Remember the movie “42nd Street”?
The star of the show sprains her ankle and is unable to go on. A beginner, a neophyte, is sent on stage by the desperate producer. The kid is a sensation, wows the audience; she goes out an unknown and comes back a star.
I lived through that very same situation – except for that last part. I didn’t come back a star, I just came back.
Time-travel with me now to the end of the year 1945. Suddenly the war I was involved with was over. I found myself out on civvy street, in desperate need of a job of some kind. I had gone off to the South Pacific when I was just a kid. Now I was still just a kid but four years older. What could I possibly do in civilian life? I had no experience, no training except training for war.
Well, I thought, I could talk; I’d like to try to get into radio.
As far as the field of communications was concerned, it was then a very different world. For all practical purposes there was no television. Most people not only didn’t have TV, most had never seen TV. A few folks in the major cities were fortunate enough to be able to watch “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” on their tiny black-and-white screens, but for everyone else, radio was all there was.
Believe it or not, I got a job as an announcer.
What kind of radio station would hire a guy as an announcer who had no experience and not all that much in the way of ability? A strange little radio station, that’s what.
In Asbury Park, New Jersey, a place I had never heard of before, there was a small station: WCAP – which stood for “Wonderful City of Asbury Park.” (I was to hear quite a bit about Asbury Park later, but at the time Bruce Springsteen hadn’t as yet shown up on the planet.) It was a small radio station indeed, a two-man operation, broadcasting with 250 watts. Now, 250 watts would make a satisfyingly large light bulb but it was tiny for radio, surrounded by the 50,000-watt network stations of the area. Our signal barely managed to cover the town – not that there were all that many folks listening. The station was obviously not very popular locally: we received several letters addressed to WCRAP, which I thought was uncalled-for.
The station was in Convention Hall, two little rooms on the ground floor. The engineer sat in one room, operating the console. The announcer sat in the other, playing records and speaking into a mike. At the end of a “program,” which consisted of nothing but the playing of records, the announcer would scurry into the other room to run the console and the engineer would suddenly become the announcer. This would persuade the audience, such as it might be, that this was a regular radio station with an actual announcing staff. At least, that was the hope.
I had been at this work for just a couple of weeks, trying to learn what it meant to be an announcer, when something incredible happened. It was a scenario that could have been written – and, indeed, was, a number of times – by a movie scriptwriter.
It was the age of the Big Bands. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, traveled around the land with their large musical organizations.
And while I was just settling in at WCAP, Harry James and his band, perhaps the most popular of them all, were to appear in Asbury Park. They were to do a network show, coast-to-coast, from Convention Hall. This was big-time stuff.
I do not make up the following; it actually happened. The network announcer had an accident on his way to Asbury Park and phoned New York that he would be unable to make the broadcast. The network types there hurriedly searched through their sources and noted that Asbury Park had a radio station. They phoned. I answered. They asked if my station could loan them an announcer to emcee the Harry James program, which was supposed to go on the air in about twenty minutes. I said yes, we could take care of that.
I met with Harry James, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had just started in this business, a total beginner, and here I was emceeing a network broadcast, coast-to-coast, of the top musical organization in the land.
It did not go well. Fact is, I suffered from a severe case of stage fright; I realized I was trembling slightly. As I stood by the mike, waiting for the cue to come down from New York, the script I was holding was shaking a bit. Harry James saw this and, as we waited, he began to make little jokes about this announcer to the guys in his band, who chortled in response.
Well, I got through the broadcast somehow and left. I never heard from anyone about it, not the network, not Harry James, no one. Probably just as well.
I went back to playing records for my 250-watt audience.
1 year ago