Theater of the Mind

Cleveland Radio Tales: Stories from the Local Radio Scene of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, a book by Mike Olszewski and Janice Olszewski from Gray & Company, Publishers – front cover

Book Excerpt

From Cleveland Radio Tales, by Mike and Janice Olszewski

The Crystal Ballroom, a Phony Funeral, and a Trip to Celebrity Donuts

Radio is best when you can visualize what’s happening. We’ve already discussed what Orson Welles did with the Mercury Theater, but a lot of local radio people also staged events, and some really knew how to pull it off.

Music stations were famous for phony rock festivals. In the early Seventies, WNOB-FM in Newbury had a syndicated special called The Ultimate Rock Concert with Brother John Rydgren introducing records and doing stage announcements against the sound of a crowd, with Bob Lewis, “Baba Lou,” cutting in with backstage interviews. Dia Stein really knew her way around the WMMS production studio and put together similar shows like Buzzard Fest and Camp Buzzard, which was aimed at promoting a special WMMS clothing line at the May Company.

John Rio, better known as Mr. Leonard, would play live recordings on the Morning Zoo that he supposedly recorded on stage at local clubs the night before, and once promised he would bungee jump off the Terminal Tower. Here’s the problem: WMMS, and especially Mr. Leonard, were incredibly popular, and on the appointed day a huge crowd clogged up Public Square. They did the jump live in the studio against sound effects, and the switchboard lit up asking where Mr. Leonard was. He just said he did it on the other side of the building so he could look at the secretaries in the lawyers’ offices.

WMMS also performed its own contemporary version of the War of the Worlds for the crowd that provided their own pharmaceutically generated special effects. WCLV did too, a few decades later, featuring local media celebrities and politicians. The driving force behind that production was the mega-talented Jim Mehrling, who a few years back produced nightly vignettes introducing his nightly World of Entertainment show on WERE.

Over the years, and despite the fact that WERE stressed the credibility of its news department, the station staged a good amount of special programming. Back in the mid-1970s, the entire news staff, including Peter Wellish and a young Carl Monday, reported from a phony funeral route for Gary Dee, who would lie in state on Public Square. The live broadcast included remarks by People Power talk show host Merle Pollis and a eulogy by Count John Manolesco, who described the entire event as “A travesty! A mockery!” At that point, Gary Dee peeked out of his casket to loudly heckle “Count Phony Baloney! Hey Doctor Voodoo!”

When WERE had its news and talk format in the 1980s, the reporters put together a phony St. Patrick’s Day parade a couple of years in a row that ran in morning drive. Problem was, people thought it was a real parade and started calling at 7 a.m. asking what streets to avoid.

And, of course, Ray Hoffman’s Sunday show was like an audio acid trip for the upper demos. He would occasionally take the show “on the road,” broadcasting live from the imaginary Celebrity Donuts shop located on Doan Court in downtown Cleveland. Of course, if you know the downtown area, it’s an alley that at the time was behind the Trailways bus station. These were the days before Google maps, so calls would come in asking where the most ornate donut house in the city was located so they could take out-of-town guests. Sometimes Hoffman would tape interviews with guests during the week and play them against the Celebrity Donuts sound effects so it sounded like they were at the remote!

But the one guy who performed theater of the mind longer and better than anyone is pretty much forgotten today.

Wayne Mack was one of the old timers who held on right into the 1990s. Every week starting in the early 1950s, he would broadcast on WDOK-AM from “the balcony radio box at the Waltz Palace, overlooking the great glistening dance floor and the huge stage” at “Northern Ohio’s oldest and most beautiful ballroom.” He said the ballroom was easy to get to, right on the lakefront, just “twenty-two miles outside the city on picturesque Sunset Road.” He encouraged people to come out “tonight if you can” to join hundreds of other couples who were already there and had been coming since it opened in 1921. It wasn’t just the house band either. Some of the biggest names in music would stop in and show the crowd what they could do. But the ballroom was actually between your ears, created with a microphone and a handful of records. Mack had plenty of practice. He had done it so often, and did it so easily that you’d swear he was broadcasting from a big band show. The ballroom had “sparkling chandeliers and red carpeting” and was full of what my grandmother would call “rich society babas” heading out to swanky private parties after a night on the town.

The reason this bit came off so well week after week is that a lot of stations really did broadcast from big dance halls. WHK would air shows from the Glens Pavilion in Bedford, and you’d hear other broadcasts from Geauga Lake, and just about any place with a stage. Bill Randle, Phil McLean, and Bob West would do live jazz shows from clubs and theaters around the city. Still, Mack did it so convincingly that you had to wonder if he really did think he was at the Waltz Palace.

Keep in mind that this was broadcast on the AM band. Most of the audience back then didn’t know or even care that FM existed. AM stations that had FM outlets pretty much just simulcast what was on the AM band. Here’s an example. WERE-FM was at 98.5, and in 1953 the management was thinking about putting on different programming. That December, the station started airing an announcement asking if anyone was out there. It said, “If you can hear this announcement, you are listening to WERE-FM. We beg your pardon for interrupting this program momentarily. This is Ed Stevens, the program director of WERE. We are considering the broadcast of some FM-only programming. However, before we can do this it’s necessary to measure in some way the number of people who listen. We would appreciate a card or letter from you if this announcement is coming into your home, stating simply, ‘I heard the FM announcement’. This is merely an audience measurement and in no way constitutes an offer of any kind. But, you will be helping us with the programming of this station. Remember, if you heard this announcement, please write a letter to WERE, Cleveland 15, Ohio. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Maybe it was the lack of FM tuners or, more likely, a lack of interest, but the response was underwhelming. WERE, like most stations, just kept simulcasting until the FCC required separate FM programming starting in 1968. Then, it wasn’t too long before broadcasters would discover that the sound of cash registers came across so much clearer out of stereo speakers.

Wayne Mack and WDOK-AM were a pair until December 1965. That’s when the AM became WIXY 1260, and Mack was banished to program “the lands of the Western Reserve” on the FM side. Mack made money and ratings for the owners on the FM, but his fans missed him on the more popular AM band. WIXY got huge ratings and was a giant in the industry until FM started to eat up all the AM outlets. In 1976 the station took the call letters WMGC and, in a very conservative Northeast Ohio, caused an uproar with billboards stating, “Get Your Rock Soft.” Three years later, it became WBBG, tried and failed with a talk format, and after a lot of tweaking switched to the same music Mack used to play!

Some said WBBG stood for “Big Band Grandstand,” and it did pretty well until the format switched over to WRMR, the old WJW, in 1987. A lot of the old war horses of Cleveland radio (and that is said with the greatest respect) found a new home with an old audience. It was like a time machine! Carl Reese, Ronnie Barrett, the great Bill Randle . . . and the return of Wayne Mack!

Mack hit the ground running, too. The Palace Ballroom was back on the air, and it had plenty of star power, too. One night in 1993 Mack promised a huge live show with Barbra Streisand singing with Harry James and his orchestra. What made the night even more remarkable was that James had died ten years earlier. No wonder Mack said there were “twenty-six charter buses already parked together and traffic was bumper to bumper on Morningside Drive all the way to Indian Ridge.” WRMR wisely had a disclaimer before every broadcast saying, “Ladies and gentlemen. The following program is pure fantasy, and is not to be confused with any actual place or event. The setting is fictional, and the music is on records and tapes and is intended solely for the entertainment of our listening audience.” The station still took calls asking for directions from listeners who probably shouldn’t have still been driving.

Mack hung on for a good long time, but his health caught up with him. He eventually did what most of his audience had done long before and retired. Pardon the cliché, but Wayne Mack went to the big ballroom in the sky on October 15, 2000.

Let’s go back to Bill Randle.

Randle’s life took a few twists and turns after he left WERE, teaching college classes, picking up a few degrees, and getting his license to practice law. But he kept his toe in the radio pool and, as always, did what he wanted. Program directors knew better than to try to tell Randle what to do. At WRMR he played *NSync along with the “Music of Your Life,” and was one of the first jocks to play 13-year-old LeeAnn Rimes, saying she was going to be a huge star. His audience stayed with him, too.

He also didn’t care what he said to whom or where. One Sunday night there was a broadcasters’ event at a hotel in Akron, and Randle was being honored along with Mike Douglas and some other big names. It wasn’t formal, but most people were in suits and ties—except Randle: open collar, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and you could tell Randle was waiting for someone to say something. The night was going long, and it was finally time for Randle to speak. This was some speech!

Randle told everyone that awards ceremonies and the people behind them are stupid and this was a good example. It was going way too long, and he didn’t need a cheap plaque or a dinner to show he had done something significant. He already knew it, and so did anyone else with a brain. Then he talked about the way radio had degenerated and called one of the current afternoon hosts a “functional illiterate.” He ended his speech—if you call it that—by saying, “One more thing. I don’t believe in God either. What do you think about that?” He left the podium, walked through a crowd of people with their mouths wide open and went through the door to his car.

Eventually, Bill Randle became ill, and as his condition worsened he would “voice track” his show. That’s just a way of digitally recording segments and inserting them between songs. It usually takes 20 minutes to half an hour to lay down the tracks for a four-hour show, but Randle was so weak he would have to rest and it could take him the entire four hours. But as long as there was a place for him to broadcast, he was going to be there.

But WRMR had its own health issues. A loyal audience, good ratings, but let’s face facts—who’s going to buy ad time on a station that caters to people on fixed incomes? People and formats get old, and the comment was that every funeral procession was another ’RMR listener who wouldn’t be replaced. The staff joked that the station’s demos were “55 to dead.” The decision came down to pull the plug on the format, and the final day would be Friday, July 9, 2004. Morning drive ended at 10 a.m. that day, and Ted Alexander came on to do the top-of-the-hour news break. You could tell by his voice that something was wrong. He was shaken and choking back tears, and it wasn’t because of the end of WRMR.

“I was afraid this day would come, and as Jackie Gerber, our morning host on WCLV says, almost cosmic. WRMR is sad to announce that Cleveland radio personality Bill Randle passed away this morning.” He went on after a pause, “That’s pretty tough to say. He’d been ill for an extended time. He was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1924. At the age of 16 he started his journey into broadcasting. He introduced big bands on live radio. He ran a nightclub. He was a concert organizer. He held a doctorate in history. Was a practicing lawyer. Time magazine once called him ‘the number one disc jockey in America.’ Bill Randle.”

You can tell he was struggling, but Alexander soldiered on. “He was the host of the number one radio show in Cleveland on WERE during the week, and the number one radio show in New York City on WCBS on the weekends. People in the industry knew that if he said something was the next big thing, they could take it to the bank. He’s been writing books and he’s been educating himself for years and years. Had many degrees. At one time in his night club he hired a bouncer up in Detroit, Michigan, called ‘Detroit Red’. Later he was known as Malcolm X. Bill, of course, was credited with discovering Elvis Presley, and also Johnnie Ray. Bill also introduced Elvis the first time he was on national TV. Elvis’s career was launched with Bill playing his records first in Cleveland and then in New York.

“Some of the things that Bill Randle did, he made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recording of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ a national hit by simply editing the playing time so it would fit into radio station music schedules for short Top 40 records of the day. After his time on WERE Bill Randle was heard on WBBG 1260 and WRMR 850, sometimes on the air seven days a week. In July 2001, when WRMR 850 switched formats to sports and talk and became WKNR, the standards format came over here.” (Editor’s note: The format and call letters went to 1420 AM, the old WHK.)

He went on to say, “Bill retired for a while to concentrate on his law practice, but he couldn’t stay away from the microphone. So, in July of 2002, Bill was invited back to WRMR and the Cleveland airwaves, first reviving his Juke Box Saturday Night show from 7 to 10, and the Big Show on Sundays.” Alexander started to break down, and ended with “God rest your soul, Bill.”

The remaining hours of WRMR turned into a tribute to one of the most important jocks ever. The day the music died, revisited.

Bill Randle had a huge ego, but he had sure earned it. He didn’t hold anything back. You can’t help but think that Randle was ushered through the pearly gates and told, “The boss wants to see you right away.” And as he stood before the big throne, the angels heard Randle say to the man in charge, “By the way, I don’t believe in you!”

That was Bill Randle!

(Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library)

From the book Cleveland Radio Tales, by Mike & Janice Olszewski. 

© Mike & Janice Olszewski. All rights reserved. This excerpt may not be reproduced without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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