Chapter 3 - Wallace and Ladmo Beckon to Me
In July I stopped by a roadside stand and bought a watermelon, casaba melon, musk melon, and a couple of honey dews. All fresh from the field. The reason I remember that particular event is because the thermometer attached to the melon stand was reading 119 degrees. What seemed so wonderful in February when the snow was blowing back home, seem excessive 6 months later. The weather was getting to me. Also, my radio station in Blythe, California was chronically short of staff and the 70 hour weeks were starting to pale.
And I missed my family. I was ready to leave Blythe. Plus, I discovered Wallace and Ladmo.
Blythe is on the California side of the Colorado river as it forms the border between California and Arizona. Too far away to get the television signals from Los Angeles or Phoenix, a cooperative was formed with help from the city and the Phoenix TV stations were picked up by a mountain-top receiver, converted to UHF and beamed throughout the Palo Verde Valley. Using that UHF box attached to my TV, I watched a lot of Phoenix television including Wallace and Ladmo. Wallace and Ladmo was an off-the-wallafternoon kid show. Certainly, it wasn’t your local market Captain Kangaroo. It looked liked fun.
One night, while doing some awake dreaming, I decided I wanted to do a kid show. A TV kid show. That wasn’t going to happen in Blythe. On my next day off, I drove to Phoenix and stopped by the TV station. They were looking for people to work as floor personnel and I told them I wanted a job. After some conversation, they offered one to me and I accepted. I asked if I would be working on the Wallace and Ladmo Show, but they told me probably not. My schedule would be late night and only about 30 hours a week. I was hired at 11AM and resigned at 11:30AM. The desire-seed, however, was planted and I was determined to get my own television show.
I spent the next month obsessing about my own kid show. When this happens you might as well submit your resignation, because your mind isn’t tending to the business at hand. That business was KYOR. I was like a mailman, ready to go postal. It wouldn’t take much to put me over the edge and the little incident happened on the last Monday of August. Earl Trout, the high school student/KYOR DJ had worked over the week-end and he was, by far, the best DJ we had on the air. Monday morning I sat down with Bob Roddy, the GM, and told him I wanted to give ELT a full-time shift. Bob Roddy said no. His excuse was that ELT was too young. BOOM!
Within an hour I resigned. With the rashness of youth, I got upset over a trivial matter, blew everything into a crisis and acted without thinking. By two that afternoon, my 1962 Buick Skylark (Black) was loaded. I stopped by the station, picked up my final pay (in cash), swung by the Foster Freeze for a couple of tacos, and left Blythe, never to return. That night, I stayed in Phoenix and the next day talked my way into the studio audience at the Wallace and Ladmo Show. I took notes. That night I drove east, eventually hopping on Route 66 and heading back to Minnesota.
I crossed the border into Minnesota late on Wednesday night after having to buy a new tire in Kansas and getting a speeding ticket in Amarillo. That night I stayed in Albert Lea and watched the news on KMMT Channel 6 from Austin. (There is a bit of irony to be explained soon.) When I got to Minneapolis on Thursday morning, I stopped by Brown Institute to avail myself of their lifetime placement service. (I wonder what they would say if I called them now?) I wasn't flying blind. had mapped out a plan. Seriously, I knew I would have to connive my way onto TV, so I looked for combination radio/TV operations. There were several. My plan was to apply for a radio job and then like a camel and a tent, get my nose into TV. That part of the plan put into effect, I headed to my parent’s home.
The waiting was excruciatingly painful. After a broadcasting career of 8 months, I was jobless. I should have trusted Brown Institute because they came through in October with an opening at a station in Austin, Minnesota. What made it perfect was the ABC Television network outlet, KMMT Channel 6, just down the hall. (I warned you about the irony)
The folks in Austin DID trust Brown because they hired me and I loaded up my Buick Skylark (still black) and arrived in Austin on October 30th. The next night, Halloween, I worked my first radio shift ion KAUS. (A remote broadcast from a car dealership). When things settled down, I began working 10am to Noon on the radio. An hour-long news block gave me a break to work in the TV booth and then back to the radio from one to three. The TV booth again until six.
Sometimes, when I am doing something in the theater, I like to arrive early, turn on the stage work-lights and sit on stage communing with the theater ghosts. AT KMMT, I was doing the same thing. After the six pm news block, I would sit in the dimmed lights of the TV studio and “commune” with it’s ghosts.
I knew that, somehow, I was going to have to kill off Heckle and Jeckle.
The first couple of days at as a newbie at a radio station are strange and stressful, but within days, you settle in and that new, uncertain feeling is gone. Within a few days I was settled into a schedule of 5 hours on the radio, 10am to 3pm, and production duties for both radio and TV. The TV station, KMMT, used a combination of live booth announcements and pre-taped ones. Recording the station breaks and local audio tracks for ads was called "reading the book". Once in a while, they were done ’live’ from a small booth in the same room with the control panel. You watched a monitor through a double paned glass to your front.
On this Friday, after a little more than three weeks as an Austin broadcaster, I was doing the TV station-breaks live while the news hour continued without me back on the radio. A soap opera was on the ABC network, the engineer was in the bathroom and I was paging through a magazine with the audio turned down. I glanced up just in time to catch the screen and the ABC feed suddenly going blank. I left the booth to walk toward the bathrooms to let the engineer know there was a problem. My path led me next to an alcove that contained the teletype machines as well as what passed as the television/radio newsroom. Just as I passed, both teletype machines began ringing non-stop. The bells rang (dinged) two or three or even four times depending on the seriousness of the story passing over the wire. In my rather short radio career, this was the first time they rang continuously. I looked at what was coming across the teletype. "President Kennedy shot in Dallas."
I was frozen.
The engineer wandered over and I said, "Look! Look!" He read it and ran toward the TV control panel. I ripped the paper off the machine and ran into the radio control room. I thrust it in front of the newsman. He placed it to the side and I picked it up and pushed it back in front of the story he was reading. He paused to read the five words to himself and for a moment there was silence. At last he read the bulletin over the air. Someone brought in another bulletin ripped off the teletype machine and after reading that over the air, he said were were going to join the network. We were a Mutual Network radio station and they were already broadcasting the story non-stop. On the TV side, the network interrupted the soap opera and the ABC newsman, (can’t remember his name but he looked a lot like Walter Cronkite - it wasn‘t Walter though) was on camera with a special report. Within minutes our entire staff was gathered around the TV monitors watching and listening to the unbelievable news. It wasn't long before hope and optimism were dashed. President John F. Kennedy was dead.
The next few days were a dichotomy of whirlwind activity and quiet disbelief. The TV network ran non-stop coverage. Something unusual in 1963 but commonplace today in the age of 24 hour cable news. On the radio, we carried the network and eventually dumped our Top 40 format and played non-stop, non-commercial classical music. We didn’t return to our format until after the funeral.
Mostly the TV station carried ABC non-stop. Our local news department covered the local angle and on Saturday we interrupted the network coverage hourly with local-perspective reports. It was at the end of one of these that the newsman said, "We now return you to ABC and continued coverage on the events following the assassination of President Truman."
I was shocked, but I still think I laughed. I was a kid! I was full of satisfaction when I heard his faux pas because the newsman was an asshole and his embarrassment was good payback. The guy was a "Les Nesman" type, but more annoying. He didn’t last long. He was replaced by a reporter/news anchor who wasn't an asshole but had his own issues. For one thing, he only changed his clothes weekly. His slacks were changed, perhaps, monthly. He had two problems. One I only heard about. He read paper-back novels and after reading each page, ripped it from the book and threw it on the floor. By the look of the floor, he read a lot. The other problem, was one I have faced at various times throughout my career. The hygiene, or lack of hygiene of fellow broadcasters. Our new newsman's hygiene was less than perfect. I don’t remember any distasteful odors, but I do remember dandruff that looked like one of those glass balls you shook to see the ballerina in a snowstorm. And I think there was a bit of psoriasis.
Well into my first year on TV and radio in Austin, I followed him on the air. Just before entering the studio, I treated myself to a Chunky Candy Bar. (Open Wide For Chunky). I set the candy on the counter as I opened the mike for my first break. I retrieved the chocolate and was just about to bite a chunky chunk of my Chunky when I noticed a huge psoriasis flake on my Chunky. And that is how Rob discovered Lysol Spray.
Back to the week-end of November 22, 1963. There was a one-two punch to this story. Kennedy was assassinated on Friday. On Sunday morning, (my day off) I drove to the station to use the telephone to call my parents. I was talking to my father when I heard my mother in the back-ground yelling about something on TV. I craned my neck to see what was happening.
Jack Ruby had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald. We were all living history at KMMT in Austin.
It was a small station. We had one camera and no video tape. The ABC network was black and white. (Some feeds were in color but we were not authorized to broadcast in color. A couple of times the switch wasn’t switched and that elicited phone calls complimenting us on the quality of our accidental color broadcast) We were using things like a slide projector for rear projection, 16mm film, and something called a Ballopticon (sic) for graphics. Our on-air staff was surprisingly talented. Or so I thought at the time. The main news anchor was a raging alcoholic but as debonair, urbane, and honey-voiced as any newsman on a network or in a major market. Our sports director was just what a sports director should be. And the weatherman, also the TV General Manager, Stan Stynicki was what weathermen were like in the early 60’s. We had a couple of reporters as well as a woman (kind of a Martha Stewart type) who did current events and female oriented programs.
The program director over at the radio station, KAUS, I knew by sight from Brown Institute. He graduated at Brown in the same month I started. He was not only one of my bosses (I had many) but he was also competition. While the world was changing about me, I was still dreaming of my television show. On December 9th, less than a month after the events of November 22nd, I wandered towards the area where the manager’s office was located. In the area outside the GM’s office were the doors to the washrooms and a candy machine. I was buying a Chunky Candy Bar (This is a pre-flake Chunky). The door to Stan’s office was opening and he was chatting with the radio program director.
I skulked there, listening to every word. They were discussing a potential kid-show to replace the 30 minutes of Heckle & Jeckle cartoons. "How about a space ship set and a spaceman ala Flash Gordon (in years to come Capt. Kirk), to introduce the cartoons. We’ll call him Captain Atom". The cartoons in question came from a "Kid-show-in-a-bottle" company called "The Funny Company". I knew that if Captain Atom ever got on the air, my plans would be dashed and my conniving unsuccessful. The next day I lied my way on to television.
I still remember that the Uncle Rob Show debuted on KMMT Channel 6 Television on December 16, 1963. It was Beethoven’s Birthday and that helps me to remember. We replaced the Heckle and Jeckel cartoon show, on the air from 5PM to 5:30PM. A 15 minute ‘home show’ featuring a woman reporting on upcoming community events followed the Uncle Rob show and the ABC network news followed that from 5:45PM to 6PM. The local news/sports/weather block aired 6:00 to 6:30PM.
The thirty minute show featured those Funny Company cartoons, but only one per show. That left me with 20 minutes to fill.
"Live, from the entertainment capital of the world, Austin, Minnesota, it’s the Uncle Rob Show"
In a darkened studio with flashlights substituting for spot-lights, that’s how we opened Uncle Rob's Funny Company. The set was a ‘clubhouse’ with bleachers for a studio audience. (A peanut gallery) You had to be under 12 to sit in the on-camera audience but no one was checking ID’s. Various parents and older kids sat on folding chairs off camera. Over the next few weeks some story lines would develop. The evil mysterious man wearing a cape, his face never seen, was Sidney Bly Bly would regularly skulk into the club house to put poison in Rob’s favorite drink, "Blurp Cola". The Blurp bottle was an old champagne bottle with an appropriate Blurp label. In the next year, I was poisoned at least 100 times.
An old safe made it on to the set and we named it Sidney. Kids sent in hundreds of letters with combinations. We tried them regularly, but never did get Sidney the Safe opened.
I had a pet termite (Terrible Thomas the Termite) and hundreds of letters arrived containing toothpicks or pieces of wood to feed to him. Add to this a piano where I regularly sang "Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you"….., a rope I could swing on like Tarzan on a vine and a kindly lady who visited, Grandma Lenny. Some of this nonsense was blatantly stolen from Ladmo & Wallace and some sprang from my very own immature and sophomoric mind.
One of the more disgusting developments started with a reference, during the first days, to sandwiches. I regularly made peanut butter sandwiches on the show and was supposedly constantly on a quest to find the ‘perfect’ peanut butter sandwich. With crusts, without crusts, multi-layered, with bananas, pickles, jelly, jam, and every combination we could think of, I enthused about peanut butter sandwiches like Timothy Leary talked about LSD. Soon after we began our show there was a parade. I guess it was a Christmas parade but I am not sure. I DO know that unlike everyone else who threw candy to the crowds, we threw peanut butter sandwiches. The night before the parade we made 150 peanut butter sandwiches and cut them in quarters. Each sandwich was put in a small plastic bag and we tossed them the length of the parade. I wonder if any of them were eaten.
Eventually, the peanut butter sandwich bit turned gross. Peanut gallery members began bringing their own sandwiches. They’d show me them to me on the air and I would consider whether to eat them or not. It soon became clear that I would eat none of them, saving every sandwich for ‘later’.
Not only was there the obvious peanut butter/ketchup sandwich, peanut butter/mustard sandwich, peanut butter/baloney sandwich, but eventually the peanut butter and dog poop sandwich, peanut butter and garter snake sandwich, peanut butter and frog sandwich and I could go on. Some of these offerings were so gross they weren’t even unwrapped.
At one point I created the ultimate peanut butter sandwich using about 6 slices of bread and half a jar of peanut butter. It became a part of the set as it dried to the consistency of a brick. The staff graphic artist eventually painted it with gold paint and attached it to a wooden base with the legend, The World’s Greatest Peanut Butter Sandwich.
In one of the few attempts to be truly ‘educational’ and because of our fixation on peanut butter, we actually contacted the Peter Pan Peanut Butter Company in the Twin Cities and asked if we could film a report on how they made peanut butter. This sort of thing is common fodder on the Food Channel or Discovery Channel today, but in 1964 we were turned down abruptly because their recipe was ‘secret’. Perhaps they didn’t want us to see the pounds of sugar and lard they added to the peanuts. So much for Mr. Rogers.
Some kids would bring pets to the show. No matter what the animal, it always crapped on me. I was shit on by crows, pigeons, parrots, gerbils, hamsters, white rats, white mice and even once a full-sized dairy cow. The local visiting circus brought us an elephant and I was quick enough to avoid his crap. Once we had some of the performers from the Lawrence Welk Show stop by and I was relieved THEY didn’t shit on me. They wanted to, though.
That first Christmas of 1963 we had a Christmas Tree. For some reason we decided to decorate it with fruit. It started with a garland made of popcorn (edible) and that was logically followed with apples and oranges. A personal eccentricity to this day is my year-around Christmas Tree. Even then I wanted to leave the Christmas tree up even after Christmas. I also, got hungry and by the middle of January the tree lost all its needles and the decorations were apple cores and bits of orange peel. We left it on the set for the next 14 months.
I was having more fun than Rush Limbaugh has a right to, and was quite full of myself. Suddenly I was being recognized on the street, catered to at the fast-food restaurants, noticed by the police and stalked by fans. It was wonderful!
What an incredible year it had been. In 1963 I left Brown Institute, applied for work with Doctor Don Rose, traveled cross-country in a blizzard to Blythe, California, found a job in Austin, discovered a Phoenix Kid Show and finagled my way onto television. In 1964 I would be taken advantage of by the management and reap the results of my finagling.
It wasn’t only the animals who wanted to shit on me.
Coming in Chapter Four – Austin, Hormel, Roy Rogers & Unhappy Trails