Friday, January 27, 2012

The Day I Shut Toronto Down

Commander Grease, in all his greasy glory!
Hear Pat Read This Entry 

The movie “American Graffiti” had an enormous impact on the teenagers of Toronto. The exploits of Curt, Toad, John and Steve in a fictitious California town circa 1962 hit like an atomic bomb. Now every kid throughout Ontario was aware of, and hungry to experience, life in the 1950s. It didn't take me long to recognize a potential gold mine. I remembered Ted Johnson at WTAC in Flint back in the 50's and early 60's. As I mentioned earlier Ted was the most successful of all the Flint Djs when it came to making huge sums of cash, he had dances going in 3 locations at a time 3 or 4 times a week. There was a new Pontiac convertible in Ted's driveway every year, and now I saw that possibility for myself. I immediately had a huge P.A. System built up using Broadcast grade equipment, just as Ted had done. I commissioned some high school art students to create a personification of the1950s lifestyle and attitude, I envisioned a DC Comics style super-hero with a pack of ciggies stuffed under his uniform wearing a huge grease drop on his chest. Thus “Commander Grease” was christened in Toronto!

The station had been extremely successful with an in school presentation called “The History of Rock.” We'd appear at assemblies with an audio/visual, chronology of rock's lineage. Drawing on that, I came up with a similar show in which I would enlist the aid of some students to model various fashions from the period, and describe the attitudes and lifestyle of the era. The assembly, of course, was intended to promote my dance at the school the following night. It caught on big-time, and soon I was hauling in $1000 per night 2 or 3 times a week doing these “Grease Dances.”

This did not escape the attention of CHUM's management, and soon I was sitting in Bob Wood's office discussing how we might ride the horse a little further with a radio show based on the same, general theme. There was a series of albums out at the time called “Cruisin'” which featured some Djs recreating shows from the late 50s and early 60s. People Like Dick Biondi, Arnie “WOO WOO” Ginsburg, etc. They'd intro songs, and try to recreate their on-air personas from a specific year on the album. I suggested we use the albums as a guide, and “Canadian Graffiti” was born. No sooner had I launched the show then it became a sensation . At one point it was estimated that 60% of the radios in use in Toronto on Sunday night were tuned into that show.

Now back in the early years of rock radio, the DJs were as well known for their crazy stunts as they were for their dulcet tones on the air. Remember me mentioning Jackson Ross, and his “Alley Oop” bit? I figured I had to come up with something similar each week to keep things interesting, so I came up with things like “The Greaser's Rally.”

Wherever you are right now, turn right”

Now stop, back up, turn around and go the other way.”

Whoever wound up farthest from Toronto when the rally ended won a prize... stuff like that. One Sunday night I found myself stuck for an idea. I thought back to a radio station in Grand rapids which had a neon sign in the studio window, facing the street, which read “HONK.” The idea was, whenever a car would come by, the jock could hit a switch, turn on the light and the driver would honk the horn. HAH... mission accomplished. It was kind of lame, but what the hell... I went for it.

Now the show went on the air at 9, so as soon as my first record ended I said “It's 9:02... we're one hour and 58 minutes away from the 'Big Honk' at 11 o'clock come on by the station if you can, but wherever you are honk your horn.” I kept this up after every song. “It's 9:30, we're 1 hour and 30 minutes away”... “It's 10 o'clock, we're one hour away...” etc. As the big moment approached I decided to have a look outside just to see if anyone was there. I thought that a few cars would show, imagine my surprise when I opened the blinds and saw hundreds of cars, blinkers flashing, stretched as far as the eye could see both north and south on Yonge Street waiting for their moment in the sun. For a moment I thought about canceling the bit but THAT would've gone over like a lead balloon, besides, they'd probably do it anyway. So when 11 O’clock arrived I gave the command... “It's 11 O'clock, wherever you are honk your horn... let the world experience greaser power!!!”

The place went up like an air raid!

I swear, I've never heard anything like it. I can only describe it by saying, it sounded like the old movies of London during World War Two when the air raid sirens were going off except LOUDER! I was in panic mode, I knew damn well SOMETHING would come of this little stunt and sure enough a few minutes later something did. I heard a knock on the studio door, opened it up and there in full regalia, standing with his hands on his hips and a decidedly un-amused look on his face, was one of Toronto's finest. A young constable with a noticeable Scotch accent had decided to drop by and let me explain why I'd just blown out the Police Department's main switchboard, and to let me know how they felt about that.

Y'rrrrrre new gonna do that agin are ye?”

Well, yeah... I was thinking about it!”

Nooooooo... that was no' a question!!!”

As soon as I got off the air Dave Charles, the stations assistant Program Director, called. “Boogieman, that was the greatest bit I've ever heard!!! I felt pretty good.

When I arrived at the station the next day I was informed the management staff was waiting to see me upstairs... the WHOLE management staff including Alan Waters.

Uh oh!

I opened my mailbox to find a note from Dave Charles... “That was the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard!!!” Huh? I thought he said it was the greatest thing he'd ever heard!!!

To put it bluntly, they read me the riot act, and I was told never to do that again. But I knew I had to do SOMETHING, right? I mean... I couldn't just let it slide the following week, right? I'd only agreed not to do THAT again.

The following Sunday I went on at 9 and counted down just like the week before except this time I told my listeners how much trouble I'd gotten myself into and, whatever happened, at 11 O'clock DON'T blow your horn. When 11 O'clock arrived I looked outside again. This time there were even MORE cars on both sides of Yonge Street. There were clowns juggling in the middle of the street, there were people dancing... traffic was jammed in both directions. At 11 O'clock, sure enough...


It was even LOUDER than the previous week! The same cop came down to the station to haul me in, and was greatly dissappointed when his superior told him he couldn't because I'd asked the listeners NOT to blow their horns.

Heh, heh, heh...

The “Big...” bits ended a couple of weeks later when I unleashed “The Big Flush” Use your imagination on THAT one!

Heh, heh, heh...

Gary Milmine writes:
One of my favourite stories starred Scott Carpenter, two Canadian
Graffiti shows (Sunday night 9-12 on 1050 CHUM) and of course a
Torontonians "God given right" to cruise Yonge street.

Beginning shortly after 9 pm, Scott asked everyone listening to
honk their car horn at 11 pm out in front of the CHUM building at Yonge
& St. Claire. We figured that some listeners would show up and blast
away and wouldn't it be great if we got maybe 50 cars…. Well it
didn't take long to see that Yonge street had a few more cars than
usual and that Scott's plan was working to perfection..

Just before 11, Scott brought a microphone outside and really had a
good look at the traffic jam outside of CHUM (actually Metro's
finest estimated that Yonge street was packed north and southbound
from Front St to well past Eglington) and his first words to me on
cue were "Gary you have got to see this" I ran out to see and could
not believe the amount of cars not moving.

11 pm the noise was astounding and must have lasted five minutes
(metros finest actually stated that drivers all over metro were
blasting their horns) and we thought "wow that was fun".

It was a great bit until Scott got called down to "Woody's" office
and probably received the verbal blasting of a lifetime…. The
police had received noise complaints from people all around town
(especially close to CHUM) they were considering several charges
including disturbing the peace.

Mr Wood of course would save the day with his radio being theatre
of the mind arguments and the promise that Scott would never do such a
thing again…..

The following Sunday Scott went on the air and apologized for all
the commotion and begged everyone to NOT drive down Yonge St. at
11 pm and blast their horns…He said that he would get into BIG
trouble , maybe even get fired, and the police had warned him that
all must remain quiet… For two hours Scott begged everyone to NOT
do it…. Well Metros finest let it be known that even more cars
disturbed the peace and that even more complaints were issued.

Well here we are 30 some odd years later and most of my favourite
radio memories are from that era…..

Best wishes


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jay Nelson

Jay Nelson in the CHUM main studio
I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I laid eyes on Jay Nelson.  I had only been with the station for a short time, and was finishing my shift on the all-nighter... new djs always “broke in” on the overnight shift, since there were fewer listeners who might hear the occasional technical glitch or in my case hearing the call letters as “CKLW” instead of “CHUM”... I hadn't made the switch in my mind quite yet you see.  At any rate, there was no operator on duty for the overnight show, so I had to run the board myself.  As I was getting ready to give my “farewell until tomorrow” rap I looked up through the glass into the studio, and what I saw damned near scared me!  Nelson had just flopped into the chair, and with his head in his hands was weaving back and forth, eyes bloodshot, unshaven and looking like death warmed over.

Normally by this time Jay's operator would have been there ready to go, but today he was running a bit late so it befell me to run Jay's board for awhile.  After weaving around in the chair for a couple of minutes, he looked into the control room.   He stared at me for a second, and suddenly realized that I wasn't the guy he normally saw at 5AM and inquired.

“Where the F%$k is George?”

I answered as delicately as I could “I don't know where the f%$k George is, so it's you and me Bubba!”

And that's the way our relationship started, Jay Nelson and me.  I had no idea if he was hung over or stoned, and didn't care.   All I knew was that he was the most brilliant air talent I'd ever seen, because as soon as my last record ended he was not only upright in his chair, but had pulled himself completely together.  The second he cracked that mike he was engaging, funny, relatable, friendly and the absolute personification of anything one could ask for in a morning man.  As soon as the mike was off however, he re-assumed his former association with the desktop... he looked like Hell!

Frank Coxe was apparently raised by Jesuits somewhere in Pennsylvania... I'm told Scranton which makes sense since Scranton is the home of a highly respected Jesuit university... and spent some time in radio there.  At some point he wound up on TV in Buffalo, NY wearing a pith helmet and a leopard skin costume, calling himself “Jungle Jay Nelson” on an afternoon kid's show.  In 1963 the CHUM folks were looking for a new morning man, saw him, and decided he was a better option than the other candidate they were looking at....Irene Dunn, Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”   Good choice!

Jay Nelson possessed the one characteristic that I regard as absolutely essential for a successful morning man, the ability to think on the spot.   He never prepared any material that I know of. All his one liners and jokes came to him Johnny Carson style... extemporaneously.  He could be hung over, half asleep... hell, half DEAD for that matter... and the funny stuff would just happen.  I've NEVER been able to do that, and I don't know how those guys do it either.  I had to sit and think up the bits I did, it was hard work.  Nelson, and people like him, are just naturally funny.   Like I said, it just happens.

One of Jay's classic stunts was to send an imaginary character named Shredney Vashtar to jump the Niagara Gorge on his bicycle.   He had sound effects, “live” reports, crowd noises.. the whole 9 yards... only to have poor Shredney splash into the river at the end of the show.  Believe it or not, people actually showed up at the falls to watch him.  That, my friend, is the power of radio... a lesson I learned and never forgot.  I used that power MANY, many times in my career!

Nelson was like most of the other great morning men I knew in another way too, he was extremely insecure.  He was like that class clown you might remember from school.  The one who was always goofing around, telling jokes, playing pranks... basically begging for attention.   Without it he felt threatened, or worse irrelevant.   Jay was a good guy, but nobody really knew him.  He'd attend the Wednesday morning, post meeting breakfasts at Seniors occasionally, but instead of communicating and commiserating with the rest of us he'd be telling jokes.   He was, as they say. “always on.”

Jay and booze were a bad combination.  He drank a lot, and was in pretty bad shape as often as not when he arrived in the morning.  I think it probably harkens back to his feelings of insecurity.  Dick Smyth, CHUM's legendary news director, thinks it might have had as much to do with being raised by Jesuits.  I don't know what was eating away at Jay, but I knew he suffered greatly.   He never seemed to be a happy man, ever.

Jay spent 17 years in the morning slot.  Then, I'm told, was advised that his talents might be better put to use on CITY-TV as a weather man.  I'm sure Jay knew better... he'd overstayed his welcome, and was being pushed out.  He lasted for a short time there, then wound up bouncing from station to station.   Eventually the booze, and his insecurities, caught up to him.  In the last years of his life he worked as a teacher at Toronto's National Institute of Broadcasting, Operations manager at a small station in Newmarket, ON, and finally as a MaĆ®tre d' at The Daily Planet restaurant in Toronto.   He died on February 18, 1994, apparently of liver issues.  As I understand it, the booze finally got him.

In 40 years of radio and television there's one thing that I've witnessed time and time again, the utter destruction of lives that booze and drugs can bring about.  It's stunning, and not easily understood by those who don't see it close up.  Oh, you may have someone in your family or a friend or two with substance issues, but to see outrageously talented people destroy themselves one after another... that's a different animal altogether.  I was never as successful as some of these folks.  I never had that level of talent, and I damn sure never had that level of need.   The absolute need to be an entertainer, to achieve validation from it.  To me it was a job.  It was what I did, not who I was.

Thank Heaven for that.   I may not be rich and famous, but I'm alive!

Warren Cosford adds:

Ops burned out quickly with Jay Nelson. Of course they also had to deal with John Gilbert. For Bob McMillan and Zeke Zdebiak it was a path to The Production Department. It was not until years later that I discovered "Mac" got up at 3AM, Vomited, and drove in from Oshawa.

To Jay's credit, he did not allow himself to get into "a Rut". He seemed challenged to try New Things. I recall recording Jay backstage with Don Rickles for a week's worth of "Bits". He also had a live chicken as a co-host for a while. But My Fav was Shredney Vashtar. It was The '70s and Women's Lib was being followed by Gay Rights. Although I don't think Jay ever let on that Shredney was "Gay", it was clear he was. To the best of my knowledge we ever received a complaint.

Jay did Shredney as a warm, funny person that I think listeners could identify with as a Dreamer and a Schemer who always saw The Silver Lining and never Gave Up.

I produced Shredney's Niagara Gorge Jump riding a 10 Speed on a Friday Morning with Jay, Maryanne Zuma, Smyth and Dave Wright complete with Sound Effects.

On Sunday morning during Asby's Show I was struck by how "real" it sounded. A few minutes later Reg phoned to say that The Niagara Falls Convention Bureau called to ask where "we" were. Apparently "hundreds of people" had shown up.

Remember.......Jay Nelson was The Last Surviving Member of the Allan Slaight and Committee led by Larry Solway 1050 CHUM. J. Robert Wood was the architect of A Revolution at 1331. When the smoke cleared Jay was STILL doing mornings at 1050 chum.....but Top 40 Radio had changed.

Somehow....Jay made himself "fit". For many years to come.

From Russ Horton:

Jay Nelson was a genius and one of the truly funny guys in Toronto radio history.I used to love it when him and Dick and Henny would get into it.Jay was a prankster many people remember the morning he spiked Dick's Pipe with grass..mellow newscast that morning

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


 Wolfman Jack in the CHUM main studio
Hear Pat read this entry 

Bob Smith. alias Wolfman Jack, worked at CHUM for awhile in the 70's. He was quite the character as you might imagine!

Smitty grew up in Brooklyn, and was a huge fan of “Moondog” Alan Freed. The “Wolfman” part of the name came from Bob's love of horror films, the “Jack” from hip phrases of the time such as “Hit the road, Jack .” He based his gravely voice on Howlin' Wolf's singing style.  Smitty began his radio career in Newport News, VA as "Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste."  I'm guessing THIS particular segment of Da' Woofman's career was somehow missing from his official resume.   

Smitty's alter ego Wolfman Jack began to emerge at KCIJ in Shreveport, LA, and Wolfman hit his stride in the early sixties when he took his act south of the border to XERB in Rosorito Beach, Mexico, a 100,000 watt flame thrower which could be heard in the US from coast to coast.  The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks.  There was even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one's sex drive.  "Some zing for your ling nuts!" At one point the Federales decided they wanted a part of the action and, according to Wolf, came down to the station to let him know.  He told me he drove them off with a shotgun!

You never knew what to believe from him, but he sure told a great story.  Hell, they were probably true come to think about it!

Smitty came to CHUM on the heels of his groundbreaking role in “American Graffiti,” a movie in which he basically played himself.   He was constantly accompanied by his manager, who objected strenuously to us calling him “Smitty.”  We couldn't have cared less.

Hey Smitty, how's it goin'?”
Call him Wolf or Wolfman please!”
Yeah, yeah, f*#k you! How's it goin' Smitty?”
Fine, man fine. Ever-ting goin' jus fine hee hee hee...”

He would cross the border with an unopened pack of Kools.  He'd unwrap the damned pack and there would be 20, perfectly rolled joints inside.  He must've had his own cigarette wrapping machine, and a stash of phony tax stamps!  When he was on the air the place smelled like an opium den, and the smoke was so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.  One time Sandee and her sister went on a food run for Wolfie.  His manager ordered 3 or 5 burgers, a bunch of fries, a couple of cokes, etc, etc.  She said it looked like they were hungry back there.  He answered "Oh, these aren't for us, they're all for Wolf."  When he got the munchies, he REALLY got the munchies.

Typical Wolfman phone bit:

"Hiya baby"
"Hiya Wolfman"
"Hey baby, are your peaches sweet?"
"Yeah Wolfman, they sure are"
"Hey baby, how old are you?"

Wolf was the exact opposite of his on-air persona.  Listening to him on the air you'd have thought he was an old letch, but he was happily married and devoted to "Mrs Wolf," Lucy "Lou" Lamb who he married in 1961.  They had two children.  He was thoroughly engaging, and once you got to know him, he'd open up a bit.  Sometimes he and Lou would get into a tiff and, after about a dozen joints, he'd sit you down for a heart to heart which he'd start off by saying something along the lines of  “Me and the old lady been havin' our troubles lately...”  When he did that, you could be sure you'd be sitting there for a looooong time.

He had an absolutely wicked sense of humor, and would crack up helplessly whenever something funny would happen.   John Tucker was his operator.   John had a long beard and scraggly hair... he looked like a deranged mountain man.  Mary Cribari worked the phones for the show and recalls coming into the control room, and Tucker grabbing and tickling her.  Yes folks, these were PRE PC times.  She remembers Smitty's voice blaring out of the squawk box...

Unhand her you heathen swine!!!... HAWWW, HAWWW, HAWWW, HAWWW... unhand that innocent little girl you pervert!!!  HAWWW, HAWWW, HAWWW, HAWWW... “ 

Once I had him appear at one of my 50's dances at an outside venue in Oshawa, ON.  We had Farthead go up to the roof of a building across the street to man the huge spotlight we'd brought in.  Wolf had told Randy to be sure and keep the light right on him when he performed “Clap For The Wolfman.”  Now if there was one thing you DIDN'T do, is tell Randy how to do his job.  Randy kept the spotlight on him all right... focused to a 6 inch wide circle right on his crotch!! 

Smitty was a great guy, and we all got along with him famously.  He didn't stay with the station long, however. American Graffiti had made him a household name.  It wasn't long before TV called, and Wolf found himself televised coast to coast hosting the “Midnight Special.”  He went on to do a number of TV shows, radio specials and even a cartoon called “The Wolf Rock Power Hour”

He died of a heart attack some years ago returning home from the road promoting his new autobiography "Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock 'N' Roll Animal." He got out of the limo to hug Lou, and dropped dead right there in his drive way.

It's a shame, he was a great guy. HAH, HAH, HAH... OOOOOOOOWWWOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!.."

01/06/2012  Mary Cribari adds... 

Awesome story Pat!  I remember him coming through the doors at Chum with an entourage of women, he was never alone.  Being 16 and totally naive, I had no idea that they were "paid help” I thought they were his friends travelling with him until I found otherwise.  I could tell you many crazy stories about "Wolfi" but I can tell you one thing, he always looked after me, he would freak when anyone tried to touch me and that I truly appreciated.  Mary Cribari