Chapter 4 – Austin, Hormel, Roy Rogers
Television is a very complicated medium. Or at least, it has become a very complicated medium. Many times I have seen extremely talented radio personalities make a move to television and have a miserable failure. It happened several times with talk radio personalities in the last five or ten years. I think I have an explanation for this. Radio is a singular art. Most of the time, the DJ makes up his own bits, performs them as he wants and when he wants, runs his own board, ad-libs when he wants, and generally sits as King of The Hill behind the microphone.
TV is loaded with technical people, producers, directors, scripts and advance planning and a complete aversion to seat of the pants operation. Most DJ’s don’t work well in that environment. I have met many talented jocks who worked nights and didn’t want any other shift. They liked being alone, without PD’s, receptionists, secretaries; they avoided the entire staff. As Program Director, a good night crew made life wonderful. No worries, full nights of sleep, and contact only at staff meetings and the Christmas Party.
None of this applies to the Uncle Rob Funny Company in Austin, Minnesota. The single cameraman, Rodney, and the Director (forgot his name) and me. That was it. The staff graphic artist helped with occasional contributions and one of the secretaries acted as a greeter for the studio audience. The outline for the show fit on a single piece of paper, and beyond that... we winged it.
It would have been better, lasted longer, and had more impact on my own career if someone told me what to do. And told me what not to do. Someone to do a little Uncle Rob mentoring. Oh well.
In spite of the atrocious over-all quality of the Funny Company, we hit some chord (especially with teens) and the show attracted an audience. In retrospect, we probably had more talk, buzz, and comment, than actual ratings-proved audience. Still, the response was terrific. Within a couple of weeks, we were getting more mail than any TV show in KMMT history. The live peanut-gallery audience often overflowed the available space and I am sure management was getting an earful on the street.
To their credit, they reacted. Before the first month was over, we expanded the half hour at 5PM to 5PM - 5:45PM. When I usurped that 15 minutes from the woman and her community news, I was treated to real scorn. There is a “Martha Stewart Memory” about her and I am sure she had a Martha Steward pair of balls. A week or two later, we grabbed another five minutes from the programming before we began and the official start time became 4:55PM. From January to September we filled the 50 minutes, five days a week, with all sorts of shtick. The Funny Company Cartoon filled a bit of the time, but for the most part it was me. And the kids. During this period I played my own Grandmother, the Phoenix rip-off, Grandma Lenny. I was also the villain Slippery Bly Bly. That was an easy one because he was so slippery the viewer saw only his feet, hands, and flowing cape. I was a very un-p.c. Charlie Chan character and a stereotypical politician we called Senator Claghorn or Foghorn or something-horn. I wrestled with the peanut gallery, jumped on beds, swung from a rope and played Ah Sweet Mystery Of Life on the piano. It was a wonderful summer.
In September, I don’t know what happened. At least, I don’t understand what happened. At a meeting in the GM’s office, I was told that they wanted to expand the Uncle Rob Funny Company. (Great!) They wanted to build a new set that would include a Time Machine enabling me to travel to the Old West, or into space to the moon. (Both were made and they were quite nice) And….they wanted to have me host movies with Old West or Sci-Fi themes to run during the show!
What? Somewhere they had come up with a package of Roy Rogers movies from the 40’s and Flash Gordon-like space movies from the early 50’s. The ratio was about 4-1 in favor of Roy. These were certainly ‘B’ movies and none was much longer than 60 minutes. The new Funny Company hours were 4PM -5:45PM.
Do the math. With an hour of Roy and Dale, plus commercials, in spite of the expanded time, the Uncle Rob Show had just been reduced in size by about 20 minutes. It took me about a week to realize, I had been snookered. I managed to re-claim a bit of time by editing out ALL the square-dance and ho-down scenes. The movies all ended with Roy and Dale riding horses and singing Happy Trails and I gleefully joined in making it a split-screen trio.
Eventually we began splitting the movie in two to get back to the old Funny Company, but the 2 months of Roy, Dale, and Flash had altered our growth. Not only was the audience disenchanted by the "new" Funny Company, but my growth as a performer was cut short.
Does My Story seem like some sort of tragedy moving from one crisis and disappointment to another? Like news on television or in newspapers, "if it bleeds, it leads." I write about the strife and angst but mixed among the slings and arrows, were mixed incredible highs and wonderful successes. In spite of Roy, the show continued and some of our best bits were done in late 1964.
During that summer, someone notice something. I could play more than one song on the piano. In fact, I could play a lot of songs. I had three piano teachers in my life. Beginning before I started school, a wonderful, crotchety, Christian Scientist named Ella Cox taught me how to find middle C before I could read. In the 8th grade I began lessons with an elegant lady, a former concert-pianist, named Miriam Blair. I was a rebellious student and these two woman deserve a special place in heaven for the patience and kindness they showed me during those 14 years. Bottom line. They taught me to play the piano.
At the tail-end of my lesson phase, I learned chords, sight-play, rifts and runs, and modern piano from an mustached, sour-smelling alcoholic. He had played for silent movies in his younger days, and now made a few bucks giving lessons. I am not sure if he was ever sober during a lesson. It didn’t matter, because he also taught me to play the piano.
When the sales department at KMMT-TV found out I really played, they were ready to take advantage. Visions of Liberace danced in their heads. THEY were ready. I wasn’t. In case you don’t recognize the name, Liberace was more than a weird Las Vegas entertainer who died of AIDS. He played the piano on a weekly TV show. It was glitzy but saccharine. Just listening to him talk between numbers could give a viewer diabetes. He appealed to women in a ’brotherly’ way. Perhaps he was the 50’s Clay Aiken.
In 1964 Liberace set the template for solo piano shows and someone had the idea I should be doing one like it. A lot of good broadcasting ideas come out of the sales department. (They have some bad ones too…heh heh) The sales manager, who worked the street and directed Uncle Rob's Funny Company and various news blocks, casually asked me one afternoon in late August of 1964 if I knew enough songs to fill a 30 minutes show. Considering I had played with a group in high school, worked as a cocktail/dinner music pianist and dabbled in the ivory arts for years, I replied with the mid-sixties version of, "duh!" A couple of days later a proposal was prepared, pitched and picked up by a photographic studio in the adjacent small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.
The show was scheduled for 30 minutes in September on a Saturday evening. Without my knowledge or permission, "they" had decided that the Uncle Rob identity was too associated with the Funny Company. On the radio, at the time, I was Rob Lockes. They didn’t even consider using that name. Before I could complain, The Buff Setterquist Show, was sold and scheduled. Oh My God!
In high school I had perfected procrastination to a high art. My ability to ignore homework and studying deadlines until ‘tomorrow’ was unparalleled. If all the effort I put into my day dreaming and lallygagging were put toward school work, music, and work, my teen life would have been easier. Not as adventurous, but easier. The temporary success of my life of sloth and sluggery spilled over into my music. For the last year of actual lessons, my dedication to the piano wasn’t very dedicated. I was down to one lesson a week and if I could get through the actual lesson, put off practicing for a couple of days and then work practice like hell for a couple of days and then go to the next lesson and fake it. Suddenly I was working with a real dead-line. I actually had to do some ‘school work’. The Liberace show of the early 50's was a good model. I would prepare a mixture of light classics, pop and theater songs, and kill time with chit chat between the music.
I DID practice. I DID prepare. I just didn’t practice or prepare enough. I could have doubled both practice and preparation. Maybe tripled. The bottom line? I wasn’t as ready as I should have been and when the day arrived, I was going to have to do what I so often tried to do. Fake it. A little. Perhaps a lot.
My father played wonderful piano. When I was very young, Dad and his friends would have a gig. An owner of a Texaco gas station played a wonderful trumpet. Earling Holmstrand was on clarinet and sax. Someone played the bass fiddle, another the drums and my Dad was at the piano. On performance days my dad would soak his hands in warm water to loosen them up. That memory never left me. On the day of the debut of The Buff Setterquist Show, I filled my bathroom sink with warm water and soaked my hands. Maybe the ritual would channel some of my dad’s ability and make up for my lack of practice. In preparation for The Buff Setterquist Show and emphasizing the difference between it and the Funny Company, I bought a suit, a shirt with French cuffs and a killer set of cuff-links. I even combed my hair. There hadn't been time to memorize all the music I intended to play, so I had glued some of the music to poster board to prevent a disaster. I could just imagine crawling about the studio floor looking for the next page like some Victor Borge bit. Come to think about it, I should have incorporated some Victor Borge into the show. In high school, I did several skits that were almost always a combination of Reggie Van Gleason the Third, Steve Allen, and the great Danish comedian, Victor Borge. It was a mistake when on the Buff Setterquist show we played it straight.
We didn't have a grand piano, but the console style piano we had was freshly tuned. The salesman who sold the show to the Albert Lea photographers acted as set decorator, lighting director, technical director, and at times, cameraman. He was one busy dude. One of the regulars behind the camera had actually done some research on how to best mike a piano and the audio sounded great. With our one camera and Zoomar lens they did some video magic. They faded to slides of pastoral scenes, photos from movie and stage musicals, and back to me and the keyboard. I played songs from West Side Story, Gigi, Moon River, and My Fair Lady. We threw in some standards…A Foggy Day in London Town, Tea For Two, and one of my favorites, The Way You Look Tonight. Claire de Lune and a Russian recital piece I had mastered three or four years earlier provided some classical flavor. We managed to fill all 22 minutes. I should have chatted more and played less. We made it to the end.
Have you ever seen the movie Goodfellas? Joe Pesci is magnificent in that film and I’ve always wanted to count how many times he says the word, "fuck". Someone should have counted how many wrong notes I played during my 22 minutes. If I said a mental "fuck" every time I hit one, adjusted for length I was giving Joe Pesci a run for his money. The reviews arrived. The first from the studio staff who applauded spontaneously when we finished. To this day I am not sure if they applauded themselves or me…or that we made it to the end without a death. We DID kill a lot of great music that night. We actually got some very complimentary phone calls and the local paper actually mentioned it in a positive way. Certainly my fans gave me more credit than I deserved. On my other show I swung on a rope, talked to a pet termite and wrestled with kids. The mere fact I wasn’t a blithering idiot and you could even recognize the music was enough to raise me to Renaissance Man genius level. And, the Albert Lea photographers loved it. They wanted more. We began planning A Christmas special of the Buff Setterquist Show. My piano show was as different from the Uncle Rob Show as pudding and sausage, yet one had a great impact on the other. After the Christmas piano show redux, seeds were planted that would lead to the demise of my kiddy show dream. Fifteen months. It seems like such a short time.
I am very good at being a flash in the pan. The Uncle Rob Show was like that little sparkle of gold dust in the prospector’s pan, but in the end, the strike didn’t pan out. Years later, I would again hap on something new and innovative at U100, but like my 15 months in Austin, the Super U thing was over almost before it began.
There are highlights. I still remember dressing like the inscrutable Chinese detective, Charlie Chan to spoof one of his movies. "Honorable Detective will now turn out this light and in the dark, murderer will reveal himself." Of course when the light came back on, Charlie Chan had a knife through his heart. That bit was so not PC! In San Francisco, I would have been off the air before I could say Chop Suey. We made fun of soap operas too. "Generally Hospitable" At the time, I thought it was hilarious. For the Republican Convention of 1964 we actually had an elephant and a live chicken in the studio. The convention was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco but on the Uncle Rob Show it was at the Chicken Palace. The only time we had a cow on the show, it crapped all over and some local complainers said I was obscene when I milked it. What actually happened was this. No matter how I tugged, squeezed or yanked, I didn’t produce a drop of milk from the udder and teats. When I grabbed the cows tail and pretended to pump, the cow produced a wonderful ’pie’. I am surprised they didn’t pull the show then.
Critics complained I was being disrespectful to old ladies because Grandma Lenny (played by me) visited. She was a cantankerous old lady and I loved putting on the cheap grandma wig. The only reason I called her Grandma Lenny was because I thought it was a funny name. Lenny. Some words are funny. Lenny is funny. Grandma Lenny didn’t do much, but we talked about her a lot. The most fun was being able to service the Peter Pan inside of me. I got to pretend to be a kid. Again. Still. Wrestling with kids in the peanut gallery, swinging on ropes, jumping on beds, writing on the wall, eating peanut butter, slurping cola and making a lot of pretend.
It was fun. It needed direction. Either I didn't get any or if anyone tried to give me direction I was too full of myself to take it.
By some measures, the show was successful. In other ways I missed some great opportunities. By the standards of the time, though, I was a success. My Dad and Mom were pleased and relieved. Some of my former high school classmates were incredulous and I was making 90 dollars a week! Sometime in early 1965, I thought about the contributions I was making to KMMT. I did the weather on Saturday at 6 and 10. I had done two serious and successful piano shows, and Uncle Rob was certainly a Southern Minnesota/Northern Iowa name. Frequently, I came in for the 10PM news to do live commercials for a local dairy. I think I already told you these stories. (I should really re-read some of this crap). I asked for a raise.
Some people in this business are good at getting raises and some are not. I was not. A combination of pathological shyness and a deep suspicion that I didn’t even deserve the money I already was making cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars during my career. Thinking back on it, who gives a shit. I always had milk for the children. (Actually I didn’t have any children but I always had milk anyway.) Some little bit of hubris took me into Stan Stynicki’s office to ask for a raise. Seriously, I would have been happy if they raised my pay 10 dollars a week. After consultation with the powers at the home office in Waterloo, they turned me down. Either they didn’t want to pay the extra dough or this was an easy way of ‘losing’ me. Either way, my pride did not permit me to stay and I gave notice.
The show limped along for another month while I waited for a change of heart and they waited for me to reconsider. As the newspaper put it, "Uncle Rob moved on to bigger and better things". Actually I crawled home. In March of 1965. I loaded up my Dad’s Ford Econoline Van and left Austin in the middle of a blizzard. It was a cold, miserable trip north. The heater didn’t work properly and the back door was ajar to accommodate the load. My heart was a bit frozen too because I had committed a broadcasting cardinal sin. I let pride guide me and quit without another job in the bag. Not for the first time in my career, I was not working, questioning my ability, and worried about the future.
There was one more bitter pill to swallow. My precious Uncle Rob and the Funny Company was replaced by the Spaceman, Captain Atom. All the schemes and plans only delayed the original plan by a little more than a year.
Coming in Chapter Five – Any Port In The Storm