Monday, October 26, 2020

Memories of a Cantankerous King

Larry King. Submitted photo

Larry King. Submitted photo

From the memoirs of Stan Saran

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 elegant Lincoln Road and the then not-so-elegant Ocean Drive area, now called DECO DRIVE.

By the late 1940’s, the many beautiful Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive had fallen into disrepair and the area had become seedy, although it did get a lift up when Frank Sinatra came there in 1959 to film the 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 Disk Jockey by the name of Dan Chandler. Dan spun records between 6 and 11 p.m. week nights and Saturday night. His show consisted of dreamy romantic music by male and female singers from the 1940’s and 50’s. I became very close friends with Dan and on many evenings 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 early evening radio show in the Miami area.

On many occasions, when the newsman failed to show up at the top of the hour, I was pressed into service reading the news and weather on the air. I would take the latest world and national news right off the continuous ribbon of yellow paper that spewed out of the large and noisy AP WIRE machine and read it on the air. Then, as Dan played a commercial, I would pick up a special telephone and call him in the broadcast studio. He would patch me onto the air as I read the latest weather report over a tinny sounding phone as if I were calling it in from some remote office of the National Weather Bureau. What fun that was!

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 8’ by 10’ room had its own ceiling and 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 was a spaghetti maze of gray, black, red and white wires, tipped with brightly polished brass plugs. The wood and metal boxes and all the natural wood treatments within the small room were elegantly handcrafted 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 tubes that amplified the radio station’s signal and sent it to the transmitting tower to be broadcast all over South Florida and the Caribbean. I learned that those large, glass radio tubes had been installed when the radio station was built in the 1920’s and that they had been hand-blown and installed by RCA radio engineers.

The four-foot high and two-foot round glass radio tubes were topped with shiny brass caps. Within the tubes were red hot, spring-like filaments and wires that brightly glowed and randomly pulsated as they boosted the station’s signal strength to 50,000 watts. In 1959, it was a surreal and mesmerizing sight! Today, tiny obscure transistors do the work of these giant, pulsating glass radio tubes. Not very exciting or romantic – I guess it is called progress.

Often, on a Saturday night, after Dan Chandler signed off his radio show with the provocative words … “sleep warm,” we would jump into his 1957 MG convertible and drive across a 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 called WIOD. During the 1950’s, WINZ was located in the penthouse of the second tallest building in downtown Miami. The station’s 15th floor broadcast studio had floor to ceiling picture windows overlooking the City of Miami.

We went to WINZ to visit a fellow DJ whose show went on until 1 a.m. While listening to our friend and his musical selections, we would quietly sit next to him in his darkened studio. I very distinctly remember 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 lights of the dials and meters in his control console.

The DJ we went to visit on those many Saturday nights was Larry King.

Larry King began his Miami radio career in 1957 at a very small, South Beach station. His first gig, on WAHR, was the 6 to 9 a.m. morning show. 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 night, while Larry was on the 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 nearby home for … ! In his recent book, Larry writes freely about what happened during those late night hours. Back then, hearing it directly from Larry had me rolling on the floor laughing. What a fiasco that night turned out to be! A situation like that would have ended most careers but Larry’s star was destined for something greater.

From WAHR, Larry moved to the BIG KAT – WKAT, when he was offered a whopping $100 a week. Big money for a local, relatively unknown DJ in those days.

Dan Chandler met Larry King when Larry moved his morning show to WKAT. While working together, they eventually struck up a close relationship. Dan began mentoring Larry by teaching him the ways of a radio personality. In those days, Larry had very little personality. He was an introvert who rarely smiled.

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. It took awhile!

Back then, Larry was just another Miami DJ with little fame or following other than a small group of late night listeners. He played popular HIT PARADE recordings of the moment with some very strained and 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, as I remember back, Larry was slowly and uncomfortably edging toward that format.

He had, by chance, met some important and famous national figures in entertainment and government and had awkwardly interviewed them on the radio.

I’ll never forget that one very special night, after Larry signed-off the air. He looked over at Dan and me and with the utmost of seriousness asked, “Do you think I should talk more about current stuff between cuts?”

I remember Dan thinking for a moment, then saying, “Sure … that might be interesting. It’ll get you closer to your audience.”

Well! We all know what an interesting and inspired answer that was. A “BE THERE” MOMENT IN TIME I’LL NEVER FORGET!

After Larry’s sign-off, the three of us would go out on the town until sunrise, hitting all the hot spots on Miami Beach and along the 79th Street Causeway. It was easy to remain anonymous; radio jocks were not recognizable as were TV personalities. As I remember, Larry seemed to be okay with that. But, I was never really sure. It seemed like Larry wanted more.

Occasionally, when he was in town, Larry’s friend Lenny Bruce, the foul-mouthed yet gifted and sharp-witted comedian, would join us. Lenny was a hard drinker but Larry never imbibed much. To say the very least, Larry King, Lenny Bruce, Dan Chandler and I had some very interesting experiences together … which I will always remember, well I can hardly forget! Enough said!

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.

Lenny Bruce met an untimely death but still remains an icon of comedy to this very day. Many comedians have based their acts on his shtick.

I remained friends with Larry until he left Miami Radio for brighter horizons .. and we all know where that has taken 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 Beatnick. He was usually cantankerous. Nasty at times. Aloof. A person with little or no confidence or personality.

Larry was actually quite a disgusting figure. Almost everyone, during those early years, found him difficult to tolerate at times.

I particularly remember his teeth which were black with rot along the gum line. Not a pretty picture! Larry was always quite aware of it. He once told me that no one in his very poor Brooklyn neighborhood knew anything about brushing their teeth. “We couldn’t have afforded a toothbrush anyway!” If one remembers when Larry began his nightly gig on CNN, he would always hold his head in a downward position so his teeth wouldn’t show.

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