WFLN Program Director Mike O’Donnell then asked me if I knew that Billie Holiday was performing in town. I didn’t. Nor did I know much about her. “She’s a singer, right?” I asked Mike.
So I started studying about her career. Nothing that I read said much about her personal devils.
I called Jack Fields, the owner of the Blue Note, and we set up an interview. I took the WFLN portable reel-to-reel tape deck.
The Blue Note was on Ridge Avenue, right in the center of a black ghetto. Why was such a club in such a run-down neighborhood instead of someplace more elegant, befitting the marvels and joys of jazz? The place smelled of dead cigarettes, spilled beer, and sour wine.
Jack took me to a small dressing room back of a tiny stage where Ray Bryant was playing the piano. And Jack introduced me to a haggard older lady with all of her 40 years looking like a heavy load. She smiled sweetly.
Gracious and charming, gentle and kind, sounding as vulnerable and sweet as the way she sang, she told me how much she admired the music of Debussy and Ravel, how she’d always loved classical music. Yeah. Right. Trying my damnedest to convince those anti-jazz listeners that they were wrong to look down their noses at such great music.
After what seemed like a long and wonderful time talking, I felt we had had good talk and stopped the tape.
“That was really interesting,” Billie said. “Can we listen to some of it?”
“Sure,” I said, thrilled that she was impressed.
I rewound the tape and started it.
Silence. There was nothing on it. I don’t know what happened. Probably in my nervous eagerness, I’d forgotten to push the right buttons.
“Oh, honey, that’s too bad,” she sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to do it over.”
More graciousness warmed that tiny room. I didn’t realize yet that re-takes were a part of her everyday life.
Ray Bryant was playing again: “Cubano Chant,” one of his more famous tunes. Jack left the room to ask him to hold off until after the interview. I’d already started, not smart enough to wait.
Nor was I relaxed enough or experienced enough to go over the same questions again. Maybe I thought she’d be bored. Maybe, I thought, what the hell, we already talked about Debussy and Ravel and we should explore other subjects.
So, having read enough about her to know her background, we talked about her career.
It did record. And I left Lady, joyous that I had met her. A life-long fan, long after she found eternal peace. It was love. It still is.
Since then I’ve broadcast my edited version of that tape over and over again on jazz programs in New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee. And, sometimes on TV documentaries about her, I hear the exact same words and inflections I know so well and recognize that someone copied my interview and is re-using it. That’s fine. I don’t own Billie. She belongs to all of us.
One day, a 30-something, very civilized-looking friend of a friend, Joseph Seaman, who lived near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in an elegant house, asked me if I thought he should audition for WFLN; he knew a lot about classical music. Or as he put it, “What…what about my…(yelling) MOTHERFUCK…SON OF A BITCH…trying out to be a…SHIT SHIT…announcer?” I thought he was putting me on. He wasn’t. His subsequent conversation was equally peppered with similar outbursts. I didn’t know about Tourette’s Syndrome, coming across the term only in later years. And I didn’t know how to tell him that the station would never hire him.
Mike O’Donnell asked me about Joseph before his audition; my name had been given as a reference. I told Mike about the spontaneous outbursts. The audition took place anyway. Afterwards, Mike said that, as long as the mike was open, everything sounded fine, there was never a pause, never an obscene word. But of course, WFLN couldn’t take the chance.
Back when I took over the morning show, a classmate of mine from Temple, Steve Yedenock, had joined the staff to take over my previous shift. He, too, had been alerted that a returning veteran could take back his job.
Then it happened. Mitchell Krauss was coming back from the war. It meant either Steve or I would have to go. I was given notice. Why me? I don’t know, but it might have been due to my tendency to be outspoken or to be open about disagreements of opinion, given that, at my young age, I knew so much about everything. Maybe it was the listeners’ antipathy to the jazz show and my connection with it.
Naturally, on my final jazz show, I told the listeners, over a lugubrious guitar solo by Johnny Smith, that the management had decided to cancel the series and, with it, my presence on the station.
Calls of anger and disapproval of those decisions swamped the station. Letters, too. Great, I thought, the management will see how popular I was. I didn’t think any further than that. In my first job ever as a professional radio personality, I didn’t know the rules. You go public with that sort of thing and you get long-term consequences. You don’t become known as a star in the business. You become known as a trouble-maker. That year I certainly gained a reputation in broadcasting, and it wasn’t a good one.
I was emotionally devastated. I’d never been fired before. And I was making good money for someone my age. Plus there was all that prestige on campus and in public, making me feel like someone significant. It was as if someone robbed me of my identity.
Little did I know that being fired in broadcasting goes with the territory. Historically, being a radio or TV station personality means always walking on thin ice. Ratings ebb and flow. Formats crack and sink. Managements get nervous. New ownerships decide to go in different directions. They change whatever they think is not working, which, most often, means what’s called “the talent”—us.
Face it, over a couple of years, Crowley was gone from WFLN, so was Nichols, and so was I. But FLN was in a tiny niche with little relationship to the big stations in town. My swansong may have meant something important to some listeners, as well as a pain in the ass to the management, but it got very little notice elsewhere. After all, I was not an established personality on a big Philadelphia station, like say, Steve Allison, Bud Brees, or Art Raymond on WPEN.
By September of 1957 I had been on WOND for more than one year. Longer than on WFLN and not facing replacement. Fame? Well, when I talked to local people and mentioned being on WOND, they were often surprised, saying that they listened all the time but didn’t recognize my name. “Larry Carle is on there, right?” was often a question. What did he have that was so memorable? On-air he was, I thought, rather bland and boring, whenever I heard him.
Not that I listened that often. Why would any of us want to listen to the same commercials, the same kind of chatter, the same records? Being away from the microphone was being away from work. But Larry had a major advantage: longevity. Repeating his name on the air for years. In broadcasting, enduring at the same spot on the dial remains a rarity.
Meanwhile the jazz show was developing a following, including kids from Atlantic City High. And Station Manager Howard Green was always telling me not to “push” jazz on my other shows, so that if Bob Richter featured Stan Kenton, it was fine. If I did it, I was chastised.
Those were good years for jazz. WNEW in New York was featuring a show with increasingly popular Al “Jazzbo” Collins who had even cut a few sides narrating Steve Allen’s Bop Fables. And Allen often presented jazz musicians on The Tonight Show on NBC. Moreover, on TV there had been not only The Magic Horn but, live, Duke Ellington’s jazz history fable A Drum is a Woman on The U.S. Steel Hour. And Leonard Bernstein’s live, musician-illustrated lecture on Omnibus: “What is Jazz?” Or on The Seven Lively Arts, on CBS, live performances in The Sound of Jazz with Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing, and my beloved Billie Holiday, sounding frail.
Not long thereafter, early in 1958, Billie cut an LP with a string orchestra in lush, slick arrangements by Ray Ellis, Lady In Satin. No doubt an attempt at commercial success. A bad match. The other d.j.s aired it. I didn’t. “She can’t sing,” Bob Richter observed. Right, in that instance. She was on the downswing of her deteriorating health. She died five months after she recorded it.
1956, ’57, ’58 were also good for live jazz. Duke Ellington came with a small band sharing the bill with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln at The Cotton Club on the part of Kentucky Avenue that stretched far away from the Ocean. A.C.’s black ghetto. Dizzy Gillespie came, too.
And the summer of ’57 the Hamids brought in a two-evening concert produced by Lionel Hampton featuring him, his big band, Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, plus Ella Fitzgerald. They played on The Boardwalk at the Warner Theater.
That’s when I interviewed Duke, Dizzy, Louis, Ella, and Hampton.
Duke: “The band is my instrument. When I write something today, I want to hear it tomorrow, I’m kind of impetuous that way.”
Dizzy: “I feel comedy.”
Louis (about performing in Europe): “A note’s a note in any language.”
Louis’ All-Stars included Louis’ New Orleans contemporary, clarinetist Edmund Hall. I was already an admirer of his playing, hearing his gutsy sound on sessions with Ruby, Vic Dickenson, and Buck Clayton.
While back stage to interview Louis, I saw distinguished–looking Hall, a thin, balding, solemn-looking man sitting solitary in a corner. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his playing, but I had to talk with Louis first.
After my interview with Louis, Edmund Hall was nowhere in sight. To this day I remain disappointed that I hadn’t talked to him.
My interviews were improving. Of course, with Duke and Louis, how could they be bad? Those natural showmen were always great, jolly, accessible talkers. But Ella was shy and uncomfortable. When asked about being a “jazz singer” she didn’t like the term.
But then, as Leonard Bernstein had asked, “What is Jazz?” Duke often said there were only two kinds of music, “good music and bad music.” Louis had said that jazz was whatever he performed.
But every question to Hampton about his own history found him turning around the answer to promote the concert, e.g., “Why did you start playing the vibes?” Answer: “I just loved the sound. And I’m going to play them at the Warner Theater and I know everyone will just love the sound, too.”
Unfortunately, having been a big fan of Ella and Hamp, I got turned off by their lack of responsiveness. It took me a few years to realize that they were not obligated to speak well, or to even talk at all. They were musicians whose great performances should have spoken for themselves. Just because Duke and Louis were so wonderfully gregarious with me, a local d.j. in his mid-20s, didn’t mean everyone else had to be like them. In time it became clear: there were only two kinds of interviews, good interviews and bad interviews. Sometimes I was at fault. Sometimes the musician couldn’t respond well, or really didn’t want to be bothered.
Incidentally, two days after that evening at the Warner Theater, the Atlantic City Press reported that a man had walked onto the stage at the second night’s concert and punched Ella in the mouth. That’s all I remember of the story.
However, in an August 1957, recording session, Louis, performing with Ella in “Stompin’ at the Savoy” ad-libbed, “He musta been lookin’ at Lionel Hampton when we was in Atlantic City. Oh, we won’t talk about that.”
In my second December at WOND, letters reeking of cheap perfume started coming to me. They were written in a florid hand where someone named Dorothy referred to how happy she had been when we had been together, calling me “darling” or “sweetheart” and saying that she couldn’t wait to see me again. I had no idea who this person was. And there was no return address on the letters. Amused and surprised, I showed the letters to Vene. She got really upset, especially since there were some problems already in our marriage. Although it was probably not a good choice to show her the letters, it would have been worse and suspicious if they had remained secret.
Then, around Christmas, a big package from Dorothy came to me at the station, full of presents wrapped in thin, crinkly paper smelling of the same strong perfume. They were not only for me but for Bob and Larry. For me: tacky-looking pajamas, a small bottle of Aqua Velva after-shave lotion, and a package of flimsy handkerchiefs. For Bob: a pair of floppy soft bedroom slippers. For Larry, a much-too-small V-neck cotton sweater. Clearly Dorothy didn’t know Larry was a large guy. Since Bob already knew about the letters and had been amused, he thought that this was even funnier.
There was an actual address this time with a full name on the package. I wanted to return everything, but Bob, laughing, said he was going to keep the slippers. I made a package to send back my gifts. I’d do so in person so I could see where Dorothy lived, maybe find a way to talk some sense to her.
She turned out to be a resident of a Ventnor mental health home. When I arrived, a nurse in charge thanked me for bringing back the presents and said she’d talk to Dorothy to see if she could be convinced to stop sending the letters. It should have been funny to think that such a devoted fan was a mental patient, but I found it sad. And the letters did stop.
That summer, 20th Century Fox offered the Hamid office the chance to present the South Jersey premiere of a new, creepy horror movie, The Fly, starring Vincent Price. I was hired to create a radio commercial and to host a broadcast with a visiting troop of ghouls who would mingle around the Shore Theatre at the opening.
My 30-second spot was a winner. “Help me! Help me!” my thin, tiny high-pitched voice whimpered.
Then a deep sinister voice intoned, over weird music by Leonard Rosenman for East of Eden, “What a piteous cry. What a hideous fly. The Fly, starring Vincent Price, is at the Shore Theater. Dare to be there.” A $25 triumph (valued at $206 April 2015.)
I was alerted that a Philadelphia actor calling himself Igor was due to arrive in town with a large cast of ghosts, goblins, and horror characters to appear with me for the opening at the theatre, and that I’d tape-record a few choice words with them for subsequent broadcast.
Driving over from the mainland, I caught an interview with that star on Jack Lawyer’s WFPG afternoon show. “Wow!” Jack said to Igor. “That’s some scary make-up! How long did it take you to put that on?
“More than three hours,” Igor replied in a kind, gentle, rather cultured voice.
Not long thereafter I saw his facial art work in person. I’d say 20 minutes would have been enough.
The collection of characters he’d brought with him looked like a bunch of high schoolers he’d drafted off the streets. I tried talking to one aiming to look like Frankenstein’s Monster.
“You are certainly terrifying,” I began. “Are little kids afraid of you?”
In a creaky voice, the kid replied, “Uh, I hope not. I haven’t seen any. Anyhow, when Igor hired me, he said that I’m supposed to just stand around and not talk to anybody.”
Igor rushed in to intervene and pulled me away towards himself and talked about how he’d been especially sent down to A.C. by Roland who truly regretted he couldn’t attend himself, but never went out in the daylight which was bad for his skin.
Yes, Roland, the big celebrity would have made that appearance a major mob scene. Roland (pronounced rol-AHND) hosted Shock Theatre on Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, a weekend hit show where he mocked and sometimes made quick cut-in appearances in horror movies that Universal Studios leased out to TV stations as a package encouraging local actors to host them. He and his director came up with truly funny bits.
Roland, dressed in a black undertaker’s frock coat, had cheekbones and eyes accented by dark shadows. Although he was always the only character on screen, he often referred to two other people, sometimes speaking to them as if they were within earshot. One was “My Dear,” evidently his wife. She was represented by a motionless bundle within a burlap sack hanging on doorknob. The other was “Igor,” no doubt a name borrowed from the original Frankenstein movie. Also probably the source for this low-budget visiting spin-off.
Around the same time, a woman calling herself Vampira was already a major success doing her much-more-renowned and similar thing in L.A. Soon the concept would catch on nationally in many cities.
Roland, FYI, was the invention of Philadelphia actor John Zacherle who got his first big break in live westerns, Action in the Afternoon, shot on the wooded big back lots of WCAU.
Soon, he took his act to New York where he became known as Zacherley. He and I crossed paths, indirectly, as performers 11 years later, when both of us read our own separate chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on WBAI, New York. More re: that later.
As for other acting, Vene and I were still very interested in theatre, of course, and got roles in a community theatre production of Francis Swann’s Out of The Frying Pan. By then I had grown a small beard. Since I’d always had a baby face.
I felt it made me look more mature. Thus, a newspaper review of the show described me as playing “the bearded George,” as if that were a definition of character. But beards were so uncommon that that must have seemed worth remarking on.
The play is set in New York City, the place both of us yearned to live. We went there a few times to take in some plays, driving in our brand new 1957 Fiat 1100. We traded in the old oil-leaking Chrysler, getting a credit of $75 (about $620 in 2012). Not that I knew that much yet about driving, but I hadn’t had any accidents since moving to Atlantic City, and, after all, the car had a warranty and was in perfect condition when we bought it.
These trips got us talking to each other about how to move to New York, and we began setting aside a little money to do that, in case we went through with the fantasy.
We were also big fans of the Cape May Playhouse, where professional actors from New York appeared in plays during the summer. The Playhouse sometimes advertised on WOND and was trying to get the most out of publicizing a production of Tennessee Williams’ sensational Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Playhouse had brought in Broadway star Bern Hoffman to play Big Daddy. They had asked the station to send someone to interview him. That turned out to be me, the sometime-actor.
Hoffman had had an important role in the original Guys and Dolls and had played Earthquake McGoon in L’il Abner. I was impressed. Conversing after recording the interview, I told him that I’d been an actor in college and was thinking about an acting career in New York. Did he have any advice? “Yes,” he said, “don’t go. You’ll be very disappointed and discouraged about how hard it is. And, even if you get a little work now and then, you’ll have to find some other way to pay your bills, some kind of job you won’t like.”
I was crestfallen. “But,” he added, “if you have the passion, if you can’t help yourself and you want to go no matter what, no matter what I or other actors tell you, then no one can stop you. But just remember that you were given some friendly advice. I wish I could encourage you. But I can’t.”
Somehow, I thought, if we go to New York, maybe I can find some part-time work at a radio station and combine that with being an actor. Naïve? Considering the competition, you’d think so.
Just in case, I recorded some of my WOND performances and sent a few tapes to New York stations WNEW and WMGM, places about as big as you can get in the kind of pop music shows I’d been hosting. Mark Olds at WNEW wrote back to me that he liked what he heard and invited me to drop in on him sometime when I was in New York. It wasn’t a job offer, of course, but it was encouraging.
Then, after I finally graduated from Temple in August 1958, Vene and I decided to try our luck in New York. And soon I’d get a few small roles. And soon I’d also get on the air.