Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Basement Tapes

At this time of year it's customary to take a look back at the year we just lived through. But since everybody else already does that, and most of this year will be Kardashians and Republican debates, I thought I would take a different path. You see I just unearthed a box of air check tapes in the basement that were buried during our move this year, and nothing is more humbling than air checks from the early days.

In days of old, when one performed a radio show, you put a cassette in a recorder that was typically hooked up to the output of the air monitor. In other words, you recorded yourself on the radio. But the tape only recorded while your microphone was on, so you didn't have to sit through Basia's Time and Tide in order to hear the next DJ break. The tape recorder was usually one of those things designed for office dictation or classroom recording with a little jack that made the tape pause if a switch on the microphone was pressed. Radio engineers would cut the mic off, attach the "remote" wires to a relay connected to the studio console's mic switch, and connect an output from the air monitor or a radio - in some cases a "boom box" was used to simplify all this. What the "remote" wire really did was nothing more than kill the power to the tape recorder, causing the tape to slow down while engaged against the recording head, creating an extreme speed distortion on the recording for a half-second every time the mic was turned off. The result was a tape playback that cut in just seconds before the jock starts talking, you hear the break, and then a second after the next song or commercial starts you get this loud ZWWWORP sound followed by the next DJ break. There's nothing else like it.

(over intro to Simply Red's cover of If You Don't Know Me By Now) "1220 WSUK with tickets to "Teddy Ruxpin On Ice." Keep listening for your chance to be caller number 8 when you hear Teddy Ruxpin speaking right here on 1220 WSUK!" (sung) "If you don't know-- ZWWWORP!"

"Ed Johnson has the latest farm news coming up right after Seals and Crofts on AM Stereo 950!" (sung) "See the-- ZWWWORP!"

The purpose of these tapes was to critique your performance with the program director during a ritual known as the air check session. We would listen to an entire four-hour show telescoped down to about 20 minutes on the tape so he could make comments like, "Don't cluster your essentials," which sounds like something nobody should be doing on the radio anyway. "Don't read the liner cards; say it to me," was another of my favorites, usually because a day later the air staff would get a memo saying, "Read the damn liner cards." Air check sessions were supposed to be private due to the extreme level of humiliation involved, but there was no mistaking what was going on behind that closed door with all those ZWWWORPs.

Most of the recordings were lost due to the tape wearing out, or having an unfortunate conflict of interests with a hammer after a particularly trying air check session. The better cassettes were recycled for entertainment purposes and now hold The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. But a few tapes survived and now sit in archival storage in my basement where they are rediscovered during a hapless search for Christmas decorations. And being the fool that I am, I will pop a few in the player - yes, I still have cassette decks - and listen. And it hurts.

God, I sucked.

But after listening for a few minutes, I come to realize there were a lot of factors working against me in those early days. It was the salad days of MTV, where VJ's could talk about the music in a more informal, one-on-one approach than most Top-40 or rock stations would allow. Working on a top-40 or "Q" format in those days was like booking a clown for your child's birthday party: nobody really does that anymore. The main media influence of the day was David Letterman, and an acerbic delivery and wit did not go over well with a program director of a Music of Your Life format. ("Here's Patty Page. She wants to know How Much is That Doggy in the Window, and can he program my VCR?") I didn't fare much better on a small town full-service format. ("1560 KRAP. Paul Harvey is here... and he won't leave. Somebody please give him a ride home. He's drinking all my beer!") When a station I worked for made the jump to all-talk, my show never really got off the ground. Why bash the liberals? We've just had two terms of Reagan and now Herbert Walker Bush is in the White House. We survived the crash of '87 just fine. Everybody's buying Game Boys. Relax. Yeah, that's not how talk radio works.

And so, listening to those tapes reveals a young performer struggling to find his niche, but it also reveals some of the telltale signs that radio, particularly AM, was headed for trouble. If you ever wonder how radio got to be in the shape it's in today, consider these situations and phrases from my air checks of 1989:

AM Stereo

"Here's the latest from Barry Manilow." (Remember, this is 1989.)

Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, on an AM adult contemporary station.

"Your Trading Post of the Air. Call in with your item to sell at..."

"On tomorrow's Focus On [censored] County, the AIDS epidemic. We'll be talking with members of the gay community and address the misconceptions attached to AIDS and being HIV Positive, and we'll debate what should be taught in our schools regarding sex education, anal sex, oral sex, and the spread of STD's. Call in with your opinions during this frank discussion tomorrow at ten. And now, here's one from Andy Williams."

"It's the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, tonight at eight."

"It's a new era here at WSUK. Today, we switch from tape to CD. We've erased and thrown away all our carts. Here's our first song direct from CD. The Beatles. Yesterday. On WSUK. (sung) Yesterday... all my troubles seemed so fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-"

(panting for breath after running from the car after driving through severe weather at 1AM to get to the station to jump in for the panic stricken teenage board op.) "We interrupt Tom Synder to bring this weather bulletin. The National Weather Service has just issued a Tornado-- ZWWWORP!" (The power goes out.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

White Christmas

Ever wanted to know more about the holiday classic movie “White Christmas?” I didn’t think so. Nevertheless, here is

Useless Information About the Movie “White Christmas”

It was the first film released in Paramount’s VistaVision wide screen format, using 65mm film that ran horizontally through the camera. It turned out to be a hardy format, technically superior to CinemaScope. Reliable sources tell that some of the VistaVision equipment was pulled from the mothballs and adapted to make Christopher Reeve fly in “Superman.”

It was the highest grossing film of 1954, topping $12 million. That was a lotta dough back then.

The Bing Crosby we see in WC is the one we are familiar with: cool and debonair if in a slightly outdated manner. (His use of hep cat slang is a little bit like your grandmother getting a tramp stamp.) But the role that gained him an Academy Award nomination that year was in “The Country Girl.” Where his character, an alcoholic down and out signer, is a light year from type.

Danny Kaye was the third choice to play opposite Bing Crosby. First choice was Fred Astaire. (He appeared with Bing in “Holiday Inn” the first film to feature the song “White Christmas.”) Second choice was Donald O’Connor (“Singing In The Rain”) who fell ill.

Danny Kaye got $200,000 plus 10% of the gross. That’s also a lotta dough.

Kaye was given an honorary Oscar at the ceremony of March 30, 1955 for "his unique talents, his service to the Academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people." The academy failed to even nominate Kaye for any film performance, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947).

The Irving Berlin song Count Your Blessings was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song, but it was a very competitive category that year. The winner was Three Coins in the Fountain composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Another nominee was Judy Garland’s signature torch burner The Man That Got Away written by Harold Arlen (“The Wizard of Oz’) with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Other musical highlights in 1954 include the score for “On the Waterfront,” composed by some new guy named Leonard Bernstein. And another newcomer shows up in the scoring for “The Glen Miller Story” in the name of Henry Mancini. On the dark side: Larry Adler did not get credit for his score for “Genevieve” due to red scare blackballing.

The song “Snow” was originally composed by Berlin as “Free” for the Ethel Merman musical “Call Me Madam.” The McCarthy era salute to democracy was reworked into a winter wonderland number after the song was cut from “Madam.” Try to imagine Ethel Merman singing “Free.”

He’s not dancing anymore. Reliable sources say that an uncredited Bob Fosse provided at least some of the choreography. That would explain the more modern look of some of the hot dance numbers, particularly “Joshua” and parts of “Mandy.” Dance legend George Chakiris (“West Side Story”) is quite visible.

A substitute vocalist looped in Vera-Ellen’s singing. There is conflicting information on who did the singing, most likely due to more than one person doing it. Trudy Stevens gets mentioned most often. And for the “Sisters” number, Rosemary Clooney double-tracked herself covering the whole song, a trick she also used in her hit record of the same year Hey There where she talks back to herself.

Yep, those costumes are by Edith Head.

There are continuity errors galore: coffee cups and a pitcher of buttermilk magically refill, and dancers last seen in Vermont somehow perform with Betty in New York. But there’s a factual/historical goof that goes right by most viewers today:

The principle photography for “WC” was shot in late 1953, including the Ed Harrison Show scene complete with a real television camera with New York City’s WNTB call letters. By the time the movie was released in October of 1954, New York’s channel 4 had changed call letters to WRCA. Oops. And, unless you grew up in NYC during the period, you wouldn’t know WNTB was the production headquarters for the NBC network. So the inference is that the gang back in Vermont are somehow watching a local New York City TV station. Not very likely with that lousy set-top antenna. We’ll assume the General watches Ed Sullivan… sorry… Harrison on CBS on WCAX in Burlington, which began broadcasting in September of 1954.

Art imitates life: Rosemary Clooney's sister is named Betty. It was Betty who talked Rosie into performing in a sister act in their teens, and eventually performed regularly on WLW in the '40's.

Some beautiful friendships were born on that Paramount soundstage during the production of "White Christmas." Rosemary Clooney formed a bond with Bing Crosby that lasted the rest of his life. When Clooney suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by, among other things, the assassination of her friend Robert Kennedy, Bing helped her regain her confidence and invited her to join him on a major concert tour in 1975. Bing wrote the forward for Clooney's autobiography This For Remembrance just a month before he died.

Rosie also met actor and dancer Dante DiPaolo at Paramount, who eventually became her life partner. She said they'll never get married. Never And now you know where George gets it. They ended up getting married anyway.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Silent Doom

In my last post, I made a point of how important moments of silence can be in a dramatic performance. Trying to fill every second of air time with something quickly becomes noise. There are times, however, when too much silence can set off panic in master control.

It was back in the days when one of your local TV stations would air classic cartoons from the 40's and 50's... before Oprah and Dr. Phil, and Dr. Oz, and omnipresent reruns of "Everybody Loves Raymond" took over the afternoon schedules. Local stations bought entire collections of cartoons from distributors, originally on 16mm prints struck back in the 50's. Running a "Bugs Bunny Playhouse" kinda thing required master control operators to work more like DJ's: switching sources every six or seven minutes and threading film projectors during a two-minute commercial break.

The cartoon in question is a Tom and Jerry outing titled "Sorry Safari," originally released in 1962, and directed by Gene Deitch. At one point in the cartoon, Tom's owner, now a cranky white guy instead of Mammy Two-Shoes (Deitch despised the racism in the Hanna-Barbara directed shorts), takes his anger out on Tom by wrapping a rifle around Tom's head and pulling the trigger. (Deitch also despised the violence, but not enough to turn away a job.) The gun blast temporarily deafens Tom. The soundtrack goes silent so that we, the cartoon viewer, can get the joke.

Now, here's the problem: in a movie theater, where this cartoon was originally intended to screened, a point-of-view sound gag can be quite effective... and back in the projectionist booth the reel can would contain a note to the projectionist that there will be silence for 20 seconds during the cartoon. But, in a TV station, things are quite different.

Dead air, as we call it, is the bane of broadcasting. Extended silence on the air quite literally sets off alarms in the control room - silence detectors are set to warn operators there's something wrong - and invariably the phone rings with someone at the other end asking, "Do you know you're off the air?"

So here's this clever silence gag in the middle of what would ordinarily be a frantic soundtrack. Now you should know that master control operators can't always watch every second of every program they have to air. There are feeds to record, transmitters to watch, and the cute little number from the sales department who stopped by to ask a question. So when the audio suddenly goes quiet, after about five seconds, master control goes into Scramble Mode. Is it the playback? Did we lose the feed? Is it a transmitter issue? Check the link to the transmitter. Call the on-call engineer. Where's his number? Somebody get the phone! Where in the Chyron did they file the "audio difficulties" crawl? Oh crap, I'm gonna get fired. Not again.

And, of course, twenty seconds later the sound comes back, and watching Tom's reaction to being able to hear again, you realize you've been the victim of a sound gag perpetrated by some clever scoundrel. (That would be you, Gene.)

We put up with a lot of annoying sound effects in master control: an incessantly ringing phone, a crying baby, or somebody giving birth - again - on "Grey's Anatomy." But nothing livened things up quite the same as that twenty seconds of sheer panic we got during a Tom and Jerry cartoon...

Except for maybe the ending on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Yes, yes, Tom, we know there's a problem. We're working on it.