(This rather long but I hope interesting post talks about a time, the late 1950s, when the medium of radio was still important for more than talk shows and music, but was being superseded by television. In those days you could drive along the highway on the east shore of San Francisco Bay and look out your car window at the tall broadcasting tower of radio station KRE, one of the many stations in the San Francisco area that traced their origins back to the 1920s when the city was, for a time, a national center for commercial radio. My high school in Berkeley produced a radio program that you could hear every Saturday morning on KRE. This post tells you a few things about it.)
During the tenth grade, when I had begun my first year at Berkeley High School, in 1957, I read an article in the school newspaper describing “Berkeley Hi Lites,” which was the name of our school’s weekly radio show. This was the first I ever knew of the program. The article said there weren’t very many high school radio shows anywhere in the United States, and it talked about the four members of the senior class who wrote and performed the programs. The show aired every Saturday morning for fifteen minutes on the Berkeley-based radio station KRE, which donated time. The article told me that, if I tuned in, I could hear cool jazz, news about our school, and comedy sketches.
I remember being fascinated by the article, although, at the time, I couldn’t explain to myself why. I do remember thinking that it might be fun to be on such a show, but I was not in a confident time of my life, and seniors seemed on a high pedestal, so I didn’t indulge in ambition, and didn’t even bother to tune in to sample the show, because I was usually busy with other things on Saturday mornings, such as sleeping in late, doing chores in the apartment where our family currently lived, or riding my bike to the local park to begin a day of hanging out and playing pickup basketball.
A few months after reading the article, I ran across another, longer story on the program, in the city paper, the Berkeley Gazette. This one showed a photo of the staff gathered around a radio studio control panel. The picture brought back memories from around age eight, of playing with toy walkie talkies that imitated the ones soldiers used in the Second World War and the Korean War, and the Western Union telegraph set I got as a Christmas present in the seventh grade.
The article in the Gazette included character sketches of the Hi Lites staff. I remember two of them. The Editor for the show was Bob Gordon, then also Editor of the school newspaper, where he wrote a long, philosophical column every week on topics important to the rest of us, such as maintaining “school spirit,” need for enlarging the cafeteria, whether the fraternities and sororities at our school ought to continue to exist, and hobbies of our teachers. In the article, Bob Gordon said he was fascinated by radio and was doing the show to “get it out of my system” before going on to college and some career other than media. The other staff member I remember being mentioned in the article was Tim Laddish, probably the best drama student in the school at the time, who was the star of the Senior Play, Teahouse of the August Moon. He explained that Berkeley Hi Lites had “a staff of four and a captive audience of eight mothers and fathers.”
I was entranced by the article and I knew then that I wanted to be on the show someday. I thought I might have a chance to be chosen, because Gordon and Laddish seemed to be a lot like me: smart, good with words, in love with communication, not popular in the way some people were — the ones who could be elected student body president or sweep girls off their feet, yet also not in the nether world of people who weren’t genial, socially appealing, or unable to lead in or out of class. Thereafter, I made a point of tuning in the show from time to time.
If you were a child in America in the early or middle years of the twentieth century, then radio was probably a very large part of your life. From the time when broadcasting first became extensive, after 1920, until the rise in dominance of television, after 1950, radio was one of the major forms of connection between a young person and the larger world.
My first specific memories of listening to the radio are tied to the year 1952, when I was almost nine years old. This fact startles me, because my earliest recollections of things in general go back to age three. From the time of my birth, in 1943, radio would have been all around me. And I have vague memories of hearing it in those very early years. For example, I think a radio was playing in the background one afternoon on a hot summer day in 1948, when I was five years old, at my grandmother’s house, and the owner of the local dry cleaners dropped by to pick up some clothes that needed pressing. Similarly, I have a vague remembrance from the year 1951 or 1952, when I was seven, and my father was away during the Korean War, and my mother was at work, that one of my uncles was taking me for a drive in his Buick convertible and the radio was wafting loud music into the air as we sped down a pleasant, tree lined residential street. But my memories don’t become definite until later, when my father had returned from the Korean war and our family was living in a two story apartment in the Navy housing complex in Bremerton, Washington, where he was serving a tour of duty as a hospital corpsman at the Navy Medical Center. My mother, my sister, my father and I were grateful to be together again and settled after a great deal of moving around, and all my early memories of listening to the radio are associated with that feeling of calm and togetherness.
One of the sports my father followed on radio was college basketball. Across Puget Sound from us, in Seattle, the University of Washington was in its glory years as a national basketball power. Their star forward, the All American Bob Hoobregs, was a master of the hook shot. It and the set shot were the main ways of scoring in that era, making the hook shot very dramatic whenever it interrupted what was otherwise a slow, almost static style of play. There was a distinctive rhythm to the broadcasts of the games as a result. With the sounds of the crowd in the background, the announcer’s voice went along at a steady, staccato pace. “Jones passes to Smith. Smith passes to Johnson.” Then suddenly the pace changed. “Oh, Hoobregs looks like he’s moving into position. Johnson fakes. Hoobregs weaves. There’s the pass! And it’s HOOBREGS. He goes up, hooks, and it’s IN, for TWO MORE POINTS!” To visualize these moments as fully as possible, my father often played the radio in our parents’ bedroom, with the lights off, lying on his stomach and using the time to get a rest after work. I would lie on the bed with him, and sometimes he would put his arm around me, providing one of those few, cherished kinds of physical closeness that men allowed one another.
Another program my father liked was the Bob Hope show. Hope was hugely popular at the time, particularly among combat veterans, like my father, who remembered the tours Hope made to boost morale in the Second World War and in Korea. More than I realized at the time, the shows were very male-oriented. Along with the constant mentions of “our boys overseas,” there were frequent guest walk-ons by sports stars, and comic interviews of voluptuous actresses like Jane Russell and Jeanne Crain. Like the basketball broadcasts, the Bob Hope broadcasts were moments of male bonding for my father and me. This was especially so when Hope’s jokes became sexual, like the time he told an acrtress to reach into his pocket. She said, “I feel funny.” He said, “Reach a little lower and you’ll feel nuts.” As my father and I shared such moments, an indirect initiation was taking place, an addition to the conversations he had with me every few years to tell me more about women.
My mother found other things to do when my father and I listened to sports or Bob Hope. She wasn’t sports-minded. And she found my father’s love of “jokes” — which he got from his family’s roots in Iowa — to be rather heavy and contrived. Having grown up in Hawaii, in a family that was partly Portuguese, she preferred humor that was tied to quick, witty comments about sudden occurrences.
She would, though, often listen to Jack Benny. She loved his wry observations and incredible timing. She also liked the fact that a woman, Jack’s neighbor Mary Livingston, was a major character. And she felt comfortable with the ethnic variety of the cast. Benny was Jewish, his butler was a Negro, and Benny’s daffy friend, the singer Dennis Day, was Irish like my mother’s father.
There were a couple of shows my mother truly enjoyed. One was “You Bet Your Life,” the quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx. My mother wasn’t particularly a fan of the movies the Marx Brothers had made. But she did love Groucho as he came across on radio: the raffish, debonair, well-read, incredibly quick interviewer of a long parade of fascinating guests. And she was charmed by Groucho’s announcer, George Fenneman, who had a beautiful, courtly voice and, as one knew from photographs in magazines, a most handsome appearance.
The other show my mother loved was Titus Moody the Noted News Analyst. Every Sunday evening, Moody gave his wry, idiosyncratic comments on the news of the week. His broadcasts supposedly originated from Maine, and he spoke with a down east, nasal accent, personifying the region, rural roots of America and the wisdom therein, as he put into perspective the foibles of modern, big-city America. Things like pine trees, regional dialects, and small town rustics were not, generally speaking, of much interest to my mother. But she was refreshed by Moody’s barbed irony, independence, and contrariness.
When our family listened to the radio, my sister sometimes joined in. At age 5, she was too young to follow a lot of the details, but she liked sharing in the general feelings of our moments together. There were also, on Saturday mornings, some shows that she and I both enjoyed: Buster Brown, and No School Today, with Big John and Sparky.
Our Own Radio Shows
One day, when we were living in Bremerton, my father came home from work with something he called a tape recorder. I had never seen such a machine in my life. He explained what it did. It had been sitting on a table in the office next to his medical lab, he said, and no one was using it, so he was bringing it home to have some fun. At that age, I didn’t think to ask why a tape recorder would ever be of use in a medical laboratory. I simply knew that it was now on an end table next to the couch in our living room, and I waited for the weekend, when, my father said, all would be revealed. Saturday came, and, that afternoon, my father set up the machine. He was planning to put together his own radio show, he explained. Well, not a real radio show. We weren’t in a broadcasting studio. But we were going to create the sound and feel of a radio show, for comic purposes, to liven up a party that he and my mother would be going to — one of the many that took place in the housing project, as all the neighboring couples and their families got to know each other and took turns inviting groups to drop by for drinks and conversations about their military experiences, the places they had lived, and their dreams for the future. We were going to do a “take-off,” my father said, of a radio detective show. My father would be the announcer and director and producer. I would be the helper. My sister and my mother, who were standing nearby, laughing in disbelief, would be the actresses. My father would be one of the actors, and I would be another.
Over the next couple of hours, following my father’s directions, we put the show together. I don’t remember the whole of it, just fragments, like
“Then she walked in. She was wearing a low cut evening gown with tennis shoes, ready for anything, dancing or basketball.”
“”…after robbing the bank, the two lovers quietly slipped away in their stolen aircraft carrier.”
We thought it was hilarious.
Radio at my Grandparents’ House
After Bremerton, there was a hiatus in my remembrance of radio. Probably it was the result of what was, literally, a shift of scene, when my father was transferred to duty in the Bay Area, and we moved in with my grandparents at their house in the Berkeley hills. My memories of radio shift from my father to my grandfather. Actually, at my grandparents’ house, television played a larger role than radio. Their big TV set dominated the living room, and we all sat around it in the evening enjoying programs together. Off in one corner of the living room, however, there was an old, chocolate brown, table model radio, in art deco styling with brass tuning knobs and a clock face dial. It sat on top of a long, low-lying bookcase, one of the very modern, almost Polynesian pieces of furniture, designed by their son the department store decorator, that filled the very modern house. The radio didn’t blend visually with its environment. It was a leftover from earlier years, one of the objects my grandparents cared about enough to save even after discarding most of the less artistic hodgepodge they had dragged around.
So far as I could tell, the radio now was used only once a week, when, on Sunday nights, after our family dinners, my grandfather insisted that the TV set be turned off so he could listen to Walter Winchell. In those years, Winchell was still a powerful force in broadcasting, one of the pugilistic New York City reporters who shaped American public opinion. As my grandfather sat on the end of the living room couch nearest to the radio, and lit up what would be the first of many Phillip Morris or Pall Mall cigarettes smoked nervously in the ensuing minutes, Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat voice came into our lives, with the famous signature opening, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea…” Then came the rest of the program — a blend of national news, gossip about celebrities, anti-communism, and low-key insults directed at whichever prominent persons had, of late, disagreed with Winchell.
I responded strongly to the scenes of my grandfather listening to Winchell. One reaction was that radio was very magical. It did nothing more than pump words and sounds into our living room, and yet, there sat my grandfather, magnetized. Another reaction had to do with a sense of changing times. The nearby TV set was, in a different way, even more powerful. The radio seemed of an earlier era. Except perhaps for sports and music, it was becoming the thing we went to only for programs that had not yet shifted to television. My other big reaction had to do with New York. It was a hugely influential place, I suspected. A lot of the stuff on TV and radio came from there, and the city continued to affect my mother’s family even though they were 2500 miles away from it.
My Radio World
Radio also connected me with unseen places that were closer to home. When I was thirteen years old, and in junior high school, my parents bought me a clock radio. I could set it to turn off at night and to wake me up in the morning. It provided me background music as I dozed off to sleep. For the first few months, I tuned in to the stations that played all the rock and roll hits and slow ballads that teenagers liked during that era, like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” But then, as I got in the habit of listening longer, I tuned to new stations and listened to programs that lasted until Midnight or later. The journey led me to the stations that were broadcasting from the Black area of Oakland – a part of town that I knew only from the window of a car. In deep, resonant, mellifluous voices, the announcers on these stations introduced me to Rhythm and Blues and Gospel, and the communities from which the music sprang. I was fascinated. And I carried the knowledge thus gained with me to Berkeley High School, where white people were the minority.
A possible chance to be selected to the Hi Lites staff came near the end of my eleventh grade year. A small notice in the school newspaper announced that tryouts would be held after school at the on-campus studio where Hi Lites was produced. The custom, I knew by then, was to select three people who would be high twelfth graders while on the staff, plus one person who would be in the low twelfth grade and be the probable next Editor when he (the idea of it being “she” never crossed anybody’s mind) entered high twelfth grade. I doubted that I would be chosen, but I knew the practice of tryouts would be valuable, and I remember my mother saying, so often, you don’t get anything if you don’t apply.
On the scheduled day, around 3:30 in the afternoon, I went from my last class in the main building at Berkeley High, across the big courtyard to the auditorium building; the part of it behind the big stage, where there were several classrooms, none of which I’d ever been in. On the third of the four floors in that area of the building, I found and entered the Public Speaking classroom. It had no windows and had a great deal of soundproofing — squares of white press board with little holes in a crisscross pattern — on grayish white walls. Most of the room was filled with one-piece, blond, oak chair desks arranged in two horseshoe shaped rows, enough for about 35 students. At the end of the room nearest the entrance doorway, a teacher’s desk faced the student desks, while, near the teacher’s desk, also at front, was a speaker’s podium. I assumed that the podium normally would face the students, but on this afternoon it faced away from them toward a large, double-glassed window that looked into the radio control room that annexed the classroom. Hanging above the podium, from a long gray bar, was a gray, chunky microphone, in the elongated, hexagonal shape typical of many microphones in those days, the letters RCA in red on one side, each letter made to look as if it was vaguely like a bolt of lightning.
Most of the student desks were unoccupied, but about ten were not. I assumed that the guys at these desks were candidates like me, and I noticed that only two were from my own H-11 grade.
Encountering the Cast
Behind the teacher’s desk sat a smiling man who appeared to be about sixty years old. He wore thick, seemingly frameless spectacles, and his gray hair was in an angular crew cut of the kind so popular in the ‘fifties. He wore a tasteful, gray suit with small checks, and his black penny loafers were perfectly shined. His voice was raspy but full of color, interest, and animation. He smiled often and warmly and gestured with excited sweeps of his arms as he talked to a student standing in front of him. He laughed often and seemed to love to laugh. Remembering photographs from our high school yearbook, I recognized him as Richard Ehlers, the faculty adviser to Berkeley Hi Lites and one of the two teachers of Public Speaking at our school.
Between Ehlers and the doorway, as I entered the classroom, there were two older students who offered their hands and introduced themselves as Mike Collins, Editor of Hi Lites, and Doug Jones, the current L-12 on the staff. Collins was then also President of the Senior Class, and Jones was known as one of the wittiest people in his class. After the handshakes, Collins walked past me and through the nearby doorway that led into the control room. Through the window I could see he was talking to the student engineer at the panels. Jones kept on chatting with me. It was his role, one could tell, to greet and orient everyone. After a bit of this, he asked me to join the others at the students’ desks.
A few more candidates arrived. Then Ehlers advised Jones to begin. Jones waved to Collins who came in from the control room, welcomed us formally, and explained the selection procedure. There were to be three phases. First, we were to go through the control room into the classroom on the other side of it, which also had a podium and a microphone, where we would be tested on technical skills of pronunciation and sight reading. Second, we would return to the podium in Ehlers’ classroom, and, using the microphone there, say a bit about ourselves and our reasons for wanting to join the staff. Both “mike sessions” would be recorded on tape. Then, after all candidates completed the first two steps, there would be a third step to test skills in writing for radio. We would all sit at our desks and be given half an hour to draft a comedy sketch, complete with speakers’ parts and production cues.
We were soon shuttling from room to room, guided by Collins, Jones, and the two other members of the staff, who had been near Ehlers’ desk. As I proceeded through the three parts of the test, I was amazed at how relaxed I felt and at how deeply I was enjoying everything. I ran through complex pronunciations without a single error, intuitively sensing the rhythms, cadences, and meanings of the sight readings. I was slightly nervous when asked to talk about myself and my interest in the show, but it was a kind of nervousness I didn’t mind, having to do with the stimulus of challenge and the pleasure of heightened talk. Writing the sketch was also fun, although I did worry that my approach would be too obvious. I took an old, old joke — one of the many my father liked to tell — and packaged it in dramatic form. There were these two guys, ya see, holding up traffic for miles on the East Shore Freeway. They had a panel truck. While one of them drove at hardly a mile per hour, the other walked alongside hitting the truck with a baseball bat. Drivers behind the truck honked and yelled to no effect. Finally a police car pulled up. “What’s going on here?” the officer asked. “Well,” said the guy with the bat, “we’re in the bird delivery business. We’ve got a ton of canaries in the back of this truck, but it’s only a half-ton truck, so we need to keep half the canaries flying at all times.”
This was not the world’s greatest joke, but I liked it, and I hoped others would. I dressed it up with stage directions and breaks in the dialogue, decided it was serviceable, and turned it in to Jones. Mr. Ehlers thanked me for coming and said we’d all be contacted personally with the results within two days. The efficiency and courtesy of the whole process was impressive.
As I rode the city bus home that evening, my instincts told me I had done well, but not well enough to become the L-12 member of the staff.
The Hi Lites staff and Mr. Ehlers must have stayed late that night, because, the next day, in the morning in home room, I was given a personally addressed envelope with a typed letter inside, signed by Ehlers, informing me that I had been selected to join the staff. Collins ran across me that afternoon as I was walking in the hallways of the main building between classes, and he congratulated me. Jones phoned me in the evening and asked me to join others on the staff for their next regular Friday afternoon session, when they would put together the show and begin integrating the new crew.
So began a weekly routine that was to continue for a year. Every Friday after classes and other matters, I went over to the radio studio in the auditorium building and put together Saturday morning’s show with the rest of the staff.
For the first few weeks on the staff, I was told simply to watch and learn. Soon, however, I was given specific assignments: writing part of the news; occasionally doing introductory and closing announcements; taking one of the parts in the weekly comedy sketch; and, most often, writing part or all of the sketch.
There was an unstated, shared ritual to the production of each show. Between 3:30 and 4:00 pm, everybody drifted into the studio, did a lot of wisecracking, chatted with Mr. Ehlers, and, for those who smoked, lit up a cigarette. By four we were settled into business. The Editor gave us all his ideas for the content of the week’s show. We discussed the concepts and sometimes suggested changes. Ehlers listened and sometimes proposed ideas in a low key manner. The Editor accepted the plan and asked Ehlers if it was OK. Usually there was no problem. Occasionally he vetoed a line or an idea if it seemed off color or too controversial. We then parceled the work. One of us wrote and delivered the news. One picked the music. One worked with our engineer, George Craig, to set up microphones and sound effects equipment. One or more of us wrote the comedy sketch. In the midst of all this, somewhere around 6:30 pm, somebody volunteered to walk up the street to Herb’s, the local hot dog and hamburger joint, about eight blocks from the high school on the other side of Shattuck Avenue near the University of California campus. As the evening wore on, the sounds of the studio mixed with the smells of hamburger meat, onions, French fries, mustard, ketchup, hot mayonnaise, and cigarette smoke. Ehlers occasionally added to the atmosphere by lighting up a cigarillo. But I never once saw him eat any of the food from Herb’s. He had an ulcer and preferred to bring a bag lunch, which was his dinner.
Delivering the Tape
We were good at our work, and the standards of quality, though rigorous, were not too high for people of our age, so we usually got the show together in three or four tries. Sometimes that meant we finished as early as 8:00 pm. Sometimes we had to stay as late as 11:00 am. Ehlers was with us throughout the process. Typically he sat at his desk and graded papers, with one ear tuned to us, now and then intervening tactfully with advice or enjoying the laughs.
When our work at the studio was done, we waited while George quickly and efficiently prepared a master copy and a duplicate of the final tape. The duplicate then had to be delivered to KRE. Our high school had production facilities, but no broadcast facilities, and none of the technology to transmit, via phone line or other means, to the station. Each Friday evening, one of us, whoever had a car, had to take the tape and drive several miles, from the high school campus on Grove Avenue, through the industrial area of Berkeley, down to the dark, marshy area near the freeway, where Berkeley descended into the east side of San Francisco Bay. KRE had its tall transmission tower there, and a small, two story, almost windowless building which was its production studio and broadcast center. Inside, at the hours when we delivered the tape, there never seemed to be more than one person — a man who did triple duty as announcer for late night music programs, his own engineer, and custodial attendant for the building. I would not have wanted such a job in that part of the city, but the man assured us he felt very safe and that nothing bad had ever happened. And there was great pleasure in delivering the tape. In such a setting, one could almost feel the magic by which electric signals would float through the dark ether to offices and homes, bringing together an invisible community.
Actual broadcast of Berkeley Hi Lites took place each Saturday morning at 10:00 am. Even after joining the staff, I seldom listened to the program at this time. I preferred to sleep late or make myself a big breakfast or head off to the park for pickup basketball. When I did listen in, it was usually to check on some detail I’d forgotten to note the evening before, such as whether I’d pronounced a certain word correctly, or the success of a sound effect. I did, however, listen in on Saturday mornings with my father, whenever he was home from U.S. Navy sea duty. The show was something he and I could share. It brought back memories of all I had learned from him about humor, and the fun our family had enjoyed whenever he got in the mood to borrow the tape recorder and compose parodies of popular programs.
Why the Show Existed
Berkeley Hi Lites could exist because of two forces. Foresight was one, traceable back to the late 1940s when the city of Berkeley had the vision and the commitment to build a civic auditorium and to make it serve double duty as a tool of education by attaching it to the high school campus and including a fine arts complex specifically for use by students as well as the community. This was a rather strong statement of values. While the high school made do with athletic facilities only slightly changed since the 1920s, it enjoyed the use of a well designed, multi-million dollar structure that contained not only a 3,500 seat auditorium used for many city events, but also classrooms and related facilities for drama, public speaking, dance, chorale, band, and orchestra. Guided by teachers of great talent, students at my high school were being given immense knowledge and were compiling outstanding records in all the branches of the arts simultaneously with my involvement in Hi Lites. Very few public schools in America have ever offered such opportunities to their students.
The other force that made Berkeley Hi Lites possible was Richard Ehlers. It is one thing to have a physical facility, another to know what to do with it. The radio studio was not used imaginatively until Mr. Ehlers joined the high school’s faculty in the early 1950’s, and part of the benefit of being on the staff was the chance to get to know him. Ehlers’ parents were German Americans. I think he grew up in Ohio and went to college in the midwest. After college, in any case, he felt the lure of the big city and, even though the Depression had begun, decided to go east and see if he could break into drama or radio. He went to Manhattan and, with no formal training, won out over some 300 applicants in the competition for a job as a part-time radio announcer. “My voice wasn’t raspy in those days,” he often told us. “I had to have an operation for cancer after the war, from too much smoking,” he explained. In New York, his work in radio announcing led him into acting as well. He had minor parts in various radio plays — his favorite was playing the character “Professor Glockenspiel” regularly on one radio show — and he appeared as a minor character in a few stage productions both on a off Broadway.
For several years, he also told us, he lived with a French dancer who had made her way to America. “We were in love and I wanted to marry her, but she didn’t want to settle down. Every month we waited in fear until she had her period. When the war came, I lost track of her.” Ehlers felt very alone by then. His father had died when he was a boy and his mother died at the end of the ‘thirties — “of a broken heart” was all he would say. I can’t recall what Ehlers did during the war. It may be that he wanted it kept secret and never told us. After the war, he became chief announcer for NBC radio west of the Mississippi River and got to know everybody in radio in Hollywood and San Francisco. He said that, bar none, Groucho Marx was the wittiest man he had ever met.
Ehlers might have continued his radio career if health problems hadn’t arisen. But there was the throat cancer which took away the resonance and sonority of his voice. Then he needed an eye operation. After years and years under the bright studio lights (they are not as bright in radio as in television, but they are bright), he developed cataracts and had to have surgery. These two crises created the need for a new career. Already on the West Coast, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, earned a Master’s degree in English, and got a credential to teach in the public schools. Berkeley High School had the good sense to hire him, and the effects were soon noticeable in the quality of our school’s public speaking courses and the proper use that could be made, at last, of the radio studio.
Ehlers never married. His closest female friend at Berkeley High, and his closest neighbor and colleague, was Florence Schwimley, Berkeley High’s Drama teacher, whose classroom — the one where the pronunciation part of the tryouts had been held — was directly on the other side of the radio engineer’s booth that both separated and joined their work. Like Ehlers, Miss Schwimley was a migrant from Manhattan, where she had been in the theatre for many years before deciding to slow down and move west and go into teaching. The Little Theatre building at Berkeley High was eventually renamed the Florence Schwimley Theatre in her honor. What Ehlers was for those of us interested in speech, she was to students interested in the stage.
I don’t know if there was anything sexual between Miss Schwimley and Mr. Ehlers. I don’t think so and I never would have asked. To this day I prefer to think of them as the best proof I have ever seen that Platonic friendships are possible.
I hardly ever ventured into Miss Schwimley’s classroom. This simple territorial fact was one symbol of my general fear of serious drama. I was completely comfortable with the idea of conveying my personality to hundreds of listeners via radio, or even at a podium in a theater, but the idea of baring myself on stage, alone or even with a small group, was frightening. To be accurate, I should say it was the idea of portraying deep emotion in front of many eyes that scared me. Comedy routines on a big stage were familiar to me, going back to many years of campfire skits at summer camp, and parts in student vaudeville shows in junior high. The prospect of giving a speech or being a master of ceremonies also appealed to me, allowing for what I knew, even then, was the normal, small amount of stage fright that actually results in a more alert presentation. But the heart of Miss Schwimley’s world wasn’t my world, much as I liked to attend the plays her students put on. And I didn’t know how to sing, play an instrument, or dance, so those roads into drama were closed to me as well.
Nevertheless, when I think of Berkeley Hi Lites, I think of Miss Schwimley almost as much as I think of Mr. Ehlers. The connections came partly when he talked about the fun he had with her, and partly when she dropped into his classroom to chat. “Flo and I found the greatest restaurant,” Ehlers might say. Or, “We were over at the Curran Theater in San Francisco last night to see The Music Man. Wonderful!” Or, she might be at the chair next to his desk, passing the time of day, as I walked into the room. “Good afternoon, Gary,” she might say, “Dick and I have been talking about the Senior Play. We’ve decided it’s going to be The Diary of Anne Frank.” Or, “Hello, Gary. Here to put the show together? Dick tells me you boys were horsing around more than usual last week. Remember, he needs his sleep. Try to finish by ten this time.”
There was always a certain manner to Miss Schwimley’s talk. Like Mr. Ehlers, she was careful and fluent in her pronunciation, and she had his ability to be your friend and superior at the same time. Like Mr. Ehlers, she loved to laugh. And, like him, she was quick and observant and took in just about everything occurring around her. But, unlike Ehlers, her comments, even the simplest one or two word utterances, had a crafted quality. She was not calculating or manipulative, but every statement felt as if it was a line from a play. I think she truly believed that all of life is a play. And one also sensed, in her eyes, a strategic quality derived from drama. If Ehlers was a performer and presenter, she was the director-producer — so much so that, even in the simplest conversations, I always thought she was about three steps ahead of me. It was symbolic, and would have been so even if Mr. Ehlers hadn’t had cataracts, that she drove whenever they went anywhere in a car together.
Some of the Shows
I have strong memories of several of the Berkeley Hi Lites shows.
One I recall well was the audience participation program we did about halfway through the semester. We advertised it for several weeks in advance, with notices in the school paper, posters in the hallways, and extra announcements on preceding broadcasts. The afternoon when the audience appeared, all of us on the staff were very nervous. We were used to recording the show in an empty studio, at our own pace, with the option of repeating segments to get them right. But now, there were about 60 people staring at us, the microphone was live, and we had only one chance. There was also another kind of disorientation. Most of the students who came to hear us had black or brown faces. We were four white guys, and we suddenly realized that we were operating on the assumption that most of our listeners were white, as well, even though whites were the minority at a school attended mostly by Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. But the unease was only temporary. We felt a sudden, surprising joy in sharing laughs with people from the neighborhoods of Berkeley where we seldom ventured.
Another Hi Lites program I remember well was the one we recorded on a Friday morning in front of 2900 students at one of our regular high school assemblies. The Principal gave us fifteen minutes to do what was, in effect, a long commercial. Using the speaker’s podium on the auditorium stage, and recordings from past shows that we pumped through the electronic speakers around the giant room, we gave our fellow students a capsule history of Hi Lites and some samples from old tapes and urged them to tune in on Saturday mornings. When we finished, the assembly then continued with the major entertainment of the morning, a performance by two comical folk singers, still relatively unknown, the Smothers Brothers, who were appearing at one of the clubs in San Francisco.
Learning to Write Comedy
One of the hardest parts of directing Berkeley Hi Lites proved to be writing the comedy sketches. When I first joined the staff, I thought that the process would be fairly easy. In day to day life, friends enjoyed funny comments I made. As far back as the ninth grade, I had gained some confidence as a sketch writer, doing satires to fulfill some of my assignments in English classes and writing and starring during a student assembly in a wild parody of the then-popular Walt Disney TV program Zorro. After writing some five comedy sketches for Berkeley Hi Lites, however, I felt my spark beginning to fade. Ideas didn’t come easily. Lines were boring or forced. I kept using the same characters. I was beginning to do little more than ape comedians like Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman who were famous at the time.
I didn’t know why this was happening, but some kind of instinct told me I was probably not the first person ever to have such an experience. Remembering how much help I had found there at other times, I went up the street, one day after classes, to the public library. In the card catalogue I found a large heading for “comedy” and a subcategory containing about ten cards for “comedy writing.” Most of the books under the subheading looked pretty amateurish. Even at age 17, I had enough of a sense of quality to know that good comedy writing ought to involve more than mere preparation of lame comments for toastmasters.
But one of the books did look promising and I went into the stacks and pulled it off the shelves and ended up standing right there and reading it almost in its entirety. It was a thin, red covered volume by Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian from the 1930s and ’40s. The book was part memoir, part manual. Allen started by recalling his earliest days in radio. Encouraged by friends who enjoyed his patter at Manhattan cocktail parties, and after exploiting a couple of appearances on quiz shows and variety hours, Allen soon got a job for himself as a regular on a half hour weekly radio show. For the first and second weeks, he was a sensation. The audience loved his jokes and he found the material easy to write. But then, as he sat down at his desk on Monday to write the show for the next weekend, nothing came out. He realized, all of a sudden, that he had written every joke he knew. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was left in the well. Panic set in and Allen paced the streets in a nearly crazed condition as he contemplated losing his job and his career.
But then Allen had the good sense to phone a friend who was a veteran comedy writer — an event which, in Allen’s opinion, was the real beginning of his career as a professional comedian. The friend pointed out to Allen that all great comedians go through the panic he had encountered. But they make their way out of it when they realize that jokes have underlying patterns. As a comedian, all you do is rework the patterns. Take the joke about Thomas E. Dewey, for example, the one the Democrats used in the 1948 Presidential election campaign. Dewey walks up to a man on the street and asks, “Say, can I borrow a nickel. I need to phone a friend.” The man on the street answers, “Here’s a dime. Phone all your friends.” Well, that joke was probably told at elections in ancient Athens. “I need a drachma to pay a boy to deliver a message to my friend, etc.” Allen went on to explain that the process of elaboration and reuse of such old standards could be very elaborate. He used Bob Hope as an example, pointing out that Hope had entire file cabinets full of jokes, cross-referenced under headings such as “mother-in-law” and “introducing a speaker” and “Crosby, Bing” and that Hope kept a string of writers on retainer to adapt the jokes to any occasion whenever Hope phoned them.
Allen’s little book proved to be just what I needed. Reading it and digesting the lessons, I obtained confidence and perspective, although my version of Bob Hope’s joke files was more basic. At the Capwell’s department store near our family’s apartment in nearby El Cerrito, in the book section, I found a 900 page volume, on sale for one week only, entitled Ten Thousand Jokes, Toasts, and Stories for All Occasions. It was very toastmasterish. But there were nuggets, and I was able to adapt them for the humble purposes of a high school radio show. Soon, for example, the quarterback of an opposing high school football team, whom I wanted to portray as not very smart, was met by a genie who offered to grant the quarterback any wish in the world. Always thinking about bodybuilding, the quarterback replies, “Great! I’m hungry. Make me a sandwich.” “OK,” says the genie, “presto, you’re a sandwich.”
Learning about Responsibility
During the first of the two semesters I spent on the Hi Lites staff, my work was assigned to me. Doug Jones was the Editor and I was the L-12 member of the staff. I thought of myself as the assistant to the three H 12’s. Toward the end of L 12 grade, however, I began to realize that I was going to be in charge, very soon, of the entire show. At first I was pleased. A story appeared in the school newspaper announcing my new appointment as Editor. There were many congratulations from teachers and friends. I enjoyed the honor and began thinking of ideas for shows. But then something new happened. I realized that the future of the show was in my hands. This was emotionally unfamiliar territory. Although I had some experience of assuming responsibility at home and as a camp counselor, this was the first time in my life that I had ever been entrusted with the fate of a long-term project. I had Ehlers as my adviser, and I could call on past editors for perspective and reassurance. But the rest was up to me. Probably thousands of other American students in the 1950s were gaining similar opportunities for social and organizational maturation through their after- class activities. But I didn’t know them.
One of the first tasks I faced was rounding up a staff. “Recruitment” was not a word I knew at the time — except in the non-civilian sense, from old movies about the Second World War — and I didn’t have the resources to find employees the way a large organization could. All I knew was that I had learned about Berkeley Hi Lites through the papers, and I assumed that other people younger than I were also awaiting opportunities to sign up. I arranged with the school newspaper to run a small story like the one I had responded to, announcing tryouts. These duly took place.
I was shocked, however, by the low level of talent among the people who came. Most didn’t have a sense of humor. Those who did were unable to write anything resembling a comedy sketch. And the general level of intelligence was low. I recall one competitor who, during the extemporaneous session at the mike, said he felt he ought to be on the staff as the representative of the average student. “I’m just a regular guy,” he said, “not too smart, but not too stupid, either, just one of the regular guys who like to listen to the show.” In the evaluation meeting after the tryouts, I rejected him instantly, but told my colleagues and Mr. Ehlers that I felt snobbish doing so. Ehlers helped me to see why I was right. “Don’t feel guilty, Gary. Berkeley Hi Lites is for everyone. But we don’t want regular guys on the staff. The staff is the place for leaders, the Laddishes and Gordons, who go on to Stanford and Harvard.” There was an impatient, almost brutal tone in Ehlers’ voice as he said these words, a surprising amount of elitism for a man whose career had been in the world of news and entertainment for mass audiences. His words relieved my guilt only slightly. But I was encouraged that my standards were the right ones.
The Perfect Announcer, and My Two Buddies
The one, stunning exception to the low quality of applicants at the tryouts was a student from the H 11 grade named Jim Fabris. He didn’t have a knack for comedy writing, but he did have everything you would want in a radio news reporter: a deep, resonant voice; a smooth, natural delivery; clear pronunciation; a large vocabulary which he used without pretension; intelligence; curiosity; a friendly manner that made him just right as an interviewer. I gladly invited Fabris tø be the new L 12 member of the staff, knowing, as I did so, that the show might take a different, more serious direction after I left for college and Fabris eventually became Editor.
There remained the problem of finding two more staff members. I proposed to Ehlers that I simply go round up a couple of my friends who had the necessary talents. Ehlers thought this over for a few days and then gave me permission to do so. As long as we had already gone through the formal, open competition, he said, it would be fair to take special measures when no one could be found by the normal means. I was, nonetheless, faced with a difficult situation. I had to try to find people who were not only talented but who also had the necessary motivation. Putting together a show required several hours of work each week and a long term commitment.
In one of the friends I invited to join the staff, Randy Mosher, I got the commitment but not enough talent. I had known Randy from the seventh grade onwards, when we met each other in home room and played on junior high volleyball and basketball teams. Randy was a dutiful, B plus student. His father was a librarian at Cal. Randy liked mischief. In summer we often went to the Cal employees pool together. As the son of a UC staff member, Randy could use his entry card. I used the card for his brother, Al, who was five years old. The lifeguard always snickered and said, “ok, AL, you can go on in.” Randy was blond haired, blue eyed, and handsome. Girls asked him out often and he was very well liked by everyone. He was soon to be elected head cheerleader. And he was a fairly good radio actor. He had a fine voice and could use it to become many characters as needed. But he was not quick or clever and he didn’t write well. He was valuable to the show as a friend, an ingratiating personality, an actor, and a reader, but I could not look to him for material.
My friend Rick Moran, whom I also invited to join the show, was a different mixture. He was another good friend from junior high. He didn’t have Randy’s ability in basketball, but he was good in volleyball and weightlifting and was on the school football varsity team. He was quicker and wittier than Randy, and, for sheer inborn powers of logic, was one of the brightest students in our class. He also had a fascinating instinct for wild comedy, the kind that Stan Freberg was making famous at the time, and that Steve Martin was to continue much later. A lot of Rick’s humor got expressed in drawings. He often sketched caricatures in class whenever his mind wandered. I’d look over from my desk to his and I’d see a pen and ink cartoon taking form in his spiral notebook, showing, for example, our well dressed History teacher, Mr. Tudisco, as a bum on a park bench with a bent cigarette in his mouth and a Niagara of ashes falling to the ground. Rick was also a compulsive creator of dramatic parodies. I’d be walking down the street with him, for example, and I might say a word that caught his attention randomly, such as “San Francisco,” and he was onto it immediately with an ad lib. ‘We’re here in San Francisco,” he’d say in a deep voice, “at the school for future garbage men, where the new recruits are learning how to roll the cans down the hills of the city. They’ve completed the first unit of the course, rolling the cans while running along next to them, and now they’re learning how to roll while inside the cans. I’m here inside one of the cans with Hector Potrero, a former mariachi player, and Spike O’Shaughnessy, the noted boxer, who wants to earn extra money. Hector, what are your thoughts at this moment?” Rick would then proceed to do an entire, ad lib interview, playing all the characters in different voices and accents, and adding sound effects.
Rick’s weakness was his irresponsibility. You could enjoy him as a generous, humorous, sympathetic friend, but you couldn’t assume he would do what he said he would do. He’d say yes to preserve the good feelings of the moment, but he wouldn’t necessarily follow through. I knew all this before I recruited Rick to join the staff. But I needed his talents.
In addition to my program staff, I also had my engineer, George Craig. He seemed to me to be an inheritance from the show’s distant past. George was simply there, almost like the equipment he ran and maintained. He loved to laugh and to be around more colorful people. But he almost never initiated a conversation and he didn’t say very much even when you took the initiative. Least of all would he talk about himself. George had some of the characteristics that today would be associated with the term “nerd” — although the word was much less precisely defined in the fifties, had no connotation of being intentionally boring, and referred generally to anyone who wasn’t “cool.” But George was too friendly, in his nonverbal way, too cheerful, and too generous in his eagerness to be of help, ever to qualify for nerdship. It might be more accurate just to call him a “tecchie,” based on his skill, his klunky shoes, his stained and wrinkled cotton pants, his flannel shirts with the collar buttoned up, his buttered down haircut, and the bony, reed-like body that weighed no more than 120 pounds.
With this assemblage of staff members, I was able to go forth and produce the new series of Saturday morning broadcasts that continued on the old model of comedy, cool jazz recordings, and high school news for the rest of my senior year. Then, after I went away to college, I lost touch with most of the people I had encountered through Hi Lites. I do know about a few of them, however. Tim Laddish went to Stanford, then law school, and joined the office of the California Attorney General. Bob Gordon went to Harvard and became a prominent professor of Economics at Northwestern University. Rick Moran went to UC Berkeley, received his Law degree from Boalt Hall, and became a very successful personal liability attorney. And I have a fantasy that George Craig, our engineer, who always seemed bland and in the background, moved over to Palo Alto and got in on the ground floor of Silicon Valley and became a millionaire.