply. It would mean a chance to be heard on all of ABC’s New York operations—the TV and radio networks, plus the local stations. The minimal six-month gig was to cover regular staff vacations. And, if anything full-time opened, Ed believed the relief guys (right, men only) would most likely be considered.

Six months of big money sounded like a great idea. And how much higher could an announcer go than being on the ABC staff?

There was a massive line-up of superbly-dressed, deep-voiced candidates at the audition. Suits. Ties. Polished shoes. They’d come from Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis for this major opportunity. I felt overshadowed, as if I was still a kid and they were the big time, even though I was 33.

The audition material included a newscast, commercials, and a classical music script. Exactly what I’d been doing at WQXR.

While waiting to record my shot at fortune, a six-foot-two, supremely well-dressed, perfectly groomed guy next to me said to one of his peers, “Shit!” waving a page of the audition, “What the hell is this?”

The other resonated back, “Some kind of classical music stuff. How the fuck are we supposed to know that?”

They warmed the cockles of my soul.

I got in.

April 1966 I joined the staff.

Oddly, though, I rarely announced on WABC-FM. Within a couple of months its format changed and classical music was minimized. Instead, I did what all the staff announcers did, live booth station breaks and five-second on-air promos on the two TV networks and WABC-TV, and live newscasts and commercials on the radio network and on WABC-AM.

Relief announcers’ assignments seemed random; we filled in slots normally covered by regular staff who’d been re-assigned wherever there were talent fees. Their contract required minimum fees every week, and ABC had to guarantee the minimum. So, if the announcer didn’t get enough fees from regular assignments, ABC had to make up the difference, hence the re-alignments to minimize what ABC had to make up. Audiences wouldn’t know the difference anyway, most of us sounded like each other, anonymous, mellifluous, resonant, manly voices.

So where did I most turn up? The classical music expert? Usually overnights at one of the highest-rated pop music radio stations in town, even in the U.S. WABC-NEW YORK! as I often punched up the call letters. An acting assignment. Moreover, once an hour, I had to read live, 60-second commercials for a new sponsor, Dennison Clothes on Route 22, Union, NJ. The copy always began with “The president of Dennison Clothes says…” and included the phrase “Where money talks, nobody walks.”

Charlie Greer

The copy was fundamental selling, so I decided to punch it up, have fun, almost a parody, the way Jerry Carroll would do some years later on the ubiquitous Crazy Eddie spots. I started each commercial with a serious intonation, sounding as if I was going to announce something portentous and newsworthy, Cronkite-like: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The President of … (but then not ‘The United States’) and spin off into absurdity without altering the copy. The first time I did it, Charlie Greer and the other guys on duty howled with laughter. Eventually Charlie would introduce me as “The voice of Dennison Clothes.”

Primarily my major job was to read newscasts written by Webb Kelley. When we first met, he told me that, at one time, he’d been writing for the TV network but that they wanted someone who could also look good on camera and that he was too old. I often felt that he was frustrated and unhappy, diminished to five-minute scripts overnight. Sometimes he even sounded as if he’d been drinking. And sometimes he just took AP wire copy and stapled it to my scripts. He called me “Beatley,” a  reference, no doubt, to my beard, still uncommon, and the resemblance to the by-then-outdated and bypassed beatniks, superseded by hippies. Old news.   

Most often I was the news and commercials reader when Charlie Greer was the d.j. in a powerful signal radiating across more than 38 states. He was in his sixth year at the station and kept telling me, off the air, and everyone else within earshot—engineers, visitors, anyone who’d listen—that he’d been there longer than any of the other guys and it made him nervous as hell; he expected to be fired any day. He, like every other d.j. at WABC-NEW YORK, had six-month contracts and fabulous money but under conditions designed to make sure they delivered the goods. Longevity depended on the ratings.

As for the music, everyone had a playlist; they could only choose something from it. All of the week’s selections were on cartridges played by the engineers, sitting  across from the d.j.s, separated by a console. The d.j.s announced the songs with non-stop enthusiasm, as if they loved hearing the same things over and over, and they came up with a little chatter and read a few commercials that required their personalities, talent-fee compensated.

Program Director Rick Sklar decided which music to broadcast and each week held a meeting with the d.j.s where they could give him input. Evidently the weekly playlist was very short. According to Sklar in his book Rocking America, the records on the list were determined by studying sales at about 550 record stores. Then, at each meeting, the list was revised. Songs which hadn’t moved up in sales were dropped. Songs at the top of the list were broadcast more regularly than the others, about once at 70- or 80-minute intervals. Some of this info and more can be found at Allan M. Sniffen’s Musicradio WABC website http://www.musicradio77.com.

Among the hits I heard repeatedly: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Wild Things” by The Troggs, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel in “I Am a Rock,” and “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas.

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Sometimes, too, I’d be assigned to read news while Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, or Chuck Leonard were on the air. Chuck always looked nervous and had a habit of vigorously yanking off his headphones once the music was playing.

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Dan sounded intelligent and clever. While reading a commercial for a furniture store selling ottomans he ad-libbed, “Hey! Remember their empire?” Or once, the copy being for a steak house whose meals “stick to your ribs…” he added “…bypassing your stomach.”    

TV booth announcing was new to me. Sometimes I’d be on the networks, sometimes on WABC-TV. Those studios were on West 66th Street just east of Broadway, while WABC-AM was a block-and-a-half south of there in an office building at 1926 Broadway.

The booths were small rooms, each with a TV monitor, headphones, a microphone, a table with a lamp, a program log, whatever copy was to be read, and a plain chair. Utilitarian. Many booths were below street level, seeming dark and truly subterranean. Perhaps they were there so ABC could keep on broadcasting during an atomic attack.

Once, when going on duty, I encountered Milton Cross in one of the booths.

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I had come to relieve him. When he spoke to me, I was shocked, recognizing that Metropolitan Opera broadcast voice, sadly, in that dreary, underground cell. It seemed like such a diminishment for him. I hadn’t known that he was on the staff. He told me that he had left a few magazines in case I wanted to read them. It was the only time we saw each other. In fact, we relief announcers also rarely crossed paths. We didn’t team up the way QXR announcers did.

TV production directors were somewhere else in the building; I never learned where and never saw them. They directed booth announcers, communicating through headsets. Arriving to announce, we had to call on a house phone and check in with our directors, not being visible, confirming that we were in the right place at the right time and that our names matched those on the logs.

Then the director made sure he could be heard through the headphones and have his engineer, wherever that man was, check our microphone, having us read the copy to be heard on the air, e.g., “Stay tuned for F Troop coming up next on ABC.”

That’s a characteristic five-second promo. It had to be delivered within five seconds because a computer somewhere would then switch to the network or to the station and the next event. Announcers could get into serious trouble if the computer cut them off. Consequently, even some of the regular staff read the copy as fast as possible, a kind of urgency. None of those announcements were pre-recorded, nor the station breaks either. Everything was live. I subsequently learned, a few years later, that ABC finally got smart and recorded a lot of the breaks, meaning, no doubt, less work for announcers whose ranks, I believe, were diminished by buy-outs.

“Standby for the station break, Gordon. Coming up in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. ANNOUNCE!” Yes, that order often sounded as if our lives depended on it. You can imagine how an announcer would intensely, anxiously, do his five-second thing.

WABC-TV signed off overnight then, following a late movie. Once, on the late-night shift, I looked at my few pages of copy and found that the last thing before reading the sign-off announcement was a prayer by Reverend David Burns of Calvary Protestant Church in Baldwin, Long Island. Having watched late-night TV in the past, I’d seen film clips of ministers reading short prayers. I assumed that all I had to do was introduce Father Burns, although I had a copy of the prayer.

My mike open, I read the introduction and waited for the film. “ANNOUNCE!” the director yelled. I paused. Was I supposed to read the prayer myself? I couldn’t ask. My mike was live. “ANNOUNCE!” he yelled again. It was a wonder that his voice didn’t leak through my microphone.

I hadn’t read over the prayer, of course, so I read it cold, nervous a hell. Heaven knows what it said. But, by God, I never stumbled, never lost my way.

I followed it immediately with the sign-off script, which I had rehearsed.

Once we were off the air, the director called me on the phone. Uh-oh. He was going to chew me out for one-and-a-half seconds of dead air. Nope. Instead he said “Wow! That was a great reading of the prayer. You sounded like you believed every word. Hey, have a good night, huh?” He hung up.

And I walked out into the night’s cool and shiny streets, gleaming from the lights on Broadway.

Soon I’d be pounding the pavements again, looking for work. When the vacation season was over I was not one of the two relief guys ABC hired full-time. I was disappointed, sure. But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take me to be thoroughly bored in such a nearly anonymous job.

Yet, in those six months, I felt proud that I’d made it at ABC. Yeah, ABC: six months; WQXR, nine months. Intense, colorful blips.

My two-year stint at WOND still held the record for the longest job. And that, as well as my 20 months at the first version of NCN, were the only jobs I had really enjoyed. As far as ABC went, I was proud of my skill and felt significant, even though my name and presumed personality usually were only public at night.

Bouncing

Bernie Styles had been calling once in a while to ask if I was available as an extra. One week in 1967, having no radio assignments, I took him up on his offer and spent a couple of days portraying one of about 20 people in the audience catching a few acts on stage for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a period movie about the early days of burlesque on the Lower East Side. The Phoenix Theatre on lower Second Avenue became Minsky’s stand-in.

We were assigned to sit in the theater for what was a montage of acts on stage. We brought changes of clothes so as we moved around in the seats we looked like different people at different shows while watching Elliott Gould, or Norman Wisdom and Britt Ekland up there on the stage. Two days’ work.

I also got a call in spring 1967 from Kathleen Ambrose who had several bookings in real theaters instead of hospitals like Bellevue. She was putting together a tour of nearby summer theaters in a staged reading of Paul Shyre’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s I Knock at the Door. She asked me to be the narrator as well as double and triple with Irish accents, at which I was very adept. I learned that, since last I’d seen her, her son Bobby had gotten married and had a child, so Bobby was not part of the cast. I did the tour and had a great time. But it meant turning down a couple of assignments at WQXR. Thus, the next time I went in, after quite some time, my name on the list had dropped from number six to eight.

Through Lester Bergman I learned of a production company called Titra which serviced foreign movie makers. They also provided dubbed sound tracks. I auditioned. They ran a short loop so as to have me watch how the mouths of two men moved in dialogue, telling me to match both with different voices while reading from a script in English. I certainly could do the voices but it didn’t feel like acting. More like booth announcing. Moreover, I wasn’t good at matching the words to the mouth movements on the screen. I wasn’t hired.

And I took a test to be a music monitor for ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the performance rights organization that protects musical copyrights by monitoring public performances, making sure that royalties are paid. The job entailed listening to tapes of broadcasts by background music services and radio stations where songs were not announced, such as WPAT, Paterson, NJ. The test was based on the assumption that I could recognize many songs and identify them by title and, doing so for eight hours a day, log the songs on sheets of paper while sitting in a small, confined room and wearing a headset. Most of what I heard first during the test was the kind of pop music I knew best, the kind I’d just been hearing on WHLI and that I’d programmed myself at WOND. But later that day, there were other kinds of music, rock, Country & Western, about which I knew nothing. I wasn’t hired.

Five Stations in Five Years

So, post-ABC, I was looking for whatever announcing I could find, enjoyable or not, again trying to land something substantial. It wasn’t long before I was filling in all over the local broadcast map: WQXR and WNCN again, WRVR, WPAT, and (the new) WBAI, sometimes going from one to the other on the same days. But nothing full-time.

As for WPAT, that meant driving under the Hudson once more, but to studios near a park in Clifton, NJ, rather than in the heart of Newark.

Having recently taken the ASCAP test I was already familiar with PAT’s format, having listened to it as part of the job requirement. Gaslight Revue was the major feature and a big success—a montage of mellow, instrumental pop music. Since the songs were never announced, the announcers’ duties consisted of putting together, reading, and recording newscasts using Associated Press wire copy. Sometimes we incorporated short reports by the three-person news staff, covering New Jersey and New York.

The newscasts were never broadcast live. We recorded them on cartridges used in an automated system. Each newscast had to be precisely four-minutes-and-thirty seconds per cartridge, sometimes meaning three or four re-takes. But with only one newscast per hour and few other duties, such as recording 60-second or 30-second commercials, the newscast re-takes were no problem.

The cartridges were in a series of giant racks in the control room, where an engineer was always on duty, monitoring the system. Periodically he’d play the time-check cartridges to make sure they were OK. “The time now is 2:47.” “It’s 2:48.” “2:49 is the time,” etc. A staff announcer job. The cartridges sliding in and out sequentially looked like a scene from Kubrick’s 2001 where the computer Hal is being deprogrammed. The movie, by the way, had just come out.

A few times I also was an on-the-street news reporter for PAT, calling in 45-second stories on pay phones from New York, reading my scribbled notes or even ad-libbing stories with ease. I was good at it.

As for QXR, Grobe gave me a few assignments as a night manager. The first night the posted relief list showed that my name was up to number seven. Well, maybe something might open up at the start of the New Year. WQXR would split some programming into AM and FM broadcasts; before they’d all been simulcast.

The FCC had ruled that, by January 1967, any owner of an AM station in a city with a population of more than 100,000 people could duplicate only half of its content on the FM side. The rationale: greater program diversity.

To meet that requirement, QXR had decided to feature less “serious” classical music on the AM side from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays with similar hours on weekends. FM devoted that time to longer and potentially more “serious” works. Simulcasts were in the evenings. That made a lot of sense; sponsored program features had always been in the evenings.

As it turned out, one of the guys who’d joined the relief list in my time away at ABC, Matt Thomas, was hired full-time to take up the extra load, and the rest of the assignments were worked out with changes in the staff contract.

WNCN’s staff was minuscule compared to QXR’s. Weekdays, Bernie Alan was there hosting the morning show, Bob Adams the afternoons, Lucien Ricard the evenings, and Bill Watson overnights. Weekends? I was there intermittently. That’s where I met WRVR Chief Announcer Max Cole, also filling in; he added me to his WRVR on-call list.

WRVR was fostered by and housed in The Riverside Church, on the upper West Side in Morningside Heights. There were some programs of its own, as well as newscasts and information from newly formed, non-profit Educational Radio Network, the forerunner of National Public Radio.

But most popular was the daily jazz show hosted by Ed Beach. Like my WOND show back in 1957 and ’58, his was also “Just Jazz.” I was never asked to fill in for him. Max Cole had a weekend jazz show and covered when necessary.

But whenever I saw Ed, he’d always say something like “Hey Man! How’s it going?” He seemed pretty hip with a jolly sort of laid-back presence on the air. In his broadcasts, though, he didn’t seem to say much about the musicians’ backgrounds, more often talking about who soloed in a “medium fast blues” or an “up-tempo swinger,” as he’d describe the tracks.

Out of interest and curiosity, I occasionally looked at the jazz library. A great collection, one I yearned to broadcast and never did. There I’d see Ed’s annotations on the LP jackets for every cut, e.g., “MFB” (medium fast blues) with the initials of the soloists in the order of appearance.

WRVR’s studios always felt luxurious, as if no expense had been spared. There was a large kitchen, too, with a big stove, a modern refrigerator, dishes, glasses, real utensils.

One on-air studio was enormous, magnificently carpeted, with a couple of large wooden desks and comfortable chairs. That’s where Max sometimes had me cover Sunday broadcasts, the biggest aspect of which was to read scripts for live broadcasts of the noon Service of Worship, usually led by Senior Minister Reverend Dr. Robert James McCracken. Seated at a desk facing the engineer in the control room to run all the equipment, I had to watch the clock to make sure that my reading led cleanly to the 11 a.m. service, meanwhile reading the script, appropriately sedate but not somber, respectful but not dour.

Once, a big crowd had gathered outside the Church, because anti-Vietnam War activist Father Daniel Berrigan conducted a service. I announced that, proudly, but without comment. By then I was becoming a minor part of the peace movement, especially due to my connections with WBAI.

The Joys of WNCN and WBAI. The Sorrows of War

I had become friendly with Matt Edwards (born Mario Stutterheim in Argentina) sometime on the air at WNCN; he was also filling in at WBAI, which had been donated to Pacifica Radio in 1960 by Louis Schweitzer, the former owner of the old WBAI, with which I’d had encounters up in the heights of The Pierre. Matt suggested that I contact Program Director Frank Millspaugh to see if I could do some announcing there. Millspaugh added me to the stand-by list.

BAI had always been radically different from all the other stations in the city. And the word “radical” fits. By 1967 it was becoming quite an outlet for left-leaning opinions, including plenty of anti-Vietnam War broadcast comments. Would I fit in? Well, I was opposed to the war but not an active protester. I’d followed the movement and what it was doing and saying, as well as what was coming from similar anti-establishment political causes. I believed in what they believed. But whether I chose to be active or not didn’t matter to the people at the station, where non-conformity was the essence. So many people at the station wore clothes that looked like leftovers from Salvation Army sales, but Matt always wore a suit and tie. That was how he was most comfortable and, since that was his thing, so be it. And I was accepted for whatever I believed or didn’t believe.

Most other stations have always deliberately had easily identifiable formats. But WBAI programming varied from day to day, depending on who was hosting and what they wanted to do. Start times varied too. BAI was already being considered a pioneer in what was yet to be called “free-form” radio. How did I fit in? I hosted whatever pre-planned recorded music was scheduled or ran the equipment for someone else while they presented their shows.

Coming in to take over at 10 a.m. I’d encounter Larry Josephson finishing his morning show. We’d exchange a few pleasantries, even though he was not known for being all that pleasant on the air. His program dovetailed with BAI’s unconventionality and was unlike nearly all morning radio elsewhere, often called “morning drive.” Such formats are as much service as entertainment, due to taking place when listeners are presumably driving to work. Typically this means including vital information for that part of the day, frequent time-checks, weather forecasts and details, plus traffic reports. At music stations, classical included, this means short selections.

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Josephson’s persona and programming were actually close to Bill Watson’s (more below) except that they had different kinds of music. Bill’s was always classical. Larry’s could be anything. Both aired personal opinions, but Larry talked more often about himself and often said things that people would describe as “cranky” humor, plus he took phone calls on the air and interacted directly with listeners. He, too, had quite a following. In fact, such a following must have had something to do with his turning up briefly on WNCN in the 1970s. More about that is below.

Mornings when he’d left the studio I’d find the trash basket under the console overflowing with take-out food detritus, greasy Styrofoam containers on the floor, and plastic take-out coffee cups half-filled with swirls of curdling milk sitting almost anywhere, including the edges of turntables. I always assumed that Larry left them and maybe he did, but he’d been preceded by Bob Fass overnight (Radio Unnameable), and, in time, no matter when I arrived at the station, Larry having been there or not, the same kind of mess could often be found.

I suppose that many people would conclude that such slovenliness was in keeping with the hippie-like nature of what the station most seemed, re: a public image. But I’d encounter equal disdain for order and cleanliness at other stations subsequently, regardless of the more conventional nature of the programming. Such conditions offended my sense of order, and, trying to be relaxed, polished, and presentable on the air, I wanted my surroundings to be as comfortable as I could make them. So I often cleaned up, unasked. As for, subsequently, wiping down microwave ovens at stations in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, I was disgusted to think that my food could be contaminated by someone else’s smears of tomato sauce, burned-on cheese, and other disgusting weeks-old garbage.

Somewhere during that time, BAI posted a public notice that it was interviewing people as candidates to be the next station manager. With my major credits I thought I would have been a good choice, even though, realistically, longevity at any job had not been my strong suit. Also, I had no leadership experience. How could that have been a problem?

Frank Millspaugh interviewed me on behalf of the station’s board of directors and asked me about what changes I might come up with. One of the first was to have Josephson do time-checks and weather forecasts so as to attract a larger audience.

Frank: “And what would you do if he refused?”

Me: “Oh, fire him of course.”

Frank: “As popular as he is, you’d fire him?”

Me: “Sure.”

Frank: “I don’t think that would work well.”

Naturally, I didn’t get the job. Interestingly, about 10 years later, Larry had a brief shot at doing such a morning show on that decade’s version of WNCN. It wasn’t his forte. He was replaced within a week. By me. More later.

In early 1968 I cut back on my availability for WBAI, Bernie Alan left WNCN to take a higher-paying job as a booth announcer at WPIX-TV, and I was offered his slot: 6 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. Thus I had a morning show following the glory of Watson. It was a somewhat unconventional starting time for morning drive. But then, we didn’t have traffic reports, but plenty of time-checks and forecasts amid Music Director Maurice Essam’s rather conventional programming choices.

That meant that late afternoons and evenings I was free, so sometimes I’d fill in not only on WBAI but also WQXR.

My earnings were good. And that money was important because Vene and I had separated in early 1967, and I was living by myself elsewhere in Brooklyn while giving her a third of anything I made. I had agreed to do so, thinking that that was only fair, given how often in our years together she’d been the major source of income—especially during my intermittent acting career. This arrangement meant she was free to do something about her own performing ambitions if she chose to do so. Such payments were open-ended, but by early 1971 we came to a mutual understanding that I had done well enough by her that they need not continue. We had a truly amicable relationship. It remains so more than 40 years later, even if contact has become infrequent.

Despite being a lover of classical music, the wider freedoms of jazz seamlessly connected me to so many sounds and styles emerging in pop music and rock, finding fascination and delight, discovering the marvels of The Beatles, John Mayall, Richie Havens, The Doors, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Berry, and more. Plus Indian classical music, having become a major fan of Ravi Shankar.

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WNCN had opened wide its aural doors to much new music and I had considerable programming freedom during Entr’acte from noon to 2 p.m. The staff included Carly Simon (not the singer/songwriter) who had an office job, but was also a performer, a professional belly dancer, and dance instructor. She knew Ravi Shankar personally and set up for me a broadcast interview with him.

Thus, that and some of his recordings were featured on Entr’acte.

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I never was permitted to present rock on the program, but could share various kinds of ethnic music, such as that played on Japanese wood flutes or a Persian santoor. And my enthusiasm for contemporary concert music connected me via interviews to composers I admired. Once, when programming some of the work of Alan Hovhaness, I mentioned on the air how I’d wished I could interview him. 

He heard about that comment and called me.

It was as if WNCN and WBAI were closer to each other than ever before. And I moved seamlessly between them. NCN Station Managers Stan Gurell, Maurice Essam, and, later, Music Director David Dubal were also personally open to all the fascinating things happening in so many kinds of music of the time, even if we didn’t broadcast them all.

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From them I got permission to also host my own weekly program on WBAI which I could pre-record on NCN equipment and tapes.

That feature I called American Music; it much resembled Sounds of the 20th Century of about 10 years before on the old NCN: contemporary “classical” music, jazz, film scores, cast recordings of musicals. My only self-chosen parameters were to focus only on what was American. That was the implied point: there is so much richness, so much variety, so much creativity in our own nation, and I wanted listeners to become aware of that.

Was that deliberately patriotic and, if so, how would it sit with BAI’s focus, dwelling on the distressing, sometimes-evil problems within our own nation? That issue never arose. BAI, like America, was open and free to anyone who wanted such openness and freedom. Politically conservative groups, or even ones such as the libertarian YAF (Young American for Freedom), had slots.

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Due to my continuing love of jazz and including it in my BAI program, I got press passes to the Newport Jazz Festival a couple of times. One of those concerts in 1969 stays memorable, a near-riot. The bill was George Wein’s attempt to broaden his audience base by including rock groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Jethro Tull. That worked; tickets ran out. So many people had come for the concert that many were sitting on the grass on hills above the site. And getting restless. Some claimed that the event should be free to “the people” and tried to gate-crash. The police had to be called. Then, when Sly and The Family Stone got into one of their numbers, “I Want to Take You Higher,” yelling to the crowd, the people surrounding me started jumping on the seats, raising their fists and chanting in unison. My date, a rather shy English lady, was terrified. But I loved hearing John Mayall as well as Dave Brubeck plus Miles Davis’s early ventures into fusion.

I was somewhat involved with what many people at BAI most stood for or against, agreeing that the Vietnam War was a tragic, horrid, criminal act by our nation. Although I went to a few station staff-organized protest gatherings, it would be a mistake to call me a true peace activist. I devoted more of my time and attention to dating.

Nonetheless, when asked by the station’s Chief Engineer Tom Whitmore if I’d help run some sound equipment at a Central Park peace rally, I enthusiastically agreed.

It was in April 1967 and called “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.” There was a big stage set up inside Central Park’s southeast corner, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Those of us from BAI were there to broadcast and record the speeches. I could see a number of very straight-looking men in conservative suits and ties taking photos of us. Clearly the FBI. We smiled at them and waved.

The speakers included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “White Americans are not going to deal in the problems of colored people,” he said, “when they’re exterminating a whole nation of colored people.” There were other speakers talking about racism, Native Americans calling attention to injustices against many tribes, Abbie Hoffman speaking against police hounding hippies. They and other speakers kept on saying that their causes were the most important ones of the day. I felt that they diminished the significance of what they had essentially come to protest: the war. The issue was obscured by every one, using the phrase du jour, “doing his own thing.” I was dismayed. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was there to operate audio equipment, nothing more. Well, at least I must have had my photo filed with the FBI.

I’ve since learned online (Wikipedia) that the number of demonstrators was estimated to be perhaps as many as 400,000, and people carried characteristic placards: “Don’t Make Vietnam an American Reservation,” “Make Love not War,” and “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” About 75 young men burned their draft cards. But there were few arrests, and those were of counter-demonstrators staging an Anti-Communist rally.

“Huge Peace March Spans Wide Social Spectrum” Village Voice April 20, 1967.

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On a Thursday night, almost a year later, March 1968, Abbie Hoffman was a guest on Bob Fass’s show. There I heard him talk about the Yippies declaring that he and other  members of this growing group, plus anyone else interested, should convene on Friday night shortly before midnight at Grand Central Station just “to be together.” (“It’s a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller-skating rink, a theatre, with you, performer and audience.”) Hoffman reasoned that Grand Central wouldn’t be crowded with commuters, given the weekend waiting out there along the tracks and in quiet suburban homes. This was not to be a protest meeting.

That Friday evening turned out to be a taste of things yet to come in August: the Democratic National Convention, Chicago.

In fact, the Yippies as a group, if such an amorphous collection of random association can be called a group, had only been around since the start of the year, beginning with that name spurred by Hoffman, his wife Anita, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner.

Hoffman later explained, “If the press had created ‘hippie,’ could not we five hatch the ‘yippie’?” But it was Krassner who claimed the origin of the name, according to a Wikipedia piece.

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You may recall that I wrote about having had a little contact with Krassner at the old NCN during the jazz package evenings in the early ’60s. Since then he’d become even more famed, due the accumulation of so many sharp, funny, and provocative articles, editorials, and cartoons in seven or so years of The Realist’s reality. Among his most memorable moments for me was the cartoon “One Nation Under God,” showing the naked hairy deity raping a scrawny, pathetic man wearing an Uncle Sam hat (art by Frank Cieciorka).

Certainly Hoffman, and Krassner in particular, offended conservative people who believed in their own version of patriotism (“Our Country, Love It or Leave It” was one of the anti-hippie slogans). The idea of “counter-culture” had cachet as an alluring, adventurous alternative to straight life, especially for young people disillusioned with the way so many older ones were heading our nation in the wrong direction. I felt empathy, albeit by then not nearly as young as these converts, to this form of freedom.  Hanging out at times with these good, sweet people made me feel, as they did themselves, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, belonging, embraced emotionally and physically. They welcomed me, no matter how little I actually joined them in protest events. One more body showing support for the right causes. So, hanging out with some of them in a famed public place, glamorous Grand Central, seemed a good way to warm a few chilly March night hours.

Arriving, I was astonished to see vast amounts of police vehicles and what looked like hundreds of helmeted, armed police standing near the 42nd Street entrance. I also noticed TV and radio station vans. Clearly, this was turning out to be a newsworthy event. Abbie Hoffman had provoked a mighty big reaction.

Inside, the Grand Concourse was densely packed with noisy, chattering, babbling, smiling, happy people, most younger than I, eagerly enjoying being together, hugging, kissing, some sitting in small circles, as if Native Americans vivifying the Circle of Life, one person each facing north, south, east, and west. Grand Central

The hall was like a massive version of a rush hour subway car, everyone tightly squashed together. Except that these people loved being together and loved being there, with no hurry to go anywhere else. This wasn’t their stop. They’d already reached their destination.

The police were still outside.

Then two young man climbed up onto the information booth under the big clock and tried to move the hands. Instantly a mob of police stomped into the hall, boots and shoes making a counter-din. Without warning.

They swung their hard billy clubs into whatever faces, heads, arms, legs were in their paths, north, south, east, west. I was immersed in sudden panic, the marble halls echoing with screams. We were like stampeding cattle, too densely packed with nowhere to turn. I suddenly felt as if I was no longer in charge of my body, but part of some surging, swaying organism over which I had no control.

“It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,” Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference that Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being unleashed,” Levine added. According to the March 28th edition of The Village Voice, he had seen people running a gauntlet of club-wielding cops, “spitting invective through clenched teeth,” saying that “it was like a fire in a theatre.”

Among the wounded was Voice reporter Don McNeill, pushed into a glass door by police despite press credentials pinned to his jacket. Five stitches. He was not the only member of the press assaulted by the police.

My feet propelled me into a cluster of 30 or 40 people who’d somehow broken free of the main crowd. I was running breathlessly to keep pace with them. We rushed to an exit emptying out into Lexington Avenue, where no police waited. We escapees dispersed, stunned, into the night air.

The next day I wrote a letter to Mayor John Lindsay.

“I have never written to a public official before, but I am so upset by things I’ve witnessed that I feel I must say something…

I respect law and order. The absence of it on the part of police is a deeply distressing thing. I was in Grand Central last night and am distressed as never before about something that always has been just a cliché to me: ‘police brutality.’

It was in full swing last night, with clubs and fists. Against whom? Not members of the underworld, not a horde of psychotics who only understand violence, not against an organized rebellion armed to the teeth. No, the police were hitting innocent boys and girls, many in their teens, hitting anybody else who protested about what they were doing.

…I knew that there would be a large gathering of young people…call them ‘hippies’ if you like…but they didn’t seem to be there to protest anything. There were a few who would have liked to mold that crowd into a solid mass about something, but there was no organization, and little sparks of socio-political distrust never caught fire, smothered under the weight of endless milling…

I don’t know if their gathering was legitimate, legal, or in violation of some law. But I heard no policeman tell us to go home, to disperse. There was no use of the station’s public address system saying anything of that nature. There was no use of bull-horn cautions that the crowd was subject to arrest. There was just a sudden outbreak of police violence.

Yes, I went to Grand Central last night to learn. I felt that those kids there may have had something to tell me about myself, about our society. I did learn things: fear, distrust of police, pity, remorse.

I found  my heart pounding with fear, a kind I’d never known before as some of the crowd broke and ran at the first police charge and I was caught up in the panic. I felt fear that I could have been caught in that whirlpool.

The pity comes for those whose heads were cracked and bleeding, about whom I read in this morning’s newspapers, pity for the bodies dragged along the concrete floor or flung up against the walls, shoved into a gauntlet of blue uniforms with pummeling fists and kicking feet.

And I’m filled with remorse that I did not protest this uncalled-for eagerness to cause harm.

…My faith in law and order, in justice, died a little last night. God help us all.”

Village Voice columnist Howard Smith, writing in Scenes, said that the police didn’t seem to have any plan about what to do, wondering why they hadn’t talked beforehand to the Yippie organizers. “Why was a warning never issued to the crowd…primarily high school age—an age particularly sensitive to arbitrariness in other people?”

He reported that the police made no attempt to clear the areas of the station they had already cleared before and, instead, let the crowd fill them in again. He saw no fixed barricades, no demarcation lines.

He saw them drag out people who weren’t resisting, and when those people asked to be allowed to walk, the police called that “resisting”and clubbed them.

Smith reported that plainclothesmen had been circulating throughout the crowd before the trouble started and then “actively assisted” in the clubbing, asking, “Is it correct for a plainclothes cop to act as a uniformed policeman without wearing his badge… (a) license to be particularly vicious since he can’t be identified?” He also pointed out that when press people asked for plainclothesmen’s names, they were threatened or arrested, or ignored. “When I asked two who were particularly rough over and over…and showed my police press card I was told to ‘fuck off’.”

On April 10th a letter from Mayor Lindsay was sent to me at WNCN. It seemed a form letter.

“…I share your concern over reports of the incident…

“I have asked the Civilian Complaint Review Board to conduct a full investigation…and report the findings to me…

“We will take all necessary precautions to ensure proper police action the future.”

I’ve since learned from Wikipedia that one month later the Yippies organized a “Yip-Out” in Central Park that drew 20,000 people and was entirely peaceful, according to Neil Hamilton in The ABC-CLIO Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America.

Interestingly, I don’t remember that. Only the negative stays seared in my brain. I think it’s mostly because I had genuine experience of “crowd psychology” and what it feels like. But certainly keeping a copy of Lindsay’s and my letter marks something where I was on the fringes of counter-culture, even if not a serious activist. My letter was meant to have an impact. I thought that the injured people deserved respect and should not have been harmed. Moreover, I had escaped, not stopping to fight or resist. No hero. And, actually, I did not retain fear of the police and had no hostility towards them thereafter.

Alternative media

Growing out of connections to WBAI, Matt Edwards invited me to join him at The Alternative Media conference at Goddard College in Vermont in June 1970. We hung out with people far more hip-looking than either of us. There were, of course, many FM radio d.j.s.

Wavy Gravey 2

(I think that that’s me on the upper right in the white shirt.) Jerry Rubin was there. So was Baba Ram Dass and members of the Hog Farm Collective, along with noticeably toothless founder Wavy Gravy, a.k.a. Hugh Romney.  

BTW, his son, now called Jordan, was born the year after the event as Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, according to Wikipedia.

Mostly we all sat around and talked about whatever interested us. I don’t remember being part of any serious discussions about society-enhancing concepts involving plans of action. That makes sense. I was never that much of an activist.

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The highlight for me, actually, was meeting actor Barton Heyman. I had seen him on Broadway not long before and much admired him playing Wild Bill Hickok in Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a superb, ironic view of show business and exploitation of Native Americans, a play that now seems to have been buried in the dust. (FYI: Stacy Keach starred as Buffalo Bill, and Charles Durning was in the cast, as was Raul Julia). And I had seen and  been impressed by Heyman playing Puck in John Hancock’s 1967 off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a deliberately decadent, suggestive-of-evil version. Heymann had been a friend of a puppet-theatre companion from a few years before, Amy Vane.

Heymann sang the praises of William Reich’s orgone energy theories, saying that an orgone box had improved his performances on stage and made his sex life a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Heymann and I also congenially shared our mutual enthusiasms for Indians, while he lamented things that went wrong on stage and the failure of New York critics to see the many virtues of the script. It ran only two and half months, about twice as long as the Broadway take of Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad in 1963, one year after its 1962 off-Broadway run. That starred Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Harris, and Austin Pendleton. Jerome Robbins had directed. I saw it and was astonished, puzzled, and delighted.

(Here I’m skipping details about changes in my personal life except to say that Vene and I divorced and that, in time, I fell in love with Austria-born Helga Wohlmeyer. We lived together for a few years before deciding to move to Europe.)

War and Peace and Stokowski

In September 1970, the tragedy of the war unceasing, Kathy Dobkin of WBAI came up with an astonishing project: a complete on-air reading of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In English, of course. She had recently read that the final volume had been sent to the publishers on December 4, 1869, and felt that December 4, 1970, could be its centennial year.

http://www.democracynow.org/2005/12/6/wbais_war_and_peace_broadcast_35

I participated in that ultimately major event, a non-stop marathon reading of the entire novel for four-and-a-half days. All kinds of celebrities were enlisted to read parts of the first American translation by Anne Dunnigan. Dobkin got Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra to participate.

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Some readers were invited. Others, like me, volunteered. The phenomenal cast included Richard Avedon, Anne Bancroft, Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks, William F. Buckley, Bennett Cerf, Dustin Hoffman, Mitch Miller, Joe Papp, Rip Torn, and Dalton Trumbo. Included were the aforementioned Stacey Keach and Barton Heyman from Arthur Kopit’s already-closed three-month-running Indians. BAI staff members read, as did WBAI subscribers, truck drivers, telephone operators, doctors, lawyers, salesmen.

(The entire list of names: http://pacificaradioarchives.org/1970-war-and-peace-cast-list)

War and Peace

Kathy assigned each of us our pages of the 1455 in Tolstoy’s 15 books within the novel. We readers didn’t necessarily encounter each other. Every part was pre-recorded. I recorded my own at WNCN, using music by Nino Rota as underscoring.

He wrote it for the 1956 Dino De Laurentis/King Vidor movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer.

This was yet another way I stayed involved with WBAI. A further one: a 1971 broadcast about Leopold Stokowski, including an in-depth interview with him from December 1970.

Actually, that October, Stokowski’s management had contacted WNCN to ask if the station would be interested in broadcasting an interview with him to promote a concert by the American Symphony Orchestra that he had founded in 1962 and of which he was very proud, especially due to his hiring and encouragement of many young musicians, including women, Blacks, and Asians.

NCN Station Manager Stan Gurell and Music Director David Dubal decided to have Bob Adams conduct the interview. I was not chosen. There was no reason that it had to be me. Perhaps they felt safer with Bob talking to such an enduring icon as the venerated 88-year-old conductor. Bob was a sweet and gentle soul, unassuming and modest. My interviews tended to be more probing, perhaps less safe and respectful.* So Bob, Stan, Station Manager Tom Bird, David, and Chief Engineer Ralph Olsen all went off to Stokowski’s. They took with them one of the station’s high quality Teac reel-to-reel recorders. Quite an entourage.

It didn’t go the way they had hoped.

Bob said that right away Stokowski started talking about his orchestra and pulled out a list of the musicians, reading their names, saying something about each person. On and on. Then, after name and bio number 14, he just stopped. He thanked everyone from the station for coming over. And walked them to the door.

When Bob spoke of the visit, he looked a little hurt, as if it had been his fault. David was more critical, angrily saying something about the maestro being senile.

Privately I was amused. I knew I would have done better. And resolved to try. BAI Program Director Bob Kuttner told me he’d be interested when I proposed it to him.

In a letter to the maestro, requesting a meeting, I pointed out that my father had performed under him in the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I asked Stokowski if he’d be willing to discuss not only the American Symphony Orchestra, but also the current state of American music and modern music in general, along with his celebrated, newsworthy, first public performance ever (1965) of the complete Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives and the subsequent recording.

Stokowski’s written reply agreed to meet and talk about those things, inviting me to his apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue, just south of the Guggenheim Museum. When I arrived, he greeted me kindly at the door, dressed in a loose-fitting, tieless dark shirt, with a grey sweater over his shoulders. What else he was wearing I did not notice, except that later, when he got up from the desk where we had been talking, I saw that he had on soft slippers.

He ushered me into his subtly-lit library where two walls were lined with LPs and 78 rpms of his recordings. On a desk, I put down my small Panasonic cassette recorder (BAI didn’t have enough reel-to-reels to lend me one) and its tiny microphone. A far cry from NCN’s classy equipment.

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I wanted to look at the recordings to find those I already knew and admired so as to praise him. There was no chance. “Please sit down over here,” he said in a soft, gentle voice, motioning to where he had already set up two chairs opposite each other.  

“Now,” he continued, “before we start, I must ask you to not cut out anything that I say or talk about. The conversation must be broadcast in its entirety.” It sounded more like a command than a request. He was used to being in charge, of course.

“That’s fine,” I answered. “May I turn on the recorder?”

He nodded “yes.”

Naturally I began by asking him about his orchestra; that was the reason he wanted to do this. Immediately he pulled out a program from a desk drawer and, opening it, began to do the same thing that he had done with Bob. But, after he had spoken about two musicians, I quickly cut in with “You must be very proud, especially because you’ve done so much to include women and Black people.”

He smiled, evidently pleased about the subject, put away the book, and began to explain his thinking behind such choices. Soon he was extrapolating, making clear his distress at the way American society was going, including the “dreadful” war.

Perfect. He had moved into BAI territory. I knew everybody there would love that.

The conversation flowed, covering American and other contemporary music. And, of course, the movie Fantasia, where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been re-arranged for the film. I asked him how he felt about what Disney had done. “It would be better, if you asked Stravinsky,” closing the subject.

He spoke slowly, deliberately, never seeming critical of me. More patient and polite than challenged. At one point, he asked me to excuse him. He wanted to go to the kitchen to get some tea that he had prepared earlier. Returning with his cup, he set it down gently, as if aware that the still-running tape recorder might hear the sound. Of course, I hadn’t turned it off, given his instructions, knowing full-well that I would nonetheless edit out the silence before broadcast.

After about an hour talking, he held up his hand, as if asking for silence, then moved it in a waving motion, left to right, clearly conducting me to stop talking.

Walking me to the door, thanking me for my interest, he asked when the talk would be broadcast. I didn’t know yet but said that I would call him and let him know. I had been thinking already about which of his performances I would feature on WBAI, including Roger Goeb’s Symphony No. 3 and Lou Harrison’s 1951 gamelan-influenced Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra. Both relative obscurities were among my all-time favorites. I told him so on my way out, hoping he’d be pleased and perhaps impressed with my knowledge. “I’m certain that will be fine,” was his only response.

The broadcast didn’t air until four months later. I taped it in January at NCN, turning it in to BAI just a couple of weeks before fulfilling a plan to leave New York to try to settle in Europe. The delay was deliberate. I had turned the program into something personal, as if some kind of a swansong, influenced by my belief that I might never return. I talked about my father and his connection to Stokowski, about how my brother had almost been named Leopold. I discussed family background in music and my recent years with NCN. That included a discussion about how the interview came about, including telling about Stan, David, and Bob’s failed attempt to get one. Not a kind thing to do, certainly, in retrospect. I’d always been treated well at NCN. They’d even allowed me to tape that feature there. It now seems childish. Moreover, what if I had returned to New York broadcasting at some future date? That could have tarnished my reputation.

And I did return to New York. Four-and-a-half years later. And no one ever said anything to me about that BAI broadcast. As if it had never happened. But so much had transpired at NCN in that time, that, if anyone from there had heard the Stokowski feature, they’d had more important things on their minds. Perhaps that broadcast was so insignificant that no one cared.

From WBAI folio April 1971 “A very strange and personal kind of documentary by the former WNCN producer and commentator.” Interestingly, there’s no reference to my connection to BAI.

Breaking Away

Helga and I started making plans to leave the U.S. in 1969. In part, the cause was my own feelings about the same kind of thing Stokowski saw, the falling apart of America. That had been underscored by such experiences as in Washington, D.C. and at Grand Central Station. It felt as if the Vietnam War and the killing of young American men in a lost cause would never cease. And the many people from all walks of life spent time and energy vigorously protesting in the streets, in public meetings, in the press, in letter-writing to people we’d elected without seeming to have any effect. The phrase often used was that Washington was not “listening.” Of course it was listening. It just wasn’t responding the way so many of us wanted. I could remove myself from where it hurt the most. It took another four years after our departure before that tragedy ended.

(Here I skip parts of the memoir about some of the first months in Europe early in 1971.)

And I got myself a legitimate press card, so that I could report on any news event I encountered—a document that could perhaps smooth my way into public events, perhaps also getting free tickets. Tom Washington, WPAT’s news director, gave me that card after I asked him for it, telling him that I was going to Europe but was not certain where I’d be in the months to come. He thought it might be interesting to have a couple of stories from me, having used me a few times as an on-street reporter in recent years. But he told me that I should only call in if there was a major breaking news story.

I never did send him anything. Nothing that significant occurred when I was present. The card did, however, temporarily legitimatize my residing in Italy until I was told to leave the country. And it also garnered a few gratis movie tickets in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Lisbon, and Paris. Plus those to shows, concerts, and operas in Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome, and Genoa.

We (me age 37, Helga age 30) did not know where we’d settle, or even if we would. Pure spontaneity. An adventure.

Neither of us had any idea how or if we’d find jobs. We just assumed we would. It seemed unlikely that I would be a radio announcer on nationalized stations where everyone spoke languages not my own. As for being an actor, that seemed another improbability.

In time, I would get an interview with Armed Forces Radio, perform Shakespeare on the stage of the Roman Arena in Verona, have a shot at appearing in a Fellini film, be in a play in Genoa, Italy, and audition as a jazz d.j. for Radio Monte Carlo.

Mostly though when it came to performances I was in audiences, although with my eventual job as a teacher of English to Italian adults, my outgoing personality clearly made my classes popular.

Personal fragments from four-and-a-half years in Europe

Ever the performer, though, I still thought about reporting and so brought along my cassette recorder to gather sounds of the various places we’d go and to talk about and over those sounds.

I knew that, without some kind of radio station commitment to broadcast anything I recorded, the only people who might ever hear my descriptions and experiences would be Joe Marzano, Bob James, my family, and friends. I’d send them tapes. Nonetheless, it would be a kind of reporting.

Further documentation was to be with a simple, single-lens Canon Super 8 movie camera. I was also eager to photograph everything for myself in any case. Collecting memories.

The Alleged Journalist

My first use of the press card was for admission to a movie in Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station). I explained to the woman at the ticket window that I was researching how movies sounded in German. Absurd, of course. But she didn’t care and let us in.

The reason was not to see the movie. We had nearly a day-long wait ahead of us to take a night train to Berlin, invited to stay at the apartment of Helga’s friends Cristina and Peter Witt. The night train was the cheapest option. Spending time at the movie theater was to keep out of the cold and the rain without having to take a hotel room for the day and to be in a place dark enough where we could rest and close our eyes without hearing too much noise, rather than in the Wartesaal (Waiting Room).

One theater looked promising, seeming to attract only few people during that day. Mostly men. Maybe it was the feature: Partnertausch und Gruppensex (Partner Swapping and Group Sex). The dialogue, which I heard while awake, tended to be soft, almost whispered. Given my language barrier, I couldn’t follow it, making for relaxation. Occasional loud orgasmic screams did create an alteration in the dynamics. Nonetheless, we both were able to doze off in our cramped isolated seats, far away from customers with their raincoats.

The train left at midnight, scheduled to arrive in Berlin at 7:17 a.m. We slept fitfully on hard third class wooden seats. No one there with us.

As we neared Berlin, a conductor told us we would stop in Falkensee for East German guards to inspect our documents and our luggage. That was the last stop before crossing The Wall to enter Berlin.

I peered outside the window and, in the fog, I could see a uniformed officer pacing back and forth. I grabbed my camera to take a quick picture.

Helga yelled, “Are you crazy? Put that away. What if he should see you?” By then I’d already taken a quick frame or two. Quickly I turned off the camera and stowed it with the rest of my luggage. Next to the tape recorder. I did not turn that on.

Helga had already prepped me what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do when an East German guard would arrive and question me. Don’t say I was a reporter. Don’t show my press card. Don’t speak German, which really wasn’t much of a problem anyway. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Allow her to do all the talking. Be sure to say that the reason for our trip was only as tourists. Say that we’d been invited by friends and try not to mention Peter and Cristina’s names. A performance. One which made both of us nervous.

A severe-looking officer, circa age 32, stomped into our compartment. His dark grey pants were so sharply creased that they looked as if you could easily slice dark German bread on them. The skin on his face gave the impression that he had just shaved about 10 minutes before. Helga greeted him with a smile. He did not smile back. He asked to see our passports, looking at us closely to make sure we were the same people as in the photos. He asked all the questions Helga anticipated, and she translated for him and for me where required.

He wanted to know if I had a camera. When I offered to show it to him, he told me not to touch it but to point to it. He then took it down from the luggage rack, opened the case and looked through the lens. Then he noticed the tape recorder. He wanted to know why I had one. I explained why and he accepted the answer.

He left. Soon we arrived in Berlin.

Once, standing on a platform overlooking The Wall into East Berlin, Peter saw me start to take out my camera. “Please, don’t do that,” he warned. “They might shoot you if they see you trying to take a picture.” I put it away.

So much for being a press card-carrying journalist.

A Job Interview

We went back to Munich by way of Frankfurt, following up on an application to be an announcer on the Armed Forces Radio network whose base was in that city. So, soon in Europe, I wasn’t sure about where I might call home or if such a job would be interesting. But why not look into it?

Before leaving the U.S., the program director at Voice of America had mailed me the name and phone number of whom to contact.

I’d auditioned for the Voice Of America when still in New York, figuring, incorrectly, that announcers for VOA would be in European studios. VOA sent an 18-page form to fill out and a script to record on my own. It contained, among other things, a page from James Agee’s Knoxville Summer 1915, some of which was already familiar from Samuel Barber’s composition of that name. One part has stuck with me.

“A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.”

I thought that I gave a good, eloquent reading. A polite thanks but no thanks.

In Frankfurt, David Mynatt was the AFR connection. He’d already received my résumé, and replying to my New York letter had said to come see him when in Germany.

In retrospect, it could seem strange that, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, I’d want to connect to the military. But, actually, I was against the government maintaining the war and had nothing but sorrow and sympathy for our young men sent there to die. In some kind of oblique way, maybe my broadcasting could take a turn towards solace, had I some choice on how I could perform.

Mynatt was very friendly, asked the usual questions about my experience and background but, clearly, was curious about why I’d come to Europe. Naturally, I didn’t talk about my negative feelings about where our nation was going but rather explained that my girl friend was Austrian and we’d come to spend time with her family and to look into settling down.

He gave me audition material to look over. A 15-minute newscast. A piece MC-ing a concert by the Armed Forces Radio Network Orchestra. A short script giving Americans directions on how to drive from Munich to Frankfurt, explaining road signs.

After I recorded everything, Mynatt listened to the tape, saying he was impressed with my German pronunciations of the signs and that I sounded really good reading the news and the concert script, but that there were few openings for civilians in general and none at that moment. He wrote down my only European address so far, in care of Helga’s mother in Vienna. And said to keep in touch, especially if I decided to live in Germany. I never followed up.

Helga and I knew that we’d not have enough money to splurge on travel until deciding where to live, assuming that we would. We’d buy a used Volkswagen van, go wherever we felt like going and mostly stay at camp grounds in as many parts of Europe as we could afford.

During our two-day stay at dreary Romeo e Giulietta campsite just outside Verona that month, I stood on the stage of L’ Arena di Verona.

Verona_-_l'Arena-2

The 1st-Century CE structure is a still-active and famed venue for summer opera performances. When we walked onto the grounds, carpenters and electricians were constructing sets. Hammers banging. Drills squealing. Then everyone took a lunch break at noon. Quickly I ascended the platform, telling Helga to take the tape recorder and sit on one of the seats within a curve distant from the stage. Eschewing the Balcony Scene from fair Verona where we laid our scene, thinking that it didn’t call for enough volume, I declaimed the Prologue to Henry V. After having spoken to an audience of six—Helga and five puzzled workers eating their sandwiches—we listened to the tape. My voice was faint but the words could be understood. Natural acoustics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verona_Arena

La ballata

In Venice a few days later I tried using the press pass to get into a movie, not just any movie, but a link to my past as an actor 11 years before. In a way-off-the-tourist-beaten path, Dorsoduro, we’d found a reasonably inexpensive pensione. Exploring the little bridges along tiny canals, wandering among the winding, mysterious, dark and damp alleys, we’d come upon a small neighborhood movie theater, showing La ballata della città senza nome (The Ballad of the City Without a Name). Not a title you’d recognize. But, looking at the poster, we could recognize that it was Paint Your Wagon. In late November 1960, I’d been in a production of that musical at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. How could we not go in to see it?

The somewhat unshaven, middle-aged man in the ticket booth was friendly enough, but English was not among his responsibilities. This wasn’t a tourist zone. Why would he have to know English? This wasn’t Germany or Austria, either, where so many people knew some of my language. I showed the man the press card. It made no sense to him. I said “giornalista.” Useless. With a shrug and a smile, he made it clear that he didn’t understand what I wanted. We paid.

The movie was already in progress. The chorus was singing “They Call the Wind Maria.” It was in English. Then the dialogue started. Dubbed Italian. I figured I’d be able to follow what was happening, storywise, but it turned out that the 1969 movie had scant resemblance to the very familiar original which I knew so well, having presented the cast recording on WNCN and WBAI. Most of the time, I had only the slightest idea about what was happening. Not that it was all that easy to catch every word. The house was full of its own Italian dialogue, neighbors gabbing with neighbors, getting up to sit somewhere else to talk with someone else. There was almost as much action in the theater as there was on the screen.

Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg’s characters seemed to have some remote connections to characters I knew from the 1951 version. There was no one resembling my role, Edgar Crocker. Ray Walston was recognizable amid the cast. Later research revealed that he played Mad Jack Duncan, another invention in the new script by Paddy Chayefsky. And new songs had been added by André Previn and the original’s lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.

Later, back in the U.S. in the mid-’70s, there was no immediate chance to see the movie. Nor much interest. I still haven’t seen it. Certainly it was no classic. “It just lies there in my mind—a big, heavy lump,” said Roger Ebert that year. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/paint-your-wagon-1969.

Fellini and me

I had a chance to be in an Italian movie. Fellini’s.

We were in Rome for eight days. I’d tried getting interviews at schools that taught Italians English, exploring possibilities for the fall if we decided to live in Rome. The Shenker School, at a great location right above the Piazza di Spagna, gave me a test. Amid the multiple choices, grammar-wise, were questions about the present indicative, the present subjunctive, the conditional imperative, and the future conditional. In English. Huh? Those words and their meanings were totally alien. Following my complete disqualification, the young Englishman who interviewed me was very helpful in suggesting where to earn a few lire in Rome, saying that there was usually something going on at Cinecittà where actors, such as I, might find work dubbing into English or, at least, getting parts as extras. Even though the sword-and-sandals epics were no longer being made.

Heading to Cinecittà, steering the van through crazy Roman traffic was a great game. No terror for this fearless weaver of New York streets. Given that the VW tended to dwarf so many little cars, such as the little Fiat 500, nicknamed Il Topolino (Mickey Mouse), I could be as charmingly aggressive as the Romans. Never looking right. Never looking left. Few side-view mirrors. Tooling along in traffic lanes whose lines were taken as suggestions, not imperatives, I followed the examples around me. Rule of the road: sempre diritto (always straight ahead).

Besides, what was the hurry? I was on vacation.

Green fields, many pine trees, and far-off stone fragments looking like ancient ruins surrounded the Cinecittà gates. The parking lot was not crowded. Probably nothing happening that Friday circa 7 p.m. I drove through the entrance without hindrance and found an office with a sign over it: Ultra Film Federico Fellini Produzione: Roma. Inside the office about six men sat around talking. They didn’t seem curious why I, such a stranger, had entered their space. I asked for someone who spoke English and a man, seeming in his mid-20s said, “I speak. I am Tonino. Fellini’s assistant. Can I help you?”

Apologizing for not speaking Italian, I asked if anyone at Cinecittà was making a film currently.

“Oh, yes. Fellini is making film about Rome.”

“Does he need actors?”

“It could be. Are you actor?”

“Yes.”

“Have you picture of yourself?”

“No.”

“Get one and bring; Fellini likes looking at pictures.”

“OK. Where? When?”

“Tomorrow is OK. Come here. We shoot something tomorrow afternoon. Probably finish 6 p.m.”

I drove back to the campsite and told Helga. She suggested that we find a photo kiosk at Termini station and take pictures. It looked less glamorous and exciting than it did in that De Sica film Indiscretion of an American Wife. Johnny Mathis’s version of a song from it, ”Autumn in Rome,” resonated in my head.

In my six small pictures, sometimes I was looking straight ahead, sometimes doing goofy faces.

With my name inscribed on each, I took them to Cinecittà that Saturday afternoon at 6 p.m. Entering the same office I didn’t see Tonino. “C’è Tonino?” I asked what looked like some of the same men as on the day before.

“Non c’è,” said one.

“But I thought he’d be here,” I responded, disappointed, of course, not that I expected anyone to understand.

“Può essere là,” the same man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the studios. I understood “là” (there), which was enough. So he meant, I guess, that Tonino was not in the room, rather that he was somewhere else in the vicinity.

I went walking through the nearby lots. Open-doored, empty studios. A costume shop full of all kinds of elaborate, ecclesiastical robes. Within the vast hall, it felt as if the costumes were waiting for actors to parade in them in a religious festival. Two women sewing in the vastness.

“C’è Tonino?” I asked. They looked up and smiled and shrugged.

Another studio seeming to be an unfinished living room. No one there.

I passed a group of five work-clothed men carrying tools and a ladder. “Tonino?” I asked.

“Non c’è,” replied one.

Maybe that meant he’d gone, or maybe just not near us.

After wandering enough, without ever encountering spectacular outdoor sets, as I’d hoped, I returned to the office.

“Ciao, Gordon!” Tonino greeted me. “How are you? Have you pictures?”

He told me to write a phone number on them. Explaining that we had no phone, he said. “Well maybe Fellini can talk to you today. Maybe a part for you.”

I nearly fell over.

Then he laughed. “No. I’m joking. Fellini is not here. But leave photos and call me, next week, maybe four or five days.”

In retrospect, the whole idea of me being there at all seemed pointless. What did I expect? That instantly Fellini would be thrilled to see my face and ask me to hang around for a few days until filming started? I was a tourist after all, with no plans to stay in Rome much longer. We’d been there five days already and had many cities, towns, and villages ahead waiting to be explored, along the Italian and French rivieras, in the vastness of Spain, in Portugal, southern France.

We stayed three more days. Before leaving I called Tonino. He wasn’t there.

fellinis-roma w name

Then, late in 1972, the movie came out. It was called Roma. A long, colorful,  ecclesiastical fashion show was in it, with priests modeling all kinds of bizarre clothes, on roller-skates. That must have been the wardrobe I’d seen stumbling around the back lots. One of the priests looked like me. My role! Except I would’ve fallen on my face. I never learned to roller-skate.

Before we left, I’d been leafing through the Rome Daily American, an English language newspaper. There was a small ad saying that Tony Scott, one of my long-time favorite jazz clarinetists, was appearing at a night club. The ad also mentioned pianist Romano Mussolini. The family name was certainly familiar. Naturally I hoped to hear Scott, even meet him, minimally, to express my admiration.

Entering the darkened club during the day, I found a bartender setting up glasses and bottles on the shelves. He spoke English. I asked if Scott would be performing there that evening. “He’s American playing with Mussolini, yes?” Different reputations, no?

“Yes. When will they play this evening?” I asked.

“Oh. Sunday was last night. They have left.”

“Do you know where they’ll perform next?”

He didn’t know.

The following year, living in Genoa, Scott and Mussolini had a gig there. I introduced myself to Tony and we became quite friendly, hanging out together quite a few times. More later.

Vivi in Italia

(Partial entry)

Clearly, what comes next is not about performing. It’s about adapting to Italian ways.

We settled in Genoa, where I had gotten a job teaching English to Italian adults at The British School and found an apartment in the city’s oldest section, Centro Storico (Historic Center), a place full of life and vitality. Open balconies looked out over the tiny Piazza San Luca, where a small church had bell-ringing worship on Sundays, something we late sleepers hadn’t foreseen.

Weekdays, the narrow streets below thronged with shoppers and visitors from morning to evening, people entering an appliance store, the cigarette-tobacco-candy-stamps-postcard shop (“Sale e Tabacchi,” a national government-run enterprise controlling the legal sale of salt, tobacco, and stamps), the narrow-framed place to buy women’s dresses with its “Entrata libera” (free admission) sign, and the man hustling illegal cigarette lighters, calling outAbbiamo la  bella Margherita(“We have the beautiful Margarita”), while scanning the territory to make sure no Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) would spot him and haul him off. All that kept buzzing, humming, and vibrating, except from noon to 3 p.m. during le ore di riposo (hours of rest); plus on Monday mornings, when everything was closed, a fire-eating street performer (who also escaped from chains in front of the very eyes of passers-by) did his act, his exhortations reverberating across the walls of the buildings surrounding him. We loved it. Most importantly, I could walk to The British School in 15 minutes from there.

Centro Storico w name
Genova centro storico w name
our apartment

When Edward Clegg hired me, he said that there was a procedure I had to follow: obtain a permesso di sogiorno (permission to stay) from La Polizia. He didn’t say why. But, as I later learned, his Genoa school, started in 1970, was not yet legally recognized by any local Italian authorities. And never was while I taught there. I had no contract. Payment was in untaxed cash. I went immediately to the Questura, a branch of the national police. Italy has two separate, equal police forces, La Polizia and I Carabinieri. Municipal police are I Vigili Urbani and La Polizia Municipale. And don’t forget the above-named Customs Police. At the Questura, I filled out multiple, much-stamped documents declaring that I was a journalist.

Helga got a genuine job. Clegg suggested that she look into working for the big international shipping and container company SeaLand, a major presence in this biggest port in the nation. Being multi-lingual and already an experienced secretary, Helga was quickly hired. To start in October.

First, we needed to get thoroughly settled. This being Europe, we had to buy a refrigerator and stove, plus pay someone to install light fixtures and a hot water heater. A strain on our finances. We lacked furniture. All we had to start was the removable VW bed, the camping table and chairs, plus a few kitchen utensils, mostly plastic. Camping indoors.

Helga’s brother-in-law, Peter, had told us that he’d be happy to give us furniture abandoned at his moving and storage company warehouse in Vienna. We’d have to import it. With documents. Helga’s future boss at SeaLand gave us tips on how to navigate through intricate Italian customs processes. The documents required, among other things, the name of the recipient, the “capo di famiglia.” Legally, that could not be me. I had no legal status. No evident financial responsibility. A living man not the head of the family? That didn’t belong in that culture. It took a lot of dramatic pleading and some SeaLand recommendations to have a woman’s name listed as capo di famiglia.

After resolving that, Helga set off in the van for Vienna to choose furniture to be transported and acquire other things which her family would donate, such as lamps, dishes, silverware. The one-day-990 km (620 miles) trip would take about 10 hours.

After lunch together in Verona, Helga drove north and I bought a train ticket to Genoa. The train departed Verona at 3:12 p.m. It never got me home. All passengers had to get off in Milano. Uno sciopero having stopped us in our tracks. Not, as it turns out, a rare event. “Sciopero” would be translated as “strike,” except that such strikes often have been unlike American ones. They usually are work stoppages. Sometimes shorter than a day.

pullman

When an announcement came over the train loudspeaker upon arrival in Milano, I didn’t understand enough Italian to grasp why everyone, grumbling, was getting off. But a Genoa-bound newly-wed young woman spoke enough English to explain. She said that everyone would get rides home in I Pullman. Weren’t they some kind of trains? Sleeping cars? No. The words mean large inter-city buses. Ours stopped outside every local train station all the way to Genoa. I arrived home at 3 a.m.

It became clear that scioperi were most often held to demonstrate the power and meaning of unions. The reasons could be about working conditions, of course, or just statements to remind the government, which usually was financially invested in the big companies where people worked, that such unions had enough political significance to influence the frequent elections. There was even a regular phone number to call for an automated recording about which strikes were imminent in the next few days. Moreover, during a bank strike in Genoa, one bank stayed open so that no citizen would be completely inconvenienced.

We took on the roles of innocent foreigners, even after we became completely fluent in Italian, learning to smooth the way by seeming not to understand what authorities, such as police, were saying; e.g., driving in Genoa, I took a forbidden left turn, not having seen the sign prohibiting it. A vigilo urbano pulled me over. Some of what he said was not clear. I replied, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian.” He waved me off. Annoyed of course. An object lesson. At customs barriers, we’d pass as ignorant Germans, our license plate and seeming language puzzlement breezed us through. We regularly parked illegally half a block away from home at a piazza reserved for commercial vehicles and never got tickets. And one of The British School teachers, a Scot, Paul Fraser, had been driving a 1965 Citroën with an expired English license plate for at least five years without problems. We soon learned that foreigners often were considered welcome guests. Tourism = big business. This was one of many ways we learned how things were done.

In 1973, after a visit to Vienna, Helga discovered that she had left some clothes at her mother’s home and asked to have them mailed to Genoa. A few months later, the Italian postal system, a legend in its time, delivered an official, much-document-stamped card, saying that the package must be retrieved at a customs branch in the main post office. I took the notice there. Not being able to prove that I was Helga, the package was denied me.

At home, then, I wrote a two-page letter, in long-hand English, consistent with the Italian belief that more is better, identifying the writer as Helga, explaining that the clothes were vital to domestic life, especially the night gown, whose absence compromised our marital intimacy. She signed it. At the nearby Sale e Tabachi I bought multiple document stamps and used one of my American X-Stampers (“Photographs—Do Not Bend or Fold”), stamping it multiple times to make the letter as official-looking as possible. The package was handed over without question. Our marital intimacy thrived anew.

Despite such smoothing of the ways, that same year, two years after having filed for permesso di soggiorno at the Questura, I was called in and told that I must leave Italy. I was required to depart within a week. My permesso had expired. Leave? But, I explained, we had a home and my wife had a full-time job! How could that be? The chief superintendent said that he was very sorry. That was the law. Patiently, he added, that it might be possible for me to return sometime and perhaps get another permesso, so long as it was provable that I had left. Perhaps a stamped passport?, he suggested. He regretted that he could not make it clearer. And could not extend the deadline.

Oh, I got it. Two days later, I drove to Lugano, Switzerland (two-and-a-half hours, 136 miles), having done so on previous occasions to shop and havaing my passport stamped at the border. Back home, no one came to arrest me. Then, several weeks thereafter, seeing there was no urgency, I applied for a new permesso and got one.

In early 1974, a letter arrived saying that the Comune di Genova was making a survey of apartments in Centro Storico to make certain that there were no fire hazards, requiring us to allow an inspector to visit. Finding that puzzling, we told friend and neighbor Jerry Reichman, a long-time American resident who earned his living as an Italian/English translator. He thoroughly knew the intricacies of Italian ways. He was very amused. “Oh, that’s actually the city tax office. It’s about yearly city residence taxes. Have you paid them anything?” Huh? We didn’t know we had to. “They’ll come in and look at how you live and ask seemingly friendly questions about what you own, almost as if it were a conversation. That way they can assess how much you should be paying. But they’ll never say that’s the reason for coming.” What about inspecting for fire hazards? “Sure, they’ll make it look like that.”

An inspector played his role. We played ours. When asked if we owned a car, we explained we had borrowed the VW from a German friend. It was never registered in our names. When we’d bought the van in Munich in 1971, we had no known address and weren’t even sure where we’d eventually settle.

About a year later, Italian procedural time, we were summoned to the tax office of the Comune. Legal papers showed that we owed 58,750 lire, about $840. That was a shock, of course. Jerry had coached me, however, to contest the decision. Another performance: as an American journalist, this inhospitality was dismaying. That, as only with a free-lance income, my earnings were intermittent and that was the only work on which I could count. Moreover, we regularly sent money to my dear old mother back in the U.S. (That was true—a check for $25 on holidays and for her birthday.) None of this was verifiable with documents. No one ever asked  about my teaching. Helga’s work was documented, of course. The tax collector then asked what payment we thought would be reasonable. I suggested 30,000 lire. Instead of rejecting the idea or the offer, he gave us appeal papers to sign, saying that the office would contact us about its decision. We were bargaining.

When we preparing to return to the U.S. in August 1975, a letter arrived telling us to pay 41,700 lire no later than October 21st. We followed Italian traditions and ignored it. And left town.

Other Performances

Jazz: Tony Scott, Joe Venuti, Stan Kenton

Tony Scott came to play in Genoa in the summer of 1972. His and Romano Mussolini’s Quartet had a weekend gig at the Estoril Beach Club. (Yes, “Beach,” a word in English. Hip.) I’d read about them in Il Secolo XIX, the daily newspaper.

Tony_Scott_1978 year

Arriving at the club, I had trouble recognizing Scott, but the clarinet gave him away. Photos on my LPs showed him with combed-back black hair, beginning to thin in the 1964 one, with Shinichi Yuize and Hozan Yamamoto, the enduringly famed Music for Zen Meditation. By the time he was visible in person he was totally bald and had a long, scraggly black beard.    

During a break, I introduced myself, telling Scott how much I’d admired him and that I’d often broadcast his LPs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York. He was delighted, of course, especially to encounter an American fan in Italy. We set up a taped interview for following day. He asked to meet at the club at 7 p.m. before warming up for the 8:30 show.

You might legitimately ask what I’d do with the interview. I had no radio show and didn’t anticipate any in the future. Certainly not in Italy. With the current intention of returning to the U.S. it didn’t matter.

But I did return. And hosted a jazz program for RAI.

Music-For-Zen-Meditation

Tony and I really hit it off. He was very impressed with how much I knew about him (“How’d you get into my life ?”). And my aunt Erminie’s connection to Shinichi Yuize solidified the connection. She managed Yuize’s U.S. career for about 10 years before she passed away in 1969, having given copies of Music for Zen Meditation to potential concert presenters. It turned out to be a regular source of Scott’s income for years. He, meanwhile, had been internationally peripatetic, starting in the early ’60s with rare visits to the U.S.

romano-mussolini- w name

In our interview he said that he loved playing with Mussolini (of course) and that the pianist’s name sometimes got them club dates, given that people were curious about the son of the dictator (and violinist). But it was clear that sometimes that name would turn away potential audiences. Certainly there were many jazz fans in Italy; in fact, there was Il Louisiana Jazz Club in Genoa. For such people, Tony’s name meant something. He pointed out that he was actually Italian himself: “I’m Sicilian and proud of it!”—a way of challenging the idea that to be Sicilian in Northern Italy was seen as equal to being an American red-neck. Actually, Tony was Italo-American, born Anthony Sciacca in Morristown, NJ. His parents were Sicilian immigrants.

After we finished the interview, he suggested that we keep in touch, giving me his phone number in Rome, asking for mine. He also said that he’d let me know when he’d play again along my part of the Italian Riviera. Plus an invitation to drop in on him and his family the next time we were in Rome.

Mussolini sounded good. Sometimes, when he moved his head, it looked as if he was jutting out his jaw reminiscent of photos of his father.

The next spring Tony called, saying that he had a gig in San Remo, a famed festival location on the Italian Riviera, west of Genoa. He wanted to hang out and see more of Genoa the day before the gig and to meet Helga. We invited him to stay overnight in the spare bed in our office.

Arriving at our door, he had no instruments with him. “They’re in my van, under the sopraelevata.” That section of highway runs above streets in the port, teeming with trucks loading and unloading merchandise to and from warehouses or to be carted into the narrow alleys of Centro Storico where no trucks or cars could maneuver.

“Gee, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “This neighborhood is not all that safe. I’ve had our van broken into twice.”

“What did they steal?”

“Nothing. It’s totally empty.”

You’d be better off doing what I do. Come on. I’ll show you.”

The inside of his scuffed FIAT van had broken bottles, torn cardboard cartons, a few rags, and crumpled newspapers scattered all over the inside. “No one thinks there could be anything worth stealing there, right?” he asked. “My saxes and clarinet are in their cases underneath that fake floorboard. They couldn’t be any safer.”

“But you could bring them up to our place.”

“Nah, I don’t feel like carrying them. They’ll be all right for the rest of the day and tonight I’m sure. I’ve never had any break-ins in Rome.”

While we were walking in the evening along Via San Luca, running by our Piazza, a few shops were closing, the owners pulling down and locking the iron gates as usual. During the night, by the way, hired patrolling watchmen would stop by, look in and put self-identifying slips of paper under the gates to show that they’d been there. And, as was sometimes true, as part of this evening, babbling men were clustered around a high cardboard box on the paving stones, evidently watching and participating in a card game, in which one man was flipping cards as if trying to fool anyone naïve enough to bet on winning laid-out cash waiting for a lucky winner.

“Look at that!” Tony laughed. “These guys are playing Three Card Monte. That scam is centuries old!”

Meanwhile, the five men around the box kept up a constant dialogue as if they couldn’t hear or understand anything Tony was saying. Since part the game is to make it look as if an innocent bystander has figured out a way to trick the trickster, one man turned to me with a wink to show me how he was going to win. He folded over the edge of one card. Meanwhile another man kept looking up and down the street as if checking to make sure no police were around.

“OK! Watch this!” Tony said. “That guy with the cards is going to unbend the presumed marked card and replace it so fast, you wouldn’t notice!” I didn’t notice. Meanwhile the cast of this performance kept on babbling, as if we were now a part of the show. We watched for a little longer but no real potential victim showed up.

Tony and I drove separately to San Remo. That weekend he also had a gig an hour west in Monte Carlo.

When I arrived at the small beach-front club ahead of the performance, it was clear that Romano Mussolini was not the pianist. No surprise, actually. Tony had told me that he and Mussolini sometimes had separate gigs. Backstage in the tiny dressing room, he ran an electric razor over his bald head.

Meanwhile, recorded music was playing within the club. Not straight-ahead jazz, but rather something that sounded like a saxophone electronically modified to create echoes of itself. Later, I realized that that was John Klemmer using an echoplex, a then-new concept. Tony grabbed his baritone sax and went into the club, playing his own notes to mingle with Klemmer’s. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Monica Sciacca w name

The last time we saw each other was in 1974 during a spring trip to Rome. Tony invited us to his house to hang out and, later, to have dinner. I met Tony’s two sweet pre-teen daughters. Nina introduced herself as “Nina Sciacca Scott” and then called over her younger sister Monica. Monica would later have a jazz singing career as Monica Shaka http://www.monicashaka.com/monicashaka/Home.html. Nina was the inspiration for “Nina’s Dance,” which Tony recorded in 1969 during one of his rare late 1960s visits to the U.S.

Their mother, Pauline, asked Helga and me if we liked Chinese food. Being Chinese, she wanted to cook some for us. What a delight! We had no genuine Chinese restaurant in Genoa, only one where Chinese cooks created something more Italian than Asian. And, except for one good Chinese meal during a visit to Bologna, there were no other Italian options about which we knew. Actually, our Italian friends were shocked that we’d eat Chinese food in what many consider the cuisine capitol of their nation.

I told Pauline that I wanted to learn to cook Chinese but that I hadn’t been able to find many special ingredients in Genoa. So she took us shopping with her to an open market filled with Asians, where we could find many elements I wanted. I loaded up. Then, preparing dinner, she taught me techniques.

Not long after, Helga and I went to the U.S. for a visit. We came back carrying extra luggage, clothing masquerading sauces, fresh ginger, and a great Chinese knife. Plus a few cookbooks. At Zurich airport there were no customs problems. And none driving across the border into Italy.

It took some doing for our Italian friends to try my new-found cooking skills. Not because it was me. But because of the alien ingredients and the strange blending of vegetables with meat or fish and unusual sauces. They were nervous and only on reflection, delighted.

As for Tony, when we left his sweet family and his warm hospitality he gave us his newest LP, one side his, one side Mussolini’s; he was trying to market it during gigs. It sounded great but I had no idea how I’d ever broadcast it. I did so a few years later, though. On Italian radio.

Venuti w name

That fall another famous jazz musician had a gig in Genoa. He, too, was Italo-American. Actually he might have been born in Italy. Joe Venuti was not only a legendary violinist; he was also renowned for varying his stories about where and when he was born. Lecco, Italy (not far from Milan) was one such place. Another was on board a ship heading to the U.S. And Philadelphia was often mentioned. The years? 1896 to 1904. Whatever the exact year was, the real one, he was close to my father’s age.

Louisiana Jazz Club

When he came to town to play at Il Louisiana Jazz Club in January 1975, I had had no jazz show for several years and was not following what was going on in jazz. Most of what I knew about him went back to the Paul Whiteman/Bix Beiderbecke days, although I did have his 1960 Golden Crest LP of Gershwin’s music with pianist Ellis Larkins. There had been a major comeback in his career, stretching back  several years.

I later learned that he had two 1970s recording sessions in Milan with Italian musicians. One session featured three performers with him the same year we met: Paolo Tomelleri on tenor, Tony Parisi playing bass, and drummer Giorgio Vanni. Also present were Nando DeLuca at the piano and Gianni Coscia with his accordion. (I kept written notes.)

Venuti talked about his early days and about how he came up with the idea of playing jazz on the violin. According to his story, he’d been on the last stand in the second violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1921 (“about age 15”) studying with concertmaster Thaddeus Rich and felt that didn’t look like a promising career, causing him to be interested in a popular music career. Was that true? He didn’t seem to remember that Stokowski was the conductor. And to not remember one of the most famous conductors ever seems odd. Note: Venuti’s history would mean that he had been there four years before my father joined the Orchestra in 1925.

Of course, we discussed Venuti and Eddie Lang’s influence on the Stephane Grappelli/Django Reinhardt groups about 10 years thereafter. I pointed out that I regularly heard Grappelli’s recordings on nearby Radio Monte Carlo, but never heard Venuti’s. His only comment was that he thought Grappelli always sounded great.

Other jazz musicians who turned up were Stan Kenton and his orchestra for a one-night stand. I went backstage, proud of being a hip American who knew their music and knew the city. Backstage, I asked some band members if they’d like to see some of the city sights. “Nah. Just tell us where there’s a good restaurant near here,” the bassist said. A classic story. A one-night gig. Who’s got time for tourism?

GS on stage. Not on the radio.

Hound

In 1974 I actually performed myself. At Genoa’s British Club. It came about through fellow-American Don Ferguson who had been a teacher with me at The British School. Don knew the Club manager. The two of them thought it might be rather droll to stage a one-evening club performance of Tom Stoppard’s one-act The Real Inspector Hound. The manager drafted a few club members to take supporting roles, while Don and I played the leads, with, of course, acceptable English accents. My role: Moon. Don’s: Birdboot. No director. It was quite informal. The audience included a few fellow-teachers and others from The Overseas School (more about that  later). Certainly, given that Genoa was a major seaport, there had been other native English-speakers in town to swell the scene. All in all, about 20 people sat around us in comfortable chairs and on sofas to witness our endeavor. Were we any good? Possibly. There were no reviews to stir any recollections now.

That was the only time in Italy that I had an acting role.

There was a brief, tentative attempt to be on the radio. Helga and I frequently listened to Radio Monte Carlo, whose multiple signals were both in French and Italian. Mostly we loved the jazz on the French station. I’d had a wild fantasy that I could become a d.j. on the Italian station. And the headquarters, after all, were not very far away, west of the Italian Riviera, 180 or so kilometers, about two hours on an Autostrada. Why not? I was an experienced jazz d.j. with a good library of LPs which had been shipped to us by then.

So, after a phone contact in the summer of 1973 with station director Noel Coutisson, I got an invitation to drop by and bring an audition tape. I slapped it together the best I could, using my LPs and recording my voice on the only recording equipment at home, a cassette deck.

Radio Monte Carlo w name

The station was as elegant as any I’d ever seen, recalling my visit to the broadcasting Oz of WNEW about 15 years before. Coutisson, speaking impeccable English, was very friendly and courteous, asking if I’d want to settle in Monte Carlo, should he think that I’d fit in on his station. The idea of living in that slick, high-rise-dominated city didn’t feel all that attractive, really. It had none of the personality of everything I loved about Italy. I didn’t say so, though. I said that I was more interested in having a show once a week, since a daily drive each way of two-and-half hours would be hard to manage.

I left the tape, and he promised to get back in touch with me. After we parted I stopped in one of the many nearby casinos where I won 40 francs, about $18. (Monte Carlo is geographically and culturally most tied to France.)

Coutisson never contacted me and I never followed up.

In the audience

As for Italian radio, it never went further than listening (until 1979 when I had my own weekly taped jazz show on a Genoa station).  We often enjoyed classical music programs on RAI 3 where that was the feature.

When starting to listen, we also were amused and entertained by RAI 2, which had quite a variety of programs. Most fun were easy-to-understand talent contests and quizzes with live audiences. “Corrida” had amateur singers whose audiences cheered or jeered contestants, then voted for the winners.  In “Le piace il classico” contestants had to answer questions about classical music. Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was the show’s theme music.

gettone-oro

Both had prizes in gettoni d’oro (gold tokens). Since Italian law prevented gambling (uh-huh) no government entity, such as radio, could pay in cash. So the prizes (200,000 lire in one case, ca. $250 at the time, worth $1,425 in 2015) were in gold coins equal to that value in gold at the time of the award. The award would not be sent until six months later, when the recipient could sell the gold at the then-current price. Selling to the Bank of Italy was not advised; it didn’t offer good rates compared to private/business buyers. These complications were characteristic of the baroque Italian ways of doing things, given fractured history and separate regional identities, where independence and individuality were prized.

tarzan-cover

My favorite was a radio play designed, it seemed, to teach English. The first episode of Tarzan mixed a cartoon-like dramatization with sound effects and music, involving occasional interspersing of English phrases in the narration, where the action stopped and a woman narrator said, for example, “Tarzan was the son of an English lord,” followed by a male narrator, “Tarzan era un figlio di un lord inglese.” Then she and he took turns repeating each word several times, adding such enrichments as “son, daughter” (pronounced “dowter”) “figlio, figlia.” Other useful English phrases included “The father of Tarzan was sailing to Africa” “Il padre di Tarzan navigava verso l’Africa,” supplemented by repetitions of “mother-madre” and “a sailor saved the parents of Tarzan” “un marinaio salve i genitori di Tarzan.” Actually, none of these three translations was completely literal, as it turns out. The villain of the piece was growling “Black Michael,” who spoke only Italian. Tarzan narrated in Italian as, well, as if an old man. The show ended with a rock song in English with a young male voice singing “My name is Tarzan.” I could find no source for it online. Years later there was such a song in Disney’s 1999 Tarzan. The naiveté of the whole radio show was such fun.

There were other radio plays and many deliberately back-to-back commercials in clusters, often read by  men and women duos. The cluster concept was very common in state-run broadcasting in much of Europe then.

Il Teatro Comunale was a short walk away from our apartment through the narrow alleys and streets to Via XX Settembre. There, because I was a journalist, press tickets were available for a performance by Genova’s Teatro Comunale Opera Company of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Carlo Bergonzi was the visiting star. I’d always admired his recordings but neither of us was much devoted to live opera, often finding staging and acting stilted and forced. So we couldn’t help laughing at Bergonzi’s hammy movements, despite his fine singing. That didn’t endear us to people sitting nearby. But we loved the music.

Another time we went to a concert there by l’Orchestra Sinfonica di Genova. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was on the program. What we most noticed was how the string sections never bowed in unison. It seemed so Italian to be independent and personal. The sound was OK.

One of the first movies we saw in Genova was Gli insospettabili (The Unsuspected Ones) starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It was actually Sleuth. The dialogue was all dubbed into Italian and we understood virtually none of it. We did enjoy a toothpaste commercial, though, before the feature started. It was for Close Up, pronounced in the voice-over as Cloh-zay Oop.

i soppravissuti

In the next couple of years, more fluent in Italian, we saw two other dubbed films. Hitchcock’s Frenzy, which kept the title. We exited the theatre truly shaken. And I Sopravvissuti (The Survivors) a.k.a. Soylent Green, equally understandable and disturbing.

(more excerpts)

I was fired at The British School when another American teacher and I tried to organize the staff into a collective group to get better pay. I succeeded, however, in keeping many of the people I’d taught as my personal clients.

I also started teaching at The Overseas School where children of American, English, and others took classes. It was only as a substitute but I loved every minute and decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life. When there was a staff opening it was not offered to me but to a young Englishwoman who’d been teaching at The British School. I was told that one main reason for choosing her was because she had a teaching certificate which I didn’t have.

I could have gone on being a substitute, of course. Instead, Helga and I decided to return to the U.S. so I could get a teaching certificate, with plans thereafter to return to our beloved Italy. We did come back. But only as visitors.

We took a passenger freighter to New York, bringing along only essential household goods in the hold. Most of my LPs, for example, were left in storage.

Why New York? Helga’s former boss had said, when we had left for Europe, that there would always be a job for her with him should she want it. She contacted him and he affirmed his offer.

Bites Out of the Apple

Back to New York

I got a teaching job. There was a last-minute opening to teach 5th grade at The Bentley School on Manhattan’s East Side. I was offered a yearly salary of $8,000 (equal to about $36,000 in 2015). Forget New York sustenance.

I was fired five months later.

My experience at The Overseas School had not prepared me for trying to control sometimes spoiled New York City kids from affluent families. Students in Genoa had nowhere else to go. They were on their best behavior. Students in New York private schools had many choices. Competition. Such private schools did everything they could to make sure that the parents got their money’s worth.

I started without any experience in establishing control. On the wrong foot. Moreover, I arrived suffused with European-influenced politeness, devoid of my former New York edge. Certainly that made me appear soft to some kids. Later, though, I was able to frequently take charge. And some students loved me.

My departing letter of reference: “…high ideals…stimulating and challenging…personal integrity.” I had been very creative, innovative, and original. But my imaginative extrapolations from the curriculum got further and further behind the school’s intended schedule.

Moreover, I struck a student. Johnny Callaghan had been one of the most disrespectful and disorderly students in the class. I’d kept him after school more than once, to the dismay of his mother and of school director Katherine Cantwell. The last time he was sequestered, he’d reached over onto my desk and tried to take a pen out of my hand. I slapped his hand. Lightly.

That did it. Gone.

We’d come back to New York so I could get my teaching degree. But during those first five months all my time outside of class was spent preparing the lessons and studying books on how to teach.

Helga’s salary wasn’t enough to sustain us. I needed another job. No time yet to study for a teaching degree.

General Development Corporation was looking for sales people. I applied. The product: land in newly developing communities in Florida. Real properties. In my training class, other candidates were convinced I’d be a success, coming across as outgoing, friendly, fluently verbal. Yeah. I could talk. Never closed a sale.

X Stamper

Next I joined the sales team selling XStampers, a newly emerging self-inking product developed by Shachihata, Inc. at a time when rubber stampers always needed ink pads. My training included a “sure-fire” script. Working my assigned territory, Manhattan businesses north and west of Washington Square, I always felt I could do better improvising on the script. My sales did not flourish.

I got career advice from an unexpected source. A psychic. Via Helga, who’d always given a lot of credence to non-rational experiences, intuition, forms of spirituality, the possibility of the exchange of unspoken thoughts, and so on. To some extent, I shared such beliefs, especially regarding my own intuitions.

Helga had read a New York Times article about this man who’d recently moved to Westchester. Call him Walter Siegmeth. Siegmeth had made it clear that offering psychic readings was his calling and his profession.

Out of curiosity, Helga contacted Siegmeth to make an appointment. Perhaps, if he had insights, those would help us clarify what we were doing with our lives or might do, something we felt we needed to do. Before her visit, she encouraged me to go if her own experience justified the idea. She also planned to deliberately avoid mentioning my name and to say nothing revealing about me. She stuck with her plan and, after her visit, returned impressed.

So I went.

Siegmeth told me that, when he gave readings, they were things that he could sense about people, but that he never intended to project anyone’s future.

While I sat, he paced his living room, twirling what looked like a broken strand of a wire hanger. Among other things, he correctly perceived that I had a serious circulation problem in one of my legs. He didn’t specify what it was. It was postphlebitic syndrome that I’d had for many years. Given that I had never limped or favored that leg, there was no obvious way to intuit that.

Soon he looked puzzled. “You know,” he said, “I cannot tell at all what you do professionally.”

“I’m a salesman,” I told him.

“No. No. You are not a salesman.”

“But, it’s true. That’s what I’m doing these days.”

“I understand. But, even so, you are no salesman.”

He was right there; I was not a success.

“What else have you been doing?” he asked.

“Well, I was a teacher.”

“No. You are also not a teacher.”

I replied, “But I was a teacher and I loved it. ”

“Then why are you not doing it now?”

“I was fired,” was my answer. Upon later reflection, that question made me ask myself why I didn’t keep on trying to be one, if it was so important and meaningful.

“So then, you are not a teacher now. Yes?”

“Right.”

He twirled his wire more. “No. I see you doing something else. Something to do with music.”

Interesting, yes? “I hosted music programs on the radio.”

“Aha!” He said. “Then, why are you not doing that now?’

I explained to him that I felt teaching was more important.

“Forgive me,” he replied, “but I perceive you as belonging with music.” Well, yes. That was my professional past since 1955 and at the core of my being, given my love of music and my family history.

Twirl. “I also see you as some kind of administrator connected with music. Have you ever done that?”

“No.”

“Yes. Well, I see you writing down a lot of numbers somehow connected with the music. Does that mean anything to you?”

It didn’t. It seemed totally alien.

“You know, it is not my prerogative, nor part of what I do, to tell people how to manage their lives. Perhaps what I see is in your past, of course, but it sounds like that is what you should be doing in any case.”

I left distressed. Not that he was counseling me, or that I needed to take seriously his suggestion. But going back into radio still seemed too insignificant, valueless to society, even if something easy and fun.

A few months later, I went back to WNCN and WQXR. And every day, when I was on the air, I had to write numbers, start times and finish times of music and commercials in the logs and schedules. I used to do that in the 1960s but had forgotten.

A radio performer again.  

Helga and some New York friends had more than once told me that I should return to a radio career. Given Siegmeth’s comments, she had further underscoring.

David Dubal w name

Naturally, I first contacted WNCN’s David Dubal.  He was still the music director. But the word “still” conjures up fascinating events which had occurred while I was in Europe.

For about eight months, WNCN didn’t exist. A rock station took over its frequency. Starr Broadcasting had bought NCN, lock, stock, and frequency in May 1973. Trying to make profits, in 1974 Starr turned it into  WQIV, “Q” for quadrophonic, “IV” Roman numeral “4” for four channels.

Loyal long-time WNCN listeners were up in arms, feeling that New York was being deprived of a major cultural treasure, that WNCN had served different classical music audiences than WQXR, which had always maintained more conservative main-stream programming. Certainly, in my previous days there, WNCN had been different (as you can see above.)

Thus were born the WNCN Listeners Guild and Classical Radio for Connecticut. They raised private funds for a lawsuit against Starr, also taking the issues to the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court. By then Starr was having problems. The SEC levied heavy fines and censured some principals. Plus a potential buyer challenged the FCC license renewal. Starr flickered and faded and accepted a Guild-engineered offer from GAF Broadcasting.

WNCN returned in June 1975 under owner No. 3, a 20-or-so-year history.

Much of the above information comes from Matt Edwards, who was quite involved with the Listeners Guild. He also is behind the maintenance of wncn.org, where his writing is full of all kinds of interesting information about the station’s history through its final days in 1994. Another source of clarification: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WAXQ#WNCN

In fall 1976 I was glad to come back as a part-time substitute announcer, thanks to David. It was a compromise; it meant having decently paying work, even if it was insignificant as a meaningful contribution to society.

The programming had undergone a major change. GAF’s station became much more WQXR-like despite the Listeners Guild’s intentions and wishes. Guided by management, David chose well-known, well-loved compositions. Nothing too modern. Nothing too challenging for the listeners. Accessible. Safe. Some Guild members expressed their displeasure. This was no longer like the last NCN. But there was nothing the Guild could do about it.

And, to increase ratings and keep listeners tuned in, there was an avoidance of modern or experimental music.

Plus no vocals were permitted, meaning no opera arias, no Renaissance songs, no sacred works with singing. There were always listeners who’d complain about what they perceived as annoying screeching.

GS & John Gruen names

Unlike at the previous NCN, none of us on-air hosts chose any music for broadcast. The management wanted total control. That had always been the pattern at QXR and such control has been standard for many years in most commercial radio stations and even in many public ones. The station also published a monthly program guide, Keynote, a classy looking magazine which was a successor to the same-named publication started in the 1960s.

However, station manager Bob Richer and program director Matt Biberfeld wanted all announcers to have a lot of freedom in how they hosted programs and for us to think of ourselves not as announcers but as disc jockeys. Personal, personable, relaxed, casual. For classical music radio that was still rather rare. That, at least, was different from QXR, where only George Edwards and Duncan Pirnie would be considered personalities, albeit, by then, rather predictable and conservative-sounding. Like someone’s uncles. FYI: In 1987 QXR fired them both for “not having enough audience appeal” according to the station. Both filed age-discrimination suits. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/27/arts/tv-notes.html

Also rare for a classical music station, we were expected to frequently mention the call letters, just as most pop music stations did. QXR didn’t do that. And to repeat the letters whenever or wherever possible. The reason: when telephone ratings surveys were taken, the idea was to imprint the name on the listener, or Arbitron ratings where listeners had to write in the call signs of the stations to which they listened. That’s something wide-spread in radio now, e.g., “Here’s the WNCN weather forecast. “The time at WNCN is 6:46.” “On WNCN, that was Rossini’s Overture to La Gazza Ladra.”

Relief announcer Dick Jayson had trouble with repeating station IDs. In the ’70s he was doing the same sort of thing I’d been doing in the 1960s, filling in on many stations. When he came into the control room he exuded a palpable sense of nervousness. I asked him why. He explained that he was always anxious about giving the wrong call letters on the air, so he wrote down the kinds of things mentioned above and pasted a big handwritten sign on the board with “WNCN 104.3” in bold letters. In truth, giving the wrong call letters is no disaster. I’ve done it a few times, given my vast range of radio hosting. Nonetheless, such a mistake still regularly turns up in my nightmares.

When I first joined NCN, Matt Edwards hosted the Morning Concert, Bob Adams, the Afternoon Concert. Those SOP imaginative program names again. Former stage and movie actor Oscar Buhler was the regular staffer during 6 p.m. to midnight’s various programs. Midnight to 6 a.m. there was “Music Through the Night with Fleetwood,” a continuation of what he had been doing at WNBC for numerous years. Other part-timers and relief announcers regularly included Max Cole, Lucien Ricard, Frank Coffee, and Clayelle Dalferes. (There are multiple references to Matt, Bob, and Max in my pages above about the 1960s.)

In late 1976 Bob Richer fired Bob Adams, dissatisfied with his performance. I took over Afternoon Concert. I was back to full-time radio, despite my reservations about that meaning anything important. Well, yes, it seemed where I belonged. And soon, continually immersed in the kind of music which I loved I was once again delighting in sharing it with audiences.

Then, in the fall of 1977, Matt Edwards quit for personal reasons.

Here we go again. Staff changes in broadcasting. Almost as many turnovers as Pepperidge Farm.

Richer came up with what he thought would be a coup. To replace Matt with BAI’s much-enjoyed and quite-famed Larry Josephson, who loved and broadcasted classical music. That is, when Larry felt like it. His program had always been more personal than anything any of us announcers could do on NCN.

The publicity over Larry’s hiring certainly generated interest. And public dismay. Even before Larry arrived. But his advance reputation as a curmudgeon didn’t help. Classical music listeners tend to prefer sunshine and warmth in the morning. Moreover, being from BAI, there must have been lingering anxiety that Josephson would start advocating the overthrow of commercial broadcasting, popular culture, Jimmy Carter, and the American Way of Life, underscored by readings from Karl Marx.

Larry hosted for one week.

As you can see from what I wrote about him re: the 1960s, he was out of his element. He had to present someone else’s choice of music, provide weather forecasts and time checks (as I had suggested he do back in the 1960s…see above), stick to schedules, read commercials, the standard format for most morning radio. Even the word “format” must have been an anathema. And, apparently, he even derided commercials, on the air.

Listeners had proof of their fears. They called the station. They wrote. They telegrammed. They won.

Bob Richer has since acknowledged his mistake.

Next up on Morning Concert, Bob tried me. Public enthusiasm. Calls. Letters. Telegrams? Nah. People who complain are always more numerous than those who compliment. I became the newest morning star. Jim Pinckney was hired to host Afternoon Concert.

Morning Concert had two parts. Six a.m. to 9 a.m. was basically “morning drive,” i.e., where Josephson stumbled. Nine to noon featured longer pieces.

I decided that I would have as much fun as possible, taking Richer at his word about us as disc jockeys. Why be deadly serious in the rather formal, restrained approach of the time? Certainly QXR’s George Edwards would never dream of making jokes. But plenty of compositions up to the present day are jovial, entertaining, and light-hearted. Back in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, for example, audiences cheered and applauded cadenzas, sometimes stomped for encores between movements, and were rarely as reserved as worshippers in churches. Think of the majority of Baroque music. Or Mozart’s irrepressible sense of humor. Or Strauss polkas.

So I had fun with, e.g., Offenbach’s “Orpheus in His Underwear” Overture, or Spoonerisms, like Handel’s “I Know That My Liver Redeemeth.” Goofy background stories emerged, such as a scherzo (Right. Joke) for piano four hands, me saying that it was for four-handed German virtuoso, Hans Keinfuss. Or reporting that Johann Strauss’s “Wine, Women, and Song Waltz” was a companion piece for his brother Eduard Strauss’s “Bier, Männer, und Schreien” (“Beer, Men, and Yelling.”)

I pointed out that one of Chopin’s Nocturnes was published posthumously, because he had been dead when he wrote it.

7 Veils

On an April Fool’s Day I presented a “very rare” recording of “Salome’s Dance” by Richard Strauss, a.k.a. “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where audiences would be able to hear the dancer. Over an open mike (mine), while Reiner with the Chicago Symphony performed, “Australian exotic dancer Mildred Dawkins” was heard ripping fabric and becoming increasingly out of breath.

We sometimes had Japanese-imported LPs with liner notes entirely in Japanese except for the name of the writer. Calling attention to one such LP’s notes, I observed that Alan Rich wroteこれは素晴らしい記録で, which I “read” in my best John Belushi-like samurai warrior voice. A caller chastised me, saying that I should not have done so, that the Japanese were “a peace-loving people.” Huh?

Certainly, this being New York, sloppy pronunciations of foreign words were a nein-nein. But my alleged Japanese was never criticized as being wrong. Imagine.

Sometimes, incidentally, in 1982, when quoting liner notes on-air I credited them to Hannelore Rogers instead of the actual writer. We were dating at the time. Later we married. Much later, she actually wrote liner notes.

Since NCN catered to knowledgeable, sophisticated listeners, I also decided to invent a cataloguer of works by Vivaldi, Baroque compositions being a staple of non-threatening music. His concertos have been ubiquitous on accessible classical music stations. I wanted to see if I could put one over on a Vivaldi nerd. And I did.

Vivaldi  was rather casual, even disorganized, about dating or otherwise identifying what he wrote. No opus numbers, which was not unusual in his day. Given more than 500 concertos, it became difficult to be precise about them, especially given that there are multiple works in the same key for the same solo instruments. Musicologists have delighted in creating their own catalogs, most prominently Marc Pincherle’s “P” number, Antonio Fanna’s “F,” and Peter Ryom’s “RV.”

I added “S” for Sondaggio, as a person’s name. Sondaggio is actually an Italian word meaning “search.” The numbers I used were record company catalog numbers.

Eventually, I landed a fish. There was a fascinated phone inquiry about Sig. Sondaggio. I replied that I had met that remarkable scholar while living in Italy and that he came up with a fool-proof system which he permitted me to use. The caller wanted a copy of the catalog but I demurred, explaining that I had only one, on very frail onion skin paper and didn’t want to let it out my sight. Disappointed, he hung up. And then he called back a few months later to say that l had given the same “S” number to two entirely different works. And to express his doubt about the whole idea. Perhaps Sondaggio had made a mistake, I suggested. “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” he asked, dismayed. I reassured him that it was genuine and he never called again. He was the only one who took the bait.

Every hour from 6 to 9 a.m., David Dubal deliberately programmed at least one extremely popular and familiar piece; I’d call attention to it by calling it a “Classical Hit” and then ding a nearby metal lamp with a pen.

During nine to noon, with my more free time between selections, I’d copy recorded promotions for upcoming syndicated national/international orchestra programs and then dub, edit, and re-use conductors’ comments, such as Carlo Maria Giulini talking about words Beethoven wrote on one of his scores, Giulini saying, “What is meaning? Is a mystery. Can we say this is great music? Yes. Is.” Transposed to “This is great music? Is a mystery.” It aired occasionally after pieces I thought trivial.

Although, inevitably, there was pleasure listening to, or at least overhearing good classical music, there were duties. For example, giving traffic and transit reports during drive time. We had no one on the streets calling in, but doing my own research was not required. Biberfeld felt that we needed to give listeners a sense of what was happening, so that they’d stay tuned and not seek truly useful information at “all-news” WINS or WCBS. All I had to do was call New York City Police’s Traffic Control Division and get some kind of report twice each hour. Not to overburden me, given that I was already announcing, running the equipment, monitoring volume, taking hourly remote transmitter readings, searching liner notes for informative supplemental comments, ripping copy from the AP news printer, assembling and editing the copy for broadcast, writing everything in the log and cleaning LPs (see below.) Thus I had friendly daily phone connections with Sergeant Tom Washington at Traffic Control.

Early on, Washington told me that he got his information from listening to WINS (“All News, All the Time. You give us 22 minutes; we’ll give you the world.”). Fine by me.

On a Tuesday ca. 7:22 a.m., Tom told me that nothing was happening. I didn’t believe it. New York on a workday morning? I didn’t say so to him; in my next on-air report, I announced that Sergeant Washington of the City’s Traffic Control Division said that there were no problems. Whoops! At my subsequent call he sounded truly nervous. “Hang on, Gordon! Hang on! I’ll get something,” he said. Clearly word had gotten back to him about my mentioning him on the air. Thereafter he always had some kind of information. Was it accurate? Up to the minute? Who cares? We’d both done our duty.

Being up to the minute also meant giving weather forecasts and time checks. One morning an angry caller said, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You said it was 6:41! It was 7:41!” To which I replied, “I don’t get your problem. You knew what time it was.” Later that morning, Richer told me that he had been the caller. Not angry. We both let it pass.

Actually, answering the phone while on the air was not required. But we did it sometimes.

Speaking of time, the station format at the new NCN much resembled that of QXR. All programs were broken up into hourly segments. Certainly that made sense during drive time when we had to prepare and read wire news copy at 6, 7, 8, and 9 a.m. But not at 10 or 11 a.m., for example. And Jim didn’t have newscasts at 12, 1, 2, or 3. At the previous NCN, we had longer works lapping over the top of the hour, say a 25-minute piece starting at 12:50. And that was a much better idea; it served the music, instead of serving the format.

This hourly format exists today in many stations and still makes no sense. It means that music directors have to squeeze everything into hourly bites. And being a commercial station means having enough breaks between pieces to fit in commercials, i.e., requiring time for non-music. Since no NCN announcer was permitted to do any programming, the way to fill a rare shortage of music was with extra talk. Easy.

But, if something were to run over that was a problem. We had found solutions for such problems. For example, we’d delete a movement from a baroque concerto. Who’d notice? Or we’d skip a section from a ballet suite, etc. But sometimes there was only one option: make the tone arm jump while playing the LP, by tapping the turntable, or banging on the counter next to it and then fade down the music and re-set the tone arm further in. (This bounces back into memories of my overnight show on an even earlier NCN in 1958 when opening a drawer under the turntable. See above.) Yes. We did that. Who came up with the idea? No idea. The practice was already on-going when I joined the staff.

Another responsibility was to “cushion” intense, recorded, ad agency commercials whose aggressive productions were deemed insufficiently civilized to be heard immediately within earshot of classical music. Sure, NCN was a commercial station, but management was sensitive to criticism. So we announcers had to make sure that we sandwiched such spots in between more restrained ones, read by us live or ad agency-generated. In fact, early in my years there, Richer had even asked such agencies if they would allow us to read the copy instead of having to broadcast their productions. After being turned down too often, he felt that he couldn’t pass up the revenue.

Richer was truly a hands-on station manager. He had to be. Commercial success depended on him. NCN had never made a true profit in all of its 20 years, regardless of management. That may have accounted for his seeming edgy much of the time. His demeanor felt different than Stan Gurell’s at the 45th Street NCN. Gurell often came across as congenial.

Of course, GAF had put a lot of money into this new version of the station, just around the corner from the last one. 1180 Avenue of the Americas. It didn’t look radically different. But daylight streamed through windows; the previous NCN had been encased by walls and hallways. Yet, although the new offices were larger, nothing seemed stylishly modern.

Clearly, a hell of a lot of money had gone into the sound quality of broadcasts. Audio engineer Dick Sequerra had been hired—and paid handsomely—to design everything in the on-air studio and all the equipment that it needed for maximum high-fidelity. Sequerra had been a designer for Marantz electronics, producers of high-end audio equipment, and had his own company as well.

The on-air studio felt like a sacred inner sanctum. One entered through a door leading to a slightly upward-inclined hallway to a second door. The studio was actually suspended above the floor underneath and supported by pads to eliminate any vibrations from the street or the subway below the building.

Once the building got a serious bomb threat, not against us specifically, but we were all warned to evacuate. I was on the air at the time. I chose to stay. Not only to be defiant, but I also felt that the way the studio was suspended and cushioned, I was entirely safe. There was no bomb, by the way.

Monks cleaner w name

The studio didn’t look unusual. Except for two extra turntables not next to the board. They didn’t play LPs; they cleaned them on a Keith Monks machine.  We had to clean every record before it aired. This meant that the first turntable’s tone-arm circulated water-dampened, groove-sized threads into the LP at high speed, and then the second one’s threads dried the grooves. Fastidious attention.

Two massive speakers loomed against a wall facing the console. When Richer would bring in visitors he’d often point with pride at such equipment, calling attention to the cost. At times, he did so while I sat there at the console, unacknowledged. I’d identify myself, pointing out that I operated this magnificence and that, jovially, of course, there was some cost for my services.

All of us had AFTRA union contracts. Never having discussed the amount with any of the staff, it was never clear if everyone got paid the minimum required as I did. In 1977 that was $27,000 a year (in 2015 = $109,000). Although we were union members, we rarely concerned ourselves with issues or contractual digressions. This was not the same as how QXR felt back in the ’60s (see above); QXR was part of The New York Times, a thoroughly unionized operation. Moreover, QXR announcers were among that rare breed who didn’t run their own equipment while on the air. Union engineers’ duties included lowering tone arms on LPs, moderating the music volume on-air, and opening and monitoring what announcers said on microphones.

I had been an AFTRA member as far back as the early ’60s and had seen the benefits whenever I’d subbed at QXR. There was good pay and there were good ancillary benefits, such as some medical insurance. I always took pride in being a member of the union all through the years and was an active participant in national and local union meetings, mingling with celebrities far better known than I but feeling like an equal.

Come 1979, GAF’s contract with us was due for renewal. Bob Adams had been the last shop steward. No one had volunteered to replace him. But that role needed filling when the contract issue emerged. I volunteered to be steward, which was to everyone’s relief; they didn’t want the responsibility nor the risk of seeming militant.

Not that this meant that I was in charge of anything or a labor organizer. The steward linked the staff and the union, making personal decisions, but might be called upon to talk to management on behalf of the staff or the union.

I called a 1978 meeting for the announcers to collectively decide what we wanted in our new contract, which I would then convey to AFTRA. Other than more pay, we wanted little else, except maybe time-and-a-half for working holidays or getting compensatory days off. AFTRA’s Irv Lewis worked on our behalf and advised us that getting raises plus that time-and-a-half deal might not be easy. The negotiations stretched out for many months. Ultimately we got slight raises plus an agreement about the time-and-a-half, with neither Richer nor us becoming combative.

During that same year, Richer called us four full-timers together to talk about some “really bad news.” First and foremost, bad news for him and GAF. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled on the AFTRA/Bob Adams suit about his firing and ruled against GAF. “So we have to take Bob back,” Richer said, clearly dismayed. “This is a problem; we only have slots for four full-timers, so I have to let one of you go. Gordon, you were the last one hired, so, I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you on full-time staff.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; this was more astonishing than threatening. How could Bob think he’d get away with it? AFTRA would have instantly contested a dismissal without cause, especially due to my being shop steward. Maybe he thought I’d not contest what he said. But I did. “Bob,” I replied, “Jim was the last one hired.” Sitting there, Jim was clearly distressed.

Richer looked even more dismayed. “OK. Sorry, Gordon. My mistake. I’ll have to think this over. Jim, you can stay for now.”

Of course, Richer must have known that Jim was most recently hired. And he couldn’t find any other way to justify dropping me. Certainly he wouldn’t have dared to get rid of Jim. Jim was Black; it would look like racism. Who knows? Maybe Jim and AFTRA would have filed suit over that.

Pinckney remained. And two weeks later, Bob Adams returned to WNCN, but not as a program host. He was given a news shift with no connection to the music, which he loved as much as we all did. We had no regular on-air news reader; we had always assembled and read the newscasts ourselves. Bob was also given a special schedule: Wednesday through Sunday 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., i.e,. no weekends off. The dark hours of the dawn. Clearly this was meant to make him dislike the job so much that he’d give up and quit. He didn’t quit while I was at NCN. I’ve since learned that he was even hosting Music Through the Night, according to Keynote in 1984. Where was Fleetwood then? I have no idea. An on-line obituary says that Harry continued on NCN with Music Through the Night into the late ’80s. Bob died, by the way, in 2010 at the age of 92.

Some incidental moments:

I’ve since learned from Bob Richer, with whom I’ve become friendly, that Fleetwood liked to turn off all the lights in the offices and hallways and leave on only a tiny lamp next to the console. Harry had contended that the VU meters gave him all the illumination he needed. And evidently, he occasionally took timed short naps. But how long could they have been? Maximum: one side of an LP, i.e., approximately 25 minutes at most. Back in my early NCN days, we’d had as much as an hour, given those long tapes. Now that was a real nap.

There was an announcers-only utilitarian bathroom which was immediately outside the Master Control entrance. It had a toilet and a sink, so that an announcer could rush and flush quickly when needed. There was no other facility in the offices, which meant the rest of the staff had to take a long walk past all the desks to a hall in the building. Couldn’t the big budget have afforded something more convenient? Staffers, of course, would yearn to use what was more readily available, the announcer’s perk. Once, while I was in there, a couple of the women knocked on the door hoping for access, as if I’d been there too long, meowing like kittens. I opened the door, pants on the floor, and said “Be right out.” They dispersed.

Pleasures and perks

BeverlySills w name

In 1980 I became friendly with Beverly Sills and a number of stars from New York City Opera. Bob Richer had developed a new close relationship with the Opera, further enhancing our reputation on the New York classical music scene. We program hosts went on the air with interviews and conversations with company members, broadcasting from the New York State Theatre, helping to pitch subscriptions in Operathons, events similar to now-current public broadcasting stations’ on-air fund drives. Thus we felt close to the people at the Opera, including Sills, who had just become the company’s new general manager. Bob had proposed the tie to Peter Sharp, president of the Opera. They worked out a deal for NCN to broadcast Opera performances and syndicate them. Subsequently, the Operathons repeated for several years.

As an outgrowth of that, we also fielded a softball team (“The Brahms Bombers”) to play against an Opera team in Central Park. The NCN staff was certainly much smaller than theirs; we might have had, maximum, 15 employees. I played, but the station turnout was small; we were able to field only eight players. So, the Opera team lent us some ringers. Of course, they had plenty of people with athletic abilities. Think of stagehands, for example. The Opera team was so eager to play that, at one point, an umpire had to stop the game; the Bombers had 13 people on the field, of whom five weren’t us. The Opera won, of course, especially due to two home runs by Sam Ramey, in both cases when the bass emptied loaded bases.

NCN was certainly doing well by then, sometimes surpassing QXR in the ratings. Sometimes they were slightly on top. Not that there were major differences. Together we had only a fraction of a market as big as New York’s. But under Richer’s guidance and Biberfeld’s, as well as with true PR savvy, we were taken seriously. This was certainly different from the days of a niche audience, albeit truly devoted, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Corigliano w name

We got major coverage in the classical music world when, April 21st, 1982 we had a four-hour live broadcast featuring as guests and performers, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Morton Gould, Ruth Laredo, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Eugenia Zukerman, and more. Beverly Sills was there, of course, along with NYC Opera’s Carol Vaness and Alan Titus singing selections by Bizet and Gounod. There was also a reception at the station for the broadcast connecting it to inaugurating a new studio from which we could broadcast live performances, as we did that day. Beautiful, expensive sound-proofing, of course.

By then, NCN was finally making some real money. At the end of 1981, we’d celebrated the first year ever when the station had made a genuine profit, 25 years after the station went on the air. Each of us got a commemorative marble and brass paper weight inscribed “With thanks for your help.”

Walking into that new studio, separating myself from the milling, jolly guests sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, having glad-handed many and received lots of compliments for my expertise, I saw an elderly, balding man sitting all by himself. No one else there. He looked forlorn, so I wanted to cheer him up. “Mr. Thomson,” I said, “I’m so glad to meet you and see you here.”

“I’m Aaron Copland,” he said gently. So much for my expertise.

It’s actually contradictory that we had those contemporary composers as our guests, since GAF’s NCN avoided broadcasting programming contemporary music for fear of turning off listeners, turning their dials elsewhere. I’m sure David had never scheduled any of Ned Rorem’s beautiful songs, for example; music emanating from singers’ lips would never be allowed to cross that audience’s ears.

In the Science Network days David and all of us had been deeply involved in airing music of our time, and he had had many connections with such composers. No wonder the Listeners Guild was stirred to get NCN back on the air, and no wonder they were distressed that the content had been so down-sized into easily accessible listening.

Wuorinen w name

Sure, at the latest incarnation of the station, we often aired interviews with such major living members of the concert music world, even as we had done in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We just didn’t air their music. In one such interview with Charles Wourinen, I asked how he felt about such an absence of his compositions on NCN. He replied that meant people would be stimulated to go hear it live.

When I met Corigliano in 2015, discussing the reception 33 years ago, I hadn’t remembered that he had been at that 1982 event. He also told me that he’d been the Music Director at WBAI in the early 1960s and had likewise participated in the War and Peace reading project. When talking about the Wourinen interview, I actually had forgotten with whom it had been, telling Corigliano about the above comment. “Yeah, that had to have been Charlie Wourinen.” I was shocked. How did he figure that out? “That’s the kind of thing he would say.”

Throughout all of those years, it was great to feel so much a part of New York’s classical music life, to even feel significant in my own way, not as some kind of minor celebrity, but more part of a community, as if we were equals.

Spartacus_by_Howard_Fast

Moreover, ever since my first days at NCN, I was regularly offered free tickets to theatre and concerts or was given them when they had been requested. That was marvelous. Example: One day I was presenting music from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, music which, incidentally, I admired. Saying so on the air I mentioned equal admiration for the movie, and how it had marked the return of blacklisted screen writer Dalton Trumbo, adding that equally disgraced Howard Fast deserved much credit for the great book on which the script was based. A few days thereafter a package arrived at the station from Fred Bass at Union Square’s famed Strand Bookstore. He’d sent a copy along of the book, autographed by Fast.  

Another time a package containing eight bottles of Martini & Rossi vermouth was sent to me, after I’d been reading live copy for the product on the air. Who sent it? No idea. I gave away all but two bottles to other people at the station.

Jazz Plus a Few Other Cats

Bill Watson (already mentioned in Chapter Radio Daze) was on QXR in 1976 when I was added to the substitute announcer list once more, not that we ever encountered each other at the station. He had a weekly pre-recorded program sponsored by American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s NCN broadcasts and personality and not only paid to have him host three hours once a week on WQXR but also hired him to select and announce all the classical music recordings heard on American’s in-flight music services.

I’m sure QXR required Bill to tape his show to be certain that Bill would not do something radical on the air for which he’d become so well-known during 15 years at NCN. I heard one such program while I had an evening shift. Bill said something about having received a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. That was all he said about that person—no thanks, no comment—moving on to announce his next music selection. Had this been the old days, he would have most likely excoriated the listener on the air for something in the letter. I asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “Yeah. All the time,” he answered.

Matt Edwards says that when Bill no longer had the American Airlines broadcasts, he was out of radio permanently and told Matt that he’d become a janitor at a New Jersey shopping mall. A New York Times 1992 obituary said that Bill died at age 77 in a Westchester County nursing home. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/21/nyregion/william-watson-eccentric-host-of-classical-music-is-dead-at-77.html

At QXR I became friendly with Earl Bradsher, Jr. (a.k.a. Earl Bradley) who regularly broadcast weather features sponsored by Con Ed. Earl was one of the few out gay men I knew and was critical of closeted others, such as those at WNCN. He was planning to start a classical music radio station in St. Petersburg and kept urging me to consider becoming his program director. Since I had no intention of leaving New York, when he moved to start up WXCR  (Tampa Bay Concert Radio), he asked me to record station IDs for him. Which I did gratis. In December 2015 I searched for his name online and found it in a 1983 piece in the St. Petersburg Times. Clearly at that time he’d started the station. What happened thereafter is yet to be found.

QXR dropped me from the substitute list when I went full-time at NCN.

Reunited with Jazz

At BAI I got to renew my weekly American Music series, again featuring contemporary concert/“classical” music, jazz, film scores, and cast recordings of musicals. Since at least half of my 1960s LPs were still in storage in Genova, I was in touch with record companies and began to re-build my library. Also there were a lot of new “modern” music LPs at NCN, never to be aired. I incorporated them into my broadcasts with David’s tacit acceptance, because they never left the station and were played only on NCN equipment. Bob Richer OKd my taping there.

Gino

There were a few pop records coming into NCN. Among them was one by Gino Vanelli, Canadian pop/rock singer/writer who’d created a symphonic piece Pauper in Paradise, which had a lot of appeal and seemed just right for the BAI program where any kind of musical cross-over fit right in. With that and other Vanelli discs, I became a fan.

This was a time when jazz musicians were into the trends of what sold best—latino sessions, fusion, funky hard-bop. Sure, I liked some of that and programmed it, but the mainstream was still my stream.

Of course, substantial audiences remained for much of what jazz greats were still doing in person but on fewer records than in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Plus there were  younger musicians who were carrying on such traditions, especially those debuting on newly emerging Concord Records, such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché, both of whom I interviewed (Hamilton in 1981 and Vaché in 1985).

Hamp LP

During that time Lionel Hampton had started his own label, Who’s Who In Jazz—great sessions where Hamp performed separately, with Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, and more. Impressive line-ups and lots of good playing. The production of the LPs left an indelible impression. They were the sloppiest such product ever seen, with misspellings of artists’ names, strange and varying typefaces, wrong composer credits for some of the songs, including Hampton’s taking credit for something called “Short Ribs,” which was really Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some  Barbecue.” In one instance, a jacket cover made it look as if Coleman Hawkins was on the recording. He wasn’t. Margaret Mercer was listed as a co-producer for some LPs; she had been an assistant to David Dubal around that time and later became program director at WQXR.

I hosted a jazz radio show in Italy, taped at NCN.

Radio Genova Sound

In 1978, I went on a holiday, revisiting Genoese friends from the time when I’d lived among them. They included painter Gianni Ghiazza. When I told him about my jazz shows in New York he introduced me to Marco Remondini who had recently started his own radio station, Radio Genova Sound. English words. Very hip.

Marco had started the station in 1975 at a time when RAI owned and controlled all Italian broadcasting. His was one of a number of private stations that started cropping up around then. They weren’t legal. But, since no government agency made any moves to close them down, such owner/operators continued broadcasting based on the widely held Italian modus operandi that anything not officially prohibited was tacitly acceptable. Soon the private stations were being fined as unauthorized businesses but still not prohibited from broadcasting. They opted to pay fines and several decided to appeal their rights legally. In 1976, the Italian Constitutional Court, in a case involving a Florence station, held that the RAI monopoly was unconstitutional regarding local broadcasting. Radio Genova Sound was officially on the air. http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Broadcasting_in_Italy-Overview.pdf. These stations called themselves “public” radio to contrast with state radio. They also sold advertising, as did RAI.

Marco and I discussed producing a monthly two-hour bi-lingual show on tape and mailing it. He could only afford to pay me 40,000 lire per show (ca. $50 then and about $190 in 2015) plus mailing costs. He thought it was equally hip to have someone on his station speaking some English. This was a characteristic intro: Allora, qui abbiamo un disco da Duke Ellington. This is the 1959 orchestra with Johnny Hodges, sax alto as soloist, e dopo Jimmy Rushing canta and Dizzy Gillespie plays la tromba. The titles “Fillie Trillie” e “Hello Little Girl.”

The show was called Jazz Da New York con Gordon. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

Guardie di Finanza col nome

On a second trip in 1980, I decided to take two boxes of tapes, 12-inch reels recorded at 7.5 ips, which equals one hour of the show per tape. I was carrying six months’ of shows and traveling by train from Germany, as opposed to my previous visit in a rented car. Arriving at the Italian border, two members of the Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) asked me what was in the boxes. In Italian. Stupidly I replied in Italian, forgetting my old practice of speaking English when confronted by Italian authorities. Usually in such instances I was left to go on my way, being considered thereby to be a tourist, i.e., guest, or because the authorities usually spoke very little English. This time I was taken off the train and questioned about the legality of transporting unauthorized recorded material, as if it were a product for sale. (At least I was smart enough not to mention that Marco paid me for the shows.) The Guardia guys felt that I should pay customs fees. But after some friendly discussion, given that I was an American and could prove it, and that I didn’t actually live in Italy, they decided to let me go and put me on the next train.

Then, in 1981, I met Carla Verdacci of RAI at a party at a friend’s apartment. I mentioned my on-going show. She suggested that I send her a copy of one of the tapes; she might be interested enough to propose it to RAI back in Rome. She liked it. She pitched it. Jazz da New York con Gordon became a monthly RAI feature all across Italy for two years until I was no longer in New York. At  double the payment rate.

Woody on clarinet

Reversing directions, two close Italian friends came to visit New York in 1976 and were eager to hear Woody Allen play his jazz clarinet. They knew the dates and the place. Allen appeared at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. We went. His group of musicians, some of whom were familiar to me from records, got into traditional New Orleans style. Allen sounded quite capable but not distinctive. But my friends didn’t care about that; they just loved being there. After one set, Allen took a chair on the stage and, sitting by himself, shook hands and held brief conversations sequentially with any people in the audience who wanted that personal contact. Sort of a Santa Claus line. My friends were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him, me translating. He was courteous and polite.

I did a few interviews for my BAI program. Two stood out. One with Ruby Braff. The other with Gerry Mulligan.

Ruby w name

Braff was my all-time favorite trumpet/cornet player and I’d cherished his recordings for more than 25 years. He was appearing in the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Having never seen or heard him in person I was looking forward to that. And decided to try to get an interview. With his phone number from the Festival publicity office, we made an appointment to meet at his apartment in the Bronx. 

It was clear from the start that he was delighted for the attention. He was jolly and outgoing. We both had a great time. When the taping finished he gave me a couple of new LPs he’d recorded in England. One was on the Pizza Express label, Braff Plays Bing. He told me a story Crosby told about himself. In the early ’70s when Crosby was in his, a New York taxi driver asked him, “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” To which he replied, “Nah. Must be some other fella.”

Braff also told me a Benny Goodman story. Braff had played in some of Benny’s 1950s groups, in person and on records. Eleanor Steber (opera soprano) had gone to Goodman’s house to go over some music they were planning to perform together. Steber told B.G. that the room felt very cold. Benny agreed. Excused himself and left the room. And returned wearing a sweater. Without further comment. Steber told this to people she knew.

Ruby and I became something like friends. He suggested that we keep in touch and that we should hang out together. He’d call me. Which he did. He invited me to join him at Jimmy Ryan’s where one of his favorite trombonists Vic Dickenson was playing. They’d had some great sessions together for Vanguard Records in the ’50s. Being a big fan of Dickenson, I looked forward to going.

Vic w name

I’d never been in Ryan’s, despite its reputation. It usually featured traditional jazz, a.k.a. Dixieland. Even though I loved such music along with all other styles, going to any club was not something I did. Ruby and I stood at the bar talking during the music. Conversation under such circumstances seemed normal. This was not a venue for a serious concert. At a break, Vic Dickenson came over to the bar near us. Despite his vigorous outgoing manner on the stage, he looked serious. “I’d like to go over and tell him how much I admire his playing,” I told Ruby.

“Don’t embarrass him. Don’t embarrass him. He hates having to play here,” Ruby replied. Then Ruby went over to Dickenson, wordlessly shook hands and returned to me.

Soon we were conversing about musicians playing in clubs, competing with all the noise of talking people. “They’re listening,” he said. “They hear what we’re doing. And I know when to play softly to get their attention, if I want it. That’s what it’s like in clubs.”

Roland Hanna w name

A month before, I’d gone on a Thursday evening to hear pianist Roland Hanna play in a small club near Washington Square. There were only a few people there to eat, drink, and listen. Always a Hanna admirer, I was once again impressed with his gentle, lyrical pieces. Clearly a party of six, really partying, wasn’t listening. Gabbing. Laughing loudly. All of a sudden in the middle of one piece, Hanna got up from the keyboard and went to a table by himself. Going over to him, I told him how much I liked his playing on records and just a few minutes ago before he’d stopped. “Yeah,” he said, sadly, “but how could you hear it?” I replied that I could hear it and asked why he walked away from the keyboard. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I can’t compete with that.”

Telling Braff about that, Braff commented, “Jesus Christ! What did he expect? It’s a club.”

And we talked, too, about Charles Mingus who’d eventually given up such live gigs, laughing together at a Mingus’ recording, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, where Mingus wanted to give the feeling of a club date and begins by telling the audience how to behave.

Another time Ruby invited me to one of his small club gigs in Fort Lee. He performed with a guitarist and a bassist and kept loudly calling out key changes after a few lines of notes in the same tune. It was very distracting.

Dick-Hyman-AP w name

In April 1982, he invited me and my girlfriend/eventual wife Hannelore to hear him at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. Pianist Dick Hyman performed with him, a pairing with great results already on records. That afternoon Hyman played the church’s pipe organ. The idea for both of them was not entirely new; in 1977 Hyman had recorded on a studio organ with Braff in a set of Fats Waller-connected tunes (Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive). This time Braff was facing downstage, his back to Hyman, whose back was to his. They played magnificently. How did they coordinate without seeing each other? I asked Hyman afterwards. He showed me two mirrors he’d set up on the organ wings.

Braff had told me by then he hated playing in such out-of-the-way places as that one in Fort Lee, but that he always tried to avoid big clubs where there was a lot of smoking; he was developing emphysema, making it increasingly difficult to get the most out of his horn. FYI: he died of it in 2003, more than 20 years after we’d connected.

Having left New York for New Mexico later in 1982, I didn’t try to stay in touch. Frankly I made no effort to do so, just as I’d neglected to sustain a similar friendship with Tony Scott.

However, just a few years later, Ruby was appearing at one of Dick Gibson’s famed jazz parties at Denver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel that I regularly attended. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB117434857526842076.

Waiting for a set to begin, I was standing in a hallway, when drummer Bobby Rosengarden walked by. I recognized him from when he’d played with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. “Hello Bobby,” I said. “You’ve played with Ruby Braff, right?” He said that he had. “Is Ruby anywhere around? I’m a friend of his.”

“Yeah?” Rosengarden replied. “Probably the only friend he’s got.” And walked off.

I soon found Ruby in the hall, talking to bassist Michael Moore. I went over to them.

“Hello, Ruby!” I said. “I’m Gordon Spencer. Remember? We met in New York.”

“Yeah. How you doing Gordon? Good to see ya.” And he turned back to Michael Moore. Dismissed.

Certainly my feelings were hurt. But I let it pass. I’m sure Ruby had met a lot of people in New York and elsewhere. Given that this was at least three years since we’d last been in touch, it might have been natural that he didn’t remember me.

But what did Rosengarden mean? In time, I learned that Ruby was becoming more and more contentious with everyone he knew. He accumulated quite a negative reputation, being called by some colleagues “Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde,” no doubt inspired by one his favorite Robert Louis Stephenson books. You can likewise see him being nasty in an interview with Brit Jim Godbolt. https://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/jim-godbolt-interviews-ruby-braff. However, there Braff is also full of praise for many jazz greats and turns out to be eventually quite congenial. It’s a great interview.

Interviews with musicians can often turn out to be challenging. Even those of us who come fully prepared have to expect many variables. Some musicians are so outgoing and friendly, such as Louis or Duke, about whose interviews I wrote above, that the interviewer is almost superfluous. Yet there are other artists who are not that articulate, or are distracted, or bored, or even annoyed, especially when dealing with the same questions that they consistently get asked.

My interview with Gerry Mulligan had a much different feeling than the one with Ruby. In January 1981 I’d seen an article in New York Magazine about Mulligan, mentioning that one of his quartets was to play at Eric’s in February. I called the club to see if I could get Mulligan’s phone number so as to set up an interview. That made it possible to call Mulligan. I told him that I’d admired him for years and that I often played his records on WBAI, WNCN, WOND, WFLN. Politely he said he wasn’t much available because he was working on writing new orchestral arrangements for a concert with the CBC Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in June. But that, if he had some free time later in the month, he’d get back to me.

As the date for the gig at Eric’s became imminent, not having heard from him, I decided to call again. Responding, he said, “Well, as I think I told you I’m really busy. But, all right, if you want to come up to my home in Darien, I guess I can spare about an hour. But no more. Would that be acceptable?”

Yeah, if I’d thought about it better, I might have realized that this was something of an imposition. But I was so eager to talk with him that I didn’t want to miss the chance. It was clear from what I’d recently read that Mulligan was, off the stand, an intellectually alive person with many interests in all kinds of things, including (like me) classical Indian music and yoga, theatre, literature, movies. I felt as if we might bond. Well, anyway, I hoped we would. That was certainly naïve.

Mulligans w name

Arriving at his house, I was warmly welcomed by his wife Franca. We exchanged a few words in Italian and she led me into their living room. Mulligan told me (again) that he hoped we could keep the talk to no more than an hour.

Every so often in the conversation I felt that he was a little put off by the questions, not that they were in any way personal, but rather as if the answers were so obvious that they needn’t be asked.

It wasn’t a bad interview by any means, but listening to it later, he sounded impatient at times. I concluded that he hadn’t really wanted to be bothered but had felt it was an obligation, being, after all, somebody famous who needed to not be dismissive of the press.

We ran into each other again in February 1995 at a gig. He fronted a quartet playing in Milwaukee where I was living, hosting jazz shows and serving on an advisory board for a series of jazz performances at the Pabst Theater. I was the m.c. I didn’t expect him to recognize me after 14 years but went up to him to say hello and to remind him of that encounter. Remembering that Franca spoke Italian I thought it would be cool to talk to him in Italian because he must have known some. When I started speaking, he looked totally unsettled, as if facing an obstacle that threw him off-balance. I guess he didn’t understand. Apologizing in English, I told him my name. Then, when introducing him on stage, we shook hands as if old friends. It had never occurred to me that backstage he could have been nervous before a performance. So many people are. Why shouldn’t he be?

Clearly we never bonded.

In 1978, I’d gone to a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Stan Getz was on stage. (“That’s some kind of genius,” Ruby said to me once.) Before Getz started playing, he went over to the microphone stand then walked away from it. Calling out backstage, he said, “Would someone take this thing away from here? We don’t need it. This is Carnegie Hall for Chrissakes!” A stagehand came and moved the microphone to the side of the stage. Many of us cheered. I vowed then I’d find a way to tell him of my admiration.

In late June 1982, I had that chance. He was to appear at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a reunion concert with Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. The “Four Brothers” shared the bill with younger, further-out guys, the World Saxophone Quartet: Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray.

Through the concert promoters, I’d been able to phone Getz and he said to meet him backstage after he, Giuffre, Cohn, and Sims had practiced out front.

They ran through a few arrangements, deciding who would solo where, Getz then came to where I was sitting, leaving the other men still on stage talking, occasionally playing a few notes, as if trying out things.

stan getz w name

He seemed gentle, almost serene. Quite a contrast to ebullient Ruby Braff and opaque Gerry Mulligan. I told Getz of my admiration for his Carnegie Hall comment. He smiled. “Yeah. You’d think they would have known better. Horowitz wouldn’t have had a mic.”

I took my tape recorder out of a bag and plugged in a microphone. Immediately a tall, grey-bearded man in sloppy street clothes walked over to us.

“What are you guys doing?” he challenged.

“I’m going to interview Mr. Getz,” I replied, showing him the microphone and the tape machine.

“Says who?”

“What do you mean?”

“You have permission from IATSE?” (The backstage tech union.)

“Gee, no. Do I need that?”

“Goddamn right you do!”

“Well, I’m an AFTRA member.”

“And I’m with the AFM,” Stan added.

“Look,” the IATSE guy said, getting pissed off. “I don’t care what unions you belong to. This is an IATSE space. You can’t record here. We do all the recording. You know, I could confiscate that equipment you’ve got. So you better get the hell out of here right away if you know what’s good for you.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

“Well, you should have.”

I was flustered and distressed, not able to think what to suggest next to Stan as we walked out of the building. Upon exiting, we ran into bassist Marc Johnson who just happened to be passing by. Johnson had played with Bill Evans at the same 1978 Carnegie Hall concert as Getz. Stan hugged him tenderly, said something I couldn’t hear, and we continued heading toward Columbus Avenue.

I knew that Getz had used an echoplex a few times and I’d had felt that saxophonist John Klemmer, well-known for that device, sometimes had a Getz-like tenderness in his playing. “I was wondering,” I said to Stan as we walked, “Do you think that John Klemmer was influenced by you?”

“God, I hope not,” he replied, grinning. Before I had a chance to ask what that meant, he’d hailed a taxi. Getting in, he asked, “Can I drop you off somewhere?”

Oh, I thought, he’s through with me. “If I go wherever you’re going, maybe we could talk there?” I suggested.

He directed the driver to an address in Greenwich Village. “Look, I’m staying at Irwin Corey’s house. I shouldn’t bring in any uninvited guest. Maybe we could do this some other time.” Perhaps he’d been put off by that IATSE encounter. Certainly I was.

He left me off near Times Square and I walked cross-town to my apartment, dejected.

Irwin Corey w name

Incidentally, long an Irwin Corey admirer, I always loved his Professor act (“The World’s Foremost Authority”), having seen it numerous times on TV, especially on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen where the routine ended with Corey being chased through the audience, i.e., “Stop that madman!” I’d even used some of his style in my Beyond the Fringe audition back in the ’60s (see above). Plus something in Corey’s face reminded me of my father in a jovial mood.

Actually I met Corey in 1978. Gary Gumpert, an old friend from my days at Temple University, had heard me on NCN and called to re-connect after so many years. He invited us to a party at his home in Great Neck. On a balmy April evening we sat in a small garden outside his house where Gary introduced me to some neighbors. Corey was one of them.

Corey looked just as I thought he would, except that his hair was combed and he was wearing clothes more casual than the falling-apart, semi-formal attire of his standard act. Naturally I told him how much I’d enjoyed his performances. “They are terrific, aren’t they?” he asked with a serious expression on his face.

Used to talking to famed people, mostly musicians, I wasn’t star-struck. Rather than pepper him with questions, I told him about how Gary and I knew each other and about Temple U and my own performing background. Corey seemed interested. Soon we dispersed into the party. But I kept subtly watching him to see how he behaved off-stage. He seemed very much like the Professor. At one point all of us started earnestly discussing politics. There Corey rambled on in the same tone as the Professor, throwing in non-sequiturs, making little sense. No one laughed. Maybe he was serious. But it was as if he and the Professor were interchangeable. Maybe doing that act so often, they’d merged somehow.

Rufus Harley w name

Speaking of old friends, in 1980, Jean Desjardins (a.k.a. John Gardner), a buddy from the 1960s, called and invited me to his wedding celebration at his home in suburban Philadelphia, an isolated house surrounded by woods and trees. It was one of the most original parties I’d ever attended. He’d not only hired caterers but wandering entertainers, including a double-talking comic who threaded and chattered among us. Plus, all of a sudden, a bagpiper, completely kilted, dramatically came marching through the woods. Rufus Harley, a black man who’d  billed himself as the World’s First Jazz Bagpiper. I knew who he was; he played on a Herbie Mann concert LP from about 10 years before. Evidently he was one of John’s neighbors.

During those days Fleetwood, Marzano, and I collectively became friends with Gladys Buchman, a regular NCN listener. She sometimes called us and sent us holiday greeting cards and a few times invited us to dinner at her apartment. Together we eventually decided to take her up on the offer out of curiosity. It turned out that she was in her early ’60s and lived in Alphabet City…Avenue C, I think…in a public housing project with her husband Morris.

They were both very jolly people and seemed to be unendingly fascinated hearing our stories about ourselves. So we three minor celebrities had a great time hanging out together, which we’d  never done elsewhere or before. Plus Gladys and Morris would tell us about their kinds of lives about which we had no inkling, except to learn that they loved going to live concerts despite living on pensions.

Naturally,  I invited Gladys and Morris to dinner in midtown and once asked them if they’d like to see my cat, Sulu, given that they had three cats of their own.

Sulu

Gladys couldn’t get over Sulu’s beauty. He was indeed magnificent. A nine-year old chinchilla, with deep blue eyes, beautiful white fur under light grey tips. Many friends had remarked on his exceptional looks. Some had even said that he should get modeling jobs. A potential show business cat. Gladys thought so, too. A friend of a friend of hers knew an animal talent agent.

Gladys gave me the name and phone number. Sulu and I got an appointment.

The agency was in a large office building on West 54th Street. A tiny office, seeming to have one room, one agent. Nothing unusual about the place except for an open cardboard box full of wriggling, chirping chicks on the top of a small bookcase.

“Before you let the cat out of the case,” the agent asked, “do you think the chicks are in any danger?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “He’s never seen any before. It’s hard to say. But I can probably get him back into the case if there is a problem.” Nonetheless, I scanned the office to see where Sulu might run and hide if he panicked. Not that chicks would scare him, but the agent’s reaction to threat could turn out to be too energetic.

“OK,” the agent said. “Why don’t you let him out?”

Sulu was not eager to emerge. He had certainly not enjoyed the cab ride or the ascension in the elevator. He was a house pet, not a traveling companion.

As in the past, I had to turn his carrying case on its side to, in effect, dump him out. The trick was to pick him up thereafter before he scampered away. Of course, he was nervous. Not because he was auditioning. That would have been my effect on him, wondering if Sulu was on the brink of a performing career.

I was able to lift him to my shoulders where he stared at me, as if to say, “What the hell is this?” Then he scanned the room. His ears pricked up, hearing the chicks. He was very close to them. He looked. No other reaction. He turned to me, still puzzled. That was his audition. He passed.

The agent called me the following week telling me that Sulu had a job. A photo shoot. All I had to do was take him to a photo studio in the Garment District at the scheduled time.

There were several rooms in sequence at the studio. The receptionist sent us to one, saying Sulu would be up soon. The waiting room was full of cats, some sitting on human laps, others hiding under chairs. None of them seemed to be congenially mingling with the others. Stuck up felines. Nothing unusual there.

A man with an occupied cat-carrying case joined us, looking discouraged and picked up his coat.

“How’d it go?” a rather glamorous lady cat-companion asked.

“He didn’t make it,” the man replied.

I took Sulu out of his case and held him, stroking him, getting him to resist the urge to hide under another chair.

Talking with the other cat people, I learned that we were all there for the same job. This was Sulu’s gig? I didn’t get it.

A gruff male voice called out. “OK. Gordon. Bring Sulu in.” Certainly someone there knew what the star animal’s name was.

That room glared with spotlights. They were illuminating a draped wooden box on top of which was a different shaped box containing the delights of Tender Vittles Gourmet Dinner.

“OK, Gordon, here’s what we want,” said the man identifying himself as the director. “We just want Sulu to sit next to the box, with one paw on it and look straight-ahead at you. Which is toward the camera, under which you’ll sit. Do you think the lights in his face will scare him?”

As before at the agent’s, I knew Sulu was unpredictable. He was a cat. “Gosh. I don’t know,” I replied in a confident show business voice.

“Right,” the director said. “Could you take him over to the box, set him down next to it, put his right paw on it and slowly walk back?”

Sulu’s paw was placed. I backed away. Subtly.

“Camera ready?” the director whispered.

From somewhere behind me and the lights a voice answered “Ready.”

Sulu left the box and walked over to me and sat in my lap.

“Do you think he can do this?” the director asked gently, not at all aggressive.

As before, I pleaded innocent ignorance.

Same routine. Set the camera. Ready for the shot. Sulu back to my lap. Well, at least he didn’t hide under a chair.

After the third try the director said. “Sorry, Gordon. That’s a great looking cat, but this won’t work.”

I asked if I could stay and watch the next candidate and was told that that was all right, provided that Sulu didn’t fight with his competition. Sulu and I took a seat together off to the side where he remained secure in the place he most wanted to be: my lap.

The next cat was striped black and white and didn’t look all that special. The lady who brought him placed his paw on the box and walked away. This animal could have been stuffed for all the movement it didn’t make. Multiple photos were taken. The cat never moved that whole time. Show business. There’s no business like it. I know.

I made no other attempt to further Sulu’s career.

As for mine, I had a couple of minor roles in advertising.

I had an agent, Bea (Bernice) Beck, who would every so often get me auditions. She was the wife of one of the most famed voice-over performers of all time, Jackson Beck. Not that his name would be remembered by most audiences. Rather, actors and announcers much admired and envied him; he got a lot of work. Those of us who experienced the great days of radio drama knew him as narrator for The Adventures of Superman for many years. And he provided loads of voices for everything else, including cartoons, e.g., “Bluto”  in “Popeye” movies.

Bea did get me one memorable job. It was for voicing an Arby’s TV commercial. Young & Rubicam producing.

In the luxurious, classily decorated offices, I joined five other men in a waiting room going over the script. We said “hello” to each other. Plenty of resonant voices there, pretending that we didn’t mind that one of us could come away with the big cash which we deserved, given our massive talent, even if none of us was in Jackson Beck’s league.

Norman Rockwell glassses w name

The script: one page, one sentence: “Get your free Norman Rockwell glasses now at Arby’s.” What a challenge. Incidentally, almost 40 years later, they’ve become collectors’ items. 

My profound reading took the day. Subsequently the session took one day. All day going over and over that one sentence. The director had me say more variations than anyone could imagine.

Bea got me a buy-out, i.e., rather than receiving  residuals over the time that this commercial aired, I got a flat fee. AFTRA rates, of course. I don’t remember how much money that was; it might have been something like $700, given the fee of $2,000 in early 2016.

For a couple of years I also produced and voiced radio commercials for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts. This was a pattern I thereafter repeated for the New Mexico, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras. Aside from my expertise with such content, I blew away the competition; Hannelore was a top staff member in the marketing departments for all three.

Station Number 16

In May of 1982 someone had posted an ad from Broadcasting Magazine. The classical music radio station in Albuquerque, KHFM, was looking to hire a morning program host who would also be chief announcer. New Mexico! I’d seen it and loved it when, as a vacation in the summer of 1977, I had driven that far west, camping in my new VW van (a descendant of my cherished European one). I was enchanted by The Land of Enchantment. The dramatic vast spaces, the beautiful spacious skies, the purple mountain majesties, such a compelling contrast to the tight little island of Manhattan. I had yearned to live in New Mexico, but couldn’t think of how to do it.

This was the chance. No second thoughts. No doubts. I knew that they were bound to be impressed; I was a New York classical music radio host.

By then, Helga and I had split. I had been living alone in Manhattan, on East 46th Street in a tiny, expensive one-room apartment (rent of $475 a month or $1,465 in 2016). A ten-minute walk to NCN. And I’d fallen in love with Hannelore Rogers, a rare, lively, intelligent woman who’d done something rare—written me a fan letter. Classical d.j.s didn’t get them often. When I told her that I was going to look into the job, she was truly distressed. She loved New York, having lived there less than two years.

I applied. After hearing my air-check audition tape, KHFM invited me to come for an interview, paying for the flight and hotel room. I was offered the job at a much lower salary than I was earning at NCN—$32,000 a year (ca. $80,000 in 2015).* KHFM offered me $18,000 (ca. $45,000 in 2015). Of course, I knew that living costs in Albuquerque were radically lower than those in New York, but I didn’t think that that was enough, never letting on that living in New Mexico would have been my joy at any price. I asked for $22,000 ($55,000 in 2015). They thought it over. One day later we had an agreement.

*Above I pointed out that in 1977 at $27,000 a year the 2015 equivalent was $109,000. This reflects the constantly changing fluctuation of the dollar’s value in different years.

Hannelore had traveled with me. She was offered a job working for the same man who was one of two major owners of KHFM. Bill Weinrod, also the executive administrator of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. She was hired as marketing and development director, a new position at the Symphony, then undergoing expansion in an improving local economy. We moved into a small adobe-like house (i.e., it was made of cinder blocks but had a shape designed to look like a characteristic adobe house). We did not marry. Yet.

My final performance on NCN was on July 30th 1982.

There we go again. In and out. In and out. In and out. My 12 collective years at WNCN had been in small increments, about three years starting in 1959 (fired), about four years starting in 1967 (quit), about five years starting in 1976 (quit).

And during those final five, inevitably, there were changes in the NCN staff: Bob Adams, fired. Matt Edwards, quit. Larry Josephson, hired and fired. Jim Pinckney, hired. Bob Adams, rehired. Gordon Spencer, quit. Six realignments. Broadcasting.

Coming to think about it, I had few roots. Starting in childhood, relocating was a regular part of my history. No surprise that as an actor I wasn’t sure who I was (see above). By the time I left WNCN I’d moved from 17 homes.

KHFM letters
Albuquerque

There’s no question that shifting from New York to Albuquerque seemed like a radical change. A welcome one. Plenty of gorgeous sky rarely impeded by tall buildings. To the east there were unobstructed views of the glorious Sandia Mountains, glowing deep violet in the evening. The air felt fresh. And traffic noise, such as I heard constantly outside the midtown Manhattan apartment I’d just left, was minimal.

I’d often wanted out of New York ever since returning seven years before. Not that I’d not had a great life there then, but always earnestly, constantly yearning to be closer to nature and away from the inevitable pressures endemic to New York.

As for being a performer, I thoroughly enjoyed having programs on WBAI and producing jazz shows for Italian radio. But, on a day-to-day basis, most of the time I was just making the best of the WNCN full-time position. Making the best wasn’t enough.

MikeLangner w name

Thus, when interviewed for KHFM, I told Bill Weinrod and station manager Mike Langner that I wanted to be able to do my own programming for the morning show.

We discussed the obvious limitations, e.g., no difficult modern music. No non-classical music. But it was OK, for example, to present some singing. They agreed.

Two layers of freedom. Magnificent.

KHFM

The station was a self-contained one-story cinder block building, on a small side street, the transmitter tower looming above and behind it. 5900 Domingo Road. (Incidentally, in 2015, a drive-by revealed that the building had become a private home. With the tower still standing. KHFM had become part of multi-station ownership at 4125 Carlisle Boulevard sharing the space with, as far as I could tell, three other stations.)

On the first day walking into 1982 KHFM, I’d brought an umbrella; the skies suggested rain. The receptionist, Shirley Davis, laughing, found it funny because, she said, it never seriously rained there.

Shirley’s desk in the reception area faced large plate glass windows looking out to the unassuming street with its modest ranch style houses and a few scruffy trees. The on-air studio, just off that, had a window looking out to a sandy, stony yard on a small street perpendicular to Domingo Road. Offices were on two sides of the building, between which was an open space with more stones and sand. The only other special feature of the building was a dusty back room with wooden shelves holding a major array of tubes, dusty discarded turntables, miles of electrical cords and cables, and other equipment about which I knew little. An echo of 1959 NCN at the top of The Pierre hotel, especially given that Mike’s major background was as a broadcast engineer just as had been Dave Passell’s.

Charlie Maldonado was the program director. Given that Bill and Mike had agreed to programming freedom, I had been told to check with Charlie if some choices might be questionable. I rarely consulted him. Neither he nor Mike were likely to question Bill’s decisions. Probably they wouldn’t dare; he was a co-owner. Life in that part of New Mexico seemed to lack the tension and competitiveness of back east. Easy-going.

My show aired from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. I had to arrive by 4:30 to turn on the transmitter and prepare a wire-copy newscast. A throw-back of 27 years to WFLN. Given the size of Albuquerque and environs it wasn’t necessary to have traffic reports. KOB’s morning-drive and afternoon-drive pop music shows covered that.

My last newscast was at 9:00 a.m. And most Monday mornings members of the staff were laughing loudly outside the not-well-sound-proofed studio door. They weren’t guffawing over international disasters or tragic current events. They were at the weekly staff meetings. Early on, I mentioned the problem to Mike. Characteristically he said that he would take care of it. Note the word “would.” It was equal to another phrase: “Yes. We could do that.” Implication: it’s not urgent and worth thinking about. Quasi-italiano. Soon I tried to take care of it myself by stuffing a crumpled newspaper under the door. It made no difference. Eventually, after repeated requests, Mike added some thick felt to the bottom of the door. It made no difference either.

As in the past at WNCN and WBAI, my show was about the music not about me. Programming choices covered all periods from Renaissance to modern, as long as they were accessible. Parts of ballet scores. Symphony movements (provided they were scherzos, or nocturnes, or not something marked allegro or adagio, etc.; that was my own musicological fastidiousness). Piano pieces. String quartet movements. Guitar pieces. Choral works. Symphonic movie music. Art songs, primarily featuring baritones, although when on occasion presenting a woman singing I’d issue a “soprano alert,” tapping a lamp, just as I had done for NCN’s classical hits. I loved every minute. Oddly, there were few listener complaints.

Certainly my music choices were quite varied and unconventional as compared to, say QXR’s and NCN’s. More than once, Sales Manager Roxanne Allen would mention her concerns during management meetings. She said she could have trouble with sponsors if they heard something they didn’t like. Not that she ever mentioned specific examples where someone declined to advertise with us due to the music. In any case, neither Mike nor Charlie ever suggested that I program differently.

I tried not to talk too much or too long, a carry-over from NCN and QXR. And rarely spoke about myself. However, there were occasional short conversations with unusual studio visitors whom I made up and personified with character voices. Bill, Mike, and Charlie had no problem with that. The prized New Yorker had almost carte blanche.

Thus I exchanged niceties with motherly Cockney cleaning lady Flora. Was halted in my tracks by an Italian couple disagreeing about the weather, in Italian, untranslated. Texan Merle Noir (merle noir in French means blackbird) would stop by to deliver dairy products. There was commentary about the music by stuttering, happily enthusiastic Clove Parnes, whose speaking style was inspired by my encounters with Clive Barnes at WQXR. And there were fake ski reports by Jean-Claude Silly.

Once Jean-Claude reported on the ski area in Los Alamos. There was a real one called Pajarito, but in the 1980s it seemed to be out-of-the-way and under-publicized. In fact, it was known then to have very few lifts. This suggested that visitors were discouraged and that the area was primarily for residents. Or as if it were top secret, Los Alamos being principally a government town, famed for work on atomic bombs.

Jean-Claude said that he had trouble finding the ski area because there were no signs pointing the way and street names were almost non-existent. Those he could find seemed to be numbered in code. And when he asked people for directions, they whispered unintelligibly. He thought that he’d found it near a statue of J. Robert Oppenheimer wearing dark glasses and pointing toward the sky. But it turned out that that was at a trash dump full of shredded paper. Finally, J-C. was invited into someone’s house, after he had signed a three-page document vowing secrecy. And, as he looked out of the occupants’ plate glass window, he could see a bunch of children skiing. He was told that that was the place he was looking for. This may seem like a lot of talk, but he gave this report in installments one February morning. Listener response: none. Not even from Los Alamos.

Having to be on duty only four-and-a-half hours, I sometimes had the freedom to use the recording studio wherein I created short comic productions, each no longer than about three minutes. One item was A James K. Polk Portrait, a send-up of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. My version set to music by Jerome Moross from the movie The Big Country.

“James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States of America. Born November 2, 1795, in a  log cabin in North Carolina. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘Don’t light a match mother or the house will burn down.’ James K. Polk studied the law at age 23 in a Nashville office. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘I must have a pen. This pencil is broken.’ James K. Polk stood five feet two inches in his stocking feet. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘Sarah, where are my shoes?’ James K. Polk never carried a pistol in the White House. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘My servant George always carries my gun.’”

Whiiting Coffee

There was a report from Vienna by investigative reporter Herbert von Holznagel, who, speaking with a German accent, reported on a recently unearthed tool shed once used by Beethoven. Herbert rattled around all the clinking objects in the station’s back room discovered fascinating things, such as a piece of parchment covered with ink blots which looked like a trail of blood or maybe they were blood which looked like ink blots, an unfinished sausage sandwich on seeded rye where the mustard had dried out, and many pounds of ground coffee which he touched to get a sound like rustling straw. The last item was a send-up of what was actually in the station’s back room. KHFM had a trade deal with coffee roaster/seller Norman Whiting, which meant for one daily no-cost commercial the station got one free bag of coffee. Shirley would go once a week to Norman’s and come back with seven bags. She stored them in the uninsulated back room. The coffee dried out under the southwest sun’s heat in about 10 minutes.

Once I created a fake radio commercial touting a film called Oberheim (the name of an electronic audio synthesizer). In it a kid, Bobby, was passionately in love with his computer. In the 1980s it was already possible to own a personal one. Bobby didn’t want to leave his bedroom; the computer was jealous of any other relationships and spoke with Bobby with a whiny, high-pitched voice. “Starring Richard Burton as a talking fireplace.” Here I dubbed in Burton saying “…they do hear some sub-human monster yowling at him from inside,” dialogue from an LP promoting the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Obviously I was having fun. I recall few listener responses. Except once Mike took issue over my fake interview with a dopey basketball player who, I said, was from New Mexico A & M. The 6 foot 11 player was trying to figure out how many points he scored in the last game and couldn’t do the math. Mike said I shouldn’t have insulted A & M that way. But there was no A & M. Turned out that there used to be, many years before; but the name had been changed in 1960 to New Mexico State. Obviously some people remembered the bygone name.

As chief announcer I had few duties other than to sometimes find replacements for on-air shifts by calling a few volunteers we had. I did train everyone to frequently mention the call letters as we had done at WNCN. Plus I wanted them to talk a little about the music, suggesting they quote or use a sentence or two for the liner notes. Dave Fisher, a volunteer program host, a kindly local auto repair mechanic who loved music and had some understanding of it, had trouble with that idea. Probably he was not comfortable having to ad-lib. He demurred, saying “I thought that the music was the most important thing,” meaning to let the music speak for itself. To which I countered, “Right. But it’s not the only important thing. And talking about it shows how important it is.” He struggled for a while trying to do it right. I never criticized; he got better in time.

Mike eventually brought in a young woman, almost a girl, named Suzanne Bernadette. She had been a member of the congregation at Hoffmantown Baptist Church, and that’s where they’d met. Evidently he thought that it would be good to have someone so young on the air. Suzanne always sounded innocent when announcing. However, I lamented to him one day that I couldn’t get her to stop deleting slow middle movements from some Baroque concertos—she claiming that doing so kept everything more lively. That maybe she would listen to him and correct the practice. He replied that he thought that was a clever idea. I also tried to change something else she did: constantly promoting the next piece to follow a commercial break “after I return.” I pointed out that the commercials were part of the program as much as she was. Mike saw nothing wrong with that either. She was his protégé, I guess, and she could do no wrong.

This is one of several times in those years when I expressed perhaps unwelcome opinions to Mike. Perhaps they seemed as if I was being critical. Maybe I couldn’t disguise my underlying attitude. Having been a New Yorker for the previous seven years or so, I was trying my best to seem accommodating and less impulsive. I’m sure that over time, I got better at it, but being outspoken was most likely too direct for New Mexico culture. I tried applying Italy-learned ways of being indirect, but don’t think I always succeeded.

My attitude toward Mike probably showed. I had trouble with his too-easy agreeability with everyone and everything. He didn’t conform to my conception of station management.

In time I learned that his major qualification for running the station was due to an incredible ability to come up with solutions to technical and engineering problems; he often invented unconventional, inexpensive fixes, a sort of duct-tape approach. It turned out that he was known all over New Mexico radio for such special talents.

He told a story about himself, having been called by an engineer at KRST to try to solve a transmitter problem. The engineer told Mike that a switch repeatedly kept getting stuck and that the engineer had tried everything he could think of. But despite considerable knowledge and skill, nothing corrected the problem. “Mike,” he said, “I know this won’t make sense, but, could I hold up the phone near the transmitter for you to say something? Maybe just hearing your voice would make it work.” Mike thought the idea was funny, but having understood the details of the problem, he replied, “Well, it’s worth a try. Move the switch down and up again.” The engineer did so. It worked.

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The on-air staff included gentle, unassuming, sweet Don Hoyt, who, being bald and chubby, seemed much older than I, but probably wasn’t. Don loved classical music and knew a lot about it. He was also a member of Roger Melone’s New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Don had one “defect.” Living alone as he did, he must not have taken good care of his clothes. He often smelled as if they needed a thorough washing. The effect seemed to be the reason that at choral concerts people seemed to never stand directly next to him, as if leaving spaces on either side.

KHFM had a Saturday night jazz show from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. hosted by young volunteer Rick Fletcher. Every so often, I’d listen to hear how he was doing it. After a few months, I noticed that he regularly would give obviously wrong information, such as who the soloists or what the titles of the music were.

One evening he aired what sounded like Billie Holiday at a studio rehearsal. She talked to the musicians, made suggestions, ran over a few bars. It was more talk than music. But worse, she seemed off-mike; the sound was execrable. Rick let it play for half an hour. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t notice how bad it was and let it run so long.

I asked Don Hoyt about Rick, since they had known each other for a long time. They also had a mutual friend named Marsha. Evidently Rick was having an affair with her. She was married and in the NMSO Chorus. She and Rick apparently had telephone liaisons during the jazz show. Moreover, I learned that Rick always appreciated listener calls while he was on the air and encouraged them.

Being chief announcer I asked him to meet me to discuss what I thought was wrong with his performance, telling him that he had to pay more attention to what he was broadcasting, citing some of his obvious errors with information. He said he would try to do better. But for the next couple of months nothing changed.

Mike Langner agreed that Rick wasn’t very good at hosting the show, but didn’t want us to stop broadcasting jazz. So I told him that I would take over the program, although that was not the reason for my wanting Rick to leave. It was not an ideal choice; it meant having to give up late Saturday evenings, despite my love of that music. Even with initial reluctance, the re-connection with jazz was great.

Soon I also noticed that on many of the station’s LPs there were tiny little numbers in pen next to some of the track listings. They were dates. Bill Weinrod not long thereafter told me that he used to play those records when he had the jazz program. He’d given it up to have more free time. He wrote the dates so as to make sure he didn’t play the same selections too often and too soon.

Weekdays at 9:05 a.m., after my newscast, we aired a nationally highly popular syndicated program Adventures in Good Music, hosted by genial Karl Haas. We had started carrying it on WNCN in 1970.

Some NCN listeners and staff had felt that it was too simplistic and that Haas talked down to audiences. Certainly it didn’t appeal to some musically more sophisticated people. Bill Weinrod felt that way, too. But he didn’t want to interfere with KHFM programming. As a spot-commercial carrier it was as successful as anything else on the station. Personally, I felt that New Mexico was more fertile ground for Haas’s concept, presumably being less discriminating than New Yorkers. Not that I listened to those broadcasts that time around either. Yet, at that stage of my maturity, I was more accepting.

We hosted one of his concert/lectures in November 1985. That weekend he came to the studios to record one of his broadcasts, beginning by choosing some of our LPs to use. Clearly he didn’t need a script. Then he went into the recording studio where Cindy Abrams produced the program for him. Cindy later told me that Haas had placed a clammy hand on one of her legs, but that she gently removed it and that was that. He was about 72. She in her early 30s.

I also used the recording studio to produce and tape my jazz shows for RAI, those I had started in New York, then called Jazz da New York, renamed Jazz con Gordon. Although I was well-paid, I tried to save money by not buying new tape, and took some I found on shelves in several places, including the back room. Since many reels were not full, I’d splice together what I needed. Some already had splices. Not all of the tape was the same brand or of the same formula, or of identical colors, but I didn’t know that much about tapes and had thought that they were all the same. Which is to say that, in trying to save money, I was probably producing programs whose sound quality was not the best or uniform, especially if some of what I used had been stored in KHFM’s hot, uninsulated back room.

In any case, about a year after I had been sending my KHFM-produced shows to New York, RAI’s Carla Verdacci contacted me to say that they decided to drop the program, especially since I was no longer in New York. Some years later, I became convinced that the sound of the tapes themselves was not consistently of the best quality and that that was the reason for dropping the show.

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Of course, KHFM, Albuquerque’s only classical music station, had a strong connection to the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. No surprise either, given that Bill Weinrod was a major station owner as well as executive administrator of the Symphony. This meant that we carried promotional programs featuring interviews with visiting conductors and soloists, along with other features, such as those with Music Director Neal Stulberg as host. Plus commercials. Written by Hannelore. Announced and produced by me. In the same recording studio. Later, even after I’d been fired (see below), I still used the studio for such productions.

Given the relationship with the NMSO, we attended all the concerts plus many social events, becoming friends especially with Bill and his wife Kate. We spent many times together in mutual homes hosting meals, or going to concerts, movies, and the theatre together. We also became close with Resident Conductor Roger Melone, as well as Neal Stulberg and his wife Leah Shamoon. We kept up regular contact all with of them for many years after moving away.

Composers Cornered

I sometimes hosted post-concert talks, mostly as an m.c.

Once I was invited to be Santa Claus for a Christmas concert, being asked if I’d like to conduct the NMSO while in costume. I jumped at the chance.

So, pillow-stuffed and red-suited with a belled cotton hat hanging over the ears, and a low-budget white beard covering my own, I ho-ho-ed up the aisle and, turning to the orchestra, picked up my baton.

No Bach, of course. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” was my gig. I’d heard that as much as I’d ever want to hear on radios and sound systems everywhere at that time of year. But this was different. I was to lead the musicians, many of whom I already knew.

I raised my baton and the orchestra started doing its thing. Often I could detect, only fractionally delayed, what was coming next musically, where the main melodic line was coming from. So I was able to make it look like I was cueing in the musicians. And, when it came to the clip-clopping sound, I even anticipated that and pointed to percussionist Chris Shultis. Or for the trumpet sounding like a whinnying horse, I was ready to point to Kenny Anderson. I didn’t have any ability to wave my stick to mark tempo, of course. But afterwards several people whom I knew said that they were really impressed with my conducting, because it looked like I knew what I’d been doing.

Quite a contrast to my day as a nine-year-old conducting Sammy Kaye’s Swing and Sway Orchestra. (See way above.)

This was a time when I met and interviewed many visiting artists, those who appeared with the Symphony and those connected to the Santa Fe Opera and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

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For example, when Mstislav Rostropovich brought the National Symphony for a concert, I was there at his press conference. His program looked very conventional, and, despite being the official Washington, D.C., orchestra, there was no American music in it. I asked him why. He affectionately reached out and grabbed my hand, saying, “Because, darling, that is what your concert producers choose from repertoire.” He grinned, not at all offended.

Clearly, I was still a kind of edgy New Yorker. But, after all, I’d been a news reporter and an interviewer for years and didn’t believe in so-called “softball” questions.

When Ned Rorem came to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, we connected for the third time, having done so in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. By then, Rorem was regularly lamenting that his kind of music, melodic, neo-romantic, was being overshadowed by more complex, somewhat atonal, avant-garde compositions. He got around to that again in the course of this interview. “Ned,” I asked him, “given how you feel, has anyone ever called you a crybaby?”

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“It’s my function to be a crybaby,” he replied. And that, yes, he’s heard that, but his laments were about the plight of many American composers and that, despite much critical appreciation of his work, “I’m still a crybaby.” As for getting such attention and how that might get him more attention, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

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From a different sound spectrum, Philip Glass came to Santa Fe in 1983. He and his ensemble gave a concert of his own music at Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater. Hannelore and I went to that concert and, after about an hour-and-a-half without an intermission, decided we’d heard enough of what sounded like the same thing over and over. AND REALLY LOUD. We left.

Prior to going I’d interviewed him for broadcast at KHFM and some of that was also printed in the Santa Fe-based magazine Notebook.

“Do people find your music boring after it goes on for a long time?” I asked.

“People say that about Bruckner,” he responded. “They say it about Satie or Beethoven. You always have people who like or don’t like something. It can’t be for everyone. There’s almost no work of art of any kind which has had that kind of success.”

We talked about changes in concert music, from a previously dominant trend, “not particularly accessible,” I called it. He agreed that that was true. But then there was a new movement towards tonal music, such as Rorem’s. How were they related?

“I think that what’s happening in my music is part of the whole general thing. This is one of the most exciting times to be around and writing. You know, we can even just be openly entertaining.”

“Would you call what you’re doing experimental?”

“Well, when we talk about experimental music, we don’t mean that it will be something people aren’t going to like. These days audiences don’t expect uniformity; diversity is something which has become one of the hallmarks of our time.”

“Do you have a label for your style?”

“I don’t know of any composer that would care to label himself…The music I write is what means something to me, that speaks to me and speaks to other people. I don’t need another label.”

Glass came to Albuquerque in October 1987. The Hiland Theater was the site for two screenings of Koyaanisqatsi,which was a film with live music. Friend David Noble, the music critic for the Albuquerque Journal, wrote that there were 13 musicians and technicians to perform the score. The film was conceived and directed by Santa Fe’s Godfrey Reggio.

The full title was actually Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It primarily consists of slow motion and time lapse footage of cities and natural landscapes, in effect transposing them to make a statement. There was no dialogue. Only music. Actually the Hopi word means “unbalanced life.”

David said that some of the footage was shot in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.

A few years later, in 1988, although no longer at KHFM (see below, “Firing #4”) I interviewed Terry Riley, a sort of Glass musical cousin or maybe uncle. We discussed, of course, 1964’s In C, which is often cited as the first minimalist piece to get wide-spread attention, before that term actually was used. He agreed with the definition and that what he created had a  major influence on the idea of minimalism which came along not long thereafter. “It was a totally new concept,” he pointed out, partially influenced by North African music and experiments with tape loops.

Terry Riley

We spoke about A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969), which I personally admired and had broadcast during my second WNCN years, when the station was at its least-conservative- programming best. Riley described that piece as becoming popular in an unexpected way, that people told him about putting it on automatic replay on record changers, and that he got mail from those who said that they listened to it all day.

“Trance Music, right?” I asked. “Did it bother you that people were getting stoned to your music?”

“No, I’m happy when people get stoned on my music. That’s one of the best ways.”

The interview with Riley was one of several at a composer’s symposium in Telluride, CO, in August 1988. The setting was magnificent and the conversations fascinating.

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Particularly interesting was a conversation with Lou Harrison, who reminded me and listeners that calling Asia the Far East made no sense, that that was Eurocentric, and for him especially, living in California, Asia was the West. He also pointed out that his music often had Asian influences, so much so that critics heard those influences even when they weren’t there.

We discussed at length his decade-long connection with Charles Ives. After an initial letter to Ives, expressing interest in his work, Ives sent Harrison “a crate” of photostats of scores, especially chamber music, asking Harrison for assistance in editing and copying. Eventually Harrison even completed some of the works, with a few insertions here and there.

Ives, of course, paid Harrison but chided him about getting paid, writing, “You sure know how to compose but you don’t know how to write bills.” Ives, as is well known, had supported his own writing with proceeds from his highly successful insurance agency. Harrison said that, given such self-underwriting, Ives believed that music should be free for everyone and so regularly gave money to contemporary composers. And even made Harrison one of the heirs to the royalties, along with other composers. “That sure helps sometimes,” Harrison laughed. Harrison perpetuated that practice, apportioning some of that money to younger composers. “I must say I’ve made some good choices,” he added. Harrison declined to name any of the recipients.