They were the big time. Steve Allison (“The Man Who Owns Midnight”) hosted a late-night live talk show with celebrity interviews, broadcasting from a Center City restaurant on the ground floor of WPEN’s Walnut Street building. That was glamour, I thought, taking dates there a couple of times. The restaurant served sandwiches, coffee, New York-style cheesecake.
Ensconced on simulated-leather banquettes, our tables facing Allison sitting at his own table on a raised stage, we stared at his cheap-looking blonde crew-cut toupée and his hairy arms exposed in a short sleeve shirt beneath a sports jacket. He loved to talk about himself, often referring to his own Broadway career, especially when talking with theatre people. He’d been in one show, the 1946 musical Call Me Mister, that featured returning World War II veterans. Clearly I didn’t admire him, but I envied his fame and success and, taking dates to his live broadcasts, felt like being close to show business glamour.
Every so often, Art Raymond, a.k.a. “Pancho, The Man in the Black Sombrero” who hosted a WPEN mambo d.j. show, looking slender and elegant dressed in black, sporting a sporty black hat, would stride into the restaurant from the upstairs studios.
Bud Brees, another d.j. on the station, had his own shtick, too. His theme music was “I’m Just Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,” and he sang along with it to intro and outro his show. Sometimes he’d also sing along with pop music instrumentals. Naturally that got him attention, which the management must have loved. He also generated anger; some people felt he was a show-off or that he couldn’t sing well.
Allison was actually the major generator of full time, nasty heat. He expressed his opinions on the air. And, since he took live phone calls from listeners, he’d disagree with them, eventually building up quite a negative following out there in the city’s darkness. He’d tell them off right on the air. “Go back under that rock where you came from” was one of his standard retorts. Man, that was celebrity.
So, while developing enemies who’d never met him, Steve Allison had it made…for a while. But he got involved in a scandal involving teenage girls, despite being married and having his pregnant young wife sometimes appear on his show. He was too famous to be forgiven. His hatred club rejoiced.
Somewhere in there, still a student at Temple, I became a fan of late-night radio monologist Jean Shepherd on KYW, fascinated, amused, and envious of his verbal talent. I went to watch him perform a live broadcast from a hotel restaurant in West Philadelphia, where Penn students also hung out. Shepherd always started his program with Eduard Strauss’s “Bahnfrei Polka.” I had a chance to briefly talk with him…which seems odd in retrospect, since he’d often remind listeners that he couldn’t talk to them while he was working/performing. I asked him why he chose that music for his theme. “Because it expresses complete mediocrity,” he answered. I sat down, trying to figure out what that meant. Some days later, I had several explanations, including that he was putting me down.
Shepherd remained a rarity in broadcasting, not offering up samples of someone else’s talents, but being the talent. Few of us in this business will ever equal him. By comparison most of us program hosts remain generic, offering maybe a few personal touches, in fragments, sandwiched between presenting sequential musical creations of actual artists, rarely representing a complete, real person. We might become memorable over time, though, if we stayed in one place long enough to have our names and voices identified with the same station.
For many years, prior to the emergence of talk radio, sounding too quirky or specific inevitably led to annoyed listeners, always prone more to complain than compliment. In such cases people were more likely to say they hated the broadcaster, rather than hating what was said or how it was said. Managements were often of two minds about such ire. Generally, bland was better for selling advertising; too much hatred could have rubbed off on the stations themselves.
I was not in Shepherd or Allison or even Art Raymond’s glamorous league. I had been a one-year host on the margins of broadcasting. Not pop music. Not news. I was nowhere.
And it felt like nowhere.
Then another foothold materialized. Ivan Shaner (a.k.a. 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 d.j.s, Jocko Henderson (“Tell ’em JOCK-OHHH sent you”) and Reggie Lavong (“A pair of horn-rimmed 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 said she felt too hot and 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 3 a.m., taking the Broad Street subway and then a bus to arrive at 4:30 to start ahead of the morning shift. By 10:30 a.m. 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.