We rented a tiny, one-room furnished apartment on upper Riverside Drive, beyond the fashionable zones, bordering on grimy, noisy side streets. But we had an income; Vene quickly landed a job as editorial assistant at Mademoiselle Magazine. Her boss from the Hamid group, Bill Rolley, knew someone on the staff, high enough up to have influence. It wasn’t a major job, but she was thrilled, always hoping to be a writer on the staff of a major magazine.
WNEW Program Director Mark Olds invited me to come over to make an audition. Walking into the magnificence of WNEW was like walking into some kind of fantasy. The station felt like the BIG time, a far cry from WOND, down a dirt road in the marshes, or WHAT’s narrow dark hallways, or WFLN’s simplicity in Roxborough far away from Center City bustle.
This station, perched high up in a mid-town skyscraper, had gleaming offices, subdued lighting, glass everywhere, and pictures of the d.j. stars lining the hallways: William B. Williams, Lonnie Starr, “Jazzbo” Collins. Olds came to greet me in the lobby, dressed in a crisp white shirt within an expensive-looking suit, and gleaming black shoes which made no sound as we walked down a corridor to his office. I felt out of that league, a 25-year-old kid among adults in the big time real world. It seemed impossible that I’d ever be part of that monument.
We entered the giant record library where Mark told the librarian that I could take as many as 10 LPs for an hour or so. Then we walked along another corridor to a small studio. It had two turntables, a mike, and a console. Mark handed me a sheaf of written commercials and told me to put together a show anyway I wanted. And when I was ready, he’d have an engineer, across a glass window, tape the whole thing. Mark said he might listen while it was happening, if he had the time.
I enjoyed the sound of the records I’d chosen. The music made me feel good. Doing a couple of read-throughs with the copy, hearing my own microphone voice through the headphones, nervousness left me and confidence returned. My audition went well, I thought, polished, friendly, articulate, a whiz at ad-libbing.
When I finished, Mark came into the small studio. “That was great!” he said. “You sound really good. I think I may be able to find something for you. We have an affiliate in Cleveland. I can put you in touch with the program director and send him this tape. I think they’re looking for someone.”
Cleveland? I wanted to be in New York. Trying to hide my disappointment (what did I think? I’d get a slot, even part time at WNEW? Naïve.), I thanked him for his compliment and his offer but explained that, having just moved to New York, that’s where I wanted to try my luck. He wished me all the best, saying to keep in touch. But I never got back to him; I don’t know why.
There was also WMGM, where I called Dean Hunter who hosted programs there. He, formerly known as Gabe Millerand on KYW, Philadelphia, had met my father backstage after a concert and invited him and me to drop in any time at the studios. We did go to see him once when he introduced us to singer Felicia Sanders, stopping by to plug her big hit, “Where is Your Heart?” the theme from Moulin Rouge. That was the only connection I had had with him.
Reminding him of that, he seemed to remember and told me whom to contact for an audition, even though I’d already sent a tape. I could hear him thinking, “Who is this kid, anyway?” I tried to get an interview with the program director using Dean’s name but never could get through.
Well, I’d only been in New York a couple of months, and Vene had a job.
I began making phone calls to stations outside NYC. One of them, WNRC, a pop music station in New Rochelle, made me an offer: a d.j. slot on weekends. Mort Fega had a jazz show there; that was impressive; he was major name in jazz circles. However, the program director cautioned me that he was not sure how long the job would last, that people were trying to buy the station, and the deal might go through any day. No one knew for sure what would happen to WNRC then.
I took the job. Two weeks later the sale came through. WNRC became WVOX, part of a chain of other stations carrying the same programs. Everyone on the staff at WNRC was fired.
My name, however, did appear in a New York newspaper due to the WNRC/WVOX changes. That paper was the weekly Show Business, where November 24th, 1958, Ed Rudy wrote, “This seems like a heck of a way to do business.”
I guess he didn’t know that that was business as usual. Changes in ownership are as common as changes in format in radio, although both occurred together that time.
So, in four years, five stations. The longest job, which I had quit to seek my fortune in New York, was two years. Some kind of record? Probably not. Eventually I’d work at four other stations with ownership changes and, like other colleagues, find myself once again, on the street.
But Show Business reminded me that pounding Manhattan pavements was the route to my other goal: becoming an actor.
Show Business was the major source of casting information, where producers posted notices about the shows they were casting, the kinds of roles available, the requirements for singing or dancing, which usually were separate, when the shows were scheduled to open, where the auditions would be, and where to send pictures and résumés. Most actors relied on Show Business. Especially those of us who didn’t have agents.
How to get an agent? The standard way was to get a role in which agents might come see you perform. Naturally, if an agent thinks you might get regular work, there’s profit in it for the agent. So to get a job, get an agent; to get an agent, get a job. Simple!
Minimally, directors and producers wanted those “pics and résumés” mailed to them, unless there were open calls, or phone numbers where we could contact the people casting and try to set up interviews, or, if really in luck, auditions.
Show Business made its profit from such listings. But it also had plenty of ads for acting coaches, singing coaches, résumé coaches, and photographers who specialized in the standard format 8 x 10 glossy pictures.
I had pictures made. It meant setting up a session with a professional photographer, with all kinds of poses and wardrobes from which to choose the best face that looked like me but also looked special and distinctive. Not cheap.
As for a résumé, having created a few when I had been hopping from station to station, I thought I knew how to do that. There was a problem, though: no New York acting credits. So I listed roles I had played at Temple, without specifying where. And listed only three radio stations.
I had to pay for at least a hundred copies of the picture and of the résumé, straining Vene’s and my budget.
We decided to sell our Fiat. That made sense. What’s the point of young people with small incomes trying to maintain a car in Manhattan? It hadn’t been all that useful in those first few months, except to get to New Rochelle. And then, during our first winter in New York, I’d spent a lot of energy and time moving the car every other weekday to stay within alternate-side-of-the street legalities. “Mon. Wed. Fri. No parking 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.” or the same, instead, for Tue. and Thu.
I had been able to collect a small amount of unemployment insurance from New Jersey those first few months. I qualified because I could claim that I had to leave my job at WOND to be with my wife when we moved to New York so she could take a job there. And my tiny stint at WNRC proved that I had been looking for work.
During that winter and even into early April, I landed five acting roles. All minor. Two were off-off-Broadway, on West 71st Street in a church basement where actor/producer Sumner Kernan regularly produced plays for Players West and where he starred in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. He played the Captain. I played a Scot, Leslie Rankin, replacing John Lovelady who’d moved on to something bigger. My skill at accents and my résumé credits (albeit college) made me look like a good choice. Perhaps my beard did, too.
This was also my introduction to theatre in the round. I wasn’t used to being that close to audiences; proscenium stages had always kept us comfortably separated. It also meant that sometimes I had to step over audience feet.
Likewise this was my introduction to real New York theatre people. An older chap, Anton Spaeth, was among them. He seemed so elegant and sophisticated. Backstage, he and the rest of the cast joked about other actors and about directors. They seemed to know so much about things I didn’t understand, as if they were some kind of exclusive club. But once, alone with Adrienne Leigh, she told me “confidentially” that she thought I was much better in the role than John Lovelady had been. She said that he had played Rankin as silly, whereas I gave him believable seriousness which made the character much funnier. I was flattered.
Then, given my radio-skilled speaking voice, I landed another part there at Players West, Narrator in Edmond Rostand’s The Woman of Samaria, translated, of course.
Although I invited agents, none came. And I hadn’t learned how to network with other actors.
Still the character actor, I also personified an elderly man in a group of other old guys in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata starring Meg Mundy. We had a few lines, but we were basically an ensemble without specific roles. But that was real off-Broadway. Producer Day Tuttle directed it in his new playing space, the East 74th Street Theater, converted from a Czech social club clubhouse.
During rehearsals, Mundy spoke up in front of all of us asking Day for guidance in how to play the role; she was having trouble figuring it out. “I don’t believe in telling actors what to do,” he replied sweetly.
Later, another actor would tell me that that statement most likely meant that Day didn’t know what to do.
The show closed in one week. All the big newspapers covered it and their reviews said it had no style, no point of view. That seemed valid. The playing space, however, got praise, perhaps Tuttle’s principal goal.
Next, tiny Blanche Marvin, who ran Merrimimes, a children’s theatre group at the lower East Side’s Cricket Theatre, saw possibilities in me to play the father in a seasonal attraction, Meet Mr. Easter Bunny. My mature sounding voice and my face gave me the kind of somber sound and look to play Father, one of those initially mean dads so common in children’s plays and stories, who would, of course, come around to be a nice guy after all.
I was the cause of a near-disaster during the run. I got tied up in a major traffic jam on the way to the theater and arrived much later than I should have. By the time I got there, the play was already underway. That wasn’t so bad in itself, since Father didn’t come on until the very end of the first act. But, while I was in the dressing room backstage still putting on my costume and make-up, I could hear the cast going through some of the act’s final dialogue.
That act was supposed to come to a dramatic conclusion, as Father walked in on his kids hanging out with a six-foot-tall, goofy rabbit who, unlike Mary Chase’s Harvey, was entirely visible.
The final words had been reached. I harshly yelled out from backstage, putting on my shoes, “Children! What’s going on in there?”
The cast ad-libbed some simple stuff in response.
I tied my shoes and buckled my belt. “Children! What are you doing?”
More ad-libs out front.
Finally I strode in. Curtain.
Years later I still have a few residual nightmares about arriving on stage late.
Film extra work finally came: once again as part of a group of guys. This time in a sleazy situation, as members of a “photo club” who were really there to stare at nearly nude women in the low budget horror feature, The Head That Wouldn’t Die (later known as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die). One girl got totally nude for the “European version.” A bonus for all of us who could concentrate. When the film emerged several years later, my head was no longer to be seen, nor any of the rest of me. Editing.
By then I had joined AFTRA, the television and radio performer’s union, and had certainly been getting paid; I was a professional actor, at last. And, like so many, barely employed.
Oh, and CBS Radio still had a few dramas. I auditioned using my own choice of material to show off my range of voices and accents. Director Himan Brown then asked me why I hadn’t better displayed my own voice. Every one in the business could do voices and accents, he explained.
Radio. There it was again. Maybe that’s where I still belonged, even if not as an actor. But in New York? It didn’t seem possible. But it happened.
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 told Dave again about my experience, somehow avoiding being too specific about WFLN, Dave handed me a WBCN program guide asking me to 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 one wasn’t. WNCN, WXCN Providence, and WHCN Hartford, were part of WBCN’s “bicycle network,” a term, I later learned, meaning the tapes came 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.
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 a.m., 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 p.m.
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 Pierre hotel’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 a 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’s 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, and 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 announce only 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. André 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.
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 in-tact 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 I was actually 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.
Meanwhile, day-times, I kept going to auditions. After a while I also discovered that I was seeing the same would-be actors over and over again. We’d make fun of other actors and casting directors, just as Anton Spaeth and the actors at Players West had done. Except now I was on the inside of the acting scene, even without work.
Soon, some of us decided we ought to try to get acting lessons, just to keep in practice, even though we all believed we had talent and experience. We didn’t think we could afford to pay for courses at any of the acting schools, so, one of the guys, Arnie Weiner, was friendly with a director who’d had a few minor shows, Zeke Berlin. We asked Zeke whether, if we each paid him $10 per class, he would conduct a two-hour session once a week? He agreed, so long as he didn’t get a real job.
Arnie was the first of us to get a role on Broadway. Seven years later, he (as Arn Weiner) had a small part in a play starring Alfred Drake, Michael Stewart’s Those That Play the Clowns.
It was a backstage look at the acting company hired by Hamlet to stage the murder of his father. At that point Americans hadn’t seen and had barely heard of another backstage Hamlet story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Americans had barely heard of Stoppard, actually.
Naturally, like other friends of Arnie’s, I went to the opening. While waiting outside after the curtain came down, as Arnie emerged from backstage, an older woman we didn’t know went up to him holding a book. It was The Talent Guide, in which all professional actors could pay for an insertion with names, photos, a list of our credits, and phone numbers.
The woman cornered Arnie.
“Hello, Mr. Weiner,” she said, “Congratulations! It’s your first Broadway, show, isn’t it?”
Arnie looked shocked. And delighted that she knew.
“Would you sign my copy of the book for me?” she asked.
Arnie signed it. And we learned that she always did this to actors making their Broadway debuts.
While that was unusual, the history of the production was not rare; it closed quickly. Bad reviews. Four performances only.
As far as I can tell from online research Arnie was in only one other Broadway show, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 16 years later. Wow! He hung in there. Evidently he also had off-Broadway roles in 1967 and 1976. One ran for five performances, the other for 12.
Once or twice Dave Passell asked me to cover daytime 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 other kind of 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 nasal-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.
Since I was at WNCN for six hours overnight, I wondered if Dave Passell 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 being 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 some poetry recordings, film scores, musicals—things about which I already knew something.
As it turned out, surprisingly, Dave sounded interested. He said he’d 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 of William Walton’s great music for the film that 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 in 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 Pierre. Sounds of the 20th Century. I was 24 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 eight 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’d 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. One of them was Dylan Thomas on a Caedmon Record. Fred called me into the office about that. Caedmon had called him about, he said, a “Die LANN Thomas” recording and that it was copyrighted. We got a warning but no fine. That’s when I also discovered Spoken Arts Records, which specialized in exactly what the name indicates. Contacting them, I soon had what I requested, including LPs by Ruth Draper, following in Mike Nichols’s footsteps after all.
By the way, in the late 1970s, my second wife Helga and I became friendly with Spoken Arts founder Arthur Luce Klein and his wife, also named Luce. Helga worked for Luce in her antique shop in New Rochelle. Arthur eventually toured schools reading from famed books as The Storyteller.
I needed more record shelves at home, although much of what I collected started the WNCN library.
Meanwhile, domestic life went awry. Vene was working at Cosmopolitan Magazine as assistant to the fiction editor, and we were only seeing each other for dinner, after which I usually had to take a nap because I’d been up much of the day, planning and working on creating the show. But sometimes we’d find a way to go to the theatre, after which I’d hurry home to get ready for my show, packing a lunch.
Those six hours overnight became my life. My joy.
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 radars yet; they’d 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.
Meanwhile, WNCN had moved to One Park Avenue. By the end of 1959, Dave had created a real studio there with a professional-looking board, cushioned turntables, good microphones, and several tape decks. Next to it was a glass-windowed room with the large tape decks brought down from The Pierre, and all the big tapes were on orderly metal shelves. The rest of the jumble of equipment remained at the transmitter.
The rapidly filling record library, now that record company promotion people began to take us seriously, was several long corridors away on the same floor at the business office. The rooms were rented from Ziff Davis Publishing that owned one whole floor.
When I told Dad that we’d moved to One Park Avenue he thought that I’d really come up in the world, rather than down, as from up on Fifth Avenue at The Pierre. One Park Avenue is where Park Avenue narrows at 32nd Street, merging into utilitarian Park Avenue South, a business district.
At night I had the whole floor to myself and, when airing a long piece of classical music, I’d wander into the dark Ziff Davis offices, switch on a few lights and look through pictures, or borrow magazines to return the same night. Being alone in those hushed, vast rooms or walking along dim corridors could feel a little spooky. Once or twice I was actually startled, coming across lumpy, grey Eastern European cleaning ladies putting away their buckets and mops, their gold teeth glinting in the shadows.
By then I was broadcasting a few interviews with musicians, taping them in the room next to the control room or talking to them on my own portable 7-inch Revox reel-to reel recorder. That’s when I talked to Roy Harris, actually my uncle’s brother-in-law. (My uncle, Julian Kahn, indicative of so much of my family, was also a musician, playing cello in Hollywood movie studio orchestras.)
Other interviews: Morton Gould, Vincent Persichetti, and Cannonball Adderley. When Cannon and I met he came along with a young saxophonist/clarinetist of whom I’d never heard, Eric Dolphy, a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Since Dolphy was there, I decided to do him a favor and interview him; at least that’s how it now sounds on the tape. The soft-spoken, unassuming man, in the course of my questions, told me he liked the music of Stockhausen and Schoenberg, music I’d never program, not liking or understanding it.
There I was again, getting jazz musicians to talk about classical music. Adderley said he liked the work of Honegger, by the way.
Then there was Moondog. I had come across a few of the records of this tall, blind street musician while at WOND, finding his sound unique and fascinating, as fascinating as the photos on the record jackets, with his strange clothes and biblical prophet look. I had learned that he liked to spend much time on New York streets, especially on Sixth Avenue near the main offices of CBS and around the corner from NBC at Rockefeller Center.
I went to find him, saying I’d like record an interview for broadcast. He readily agreed, inviting me to his apartment on West 44th Street off Broadway. It was a tiny two-room space in a dingy walk-up hotel. But then, he couldn’t see the dinginess, could he? We spoke again several times on the street, and I featured his music and the interviews during my second stint at NCN in the late ’60s as well as in 1970 on WBAI.
Early this century, Robert Scotto was writing a book about Moondog and tracked me down to ask me for copies of the interview as well as about what I remembered of our mutual encounters. Moondog had told him to get in touch with me. Astonishing. More than 30 years had elapsed since my last contact with Moondog.
Then the Concert Network bought its own building on East 47th Street just off Fifth Avenue and started daytime live programming. Why? And why the earlier move to One Park Avenue? No idea. Probably I didn’t ask anyone. Perhaps Concert Network President T. Mitchell Hastings thought it was time for the Network to have a more noticeable New York presence.
I’d met him a couple of times, probably not intimidated, probably indifferent, as if my on-air talent was so irreplaceable that we were some kind of equals.
But you have to consider that my programming may have been making a difference. Maybe that’s why Hastings had decided to give NCN a bigger presence in New York, first at One Park and then with its own building. Certainly I’d put it on the map somehow. Moreover, its initial record library was due to me.
Had I made a public impression for the station? I don’t know. Perhaps nobody in management wanted me to realize that and then ask for a raise, thinking myself significant. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, loving it, and still so young that I never thought about that and never asked. You have to wonder why I didn’t ask more questions.
For this incarnation of WNCN, Joe Marzano came down from Boston to host programs. Which was fine by him; his family home was on Long Island. Station Manager Cal Miller hosted programs. So did Johnny Lang.
WNCN was making some money with brokered programs just as had WHAT with Sunday morning gospel shows when hosts aired commercials for restaurants, hair dressers, clothing stores, etc. for which they got paid and could defray costs of buying air time and/or profit.
One WNCN feature was Lunch with Casper Citron; he interviewed celebrities and footed the bill. Another was Music and Opportunity with Bernard Haldane. That zingy-titled show featured Haldane’s classical music choices paired with talking about his firm’s professional job counseling. Another program presented ruminations by members of the Theosophical Society.
Plus, a d.j. who seemed younger than I bought himself two hours once a week to play mainstream pop music, on which WNEW was thriving. A little unusual, since rock and roll was more and more becoming the trend. (Eventually, he’d actually become a star on WNEW which stuck with that kind of pop music.) He’d talk about the songs in a friendly, casual way, often digressing into personal musings, Jean Shepherd-like, except not doing it with equal specialness. He had an unconventional name, considering that most program hosts were disguising ethnicity. He was Jonathan Schwartz, the son of famed Broadway and movie song-writer Arthur Schwartz.
His show came on at midnight, when mine had been starting. And I had to be present; he didn’t know how to run the equipment; he just knew how to talk. So I had to be his engineer. While he sat a glass window away from the control room, he’d watch me for reactions to his comments, thinking me fascinated, of course, when all the time I was actually pissed-off that he could pay to preempt me. Still the actor, though, I sometimes faked a grin and a smile. Once I walked out of his view while he was talking on the air. He yelled, “Gordon! Where are you?” as if fearing he’d lost control. Or maybe he was angry that I didn’t seem to be hanging on his every word.
Clearly, you can see that WNCN was not exactly a traditional classical music station. Look at what I had been doing.
Then Jonathan himself was preempted. And so were two of my regular overnight hours. A new four-hour, daily jazz package took over from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., likewise financed by the producers. They called themselves Communicating Arts Corporation. Tom Wilson and DeDe Daniels, executives at United Artists Records, were up front.
UA had been producing some great jazz records then. Coincidentally, one featured Bill Potts’s arrangements of music from Porgy and Bess, one of several spin-offs of the current movie, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. (Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded another.) In the movie Crown was played and sung by Brock Peters. He was DeDe’s husband.
On the air was quite a line-up of alternating commentators/hosts, some of the biggest names in jazz criticism: Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler, and Martin Williams.
Jazz humorist Ed Sherman was there as “George Crater.” (His pseudonym was a goofy spin on the name of Judge Crater who’d become famous by mysteriously disappearing after a jolly night in town. Despite lots of newspaper coverage he was never found, and his story and that of murdered people connected to him make for fascinating reading.) Ed provided lots of funny bits on the air, often dealing with jazz musicians. And more biting commentary—social, satirical—came from Paul Krassner, who’d recently started a newsprint magazine, The Realist, which gained fame as a counter-culture gem for about 10 years. Krassner and I would encounter each other, in passing, during the late ’60s at WBAI.
Meanwhile, two d.j.s anchored, hosting most of the playing of records that made up the bulk of the programming: Les Davis and Sid Shepherd. Except that Shepherd had changed his name to Chris Borgen, which, he told me, was actually his wife’s name. Later, Chris would become a CBS news reporter. Les would keep on being a jazz d.j. The fact that I knew a lot about jazz was irrelevant as far as those producers were concerned.
I was always around, on duty, waiting my turn to follow the moneyed guys, in my dwindled niche, to hear Chris sounding slick and smooth, more like a pop d.j. than the intelligent informative person I believed myself to be. On the air, he spoke of songwriter Frank Loesser as “Frank Lohser” and referred to Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s take on Avery Parrish’s 1940 bluesy “After Hours” as “traditional jazz.” My superiority felt confirmed. I had sometimes broadcast real traditional jazz, New Orleans style, early in the morning, around 5 a.m.
Meanwhile, Joe Marzano and I became friends, both harboring sardonic views of society. Together we’d record ad-lib comedy bits while in the recording studio during my shift when a long record was on. Then I’d broadcast them overnight. We did a send-up of Casper Citron’s show, The Horace Hepple Lunch, in which I, as a nasal-voiced take on Citron, interviewed Joe as “Sal A. Pepe” (Italian: Salt and Pepper), a gravelly-voiced Noo Yawker who sold frozen pizzas to be eaten frozen on sticks, like popsicles. The major bit was talking with our mouths full and asking each other to pass things like napkins and glasses of water or commenting on the bread and butter, making sure to crunch our food loudly. No burps, though. We had taste.