Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Gary Hannes - CFN Panama 1955
This is the Southern Command Network
Part three: CFN, here I come!
My first couple of weeks at CFN were spent familiarizing myself with the equipment, the program schedule, the personnel, and the politics. As it turned out, CFN was coasting along sans program direction. The former civilian P.D., Russell Snow, had finished his contractual obligation and was gone. The new P.D., Jim Pattison, wasn't due for a couple more weeks. Russell had quite a reputation among the existing staff; apparently, during a recent military exercise, he decided to go all-out and cover all phases of the event. It was said he had CFN staff posed as reporters in planes, helicopters, in the jungle, aboard ships....everywhere the "action" was. One of the fellows joked (I THINK it was said in jest!) that, if there had been a spare parachute, Russell would have had one of them jump with the paratroopers! It was during this brief period of time that I felt the whole CFN venture was not quite off the ground. We were announcing on the airwaves that we were "CFN, the Caribbean Forces Network," but there was no "official" way to pronounce Caribbean until a bunch of us sat around the table in the big studio and decided it should be pronounced "care-IB-ian" as opposed to "care-i-BE-an." In fact, checking the CFN history, the station had only recently acquired those call letters.
I have been the "morning man" on several commercial radio stations and have grown to prefer that particular on-air shift for a variety of reasons. The first reason I loved it so much at CFN was because the 4:30 a.m. air was clean and fresh with a gentle nip. The Canal Zone is just nine degrees north of the equator and so by the time the sun is over the horizon it tends to become quite warm and muggy. Reason number two for liking the pre-dawn was being at the mess hall just as breakfast was being prepared. The mess sergeant would take my order and custom-make any little old thing my stomach desired: three eggs, french toast, six strips of bacon, a couple of pancakes....whatever! And that mess hall coffee put you standing at attention with no brass in sight! The third reason for preferring the morning shift was that it was over at 9 a.m. and the rest of the day was free. And just what did the morning man do? Well, the first thing he did was dial on the remote transmitter, and say a little prayer that it would pop on the air. Once in a great while it
would not, and Bob Botzenmayer would have to haul out of bed and patch things up. From 5 to 6 a.m., it was pretty much just music: bright morning music to get the military on the go. While those sixteen inch vinyl discs were spinning on the turntable, I'd be monitoring the short wave receiver in the control room for AFRS news reports, and writing in long-hand the pertinent facts to use on our 7 a.m. live newscast. At times the reception was so bad, we'd have to invent three or four words that had completely faded. Sometimes, Voice of America came in stronger so I'd copy the news reports from that source. Also during the two hour period between sign-on and 7 a.m., I'd look over the local newspapers for what was going on in Panama and scribble a translation on my "news pad." By six o'clock, more "personality" would be put into the show: jokes (borrowed and stolen from wherever I could find them), light patter about almost any subject (for a long time, I had a running "thing" about those fascinating leaf-cutting ants prevalent just about everywhere), the temperature and weather (ho hum), notes regarding the music and artists, phoned-in dedications and requests, magazine articles, comments from listeners....in fact, just about anything you'd find in stateside commercial radio except traffic reports.
One morning shortly after inheriting the morning show, the studio air conditioning went wild. At 5 a.m. it was functioning normally, by six the studio temperature was around 30 degrees, and by seven I swear there were icicles on the A.C. vent. I thought this was very humorous and really made the most of it, giving a play-by-play description on the air of our wayward A.C. I even had to run upstairs to the dry closet and dig out my overcoat! Finally, some technicians came by and tamed the beast and by the time my shift ended the temperature was nearly normal. However, the feedback was not so positive; while I was having the time of my life in a freezing studio, there were thousands of troopers sloshing around in a very hot, musty, swampy jungle during another military exercise. They didn't appreciate the humor of my situation.
One morning just before ending my shift, I turned the page in the copy book that was permanently parked on top of the control board just behind the microphone (see photo of on-air studio) and read the page the program schedule called for: "Tune in later this morning for 'morning melodies,' a program of relaxing music to help you wind-down after a hectic morning. Join us at 11 a.m. for 'morning melodies' with your host today, __________." Well, I read it just like that, and after "today" came a very pregnant pause while I tried to imagine who would be hosting 'morning melodies' today. The pause gained the attention of two or three fellas standing on the other side of the glass in the production control room. And, of course, my embarrassment made them howl with laughter. Finally, one of them shouted thru the glass, "It's YOU, dummy!!!" So, after about ten seconds (or was it ten minutes!!??), I finally said: "me!" The support staff in the office (mainly a Joni James-loving sailor named "Ski" - from Chicago) loved to write open-ended promos like that one and put them in the copy book.
Once a month we would get a new shipment of those 16 inch vinyl records with from six to eight cuts of music (at 33-1/3 ips) on each side. These were the pop songs from stateside, chosen and approved by a committee of officers and chaplains dedicated to keeping all AFRS airwaves clean and pristine. Perry Como was big, Joni James was hot, Percy Faith was high on the playlist, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher: all the artists favored by the OIC in the movie, "Good Morning, Vietnam"....you know: the lieutenant played by Bruno Kirby!
Just to put you in the time period, we were playing :Sincerely," by the McGuire Sisters, "Unchained Melody" and "The Poor People of Paris" by Les Baxter, "Autumn Leaves" by Roger Williams, "Learnin' The Blues" by (who else?:) Frank Sinatra, "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Moonglow and Theme from Picnic" by Morris Stoloff, "Rock and Roll Waltz" by Kay Starr, "The Yellow Rose of Texas" by Mitch Miller, "Memories Are Made of This," by Dean Martin, and we even got to spin "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley every so often. Then one day we opened the box containing the new music, and there were several cuts by an artist named ELVIS! Oh, we had heard rumors about this guy, 50 percent were positive comments and 50 percent were negative. Right then and there (sitting on the music room table and on filing cabinets) we had a pow-wow on whether CFN would consider airing Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog," which were included on those new discs. Ultimately it was decided that, if we really existed to entertain (as well as educate and inform) the troops, then we would be obligated to put Presley on the playlist. As I recall, this was the turning point in musical programming. Guys who went stateside on leave were coming back with 45 rpm records containing material not dubbed over to AFRS discs. By now it was fall/winter of 1955. Jim Pattison was now installed as P.D., Major Morrissey was his bright and happy self and all was running smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that something was bound to go awry.
I have let it be known that morning broadcast activities suited me fine. But not always. On the first three days of every month, a lot of us were hell-bent on blowing as much of our $104. dollars military pay as we could. And, for a lot of us (I claim maximum guilt in this pursuit) hanging around Panama City's red light district was prime entertainment. Since these illustrious spots (mostly owned, I was later told, by the president's wife) were open all-night, our tendency after a few delicious, nutritious Balboa beers (aged on the truck between brewery and bar) was to have a few more and ignore the time, morning show or no morning show.
Most of the time, I succeeded in carrying-off this double life with only a headache and a slight slur during my on-air shift, but one morning I wasn't so swift. I was able to do all my chores until the 7 a.m. newscast. For the first five minutes of the news, I reported almost in a professional manner, but then it seemed like every time I paused to take a breath, my head would swim and I'd start to fall asleep. By the half-way mark, I not only fell sound asleep, but the mike was on and I was snoring! I suppose some listeners got a good guffaw from my misfortune, but it seems the U.S Army Caribbean Commander, General Lionel McGarr, a much-decorated hero of several battles, was one who was not amused. He lived for that 7 a.m. newscast!
Well, in reality, my punishment could have been harsher, but as it turned-out, the Morrissey/Pattison team took mercy on yours truly, handed me a pile of cash and told me to "go off base and cool it for a week or so. Give us a call after that." I don't recall the name of the little hotel I decided to stay in, but it provided me a time for retrospect and reflection. At the end of a week, I resolved I would change my ways post haste. I really did not want to be transferred to jungle bunnydom. By the time I returned, the flames had been extinguished and I was welcomed back with open arms, and for some God-forsaken reason, was appointed "chief announcer" of CFN! Go figure!
I do not recall that I returned to the morning show, but there were other projects to keep me busy. One of those self-invented projects was to outright steal the Lucky Strike Hit Parade format (even including their theme song) and do a weekly CFN version, using the real recordings rather than the talents(?) of Snooky Lanson and Dorothy Collins. Actually, it was a pretty good show, had lots of energy and by following the Billboard top 40 list from the U.S. (yes, Major Morrissey was an avid subscriber to Billboard!) we managed to keep our listeners up-to-date on what's hot. Then came the day I sat down to record the show and in checking Billboard discovered there was on the top ten list a selection we didn't have in our library. Now, this is where I fell in love with the might of the United States military establishment. I went to Jim Pattison and told him of my plight. Jim went to Major Morrissey with the problem. There was roughly two minutes of silence, then the Major grabbed the phone, and started making calls: first to the AFRS station in Puerto Rico. "Do you have a copy of 'Love is A Many Splendored Thing' by the Four Aces?.....Ah, you do? Good, we'll be over to pick up a copy!" "Over? Pick-up a copy? Huh?" While that was going through my mind, Major Morrissey was on the phone to Albrook Air Force Base, our neighbors down the road. "Do you have anybody who can dash over to Puerto Rico and pick-up an important parcel? You do? Good, now here's what I need....." All this nearly knocked me right on my rear...the power and the might of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, combining forces to help round out the eight musical numbers on the "CFN Hit Parade!!!"
It was also around this time, late '55, that Jim Anderson decided to tackle a Saturday morning kid's show. He decided he'd be Uncle Jim, the "anchor," and have a little buddy kids could relate to, somebody who would bug Uncle Jim with kid questions. He chose "Tinker" as his little buddy (somewhere, as part of this history, you'll see a photo of Jim and Tinker. When he sent the picture, Jim Anderson said, "I just want to remind you that the big guy is Tinker and the little guy on his shoulder is Uncle Jim!!) I engineered the recording of the show which had to be pretty well scripted since Tinker was nothing more than Jim's voice recorded on the production studio's reel-to-reel at 3-3/4 ips and played back at 7-1/2 ips. It's a trick as old as tape recorders, but remember, this was long before the technology we have today to recreate little people, for example. Anyway, the show was a smash hit among the kiddies and a few child-like adults, and lasted until TV came along and suckedup our radio time. Jim tells me (in 2011) that he still has some fan mail from that show among his souvenirs.
Ah yes, fans! Believe it or not, I had a fan club. During my days as morning man, a lot of young Panamanian kids studying English got together and, through their spokesperson, let it be known that I spoke slower and more distinctly (probably because of a hangover!) than a lot of the other on-air guys and they could understand a good percentage of my English. Well, the spokesperson in mention was a young girl with a sweet voice who called me two or three times a week. Mainly she wanted to know more about my background, radio experiences, likes and dislikes, and many times she gave me news of school social activities for me to "please air." Then, one day she said her group - my loyal fans - would like to visit the CFN studios and meet me in person. We agreed on a date for her to bring my fans and I said I'd show them around. They came; they saw; I lectured; we conversed; I said "thanks for coming...see you all later." And that was the last I ever heard of them. Poof! My fan club...disappeared into thin air without a trace. My own theory is that they (about 25 of them) heard in my voice some tall, dark and handsome dude. Two of those attributes I do not possess. So, it was POOF!