Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cruisin', Radio And The Girls Of Lapeer


If you've seen American Graffiti, you've seen Lapeer on any Friday or Saturday night during the late 50's through the 60's. Cruisin' was the name of the game, pure and simple.  It was a way to see and be seen, get together with friends, meet new kids and show off the nifty, chrome “half moons” you bought and installed on your wheels that afternoon. If you didn't have a car of your own, you teamed up with someone else.

There was a specific protocol to cruisin' which had to be followed to the letter.  For instance it was perfectly cool for 3 or more girls to ride in a car together, but strictly verboten for more than 2 guys to do so.  VERY uncool!   Guys were allowed to hang their elbows out the door and assume a pseudo-bored expression for the entire evening, girls were expected to yap and giggle among themselves incessantly.  It was permitted to stop along the way, but only long enough to pick up a passenger or two or park for a few minutes in front of the water fountain at the court house.  No other stops were allowed, if you had to use the can you had to depart the route then rejoin at either terminus.

The cruise began at Main Street and proceeded down Nepessing Street to N. Saginaw Street, a distance of about a half mile.  The cars would then go around the block and head back the other way.  This was repeated over and over ad infinitum from about 8PM to around 11, at which time the participants would either head home or over to Bruno's Pizza.

American Graffiti made a special point of highlighting the local “make out” area.  Every town had one and Lapeer was no exception, ours was Smith Road near Davis Lake.  But there's one thing you should know about the girls of Lapeer, get fresh with one and she'd slap you silly!   Not a whole lot of “action” to be found on old Smith Road with this bunch!

Remember me mentioning how the girls on TV were so appealing because they wouldn't hesitate a second to light a bag full of dog poop and throw it on the town busy-body's doorstep?  Not only would Lapeer girls do the same, but it would have been their idea!!

Many were farm girls who got up at 5 to do chores, went to school, and returned home to more chores.  They were raised by church going folk who understood basic values, and made sure their kids did too.  We probably had more beautiful girls per capita in Lapeer than anywhere else in the state, and not a hint of attitude among them.   Our Homecoming Queens were attractive, sure enough, but the reason they got to be Homecoming Queens was because of their personalities.  They were everybody's pal.  I remember the girl we elected in 1963, she was a sweetheart of a person, friendly to everyone.  And I'm betting she had a bag of dog poop ready to go for after the dance!

So, if the girls weren't willing, what would we do on Smith Road?  Simple, listen to the radio.  The Flint stations were home to some of the wildest DJs on the planet.   Just like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti they were constant companions, forever thinking up crazy publicity stunts and ways to involve their audience.   I remember an incident when the song “Alley Oop” was a huge hit.   The scam was that it had driven Jackson Ross at WTRX nuts, and that he'd secured a loincloth and a club and had sequestered himself atop the roof of the station.   Whenever the jock would leave the studio, Jackson would “sneak down” and put on “Alley Oop.”  I actually went to the station to see this with my own eyes.  These radio guys sure had fun!!!

Also, radio had been good to The InVictas.   We developed close relationships with the DJs.  Ted Johnson had 3 huge P.A. systems which employed broadcast quality equipment.  When he ran a dance he'd hang 10 huge speakers around the room so the sound quality was superb.  He was a class act, never appearing without a dinner jacket and tux pants . He used theater grade lighting, and even had bubble machines ala Lawrence Welk.   He made a good $300-$400 every weekend... equivalent to $3000-$4000 in today's money... and bought a new Pontiac convertible every year.  Major league stuff!!

I remember doing an in-studio interview with Marcellus Wilson at WTRX.  I was amazed. Here was this guy, holed up in a tiny studio with only a couple of turntables and a mike creating magic.  Remember the scene in American Graffiti when Curt finally meets The Wolfman?  The poor guy's all alone in a radio station with a broken freezer... Popsicles melting all over the place.  Did you feel sorry for the Wolfman?  If so you didn't get it, he was doing exactly what he wanted, how he wanted.   He OWNED that audience, that's what it's about.

Well... I couldn't help but notice the huge diamond ring Marcellus was wearing, so that too!

At any rate, I began to see the value of a career in radio.  I loved playing music, but the traveling, the lugging of equipment... we grunted our own stuff in those days, no roadies... and the instability of it began to worry me a bit.  Radio was a way I could still be an entertainer and not schlep a stupid drum set around.  Also, by this time, the walls were beginning to close in a bit.

So when we'd cruise down Nepessing Street, I couldn't help but think... here we are using up energy, spinning our wheels, repeating the same thing over and over and going absolutely nowhere.  

I thought of a life in Lapeer, playing on weekends and building Buicks the rest of the week.

The profundity of the metaphor was not lost on me.

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