Monday, August 15, 2011

These are excerpts from my memoir, in progress.
Part 1-Introduction
My dear children, each character in this tale is represented by a corresponding instrument in the orchestra…” That familiar phrase is from the narration for Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf, words I often heard as a child at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts as one of those children. My father, Gordon Kahn, was a violist in the Orchestra; that was part of an immersion into the kind of music integral to my family life.

After such concerts, I’d walk backstage, corduroy knickers squeaking against pudgy little thighs, and Dad would introduce me to whatever star had been standing magnificently up on that stage narrating in front of that phenomenal array of artists. I’d respectfully shake hands, not the least intimidated. I was a performer’s kid, after all. On stage and backstage were known territory.

I also knew that one day I’d be a performer, not yet certain what kind or where. And, since such music was so much a part of my life, it’s no surprise to have spent a lot of it as a professional speaker, talking on the radio about music. My corresponding instrument: my voice. And, here I am, narrating.

(What follows is about my family connections to music and theatre as well as several performances from childhood through college,including on-air at WSRN, Swarthmore and WNAR, Norristown. Also as an actor at Temple University.)

Part 3-
Classical Music Radio Announcing; The Career Begins
During my next semester at Temple, 1955, 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; I'd grown up with it; I could speak some French and Spanish and had a fairly good idea of how to sound like I knew German and Italian. Moreover I had a pleasant, resonant microphone-ready, normally- required speaking voice.

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

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

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

Not long thereafter I got the call. A shift, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 2 pm plus the one-hour Saturday “Concert of American Jazz.” Where had Crowley gone? Why? No idea. But I didn’t ask.I was told, however, that two previously regular staff announcers would get their jobs back if they wanted them after serving in the Korean War. One was Mitchell Krauss, later of CBS News.

For $50 a week (about $400 in 2011) my responsibilities included doing my own programming, that is choosing the recordings I wanted to broadcast, standard at most stations then. Program Director Mike O’Donnell, of course, had to approve the choices, although selecting the jazz records was entirely up to me.In the filing system everything was easy to find. All the recordings were filed by label and by the label’s catalogue number. To find them we only had to look in The Schwann Catalog, a monthly listing of all the records known available in the U.S. It was invaluable for record stores. 

And for WFLN too.I also had to do what announcers did at most stations during broadcasts: keep a log of every element, noting when each record started and ended plus when each commercial was read and its length; run the turntables; operate the console (called a “board”) which controlled volume of the signals from the turntables, tape machines and microphone while on the air; watch the VU (volume unit) meter on the console to make sure that there was no over-modulation causing distortion; read commercials live; gather news from an Associated Press news printer in another room; edit and read the news on the air, and, every hour, go into the transmitter room and write down on a 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.

This were characteristic responsibilties. meaning, of course, that I was not just sitting there paying rapt attention to the music, as listeners might think. 
And, at WFLN, there was an added duty for anyone on the air at 12 noon, that is to have finished the music and the talking at precisely noon so as to connect via the board with WQXR in New York for a New York Times 15 minute newscast. Eventually, by the way, I’d be the one of those newscasters.

Actually hardly any of these procedures were new for me; I’d learned about most of them in my radio course at Temple.I hosted “Morning Concert” from 10 to noon and “Afternoon Concert” from 12:15 (after the New York Times news) until 3 pm. Then, an older guy who looked to be in his 50s, Gil Morris (aka Morris Goldberg, as mentioned above) would take over “Afternoon Concert,” and “Evening Concert” until sign-off, when the transmitter tubes were turned off to cool overnight. Dig those clever program names.

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

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

In time, though, I’d learn to love Street Scene and Ruth Draper. By which time no commercial classical music radio station that would want to keep listeners would dream of having anyone 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 was his duty to warm up and get the transmitter tubes humming one half-hour before he could broadcast. But he came in late once too often.

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

PART 3A Jazz Enters My Life to Stay

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

I began listening to jazz while the classical music was on the air, switching my headphones to pick up the sound on a separate channel which I could hear on an off-air 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, Buck Clayton jam sessions, Herbie Mann’s not yet folky flute, the incredible, fleeting fingers of pianist Mel Powell, the willowy intricacies of Paul Desmond's alto circling and decorating Dave Brubeck's jumping chords, Charlie Parker’s pungencies, as well performing by two much-admired artists I would later meet, interview and hang out with, clarinetist Tony Scott and extraordinary cornetist Ruby Braff.

I pored over the information in Barry Ulanov’s History of Jazz in America so much so that that the weekly, two -hour program, "Concert of American Jazz" became as much a focus of my time and energy as all the rest of the hours combined, even though I didn’t like the title I’d inherited. After all, there were many great recordings by artists from other countries, from France: Django Reinhardt and a 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.

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.

Mike O’Donnell told me that 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 the first interview I’d ever do. Perfect. Just the right background for 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 all the time. I never found out if they also resented Mike Nichol’s choices on his morning show; they probably did. Moreover, to some of them, jazz was like that noisy, intrusive pop music you could hear on other stations. FM to them meant Fine Music. And how could a growling trombone, bouncing boogie-woogie piano, a wailing trumpet, Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice possibly be considered fine?

But I was going to show them how wrong they were. And 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 weren’t listening.
(Next I tell about meeting Billie Holiday)

Part 3B-WFLN-Other Candidates

One day, a 30s -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 yells. I didn’t know about Tourette’s Syndrome, only coming across the term in later years. And I didn’t know how to tell him that the station would never hire him.

Mike O’Donnell asked me about Joseph before the audition; my name had been given as a reference. I told Mike about the spontaneous outbursts. The audition took place anyway. After it, Mike said that, as long as the mike was open, everything sounded fine, there was never a pause, never a yell, 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.

PART 3C: My First Firing 
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. Later, letters came 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 is 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 the talent.

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.

Part 4

(Next I have written about genuine radio stars in Philadelphia)

Part 5-WHAT’s That?
Then another foothold materialized. Ivan Shaner, (aka Gene Shay) a WRTI classmate who sometimes hosted shows with me on that Temple U. station, had a few weekend hours on WHAT, and told me that the program director had been looking for someone to cover a Sunday shift. And since jazz was a regular feature there, maybe I could get in. Newly emerging Rock and Roll was the big deal, hosted by such stars as Hy Lit. He was white, although WHAT aimed much of its programming at black people with a couple of very popular black djs, Jocko Henderson (“Tell ‘em JOCK-OHHH sent you”) and Reggie Lavong (“A pair of horn-rim glasses and a microphone”).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still I wanted to be in broadcasting full-time.

Part 6-WONDerful Music
Atlantic City always lured me. Since childhood it had seemed so glamorous. My parents took Gene and me there often. So, not making it in Philadelphia in the summer of ’56, I contacted Atlantic City stations.

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

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

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

I found a furnished apartment in Ventnor but also had to devise a way to complete my B.A. degree at Temple. No more performing in plays. Driving 65 miles each way and dovetailing that with my shift wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t want to deal with morning rush hour traffic for daytime classes. I didn’t want to hunt for a daytime parking space near Temple in the afternoon. The best choice was early evening courses. Not every day. I’d sleep in the morning and return to A.C. no later than 9 p.m.

The drive was never easy. About two and half hours along the Black Horse or White Horse Pike. There was no expressway.

My 1947 used Chrysler was as unreliable as I was as a driver. My parents had never driven. Nor had my brother. We had never had a car. The only people in my family who did were my New York aunts,and they only used them in the summer. I had gone to driving school and had to take extra courses; I didn’t have the aptitude or the coordination, failing several driver’s tests.

I acquired the Chrysler without anyone’s knowledgeable advice. Why that car? Because it had a “semi-automatic” shift, which I thought would make it easier to switch gears. The clutch was less essential, a good thing considering my lack of driving talent. Plus the red plush seats looked classy.

The Chrysler had been getting me to and from WFLN but I had to struggle to find street parking near my one-room apartment in Center City.

Collecting a few tickets, causing a couple of accidents while not being insured, my WFLN salary had always dwindled. After leaving FLN, I drove as little as possible so as not to have to pay too often for gasoline, frequently parking at a friend’s house way out in Frankford.

Soon after I started at WOND, I noticed that I was regularly running out of oil. An Atlantic City car mechanic told me that a piston ring job would solve the problem. When he told me the cost I was floored. But oil was cheap. So I kept a carton of cans in the trunk. So long as I didn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour, one can of oil would get me from Philly to Atlantic City, or back. Of course, it did slow the trip.

WOND was on a short street named “Old Turnpike” which tapered off into a dirt road on the edge of marshes. The two story frame house sat on pilings designed to save it if the marshes flooded. There were no other buildings nearby.

The on-air studio looked out on a wooden catwalk over the marshes and out to the transmitter, pile-driven into soggy soil amid waving fronds. Way out there, I learned, the station signal could travel easily out to the ocean, carrying the broadcasts as far away as eastern Long Island. I’d be heard in New York!

Like d.j.s John and his brother George (“George Anthony”), Larry Carle, and Bob Richter, I could play any records I wanted so long as they were “wonderful.” No jazz.

And, especially, no rock and roll. The station was beginning to get a lot of that from record companies, usually on the new 45 rpm format, little discs with only space enough for about four minute’s worth of non-wonderful music. Any such arrivals were immediately handed over to chief engineer Milt Thurlow who had orders to thoroughly scratch them with a screwdriver and throw them out.

So, I had my first all-night show. Midnight to 6 a.m. It felt glamorous, as if there was an intimate connection between me, completely in command of the studios, with people out there in the dark hanging on to my every word and every note of every record I chose to play for them.

Being in the station totally alone was different than being at WFLN with everyone always busy in the offices, or at WHAT with visitors constantly dropping in. This was deep night on a deserted road with stars clearly shining overhead, far enough away from Atlantic City but close enough to be able to see its bright lights twinkling across the bay. And, every so often, someone would call, a person of the night, and we’d have a friendly chat. I developed fans, of course. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t have to do or say anything special. I just had to be there.

Never feeling sleepy, I was alive and happy all through the fall and winter, managing a few classes without much difficulty, able to keep up with the cost of oil. Filling up the oil and checking the gas.

Part 6A -Changes in the air

My first spring at WOND things changed. I married Vene Cipriotti, my beloved girl friend from Temple, from which she had just graduated, even though I hadn’t yet. We had met when performing in plays although she was a journalism major with ambitions of being a writer. Given that she had considerable typing skill already she found a job as a secretary working at The Steel Pier for the Hamid family, which owned it and many local movie theaters. She started writing their advertising copy. Which I would then read on the air.

We rented a top floor motel apartment in Ventnor. Furnished, of course, with an arrangement to pay summer rates, $150 a month (equal to about $1,225.00 in 2012) for six months getting the other six months free. Meanwhile I was still taking evening classes back in Philadelphia.

And my hours at WOND radically altered; I took over the 10 am to 4 p.m. shift. Bob Richter became the morning show host when John Struckell left to work at WFPG. Station manager Howard Green, who’d liked my style and radio personality, asked me to take over the slot. It also meant that the station could use me in producing its own commercials, working with traffic director, Alan Israel, who wrote the copy. That meant I’d do trick voices in comic commercials. Fun.

Of course, the music would have to be livelier and less soothing than overnight’s. I also had to come up with charming, brief chatter, sounding friendly, not serious, instead of more-laid back as the source of gentle companionship in the deep night. Add some Stan Freberg and Andy Griffith comedy 45s. I also found ways to do little comedy bits with my trick voices also using sound effect records. More fun.

I missed hearing jazz, though. Oh, I had kept a few LPs I had solicited from record companies while at WFLN, but I wanted to share them with other people, not listen to them alone. I proposed to Howard a two-hour evening show at 10 o’clock. At no extra pay. He agreed to let me have one on Tuesdays.

WOND didn’t have jazz records. There were some LPs which were considered pop music, such as those featuring by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn singing, or Stan Kenton, Les Brown and Billy May leading their orchestras in dance band arrangements.

Among them too was something by a kid a couple of years younger than I, a singer named Johnny Mathis. Billed as “A New Sound in Popular Music” his debut was really a jazz record. It had arrangements by Gil Evans, The Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis and Teo Macero who’d worked with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. The bands featured Buck Clayton, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Tony Scott*, Phil Woods and more great artists. What a range and what a talent Mathis had! He could have been a great jazz singer. But Columbia Records Mitch Miller has other plans for him.

*Actually listed as “A.J. Sciacca” his birth name being Anthony Sciacca (“I’m a Sicilian and proud of it” he said to me some years later). This was a time when record companies were serious about exclusive contracts and musicians like Tony couldn’t appear with the same names as on those contracts. He had a major gig with RCA as Harry Belafonte’s music director. Phil Woods, by the way, become “Phil Funk,” Art Pepper: “Art Salt.” Art Farmer: “Kunst Bauer.” (German for “Art Farmer”) Charlie Parker: “Charlie Chan.”

Anyway, with my own minor collection of jazz LPs that wasn’t enough for a weekly show on a regular basis. Since WOND already had an arrangement with two of our sponsors, the Pleasantville Music Shoppe and Ocean City Records, LPs were given to the station as partial payment for advertising. So jazz LPS were added. I selected them. What a golden opportunity. Free records. Some of which I kept; no one at the station cared. I still have a few, collectors’ items, no doubt, now.

We d.j.s had another trade deal. Each of us was allowed to find a gas station which would give us a free fill-up once a week in exchange for daily commercials which we’d read and produce every day during our shifts. Mine were for Risso and Graham’s Sunoco Service Station on Ventnor Avenue across from Atlantic City High. Perks, huh?

I thought I should have some theme music to start and end the jazz show, like many d.j.s. A pensive, lyrical one called “Spencer’s Song” seemed perfect, not only because I was a Spencer but also the mood seemed right. It featured one of my favorite trumpet players, Ruby Braff. The LP I used was from RCA and was the music played on a 1956 Alcoa Hour TV drama called The Magic Horn. Braff had the role of a legendary musician, Spencer Lee. Another of my favorites, trombonist Vic Dickenson performed in it too. He and Braff were together on some great Vanguard Records sessions around that time. Trumpet player Jimmy McPartland was likewise in the cast. I’d interviewed him at WFLN the previous year. What better choice could there have been?

I called it “Just Jazz” and each program began with an ad-libbed intro, something like this. “The little man with the battered hat stood outside in the rain falling gently on 52nd street that warm spring evening. He clutched a folded newspaper under one arm and was able to keep it dry while he pondered which club to go to. There were so many choices. All of them great. Great because so many great musicians were there. The paper had told him who. He loved them all. He loved their music. So where would he go? Into which club? Actually it didn’t matter, because wherever he went, he’d find what he came for. Jazz. Just jazz.”

Like that little man, I loved that music too.

As spring merged into summer, other things changed. On the air. Larry Carle and Bob Richter, who, in addition to being d.j.s, also sold station advertising, and started bringing in a lot of business. Peak season. Which meant that there had to be enough space on the air to squeeze in every possible spot announcement. Which meant less talk about the music. And less music. You’d think that management would have just raised the rates instead of cramming in more and more advertising. But the problem was, even though WOND was the highest rated station in the market, management was convinced that other stations could offer lower rates to grab those clients.

In July and August we often had so many commercials that we had to use radio library transcriptions which had been specially produced for radio station, featuring well-known performers’ tracks edited down to about two minutes each. Or we’d start the music from a standard recording by cuing into the middle where, for example, there was an orchestra bridge between early and later vocal solos. More than once, I’d say, after a slew of back-to-back commercials: “Now, here’s something special: Music!” Nobody at the station minded. But I kept wondering who would be listening to all that talk without much WONDerful music. Probably the advertisers. Or salesmen from other stations hoping to get leads.

Parts 7,8,9
(What follows is about my second year at WOND, interviewing Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. There was quirky fan mail, and, given a continuing interest in acting, appearing in community theatre, meeting Broadway star Bern Hoffman who gave me advice about trying to have my own acting career in New York. Then a move to New York, attempts at getting on the air and landing a few professional acting roles.) 

Part 10- From automation to stardom
Sometimes I listened to WQXR which reminded me how much I’d been missing hearing classical music. But becoming part of that staff didn’t seem like reality especially since my last connection to classical music radio seemed so far away in time and place. Plus having been fired by WFLN hardly seemed like admirable experience or a source of a good reference.

Yes, that was only three years before, but time must have had different dimensions. Perhaps it was the intensity of so much happening in such a short period. And perhaps time was also measured by not having lived that many years.

Late one night, though, I tuned into another classical station I’d never heard or heard of. WNCN.Some guy with a nasal, squeaky voice was making minimal announcements about the music. No commentary. Surely I could do better than that.

The next day I called WNCN and asked to speak to the program director. There was none, I was told. Anyway, I let the receptionist know why I called. So she passed me along to the Chief Engineer, Dave Passell. Right away I knew that voice. It was the same I’d heard on the air the night before. What? The chief engineer announcing? Quite a low-budget operation, it seemed.

After I told him that I’d hosted programs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New Rochelle and that I knew something about classical music, he asked if I had an FCC Third Class Radio Operator’s license. Of course I did; it was required at every station where I’d worked. Like most announcers, the FCC required us to take tests to prove that we knew how to run broadcast equipment.

Satisfied that I met that first fundamental requirement, Dave invited me to come to the WNCN offices off Fifth Avenue on West 44th Street and take an audition, saying he might be able to use me.

Wow! What a break. I knew he’d be impressed with my sound and my talent. Once I arrived and I’d told Dave again about my experience, somehow avoiding being too specific about WFLN, Dave handed me a WBCN program guide asking me too read some listings. No microphone. That was my audition. I did better than just read the listings; I ad-libbed introductions to the music. There was no indication that he was impressed. But he did say, in his dry way, that he thought I’d be OK.

And that there was an opening. But he also explained that there wouldn’t be much announcing since WNCN was an affiliate of Boston-based Concert Network’s WBCN and that 12 hours every day of New York’s programs originated there, re-broadcast, delayed, on tapes. The other 12 were on different tapes. That is, I’d be more like an operator than announcer.

While most people think of radio networks as being based in New York this wasn’t. WNCN, WXCN Providence and WHCN Hartford were part of a “bicycle network,” a term I didn’t know but later learned, meaning the tapes come in the mail. It was applied to a few other similar operations. Dave didn’t call it that, of course; the term suggests something cheap. Which it was. The WBCN tapes were delivered by mail.

Basically Dave needed someone to run the tapes but who’d know enough about classical music to be able to handle emergencies, such as broken tapes, when it might be necessary to actually speak on the station. The Boston tapes aired from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The other 12 hours consisted of tapes that WNCN or WBCN had prepared. So Dave had produced a few tapes on his own. My job was to run those non-BCN tapes and take transmitter readings, standing by, midnight to 6 am, Tuesday through Saturday mornings i.e. Monday through Friday night, since the hours of the day start in darkness.

The acting career was hardly flourishing. Getting paid for five six-hour nights meant an actual income, meaning that, if daytime acting work turned up I could do it, so long as the show didn’t run past 11:30 pm.

Dave and I made an appointment to meet where he could show me the operation. It was not on West 44th Street. The tapes and WNCN-created announcements came from the same space as the one housing the transmitter. That was at a high-class location: Fifth Avenue near 61st Street on The Hotel Pierre’s 40th floor. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

A perfectly groomed, superbly uniformed elevator operator whooshed us as high up in the hotel as we could go where a grimy concrete stairway led to a massive, anonymous, thoroughly locked metal door.

Dave opened it.

This was not Sesame cave filled with luxurious goods. A large concrete-floored, high-ceilinged room with one small open window perched above it, had all kinds of partially open, sometimes torn cardboard boxes, in which mysterious pieces of equipment and giant tubes stuck out in every direction. Massive metal shelves held more such arcane pieces. In the middle of the space, a worn-out, big, stuffed leather armchair sat next to an old desk covered with scattered papers.

Meanwhile I could hear Brahms’ Hungarian Dances coming from speakers behind a less imposing door. There Dave ushered me into a smaller space where a guy who looked about my age sat on a wheeled office chair next to a desk on which there was a small console, a turntable, a radio board with dials for pots plus a small reel-to-reel player. No microphone.

Dave introduced me to Jeff Kuklin, the noon to six “announcer” who oversaw the broadcasting of half a day’s worth of Boston programs.

Behind Jeff, against one wall, sat four giant reel-to-reel tape machines, whose tapes were larger than any I’d seen before. A tape was running on #1. Against another wall, stood racks and racks of blinking lights, dials, knobs, buttons, similar to WFLN’s transmitter equipment.

“Uh,” Dave said, characteristically clearing his throat, “you have to take transmitter readings every hour. The logs are in there.” He pointed to the desk next to Jeff and reached over to open a drawer, Jeff pulling away. Another drawer held program logs plus a sheaf of papers, listing Tapes 101 to 150 with various amounts of check marks next to them.

Suddenly a sound like an enormous raspberry reverberated throughout the room. “What’s that?” I asked, astonished

“That’s the air compressor. It keeps the transmitter from overheating,” Dave explained.

“How often does it go off?”

“Whenever it needs to.”

“But wouldn’t that interfere with the announcing?”

“Yes. But you’ll only announce when you have to.”

“And where’s the microphone?”

Dave pulled open another drawer and withdrew what looked like something out of airport scenes in 1940s movies, a flat microphone on a handle, a lollypop. “You just plug it in here,” he said, putting the jack into an opening above one of the pots. “You use it during an emergency and say ‘One moment please.”

Was he telling me even what to say? “But what if the compressor goes off while I’m talking?” I asked.
“Oh, this mike is not very sensitive. That’s why we use this model.”

“I see a turntable,” I said, “but where do you keep your LPS?”

He pointed to the wall next to the table. There were four LPS there. Andre Kostelanetz: Strauss Waltzes was one. “But you’d only play them in a major emergency,” he said. “They’re pretty scratched. ”

“Your commercials are there,” he went on, gesturing to the small tape reel player on the desk. “They’re all recorded.” There must not have been many.

“Who records them? ” I asked, hoping for a chance to actually speak on that station.

“Usually Roger does. He’s our sales manager, But sometimes Bob Ricci, one of our announcers, does a few.”

So, high up in a classy hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, my job was to run tapes and take transmitter readings surrounded by all kinds of equipment in two concrete- floored rooms, one window high above each room to let in the night air. Or rain. Or snow.

Why were any of us operators called “announcers” ? I didn’t ask. Anyway, I’d try it for a while.

Part 10A-The Joys of Automation
My first night on the job, I learned that not all of those 150 non-WBCN tapes were playable. I’d open a box, curious to know what music was on the tape, hoping to select something I’d enjoy hearing, since I could play any one I chose, and discover a hand-written note saying “Defective.” Or I’d see a typed page or just a handwritten one naming the music, sometimes even the performers, but without any timings. Each tape could run three hours and, somewhere between the music and the announcements, my job was to stop the tape, play a recorded station break on the small reel-to reel player. “This is The Concert Network. ….This is WNCN, New York.” Maybe a commercial, but probably not.

I also soon learned that my predecessor had fallen asleep too often in the big leather armchair in the front room. Maybe he should have brought an alarm clock. I brought one and often selected the longest intact tapes, so I could sometimes nap for at least an hour. More than once a night. I never overslept.

As I mentioned above, I had joined AFTRA, the union for broadcast performers. This had no bearing on working for WNCN, where actually I was the first union member there. AFTRA members have never been required to work only for broadcast stations with AFTRA contracts. True, it’s always hoped that, when enough AFTRA members start working for a station, they can collectively unionize that station. But it’s up to them to vote-in the union and thereby get the best salaries, working conditions, health care and pensions.

Once or twice Dave asked me to cover day-time shifts when Jeff or someone else couldn’t make it. Then Dave would go up to the Hotel at night to work on the transmitter or do some kind of other tech thing.

That’s how I started hearing the Boston tapes. One of the program hosts was a guy with a deep. rich voice, Joe Marzano, who sounded like he knew what he was talking about. There was also nasel-voiced John Adams, the program director. And there was a woman! Women didn’t host radio programs in the 1950s, although the NBC network feature Monitor did have “Miss Monitor” give breathy (i.e. sexy) weather forecasts. This WBCN program host wasn’t doing sexy shtick. She had some sort of English accent and when she said her name it sounded as if she was mumbling: “Nrml Dnyr.” Later, when I met Marzano, he said that she was East Indian and named Nirmal Daniere.

When a long piece of music was airing on those days, the timing being clear on a cue-sheet, I sometimes strolled down one flight of stairs to a radio station that looked like a radio station, not a storage room and hobby shop for engineers. That was WBAI. With an attractive receptionist who spoke with an English accent…such accents for women receptionists were thought cool then...and well-lit offices, double-glass windowed studios, air conditioning. A pot of fresh coffee on a hot plate. Sometimes I’d hear them featuring jazz. Or modern concert music. Or comedy records. Or plays. Well-dressed Les Davis and Sid Shepherd hosted such shows. I wished I could be there instead of upstairs running tapes.

Eventually, if fact, I would be on the air on WBAI, a few years after owner Louis Schweitzer donated it to Pacifica Radio. Les and Sid? Gone, of course. The old ownership/format change thing.

WBAI’s 1959 format got me to thinking. Maybe I could do something similar on WNCN. After all, I still had some jazz LPs from those days at WFLN and WOND and I’d find a way to get classical music LPs, perhaps starting with some from the New York Public Library since it appeared that WNCN had none of its own.

Part 10 B -A New Star Glows Dimly in the New York Night

Since I was at WNCN for six hours overnight, I wondered if Dave or someone else in the management could be convinced to let me host my own show for the same amount of money I was already paid. And if the program included classical music, that would fit right in with what the station already featured. As for the other elements, maybe they’d go for that too, even if it seemed unusual. Perhaps it would even attract attention to the station. Plus I’d make clear that I’d hosted jazz programs before on WHAT and WOND, remaining silent about WFLN.

Mulling it over more, tying selections into some kind of actual program idea seemed an even more special idea. Limiting everything to the 20th Century, for example, sounded good, maybe adding to the classics poetry recordings, film scores, musicals, things about which I already knew something.

As it turned out, surprisingly, Dave sounded interested. He said he’s talk it over with Fred Cain, the General Manager.

Excited, I began to plan how to present the different elements, for example pairing symphonic music by Leonard Bernstein with selections from West Side Story and Manny Albam’s jazz arrangements of the same scores plus Moss Hart reading part of his autobiographical theatre reminiscences Act One.

Or Laurence Olivier reading scenes from his movie version of Shakespeare’s Henry V on a 10 inch LP which I treasured. Plus it had some William Walton’s great music for the film which I could also program. Then maybe something by Vaughan Williams and other English composers and LPs by English jazz musicians. Of course, I didn’t have most of the LPs yet to do all of that, but I’d find a way to acquire them.

When Dave and I met with Fred Cain, Cain seemed interested. “But what will you use for records?” Fred asked. “We don’t have any.” I suggested that I could borrow some, on my own time, from the Public Library and that, also on my own time, I’ d contact record companies to see what they could send me and the station. Most major labels had headquarters in New York.

Fred went for it. Especially because it would mean that WNCN would start having its own LPs.

Naturally there first had to be some changes up there on the Pierre’s 40th floor. Dave moved the console and the board away from the transmitter room and its air compressor and put all of it onto the desk in the front room. There he set up two new turntables and a good microphone facing away from the other room. He also put some sound-proofing strips around the door between the rooms. Sitting there and my new studio, I could barely hear the air compressor.

Consequently, in late April 1959 WNCN had its first live broadcasts. From high atop The Hotel Pierre. Sounds of the 20th Century. I was 25 years old.

I used my own records for the first program. They included Stravinsky’s Petrouchka conducted by Leopold Stokowski as well as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring conducted by Pierre Monteux, both among my favorites for years. Plus Bill Russo’s somewhat Stravinsky-like ballet, The World of Alcina followed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra playing Russo arrangements, then Kenton alumni as members of Shorty Rogers and His Giants plus a jazz and poetry record featuring West Coast musicians.

That’s when I discovered a problem.

The turntables sitting there on the desk. This was not a WFLN or WBAI high class set-up. When I opened a drawer in that desk, it made the tone arms shake; they had no padding or cushions. Although I had always taken good care of my LPs and they were unscratched, there were slight interruptions in the music when the tone arms wobbled. At first, when that happened, I quickly faded down what I was playing and set the tone arm back to the right place. That took only a couple of seconds, but still the flow of the music was interrupted. After a couple of times, I figured out that I should just leave the drawers open. Duh.

Was I nervous? Probably. But I also realized that most likely few people were listening that night, since I had appeared from nowhere out of the darkness. Or maybe they’d be so drowsy that they might not notice anything that went wrong. Oh, yeah, that was a city of 8 million people. Maybe somebody was listening to my New York debut. I never found out if anyone did.

Another problem emerged when borrowing LPs from the Library. Some had not been taken care of. They were scratched. Or dirty. I went to Sam Goody’s and bought some cleaning brushes and cloths. My expense, of course, That helped some.

Quickly the whole project became a passionate obsession. I slept hardly at all those first few months, calling and/or visiting the offices of every record company in town. A great place to do it, New York.

I collected for the station and for my program post -1900 music by Puccini and Mahler plus works by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius and more. I kept for myself the more obscure and modern works knowing that WNCN would never broadcast such things anymore than would have WFLN: that’s be too risky for most classical music stations, alienating conservative audiences. Sure, it would be all right for my program; it was overnight, quirky time in New York.

That’s also when I discovered Composers Recordings Inc. which featured nothing but the work of modern American composers. They gave me everything they’d published.

And I began collecting jazz from Blue Note, Columbia, RCA, EmArcy, comedy records by Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, former colleague Mike Nichols, film music by Rosza, Tiomkin, Korngold. I borrowed Library LPs of poets reading their own works. And discovered Spoken Arts Records, which specialized in exactly what the name indicates. And I broadcast LPs by Ruth Draper, following in Mike Nichol’s footsteps after all.


Listener reaction? I don’t remember getting letters so long as the broadcasts came from the Hotel. Letters and phone calls would have gone to the office; that was the station’s official address. And the phone at the transmitter had a different, unlisted number.

WNCN may not have been on most people’s radar yet. People would have to stumble on it just as I had done. Sure, I was offering something original and different. But modern classical music, jazz, poetry etc were hardly mainstream radio and probably WBAI had already cornered such an audience.

Actually I hadn’t done or said anything to encourage people to contact me. I wanted to do the show my way, not play requests. And not talk on the phone so as to concentrate on what I was doing. I was following Jean Shepherd’s example on WOR whom I’d heard remind listeners not to call. “I’m at work,” he’d explained. Moreover I wanted to listen to all those wonderful recordings.

But I did get a letter from a magazine writer who wanted to interview me. Roy Hemming of monthly Music Life was working on a feature about New York all-night classical music broadcasts for the October issue. And he’d heard my program.

I was thrilled. It meant somebody actually knew what I was doing, doing it my own way, and liked it. And maybe such publicity would attract a bigger audience. It wasn’t so much that I wanted people to pay attention to me; I wanted to get people to like what I liked, to share the enjoyment, as I had with my jazz shows in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

Hemming came to our tiny Riverside Drive apartment where we offered him coffee and cookies. Still a couple of naïve kids. He knew a lot about the program and said he enjoyed listening.

“We think Gordon Spencer’s Sounds of the 20th Century is one of the most imaginatively conceived and presented FM shows being heard in New York these days,” he wrote.

It was the only time and place that I knew of serious public attention that year.

Part 10 C
(I've written about my time at NCN from then until late in 1960, including my connections with Moondog, Eric Dolphy, Jonathan Schwartz and Communicating Arts Corporation who produced and paid for four hours of jazz every night, some of it hosted by Chris Borgen.) 

COMMENTS? QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me:

Part 10 D- Oops! Fired again
In October 1960 Vene and I decided to visit her family in Philadelphia and leave on a Friday morning, which meant that I wanted to tape that Friday night/Saturday morning show, already listed in CUE Magazine. I took such listings seriously and had arranged with Cal to have someone air the tapes, a part-timer named Bill Watson who hosted two shifts Saturday night/Sunday morning and Sunday night/Monday morning.

I had told Cal that I’d need access to the recording studio after the jazz people left and that I would record my program before I left Friday morning.

But I found the studio locked and had no key. I tried forcing the lock. It didn’t budge. Finally I leaned against a hallway wall and furiously tried kicking open the door with my feet. I was pissed off.

The lock did not yield. The door stayed shut. And the particle-board wall shattered.

I left Cal a note that morning explaining what had happened, saying I’d pay for the repairs.

The following Monday, returned from Philadelphia, Cal called, saying he had to fire me, that management felt my behavior was too unpredictable. Who knew what I might do next, possibly in anger, possibly on the air?

Thus, after twenty months, my overnight glory, my joy, my pride vanished into thin air. The time had seemed longer; it was so intense.

That’s New York for you. The New York space-time continuum. On the jammed island of Manhattan, where space is at a premium, crowds throng tightly on the streets and people learn how to make the most efficient use of the confines and the time it takes to move efficiently through it all, with no wasted motion, no wasted minutes. 

Bill Watson took my place. He seemed a lot older. He was. 17 years older. Almost double my age. Who knew what he might do next? In his 14 years with WNCN, until the station’s first demise, Bill became far more unpredictable than I had ever been, telling off listeners on the air, making fun of commercials which he had to read, offering opinions on politics, verbally excoriating modern music.

He adored the works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. And would never program anything he didn’t like. In that regard, we were actually alike. Different strokes.

Certainly his selections would have had wider appeal than mine, that music has long been the backbone and the body of what most classical music listeners want, not what I felt were my esoteric challenges, my threats to peaceful sleep.
Watson was also a more interesting on-air personality than I had been.

My style had probably been more reserved, obviously, from what I’ve already told you, taking myself and my conceptions seriously. Back then I rarely used “I” or referred directly to myself or offered opinions. The content was the message, the content which I thought was great and didn’t need to say so. Sure, I was comfortable at an open mike, able to talk freely without notes or scripts, as I had always been. My public persona was not in some made-up style; it was one part of who I was, whoever that may have been. But I still felt like a kid even if sounding mature. 

Bill and I did get around, though, to liking each other, six years later, both working for a different WNCN management.So, in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, 1960, age 27, I was unemployed again.

This felt less painful and less shocking than my departure from WFLN. Since then I’d been let go by WNRC, albeit not unexpectedly, and had quit WHAT and WOND to move on. A sense was creeping in that radio careers ebbed and flowed. Besides, having a program from 2 am to 6 am felt like being in some dark, obscure corner where hardly anyone could notice me.

It was time to try an acting career again. I knew there were no permanent jobs there. I knew that I had talent. I also knew that I needed a lot of luck.

Part 11 A & B- A Different Kind of Stardom...perhaps
(Next: That November I got a small role in an off-Broadway musical. And, in December, a big role, as a Giant in a marionette show, with the chance to play it on TV a few months later.)

Part 11 C-The Dupont Show of the Month starring...duh
Then, early in February, I got a call from Audrey Gellen of Talent Associates.

Talent Associates! That was one of TV’s major TV producing companies, headed by David Susskind.

That sounded as if I was on my way to stardom.

Audrey asked me to come into the office; she thought she had a role for me. And that, without even an audition.

She had seen my picture in The Talent Guide and thought I looked like Major Henry Rathbone, one of the two other people with the Lincolns in the box at Ford’s Theater the night of the assassination. Taking a look at me in, she said, “Yep, you’re just right.”

They were producing a DuPont Show of the Month ,The Lincoln Murder Case. A one week rehearsal would start in two weeks, for broadcast on February 18th. And right away I had to go for an early costume fitting because I/Rathbone would be in advance publicity photos. Oddly, she didn’t give me a script.

The pay: $400, equal to about $2, 940 in 2011. A windfall.

At the costume shop I could tell immediately who Drummond Erskine was going to play. He was thin as a rail, tall and angular with a bony face. “Wow!” I exclaimed to him. “You gonna play Lincoln! Congratulations!”

“Oh,” he replied, “it’s not a starring role. It’s one of those ‘five lines or under parts.” That was a term of art meaning any SAG or AFTRA performer in that category worked for a minimum scale different from that for any larger role.

“So you read the script?” I asked.

“Sure. I have a few lines. Actually, the script is mostly about Booth and the conspirators.”

“I’m playing Rathbone,” I said.

“Uh-huh. He doesn’t say anything at all. He’s just in a couple of shots.”

So much for my big break.

The photo session showed five of us: Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln (Dulcie Cooper), Rathbone with his fiancée, Clara Harris
(Kathy Shaw). Behind them with a pistol pointed at Lincoln’s head was Booth (Roger Boxhill) the only one of us five who had an important role.

The publicity picture appeared in a lot of newspapers. When my father saw it, he telephoned, delighted, but asked me why I hadn’t told him yet about this big role. I explained the facts to him.

When I walked in on the first day of rehearsals, director Alex Segal looked at me and said “Who are you?.”

“I’m Gordon Spencer.”

Impatiently he responded. “No. I meant which character are you supposed to play?”

“Rathbone,” I answered, surprised that he didn’t recognize my resemblance.

“Rathbone didn’t have a beard.”

“Oh. But, Audrey Gellen at Talent Associates said I look just like him.”

“ I don’t care what she said. You want the part? Take off the beard.”

That shook me up. My beard felt like part of my identity. And how would I play The Giant in a few weeks without it?

“OK. I’ll take off the beard,” I said. Who would turn down $400 for a week of work? And, after all, the hair would grow back again.

The show was narrated by Alexander Scourby, a man whose voice and style set a standard many of us narrators and announcers aspired to. Luther Adler had the pivotal role of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who according to Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the book The Web of Conspiracy by Cliff Englewood, implied that Stanton was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Andrew Prine and House Jameson were also in the cast.

Most of the rehearsal time I just hung around talking to some of the actors and reading books since all I would have to do was to pose for a few front face camera shots when the narration referred to Rathbone. The actions: Smile as if enjoying the play. And, at one point, Rathbone would take Clara’s hand and press it. Neither she nor Rathbone nor Mrs. Lincoln would be seen reacting to the murder, nor would there be any depiction of Rathbone grabbing Booth and getting stabbed, as actually happened.

Everyone in the production knew that this would be broadcast live. That was not unusual. But we were all hoping to see the tape later. Then we were told that that DuPont Show of the Month would not be taped.

The previous month’s production, the elaborate costume drama The Prisoner Of Zenda starring Christopher Plummer and Farley Granger, had run way over budget and costs for February’s had to be severely curtailed.

The broadcast was at 9 p.m. that Saturday night and we had to arrive at the studio at 5 to get into our costumes and makeup. This was the big time. No one if the cast did his/her makeup. Famed Dick Smith and his staff did that, putting wigs, beards, mustaches on most of the men.

Earlier in the day I had shaved off my beard in preparation, shocked at the face I saw in the mirror, a face I hadn’t seen for more than three years. And the bare skin of my chin, jaws and upper lip seemed so naked. And chilly.

So while so many other men were getting beards, I had lost mine. Plus, for the next five hours, I had mutton chop sideburns and
a fake mustache.

had been able to look at all of the scenes and hear all of the dialogue during rehearsals. But for the actual performance, I just had to sit in the set and wait for little red lights to go on in cameras in front of me, when Alexander Scourby said a few words about Rathbone and Clara. I wasn’t nervous. It was so quiet on the sets and there was no live audience sitting out in front. It was like being on the radio. Except that I didn’t speak.

So, how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln? I have no idea. Vene told me that I looked fine. That Sunday my in-laws and my father also telephoned, congratulating me for such a good performance, convinced that I was on my way to a major acting career.
Parts 11 D & E

(After this I've written about working for Suzari and Nicolo Marionettes and studying acting at Hagen-Berghof Studios in 1962.)

Part 11 F-Off to Off-Broadway...
In March I got another off-Broadway role, certainly not major, at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village in a one-act by often-absurdist Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, The Women at the Tomb. It was paired with another one-act Philoctetes by Mark Schoenberg ,a re-working of a play by Sophocles about a legendary ancient Greek hero. Clearly this was an esoteric double bill.

Our play was originally conceived for marionettes (not that my work for Nicolo had any bearing on my being cast) a kind of comment suggesting that the characters are manipulated by fate and by history, no longer ordinary human beings.

In it 11 women share their thoughts about Christ when brought together after The Crucifixion. Mary, Christ’s mother, is there with another son, John (my role). DeGhelderode mocks many of these people. Most are not nice. This modern-dress, modern language English version by George Hauger was adult and blunt and included profanity, not all that common on stages in 1962. Frank Aston of The New York World Telegram and Sun (one of several attempts to meld New York’s floundering daily newspapers of which there were probably too many) wrote that the script commented on such people with “harsh novelty.” He didn’t say anything about me. No other critic did either. We had a short run.

After we closed we were invited to stage one performance in Judson Memorial Church, a few blocks away. During that, a well-dressed, affluent-looking, middle-aged man rose from his pew and headed for the exit angrily yelling “Not in God’s house!”

Our costumes, by the way, were designed by Polly Platt who, a few years later, became a costume designer and collaborator on films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, her husband. After that, she went on to an even more significant film career as co-producer of other movies.

Part 11 G-The face that launched a 1000 stares
Having a beard again was still rare enough that it seemed that it could make me so visibly noticeable that more than one stranger on the street derided me as a beatnik, even when I was well-dressed. In fact, once a man emerged from a Times Square throng and grabbed my arm, pulling on my hand and aggressively stuck a quarter in it, saying angrily, “Go get yourself a shave.”

Another actor making the rounds with me was Harry Parkins also provoking strangers into asking him if he were a girl because he had shoulder-length black hair. He was proud of it, combing regularly while waiting for interviews, as if, in pushing it away from his face, he was pushing the fact into everyone else's faces.

We both knew, as did most actors, that casting people usually responded to how we looked. They weren’t required to use their imaginations. Many of us went to auditions trying to be dressed for the parts when we had some idea of what the roles were.

So,no doubt, seeming a beatnik landed me a spot as Greenwich Village color, an extra in a 1962 G.E. Theater half hour show called Acres and Pains starring Walter Matthau and Anne Jackson. The evening it aired, just before it started, a CBS booth announcer said “Stay Tuned for G.E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, Anne Jackson and Walter Matt-TOO.” Clearly Matthau hadn’t yet made a big enough name for himself. Reagan was still mostly known as an actor.

The show turned out to be the pilot for the six-year running TV hit Green Acres starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, both quite different from Matthau and Jackson.The day of the shooting in The Village, we all hung out, Matthau, Jackson and me, in a studio set designed to look like in the interior of an apartment. They played a short scene there and then the rest of us were told what else would be filmed that day, I was sent to West Charles Street along with a guy who actually had a small role, playing someone delivering take-out food to the apartment. Cameras rolling, he was the subject, I was in the background.

Vene and I eagerly awaited the telecast at home. But a couple of minutes before, I decided to go to the bathroom. I expected that the show would start with Reagan talking plus a commercial from G. E. and that my face would turn up later.

Vene called to me, “Hurry up! It’s starting.”

“I’ll be right there!”

A minute later I walked into the living room.

“You missed it,” Vene said. The show had opened not with Reagan or a commercial but with the first scene. A tracking shot of the delivery guy on his errand. Passing me. I’ve never seen how it looked. But I was quite visible in my next movie job, getting hit by a riding crop and having famously-breasted British actress Sabrina chuck me suggestively under my hairy chinny chin chin.

Bernie Styles was a casting agent who worked with lots of TV and movie producers supplying extras. He had my picture and resume on file and that spring called me saying he needed a small crowd for a nightclub scene in a movie called “Satan in High Heels” which was shooting in a club on West 57th Street. He also wanted to make certain that all of us looked sophisticated and well-dressed, so I should wear a good shirt, suit and tie. The call was 8 a.m.

I joined the crush hour on the IRT 7th Avenue line heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, hoping that my tie wouldn’t wrinkle too much and that my freshly polished shoes would not get too scuffed.

The set was an actual room in the club. It was suffused with cigarette smoke and bright lights from every nook and cranny. I was assigned a seat at a table in the club, sitting next to a woman I’d never met and would never encounter again. We were part of the hordes of extras all hoping for big breaks, a few meager lines, some special business, maybe even actual roles.

During camera set-ups or when various scenes were rehearsed, the woman and I and other dressed-up human scenery were able to learn something of the plot. It was a sexploitation movie, i.e. sensuously suggestive but not explicit. After all, this was at the tail-end of the Eisenhower years and JFK was just making his presence felt, publically as well as privately.

Meg Myles, a statuesque, fine looking woman around my age, but looking more mature, starred as a woman named Stacey in a story involving drugs, murder plots, lesbianism, betrayal, deception and, just to keep it interesting, a few songs.

The nightclub was where Stacey was making her New York singing debut, dressed in a tight-fitting leather vest, leather riding pants, leather boots and leather gloves, wielding a small riding crop. In this subtle outfit she strode the dance floor challenging us sophisticated, horny men with her open mouth and alluring tongue.

During this stroll, she occasionally slammed the crop on the pure white tablecloths. But once she missed and hit someone. Me. On one of my hands. “Cut!” the director yelled. “Sir?” he called from somewhere out in the club’s darkness behind the lights, “Are you alright?”

“Oh, sweetheart,” she crooned to me. “I’m so sorry” and caressed my wounded flesh on her impressive chest. I felt no pain.

I called back to the director, “I’m fine, thanks.” Right. I was more than fine. I had touched one of Meg Myles breasts. It was compensation enough.

Somewhere in those two days of shooting various parts of the nightclub scene, a British blonde movie star around Myles’ age and mine named solely Sabrina (born Norma Ann Sykes) became part of the act. She was known widely for her superstructure. When she paused at my table, I didn’t get to touch her assets. But she touched me, caressing my face with one of her long-white-gloved hands. What had she to do with the story? No idea. And, according to Wikipedia, she appeared in the movie under her own name.

For an extra I was certainly getting a lot of attention. But no extra money.

Oh, and I haven’t yet seen that production either. Now, though, with a copy at Netflix, who knows?

In the fall the movie emerged. I only accidentally learned about that. Vene and I and her visiting uncle Tony, aka “Junior,” up from sunny Florida, were walking along that stretch of 42nd street which gave Times Square it reputation for sleaziness. The long block between Eighth and Seventh Avenue had perhaps as many as 10 movie theaters, almost all showing exploitation-type stuff or low- budget sensational crime films or generic Westerns, often as double-features. As we hurried by, Uncle Junior wide-eyed and shocked, said “Gordie! Look that’s you!” as he pointed to a still photo posted outside one of the theaters. It was Sabrina and me. The feature was Satan in High Heels.

“Wow!, he exclaimed, “ I didn’t know you were starring in a movie! That’s great!”

I tried to explain to him what it meant to be an extra. I decided not to disillusion him as to why my face was there, knowing full well that the reason was Sabrina’s potential wardrobe malfunction. Anyway, I was able to fend off his inquiries about the story in the film. I didn’t think he could deal with it, being a devout Catholic, a momma’s boy and not used to immersion, post-baptism, into the murky waters of sins of the flesh, fictional or real.

Part 11- I
(What follows is mostly more about my acting career, getting stage roles in summer stock and off-Broadway, starring as Shylock in a school tour and joining an improvisation comedy group with Peter Boyle) 

Part 12 -1963-Another year of chasing fame
(In February I had a small role at Equity Library Theatre)

Part 12 A Star...sort of
The bigger role was for the Group of Ancient Dramatists, putting together a production of a play by Aristophanes, one I’d never heard of, Plutus. Given my significant off-Broadway experience playing a stumbling old guy for the one-week disaster Lysistrata four years before, I figured I had it made.

And I did. And played somebody near my age. Greek actress Aliki Nord, who had major stage and film credits in her homeland, and her playwright husband Paul liked my goofy sense of fun (developed playing in Nicolo shows) and they cast me in the comic role of a wise-guy servant named Cario. Paul had written the adaptation.

The pay was Spartan; it was another non-Equity show. Several of us in the cast were in Equity, but Equity waived the rules. I did get to eat free avro lemon soup, stuffed grape leaves, skanokopita and baklava because we rehearsed above an 8th Avenue Greek restaurant owned by a friend of the Nords.

Taking the opening night at the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street, the house was jammed with Greeks and near-Greeks, dressed, of course, in their finest robes. Boisterous enthusiasm. They loved me. I got a standing ovation. So did everyone else. We were a hit. For one night only, Sunday, April 28th. That was the only scheduled performance. But Aliki and Paul vowed by all the gods that we would come together triumphantly again.

Four months later they hired us for a return engagement, four public (i.e. free) performances presented by the New York City Department of Parks. The place: the East River Park Amphitheatre at South Grand Street and FDR Drive. In August. Good old hot New York August.

The sound of traffic on the Drive and on nearby streets provided a very different sonic environment than April’s. Our first rehearsals made it clear that we’d never be clear, even those with mighty lungs capable of the kind of projection that actual Greek actors back in Aristophanes’ day didn’t need.

Sound director Michael Landis came up with a solution. Sort of. He rented a sound system, with standing microphones and small speakers, making us audible, I’d say, as far back as the eighth row. It also meant that we had to curtail any physical business that took us out of the microphones’ range. Thus we had to hover near the mikes for our scenes, like radio actors. A lot of the hot cement rows ringing us were unoccupied while kids and locals wandered up and down the aisles, as if actors were just a backdrop to their more interesting self-generated entertainments. We were not a hit.

The producers of Beyond the Fringe, though, had a big hit on their hands. That evening of sketches by a quartet of very clever Englishmen sent up British life and British theatre starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook who both had major movie careers subsequently, Alan Bennett who became a significant playwright and Jonathan Miller, soon a very much sought-after stage director.

Towards the end of the show’s first year, the producers wanted to send out a road company. Having called them, using a seemingly convincing English accent, they invited me to audition. I prepared some of my own comedy material, spinning off of Irwin Corey’s act as The World’ s Foremost Authority in a lecture I created, making fun of Othello. I could tell that the people in the house were having a good time. They laughed heartily.

“That’s great!” one of them said out beyond the stage lights. “Tell us about yourself.” Talking about my credits, I dropped the accent, trying to show them how skilled I had been to sound English when I wasn’t.

“Thank you very much,” the same voice said. “We appreciate your coming to see us. But we’re only looking for people with authentic accents.” Once again I had made a stupid choice. Would I never learn how to market myself effectively?

For most of that year, actually, I played in puppet shows.

Part 13-1964-Nearly visible
A medical doctor’s secretary named Kathleen Ambrose was able to get a leave of absence to assemble actors to tour nursing homes and mental hospitals performing a one-act play. Her major reason didn't appear to be so she could do something meaningful for the sorrowful occupants, but rather to star, sing, direct and produce. She also may have felt secure about the venues; such audiences wouldn’t be too critical. And she had enough money to pay the cast. Another non-Equity show.

She chose Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, a nasty little piece about a couple of married performers George and Lily Pepper who not only have a tacky act playing in minor gigs but bicker and insult each other backstage. Kathleen cast herself as Lily and me as George. I had the right accent and my few stage credits certainly looked right. Her NYU undergrad son Bobby had a supporting role.

At times during rehearsals Bobby seemed distracted and kept forgetting his lines. Kathleen charitably forgave him. She privately reassured me that he’d be alright for the performance; he was just having a few medical problems. But, she said, she had been able to help him by providing some of the prescription drugs her doctor-boss had in his office.

Bobby may have popped a few pills the day we opened, but he seemed to hold his own in the ensuing chaos. 

It was a major booking: Bellevue. They don’t come any bigger than that for treating off-the-wall cases.

During our one and only performance, which included Lily and George getting partially undressed in the backstage part of the story, the captive audience howled and giggled wildly. They also seemed to enjoy how the married couple kept fighting with each other, shouting encouragement to each of us. An orderly had to come in and quiet them down.

Why Kathleen chose that show, I’ll never know. But it certainly didn’t lead to future such engagements.

That year my beard and I were “beat” background in a Greenwich Village bookshop (back to the scene of my triumphant walk-by in Acres and Pains) in Diary of a Bachelor. Most of the time during the two days of shooting, with little to do during set-ups and rehearsals I sat there actually reading a book, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Later I joined an all-star cast in a TV screenplay by Rod Serling, Carol for Another Christmas directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This anti-war re-working of the Dickens story had an underpinning trying to promote the United Nations. Among the stars were two actors who’d already worked together in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Eve Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Robert Shaw and Pat Hingle were there too.

Who did I play? No one special. Just the ghost of a soldier killed in World War One, standing in a long line of similar ghosts on a ship deck. No dialogue. This was all actually filmed on sets at Grumman Studios in Bethpage. Oddly, I find my name listed in the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb) as a character.

I was dressed in a heavy wool Khaki topcoat while the effects people kept filling the set with fog by spraying water on massive metal tubs of dry ice. I felt damp and chilled and the distinctive smell of that fog permeated my nostrils, a smell that thereafter became permanently familiar. 

For two days all I did was hover in the gloom while Hayden and Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past, talking about war, walked the line of ghosts. I never saw the other stars. And they never saw me. How could they,in that permeating, dense grey mist?

Part 14 1965-Actual speaking roles

(Next I write about roles in two movies Tracks in the Sand, starring Marco St, John and Across the River starring Lou Gilbert.)And, at last, I had a chance to play a speaking role in a radio drama, my long-deferred dream. Not that there were many opportunities left. Radio drama had pretty much faded into silence, resonating mostly in people’s memories. But the ABC radio network came up with a fresh series of concise radio plays, broadcasting five days a week at 5 pm Eastern Time, hence called Theater 5.

Current info on-line reports that these were scripts designed to take up about 21 minutes within half-hour blocks, also containing ABC news and commercials. Evidently there were 260 of them running from August 3rd 1964 to July 30th 1965. All but five can be heard on line:

Having sent an audition tape, I was called in to perform in what I was told by director Ted Bell would be one of the last shows. It was the only role I had in the series. I played an emotionally upset man trying to get help from a doctor. In the first read-through Bell said “Break him up, Gordon.” Even though the phrase was new, I realized that he meant not to read the lines straight. i.e Not “Doctor I’m really feeling terrible.” But rather “uh…Doctor…I…I’m really feeling terrible.”

We had just one read-through before taping. After all, we were professionals. And besides, it was on tape. Re-takes were possible. So was editing.

I haven’t been able to find that show among the final 86 down-loads going back as far as April ’65. Four of the still missing ones were in June of ’65; I imagine mine is one of those.

Who was in it with me? No idea. But the series regularly featured some of the most famous radio actors whose names I knew as a thrilled, listening kid: Jackson Beck, Leon Janney, Brett Morrison (“The Shadow” ), Santos Ortega and George Petrie.

And there was also Fred Foy. There’s a legend for you. Starting back when I was in my teens he was the announcer at WXYZ in Detroit saying "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty, 'Hi! Yo! Silver!' The Lone Ranger!"

That silvery voice emanated from a guy who looked like a star. He towered over me, hovering around six feet, three inches. At age 44 his wavy long hair and his classy clothes gave him the glamour of the golden radio days of yesteryear. Those days before the speeding lights of television eclipsed the sounds of drama emanating from little square boxes and all the scenery and all the action unfolded in our minds’ eyes.

By 1965 Fred was still most often unseen, a seemingly anonymous staff announcer for ABC, on the radio and TV networks and local New York stations. Where I would join him about a year later.

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Part 14 A. I'm a movie co-star
( I write about appearing in low-budget features by my friend, long-time film maker Joe Marzano. 
And about other performing in 1965.)


That was the year that I rang down the curtain on attempts at a real acting
career. In seven years (with a 20 month intermission at WNCN) I’d had thirteen stage roles, ten off-Broadway, three in summer stock; only two of the thirteen could be considered big. What else? Actual roles in three movies, all of them obscure. I’d been an extra in five genuine movies and four TV shows, with a tiny role in another.And there was one role in a professional radio play.........

Part 15- Back to radio
 (I write about joining the staff at WHLI, Hempstead, Long Island, then starting to get
 part-time and relief work, including at the new WNCN).

Part 15 A- The New WNCN

WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Froehlich 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 Froelich’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.

WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off 5th Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th 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.

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 Kraus 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 way 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 with him, everyone else on WNCN was a day time 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 under-rated 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 short 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 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 baby -sat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’ elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne.

I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, “Listening with Watson” ; most if the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I 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 Froehlich 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.

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 which brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard

As far as I know, he rarely gave the callers the standard response others of us have used when we get complaints. We tell them, God forbid, to tune to another station or turn off the radio, since no one is forcing them to listen. Not that managements cherish such advice.

For a while he actually had a sponsor: American Airlines. I’m not sure when their connection started. I learned about it 1976, after I’d returned from living in Europe. Bill was no longer on NCN but had a weekly program on WQXR with advertising for American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s 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.

Bill taped the program. I’m sure QXR couldn’t take the chance that he’d do something radical on the air for which he’d become known in his 15 years at NCN. In fact, I heard one such program on QXR where he said something about having had a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. And that was all he said about that person, moving on to announce his next music selection. I was working at QXR that evening and asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “All the time,” he answered.

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 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 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, 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, nor use the WNCN studios either; I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark.

*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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Part 15 B –Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson
My WHLI, WOND experience 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!” When I called I always said “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 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 a Newark storage lot.

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 it 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.

Part 15 C. Rising into the stratosphere: WQXR, “The Radio Voice of The New York Times”
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 clinging to the urban aura. 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 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 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. 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, After all, across the country there weren’t that many of us specialists in knowledgably 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 eleven 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 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, 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.(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.)

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.

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, 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 breath better. Especially during the noon and six pm 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 breath. 25 minutes earlier an elderly engineer 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 v.p./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 breath 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 announcer’s 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, that was 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 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 am 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.

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 were the “cough buttons, ” 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 do

Grobe scheduled which announcers would host standard broadcasts and newscasts. There were some which 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.

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 but in the studios. Pere Allen often had on a suit. Grobe wore dress shirts and ties. Mel wore sport shirts, good pants and shows. 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’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 if other parts of the floor and those of The Times were also dark. Chester and the engineer asked me if I could 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 were likewise 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 then it already had a report about a major blackout all along the Eastern Seaboard, although no one knew yet who or why it happened. Several of us couldn’t help thinking of some kind of science fiction scenario.

My shift ended at 6pm. 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 the 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 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 major theatre critic. We would chat briefly after he’d finished recording. I told him about my theatre background. He listened politely, neither bored nor fascinated. As I’m sure he’d done many times with many other people. He has 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 first at QXR and my experience there confirmed my thorough professionalism. Actually though, I much preferred being on WNCN whenever I was called; things were more relaxed, less structured and we even got to choose some of the music, though being paid much less than at QXR; it was not an AFTRA station then. I’ve always gravitated to doing the kind of broadcasting that I could thoroughly enjoy, where I could contribute something personal and never been very practical regarding income.

would return to QXR from time to time thereafter but not be there as often as during those first nine months. My name more often was further down on the relief list after I turned down work too often. In 1966 I was busier elsewhere having joined the staff at ABC.

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Part 16-In The Heights
(Here I've written about Vene's and my activities in theatre in Brooklyn Heights and elsewhere. And of connections with such future stars as Randall Duk Kim and William Finn.)

Part 17-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  that 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 spoke to one of his peers. “Shit! ” he said, 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 were did I most turn up? The classical music expert? Usually over nights 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 N.J. The copy always began with “The president of Dennison Clothes says…” and included the phrase “Where money talks, nobody walks.”

The copy was fundamental selling, so I decided to punch that up too, 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, though, 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 a six-month contract, 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 that 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 ones over and over, and they came up with a little chatter and read a few commercials which 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

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,” “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and Papas.

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

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 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. 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 didn’t even know that he was on the staff. He told me that he had left a few magazines in case I wanted to read them, the once that we crossed paths.    

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.  

“Standby for the station break, Gordon. Coming up in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. ANNOUNCE!”  Yes, that order often sounded as if ours 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.

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. All that money. But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take to be thoroughly bored in such a nearly anonymous job.

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