Chapter 5 - Any Port In A Storm
Seven months. I was with my parents for seven months! Slowly I began slipping into my old cocoon. That summer I spent hours lounging in the back of my Pontiac convertible, parked in some north woods state park picnic area reading. I played hours of sand-lot baseball. I did a community theater play and helped out infrequently in my Dad's grocery store. I traveled without the means to pay for it. It is a wonder I could sleep as my dreams and self confidence drained out like the cold dirty bathwater from a used tub. The dream wasn't totally dead and in November I got a chance to pitch an Uncle Rob type TV show to Channel 3 in Duluth. Earl Henton, the news anchor on KDAL-TV when I was a kid, was Operations Manager/Program Director and he was looking for a possible afternoon kid show. I worked up some skits, created some costumes to go with them, and made a 20 minute tape in their studios. I thought the audition went well. Thinking back, it could have been a lot better. At an after-theater party the next night I chatted with the person who had directed the audition. He said the ‘executives’ were all excited about my audition and it look really good. Needless to say I went home walking on air, already spending the money and basking in the notoriety of the New Uncle Rob Show coming to TV screens in Duluth any day now.
I waited. I waited. Finally, I began leaving messages for Earl Henton. I waited. A letter came a week or so later. A letter! "Thank you for auditioning…you are very talented…we seriously considered…..yada yada yada blah blah blah…fuck you very much"
I got up the courage to call and ask Earl what had happened. My wounded ego was eased a bit when I found out the corporate owner in Chicago had made the decision. The corporation that owned KDAL-TV at the time also owned one of the first afternoon ‘talk’ TV shows. The available afternoon slot was being taken by Mike Douglas. Every time I hear the song, "The Men In My Little Girl’s Life" I almost choke. I couldn’t watch that show. A year later when ABC did a wild and crazy teen-oriented, non-dance, non-Dick Clark show with Paul Revere and the Raiders I almost choked again. To this day I hate and envy Soupy Sales. (For those readers who do not know Mike Douglas, Paul Revere and the Raiders, or Soupy Sales, it must be past your bedtime and I’ll get mommy to tuck you in.)
I had a miserable Christmas. I had counted early chickens and after a few months of seeing a way out of my morass, all my plans were shattered again. A year earlier, when I made my Christmas visit I was riding a high. I was a little celebrity in my little town. I wasted almost a year dreaming and procrastinating. My dad was more realistic about the disappointment then I was. He believed in his ‘talented son’. When I didn’t get a new Uncle Rob Show he said simple, “Well, that’s show biz!”
At some point I decided that after Christmas I would swallow my pride and go back to Brown Institute and ask them to help me re-start my radio career. In the meantime, I went through that holiday motions and my family went through the motions too.
My father had a tradition he followed on Christmas eve. It included his own personal gift shopping (mostly for my mom) but also a visit to some of local merchants who bought their groceries from Dad. So, first we hit three or four liquor stores. We bought several bottles of bourbon whiskey from one. Some vodka and gin from another. Champagne (cheap) and believe it or not, Mogan David from another. For Christmas eve. How ironic! This was before one-stop shopping, so we would shop in a hardware store (to buy, perhaps a toaster) and the jewelry store (something costume) and the 'gift' store for a vase or crystal bowl. Some fun stuff from the Ben Franklin Five & Dime (are we dating ourselves?) and when finished, homage to tradition was paid-in-full for another year.
In 1964, I missed the excursion because I was on TV. Actually, on television on Christmas Eve Afternoon. Missing the shopping tour was all right because after all..Uncle Rob was ready for his close-up. In 1965, I went with my Dad and brother. I was there, but I was a bum. Not working, insecure, afraid of the future, ashamed, waiting at the station with a ticket to nowhere.
Just after Christmas I called Brown and that led to a call from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. KLWW needed a night guy. The station was owned by the same company that owned KMMT/KAUS in Austin. The company also owned a radio and TV station in Waterloo. Dear readers may remember how I finagled my way on to Austin, Minnesota television by getting my foot through the door at the sister radio station. In the first 30 seconds of the call from Cedar Rapids, I was thinking of the Waterloo TV station less than an hour away. I wasn't excited about working the night show in Cedar Rapids, but it was better than sitting on my ass another second. The phone call lasted less than 10 minutes and when I hung up the phone, I had a job. The mood was significantly brighter on New Year's and on the second day of 1966 I loaded my Pontiac Catalina convertible and headed south of the border. Well, the Minnesota border with Iowa.
I drove out of a blizzard to my first station in Blythe and out of a blizzard leaving my second job in Austin. More than a foot of snow fell on the day I drove to Cedar Rapids and the usual 8 hour drive (before the Interstates arrived) took almost 12 hours in the snowstorm. The next morning I rented a furnished railroad apartment (one room leads to the next and to the next and to the next) 3 blocks from the station. At six on my second night in Cedar Rapids, Rob Lockes (still) was on the air.
KLWW was located in a stand-alone one story building on one of the main streets in Cedar Rapids directly across from the famous crossword puzzle college, Coe College. The lobby was large with desks from traffic and bookkeeping. To the left were some cobbled offices for the Sales Staff and General Manager. Down the hallway, the main studio, news room and engineering to the left, production, bathrooms, and a small kitchen to the right. The back door opened to a garage-like storage room full of junk and there was parking in the rear for a couple of cars. Simple and functional.
I don't remember much about the staff. I remember the receptionist was nice. The GM was a gentle man with little radio experience. The program director was a know-it-all and even though you couldn't convince me at the time, he surely was a know-more-than-me. Almost from the beginning we were on opposite sides of every broadcasting issue in what you might call a personality clash.
Of course, the PD did mornings. A day shift was handled by someone, I believe named Duane Johnson. I knew him from Brown Institute a couple of years earlier and he may well of been the person who recommended me for the job. Two other people spring to mind although their names escape me. The newsman was one of the nicest (and funniest) guys I met in radio. I was invited a couple of times to his home for dinner and we had great conversations. His main claim to fame was a Jimmy Cagney imitation that not only doubled me over with laughter, but was good enough to add to my own personal repertoire. I'm not talking a cheesy “You dirty rat....you killed my brother”. His imitation involved the final scene from the 1940's World War II movie, Blood on the Sun when Cagney and Sylvia Sidney are in Tokyo, Japan on the night before Pearl Harbor trying to make it to the safety of the United States Embassy. Cagney zig-zags across the deserted square taking bullets from the hidden and evil Japanese, collapsing and scrabbling and crawling the last few feet to safety. It was a good thing, that KLWW had a large lobby, because the newsman would zig-zag from the hallway, across the lobby, taking shots and falling to the floor in a Cagney imitation that was half Blood on the Sun and half Yankee Doodle Dandy. “You dirty rat...I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy.....Yankee Doodle do or diiiiiieeee!”
Sorry, if you aren't the old movie nut I am. God, it was funny.
The other KLWW notable was a Coe College student and weekender/part-timer. There are some people who just make me laugh. He was one of them. He spent his broadcast career in Cedar Rapids and I'm sorry I lost touch.
How quickly the newness and unfamiliarity fades and your new jobs becomes a rut. Sometimes a good rut and sometimes bad. After a little more than a week, I was settled and comfortable working in Cedar Rapids. That was when the PD reminded me to post my 3rd Class License with the others in the engineering room. My 3rd Class FCC License. With endorsement. Yes. Endorsement. Third Class license. FCC. Wait a minute! What FCC 3rd Class License!
I didn't have one.
My first job in Blythe, California was at a 250 watt, non-directional radio station and guess what. The license required to operate it was the size of a Social Security card and you mailed away for it at the post office. I had gotten one, but somewhere in the last 3 years it was lost. At my next radio station, because of our television station, there was always an engineer on duty and I didn't have to be a licensed transmitter operator. As convoluted as My Story is, you may already have read about my First Class License trials and tribulations at WDGY, but those were in the future. In the here and now...or the then and there...I was screwed. Without much thought I said it wasn't a problem. I must have “left” it at home and my mom would mail it straight away. Or...I just had it...now where did it go?...or...I was mugged...or...the dog ate it. You can imagine that my second Monday night in Cedar Rapids was ruined. The next morning I was on the phone trying to find out where and how to acquire (quickly and surreptitiously) an FCC 3rd Class (endorsed) license. I don't even know what the endorsement meant. Maybe I did at one time, but I sure don't now.
The news wasn't good. They gave the test weekly in Kansas City. KANSAS CITY! How about the test they gave on the moon? Or the one on Mars? I had to admit to myself, there wasn't much chance of a quick and surreptitious trip to Kansas City. I was REALLY screwed. It was just by chance that my reprieve was delivered. Somewhere between double fucked at 9am and now-what-the-hell-do-I-do at 6pm, someone (an angel from God) told me they gave the test once a month in Davenport. Oh please! Oh please! God, please! I'll be good!
YES! My Karma was swell. The once-a-month was the next day. Check in time at the Federal Building in Davenport, Iowa...9am. No time to study. No time to do anything but 'quickly and surreptitiously' hustle my ass to Davenport and toss the dice.
How many times would I have to cross the Rubicon? Everything was riding on what happened in the next 24 hours. There were so many questions. Did you need an appointment? Would they let me take the test? Would I pass? I was golden. Not only did I pass, but they gave me (on the spot) a 'temporary' and back in Cedar Rapids that night at 6, I was legal.
I started at KLWW in January of 1966 and by April was nicely into the fabric of the station and Cedar Rapids life. I emceed some dances for a local band that was damn good at imitating the Beatles. The local schools felt I was educated enough to be a judge at their speech meets. On the home front, I'd pulled up the glued-down, orange, shag rug, exposing a beautiful dark hardwood floor. I also made a MAJOR personal decision. I went to Sears and bought a bed. For the first time in my career, I couldn't move my possessions in the back seat of my car. I was also finding the time (and inclination) to visit my family in northern Minnesota regularly. In those days before the proliferation of Interstates, I would leave Thursday night at midnight (after my show). For some inexplicable reason, my day off was Friday. The night-guy is off on Friday? Oh well. I wasn't the PD. My modus operandi involved getting a pizza to eat as I drove a couple of hours to Austin. There, a prearranged motel room beckoned. I slept until 8:30 or 9:00am and then drove the five more hours to home. After less then 24 hours visiting my family, the next morning, I would leave for a one-shot, 8 hour drive, back to Cedar Rapids. In six months, I did this four times. I must have been lonesome.
There was a crazy woman in Cedar Rapids. She'd be in her 60's now! OMG! I think I shall finish writing this and then jump in front of a bus. I called her Archer. She had failed the yellow dress test. This involved talking on the phone to a sexy voice. I'll meet you. Stand at the corner of such and such street and wear a yellow dress (sic). I'll drive by in my red Dodge. ( I drove a tan Pontiac Catalina) If the person in the yellow dress was acceptable...great. If not...no foul, no penalty. In spite of the fact I had passed by The Archer, she was persistent and we became friends. Well, she was great to have around. You could depend on her to drop a pizza by the station when there was a pizza emergency.
During my few months in Iowa, I did more non-radio 'stuff' then at most places I worked. I crammed several visits to the Herbert Hoover Presidential museum. I know, I know. There weren't as many presidential museums waaaay back then. I learned that there were good parties in Ames. I had visitors from Austin and was planning on a visit from my family in July. I had regular differences of opinion with the PD. I coveted the sister TV station, KWWL-TV, in Waterloo.
In June I heard that they were looking for a TV show for afternoons. Hello? Hello? I still had visions of Uncle Rob dancing in my head. I called some people, prepared a presentation, and unfortunately confided in a fellow Cedar Rapids jock. I was pitching Uncle Rob. He was pitching a Waterloo Bandstand. He won.
It had been 7 months since KDAL in Duluth turned down THEIR opportunity to hire Uncle Rob and I felt I owed myself one last try. Perhaps, Mike Douglas wasn't working out. (Ironically, as I type this the TV is noting the death of Mike Douglas...I am not sure I shall mourn) Earl Henton was kind as always and less than a week after writing, he wrote back with a gentle thanks, but, no thanks.
I was angry. I was angry at Blackhawk Broadcasting. I was angry at KWWL and their new “Bandstand”. I was angry at KDAL in Duluth AND Mike Douglas. I was STILL angry at KMMT in Austin. Of course, I was angry at my current situation and especially, I was angry at the PD. The program director, Dave Schneider didn't like anything I did. I was on that slippery slope that begins with a flurry of memos and red-line phone calls. To tell the truth, I didn't like anything Dave Schneider did either. I was desperate to leave Cedar Rapids.
The phone rang. How many times did my story take a giant zig or zag just after “the phone rang”? This was a funny situation. Let me write for a moment about my competition.
KLWW was the local top-forty outlet. In Cedar Rapids there was an old-line traditional station that garnered a big (the biggest) percentage of the audience. Then, there was a station with a bigger signal. They played top-forty. Their format was scattered. They did better than they should have and their night-man was a former KLWW jock and he may have been beating me. Ratings? This was Cedar Rapids, Iowa!
I can't remember the name of that jock, but when the phone rang, they were calling for him. A man named Hugh Johnson was calling from Green Bay, Wisconsin for the night guy at KLWW. Should I have told him he was looking for what was the FORMER KLWW night-guy? Even though I knew almost immediately I wasn't the night-guy he was looking for, I said not a word. I listened as he wondered if I would be interested in a move. Not a peep out of me when he said the tape I had sent (he had sent) sounded pretty good, but could I send an up-dated air-check? I had no shame while verifying that I still had his address (could you give me it again just in case?) and a few details on the station (to refresh my memory).
Before the sun came up the next morning, I had an air-check in hand. It was in the mail (in those days, Special Delivery) before noon. The next night, Hugh Johnson called again.
Busted! He wasn't THAT dumb. He noticed the different voice, different style, different name. He figured it out. In spite of it all, he liked my tape. In fact, he liked me better than the original one. I was hired. The next day I gave my notice. My brother and two nephews came to visit and help me move. Just before leaving town, The Archer delivered a box of car snacks including saltine crackers and peanut butter. Pulling the U-Haul, (I had a bed now), we headed to Green Bay via Chicago. It was the end of June and less than six months after arriving, I was gone.
It was as if I had never been there.
Coming in Chapter Six – Green Bay – Epiphany City