Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Pretty Much Over For Rush

The guy in the picture above, Holland Cooke, is the number-one talk radio consultant in America. I knew about Holland for years before he became my coach in 2004, back in my radio days. The professional relationship ended when my station didn’t renew his contract in 2008, but we’ve continued a personal friendship ever since. So, when Holland Cooke says it’s the beginning of the end for Rush, I don’t argue.

Long the nation’s most-listened-to talk show, Rush Limbaugh’s ratings – and fortune – have taken quite a fall over the past couple years.  Cooke says the end began for Rush on February 29, 2012 – leap day. 

That was the day that Rush began his attack on Sandra Fluke, the young law student (pictured above) he singled out and called a whore because of her stance on having health insurance cover birth control pills. That three-day screed against Fluke is what gave birth to what Cooke calls “a very-well organized and relentless advertiser boycott effort which remains underway today, rendering that business model inviable”.

In other words, the boycotters turned Rush’s constant defense of free speech against him.

No advertisers, no money.  At first it didn’t mean much to Rush, who still has a multi-million dollar contract and an estimated net worth of 370 million dollars.  But week after week, the boycotters used another one of Rush’s favorite things against him: the boycotters went to the advertisers and played audio clips of Rush’s show.


When advertisers actually heard the kind of things Rush was saying, many of them cancelled.  Many of the BIGGEST advertisers, whose advertising dollars are placed by media buyers at advertising agencies. When the people who actually run the companies being advertised were forced to listen to Rush, the bottom fell out of Rush’s advertising base.  Since “Sandra Fluke Day”, more than 31-hundred companies that advertise on radio have ordered that their ads not appear on Rush’s show.

That was piece number one.

Piece number two happened a few days ago when the latest radio listening ratings came out.  Now, Rush’s station in New York (WOR-AM) is #22 in the ratings.  Four of the stations in New York that are beating rush are foreign-language stations.  One plays classical music. His Los Angeles station is #37. Eleven of the L-A stations beating Rush in the ratings are foreign-language stations (no surprise in L-A, where Spanish is the universal second-almost-first language). And the scenario is similar in many of the other large radio markets in the nation.

Failing sales and failing ratings = the end. Cooke says Rush is doing better in small and medium markets – like Madison – than he is in the bigger markets, and that is a trend which is unsustainable.  Before you dismiss Cooke as another Rush-hater, you should be aware that Cooke consults stations which carry Rush’s show and stations that compete with Rush’s show. He develops strategies for both the Rush stations and the non-Rush stations on how to best position themselves and make money.


And, as illustrated above, more than a few conservatives have realized that Rush is now doing more harm than good to the cause because of his caustic attacks and divisive rants.


Here’s a 1967 shot (above) of “Rusty Sharpe” at his first radio job, working for his dad’s station in Missouri. He got disenchanted with radio, left the industry to work in P-R for the Kansas City Royals for a while, and then got back into it.  In 1988, I moved from Los Angeles to Madison and began work at WTDY-AM, which was one of the original 53 AM radio stations in the nation to carry Rush’s show. Credit that decision to the irascible Mark Belling, who was WTDY News and Program Director at that time. Mark is now at WISN-AM in Milwaukee and frequently fills in on Rush’s show when El Rushbo is on one of his many vacations.

By 1990, Rush had added hundreds of stations to his “Excellence In Broadcasting Network” – EIB – and had successfully led a Renaissance in AM radio in general and talk radio in specific.  He was the man behind the golden microphone – literally. His was the most-listened-to radio show in America, peaking at nearly 20 million daily listeners a few years ago.  But those numbers have plummeted.


Here’s an aerial shot of “The Southern Command”, Rush’s palatial home in Palm Springs, Florida, where his show usually originates.  He has enjoyed the fruits of his labors and lives the lavish lifestyle.  He’s on wife #4 now.

But, after leading the talk radio revolution and amassing a fortune, he’s essentially a victim of his own success.  He’s had to constantly be harsher and more acidic, more outrageous and more hateful, just to be heard above the talk-radio clutter he himself created. And now, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Case on point: earlier this week, Oklahoma State University – one of the reddest campuses in one of the reddest states in America – pulled its ads from Rush’s show.  Why? The StopRush volunteers simply played their tape of Rush excerpts to the leaders of the University.
The end is nigh.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

We're All Aware Of It; We Need To Cure It

On a late summer afternoon seven years ago, I was sitting on the edge of the big back deck at the Compound when my cell phone rang. It was my sister calling.  My oldest sister, who is four years my junior. She told me she had breast cancer.  Good thing I was sitting down.  I got light-headed. She went through the extremely difficult treatments and is now cancer free.


My life has intersected with quite a few breast cancer victims, and the only unusual thing about that is that it’s not unusual at all. I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t had a family member, colleague, or friend who’s had the dreaded diagnosis.


Two former co-workers are survivors. Robin, who went through the ordeal a couple years ago, fought it courageously; beat it; had another scare; had more treatment; beat it again; and is back at work running the only remaining commercial radio news operation in Madison.  Sheree, a colleague from my radio days in the Fox Valley, beat it, and showed phenomenal courage during her long ordeal of chemo, posting pictures on Facebook of every step of her long treatment road – including a set of pictures she called “bald Sheree” after she lost her beautiful hair to the chemo.


Right now, my former colleague and friend Dan’s wife Jennie is going through another battle with invasive breast cancer which also involves her lymph nodes. She had a long procedure this morning and is recovering in a Quad Cities hospital this afternoon.


Breast cancer does not need any more awareness.  Every sentient human being on the planet is aware of it.  Breast cancer needs a cure.


That’s why I was so – I don’t know; angry? Upset? Disturbed? I’m not sure what I was late this morning when I clicked “like” on a friend’s Facebook post, which said he’d just won seven grand on a scratch-off lottery ticket. I was happy for him! He’s a GREAT guy, and I celebrated his good fortune.  Moments later, I got a message from him, saying his post was part of a “breast cancer awareness” meme (yes, still another) that’s going around the internet.


It also explained why my sister-in-law posted yesterday that she’d gotten out of a traffic ticket by showing her boobs.


These responses are two of the twelve “suggested posts” for anyone who likes or comments on their outrageous post. I was expected to pick one of the twelve suggested posts (all of them are inane) and post it as a status update, this, theoretically, to “increase breast cancer awareness”.


Well, that got my Irish up.  I immediately went to the UW’s Carbone Cancer Center website and made a donation on behalf of my wife and myself.  You can donate at this link.


Here’s evidence (above) that I actually made the donation.  It’s easy. It’s a few clicks, fill in a few blanks, give a credit or debit card number, and you’re done.


I selected the Carbone Cancer Center because it’s local, I know the money goes to work to find a cure, and doesn’t get siphoned off to pay outrageous executive salaries.



And, I have another reason for donating to the Carbone Cancer Center.  My wife works in Marketing and Public Affairs at UW-Health, and helps set up the events that Andy North, our local 2-time U.S. Open Golf Championship winner, puts on twice every year: in the cold-weather months it’s the huge trivia contest, and in the warm-weather months it’s his great charity golf tournament at the Dells.


This past summer, Andy brought a couple other golfers to the event….a guy named Rogers, who’s some sort of football player, and a guy named Yount, who was some sort of baseball player. 
Here's a picture of my wife with that Yount fellow at last summer's Andy North and Friends charity event.
Andy and Aaron and Robin raised $910,000 for the Carbone Cancer Center at that event.


Unlike the many scams masquerading under the guise of “breast cancer awareness” - like the NFL’s annual pink scam, where you buy a pink jersey for around $150 bucks and the NFL donates 5% of the proceeds (which translates to a few bucks) to breast cancer research – when you make a direct donation to an organization like the Carbone Cancer Center, your money – all of it – goes to work helping to find a cure.


So please don’t ask me to update my status with some inane bit, or where I last left my purse (last year’s Facebook “cancer awareness” meme).  Like you, I know victims of breast cancer personally.  We need a cure, not more “awareness”.  Please donate.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The New Car In Our Driveway

Yesterday afternoon the snappy Chevy Impala pictured above pulled up the driveway to the Compound and our son got out. I went out to greet him and get a look at his new car. It’s a dandy! It’s actually only the second car he’s owned since he got his driver’s license when he turned 16 back in 1999. His new car is a 2013 with a few thousand miles on it, barely broken in. It’s a Flex-Fuel vehicle; it’s loaded with all sorts of features and accessories; it even has that “new car” smell! He got a good deal on it from a Milwaukee Chevy dealer, and they gave him what I consider to be a very decent trade-in allowance on his 2000 Chevy Impala.

I still remember the afternoon he drove that car into the driveway at the Compound, the day he bought it in the spring of ’02. He did the deal on that car all by himself, which made me very happy and proud. My intent in raising our two kids was that they’d have the independence to run their own lives, using mom and me as resources and givers of advice. I told them both when they were graduating from high school that I couldn’t – and wouldn’t want to – run their adult lives; that mom and I would always be here for them, always wanted to be very much involved in their lives, but wanted them to call the shots.

I am so glad that neither one of our kids has wasted as much money as I have on cars, a lesson I thought I’d learned a couple decades ago, but – well, that’s another story.  I think now, as I approach my 65th year, I’ve finally learned the lesson that cars are an expense item, that they’re for transportation, not an investment.


Both our kids learned to drive on Rosie, the ‘94 Colt Vista wagon pictured above, which I’ve written about before. Rosie was the best family car we ever had.


Pictured above is a 1984 Thunderbird, very similar to the one which mom and I bought for our son a few months after he got his driver’s license in May of 1999. Somewhere I have a picture of the actual car, but I can’t find it right now. We bought the black T-Bird in a cash deal from a private party in McFarland, a fellow who was a mechanic at a car dealership and took meticulous care of the car and had all the documents relating to its maintenance. I have no doubt that when our son took over the car, the gas pedal on that venerable T-Bird spent way too much time pressed tightly to the floorboard, but – for a couple years, it got our son and his sister and a couple of their friends to school and back every day, and it probably went on a lot of adventures I’d just as soon not know about.  It died a horrible death a couple years after we bought it, when the electronics fried themselves to death.  It ended its life as a “parts car” for a mechanic on Stewart Street who was kind enough to take it off our hands.

I can’t readily find a picture of the first car our son bought on his own, but the picture of the 2000 Impala above looks exactly like his first car did.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 12 years since he first drove that car into our driveway, but he took more than reasonable care of it, and when it finally died last Friday, it had well over a hundred thousand miles on the ticker. I have never owned a car for 12 years; not even close!

Our son had told us for months that his 2000 Impala was on its last legs, and Friday, when he went to start it to take it to the dealer and trade it in, it was dead. Not “dead dead”, but it wouldn’t turn over. He pulled his wife’s car alongside the trusty old Impala, hooked up the jumper cables, and when he went to start his car, he says the engine “blew up” with a puff of smoke and a couple small fires under the hood. (No, he didn’t have the jumper cables hooked up wrong.) Long story short, the dealer agreed to tow the old Impala to the dealership, and still gave him a more than decent offer for trade-in value.

I’m glad that both of our kids have a very sensible view of automobiles, that they’re transportation and not status symbols.  It’s a lesson I’m pretty sure I have finally learned.

Above is a 1995 photo of three of the nine vehicles I owned at that time – pre-divorce, pre-marriage to Toni, pre-kids! I had a fleet of collector cars, including a lot of classic Chevelles, Corvettes, and two “winter beaters”, but that’s a story for another time. In the photo above you can see my “daily driver” during the warm-weather months, a beautiful blue Corvette; the one next to it is a perfectly-restored 1968 Chevelle SS-396; and the green one was my hot-rod, a 1970 Chevelle pavement-ripper that made a LOT of noise and left just about every other car on the road in the dust.


I’m glad my kids turned out to be more sensible than me. Those cars were fun, but damned expensive to keep around! I'm confident our son's new Impala will give him many years of good service - reliable transportation, not too flashy, but very stylish.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Uncle Earl

His name was Earl Frederick Samer, my mom’s oldest brother, an uncle I barely knew who had a fascinating life as a big-time musician back in the ’30’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s, and even the early '60's, performing with some of the biggest headlining entertainers of the era. Earl was born in Oshkosh, WI in 1910 and died in 1969. He played piano, sax and clarinet, and could even double on brass instruments and violin.  His principal instrument was the tenor sax.

The photo above was taken on June 5th, 1948, my mom and dad’s wedding day. Earl is the handsome guy on the far right. My mom’s other dapper brother, Uncle Carl Samer, is on the left; dad and mom are in the middle. Carl and Earl were ushers at mom and dad’s wedding in Oshkosh.

Here's an early photo of brothers Carl Samer (left) and Earl Samer (right) at a very young age.

Earl shared the stage with such big-name entertainers as Eddy Howard, Freddy Martin, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and many others. Earl played on many of their hit recordings, did countless radio broadcasts with big-name big bands, and even toured with the most famous circus in history.

Before I tell what I know of Earl’s story, I’d like to go back one generation farther, and talk a bit about his dad, my grandpa, Albert F. Samer – because that’s where the music really starts in our family. Grandpa Samer was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1881 and died in Oshkosh in 1940, nine years before I was born. His parents moved to America in 1884 and settled in Oshkosh. Albert was an accomplished trombone player, who doubled on baritone horn. For a decade in the 20’s and 30’s he was president of the Oshkosh Musicians’ Association, Local 46 of the American Federation of Musicians (AF of M).

When I joined Local 46 in 1965 and began my playing career, a lot of the older members of the union would introduce themselves to me by saying “I hear you’re Al Samer’s grandson – man, he was one hell of a player!” The man who signed my union card, Ray Pfeiffer, was a trombone player himself, who knew Earl. Pfeiffer would go on to join me on John Check's band for many years.

Here’s a photo of the Arion Orchestra, which Grandpa Al played with; later, he was selected by Arthur Pryor to join his world-famous band. Pryor was considered the world’s greatest trombonist at the turn of the century, and his band toured the U.S. and Europe several times. It was quite an honor to be selected to play trombone in the band led by the man considered the finest trombonist alive!

When his travelling days were over, Al worked for the U.S. Postal Service and continued to play trombone in and around Oshkosh. My mom recalls that her dad would conduct the local band at the South Park bandstand on Saturday nights in the summertime, and she and her sisters would sit on the porch of their Ohio Street home in Oshkosh, which was directly across from the park, and listen to their dad conduct the band.

Earl was a musical prodigy whose first instrument was the piano, which he could play proficiently by the time he was 6 years old. At that time, he began violin lessons with Charles Bauer (the leader of the Arion Band); then learned clarinet and saxophone; and studying with other local teachers, also learned trumpet and trombone.

He started his professional career playing with the Arions and a number of other local groups, working jobs at the Eagles Club in Oshkosh, the Moose Lodge, the Elks Club, and a number of other local venues which hired bands several nights a week for entertainment.

When he turned 27 in 1937, his career began to take off. Earl married Charlotte Schoenig and they moved to Madison. Charlotte was a very attractive woman – above is a photo taken at Carl Samer's wedding on February 8th, 1941.  Earl Samer is farthest left; Carl and his bride Marie are next; the next three people I don't recognize, but the lady with the fancy fur coat on the right side of the photo is my Great Aunt Helen Johnson. Next to her, Earl's wife Charlotte is half visible on the far right of the frame. My mom and her sisters loved Charlotte, who they said had a wonderful, happy personality and they called her “Sparky”.  Her death of cancer at an early age was a real blow to the entire family.

Here's a better photo of Earl and Charlotte Samer, taken in June of 1945. Left to right are Marie Samer, Carl's wife; my grandmother, Lydia Samer; Carl Samer is in the center, holding their son Bob Samer, my first cousin, who provided the three family photos above; Earl and Charlotte Samer are on the right of the photo. Apparently her photos don't do her justice; several of my cousins told me there was a very nice portrait of Charlotte which Earl had made, and she was a very beautiful woman.

During those days, Earl worked various gigs, picking up jobs as he could, and then caught on with his first “name” territory band: Johnny “Scat” Davis, and moved to Milwaukee.  When he wasn’t working with that group, he played at the Alhambra Theater in Milwaukee and the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. My cousin Jeanne Stroh who now lives in Kansas City and was one of our "gang of first cousins" in our younger years - a group that included me, my brothers and sisters, Bob Samer, Jeanne Stroh and her sister Kathy Matonich - told me she recalls clearly her mom, Earl's sister Genevieve, telling her how Uncle Earl spent a fair amount of time in his Milwaukee years hanging out with a piano player who went by the name Liberace, frequently a guest in Liberace's West Allis home. Their paths would cross again when both were working in Las Vegas in the 50's.

The 1940 census shows Earl and Charlotte living in the Jackson Hotel on 13th Street in Milwaukee. The census-taker noted that Earl had worked 52 weeks in the prior year and had earned $1200. A hundred bucks a month doesn’t sound like much right now, but back in 1940, two could easily live on 23 bucks a week. The average annual wage in America in 1940 was $1248.

The early 40’s were Earl’s “circus years”.  He took a job as lead tenor player and assistant conductor with the Barnes-Carruthers Shows #1 unit. Back then, some circuses had more than one “unit” on the road at any given time. After one tour with Barnes-Carruthers, Earl took over as lead tenor sax player for The Greatest Show on Earth, as they called the Ringling Brothers – Barnum and Bailey Circus. Earl did six national tours with the #1 circus in the world.

1944 was a big year in Earl’s career. He took over as lead tenor sax player for Eddy Howard’s band. Howard was a hugely popular vocalist who toured constantly, doing a live radio broadcast essentially every night of the week. This was a big-time job with big-time pay. In 1946, Howard had the #1 national hit with his recording of “To Each His Own”.  You can hear that recording at this link, and you can hear Earl’s brief but prominent tenor sax solo about two minutes into the recording.

As I was reminiscing with my mom a few days ago about Uncle Earl’s career, she told me a story about “To Each His Own”. My mom, Pauline, and her sisters Genevieve and Virginia - "The Samer Sisters" -were a very popular vocal trio in Oshkosh, singing for church fairs, picnics, and public and civic gatherings of all sorts, and when “To Each His Own” became a hit, they sang it, and always mentioned that their brother Earl was a member of Eddy Howard’s Orchestra.

On a brief visit with his family in Oshkosh, mom and her sisters sang “To Each His Own” for Earl, who was so taken with their performance that when the brief break from touring was over and Earl went back with the Howard Orchestra, he asked Howard’s staff arranger to do a really nice, unique arrangement of “To Each His Own” for his sisters’ vocal trio. He did; Earl sent the music back to his sisters in Oshkosh, and they proudly sang that arrangement in all their appearances!

Constant touring, which was necessary back in the pre-television days, can be a tough life – always on the move, living out of a suitcase for long stretches of time, 4-hour gigs and radio broadcasts just about every night of the week. In1946, after a couple years of touring with Eddy Howard, Earl decided to take a break from constant travel and settled down in Chicago.

Earl joined the Chicago Musicians’ Association, Local 10, which was run by James C. Petrillo, a Chicago-born trumpet player who was also head of the American Federation of Musicians – the national musicians’ union. Petrillo was often called “the most powerful man in America” at that time, because he had just successfully concluded a two-year-long ban on commercial recordings for all union-member sidemen, with a new deal that paid the sidemen a great deal more for their performances on recordings.

Earl’s first job in Chicago in ’46 was a full-time gig with the WGN Radio Staff Orchestra. He also did fill-in work with many of Chicago’s famous bands and hotel orchestras, like Dick LaSalle, Sherman Hayes, Orrin Tucker, and others. Union records also show that Earl also did a stint during that time with the famous Freddy Martin Orchestra.

Here’s a photo of the Freddy Martin Orchestra with Earl in the center of the sax section.

Apparently the touring bug bit Earl again after a few years of being headquartered in Chicago, and he spent a few more years on the road and recording with some fairly famous bands.

Here’s a picture of a 1948 album, with Earl playing lead tenor sax with the famous Jimmy Dorsey band. You may have heard of Maynard Ferguson, the featured soloist on the album, who was all of 19 years old at the time.

Above is the famous Tommy Dorsey band, which Earl played, recorded, and toured with.

Here’s the great trumpeter Harry James and his world-famous band. Earl did a couple tours and some records with this band.

In 1949, the year I was born, Earl got tired of doing all the touring and recording work, but he’d played with many of the really big-name bands of that era. He took a job as lead tenor sax player for the Cee Davidson Orchestra, which meant six nights a week in Chicago at the Chez Paree Club.

But, as fate would have it, Cee Davidson wanted to be a part of the Las Vegas scene in 1950, feeling that was the future of live entertainment. So Earl packed up again and moved to Vegas. Above is a 1953 poster advertising the Davidson orchestra’s regular gig at the Conga Room in the Sahara Hotel.

Among musicians back then, Paul Whiteman’s band was considered the best of the best. Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and music columnists in major newspapers in the early ‘50’s referred to Whiteman simply as “PW”. His reputation for attracting the best musicians and running the most popular band was such that he was known in music circles simply by his initials.

Earl got his chance to perform with Paul Whiteman’s band, which, like Cee Davidson’s band, had a permanent gig in Las Vegas. Davidson’s band played six nights a week at the Conga Room of the Sahara Hotel, and Whiteman’s Band did the same at the Thunderbird Hotel, which was one of the newer hotel/resorts in Las Vegas at the time. Whiteman’s lead tenor sax player had to take an 8-day leave, and “The Great PW” called Davidson to ask if he could “borrow” his lead tenor player to fill in during that time. Even though the Whiteman band was past its prime, it was still one of the biggest names in show business, and Earl considered that short stint with Whiteman to be the highlight of his career.
Above is a photo of Benny Goodman's band - at least, part of the band - and you can see Benny's clarinet on the far left side of the frame. In the 1950's, as recording technology improved, Columbia and several of the other major record companies brought some of the top big bands back into the studio to re-record their hits from the 30's and 40's which were originally released on 78 RPM records, with much lower fidelity. Earl played tenor sax on this 1950's Benny Goodman session, re-recording Goodman's hit song "Perfidia". You can hear that recording on this YouTube video. The video shows the old 78 RPM record label, but the audio is from the 50's re-recording session when the song was released on an LP album.
Years ago, in the early '70's, during my broadcast career, I did an hour-long Saturday morning big-band radio show on an Oshkosh FM station. The show had a loyal following and one of the most enthusiastic fans was a fellow named David Kingsbaker, a record collector and musicologist, who knew Uncle Earl from his Oshkosh days and had carefully followed Earl's career and visited with him many times when Earl would come to Oshkosh to visit family and friends. Earl had been dead several years by the time I was doing that big-band radio show, but Kingsbaker had a copy of that 50's Goodman LP re-recording of "Perfidia", and he joined me on the air one Saturday morning; I played the record, and Kingsbaker told the audience that Earl got a call to fill in on that particular session.

Earl spent the rest of the 50’s and early 60’s working various gigs in Las Vegas, and then returned to Chicago. By the mid-60’s television had completely changed American entertainment, and the great ballrooms of Chicago – the Aragon on the north side, the Trianon on the south side – were long gone as venues for dancing to the great bands. The Aragon had been converted to a roller-skating rink, and the Trianon was demolished to make way for a housing development. 

In 1962 Earl was working a patchwork of gigs to keep the money coming in, including a brief stint with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He decided to abandon his career in music and tried his hand working for some large advertising agencies in Chicago. He passed away in 1969.

The only tangible thing left of Earl's life, besides the photos, recordings, and transcriptions, is the shipping trunk above. It's in my cousin Kathy Matonich's home in Wisconsin Rapids.  She was kind enough to send me this photo and the one below. The large photo above the trunk is our grandma Lydia Samer's wedding photo.

As you can see in the larger picture of the trunk above, Kathy kept the original shipping tag with the trunk. It's sent from Earl's Chicago address to his mother, Lydia Samer, at her Oshkosh address. Our best guess is that it was shipped sometime in the late 50's or early 60's; you can read "Dec 3" near the "date of shipment" section on the bottom right of the tag, but the year is obscured. The tag says this is one of a shipment of four trunks, and Earl has placed a value on the shipment of $5000 - certainly a pretty good chunk of change back then. In 1960, the average annual household income in America was $5600, so that trunk represented a value of nearly a year's wages.

No one remembers what was in the trunks, whether it was Earl's musical instruments, once he gave up playing and started work in the advertising world; certainly a great deal of memorabilia from his performing days; who knows what else.

When I was chatting on the phone with my cousin Jeanne Stroh the other night, she reminded me of the huge scrapbook that Grandma Samer kept in her home, filled with photos of Earl and the bands and musicians he played with - a scrapbook that has long since disappeared. Jeanne recalled clearly that there were dozens of photographs of  Earl with world-famous singers and musicians, many of them autographed with inscriptions like "Best Wishes to Earl Samer from Frank Sinatra" - and dozens of others like Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, and so many other big-name entertainers who had worked with Earl either on the road or backing them up in a band in Earl's Las Vegas years.

Some time in the early 70's, my grandmother, Earl's mother Lydia Samer, moved from Oshkosh to an assisted living facility in Wisconsin Rapids to be closer to her daughter Genevieve (and her daughters Virginia Steen and Kathy Matonich, who also live in Wisconsin Rapids), and whatever became of Earl's possessions and the wonderful memorabilia is anyone's guess.

Earl’s last few years were, by account of many of my relatives who knew him, not the best. My cousin Virginia Steen, my Aunt Genevieve's daughter who is a few years older than me, told me she was in Chicago with friends and met Earl for lunch at a restaurant near Wrigley Field in the early 60’s and he stuck her with the bill. And, like many musicians of my acquaintance, Earl was known to “take a second drink” more than once. I choose not to dwell on those things, but rather to focus on the fantastic musical career Earl had. He was guilty, as my friend Tom said when I shared some memories of Earl with him, of being a musician who didn’t save much money. But, as Tom said, Earl had a lot of company in that department among musicians of that era. Sidemen could make a good living playing music, but it was the bandleaders and featured singers (like Frank Sinatra, Helen Forrest, Vaughan Monroe, and so on) who “made the big bucks”.

Rest in peace, Uncle Earl.  I wish I’d known you better. Your reputation as a first-rate talented musician lives on, as does some of the great music you made.

(Author’s note: I did the best job I could to piece together my Uncle Earl’s career, relying on newspaper articles, census notes, union newsletters and records, archivists, and recollections from relatives and friends. If there are errors here, they’re mine alone, and I apologize. My attempt was not to mislead, but to fairly chronicle Earl’s music career as best I could.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Last Drug

The overdose death of actor Philip Hoffman surprised me. I didn’t know he was a heavy drug user. I don’t pay much attention to the constant din of celebrity news the so-called news channels force-feed us these days, so I’m not up on which star is in rehab, out of rehab, or going to rehab.


I really liked his acting, and many of the characters he played, from the fun-loving young weather scientist in “Twister” to the tabloid reporter in “Red Dragon” to the CIA Case Officer in “Charlie Wilson’s War”. These diverse and memorable roles display to me his tremendous depth and range as a character actor.


A couple weeks ago I did a story (for my day-job as a producer for Public News Service) about the latest spike in heroin deaths in Wisconsin. I talked to the agent-in-charge of the Department of Justice’s anti-drug effort, and he confirmed for me – again – that heroin is “the last drug”.   Once you are hooked on heroin, the odds are really strong that your days are numbered and your life is essentially over.


The term “the last drug” is not mine; many years ago, in a former life as a news anchor, I visited with a couple of hardened drug cops who were in the cavernous main foyer of the radio stations where I worked. They had a drug-dog with them – a Belgian Malinois (Shepherd) – and were waiting to do a live shot with Johnny Danger on the JJO morning show to try and raise more money for K-9 units. I visited with the two cops for a moment; I asked what the latest scourge was, and they quickly said “heroin”.


This was at least ten years ago.


The two cops talked about how so many people who are hooked on the drug want desperately to get off it; how they hate what it did to their lives; how much they wish they’d never tried it; how little room there was in treatment programs for heroin addicts. “We can get you in next spring” was a typical response to a plea to enter a heroin rehab program.


Fast forward ten years to this past January 23rd, when I did the story with the DOJ's SAIC about heroin. He said the same things.  (The story is here.) Heroin is the last drug you get hooked on.  It seems very little has changed in the decade since I had the brief chat with a couple hard-edged local narcotics cops. Still the worst of the scores of things you can get hooked on; still apparently the most addictive; still nowhere near enough resources to help people who are on it and want to get off it.


Still taking the lives of anonymous addicts and famous stars.


Still the last drug.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Weather Channel Has Lost Its Focus

The Weather Channel has been doomed since NBC bought into it several years ago and changed it from a place where you could get instant, up-to-date weather forecasts around the clock, 24-7-365, to just another cable channel filled with horrid reality shows and has-been TV personalities.


I’ve made this observation before and I’ll make it again: the Weather Channel has lost its focus.


If you tuned in to get the forecast yesterday, like I did, you couldn’t escape seeing the message delivered by Jim Cantore (a true weather geek and formidable weather personality, unlike Al Roker, an old-school TV personality) intoning in dire terms that DirecTV is, in essence, going to be responsible for countless deaths because – the way Jim spun it – DirecTV refuses to carry the Weather Channel.


After all, these meteorologists at the Weather Channel are serious scientists, and they’re in the business of saving lives.  That is, unless they happen to be running one of those horrid reality shows they’ve loaded onto the daily schedule.


The deal between the Weather Channel and DirecTV expired at one minute past midnight Tuesday, and the Weather Channel was ready with the Jim Cantore announcement, which ran seemingly every 8 minutes.  The business end of the Weather Channel was busy sending out news escapes calling the move by DirecTV “reckless”, and saying the move “will have an impact on….national safety and the preparedness fabric of our country”.


Serious stuff, this weather business.  Except, of course, like yesterday morning, when my wife and I tuned in the Weather Channel, and they were doing a LONG segment on how to cook a nutritious breakfast. (I’m not kidding.)
See what I mean about loss of focus?


Here’s the thing: this is not just an argument about how much money The Weather Channel wants from DirecTV to carry their programming, like the recent local spat between WISC-TV Channel 3 and Charter Cable about what the fee would be set at.  Or the one between Channel 3 and DishNet a few months before that.  That’s just business, and contract renewals can involve heavy-duty give-and-take; and, often, threats.


Apparently, more and more weather geeks – like me – have made their feelings clear about the loss of focus at the Weather Channel.  When the contract between the Weather Channel and DirecTV came to an end, DirecTV kicked the Weather Channel to the curb and put its own meteorological service, a new thing called Weather Nation, in place of the Weather Channel.  One DirecTV executive (Dan York, whose title is “Chief Content Officer”) said “Most consumers don’t want to watch a weather information channel with a forecast of a 40% chance of reality TV”.


Yup.  That’s me, all right.  You can keep “Weather In Space”, “Prospectors”, “Coast Guard Alaska”, “Breaking Ice”, “Freaks of Nature”, “Highway Through Hell” and all those other  Weather Channel reality shows….and you can put “Wake Up With Al” on that list. Al Roker is the LAST person I want to wake up with.
All this extraneous stuff they do would be like ESPN suddenly deciding to do shows about sewing or first-time home buyers.


DirecTV went on to say that they’ve heard loud and clear from their customers that they do NOT want to see reality shows when they tune in for the weather, and – Lord of mercy – they think the Weather Channel’s policy of giving names to storms is STOOPID!!!!!!

There is hope for humanity.
I’ve discovered I’m far from alone in despising the gimmicking-up of weather.  Whatever finally happens….whether the folks at DirecTV decide to get out of the weather business and come to terms with the Weather Channel again; or whether the Weather Channel wakes up with Al one morning and decides to resist the crap foisted on it by the NBC-Universal people and get back to the business of doing live forecasts 24-7-365, one thing is certain: the people – at least, some of them – subscribers to DirecTV - have been given an alternative, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing.


I’ll be watching eagerly to see how this plays out.

Monday, January 13, 2014

An Ode to Rosie - Our Favorite Family Car

I think a lot of families have a particular car in which many fond memories reside, and in our case that car is a 1994 Colt Vista Wagon that my wife and kids dubbed “Rosie”. Rosie’s full name was “Rosebud”, mainly because of her rose-red color. That’s Rosie above, in a 2003 photo. She’s sitting in front of the house of our friends Tom and Mary. Nine years old but still looking like new!


My wife bought Rosie brand new from a Madison dealer (Russ Darrow) when we had just started dating. The decision was between Rosie, with her practicality and fuel economy and room for two kids and a dog, and a bright green, sporty, Chrysler Neon on display at the same dealership. Rosie won, and she stayed in our family from that day in 1994 until the day she died, in 2009. 15+ years of solid service.


Both kids learned to drive on Rosie. By the time our son was old enough to start learning to drive, in 1999, Rosie had already delivered five years of maintenance-free service, and her tiny 4-cylinder engine started up every time and purred like a kitten. At that time, I was driving a huge Cadillac ElDorado Touring Coupe with a Northstar V-8 that delivered 300 horsepower, and although our son campaigned heavily to “just take it for a cruise” after he got his license, he was restricted to driving Rosie. I know what it’s like to be 16 years old and have 300 horsepower at your command, and, well…..suffice it to say the only time our son got to drive the big black Caddy was one very late night around the turn of the century when my judgment was impaired.


It happened during a period of time when my radio compadre Sly was still in his drinking days. We’d had Sly over for dinner one Saturday night, and it was just one of those nights when everybody had a bit too much to drink. Some time after the midnight hour, while our son and several of his pals had a sleep-over going on in the lower level of the house playing video games and such, it became apparent that none of the “adults” were in any shape to drive.  I can’t recall whether Sly had driven the big Mercury sedan I called his “FBI Car” – because it looked like an FBI-issue sedan with heavily-tinted windows and a big V-8 – or if it was his big-ass classic Buick Roadmaster.


Anyway, the course of action decided upon was to have one of our son’s pals drive Sly home in his car, while our son and the rest of his pals would follow Sly home, and then bring the driver back after Sly’s car was safely parked at Sly’s west-side home.  In a moment of weakness, I allowed them to take the big Caddy, and stories of that night still abound among our son and his friends.  I never wanted to know the specifics.


As both kids went off to college at the UW, Rosie remained in the family, parked in the driveway. When my wife went to get a new car in 2002, the amount they offered us for a trade-in on Rosie was, I thought, insulting, so we decided to keep Rosie and “deal on the invoice” as the car folks used to say.  I gave Rosie plenty of loving attention, after all the years of service she’d given in family trips to Chicago and Hortonville, hauling brush to the dumpsite, getting groceries, and then becoming “the kids’ car” that sat in the driveway, off to the side, so my wife and I could get in and out of the garage without moving Rosie every time.
No matter what we asked of Rosie, she delivered. Even when she was just sitting and waiting to be driven.

Her low horsepower, front wheel drive, and narrow tires were perfect for battling heavy snow, and there were many snowy mornings over the years 2002- 2006 that I left the Caddy (and its sucessors) in the garage and took Rosie to work at 2:45 AM, long before the county plows went to work on the Beltline. We replaced a water pump and timing belt at some point; replaced the exhaust system; had ignition work done; but other than that, Rosie cost us little but gas, oil, and insurance.


After our daughter graduated from the UW, we gave Rosie to her. Our son did not like Rosie, and when we offered her to him, he said he would just sell her or trade her in – a concept we couldn’t live with. He wound up buying a nice 2000 Chevy Impala, which he still drives!


Rosie left home and went to live with our daughter in 2006. She got our daughter safely to and from work at Meriter Hospital, and then at UW Hospital for many years, and transported her to and from the nice apartment she and her BFF Breanna rented in McFarland. But then one warm spring day in 2009, our daughter called and said Rosie was not behaving well. I said “bring her over and we’ll take a look at her”. The test-drive was terrifying – at any speed above about 30 miles an hour, Rosie wobbled like a drunk and was very hard to steer.  I had a mechanic look at her, and the diagnosis was fatal: cost of repair would far exceed the value of the vehicle, to the point where it was time to put Rosie to sleep. Ball joints, tie rods, struts – a long list of things which had to be replaced. She had pretty serious body cancer by then; the air conditioner had given out quite a while ago; the tires were in need of replacement; add it all up, and it was a death sentence.  At that time, Rosie had about 161,000 hard-earned miles on the odometer.


So, the next day, driving on “surface streets only”, my daughter brought Rosie home for one last time; we drove Rosie to the huge Zimbrick dealership just off the Beltline, and picked out a nice, safe, low-miles Buick Regal to replace Rosie, and as part of the deal, the guys at Zimbrick said they would “dispose” of Rosie.


Rosie is gone, but will never be forgotten.  She was a good girl!