Forgetfulness of things past
I never intended to go into radio. Nevertheless, I racked up some 2,000 broadcasts when I was the Entertainment Critic for CBS’s Boston station, WEEI-FM, from 1977 to 1981, and another couple of hundred for WITS-AM, also in Boston. I fell into it when Clark Smidt, who’d just been made Program Director of WEEI-FM, bumped into me in Harvard Square and asked me if I wanted to be his film critic. It was as simple as that. (Clark also invented the highly successful Softrock music format for which he has never been given credit or residuals; thank you, CBS). I’ve written about my adventures in radio in Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back ()www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/search&search=screen%20saver%20too
But here is the first time I’ve written about what radio meant to me. It wasn’t about the music. I didn’t care about rock ‘n’ roll (I was whelped on Patti Page). It was about the talk.
As a toddler living in Washington, DC -- I was blessed that we didn’t have TV until I was six -- I would listen to whatever my stay-at-home mother had on the radio. In the mornings, doing her chores, it was the venerable Eddie Gallaher on WTOP-AM (no FM in those days). Everybody listened to Eddie Gallaher, so much so that when my Aunt Helen got him to dedicate a song to me on my fourth birthday, my mother got phone calls all day from friends who’d heard it. His show was followed by “Arthur Godfrey Time” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party” on “many of these same CBS radio network stations.”
By the time I was in high school in the early 60s we had moved to nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, which was then the nation’s largest unincorporated city (100,000 people and nobody talking out the garbage). I had plenty of school friends, but they were daytime friends. At night I had the radio. Correction: I had a crystal radio, a little plastic Remco number the size of a pack of cigarettes with a pull-out antenna that would break the first time you used it, and you listened on a single earphone the size of a hockey puck because transistors hadn’t yet made it to the toy market and transistor radios were bulky and expensive. Cristal sets worked on their own power. You could make one in Cub Scouts by winding .22 gauge copper wire around a toilet paper tube and finding a 1N34A crystal diode (if memory and research serve) that would rub against it to make a tuner.
Am I going too fast for you?
My crystal set was freedom. Sure, it only picked up one or two stations, but I could slip the earphone under my pillow and my parents would never know I was listening all night in bed. These were the early days of talk shows and the one I listened to with perverse fascination was Steve Allison, “The man who owns midnight” on WWDC-AM. Allison operated out of a restaurant -- one source says it was the Black Saddle Steak House but I recall it was Blackie’s House of Beef -- and interviewed politicians, celebrities, and others of interest who came through the Nation’s Capitol. He also took phone calls, except you only heard his side, so half the time he would summarize what the caller had just said, such as, “You say your neighbor burns leaves” or “Why don’t you think Kennedy is doing his job?” The other half of the time he was fielding insults with, “You’re an idiot” or “same to you.” Allison had come to WWDC after stints in Boston and Philadelphia where it was said that he was chased out of town on a morals charge involving an under-age girl.
Allison was a political reactionary but vastly entertaining. He blazed a trail for Joe Pyne, Wally George, Morton Downey, Jr., Jerry Springer and all the other pre-Rush Limbaugh radio and TV talkmasters who killed polite discourse on the airwaves.
Once I got my fill of Allison, my crystal radio and I sought other bedtime companions. In this, the ionosphere became my friend. We remember, from geometry, that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Because radio waves bounce off the electronically charged upper layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere (“ions” being charged particles), I discovered that I could pick up Boston radio station WBZ-AM, some 450 miles from my Silver Spring, Maryland bedroom. This fascinated me. Starting around 10 at night, depending on the weather, I could hear ‘BZ as clearly as any station in the Washington market.
My high school friend and radio mentor Chris Telladira (air name: Chris Michaels), who worked on suburban Maryland station WINX (with Larry Cooley as head DJ), told me about a talented Boston announcer named Dick Summer who, fortunately, was on WBZ, 103-AM, a 50,000-watt clear channel station. This meant that his signal was powerful enough to bounce off the ionosphere and not interfere with any lesser stations of nearby frequency.
Summer had a soft, seductive voice and a manner that was so easy he sounded like you were at a friend’s house and he was putting on records. In that regard, he was a forerunner of FM radio programming. He read letters from listeners (from girls especially) and wrote poetry (for girls especially). He supposedly had a pet Venus fly trap named Audrey. But mostly he worked the radio medium as a one-to-one communication system.
There were other people who used radio as Summer did, and some of them became nationally known: Jean Shepard (a forerunner to Garrison Keiller on WOR in New York), Chicago’s Ken Nordine (the Word Jazz innovator) and, more recently in Los Angeles, Joe Frank “In the Dark.” But for me, it was Dick Summer who led the way, talking into my ear, making me wait for the announces rather than the songs he played.
When I became a movie publicist in Boston in the early 1970s, I briefly connected with Dick. He didn’t do interviews so we never brought him celebrities or hung out, but I had the pleasure of meeting one of my heroes. Then time passed. When I became a journalist instead of a press agent, I even worked for WBZ, but by then Dick had moved on.
Now I live in LA, and the past is well and truly in the past. But not always. A couple of months ago a colleague back in Massachusetts, Hartley Pleshaw, who has a show on WCAP-980 AM in Lowell, mentioned that they ran Dick Summer’s podcast, and we got to talking about him. Hartley re-connected me with Dick who was gracious enough to pretend to remember me. I told him how much he and his work had meant when I was a kid -- I tried not to jam the obvious age difference down his throat -- and we struck up an e-mail correspondence. He is still doing commercials and recordings and sounds as great as ever. I told him that was about to skewer our mutual ex-employer, WBZ, in my forthcoming book (here it is on Amazon in case you missed the Bear Manner link above: https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Saver-Too-Hollywood-Strikes/dp/1629331996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1516728947&sr=1-1&keywords=screen+saver+too%3A+hollywood+strikes+back) and I sent him a copy.
He returned the favor with a CD he’d made called “Bedtime Stories.” Here’s a sample and it bears listening to for the same reason you’ve just read this far in my blog: https://www.dicksummer.com/mp3/Bedtime%20Stories%20-%20Nothing%20Happened.mp3
Dick is both a visionary (make that “audiary”) and a traditionalist. He is an unabashed romantic about the woman in his life, and if he sounds out of step with political correctness -- he calls her “my Lady Wonder Wench” -- I will stay that he is always respectful and attentive.
I remain fond of hearing people who use radio as intimately as Dick Summer. No, I don’t like Ira Glass (over-produced) or David Sedaris (too precious). I prefer the fantasy of almost accidentally picking up the signal of a lone guy who’s stuck in a radio station doing the all-night shift with nobody calling in, so he free-forms with records and talks about whatever is on his mind.
That kind of radio is long gone. It’s been replaced by blogs. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to miss it.
By the way: https://www.dicksummer.com/
I seldom remember where I see films, only the films themselves. This has as much to do with the bland multiplex theatres where they’re now shown as with the increasingly generic nature of the mainstream movies that now mostly get made. They say that, once the lights go down, the film takes over from the surroundings, but that’s not true, not with the disruptive presence of texting, iPhones, noisy candy wrappers, food smells, and subhuman audiences talking to each other and at the screen.
My friend David Kleiler, who has taught film and run theatres, is different. He can remember, for practically everything he has ever seen, where he was sitting, what he ate beforehand, and whom he saw each film with. That said, certain of my filmgoing experiences do linger in my mind as freshly as my fondness for the movies connected with them. I can’t explain why, but they do. Understandably, some were part of my formative years. Others involve an ineffable combination of time, place, and content.
When I was a film critic in Boston from the early 1970s to the early 1990s -- arguably a period that saw American movies surge and then suffocate -- I saw thousands of films, mostly in the company of colleagues. We were a convivial bunch. If one of us had to leave a screening to go to the bathroom, when he returned, he’d routinely ask, “What did I miss?” and, out of the darkness, twelve of us would answer, “the car chase.” This disrespect drove the publicists crazy but it always brought a big laugh, especially if the movie being screened was some austere foreign film.
Time and place were more important to me when I was young. As a kid attending regular shows at the Langley Theatre in Langley Park, Maryland, I loved sitting close to the screen. The projectionist had the habit of starting the show with the house lights up, then lowering them at the same time he parted the auditorium’s heavy red curtains. Each show began with a newsreel and I remember jumping when its theme music blasted out from behind them.
It was at that same theatre that I bored my way through the 1964 general release edit of Cleopatra (1963) I was 16 at the time and had heard so much about it that I felt I ought to see it. The story made no sense -- it wouldn’t until decades later when it was restored to its full 192-minute length -- and I spent half its running time in the back of the house sipping an orange soda (you couldn’t bring drinks to your seat in those days or the usher would brain you with his chrome flashlight), stalwart to the end.
I fared no better with Lawrence of Arabia which I caught, not on its initial roadshow release, but in a last-ditch summer run at a drive-in theatre on Cape Cod where my parents and my oldest-friend-in-the-world Andy Hoy were vacationing. At some point the fog rolled in and we watched Peter O‘Toole lead the Arab revolt through a misty windshield. We probably left early and I didn’t revisit the film until the 1970s when it showed up in Boston’s revival houses in a 35mm Technicolor print that had scenes cut from the pan-and-scan TV versions then in circulation. As many times as I’ve seen it restored in 70mm splendor, I miss hearing the fog horns
Memories of other screenings click through my mind like a random slide-changer:
Opening night of Cabaret in 1972 where the audience applauded the musical numbers. It was just a normal showing, but we felt compelled to show our approval.
Watching Enter the Dragon (1973) from the closed-off balcony of the Savoy Theatre in Boston during lunch hour with the equally young theatre staff, eating sandwiches and passing joints. When Enter the Dragon closed and Magnum Force opened, it was even better. Heh heh.
Seeing the 1967 reissue of Gone with the Wind at the Apex Theatre in Washington, DC. This was the version that MGM decided to “modernize” by cropping the top and bottom of the image to make it widescreen stereo. Instead, it looked and sounded awful and it took me (and Ted Turner) years before the original version was restored.
Being awed by 2001: A Space Odyssey opening week in 1968 in Cinerama before Kubrick made his cuts. I saw it straight and sober and remember the curtains opening and opening and opening and suddenly we were in deep space. I was mesmerized by it. Still am.
Speaking of Cinerama, my first three-camera Cinerama experience was Cinerama Holiday in 1955 at Washington, DC’s Warner Theatre. The film was unmemorable but the process was captivating. The Cinerama shows that I recall -- all of them at Washington, DC’s Cinerama-equipped Uptown Theatre -- were How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Magnificent. Distorted, overblown, and staid, but the experience was unequaled.
I also took in Doctor Zhivago at the post-Cinerama Warner with my Aunt Helen. It was our favorite movie together. When she was sick in bed toward the end of her life, I gave her a VHS copy. Every time I watch it now, I think of her, and I watch it a lot.
Sometimes the movie transcends the setting. The picture I cite for this phenomenon is Mad Max which I watched practically alone in the decrepit Pi Alley Theatre near Government Center in Boston. Its distributor, American International Pictures, for whom I had once worked, had just been sold, and Mad Max was orphaned with scant advertising and no publicity. I wasn’t expecting much from an AIP motorcycle picture but, within ten minutes, I knew I was seeing something remarkable. I’m not saying that I discovered Mad Max, Mel Gibson, or director George Miller. They discovered me. But it was one of those moments you pray for in a screening where ones expectations go from zero to sixty and keep rising.
Another epiphany was seeing Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan prior to interviewing the filmmakers on a United Artists press junket. We had been told that editor/sound designer Walter Murch had personally set up the theatre. The effect was physically and emotionally overwhelming. so much so that it wasn’t until halfway through the press conference the next day that someone was able to tell Francis Ford Coppola was a masterpiece it was.
On the other hand, the Boston press screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was physically painful because the sound levels were set so high it was hard to think, let alone enjoy, the master’s work. When several of us complained, we were told flatly that that was how Mr. Kubrick wanted it. The next day Warner Bros. sent an apology; they had misread Kubrick’s instructions.
Those were public screenings, Trade screenings are different. They used to be where exhibitors got an early look at an upcoming film to help them decide what deal they would offer the distributor for the right to show it. They don’t really exist any more because film companies and theatre chains are so interlocked, but when I was starting in the business they were de rigueur -- and noisy. Looking to knock the price down, exhibitors would rank on the film worse than Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Two stand out for me. One was Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend where several bookers locked arms and tap-danced out of the screening room as the picture ended (probably to lower their bids). The killer, though, was a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s uncut Straw Dogs before the censors got to it. It was intense beyond belief but the intensity was undercut by several exhibitors discussing, quite loudly, where they were going to have lunch as soon as the movie was over and what they would like to do to Susan George in the movie. I’m not a big Peckinpah fan, but if he had been there he probably would have shot the men who made those comments and I would have testified in his behalf. Susan George probably would have, too.
In December 1970 I was an assistant publicist at a special pre-release screening of Love Story at the Circle Cinema in Brookline, Massachusetts hosted by producer Robert Evans and theatre owner Sumner Redstone. It was a private showing for the Harvard students and faculty who had appeared in the movie as extras. Evans had just taken over the Vice Presidency of Paramount and word was that his low-budget production would save the studio, which was wallowing in the failure of several huge-budget pictures. In their welcoming remarks Redstone, a few years away from owning Paramount, expertly jawboned Evans into giving him the studio’s upcoming release of Plaza Suite, a tactic that Evans finessed with charm and skill. Then the lights went down and the picture rolled -- except the lights didn’t go down -- the theatre kept blue lights on the screen framing the picture. This triggered an outburst from Evans, who ran around the lobby screaming, “Get those lights down! You’re ruining my movie!” Finally they went down, and so did Evans. The Harvard audiences ate it up. Remarked one attendee after it was over, “this is the only screening I’ve been to where they applauded the buildings.” Needless to say, the $2.1 million Love Story was the first modern blockbuster grossing over $100 million.
As I think back while writing this blog, one movie experience leads me to another. And then they stop. The wonder is gone. At first my mind was awash with moments at the grand Savoy and grander Music Hall in Boston, the Warner in Washington, DC., the classic Fulton in Pittsburgh, the Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, and a handful of other survivors. The films I saw in those palaces are forever joined in my memory with the grandeur of the theatres themselves. For me, going to “the movies” used to be a total experience. Now it’s a chore, and I seldom go. Nine years of monitoring audiences (four in college theatres, five in PR) and another sixteen as a critic, then twenty more as a producer have sadly made me immune to being impressed.
At first I hesitated to re-watch on video the movies that had first impressed me. Then I discovered that they possessed the power to draw me back to when I first made their acquaintance regardless of the medium. They are a testament to the showmanship that has practically vanished from today’s business of show. I would still rather watch Lawrence of Arabia in the fog than on a two-inch iPhone screen. But maybe that’s just me.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2018 Nat Segaloff