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Cardella: Summertime Radio

As you prepare to pull off the Garden State Parkway into Wildwood, your car radio picks up … static and all … an AM station playing an old Fats Domino record. And suddenly you find yourself in the summer of 1960.

There are two radio stations — AM and an FM — in the converted little white house at Magnolia and New Jersey avenues. Inside, the spotless radio equipment gleams brightly. The station’s owner, Frank Mastrangelo, is a fastidiously neat man whose main business is construction. But he takes pride in his tidy seashore stations. The FM station plays only what is called in the trade “elevator music.” All Mantovani all the time.

If Mastrangelo had his way, his AM station WCMC would play nothing but soft instrumentals and songs by barbershop quartets. He loved barbershop quartets, but he couldn’t convince his disc jockeys to play a song by the Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet now and then. They laughed at him.

Mastrangelo was a devout Catholic. The censorship arm of the Church, the Catholic Legion of Decency, had found the movie A SUMMER PLACE objectionable in part. He didn’t want his station promoting the film by playing what was the No. 1 hit in the summer of 1960, Percy Faith’s A THEME FROM A SUMMER PLACE. He forbade it. But that imp doing the morning show, Tom Moran, tried to slip one by him by playing the record. The song had been released on a “45 rpm” record, a small round red plastic disc with a big hole in the middle. When Mastrangelo heard the opening notes of the instrumental, he charged into the studio. As Moran looked on smiling, Mastrangelo ripped the disc off the turntable and was so furious he tried to break it over his knee. The plastic disc refused to break. God knows what listeners thought was happening as Mastrangelo scuffled and grunted in vain. He almost fired Moran, but thought better of it. Moran was too valuable and it was mid-summer, when advertising sales were up, so he just stormed back out of the studio with the record and didn’t talk to Moran for the next week.

It was into this weird setting that I got hired straight out of Temple. Wow, my first radio job, I thought as I began to do the 6 p.m. news. That’s when some kid named Carl turned out the studio lights on me and proceeded to pee in the waste basket a couple of feet in front of me. Just to break me up. He failed. Luckily for me.

I got a room at the Rainbow Apartments, which was run by the recently widowed Mrs. Altieri. The setup was not ideal. You shared a clean room with other guys who came and went throughout the summer. You rarely saw them. They were mostly waiters and the like.

I worked the night shift at the radio station. That meant a six o’clock newscast, then acting as a rock and roll DJ for an hour, and then taking a break while the station broadcast The Rosary Hour from St. Ann’s, followed by a dance party broadcast from the Starlight Ballroom, hosted by “the old shoe” Jack Lawlor. After that improbable programming lineup, I finally got back on the air playing modern jazz into the night.

WCMC already had a jazz show on weekends. An older guy with a touch of osteoporosis and a taste for turtlenecks hosted the show. He took an immediate dislike to me for encroaching on his jazz turf. I ignored him and eventually he kept to himself, pseudo-hip language and all.

I soon discovered the radio station had its own “groupie.” She was a harmless soul. There was nothing sexual about the relationships she formed with the all-night disc jockeys, including me. In fact, we never saw her. She’d call me off the air and offer me conversation to while away the loneliness that affects every person stuck on a “graveyard shift.” She had this tiny voice. We called her “The Saint.” It was impossible to determine her age. She even wrote to me for a while after I abruptly left the station after Labor Day. Her writing was just as small and fragile. I thought of her as Laura, the girl in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I’ve often wondered what happened to her through the years.

Gene, one of the other disc jockeys, stopped by one night while I was on the air. He was about to walk to the nearby Starlight Ballroom, where he’d be hosting a dance contest. So, he’d parked his shiny new convertible in the radio station parking lot and ducked his head into the on-air studio to say hi and tell me he’d be back for the car before my shift was over.

He was gone maybe a half-hour when I heard heavy rain falling outside. Gene had left the top down on his convertible. I quickly put a long-playing record on the air to give me time to put the top up. But since I didn’t drive, I didn’t know anything about cars. Disaster followed. As the rain soaked me and the interior of Gene’s car, I frantically pushed buttons on the dashboard, but nothing worked. I ran inside just before the record ended. So drenched, I had to strip to my underwear. I called the cops, described who I was and that I needed someone to tell me how to get the top down on the car. The cops thought I was nuts. And that’s how Gene found me when he returned to the station. In my underwear with my wet slacks and shirt hanging up to dry in the studio.

And if anything, things got wilder.

Continued next week.

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