Tuesday, June 30, 2009

High Ideals for Flint's Rebirth

WMRP, FLINT, MICHIGAN, 1950, where my less than spectacular almost 50 years in radio started. Was I cute, or what? That station no longer exists. Most of the stations I worked at are long gone. I don't think I killed them. Things changed. Flint is still there,more or less, its once great auto factories all gone.
Like Detroit, Flint is in deep trouble. But there's a creative write-in mayoral candidate who has it all figured out. Ronald Higgerson proposes to turn the recently closed Flint Central High School building into a big plant. I use "plant" advisedly. The particular plant is marijuana. That's right, If Higgerson gets the votes, good old Flint Central will become a big medical marijuana growing factory, employing hundreds, pulling Flint out of its doldrums and presumably making its clients feel real good. I learned of this through Gordon Young's great site of interest to us who lived and worked in Flint in better days. Flint Expatriates.
Does Michael Moore know about this?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ethel and me

Let me see now, how can I relate this one about my mid-sixties interview with Ethel Waters, the first Black superstar, to early radio history. You oughta know that I have an ace in the hole.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear and Jazz Age Evangelism. It's the Roaring Twenties and a fiery preacher, Paul Rader, is sermonizing on the air from a wooden building atop the Chicago city Hall, beginning what will become the electronic church. He will later become the pastor of the historic Moody Memorial Church, named for Dwight L. Moody. After that he is a high powered entrepreneur of evangelism, building big Christian campgrounds and tabernacles that attract thousands. The biggest and best is the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle. Of special interest to historians of early religious radio, Paul Rader preached for three months at the Angelus Temple of the most colorful of evangelists, Aimee Semple McPherson, during her strange and still questioned disappearance. I'm still working on a post about her.

In the late twenties, Rader journeys across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, my town, and buys 200 acres on the big Lake where he builds Camp Chi-Co-Tab, named for his Chicago Tabernacle. By 1936 the facility was sold and became Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference.

By the mid '60s, after getting canned from Grand Rapids station WMAX, I was in Muskegon at an Evangelical Christian station, WKJR. Ethel Waters, then in her 70s and not in good health, was here for an appearance at Maranatha. My interview has not been preserved but I'm sure it was mostly about her personal story and her commitment to her religious work, including her appearances in the Billy Graham Crusades. I don't recall if I asked her what she thought of the "Cabin in the sky" film from twenty years earlier. She continued to sing the title song, along with her beloved signature song, "His eye is on the Sparrow," also the title of her autobiography, throughout her lifetime. She sang "Sparrow" with young Brandon De Wilde and Julie Harris in the 1952 film, "Member of the Wedding." Here is a You Tube of it. If it doesn't make you blubber or at least get all misty, you're not as sentimental as this silly old blogger. The film did not get great reviews, with complaints that Julie Harris was too old to play a 12 year old. Who cares. I love what I love and I don't care if nobody else loves it.

Ethel Waters lived until 1977, so she certainly experienced the civil rights movement but I don't know if she spoke of it.

Update July 1: I found Ethel's Lp on the Word label that I thought I had sold when I was all hot to restore the antique radio. "Just a little talk with Ethel." There's a brief talk track, recorded at her home not long before she died, before each song. Now I must find a thrift store record player so I can listen to it. Thank goodness I didn't get totally stupid and let that one go when I sold off my precious junk.

One biographer wrote that Ethel Waters "got religion," a demeaning phrase that I don't like very much. There have certainly been questionable "conversions" by the famous and not-so=famous. I have doubts about Hustler Magazine's Larry Flynt and I will reserve judgment on Jane Fonda and for Bettie Page, who also worked with Billy Graham. But for Ethel Waters it was a genuine and deep commitment to a faith that she believed and practiced for the rest of her life.

Ethel Waters kissed me on the cheek after that interview. Looking back at almost 50 years in the wacky, wildly unstable radio business, that memory makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bettie Page and Errol Flynn??

How about that for an unlikely pairing on the silver screen. But it might have happened if things had gone differently for the queen of the pin-up girls. Asked in an undated interview if there was anything she wished she had done, Ms. Page said she wanted to be a movie star but her marriage kept her from answering Jack Warner's offer of a screen test. She had failed an earlier test at 20th Century Fox. She said, "I would like to be in Errol Flynn's swashbucklers." There's a thought to wrap your mind around.

It's not easy being ...

Finish that title for yourself. What is it not easy being? Green like Kermit, my favorite frog, who decided he liked being what he is? Old? Young? Black? White? Male? Female? Gay? Straight? Etc. Etc Etc.

In the '30s and early '40s I was a White, country kid, laughing along with my father at the hilarious radio misadventures of Amos 'n' Andy. I suppose I knew, on some level, that the characters were played by White Men using what we might now call stereotypical Negro Dialect. At that time and place, that was beside the point. We laughed because it was funny. For those who came along 25 or more years after I did, racial stereotyping is the point, dwarfing whatever entertainment value the program offered at its time in history.

My ten year old African American Grandson loves the old, classic Disney and Warner Brothers Cartoons. They are full of racial and ethnic stereotypes and violence, with characters getting flattened and immediately springing back to life without so much as a scratch. Many of the DVDs in his huge collection include an apologetic disclaimer for the content that is deemed no longer acceptable. The boy has zero interest in that. Maybe that will change as he gets older. But for now, he laughs at those cartoons because they're funny. He found an old Muppets video that we watched last night. Kermit, Piggy and the whole crew that was hatched in the brilliant mind of Jim Henson did their version of the classic fairy tales. That show has taken some lumps from critics, too. My kids loved it and I couldn't be happier that the grandson does, too. I laugh myself silly every time Miss Piggy decks poor Kermie. My very favorite such pig-to-frog violence happens when Kermit serenades
Lydia the Tatooed Lady. That song was such a favorite of Henson's that it was performed at his memorial service.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jon and Kate ... How we relate

The world is blubbering over Jon and Kate's divorce. The network brass are jumping up and down almost as high as the ratings that went through the roof. Frustrated women are saying to bewildered spouses, "See? That's where we're headed, but we could fix it if you would just talk to me." Bewildered spouses are thinking, "If I spill my guts will I be in bigger trouble than I already am?" The great marital impasse.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ethel on a VCR

I am about to watch that wonderful Ethel Waters film, "Cabin in the Sky" again. One of my thrift store VCRs recorded it for me while I was away. Yes, I actually enjoy the challenge of programming those primitive machines. I wonder how many of the young pups who are so quick at texting and tweeting could do that.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Prairie Home Enigma

Friend Harry and I had some offline talk about Garrison Keillor, parts of which will surely show up in our respective blogs. Harry said listening to A Prairie Home Companion made him feel as if here were crashing a private gathering. I, on the other hand, immediately related. I thought, "These are my people" and I became a dedicated member of the Keillor cult following. I suspect that those reactions are typical. No middle ground about Lake Wobegon. You either love it and become one with it or you stand back and scratch your head trying to figure out why the Public Radio Show has become an institution and the tall Minnesotan is some kind of broadcast icon. One might at first think I relate to it because I come from very rural Michigan in the '30s. But hold everything, Keillor has been the darling of young, liberal college types as well. New Yorkers love him. Go figure. The Garrison Keillor phenomenon has already been analyzed to death by minds much greater than mine, so I try hard not to rehash what's already been written.

A most fascinating thing about the BBC's broadcast that Harry heard, apparently a heavily edited one hour version of the two hour presentation, is that they changed the name. It's just Garrison Keillor's Radio Show. I wonder if Prairie Home companion, a totally American Phrase that evokes a reaction something like viewing a Norman Rockwell Painting or hearing Kate Smith sing "God Bless America," means nothing to the rest of the world. Incidentally, Keillor took the name from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Minnesota, a perfect mid-American name for an eternal resting place.

Another puzzlement about the program is that the Lake Wobegon monologues almost always include references to the importance of church-going. That's often the main point of the tale. I totally relate and smile, sometimes laugh out loud at Keillor's sharp insight into the funny and human things that happen in church. His Young Lutheran's guide to the Orchestra is brilliant religious satire. He has been quoted from pulpits of just about every denomination. But why are secularists who have given up on traditional, organized religion still such devoted fans? It makes no sense. The annual joke show sometimes makes me cringe a bit at the religious jokes. He gets away with things that I don't believe Letterman could do. "Phenomenon" and "enigma" seem to be the only words that work when we think about A Prairie Home Companion.

Here's my personal bottom line. Garrison Keillor loves and understands radio. He is ideally suited to that medium. He knows how to make love to a microphone. I was luke warm about the Altman film and Keillor's books don't do much for me. But give him a radio microphone and something special happens.

Scary Thought

Dagmar in 3-D. That's alarming!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jack Benny at the Detroit Fox

Was it coincidence or astute scheduling that Bill Bragg's Yesterday USA internet radio station has been playing a 1948 Jack Benny show from the Fox Theater in Detroit? The great days of network radio, Detroit, General Motors, a great star and the fabulous Fox. Enough nostalgia to give an old guy a major jolt. Thanks to some investors who poured millions into its restoration, the Detroit Fox is still in business. And so is the St. Louis Fox, where Garrison Keillor recently did a show. I'm not sure how many of the original Fox movie and vaudeville palaces are still standing. Remind me to look that up.

Benny's writers came up with lots of great automotive gags. Listening to it, as sometimes happens when I hear the comedy radio shows I grew up with, I find myself thinking I had forgotten how funny they were. But I wonder if that's true. Did I forget or was I all primed and conditioned to laugh because I remembered and I knew what was coming. Wouldn't it be interesting to put an audience of persons old enough to have heard it the first time together with younger ones who had not heard a Benny radio show live on the air and measure their respective reactions.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Going Forward With Flint

I am among those who call themselves Flint Expatriates.
That's the name of a most interesting blog hosted by Gordon Young who now lives in California. Take a look at it for photos, comments and memories of the town that General Motors made famous and Michael Moore made infamous. I became a reader of Gordon's blog with the hope of finding something about the Flint Musical Tent that brought professional Broadway type theater to Flint when I was there. But most bloggers are too young to know about it.

Like the old gray mare, Flint, Michigan ain't what she used to be. The old horse went to the glue factory, replaced by those horseless carriages built in Flint's auto factories. My in-laws worked at the Fisher Body plant, demolished long ago.

Flint was still in pretty good shape in 1950 when I spoke my first words into a microphone, "Going forward with Flint." That was the theme of an advertising campaign on WMRP, the station where I would be a hotshot deejay, driving around in my big Buick Dynaflow and on which my marriage to a fan would be broadcast in 1954. Like most of the dozen or so stations I worked for, that one is long gone. My last one in that town, one of the several employers that would eventually find me of no value, was WTAC. That stood for "The Auto City," I think that one is still on the air with those call letters. I also worked at WKMF, no longer on the air. That one was owned by Fred Knorr, who also owned the Detroit Tigers. I went to sleep during a Tigers broadcast and failed to cover the Dearborn feed's station break with our own and "WKMH" got on the air. Actually I didn't get canned from that one. My term there was to sub for the evening deejay until he returned from several months at the TB sanatorium.

Leaving Flint, the next stop was WDOG in Marine City, on the St. Clair River, a short ferry boat ride across the river from Sombra, Ontario, Canada. Someday I will tell stories about weird stuff that happens at radio stations. Readers might think I made it up. Maybe I did. But there really was a WDOG and a Miss WDOG. I think I blogged about her someplace in the oldy moldy archives. The best stories must go to the grave or the oven with me or be published after I go to that great radio station in the sky to protect the innocent, the guilty and my family. Stay tuned for the rest of the story. Apologies to the late Paul Harvey for stealing his line.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Dagmar Bumpers...Perky Pointed Protuberances

Remember Dagmar? She was the bodacious blonde on the '50s TV show, Broadway Open House.Her name lives on in the hearts of classic car buffs and fans of early network TV variety shows. When GM's designer Harley Earl put those perky, pointed protuberances on the '50s Chevy, Buick and Cadillac bumpers, he thought he was reminding us of the artillery shells that helped to win the war. But that's not what every red-blooded American Boy thought of when he saw them. There was little doubt left about what they looked like when the black "pasties" were added to the tips on the Cadillac Eldorado.
Virginia Ruth Egnor was given the Dagmar name and told that her job was to be a ditzy blonde, but she was dumb like a fox and way out in front in more ways than one. Show Host Jerry Lester was not happy when the network listed her as the star. She made the cover of Life Magazine. Jerry did not. She went on to considerable success on other shows.

I first learned of "Dagmar Bumpers" when a special friend passed along his copies of that wonderful magazine that makes a guy drool over classic and antique cars, Hemmings Motor News. They don't build women or cars like that anymore.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Them Was the Days

Harry Heuser's post about a 1936 question of who would be the big radio stars by 1950 caused me to contribute a few cents' worth to that interesting thought. Then Harry opined (how's that for a grandly archaic word) that I might not view the end of network radio as a major, end of an era event.

Not quite right, Harry. Maybe it's my age or my badly split personality that lets my fragmented brain think two or more thoughts at the same time. Is that what you call paradox? Whatever you call it, the part of me that grew up listening to what is now Old Time Radio in the '30s and'40s misses it, mourns its loss and often wishes I could tune into Jack Benny on Sunday and Fibber and Molly on Tuesday. Listening to recordings of those old shows just isn't the same.

But like Tevye in that great "on the other hand" scene in "Fiddler," there is my other hand, the part of me that began a radio career in 1950, at the tail end of radio's so-called golden era. I miss that free form radio, too. And I miss AM radio as the major home entertainment medium. AM was still king when I got into the business. Antique radio collectors, unless they want to listen to Rush Limbaugh and pop shrinks, have a hard time hearing a non-local station through the dreadful electrical interference caused by devices that didn't exist when those magnificent 12 tube superheterodynes in their beautiful cabinets were built. A VCR (don't bother to tell me nobody uses those anymore) or a DVD player can wipe out the whole AM radio band with a horrendous buzz. Those "environmentally friendly" squiggly light bulbs that contain mercury also emit terrible radio frequency interference. I hardly turn my big old Zenith on anymore. WGN did make it across the lake pretty well, but now that once great station is going to pot.

So here I am, all elderly, messed up and fragmented, not quite sure if I should say so long to an old love, quit thinking about her and find myself a new one. Were I as young as Harry (aren't you pleased to hear that, Harry) I could think about radio as history and study it and not get all personal and nostalgic about it.

On the other hand ........

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Lux Presents Hollywood!

Hired and fired by Victor Lundberg. That is my claim to radio fame. Who was Victor Lundberg, you ask? And what does this have to do with the Lux Radio Theater? Be patient. I am inclined to wander but I'll get there.

Lundberg hired me at WMAX in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1963 and canned me three months later. I was the news director, a position for which I was singularly unqualifed, unfit and incompetent. Oh well, it got me back to Michigan, where I would rack up a history of many moves, most of them not voluntary.

Anyway, Victor Lundberg had a big hit spoken word recording, "An Open Letter to my Son." in 1967. It was a tear-jerking, flag-waving oration about hippies, long hair, Vietnam War Protesters, draft card burners and everything that the turbulent '60s stood for. Spoken over The Battle Hymn of the Republic, it ends with "if you burn your draft card you should burn your birth certificate, too. From that moment on, I have no son." The recording, which you can listen to from several links, hit number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and he performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show. Just google "Victor Lundberg." for some sites that have the audio.

Lundberg, originally from Grand Rapids, said that he had been a network announcer, one of the golden voices that proclaimed "Lux Presents Hollywood" to introduce The Lux Radio Theater. Whenever he did a microphone check at WMAX, he got as golden as he could get and spoke those words as if he were introducing that great theater of the mind.

There is much about Victor Lundberg and an Lp he also produced, which didn't go anywhere. And there are comments from his family that are best not quoted here.

Maybe I will start yet another blog, number 4. "Colorful characters I have known." Vic Lundberg will be in that one.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Musical Canine Trivia

Trombonology's Beautiful and eloquent blog about the music she loves makes me wish I knew more about it. Her latest, Benny, Tram and my little dog too, leaves me unable to resist sharing an interesting bit of trivia, inspired by the mention of her little dog, Nelson. Ms. Trombonology's favorite singer, Jo Stafford, recorded the old standard duet, "Whispering Hope" with Gordon MacRae many years ago. The trivia part of is that that Septimus Winner, who wrote the song, also wrote "Where oh where has my little dog gone" and "Listen to the Mocking 'Bird." He was arrested for treason when he wrote a song in praise of a general that President Lincoln fired. Paul Harvey would have loved that one for one of his "The rest of the story" episodes. Maybe he used it and I missed it. Here's my own "Rest of the Story." Little Dog Nelson's full name is Nelson Eddy, no doubt named for another famous duet singer whose claim to fame was duets with Jeanette MacDonald. Isn't life interesting?