Editor’s Note: Stan Saran shared an earlier version of this article with Coastal Breeze News readers in 2010. In Larry King’s memory, we would like to share this updated version.
I grew up on the southern end of Miami Beach in what is now the very popular, and very trendy, South Beach (SoBe) Art Deco area.
My art deco style house, on beautiful Sunset Bay, was located only a few blocks from the elegant Lincoln Road and the not so elegant Ocean Drive area, now called Deco Drive.
By the late 1940’s, the beautiful Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive had fallen into disrepair and the area had become seedy, although it did get a lift when Frank Sinatra came there in 1958 to use the South Beach Art Deco hotels as a backdrop for his movie, “A Hole in the Head”.
Located on South Beach, in an Art Deco building, was an old and famous radio station with the call letters WKAT. The station called itself, “The Big Kat on Miami Beach”. It was one of the earliest radio stations in the country having gone on the air during the 1920’s.
In 1959, I became friendly with a WKAT disc jockey by the name of Dan Chandler, who spun records between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday night. His show consisted of dreamy, romantic music by male and female singers from the 1940’s and 1950’s. I became very close friends with Dan and on many nights, I would sit in the broadcast studio with him while he spun records and chatted in sultry tones to his mostly female audience. Dan Chandler was what the business called a radio personality. At that time, Dan had the most popular evening radio show in all of Miami and Miami Beach.
One interesting aspect of that radio station is still vivid in my memory. The station’s transmitter was in a small, free-standing room within the building, and adjacent to the broadcast studio. The eight–foot by ten–foot room had its own ceiling, with large, thick glass windows on all four sides.
Within the free-standing room were large wood and metal boxes adorned with brightly lit meters, gauges, switches, and dials. Connecting the boxes together were a spaghetti maze of thick gray, black, red, and white wires tipped with brightly polished brass clips and plugs. The wood and metal boxes, and all the natural wood treatments within the small room, were elegantly hand crafted and beautifully finished with a warm, high gloss varnish. Very Art Deco.
But the most significant elements within the small room were the four large, clear, glass vacuum tubes that amplified the station’s signal and sent it to the tall transmitting tower on top of the building to be broadcast all over South Florida and the Caribbean. I learned that those large, hand blown glass vacuum tubes had been installed 40 years earlier when the radio station was built in the 1920’s.
The four–foot high and two–foot round glass vacuum tubes were topped with shiny brass caps. Within the vacuum tubes were red hot, spring-like filaments and wires that brightly glowed and randomly pulsated as they boosted the station’s signal to 50,000 watts.
In 1959 it was a surreal and mesmerizing sight. Today, tiny obscure transistors do the work of those giant glass vacuum tubes. Transistors are not as exciting or romantic as those glowing and pulsating vacuum tubes! But I guess it’s called progress.
Often on a Saturday night, after Dan Chandler signed-off in a deep, sexy baritone voice with the provocative words, “sleep warm”, we would jump into his 1957 MG convertible and drive across the long-bridged causeway that joined Miami Beach to the City of Miami. Our destination was the broadcast studio of another popular radio station, WINZ. Later WIOD. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, WINZ was located in the penthouse of the tallest building in downtown Miami. The station’s 15th floor broadcast studio had floor to ceiling picture windows overlooking the city.
We went to WINZ to visit a fellow DJ who’s show went on until 1 a.m. While listening to our friend and his music selections, we would quietly sit next to him in his darkened studio. I very distinctly recall the city lights of Miami stretching out for miles below us like jewels set against black velvet.
The DJ we were visiting always sat in complete darkness except for the muted light of the meters on his control console.
The DJ we went to visit on those many Saturday nights was Larry King.
Larry King began his radio career at a very small, low powered South Beach station in 1957. His first gig on WAHR was the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning show. As Larry recounted the story, one day after his morning show, the station manager asked Larry to fill in for the all–night, midnight to 6 a.m. DJ who was out sick. On that first night, while he was on air, he received a phone call from a woman who audaciously suggested he leave his LIVE radio show and the station and meet her at her home for sex. In a book he wrote a few years back, Larry writes freely about what happened during those late–night hours. Leaving a live radio show got him fired the next day. What a fiasco that night turned out to be for Larry and the radio station.
From WAHR, Larry moved to the Big Kat, WKAT, when he was offered a whopping $100 a week. Big money in 1957 for a relatively unknown local DJ in those days.
Dan Chandler met Larry King when Larry moved his morning show to WKAT. While working together at the same radio station, they eventually struck up a close relationship. Dan, who was a professional radio personality, began mentoring Larry by teaching him the ways of a seasoned radio DJ. In those days, Larry King had very little to no personality, but a lot of enthusiasm and perseverance.
After Dan introduced me to Larry, the three of us, over a period of time, became close friends. Larry was not an easy person to befriend at first. It took a while.
Back then, Larry was just another Miami DJ with little fame or following other than a small group of late–night listeners. He played the popular “Hit Parade” recordings of the moment with very little boring chit-chat thrown in now and then. His radio show was mediocre at best.
Talk radio was an idea whose time had not yet arrived but even back then, Larry was slowly edging toward that format. He had, by chance, met some famous and important national figures in entertainment, sports and government and fortuitously interviewed them on the radio. Lady Luck was with Larry all throughout his career.
I’ll never forget that one special night, after Larry signed off, when he looked over at Dan and me and asked, “Do you think I should talk more between cuts?”
I recall Dan thinking for a moment then saying, “Sure…that might be interesting. Being late at night there are a bunch of lonely people out there who would like to be directly spoken to. It’ll get you closer to your audience.”
Well, we all know now what an interesting answer and instruction that was! Larry took that advice and eventually became the prime communicator and most skilled interviewer of the 20th century.
After Larry’s sign-off, the three of us would go out on the town until sunrise, hitting all the hot spots around Miami. As I recall, Larry never drank hard liquor but smoked cigarettes. Being out and about was easy back then. Radio jocks were not as recognizable as TV personalities.
Occasionally when he was in town, Larry’s friend, Lenny Bruce, the groundbreaking, foul-mouthed yet gifted, sharp, and quick-witted comedian, would join us. To say the least, Larry King, Lenny Bruce, Dan Chandler, and I had some very wild and interesting experiences together, which I will always remember and which I can hardly forget. I’ve always felt that Larry learned his self–confidence and his ability to take chances in his life from Lenny. Larry’s turbulent personality and career showed that.
Offstage, Lenny Bruce was a nice, quiet but unstable guy, who never uttered a swear word but had a unique take on the world and usually acted it out. He met an untimely death but still remains an icon of comedy to this very day.
Dan Chandler eventually left radio and became an actor on the very popular TV show, “Flipper”. After “Flipper”, Dan moved to Atlanta and went into the sound production business. For many years, Dan was the voice of The Weather Channel. His full, round baritone voice could be heard on TV documentaries and commercials.
I remained friends with Larry until he left Miami radio for brighter horizons and we all know where that took him.
Larry King, in those early days, was a dark shadowy figure. Very thin and weasel-like. Always dressed in black like a 1950’s beatnik. He was usually cantankerous. Nasty at times. Aloof. A person with little or no confidence or personality.
It was hard not to notice his bad teeth. He once told me that no one in his poor Brooklyn neighborhood knew anything about brushing their teeth. “We were so poor we couldn’t have afforded a toothbrush anyway.”
Larry was actually quite a standoffish figure back then. Almost everyone during those early years found him difficult to tolerate at times. As the years went on, Larry lightened up and became more accessible and friendly with the public and the personalities, celebrities or rebels he was at times intensely interviewing.
Larry King was one of the most provocative, inquisitive, unique, interesting, talented, success driven and complicated people I ever met.
Rest in peace, Larry. It was great knowing you.
Stan Saran has been a glass artist, a clothing designer, and a record producer living on Marco Island since 1988. This story is part of the memoir he has been writing about his extraordinary life.