No quiz this week. I’ll just post another episode of Berowne’s Mediocre Adventures.
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 went out a total unknown and came back a star.
I lived through that very same situation – except for the last part. I didn’t come back a star, I just came back.
Time-travel with me now to the year the Big War ended; (there are those who say it was the last of our wars that might be described as actually making sense). Suddenly 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 a kid but a four-years-older kid. What could I do in civilian life? I had little experience, little 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 planet. 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 young dude 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. (I was to hear quite a bit about Asbury Park later, but at the time Bruce Springsteen hadn’t as yet shown up.)
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 in the town listening.
The station’s call letters were WCAP, which stood for Wonderful City of Asbury Park. Some listeners wrote in cards and letters and several were mean-spirited enough to write the address WCRAP, which I thought was uncalled-for.
It was in Convention Hall, two little rooms on the ground floor. Not an impressive radio station; it had one outside door with nothing written on it. Over time, more than one guy had hurriedly pushed open that door, stopping suddenly as he realized that this was not, after all, the men’s room.
In our “studio” 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 old 78-rpm records, the announcer would scurry into the other room to run the console and the engineer would suddenly become the announcer. This rather messy system 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 something like it was, a number of times – by movie scriptwriters.
It was the age of the Big Bands - Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James - who traveled around the land with their large musical organizations.
And while I was just settling in at my new job, Harry James and his band, perhaps the most famous of them all, were to appear in Asbury Park. They were to do a network show, coast-to-coast, from the auditorium in 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 nationwide 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 felt envious. I had just started in this business, a total beginner, and here I was emceeing a nation-wide broadcast of the top musical organization in the land.
It did not go well. Fact is, I suffered from a severe case of stage fright.
A month or so earlier, a victim of various bombings, I had been recovering in a jungle hospital in New Guinea, and now I was back in the Stytes calculating to be a coast-to-coast radio emcee; it was all a bit too much for me.
As I stood by the mike, waiting for the cue to come down from New York, I realized the script I was holding was trembling 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 my boss, not the network, no one.
Probably just as well. I went back to playing records in my not-the-men’s-room radio station.