Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Homefolks Smith

Back in the very early days of television the merchandising world was startled by the marketing techniques of TV marketer, 'Mad-Man Muntz'. He came up with all kinds of sales gimmicks that had never been seen or heard before. But 'Mad-Man' sold TV's - LOTS of television sets. In the process he became a legend in his time.

I doubt if many people in today's Orlando remember (or have even heard of) Homefolks Smith. He was to the automobile world what 'Mad-Man Muntz' was to televisions. The big difference was that 'Mad-Man' sold brand new sets where 'Homefolks' sold used - VERY used - cars. His luxury vehicle seldom was priced at over 250 to 300 dollars. Yes, I realize cars were much cheaper in the very early 1950's - but not as cheap as at 'Homefolks' used car lot.

The way I got to know about him was that I'd walk past his used car lot when I walked from my 'mom-and-pop' hotel room to work each day. If memory serves me correctly, his lot was somewhere around Magnolia and Concord or East Amelia. It was just a little lot - kind of a squatter in the midst of bungalow homes - but it was as unique as the dealership it represented. I might mention that in the more recent years when I lived in the Orlando area I tried to find any remains of the 'Homefolks' dealership with no success. But over the years a lot of things disappear. The last time I looked, he radio staion I worked
for (on North Orange Avenue just north of Colonial) was an empty lot. But somewhere between the hotel and the station was the most unique car dealership I've ever seen.

I really learned about 'Homefolks Smith' by writing and performing a program for him. It had to be real up beat - and loud. He would say, "Make it really loud and make the music fast -- none of that gushy love stuff." That's just what I did.
And it was fun. One of the things we'd do everyday was to have a race between the Orlando Police and 'Homefolks' manager Jim (imaginary name) when Jim came to work from his home outside Winter Park. Jim was accused of speeding in his 'Homefolks' special 1924 Model T Ford West Florida chopdown - thus the police escort into Orlando. Jim was home free if he got to the car lot without being caught - and he always made it. In the meantime the program was filled for a minute or so of old car sounds, sirens, and a play by play account as they passed the radio station studio.

One time 'Homefolks' offered a set of Model A Ford connecting rods for $29.95 and if you were the first one to show up at the car lot he would throw in a Model A Ford as a free incentive. "Push in your junker," he'd say, "and we've got a right good replacement for next to nothing. If that ain't the truth, may lightning strike me onthis spot." Obediently, the studio engineer (me) would play a sound effect recording of a massive thunder clap.

It was like no other radio program I can remember - either in the old days or nowadays - but it really broke up the monotony of the morning. "Homefolks" told me one time, "Boy, you slow this program down and I gonna cancel it sho as I'm settin' on this old porch." I was in awe of 'Homefolks' and never slowed down - and as long as I was at that station he never canceled."

Good memories of fifteen minutes of the most fun and hyper time I ever had.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Uncle Don

Back in the mid-1930's - when times were especially rough in the world, my grandmother turned her home into a boarding house. It helped make ends meet financially - and also made it possible for me to meet some very unique people. Most of them worked in New York City and commuted back and forth by train. They usually got home about suppertime. By the way, dinner was announced by ringing a series of old Chinese gongs after which the residents (and my family) would come trooping down the stairs and take their reserved space at a huge dining room table. Our maid (and cook) Odie would bring huge servings of wonderful food to the table. Except for me.

I never sat at the table with the adults. My dining place was on a drop-leaf front of a huge old Atwater Kent radio which was placed in the opening of an equally huge bay window. While the adults at the table talked about events of the day I listened to my programs. Especially "Uncle Don" Carney who might be considered the 'Captain Kangaroo' of the 1920's and '30's. For over 20 years he told stories, read pre-teen oriented poems, was a master at pig Latin, and was described as able to play the piano standing on his head while singing silly songs that little kids gobbled up. For instance, his theme song went this way:

"Hello, neighbors, nieces too, mothers and daddies, how are you? This is Uncle Don, all set to go; with a meeting on the ray-dee-o. We'll start off with a little song; to learn the words will not take long. For they're as easy as easy can be, so come on now and sing with me: Hibbidy gits has-ha ringboree. Honi-ko-doke with an ali-ka-zon, Sing this song with your Uncle Don."

Uncle Don would come up with special words describing the behavior of children: 'Crytearians', 'Leavearounders', 'takechancers', and 'scuffyheelers,' none of which Uncle Don wanted as members of his club. He sometimes would talk about children who did and said things wrong - especially scolding those who failed to brush teeth, cried at bedtime, and threw temper tantrums.

But the biggest thing of all was when Uncle Don would read a name of a child who had been good and was celebrating a birthday. He would say, "Now, I understand that little Brucie has been especially good this year and if he looks behind the piano he's find something very special just for him on his birthday. Seems to me that when Brucie looked behind the piano he found some special Uncle Don promotion but it was wonderful - Uncle Don had read my name out to everybody in our seven-state area and they knew I had been a good little boy.

I never thought about it at the time, but an old-time radio book says that all this was done in collusion with my mother or grandmother. But who cared at the time - Uncle Don was right there behind that Atwater Kent dial.

But wait - there is one more story about Uncle Don that may or may not have been true, It involves an announcers worst fear - saying something with a live microphone when he thinks he's off the air. It has happened to the best of them and was especially challenging when programs were live and not pre-recorded. The show ended. Uncle Don sighed, and said, "Well I guess that takes care of the little 'bzzxzxxzs' for another day." As I understood at the time, that also took care of Uncle Don and his program. He spent the rest of the years in denial.

Meanwhile, the Atwater Kent died, I grew in stature, finally was allowed to eat at the dinner table sitting alongside my real-life Uncle Ralph who over the years turned out to be a better friend than Uncle Don.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm Bereaved

I just discovered -- one of my favorite people has died and I'm at a loss as to whether he could ever be replaced. His picture is at the left -- anybody you know?

His name is Lewis Grizzard and he was the author of some wonderful books. How-to-do-it books. How to become Southern to be more specific. One of my favorite books he wrote was "Don't Sit Under the Grits Tree With Anyone Else But Me." (That title reminds me of the time one of our daughters convinced an exchange student that there was a spaghetti orchard down the road a piece from where we lived - and she believed it. But that's another story for another time.

I wish that Grizzard had been alive when I moved to Florida for the first time. Problem is, he was probably about five years old at the time and wasn't doing much column or sports writing at the time. However, I'm sure that he was gaining Southern Wisdom at that time that might have helped me develop an appreciation of Southern philosophy sooner than I did.

For instance, I will never forget my first breakfast at a tiny Mom and Pop cafe in Orlando.
I ordered bacon and eggs (sunny side up and well done). When they came the plate had a large pile of white glop with a big pat of butter on top. "What's THAT?", I asked. The counterman said, "They's grits - nobody in the south goes without grits in the morning." With some hesitation I put my fork into the grits (should I have used a spoon?) and took a taste.
And I loved them. And I have them to this day in one form or another. Of course real southerners would gasp at fried Mush with maple syrup but, hey, grits is grits. Butter, cheese, or just plain grits. And anybody who would write about a grits tree can't be all bad.

Over the years I have grown to love the South - and as I aged - and Lewis Grizzard grew up, I found that he offered great wisdom that has truly enriched my life with thoughts like these:

"When my love comes back from the ladies room will I be too old to care?"

"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a home grown tomato."
Think about that one for a while -- it'll grow on you.

"I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car."

"Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY and they meet at Bobby Joe's bar." (Or, he could have said they meet at the
6th Primitive Baptist Church in the holler Sunday mornings at seven ayem.) But that was Lewis Grizzard and he was Methodist - or so he said.

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."

Finally, this little jewel: Before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes.
That way, when you criticize them you're a mile away and you have their shoes,

Years ago Phil Harris (a band leader in the Jack Benny comedy show) used to sing a song titled 'That's What I Like About the South'. And Lewis Grizzard shared a lot to like about the south as well.

By the way, I titled this bit "I'm Bereaved." And I DO think the world has lost a great philosopher and humorist when Lewis Grizzard passed away -- in March of 1994. Why did
it take me so long to realize he was gone? Or is that his writing and recordings carry forth his legacy even now?

And what will we leave for future generations?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It started with CBS

My first job was as a movie projectionist at a local theater during World War Two -- but the veteran who had held the job before the war came back safely and reclaimed his job. It was that way with a lot of guys who held wartime jobs - and it was challenging for we who were just out of high school.

I had a real interest in motion picture work and found a job with RKO Radio Pictures in Albany, New York. I'd ride a commuter train back and forth every day and my work involved cleaning the office area first thing and then wrestling cans of film that came in from theaters or addressing and shipping films to theaters in the area. I think the job only lasted one week. The only significant thing during the week was a B-25 bomber crashing into the Empire State Building with a number of lives lost and a lot of damage to the building. Unlike the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building continues to loom over New York City - but the memory remains.

The next few months I helped install lockers in a new frozen food plant, and then went to work in a gas station. My sympathy is extended to anyone who has to work under a car in the wintertime - it can be miserable.

In January 1946 my father finagled another job for me - this one in New York City where he was working for a bank. Through a friend who knew somebody who knew somebody else, he got me an interview with CBS when its headquarters was at 485 Madison Avenue. I was in awe of the personal department and was even more thrilled when they said they would try me out as a page boy..............in the CBS newsroom. But what was a page?

Ever hear of a gofur? It was an overstated name for an errand boy. Go get me some coffee.

Go get me some pencils. And even 'Would you deliver this to my wife at such and such address." But I got to wear an honest to goodness page jacket with CBS letters that I could flaunt all over the building -and even out on the street if I had an errand to run somewhere in the city. There wasn't much money involved but I was part of one of the biggest radio networks in the world. Wowee!

And to top even that, I was working with biiiiiig names in news - Eric Severeid - Bob Trout -- and my boss was Edward R. Murrow. Who cared about salary -- it was more than I could wish for just to be associated with people like that. And to pass celebrities like Arthur Godfrey in the halls.

One day I got called into Mr. Murrow's office. He said that personnel was going to change.The radio news staff was going to be reduced - including me. However, he said that I could stay
with CBS if I was willing to make a move to a new section that was being formed at Grand Central Palace - a department to be called CBS Television News. I'd never heard of anything like that and asked, "What would you do if you were in my position?" He reminded me that I had no college, little other experience in any other work, and he said, "Well, you might apply for a job with a country newspaper." That's how my time with CBS ended and how I ended up going to a small weekly paper not far from home. But that's another story.

Meanwhile, I wonder where I'd be and how my life would have worked out had I taken that
job in experimental CBS television news.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Radio Days

You've come a long, baby. Not just the guy sitting at the control board spinning records on a Christmas morning, but the entire radio industry.
Today they use computers to program entire programs - music from CD's or computers - prerecorded announcements - the whole shmere.
I recall when radio began its big change. It was in the late 1950's or early 1960's. Stations began to get less personal. They'd run a top-forty format and sometimes even automate the programs running records out of a quasi-jukebox machine.
It seemed as if radio had simply become a machine and a lot of the homefolks way of life went down the tubes.
When I was quite small I used to listen to a character by the name of Uncle Don. He'd read out the names of birthday children and in my case, he would tell me to look behind the piano and I would find a special gift. Even in the greater metropolitan New York area there were personal touches like that. I won't describe what took 'Uncle Don' off the air but he said something he shouldn't have when the microphone was still on. There was a very personal way about radio and early television, before the days of tape and CD recordings where you never know from one moment to another when the person or persons on the air would say or do something unexpected. It was a time of spontaneity.
Off and on in days ahead I'll try to expose some of the things I was personally involved with when I worked either full time -- or when I was moonlighting to make an extra buck or two. By the way, my first radio job paid thirty dollars a week putting in long hours writing commercials.
By the time I left full time radio I had graduated to 90 or so dollars a week - which was good money for the time.
The picture above was taken on Christmas morning in 1949. Radio work takes no holidays -
as the old saying goes, 'The show goes on' and dead air in radio doesn't pay the bills. We might have had one non-portable tape recorder - a couple of 16 inch turntables (record players) a control board to switch turntables, control microphones, and to turn on and off inputs from remote locations. It was strenuous work because when a record ended you had to make an announcement, or play a commercial on a recording, and have the next record or commercial ready to 'cue' on one of the turntables. It was real work to stay ahead on the schedule - and you worked from a predetermined schedule that planned ahead every commercial and program.
There was nothing automated unless you had a program on a sixteen inch disc - a program that might last fifteen minutes or a half hour. This included programs like detective stories, or westerns, or music programs by big name bands. Those old sixteen inch transcriptions were a blessing -- they afforded the time to eat a bite or two - or for an urgent pit stop.
At any rate, I'll be sharing some of the adventures I lived through in radio. Hope you'll check in for our next exciting adventure.