Chapter 11 - Come On Baby Light My Fire
At WDGY and KDWB, I played Top 40 music with a passion. Later, at U100 I played some real rock and roll. I’ve done Adult Contemporary, Classic Rock, and Oldies….but I’ve never been to me. Sorry. Listening to 30 years of shows, you would think I was “into” music, but it has been my experience that DJ’s “into” the music never get beyond college radio or hard-core alternative album rock. When I went home I listened to (trumpet flourish) show tunes.
When I was eleven years old, I discovered Grand Opera and before I turned twelve, I saw my first live on stage Metropolitan Opera. During my years in radio, I spent hours in the production rooms of various radio stations singing along with Broadway music. I DO march to a different drummer. Ask Linda Ronstadt. So what does this have to do with…Come on Baby Light My Fire?
I was listening to WLOL, a smallish AM’er that at that time was doing Talk Radio. (Were they ahead of their time?) I was driving my yellow Toronado through the spaghetti part of I-94 in St. Paul. Swinging through the Heights area the freeway ended and became Highway 12. Soon, it was possible to see the lights on the six KDWB towers. The fact that there were no lights did not compute until I heard the news guy on WLOL say, “The radio station studios of KDWB burst into flame this afternoon. Fire trucks are on the scene and we’ll up-date you as additional details come in.”
Out of reflex, I punched the 63 button and…silence. The I noticed the missing tower lights. No signal. No lights. No Top Forty. No KDWB!
Like an acid-etching, the events of that day in early December 1969 are sharp as cut crystal. I may get the dates wrong, but the devil is in the details and I am loaded with details. I didn't exit at McKnight drive. I continued on Highway 12 to Radio Drive. There were fire trucks everywhere. I had to park on the highway and walk up the hill to the studios. More fire trucks. The building itself was very dark. There was the terrible smell of burnt paper and charred wood. There were a bunch of people but no real activity. Everyone seemed to be just milling about.
The fire was out.
Here is what had happened. The old transmitters produced a lot of heat. This heat siphoned off through ductwork that eventually combined with ductwork from the furnace and heating system. There were baffles designed to permit travel only in one direction, so a fire in the vent-work should have just traveled out. The baffles failed. The fire from the furnace traveled to the transmitters and out the intake vents. The DJ on the air, Ron Block, noticed the pall of smoke in the hallway and left the building. Then, thinking he may have over-reacted, returned to the studio to start the next song. He tried to use the phones, but the wires all came into the building through the furnace room and they were already toast. He broadcast over the radio that there was a fire at KDWB, no joke, and that someone should call the fire department. (Phones at fire departments all across the vast Twin Cities area rang causing a ton of confusion as to just exactly where there was a fire) Ironically, he then started the next record Na Na Kiss Him Goodbye by Steam and once again left the building.
Meanwhile, the engineer, who had been in the tower field returned to the building and was just seconds from opening the back door. If he had opened that door, the back draft would have engulfed the engineer in flame. Fortunately, the door blew open before he got there. Nobody died.
As disasters go, this one wasn’t even on the radar screen. So what if a top forty am radio station in Minneapolis/St. Paul caught on fire and was off the air. You think that WDGY wasn’t figuratively licking its chops? Think of all the bad karma we collected every time we played Puppy Love by Donny Osmond. It was payback time. When even a little pimple of a disaster like this strikes, people rise to the occasion. We are a resilient species aren’t we?
KDWB went off the air at 5:21PM, Sunday Afternoon and was back on the air on Tuesday.
The rest of that Sunday night, people continued to mill about. So stunned were most of us, the gravity of situation was difficult to grasp. Eventually we had to accept the reality of what had happened. The transmitters were destroyed, as was the entire engineering area and furnace room. The roof hadn’t collapsed, but the rafters were charred black. The hallway down the middle of the building acted as a firebreak and the hardcore damage was on one side and just water and smoke damage on the other side. In the main studio, there was a sticky sap-like residue on everything. The control board, counters, carts, walls, microphone, everything.
Just a quick side story. Victor Armstrong, the “owner” of KDWB had a habit of hiring trophy people. In a way, I was a trophy hire. When Billy Martin, the famous baseball player/manager (former Yankee, former Twins manager) was fired in Texas, Victor hired him. I think his job was to go to lunch with people. He also made some appearances with the radio station- softball team. Many KDWB’er can say Billy Martin coached them. I had lunch with him two or three times, I remember only his story about when he and Mickey Mantle picked up a couple of babes in a bar, and Mickey’s turned out to be a transvestite. Or maybe it was Billy’s. Anyway, there was consternation when the package was delivered, if you get what I mean.
Victor hired a Harvard man. I should say, HAAAVAAAD man. I guess he had an MBA in bullshit or something, but he surely didn’t know anything about radio. I think that Victor just wanted to have a Harvard Man working for him. I don’t remember his name but I DO remember when he first got to the fire in his three-piece suit, he realized it wasn’t fire-fighting attire. So, he hopped in his Saab and drove 80 miles round-trip to change into fitted jeans, a well-worn leather flight jacket, silk ascot, and brown fedora (that is a hat, pilgrims). I now knew what a Harvard Man wore to a fire.
It was a wasted sartorial adventure because the fire department didn’t want us beginning the clean up until the inspector could make sure the building was safe to enter. That wouldn’t happen until daylight. The next morning we were all there and I still remember seeing Howie Anderson shoveling the wreckage out the engineering entrance.
While some of us labored shoveling and wives and girlfriends scrubbed the residue gunk off everything, KDWB, like a phoenix, was about to arise from the ashes. We needed new transmitters, new phones, new carpet, new roofs, new this and new that. The production room was a wreck and there was no heat in the building. No electricity.
Over the next few days, the cleaning and repairing continued. Roof rebuilt. New furnace, electricity etc. What about a transmitter. Collins, a transmitter company located in Peoria, Ill., I think, had a 1,000-watt transmitter and a 630 crystal. Don’t ask me what that all means. I got my First in 6 weeks at Brown Institute. How to get it to St. Paul? I suppose at full speed, in December, the ride to Peoria would take 18 hours. Then they would have to schlep the transmitter in a big box (about the size of a single hole outhouse) back to Minnesota.
Enter Bob Reed the news director. Remember Bob? The gun-toting dope dealing news director? He had a pilots license so he rented an airplane and he and the engineer, Rey Lark and someone else hopped in with Bob and flew through the night to Peoria where they picked up the transmitter.
Funny thing, it turned out that Bob Reed didn’t have a pilot’s license. He had a student pilot’s license and certainly shouldn’t have been flying alone, in the night, in a storm, with passengers. That night God must have liked bubble gum music because his gentle hand protected that flight.
Meanwhile, they borrowed a little trailer studio from someone and that was our production room for the next month or so. We ran through the frigid Minnesota December weather to get to the production room. Once in there, though, it was kind of cozy.
Back to the drama. After the wayward flight to Illinois and a non-stop trek through Wisconsin, the transmitter arrived, tied to a U-Haul trailer pulled by a rental car. The engineers labored through the night and the following night and on Tuesday, we signed back on. Our normal 5,000 watt, 6 tower, highly directional radio station was now a 1,000-watt non-directional radio station. People heard us in places we had never been heard before. There were many parts of our regular signal area where we were missing. The important goal was to cover the Twin Cities. We were doing just that. We were on the air.
We had been wounded, but we weren’t dead.
Channel 63 was back!
The fire in December was hardly a blip on the road (to mix metaphors) and as Christmas 1969 approached, I was high on life. I was also high on a variety of chemicals. (Never, though, much of a pothead…just made me sleepy). Earlier in the late summer, I had a great disappointment when we didn't broadcast from the Minnesota State Fair. Deane was new to the Twin Cities and didn't understand the impact of the fair and by the time I started talking about it, it was too late. The chemicals got me through that disappointment. Once, while visiting In New York I saw sidewalk chalk artists create true works of art. For something to do, I bought chalk and tried to get some sidewalk art going at the Fair, but it ended when the Fair police didn’t like it. For something else to do, I “spared changed” in downtown Minneapolis just to see what it was like. (It wasn’t much fun) That summer and fall I lived the “high” life and it wasn’t necessarily fun. Just weird.
At some point in the weeks between the fire and Christmas, Deane Johnson, the Program Director, began to plan the special Christmas Programming. We may have been broadcasting at reduced power in shabby circumstances, but we were still the vaunted, KDWB. We made do. My personal inferiority complexes and fears of taking a chance on change or something new were overcome by those little black capsules. I could do anything. I was invincible. I was WOMAN! Oops! Wrong song. After the fire, we borrowed that small mobile studio and parked it in the parking lot directly outside the front door to use as our production room. It was kind of cozy inside that trailer. A nice place to wonder about what special programming we could produce for the Holidays. In a bolt of inspiration out of the chemical sky, it came to me. Scrooge. The Christmas Story. God Bless Us Every One! As a child I listened on the radio to Lionel Barrymore playing Ebenezer Scrooge every Christmas. That's it! In a KDWB production of The Christmas Carole, I would be Lionel Barrymore. I WOULD BE SCROOGE! One week to go till Christmas Eve and no script. I didn’t sleep that night. I didn’t sleep a lot of nights. The next morning I was at the library reading Charles Dickens. The Christmas Carole. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge. By the next morning we had the script. It was easy. All I did was use a narrator to describe the action and lift the dialogue from the book. We recorded it over a couple of days. Added music and sound effects and produced the first of 23 eventual versions of Scrooge. On Christmas eve, I rode the board while we played our 35-minute production. Every year from 1969 to 1993, at whatever radio station I worked, I produced a version of Scrooge. With the help of Barry McKinna, we turned it into a musical in 1970. In 1983, in Tacoma/Seattle, Terry Gangstad and I expanded it with some new songs and new performances. Back in California it became stereo again. In my broadcasting world, Christmas and Scrooge always go together.
In that first production, of course, I played Ebenezer Scrooge... “If I could have my way, anybody who celebrates Christmas should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stick of holly through his heart”. Don Bleu narrated... “But Marley was dead; dead as a door-nail, and Scrooge lived alone and despised everyone”. I forget the rest of the cast, but I know everyone in the building including sales and secretaries were in the cast. I will only admit this here. I couldn’t have done it without amphetamines. At Christmas 1969, that is what I thought. Sad, isn’t it.
It must have been some bad karma in some past life that brought me to broadcasting. Did I offend the gods? They say if you build up that bad karma in one life, in the next life you will be something horrid, like a gnat or mosquito. I must have done something horrid because in this life I wasn’t an insect; I was a DJ.
If this seems harsh, consider working in little piss-ant backwater out-of-the-way towns for abysmal pay, six days a week for bosses who suck. Only a few get to work in the big time and for most of them it means bigger cities, bigger piss-ant bosses who still suck, more money, but more expenses and all the security of a fly checking out a Venus Fly Trap. And, we love it, so.
I admire anyone who did it or still does it. Big time, little time, it reminds me of Norma Desmond who said, “There are no small parts, just small actors”. (That line always makes me think of porno.) If you have spent any time in “real” radio, you have worked your share of holidays. Throughout the years, I worked my share of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day shifts. The Program Director who first created special programming to release the regulars on Christmas will come back in the next life as rich and handsome. The Program Director who did “regular programming” on Christmas will come back as a consultant. Talk about bad karma.
(Somewhere along the way at KDWB and U100, I put together a bit of Christmas programming that was one step beyond the local choirs or segued Christmas songs. I think I was programming for “me” and I sure enjoyed it. Like that Christmas in 1969, We would kick off the Christmas Eve programming block with our own version of A Christmas Carol. Somewhere along the way, Richard Harris released a produced album of himself reading The Prophet. It was added to the Christmas programming. Then, I discovered Nicol Williamson's The Hobbit. Add that. Four hours of that. At various times, we played different versions of Tommy, other Christmas readings produced by our DJ’s and of course, we repeated Scrooge a couple of times. Holiday program ended at Noon on Christmas Day. I used versions of this programming at every station I worked with until I gave it all up.)
My first Christmas away from home was in 1963. I was doing The Uncle Rob Show in Austin, Minnesota and I had to do a live TV show on Christmas Eve. When I got home, I roasted a chicken and cooked it with potatoes and stuffing. It was a pale imitation of what my family would be eating, but it worked for me. Seven months later when I moved from that apartment in July of 1964, I threw away the bones of that Christmas chicken. It had mummified in my fridge. I got an A for cooking and an F for cleaning out refrigerators.
In 1970, my second Christmas at KDWB and at the end of a horrible year I'll write about soon, I worked on Christmas Eve and I was on the schedule for Christmas Day night. There was still time in between shows to have the first of many holidays with what I will always think of as my second family: Don Bleu, his wife Cathy and little baby Corey. (Later, Jenny) Again and again in the 80’s and into the 90’s I was included in the Don Bleu family Christmas. How lucky I have been to have had friends like these.
I noticed during my first stint in Modesto that there were many in this business, who like me had nowhere to go and no family to visit on Christmas Eve. For my lonesome friends and fellow workers, I began having parties on Christmas Eve. Not boozers, but get-togethers with a little wine and lots of food. Some place go. A reason to dress up. A little feeling of family. (In 1982 in San Francisco, I made lutefisk, which took the silver plate off an expensive platter. I didn‘t do it right but nobody really missed that Swedish crap).
In 1990, Christmas in Modesto was as bizarre and fun and a holiday can possibly be. Another version of Scrooge was finished and ready for airing on FM104 and I was looking at two or three days off for the holidays. Christmas Eve was sort of an open house at my place. Just to do something different, I made a huge pot of killer chili. Rather than the usual chips and dip, eggnog, and cookies, I served bowls of chili. When I planned this, people told me I was nuts, but that chili was going like hot cakes. (One of these Christmas Eves, I’m serving hot cakes just to see how THEY go.) In the past, people would stop by, say hi, and move along. This Christmas Eve people were arriving but few were departing and it was turning into a hell of a party. At about 7:30 or so, I got a call from an acquaintance who complained that the party he was at was a real drag. I invited him to join my party and bring along anyone or everyone. I had plenty of chili. His party WAS a real DRAG. About 15 minutes later, he arrived along with six or seven drag queens. The looks on the faces of the people already at my place when they arrived is a great memory etched on my brain…. What a hoot!
I swear it wasn’t planned. Those drag queens were the spice that made this Rob Sherwood Christmas Eve Chili party memorable. One I will always remember. I can’t complain. In 29 years, I spent the majority of my radio Holidays with people I love. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
It would be nice if this story could just march forward, day by day, detail by detail, with the only gaps being those that reflect poorly on this writer. Unfortunately, it isn’t to be so. My memories are dribs and drabs on the KDWB canvas, splashed here and there. I’m trying to be accurate, but there is always a lot of woulda-shoulda-coulda when remembering the past. Looking back on 1969 I would have to say it was a banner year. WeeGee and I got divorced and I married KDWB, a would-be mistress, I had long worshiped from afar. It couldn’t have been better. We made it through the rain, the fire, the insecurity, the paranoia, and with the new year came 1970 and one of the worse years of my life.
The famous Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma football coach legend, was putting together a drug seminar panel for President Nixon. Here is the story I used for years to explain how I got in this group. It is kind of accurate. The White House wanted to put together a “Council on Youth Drug Abuse” and was wondering who should be on it. Art Buchwald, a Washington Columnist suggested that his teen-age daughter was influenced by her local DJ and the next thing you know a bunch of DJ’s from around the country were being flown to the White House to discuss drug abuse. Thanks to Victor Armstrong and Deane Johnson, I was one of those DJ’s. How do you spell hypocrite?
Hey, even I was impressed. The letters from the White House, the phone-call from Bud Wilkinson, the fact that my Dad was VERY proud got to me. I was caught up in it and before you could say “sell-out” I was cutting my hair and buying an $89.00 gray suit. And dress shoes.
(A quick and funny aside. The shoes were so new, they gave me blisters and the first time in Washington, I limped everywhere. The next time, the shoes were broken in, the feet were healed and I was moving like Rudolf Nurayev. One of the DJ’s told me they thought I had a war injury!)
The whole Washington conference thing was a good thing. The only actual names I remember are Cousin Brucie from WABC in New York and the DJ who called himself the 5th Beattle. They were both legends and I was honored to sit at a table with them. The rest of the panel are beets whose names I don’t remember. Sorry, beets. You were all nice guys, but…beets. Being involved with this panel didn’t do much to curb drug abuse. In fact it was a colossal waste of money. But, I got on a speakers list and eventually did my “anti-drug talk to high schools and junior high schools for 10-15 years everywhere in Minneapolis/St Paul and dozens of schools across Minnesota. I gave that anti drug speech to kids who had never heard the name Rob Sherwood. I gave the same speech, year after year. Some Twin Cities kids have told me they heard it 6 times. They heard it every year from the 7th – 12th grade. You spell it, h-y-p-o-c-r-i-t-e.
Not everything was a good thing in 1970. We went on strike. That was a bad thing. The whole thought of this fiasco makes me so mad I am going to skip by it with the merest of mentions. The engineers at KDWB, members of the electrical workers union, decided to strike over something or other and the AFTRA members went totally insane and voted to honor the picket line. Of course, we were all fired. The managers ran the station and every bit of good will we had from the trials of the fire, was lost. Along with a bunch of money. You know, you don’t get paid when you are on strike. Eventually, it ended. We went back to work and Victor Armstrong never forgave us. I don’t blame him. I hate bosses, but I hate unions equally. In a future chapter I’ll tell you about the union boss who equated me with the Nazis.
The strike was over, our building was being re-modeled, the studios were better than ever, there was new equipment all over the place and summer was here. Under the warm on 63! I don’t really know what it means, but that was our singing jingle theme. The previous year I drove a dune buggy for the summer and then gave it away. This year I was driving an English Taxi (covered with proper KDWB identification) and that piece of shit added to the building stress that was about to put me over the proverbial edge.
As summer approached I spent a month in the psych ward at Miller Hospital in St. Paul. (Now torn down). After spending the day wandering around Battle Creek Park off Highway 61 (now closed) and wandering around the tower field at KDWB (now a strip mall). Don Bleu (now in San Francisco) got Deane (now a curmudgeon) to let me go home (a 1 bedroom on McKnight) and later, probably saved my life when he stopped by to see how I was doing. I wasn’t doing well. I’m sorry my good friend had to hold the bowl while they pumped my stomach and I barfed up the bad stuff. I took a vacation in New York with a friend and tried to forget the whole episode.
Deane Johnson and Harold Greenberg put up with me and even visited me in Miller to make sure I was all right. Don Bleu and his wife treated me like family and I survived. Let me tell you just one quick and funny story from the psyche ward. After about two weeks I was deemed mentally stable enough for off the floor excursions. Don Bleu would pick me up, take me out to dinner or something and then bring me back to the lock down. The person you were with would deliver you right to the locked door, you’d knock, and they’d let you in. One time, after Don Bleu had delivered me to my keepers, he was leaving the building and a security guard stopped him, thinking HE was an escaping in-mate. I guess I never looked as crazy as The True Don Bleu.
I was finally deemed cured and loosed back on the unsuspecting listeners at KDWB. I think I had just been “away”. Actually, listening to Howie Anderson do MY show had been better than all the Stelazine, Tofrinil, and Librium, they could give me.
And now it was July!
You often hear of the summer of love. 1967. San Francisco. That magical summer got to Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1970 and I was ready. I was young, over-paid, and abusing my body like there was no tomorrow. I went to a psychiatrist during the day, wandered the streets in the afternoon, worked a bit and stayed up all night. I lied to everybody about just about everything and felt like I was conquering the world. Down by the Mississippi River they had a barge tied to shore and people were having a mini Woodstock every weekend. I was there. We won’t even begin to get into the details of those weekends. One pill makes to larger. One pill makes you small. Go Ask Alice.
And this year, KDWB was going to broadcast from the State Fair. I whined and wheedled, cajoled and cried, and Deane and Harold Greenberg were worn down. They gave in. We couldn’t have our own building, but they arranged for us to piggyback in the Natural Gas Building. Thousands of people filed through the building and saw us. We handed out buttons the said, “KDWB-A Natural Gas”. It wasn’t great, but it was terrific. I have never lost my love for the Minnesota State Fair.
I started out 1970, a part of a phoenix rising from the ashes. I went through an ill-starred union work stoppage, a mental collapse, a cornucopia of chemicals and the Minnesota State Fair. I saw fire and I saw rain.
Summer didn’t end. I escaped.
Coming in Chapter 12 – Around The World