From the Land of Band Box Records

American Dream…

August 8, 2018

The True ‘Soundtrack of Our Lives’

All of the following was spurned on by my reading Wolfman Jack’s autobiography “Have Mercy! which was first published in June of 1995.  As previously posted the Wolfman was born Robert Weston Smith and went by Bob Smith.  Bob spent much of his early broadcasting career in the mysterious shadows of his persona, not being seen on TV or public place.  Until, that is, when he made the move to California where the mysterious Wolfman would emerge for all to see and enjoy.

Sadly, the Wolfman would pass away – dying very suddenly from a heart attack on July 1st, 1995 in the driveway of his home not long after completing a broadcast and after coming home from a promotional launch of his book.  He was just 57 years-old at the time of his death.

Student Film Project

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USC’s Promising Film Student

Back in the early 1970’s a former University of Southern California film student was formulating a long-time idea for a motion picture.  The student had garnered some attention within his college environment where his student film projects were enthusiastically embraced by – yes – students.

Among his projects was one – which won a prize when submitted to the “National Student Film Festival” in 1967 – originally titled “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB” and later shortened to “THX 1138 4EB”.  But it was another student film “The Emperor” – a very short 20-minute production, which would set the stage for the future for George Lucas.

“The Emperor” was based on a California radio DJ named Bob Hudson who broadcast in L.A. as “The Emperor”.  The film was very well-received in 1967 – at which time Lucas was then a USC graduate student.

Bob Hudson would be named by Billboard Magazine as the number 1 ranked DJ in the morning drive in massive Los Angeles in 1966 spinning discs for the kingpin station KRLA (he had migrated from San Francisco’s KYA in 1962).  Also in 1966, Hudson would record a strange novelty parody of Napoleon XIV’s hit “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”, Hudson’s being titled “I’m Normal” with Landry recording as “The Emperor”.  The track achieved a very humble number 146 ranking for one week.

In the early 1970’s Bob teamed up with another DJ, Ron Landry, recording for Dore Records as “Hudson and Landry” – making many comedy appearances on major variety TV shows.

When Lucas was formulating his ideas for his film, he was envisioning the Wolfman as the central figure, having grown up in Modesto, California listening to the mysterious DJ broadcasting out of Los Angeles.  But Lucas was not able to find his way to meet up with Bob Smith.

So life continued on for Lucas – He was determined to keep his dream of a semi-biographical ‘coming of age’ flick.  He got a break of sorts when Universal Pictures decided to take a chance with his idea.  But they weren’t going to take much of chance and most likely only offered to work with the young Lucas based on film producer Francis Ford Coppola taking a liking to George’s script idea.  Coppola was fresh off his highly successful “The Godfather” and so he exerted some clout and influence.

Hollywood Becons the Wolf

Image result for wolfman jackSo now slow forward back (what?) to Bob Smith, sitting in Hollywood, where his radio station adventures had been dealt a severe blow when his station group was informed by Mexican authorities that they would no longer permit evangelic broadcasts into their country where the better part of the population has Catholic.

Religious programs accounted for nearly 80 percent of Wolfman’s station broadcasts and so very suddenly his radio group found themselves in dire straits.  They had invested very heavily in station broadcasting equipment, paying cash when their income from Christian programs evaporated.

And so it was with some caution but more curiosity than anything that the Wolfman, accompanied by his friend Don Kelley decided to respond to a memo which had been earlier tossed aside by Wolman’s manager and left as refuse.  Earlier, Kelley had noticed the memo sitting at the edge of the manager’s desk with Bob Smith’s name on it and asked why the movie studio had called.  He was told that they wanted to interview Smith for a movie part but he told Universal to pound salt when he asked how much would be paid to Smith to do the interview – to which they responded that actors weren’t paid for interviews.

Kelley wisely retrieved the memo and brought it to The Wolfman.  So off they went to Universal where they were quietly greeted and guided to a remote spot on the studio lot, to a tiny non-air conditioned trailer.  Inside was a receptionist secretary who had been instructed to provide the pair with a film script to review while awaiting the arrival of young George Lucas.

The Wolfman began casually scanning the first page – and the decided to just start skipping throw random pages.  He became alarmed and asked his friend Kelley to step out of the trailer for a moment.  He worriedly told Kelley that he was finding his name in the script on basically every single page he glanced out, with notations saying “the Wolfman says this” and the Wolfman says that”.

Kelley asked what the problem was.  Smith replied that he was worried about how much Universal was going to charge for all of that “publicity” not being wise in the ways of motion picture production.  Kelley assured him that actors don’t pay studios – but it goes the other way.

They returned to the trailer, Lucas arrived for the meeting, the three hit it off big time, and “Wolfman Jack” was signed to a whopping $3,000 acting fee to perform in this movie “American Graffiti”.  It was a god send for Smith, who was in deep trouble due to the demise of his radio holdings.

Universal Disrespect

American Graffiti was set in the early 1960’s and was meant to depict Lucas’ home town of Modesto.  But he did choose his town feeling that it had changed too much to convey the right setting.  Initially the film began shooting in San Rafael but logistic problems and a cool reception by town fathers forced a move north to Petaluma, California, where filming would proceed to conclusion.

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Cruisin in California Small Town

Universal exec’s disliked the movie, the premise, the money – nearly everything and most likely would have killed the project midway had it not been for Coppola whipping out his check book telling them he would immediately take the project away from them sending it to a competitor.  At the time, Universal wanted to completely re-cut the movie but Lucas refused – backed by Coppola.

Universal reluctantly backed off – re-cutting just three scenes – the balance proceeded into the final cut.

The next slap in the face for Lucas was Universal’s stingy ‘non’ promotion approach for Graffiti.  They released the film in the Spring of 1973 without any promotional push.  Wolfman took the matter into his own hands – getting behind a premier showing by enthusiastically pushing the event on his radio show.  The premier was a huge success with hundreds of teens being turned away at the theater.

Sharing the Spoils of Graffiti

Next, Wolfman continued to push – paying out of his own pocket, doing promotional events at 10 California movie theaters.  Universal took notice when the 10 theaters overwhelmingly out-drew audiences in other test locations chosen by Universal around the nation.

This gesture on the part of Wolfman Jack would become a life changer down the road.  After American Graffiti took off – slowly at first – but steadily – and made it’s first 20 million dollars, Bob Smith would receive a piece of mail one day – from his autobiography:  “I looked in the afternoon mail and found a letter from George Lucas and partner Gary Kurtz.  In it, they outright gave me the perpetual rights to a small percentage (of the film).  I just about had a heart attack!”

The next three checks from Lucas and company would completely rescue Smith from his debts.  And then, about every six months or so “the checks kept on coming for a long time – about $150,000 to $200,00 every six months.”

Saving the Soundtrack

Those Oldies But Goodies

Lucas and American Graffiti would achieve lasting fame with the entire soundtrack backdrop a running commentary from “Wolfman Jack on the Air” adorning the turntable with magical doo-wop and classic rock gems for the most part.  Lucas and Smith poured over radio tapes from Smith’s archived broadcasts picking out dedications and live listener requests to use or reenact in the film.  And they teamed up to select the songs.

Here again, Universal – concerned about paying royalties – wanted to record the songs with a ‘sound-a-like’ orchestra!  Can you imagine???  Again, Lucas resisted.  And so a deal was cut with music publishers to all accept a flat fee.  The total cost was $90,000.  This deal was accepted by all companies except for RCA which blocked any Elvis tune from making the final cut.  Every song used in the film was included one the three soundtrack long plays with the exception of “Gee” by the Crows – which did make the second volume of the soundtrack.

The publication fee agreement left Universal with very little capitol with which they were willing to part and so they informed Lucas that they could not afford any other soundtrack music – as is usually utilized in motion pictures.  This was a no brainer for Lucas and Smith, the movie would simply feature a continuous stream of songs coming in ‘live’ from the Wolfman Jack program – broadcast to us – the audience via the many souped up cars constantly cruising the streets of ‘Modesto’.

The effect was the crowning touch for the movie – setting the picture solidly in 1962 (or thereabouts since a few of the tunes post dated ’62) – a page right out of our lives – or at least as we imagined our lives had once been.

Low Budget = Unknown Talent

The show featured many young upstarts, all working for very low wages due to the very restricted budget.  Ron Howard had the most experience from his Andy Griffith days.  The others – and there were many more than we generally remember, for all practical purposes were making a motion picture ‘debut’.

American Graffiti went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark as “Debbie”).  No Academy Awards were received but then no one ever thought the movie would get out of the studio.  It did win Best Motion Picture in Musical/Comedy category at the Golden Globe Awards.  Paul Le Mat won a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe for his role as “John Milner”.  Dreyfuss received a node by the Globes as “Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical”.  Lucas won an Outstanding Director award from the Directors Guild of America.  Cindy Williams won a Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role as “Laurie” from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Only Ron Howard was left out but would make up for it as we all know in the not-so-distant future.

Laurie & Steve (Cindy Williams/Ron Howard) – Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) – Debbie & Terry (Candy Clark/Charles Martin Smith) – John Milner (Paul Le Mat) – Carol (MacKenzie Phillips) – Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) – Blonde in the T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) – Joe (Bo Hopkins)

And the Wolfman continued to do his thing – landing a job as Emcee for “The Midnight Special” (at a very low salary) and finally a DJ position back East with WNBC – this time not for peanuts – but an astonishing $350,000 a year!

No Thanks!  Mr. Lucas – A Universal Blunder

During all the ups and downs Lucas experienced with Universal, another ‘down’ was thrown in for good measure.  Based on their trepidation of everything Graffiti, they informed George, when the film was complete – that they absolutely wanted nothing to do with his hair brain idea for a film with that those nutty characters, “Luke Skywalker”, “Hans Solo” and “Princess Leia”!

Another Silly Idea

No problem – George – by 1977 – full of confidence, “Lucasfilms” was started – 20th Century Fox became the studio of choice – Episode IV was released (yes – a confusing order of releases – Episode I would come in 1999) and the rest is – well, show business!

A Colorado Side Note

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Flash Cadillac – At the Hop – American Graffiti

The University of Colorado band “Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids” appeared in the film as “Herby and the Heartbeats” performing “At the Hop”, “Louie, Louie” and “She’s So Fine”.

A Fond Farewell

“American Graffiti” was a bold stroke for 1973.

It was probably the first genuine attempt to acknowledge the times and the music from just a little over a decade earlier from a Baby Boomer’s perspective.  This was the real stuff – not the meanderings of a Hollywood establishment – This wasn’t Gidget or Beach Blanket Bingo.  This wasn’t a silly surfing exercise with monkeys and bikini’s, This wasn’t Paul Lind or Dick Van Dyke cavorting with goofy teens.  American Graffiti was our anthem.  American Graffiti was our ‘soundtrack’.

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Remembering the “Troc”

August 7, 2018

Elitch Garden’s Glorious Trocadero Ballroom

I’ve posted previously about Denver’s beloved Trocadero Ballroom – recalling watching the “greatest generation” as they skillfully glided through the fox trot, waltz – a dance floor seemingly choreographed with hundreds of couples showcasing their individual styles – always coordinated flawlessly as a single dancing body.

elitch gardens trocadero ballroom - Google SearchIt was a sight to behold – this being the mid 1950’s.  While the days of big band hit recordings had at long last came to an end, the nation’s glorious dance venues continued to bask in the glory of earlier times.  Now – as ‘baby boomers’ – we watched in awe – as our parents put on a clinic in the ways of grace and cool.

Even in the mid 1950’s as a ten year-old, I held some degree of appreciation for a time soon to vanish forever.  Looking back now I realize that I was witnessing a generation of folks enjoying the moment, show casing moves without bravado, coming together for a night of fun with their peers – so many of whom had been so tested during their lives by a world often in turmoil.

I came across this interesting ‘test pressing’ at a local used vinyl store recently – an advance issue of “Nine Greats of Jazz, Jazz at the Troc” from July 21st, 1966.

This was the first in an annual series of jazz recordings live from the Trocadero Ballroom featuring prominent national jazz figures and headed by “Peanuts” Hucko.  There were at least three additional long play recordings released by various jazz lineups from 1966 to 1969.

Trocadero Ballroom Dance Floor at Elitch GardensThe Trocadero was located in Denver’s Elitch Gardens – an amusement park and floral garden park.  The park opened in 1890 founded by John and Mary Elitch – who converted their rural farm west of Denver into an exciting venue for Denverites.  In 1892 the park would open it’s famed Elitch Theater – a venue that would feature the leading actors and actresses over the years (Grace Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney, Cecil B. DeMille and so many more).

The beautiful Trocadero was opened in 1917 becoming a major big band ballroom attracting all the biggest bands.

NOTE:  In 1954 the very popular “Kiddie Land” would open – a must annual destination for families with their ‘baby boomer’ children.  Hop-A-Long Cassidy came to town for the grand opening.

And then in 1975 the unthinkable:  The Trocadero is scraped due to a lack of interest in ballroom dancing coupled with the aging of the ‘greatest generation’.  Twenty five years pass by and sadly, Elitch Gardens closes down, moving the amusement park to lower downtown Denver, creating an eyesore and ending a tremendously nostalgic 104 year-run.

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Elitch Theater

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Sunday Matinee

In 1995 a new “Trocadero” is opened for concerts but the glory days are definitely over. To add insult to injury, the national concern, Six Flags purchases Elitch’s in 1998 resulting in “Six Flags Elitch Gardens”.

The 1966 Trocadero Jazz Lineup

Peanuts Hucko:

Was born in New York – He played with many bands and joined the Glenn Miller Army Band during World War II.  Other noted bands included Ray McKinley, Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman.  In in 70’s Hucko led the reformed Glenn Miller Band.  Along the way Hucko made Colorado his home.  He died on June 19th, 2003 at age 85.

Peanuts Hucko, Famous Door, New York, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb 04341).jpg

Ralph Sutton:

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Was from Hamburg, Missouri and like Peanuts Hucko played with Jack Teagarden and also served in the U.S. Army. He became a revolving member of the “The World’s Greatest Jazz Band” in 1968.  And again, like Hucko, Sutton made his home later in life in Evergreen, Colorado where he passed away on December 30th, 2001 at age 79.

Clancy Hayes:

Came out of the State of Kansas.  He made his way to the West Coast appearing around San Francisco with Bob Scobey’s Jazz Band.  Hayes wrote one hit song “Huggin’ and Chalkin” which topped the charts in late 1946 for two weeks recorded by Hoagy Carmichael.  Hayes passed away in San Francisco in March of 1972.

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Bob Haggart:

Was a traditional New Orleans Jazz double bass player born in New York City.  He played with the Bob Crosby band and recorded with Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and many more.  Haggart died on December 2nd, 1998 at the age of 84.

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Haggart (left)

Lawrence “Bud” Freeman:

Was a tenor sax player born in Chicago, Illinois.  He played with many band leaders including Red Nichols and Ben Pollack before joining the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1936.  Like others, Freeman played in a U.S. Army Band in during World War II.  Freeman passed away in a nursing home on March 13th, 1991 in Chicago at age 84

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John “Yank” Lawson:

Came out of Trenton, Missouri and joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra in 1935.  He teamed up with Bob Haggart to form the “Lawson-Haggart” band.  He also played with Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.  He died on February 18th, 1995 at age 84.

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Lou McGarity:

Was as born in Athens, Georgia and played most prominently with Benny Goodman.  He did a stint as a studio musician with Arthur Godfrey on the “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” television program.  He also played with Charlie Parker, Bobby Hackett and many more.  He died on August 28th, 1971.

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Cutty Cutshall:

Was born Robert Dewees Cutshall in 1911.  Like many others he played with Benny Goodman and later Billy Butterfield.  He worked with Eddie Condon’s band for over a decade.  He died on August 16th, 1968, not long after appearing on the first Trocadero recording.

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Morey Feld:

Was born in August of 1915 in Cleveland, Ohio.  He made all the usual stops with Benny Goodman, Ben Pollack, Eddie Condon, Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett.  Like Peanuts Hucko and Ralph Sutton, Morey would make Colorado his home coming to Denver in 1960 where he joined the Peanuts Hucko Quintet.  Morey passed away on March 28th, 1971.

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Jazz In The Troc! – 9 Greats of Jazz – 1966

(The acetate advance pressing is shown here – Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the cover “Inexpertly recorded at Elitch Gardens Trocadero Ballroom July 21, 1966) – There are no other markings on the acetate other than “1” and “2” in crayon marking)

Ralph Sutton, Clancy Hayes, Bud Freeman, Bob Haggart, Peanuts Hucko, Yank Lawson, Morey Feld, Cutty Cutshall, Lou McGarity

Ten Greats of Jazz – Jazz In The Troc -1967

Peanuts Hucko, Yank Lawson, Lou McGarity, Bud Freeman, Ralph Sutton, Moery Feld, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Bob Haggard, Clancy Hayes

Ten Greats of Jazz – Jazz In The Troc – 1968

Peanuts Hucko, Yank Lawson, Lou McGarity, Bud Freeman, Ralph Sutton, Moery Feld, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Bob Haggart, Clancy Hayes

Ten Greats of Jazz – Jazz In the Troc – 1969

Yank Lawson, Lou McGarity, Bud Freeman, Ralph Sutton, Billy Butterfield, Bob Haggart, Clancy Hayes; Gus Johnson; Bob Wilbur; Carl Fontana