Saturday, August 20, 2011
Excerpt from the Book: "Other Days" (Published Soon)
by Lee Alan
As a boy growing up in Detroit I was addicted to music, any kind of music. I was part of anything that was music at Cooley High School, singing with other high school people from all over Detroit every Saturday on “Make Way For Youth” a half hour show on CBS radio. At home, although most time wanting to be outside playing baseball or something, I was taking piano lessons and practicing at least a half hour a day. Music meant a lot to me and was a window to new adventures. Still is. And I loved musicals. Movie musicals.
One of them that kept coming back into the theaters was The Jolson Story and its sequel, Jolson Sings Again. They were the semi true stories revolving around the life of Al Jolson, arguably the greatest singing showman and entertainer of the first half of the 20th century maybe of all time. He had a stage presence and a rich voice like none other before or since.
Recently I watched Britain’s Got Talent; a TV show in England and like everyone else was floored when 47 year old Susan Boyle appeared in uncombed hair and a wrinkled dress saying she wanted to be a professional singer. You know the story. The judges and everyone in the audience laughed at her, rolled their eyes, and dismissed her as a mental case. Until she started to sing! Within a few notes everything changed. That voice! Like none other. At this writing more than 25 million people have viewed and listened on the Internet.
Only a few in musical history have been able to stun an audience like that. Al Jolson was one of them. He was the king of entertainers and the toast of Broadway. When he insisted that the Wintergarden Theater sacrifice a hundred seats and replace them with a runway from the stage out into the audience they branded him as nuts! His reason? He wanted to get closer to the audience. He wanted to see their faces. Touch them. Sing to them. He loved them and they loved him. I can understand that. In my own small way I have always felt love from an audience. Because all the other entertainers on Broadway were working their shows during the week they rarely had a chance to see Jolson. So typical of Al, he invited them all to the Wintergarden on Sunday nights when they were off. And they all came, the famous and, not so famous. And Jolson sang to them. Nothing else, no other acts, just Jolson singing on Sunday nights, and using the runway to get closer. House lights up to see their faces.
I must have seen The Jolson Story and the sequel a hundred times back then. Even today I watch them over and over whenever they find their way to cable TV or the Internet. Jolson sang in those movies, but when they were made he was already in his 60s and there was no way he could play a young Jolson on screen. So Larry parks, a young actor played the part, lip synching to Jolson’s singing.
There was one scene in the original movie where Jolson actually appeared as himself. It was the Wintergarden Theater. On that runway. Find it. Look closely. A long camera shot shows the real Jolson dancing, whistling, and singing “Toot Toot Tootsie”. Far enough away you can’t see his aging features. The voice was there though in both the movies. And what a voice it was.
I will never forget that voice. Never.
Many years later in 1959 as a very young radio personality on WJBK Radio in Detroit, Michigan I was doing the all night show. There was an emerging new singer by the name of Norman Brooks. The station had been playing some of his music on the air. He had a hit song. “Hello Sunshine, Goodbye Rain”. Actually Norman had a few hit songs and was well known on the night club circuit and some of the main rooms in Las Vegas.
His voice was a total clone of Al Jolson!
As I said, Jolson was a favorite of mine. I knew a lot about him and his career. And so naturally I was a huge fan of Norman Brooks.
A time came when Norman was performing at the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario a magnificent nightclub just across the river from Detroit. I knew his music, was amazed at his delivery, and so made arrangements for him to come to the studio after one of his late night performances for a live interview. I found him to be a delightful person. As we spoke that night I played a lot of his music on the air.
I asked him: "Norman, you have a terrific voice. You don't speak like Jolson (Jolson had a sort of drawling almost southern accent and Norman had a slight French Canadian accent) why is it that you always imitate Jolson when you sing?" I have never forgotten his answer.
He said: “Well Lee, fact is I don’t always do Jolson. You have never seen me perform in person. My records sound like him, but I do a lot more on the live stage." When the interview ended. We shook hands and he left.
I wouldn’t see him again for nearly 20 years.
I was in the advertising business then. Tom Navin, one of the sales people who worked for me met with Jack Douglas, an auto dealer in Chicago to sell him on our company and one of our creative campaigns for radio. Jack didn't want anything we had, but said he'd listen to any new ideas we might come up with. Tom showed me the the dealer's newspaper ad with a picture of the dealership. It was a beautiful building and out of place for Chicago. The caption below the picture said:
“THE SHOWPLACE FOR CHEVROLET. “
It gave me an idea.
What happened next would become a new chapter in my life.
After seeing the SHOWPLACE caption to that picture I thought of Al Jolson. What if Jolson could sing a commercial jingle about The Showplace for Chevrolet? Well, Jolson was not among the living. He died in 1950 so that was impossible.
Or was it?
Even though I hadn't seen or heard much about Norman Brooks in nearly 20 years his name came to mind.
I went into my studio and created a 5 minute tape with parts of 7 songs edited together, one after another. Two of them were Jolson. The other five were Norman Brooks!
I went to Chicago and met with the management team of Jack Douglas Chevrolet. There were 9 of them in the room. I asked them this specific question:
“WHO WAS THE GREATEST SINGING SHOWMAN OF ALL TIME?”
One said Sinatra. Two others said Elvis. The remaining 6 said Al Jolson. I then told them that I wanted to remind them of how Jolson sounded and I played the tape. They all enjoyed it, sang with it, and clapped their hands. One guy even got down on his knees like Jolson did when he sang his “Mammy” songs, etc. When it was over I said that I had forgotten to tell them that of the 7 songs they just heard; only two were Jolson. The other five were another voice.
They were astonished, didn’t believe me, and wanted to hear it again. I rolled the tape. Even then they were unable to identify the correct voices.
I told them my story about Norman Brooks some 20 years earlier and made a proposal to write a piece of commercial music entitled THE SHOWPLACE FOR CHEVROLET and do my best to find Norman Brooks to sing it, just like Al Jolson. It would be their commercial in Chicago. Al Jolson singing on the radio advertising their dealership!! They were excited, agreed and bought the concept, providing I could find Norman Brooks and also that he could still sing.
The search was on. It took me three months to find Norman.
He had disappeared. This was 1979. His hit records were a thing of the past and there was no sign of him anywhere. I thought possibly he had died.
I called every entertainment venue and talent agent available in the US. No one knew where we could find him. Some never heard of him. Then I remembered our original interview back in 1959 when Norman told me he was from Canada. I remembered that accent. For some reason I started calling talent and booking agencies in Toronto. Finally an old lady at one of them told me I should call someone in Montreal. I did. I found him.
We talked on the phone for the longest time. He didn't remember me; but it made no difference. He was down on his luck. Like so many of us his big time career was over or at least on hold. I told him of the Chicago project and proposed that he meet me in Memphis, Tennessee to produce the music and that I wanted him to sing it. We made the financial agreement right there on the phone.
I wrote the music, contacted my friends Garry Wells and Pete Pederson in Memphis, Jack Douglas at the dealership in Chicago and we set the date. Jack insisted on coming for the session and bringing his management team as well. They were curious and wanted to make sure of what I was telling them about Norman and his voice. Frankly I think they were a little suspect.
When I arrived in Memphis a week or so later I cornered Garry Wells my old friend and creative director of the William B. Tanner Company where I had been producing my music for many years.
Garry had been a singer in his earlier years, touring with bands, and recording music. His rich baritone voice was like new crystal. His range was like few others I have heard. He was the singer on possibly a hundred of the musical pieces that I produced there in Memphis; a man of great creative ability, empathy, and feeling for friends and people, and totally understood what I was trying to accomplish with Norman. We were trying to take advantage of nostalgia, memories, and a unique voice.
Garry Wells had a carved wooden plaque on his desk. It read:
“Capture their hearts……….and their minds will follow”
I have never forgotten that creative principle. I believe it to this day. Whatever the day is that you are reading this, even if I am long absent from the earth I still believe it.
Garry and I went over everything with Pete Pedersen the arranger. Pete might possibly have been the finest arranger and harmonica player ever. His musical background included, among other things, playing and arranging for Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats and the biggest harmonica hit of all time, “Peg O My Heart”. Pete was another of those geniuses that God has allowed me to know and learn from.
The instrumental session started about 7PM. Jack Douglas and his management team were there with us…..watching. Listening. And I must say, skeptical. The orchestrations were always produced before the singer did anything. First the rhythm instruments, then horns, strings etc. It took a few hours for us to build the band tracks. A limo was sent to the airport to pick up Norman. He arrived at the studio about 11PM, met everyone, listened to the tracks and we all went to dinner. Memphis Bar B Que. Best in the world. He was scheduled to sing the next morning.
Conversation among the musicians, producers, clients and us was cordial. It was just dinner. All were anticipating.
So many were there who would become valued friends. Musical geniuses all. Dee Barton performer drummer and trombone player for the Stan Kenton organization among them.
The next morning was something I shall never forget. The studio control room was huge and through a massive glass window looked a full story down into the music studio. I went into the control room with engineers and clients. Garry, Pete and Norman were down in the studio at the piano learning the song. The mikes were not on. We couldn’t hear what they were doing. Mouths moving, but no sound for us.
At one point the control room engineer turned the studio mike on and everyone could hear chords on the piano and Norman just sort of humming the melody and now and then trying the words; but softly, almost in a falsetto.
Jack Douglas and his guys were shocked. They thought what they were hearing was his real voice. They looked at me and said: "What is this? This guy can't even sing, let alone sound like you promised." I told them to relax. They were not happy. I knew what Norman had done in the past, but I must say after all these years even I was wondering.
A few minutes later the engineer rolled the tape with the full band track on the wall; meaning that it was playing through the speakers down in the studio so Norman could hear it. Now he was singing with the full instrumental track; but the mike was still off and we couldn’t hear him, just the orchestration.
After a few minutes Gary and Pete, still down in the studio were happy, climbed the stairs to the control room and told Norman through the talk-back that we were ready to try to record if he was. Standing in front of the mike and a music stand with earphones on he said he was ok and let's go.
In those days the Tanner Company, where this all took place, produced thousands of commercial jingles and music scores every year. They were never really excited about what was happening in the studios. It was old hat. Everyday same stuff. This morning was different. About a hundred people left their desks and offices and crammed into the control room. They all wanted to hear what would happen when Norman Brooks opened his mouth.
The engineer rolled the tape. The band track boomed from the speakers in the control room and Norman was on. Was he ever!
Like what I saw recently on television when Susan Boyle sang, jaws dropped. People turned white, laughed, gasped. All in disbelief. Jack Douglas and his people were in a state of shock. Norman Books was singing. He was at his very best. His voice was better than those old recordings I had played in Chicago. Deeper. Richer. And for the next 45 minutes or so it was more than anyone could have expected ....except for me. For the next 45 minutes Norman Brooks became Al Jolson. I knew what Norman could do all along.
When the recording session was over a few of us went to dinner. We spoke of many things. Careers. Music. Dreams for the future. The usual as I remember. And then it all turned to Norman. That's when I began learning about Norman Brooks, his life, and the path it had taken. Norman told us stories of his career and at its peak how he had even appeared in “Ocean’s Eleven”, the movie with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. We all looked at each other. No one believed him; not even yours truly.
Soon the subject of Jolson was the focus. I learned then how, although he was happy for the Jolson connection, in his heart he really just wanted to be himself. Earlier in the studio Norman became Jolson on the mike only. Not in appearance or with his movements. The physical excitement was not there. But the voice, the voice was there…. not the man.
There in that small restaurant he talked about Al Jolson. He started explaining to us how when George Gershwin wrote the song Swanee, he introduced it at a large outdoor party of a hundred or more people. As Norman told us about this he rose from the table where we sat in that restaurant and sort of backed up until he was on a small dance floor directly front of us, all the time talking and explaining about the song, his voice getting louder as he increased his distance.
As he spoke he seemed to change. Oh he was Norman alright but his spoken voice sparkled and his facial expressions became pronounced. His arms expressing thoughts. He was telling us that when George Gershwin introduced the song Swanee for the first time to the audience at the party he was playing the piano and singing it slowly with no meter or beat. He was singing it as a slow ballad.
Then at that point in the story Norman Brooks actually became Jolson before our very eyes. He looked like him, spoke like him. Moved and gestured like him.
He told us that Al Jolson was in the crowd at that party and when he heard the song he got up from his table, interrupted Gershwin loudly from the back of the crowd yelling something like:
"George.............George that's a great song. I know you wrote it and all that but you need to put some life in it.....you need to give it some rhythm....here George let me show you." Norman was gesturing and speaking exactly as if here were Jolson. Accent and all. We were all floored by this. He was Jolson. For the next few moments he was no longer Norman Brooks.
He was Al Jolson.
At that point, Norman said Jolson went through the crowd, grabbed the sheet music Gershwin had at the piano and started singing Swanee with great panache, a strong up tempo rhythm , and Gershwin soon followed accompanying him on the piano.
While he was telling us this story, as if he was actually Jolson, Norman raced across the dance floor in that little Memphis restaurant he was talking and motioning to an unseen Gershwin, acting out every word and then singing just as he told us Jolson had done. There was an old piano on that dance floor. Hearing all this...someone from the restaurant left his table, went to the piano, and played as Norman Brooks gave one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen. All for the few of us. Others in that restaurant were totally blown away and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.
When he was finished there was a silence in the room. The restaurant crowd didn't know what to do. Without warning they had just seen and heard something never before seen and never to be duplicated. We were all stunned.
Then as Al Jolson became Norman Brooks again, smiling and returning to our table there was thunderous cheering and applause. At least as much thunder as a small crowd can produce.
Norman left the next morning after our dinner and his amazing performance. I stayed another day to mix all the parts of the music we recorded and returned to Michigan on the red eye the next evening arriving home about 1AM. I turned on the television, fell asleep and suddenly woke up about 4 o'clock in the morning. The TV was still on and there, unbelievably in front of my eyes, was Norman Brooks on the screen singing. It was a movie. It was Oceans’ Eleven; and there he was just as he told us.
There’s a classic picture of Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and maybe others in Las Vegas standing in front of the Sands Hotel marquee. If you look past the photo at the sign you can make out the name in huge letters:
Jack Douglas Chevrolet, the Chicago client was happy with the music. It stayed on the air in Chicago for about a year.
A few weeks after we produced it I was addressing a seminar of auto dealers in St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I played them a number of things including The Showplace for Chevrolet. They too were stunned and 6 of them invited me to visit them at their dealerships in various parts of the country. Meanwhile back in the Detroit, Michigan market I took the music to a friend who also owned a large Dodge Dealership. I asked him for advice. What should I do with this? He said "I want you to produce that for me". And that's how it all started.
I re-wrote lyrics for the same instrumental track for 6 dealerships, called Norman, and met him again in Memphis where he, Garry Wells, and I recorded six more of the same tracks each with new lyrics. We repeated this a few times over the next few months until we were in about 25 cities. Same commercial music, different dealers and lyrics. Norman Brooks was singing again and very popular with our clients. He and Garry became great friends. There was some talk of producing an album with Norman singing the songs Jolson would have sung had he still been alive. We all met at my house one day, Norman, Garry, Pete and I. We gathered around my beloved grand piano and worked at it. It never happened.
Years later I lost that piano; but that’s another story.
Needless to say Norman and I became close friends, frequently calling each other and sometimes just talking as friends do. During one of those phone calls I said to him: "Norman, I have a personal favor to ask."
He listened as I explained that in a few months my mother and father would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and how I was planning to have a large surprise party for them at my home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. I went on to remind him that in the Jolson Story movie, when his parents celebrated their anniversary Jolson sang to them. He sang The Anniversary Song.
Remember the song? "Oh how we danced on the night we were wed..... "
I asked Norman if he would honor me and my parents, come to my home, perform at the party, and sing that same wonderful song to my mother and father.
Without hesitation he said: "Lee that's easy. The answer is yes".
The months passed. We recorded with him a few more times and then the big day arrived.
There was excitement and hope in Detroit that year in 1980; especially at our house. Mom and Dad were about to get the surprise of their lives. All of their friends and ours were invited. I drove to Canada to bring Evelyn Saunders one of their best friends they hadn’t seen in many years to the party. Dad was born in Dutton Ontario Canada and grew up with Eugene Saunders, the son of the family that owned the lumber mill there. They were schoolmates, athletes together and lifelong friends. Eugene had passed away; Dutton was a town of only about 1,000 people. My grandfather was the town blacksmith, but that’s another story too. Evelyn came to the party. I can still see her excitement when I picked her up in Dutton.
1980 was an election year. Jimmy Carter wasn’t doing too well and there were fierce political battles taking place throughout the land. The prime interest rate was nearly 20 percent. Hostages were being held in Iran. And at the same time our Golden Wedding Anniversary party was to take place, the Republican National Convention was about to open in Detroit.
I contacted the Governor’s office in Michigan, the President’s office at the White House, and the Republicans, and asked them for a letter of congratulations on Mom & Dads 50th.
The letters came. The Governor and President Carter’s letter bore signatures that were stamped. Ronald Reagan, the about to be nominee for President and who was in Detroit for the Republican convention, signed his personally.
I hired my old and dear friend Nate Rondell to gather a little band of musicians to play for the event. Nate was the finest Hammond organ player and keyboard player I have ever known. I met him when he was working in a music store and I was in the market for a Hammond organ. After I heard him play I was sold! I bought the organ and still have it to this day. Nate and I stayed in touch and I started hiring him to play at various functions. He played for me at so many venues I could never count them all including other parties at my home. His personality and smile were riveting and infectious. I can still see him at the organ in front of eight thousand people at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum mesmerizing audiences at the annual Outdoorama Sport Show that I emceed for nearly 12 years.
Dad loved Dixieland music and Nate’s little band would play for the event.
I don’t remember now the names of all who were there to honor my parents, but there had to be one or two hundred.
The morning of the big day I drove to the airport to pick up Norman Brooks. Norman fulfilled his promise. He came to Detroit. As we drove back to my home in West Bloomfield, Michigan I realized that he had no suitcase; just a large briefcase. I was a bit worried. He was dressed in jeans and a comfortable, but rumpled shirt. No suitcase!
What was he planning on wearing to sing? The thought went away.
Too much to do, too little time.
The rest of the preparation that day is a blur to me now. As far as I know there are no movies or even pictures of the event. At least I don’t have them. So here is what I remember.
The house was frantic. My wife and her friends had made all the preparations. Nate Rondell and his little Dixie band arrived and set up in our attached garage. People were pulling up to the house; valets were parking their cars a block away so it wouldn’t look like anything was going on at our house. I took off to pick up Mom and Dad who thought they were just coming over for dinner or something.
When we drove up to the house there was no sign of what was about to take place. I opened the front door, Mom and Dad walked in and before them were a hundred or more people.
Surprise! Surprise! Shock! Laughter! Hugging!
And back in the garage a little Dixie band was playing. A moment in time and a day never to be forgotten by anyone who was there.
After all the greetings were over I looked around for Mom and Dad. Couldn’t find them. When I finally made my way to the garage there they were. Dixieland music playing and Mom and Dad holding each other and dancing. Cutting a rug as they use to say (even though there was no rug in the garage!). I shall never forget the look on Dad’s face. Mom’s too.
Like most of us they had come through very tough times. Mom’s terrible accident when she rolled off Dad’s speedboat years before all but killing her. Dad’s stroke ending his career as president of his own company and his depression that followed. Their personal conflicts with each other that somehow were resolved allowing them to get to this day, still together and celebrating. 50 years. Still married.
Well, to say the least there was hilarity in the hall that day. The people, food, music, gifts and so many friends.
But now the time had come for the big surprise!
After a good deal of rounding up we finally were able to get everyone outside and seated for what was about to happen. We had a wonderful yard with a pool and patio. There were two door walls leading from the house to the outside patio which was partially covered. Mom and Dad were seated in the front of all of their friends. As I started my presentation I realized that I hadn’t seen Norman Brooks since we returned from the airport.
Anyway as usual my words ran too long. Gifts were given and opened, the letters from the Governor, the President, and Reagan were presented to them.
Garry wells, my long time friend and producer from Memphis who helped me record all the Norman Brooks music was there with his Dad. Garry sang and thrilled everyone. He sang Danny Boy. There were tears.
It was then I started into my story telling them all about Al Jolson. The Chicago trip, The Jolson Story, the Memphis experience and finding the extraordinary Norman Brooks.
Rain was threatening and the little band was now set up under the patio overhang. Finally to great applause I introduced:
I shall never forget what I saw next. As I spoke his name I turned around hoping he was there. The door wall opened and out stepped Norman in the most immaculate, perfect, tuxedo I had ever seen. Was it in that little briefcase all the time? I will never know.
But there he was! The band was playing and Norman was dancing some steps and singing. Whistling as just as Jolson did on that runway at the Wintergarden.
Except it wasn’t Norman Brooks.
It was Al Jolson!
He sang, told his jokes. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” he said.
"Yesterday I heard a lover sigh, Good-bye, oh me oh my.
Seven times he got aboard his train
And seven times he hurried back to kiss his love again and tell her
Toot-toot Tootsie, goodbye.
Toot Toot Tootsie, don't cry. That choo-choo train that takes me
Away from you, no words can tell how sad it makes me.
Kiss me tooty and then do it over again.
Watch for the mail I'll never fail.
If you don't get a letter then you'll know I'm in jail.
Toot-toot Tootsie, good-bye. Toot-toot Tootsie, good-bye!"
Everyone was stunned, jaw dropping thrilled! He sang a dozen more.
It was then my dream for this day was fulfilled.
Jolson (Norman) looked right at Mom and Dad, spoke so kindly to them and then, getting down on one knee, sang only and directly to them. The Anniversary Song. Just as Jolson did on the movie ……
“Oh how we danced on the night we were wed
We vowed our true love though a word wasn’t said
The world was in bloom, there were stars in the skies
Except for the few that were there in your eyes
Dear as I held you so close in my arms
Angels were singing hymns to your charms
Two hearts gently beating, murmuring low
My Darling I love you so
The night seemed to fade into blossoming dawn
The sun shown anew, but the dance lingered on
Could we but recall that sweet moment sublime
We’d find that our love is unaltered by time"
As Norman neared the end of the song Mom and Dad joined hands, got up from their seats and danced as the music played and Norman sang.
It was raining now ever so slightly, but they were dancing now and were in their own world. A world without rain.
For a few moments they were young again. Aware only of each other.
Perfect. Just perfect.
I remember nothing of the rest of the day, but I will always have a picture in my mind of the sheer joy on Mom & Dad’s faces and the best of memories for all time. Of them.
Just after that priceless moment Mom hugged me, tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you.
No one ever had a party for me before.”
A few years later Pete died after a long illness. I believe that Pete was the greatest Harmonica player in the world.
Norman and I recorded a few more of those commercials and then I lost track of him.
Years passed. We spoke one last time on the phone in the early 90s.
Norman died at age 78 on September 14, 2006. I didn’t know he was ill.
Four and a half years after that marvelous surprise party on March 3, 1985,
Dad passed away.
Only 48 days later on April 17 we lost Mom.
Through good times Mom and Dad kept their vows. No matter what, they kept their vows. I will always remember. They stayed together.
They had been married 54 years.
I know I shall see them again in heaven.
May God bless them.
And may God bless my late friends Garry Wells, Pete Pedersen and especially Norman Brooks for his generosity, the precious memory, and the joy when finally there was a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration for Mom and Dad.
When Norman Brooks brought Al Jolson to the party.
To hear the late Norman Brooks & "The Showplace for Chevrolet"
Garry Wells & a Jingle
Watch Pete Pedersen "The Worlds Greatest Chromatic Harmonica Player"
Go Here: www.leealancreative.com/blog
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Excerpt from the book:
"Other Days"(Published soon)
by Lee Alan
Latest Book "Turn Your Radio On"
I once asked a little girl, which she liked better, radio or television. “Radio” she replied. “I like the pictures on radio better”.
She liked the pictures on radio. What did she mean?
As a boy I could sit by the radio and get lost in the programs. Yes they were programs. Whole stories. Nobody ever heard of disc jockeys in those days. DJs were at least ten years away. Radio was wonderful. It was filled with adventure, comedy, drama, heroes, and suspense. I would listen and imagine. The action, voices, and places were real to me. So real that there were pictures in my mind. I could see them all. Superman could fly. Not the television Superman, MY Superman, Grand Central Station was real; the creaking door of he Inner Sanctum was a hundred feet tall and filled with cobwebs. The Shadow was invisible…but I knew he was really Lamont Cranston and I could see him.
Programs with names like, The Green Hornet, Challenge of the Yukon, Blondie, Gunsmoke, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, Fred Allen with his Allen’s Alley. Anyone remember Senator Claghorn when he’d say: That’s the South Son, I say..I say The South!!”
There was even one called the Lux Radio Theater. Lux was the name of a soap. In those days the sponsor controlled everything, so the sponsor’s name was part of the program’s name. The Lux program recreated movies on the radio. That’s how powerful radio was. A movie on the radio with the original actors, can you believe it? Every week there they were. Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Bacall, Clark Gable Spencer Tracey, Gregory Peck, Peter Lorre, Rita Hayworth, all acting their movie roles on the radio. What pictures that made. Didn’t need the movie. There were pictures!
Jack Benny. Now there was a wonderful and unique character. I know very little about his career. Only what I heard on the radio along with millions of others. On his program Jack Benny had an entire cast of players each with their own personalities and each connected to Jack in some way.
On the program was Benny’s real life better half Mary Livingston whom he met at Macy’s department store. Don Wilson a rotund big voiced announcer, Phil Harris, Jack’s bandleader on the show was portrayed as a very hip guy whose band members were always hitting the sauce. Phil Harris, a wonderful talent in his own right and I think the originator of what today we call Rap. If you can find his recording of The Dark Town Poker Club you’ll see what I mean. Jack’s valet was known only as Rochester a very funny and smart addition to the show. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and other comic characters was a continuing part of the cast. Mel played many parts and had a thousand voices. He was even the voice of Jack’s car, an old Maxwell that would rarely start. Dennis Day played the part of a young, shy, Irish kid with a wonderful tenor singing voice.
I hear that Jack Benny was one of the nicest and most generous of people and also that he was a fine and accomplished violinist. However, on his program he was portrayed as the world’s biggest tightwad. I guess cheap is the word. So cheap that he not only saved every cent, but stored all his money in a giant vault deep beneath his house in Beverly Hills, California. Also, on the program he was known as a guy who only thought he was a good violin player and told everyone that his violin sound was perfect, but when he picked up the instrument to play, everyone knew it sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.
About every third show Jack would go down into the vault to visit his money. We would hear him walking down endless stairs, each step echoing as he descended. There was a moat to get across that was filled with man-eating crocodiles, gates that creaked open, locks unlocking, chains clanking, and finally the big door to the vault.
There was always a password and if I remember inside there was a guard who always had a question. Like: “Mr. Benny how is Mr. Lincoln? Did he enjoy the play”?. Or something like that. Benny would then survey his holdings and then make a withdrawal of maybe 25 cents and leave.
There is a very famous scene that describes Jack Benny’s radio reputation. Benny is walking along a city street. You can hear the footsteps and traffic noises when suddenly a voice says “Alright, hands up.” Jack says: “What?” The other voice says: “ This is a stickup. Your money or your life.” There is a very long pause. Maybe 5 or 10 seconds. All we hear is the traffic, car horns, buses. Do you realize how long that is? Go ahead; time 10 seconds on your watch. It’s a long time to have silence on the radio. Then the stickup man says “Didn’t you hear me? I said your money or your life….” Another silence. Finally, Benny replies:
“I’m thinking it over….!”
My favorite program was The Lone Ranger. Mom didn’t want me to listen to The Lone Ranger though. Too much “blood and guts” she would say. There were others on her no no list, but whenever I could I listened anyway.
The Lone Ranger was created and broadcast from WXYZ in Detroit. So was The Green Hornet and Challenge of the Yukon. You might remember that one if I told you it was all about Sergeant Preston of the Canadian Mounted Police and his Husky dog King. I can still hear him. On King…On you Husky… I had a perfect picture of all of them in my mind. They were absolutely real, bigger than life, stronger than anyone, and invincible.
One night my mom and dad took my sister and I out to dinner at a restaurant they frequented. A lot of Detroit movers and shakers went there. I think the owner was involved with the mob. He later moved to Vegas and was a pit boss at the Sahara Casino. His restaurant in Detroit was always jammed and this night was no exception. I can clearly remember my dad saying to me that The Lone Ranger just walked in. Did I want to meet him he asked? And then pushing through the crowd with me in tow my dad stopped at a table near the back of the restaurant. One of the men stood up and my dad introduced me.
I was devastated. I was hoping it wasn’t a joke. My dad was always a nice man and very kind to me so I knew it wasn’t. The reason? The man’s name was Earl Graser. He was the actor who played The Lone Ranger on the radio and he was short and fat!
The Lone Ranger…short and fat. My little world crashed that night.
The program originated from WXYZ radio. Earl Graser played the part on the air but he never appeared anywhere in person as The Lone Ranger. The program’s deep voiced announcer, Brace Beemer who stood 6’ 3”, was an accomplished horseman, a crack shot, and did the personal appearances. The actor who played Tonto never appeared in person as Tonto either. His name was John Todd. He was not an Indian. He was an older man, Caucasian, a Shakespearean actor, and a professor at Wayne University in Detroit. He looked nothing like the Lone Ranger’s faithful companion. I never met him. In a way that’s a good thing. To me he was Tonto.
Beemer was tall, slim, good looking and the perfect Lone Ranger. Graser was only the voice. Not long after that there was another terrible night. Earl Graser was killed in Farmington, Michigan when he fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into a parked truck. His voice was stilled. Strange though, I heard about it but never believed that the Lone Ranger was dead or would ever die.
In spite of Mom’s orders I found a way to listen to the next program after the crash. In it the Lone Ranger was wounded and couldn’t speak. It seemed like weeks before he recovered and we began to hear his voice again. Slowly with each succeeding program the voice emerged deeper, stronger, more resonant than ever.
This only confirmed my belief that the Lone Ranger was immortal. It was true that Earl Graser died in that crash, but the Lone Ranger didn’t. The new voice introduced to the radio audience ever so slowly was that of the announcer, Brace Beemer. He not only sounded like the Lone Ranger, but he looked like him. Dressed like him, owned an actual ranch in Oxford, Michigan just outside of Detroit and had horses there. One of them was a white stallion. The stallion’s name was Silver. Until his death in 1964 Brace Beemer not only played the part on the radio, he was the Lone Ranger. He believed his part. That was the year I finally came face to face with my boyhood hero when he visited WXYZ radio for an interview. There he was, standing just outside my office one month younger than my own father; he was now 63 years old.
To me he looked just like The Lone Ranger should look at that age. As I shook his huge right hand his left hand emerged from his pocket and he handed me a silver bullet. Two days later he died of a massive heart attack in his home in Oxford, Michigan. Brace Beemer was dead, but to this day all my radio pictures of the Lone Ranger are there.
I still have the silver bullet.
Many years later I received a call from Dick Osgood formerly of WXYZ radio in Detroit. Osgood, now in his 70s had recently published his book, part of which was about those halcyon days at that same Detroit station when Lone Ranger was being produced.
"Lee, we all got together last night and voted”, he said. “And you’re it”. “I’m what?”! I replied.
“There’s a convention of The Friends of Old Time Radio coming up in Newark” he went on. “They want us to do an episode of The Lone Ranger radio program live at the banquet dinner. Brace Beemer is gone. We want you to play the part of The Lone Ranger” in New Jersey”!
So there I was on a stage surrounded by many of the original Lone Ranger actors. And they weren’t playing games. The afternoon rehearsal was dead serious. Sound effects men performing live sound effects, someone playing the music from a transcription turntable, and the Lone Ranger announcer himself, Fred Foy. His voice was so powerful I don’t think he needed the microphone that accepted those ringing words:
“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again….”
The actual performance took place at night for the final banquet of the convention. Fortunately my voice was deep and clear for a change and I had studied Brace Beemer’s diction and delivery.
I knew him.
He had been my companion.
At least on the radio.
The half hour flew by. As called for by their scripted lines the actors moved in and away from the microphone. They had all done this before. It was new to me and I was so thrilled at just being a part of this I actually thought I was The Lone Ranger. Just as I was a as boy with my ear next to the radio speaker.
The audience was mesmerized.
When we finished a small elderly lady approached me from the audience. “It was him!” she said looking up at me. “It was him. When I closed my eyes it was his voice, it was him”, she repeated as she thanked me.
Her name was Leta Beemer, widow of Brace Beemer, The Lone Ranger.
She saw the pictures!
A piano keyboard sits idle before you and says:
“ I can play any music ever written just press the right keys”
The microphone stands before us and says:
“ I can unleash boundless human imagination and a limitless panorama of images and emotions. You just have to know how to use me”
Radio has now become a sophisticated megaphone, a mere loudspeaker carrying words and music through various delivery systems to our ears.
But "watch" what it can do.
What follows is the actual scripted opening of a weekly radio show entitled, Grand Central Station. Each week there was a different radio drama, but each week this was the opening.
Can you hear it? Can you see the pictures?
LOUD TRAIN WHISTLE AND UNDER FOR
“FROM NEW YORK”
RAILROAD CROSSING BELL MIXED WITH POWERFUL
LOCOMOTIVE AND UNDER BUT LOUD – EVER PUSHING ANNOUNCER’S VOICE
ANNCR: (POWERFUL EXCITED DELIVERY)
“G R A A A N D CENTRAL S T A T I O N!”
LOUD, POWERFUL,LOCOMOTIVE. WHISTLE, OCCASIONAL TRAIN CROSSING BELLS. VERY LOUD UNDER ANNCR VOICE. CONTINUING THROUGHOUT
ANNCR: (VERY FAST POWERFUL DELIVERY FIGHTING TO BE HEARD OVER TRAIN SOUNDS)
“As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two and a half mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue and then...”
TRAIN WHISTLES – LOUD POWERING AND SLOWING DOWN
GRAAAANND CENTRAL STATION
Crossroads of a million lives!
Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily."
This was radio. . . .With pictures….Did you see them?
Why do we remember some air personalities decades after they have left radio and forget the others?
Why were they so popular ? What gave them the unique ability to reach through the speaker and compel us to listen and love it ?
Radio need not revert to dramatic stories and programs of old.
But just imagine what it could do if today's "suits" and those privileged to be on the air only knew how to use it.
If you ever see one of them, tell them this:
"Creative is Everything"
Thanks for watching