Starting the Trip to Many Stations

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

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

                                
Young Gordon Kahn
   
Young Gordon Spencer Kahn

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

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

Here I am again narrating.

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

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

Sonny, Dad, Mother
Gene & Sonny 1

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

Through my early college years, I was also known as Gordon Kahn. But, once I started to host classical music programs on Philadelphia’s WFLN (alongside Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky and Morris Goldberg, aka Mike Nichols and Gilbert Morris…see below), some confusion arose. The Kahn name was the same for two people publicly involved with classical music. Dad suggested that I use my middle name to become Gordon Spencer.

The Performances Begin

I started out being prepared for a musical career, a tiny tot scratching away at a miniature violin, hating Orlando Cole’s lessons, resolving never to be a musician. All that practicing. Playing an instrument didn’t sound like fun. It sounded like work. Hard work. “God damn it!” Dad said, every time he missed a note or a beat practicing at home. It was work. His work.

I had no idea why he would be tense. I didn’t know that a trained artist, emotionally connected to music, music which means something personal, not abstract, could have exacting standards for him. It took time to discover that sitting on a chair in a symphony orchestra encompasses psychic perils which audiences rarely consider. No hiding in a crowd there. Hit a wrong note, or come in late on a cue and your colleagues can get thrown off and the whole sonic structure could come apart at the seams. Plus you’ve got that guy up front, the conductor, who doesn’t miss much when there are so few of you within his gaze. He’s the boss. Intimidating. Job-threatening. No wonder Dad practiced at home.

Finally my mother got me out of my lessons. She may have saved me from ending up as an adult, verbally flagellating myself because of similar professional terror. Dad said she was spoiling me. She was. Thank goodness.

Nonetheless, little Gordon stood on stage holding a little trumpet next to adult Gordon with his viola in a newspaper photo because Fabian Sevitsky, Serge Koussevitzky’s brother, news worthily, had conducted a bunch of us Orchestra kids playing toy instruments with some of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in what was then known as Haydn’s Toy Symphony. (Later research revealed it was actually composed by Leopold Mozart.)

GS & Dad

I didn’t know how to play the trumpet; my gig was with a ratchet but it didn’t make a good picture. Show business.

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

Ray Bolger w name

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

Oscar Levant w name

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

Sammy Kaye

At the age of nine I led the Sammy Kaye dance band (“Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.”) By the way, he was born Samuel Zarnocay, Jr. (more show business). We merged our talents on the stage of the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. The band was featured live prior to an Edgar Kennedy short to be followed by Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita. Kaye’s tours always featured “So You Want to Lead a Band,” wherein selected audience members competed for prizes, such as free tickets. When Sammy called out to the audience “OK, fellas and girls, who wants to lead the band?” I waved my hand like crazy from the front row, having arrived early enough with my mother to grab one of those seats.

“Me! Sammy! Me!” I squealed.

“OK, Sonny, c’mon up.”  “Sonny!” He even knew my name! I zipped up the steps to the stage to stand in front of a bunch of guys who played music I knew very little about. Pop music. I was a symphony orchestra kid.

Sammy also invited three other people, including a chunky, middle-age grey-haired lady who must have been at least 45. Plus a soldier in uniform.

Kaye lined us up, side by side, and walked down the line, microphone in hand, asking each of us a few questions about ourselves. He asked me who I was. “I’m a housewife,” I said. Big laugh from the audience. Wow. I was going to sweep that contest.

My turn to lead. Sammy gave me a foot-long baton, the lower part black, the upper white. He told me and the band that we were going to present the wartime hit “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” I lifted the baton and the band started playing that bouncy tune. Once I started waving my arms, the musicians followed my tempo. Which wavered. Which varied. It sounded almost like Spike Jones. Lots of laughs again in the darkened house. But now they were laughing at me when I didn’t want them to. I was no Stokowski.

When the soldier conducted, the selection was Sammy’s own wartime hit, the sweet ballad “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” The band sounded great. It was a perfect fit. The soldier who might never come home to his sweetheart.

Soon thereafter, Sammy walked along us, holding his baton, sequentially over each contestant, asking the audience to applaud for their favorite. The soldier won. Of course, he should have, no matter how he conducted. It was wartime. I wasn’t disappointed to not get the biggest applause. Sammy let me keep my baton, a sort of prize. It was autographed in INK. I treasured it for many years.

Afterwards, as compensation, Mother took me to the nearby Mayflower Donut Shop which had fresh donuts popping onto a conveyor belt past the counter where we sat. I chose one with cinnamon.

Georgeus George w name

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

A Break at the First Major Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

For $50 a week (about $460 in 2017) my responsibilities included doing my own programming, that is, choosing the recordings I wanted to broadcast, standard at most stations then. Program Director Mike O’Donnell, of course, had to approve the choices, although selecting the jazz records was entirely up to me.

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

GS at WFLN

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

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

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

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

Mike Nichols w name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Smith w name
Bernard Peiffer