Sunday, 31 January 2016

A Day in The Life of Don Wilson

When Don Wilson was crooning forth in a lusty baritone in a night-time music show with Martin Daugherty and Harry Morton on KLX Oakland in February 1928, little would he have dreamed that awaiting him was a 20-plus-year career as the announcer/rotund stooge on one of the top radio comedy programmes.

But Don had a few moves to make before he headed East and later won an audition in 1934 to be Jack Benny’s announcer. He left the Bay Area for Los Angeles where he and Daugherty worked at Don Lee’s KHJ—then got fired because he bought a Packard. The Packard dealership was owned by Lee’s radio and automobile rival, Earl Anthony. Anthony owned KECA and KFI, and that’s where Wilson ended up in 1929.

Radio in Los Angeles in those days was a far different beast than it was a few years later. Technical limitations prevented radio networks to broadcast from New York and Chicago to the West Coast. So network radio in California meant a network of stations along the coast up to Washington State. And it meant locally-produced programmes featuring local talent—singers, musicians, talks. The few big stars in radio around then were way on the other side of the Rockies.

Here’s a great little story about Don and cohort Ken Carpenter from the February 1930 edition Radio Doings, a Los Angeles-based publication. The author may have exaggerated things a bit, though client interference in radio spot announcements doesn’t seem to have changed much in 86 years. And I suspect there may be radio promotions people around today who think those jocks have it soft.


(Director of Publicity KFI-KECA)
It is strange, indeed, this fascination that surrounds the lives of hunted things—be they birds in the jungle, butterflies in the gardens, speckled trout in the streams or announcers in radio stations.
Insofar as RADIO DOINGS is a magazine devoted in every throbbing line to radio and the modus Vivendi (no relative of spiritus frumenti) of radio workers, let us survey briefly and charitably one day's existence of a radio announcer.
We must first pick our announcer. From this distance, the first we see, munching peanuts behind a condenser microphone, is Don Wilson. It's quite easy to see Don—there's lots of him. And he's nibbling away in Studio A of KFI-KECA.
It's quite early in the morning, quite. Three o'clock, to be exact. Don often begins his day at this hour. Why? Because there's eight hours' difference between Los Angeles and London, and since KFI-KECA often carry speeches delivered and intended by King George or Premier MacDonald for posterity, Don must start work at 3:00 a. m. The knowledge that His Majesty or Mr. MacDonald have just finished one of those dear British breakfasts makes Don not a whit happier. Don's heart as a matter of fact is not, as we would think, in the words of royalty or viziership. Don, to put it in homely language, wishes he were in the hay—with hot cakes and nude bacon (beg pardon, I meant stripped bacon), still five hours away.
London signs off at four. Don turns the microphone over to another very sleepy and slightly irritated announcer, Kenneth Carpenter. Mr. Carpenter came to work in the belief that the program would continue for another hour. But it didn't continue. That ubiquitous and fugitive factor, "atmospheric conditions," did not allow it.
St we have two announcers sipping coffee before dawn, their matutinal dispositions ruined.
At eight o'clock Mr. Wilson returns to the studio. He is scheduled to announce a program for Lizzy Doakes, who breathes passionate blues and heart-broken ballads for the large-and-not-to-be-despised chamber-maid audience.
Lizzy is not in the studio. Time creeps to thirty seconds before eight. Don, in a cold sweat, wonders what to do if the delectable Lizzy doesn't show up. He is still wondering as he makes his sign-on announcement.
As he finishes speaking, the door opens and Lizzy saunters in, her accompanist at her heels, both giggling and chewing toffee. Don whispers: "Got your program?"
More giggles. No, they haven't their program.
"Then for Gawd's sake start singin'. Gimme the first number."
Don chatters amiably into the microphone until Blues-and-Ballads starts crooning. Thereafter, it is catch-as-catch-can to get from her, without being heard, the remaining numbers. Their public is saved, but Don's nerves are scratchy.
In the meantime, Gene Grant of the commercial department is having words with Mr. Kenneth Carpenter and another gentleman "Ken," says Gene, "this is Mr. Greenbaum, sponsor of the doughnut program Wednesday mornings. Mr. Greenbaum does not feel, in fact he is almost certain, that we could improve the way we put over his announcement. Maybe you could get together ..."
Mr. Greenbaum cuts in:
"We want it more enthusiasm in the voice. When you says 'doughnuts that you needn't dunk," you gotta get strong when you say 'needn't,' see? You gotta give it a little thought. Start kinda easy and slow and then give 'em everything on 'needn't.' It's an art, I tell you!"
"Well, perhaps I could do better if I understood the slogan better."
"You don't hafta. It's just a slogan. Sounds kinda cute, that's all. Just give 'em the big shot like I told you. Make 'em believe in doughnuts. Make 'em doughnut-conscious, see?"
"I see."
"Yeh—see that you do. Do sump'n. My wife (she took lessons in elocution once and she knows) don't like it the way you do."
Wilson is through with Lizzy Doakes. He is now announcing a program by Jascha Novgorod, violinist. M. Novgorod persists in touching the microphone, and Don has to issue dire warnings. M. Novgorod also neglected to inform either the program department or Mr. Wilson what he would play. M. Novgorod is a very proud and touchy gentleman whose family, of course, was driven from high estates and impoverished by the Bolsheviki.
Time, to M. Novgorod, is nothing. The fact that he must make way at ten sharp for an international broadcast disturbs him not at all. To him it is far more important that the Corelli variations be finished to the last harmonic.
Mr. Wilson gently, but firmly, disconnects M. Novgorod's microphone and signs-on the international broadcast. M. Novgorod, in Russian, announces himself the eternal enemy of that unfeeling monster, Mr. Wilson. Harry Hall, assistant program director, summons Mr. Carpenter.
"You'll have to take on the symphony concert tonight at nine, and at ten you'll have to be mastcr-of-ceremonies at the Hi-Life cafe." "Okay. But I came to work at four."
"Can't help it. We're short-handed."
"There's a continuity for the symphony, of course?"
"If we can get Mr. Rodriguez to write one. But he's not here."
"He's never here, the snake."
Mr. Wilson is next.
"Don, you'll have to read up on Einstein. We're broadcasting a banquet tonight from the University Club. He's going to speak, and you'll have to ad lib for some time."
"Holy cats! Einstein? How can I? I can't even understand my stub-book."
"Well, read up on him. The banquet starts at seven."
"But I've been working since three this morning!"
"Can't help it. We're short-handed."
"Can't Mr. Rodriguez write something about Einstein?"
"He's not here."
"Is he ever here?"
Mr. Rodriguez is miraculously found, and persuaded by guileful flattery to write material for both symphony and Einstein. So he prepares some acceptable and non-commital phrasery about the Coriolan overture and the shifting of the infra-red rays. But no mention is made of the infra-red rays at the banquet and the symphony conductor decides at the last minute to play the Egmont overture.
The announcers, both in a state of nervous collapse, are compelled to extemporize. Being gentlemen of infinite resource and sagacity, however, they acquit themselves nobly.
So, in spite of the exhausting requirements of the day, of which the above is only a partial picture, they both leave the studios at midnight, conscious of duty well performed. As they pass out of the elevator, they hear two orchestral players lamenting their own fate.
"My Gawd, Bill—what a life! Rehearsing since nine this morning. And then getting bawled out because that damn' tenor can't count up to four. And then missing supper!"
"I know. 'S tough. I often wish I was an announcer. Nothing to do but sit on your shoulder-blades all day long reading magazines and once in a while wake up to say, 'This is KECA, Earle C. Anthony, Inc., distributor in California of Packard motor cars.' O boy, what a life!"

1 comment:

  1. Between Lizzy Doakes and M. Novgorod, it appears that divas were not anything new to the late 20th Century. Don must have been overjoyed to be able to join up with Jack's show if what was written here is anything close to what he had to deal with on the West Coast on a daily basis.