Sunday, August 16, 2015

The End of an Era: Bob Crane's KNX-CBS Radio Finale—August 16, 1965

It was the end of an era.

Bob Crane, who had made a dynamic name for himself in radio on both the East and West Coasts beginning in 1950, was trading his radio microphone in for a U.S. Army Air Force officer's crush cap. And when Bob signed off KNX for the last time on Monday, August 16, 1965, there was a literal sob heard throughout Southern California, and most audibly, throughout the halls of Columbia Square, home of KNX.

Bob had already spent the last eight months working on Hogan's Heroes, all while maintaining his regular schedule at KNX. He thought he could continue on at KNX while also working full time on Hogan's Heroes, similar to as he had done while working on The Donna Reed Show. Ambitious though he was, Bob soon discovered he was wrong. The new schedule had proven to be grueling, and it started to affect not only his work, but his health.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography, by Carol M. Ford, with Dee Young and Linda J. Groundwater:
CBS had made it quite clear: Hogan’s Heroes must be a winner. They would accept nothing less. Neither would Bob. But with a starring role on a TV series and his regular job at KNX, Bob’s already manic schedule would now be nothing short of insane. Something had to give. Bob’s intention was to continue at KNX while filming Hogan’s Heroes, working both jobs simultaneously the same way he had done when he worked on The Donna Reed Show. On May 6, 1965, Bob entered into another one-year contract with CBS to continue his morning program at KNX from 1965-1966. By this time, the agreements between Bob and KNX were fairly informal, with Bob himself even claiming that they were more or less a handshake deal, even though signed contracts did exist. Bob enjoyed his work in radio, and KNX knew Bob was their top commodity.
However, after filming the first several episodes of Hogan’s Heroes, the arrangement soon proved to be far more difficult than Bob or anyone else had anticipated. There was a big difference between being part of a supporting cast and carrying the lead role in a series. Nevertheless, Bob struggled to maintain both jobs.
“I did both The Donna Reed Show and my radio show for two years,” Bob said. “But that was a situation where I wasn’t in every scene. I wasn’t Donna Reed in other words. But in this series, I am Donna Reed.” 
The dual career arrangement was to be short-lived. By June 1965, Bob had discovered that juggling two full-time and highly prolific careers was irrational—and impossible. He could not perform both jobs well, take care of himself and his family, and remain sane. It became too much.
“People were swarming around me with fresh cups of coffee, foot massages, and soothing words,” Bob had said, “and it suddenly hit me what the trouble was—I was just too darned tired. I had pushed it. When we first started the new series, I was falling apart physically. That’s when I decided I couldn’t do the radio show too. I tried to carry on until January [1966] after my replacement for radio was hired. But one day, I just started forgetting my lines. That was the day I made up my mind to quit the [radio] show. Being on radio and starring in a TV series at the same time means waking up at five-thirty a.m., going to do four hours of radio, then running down to the set and staying there until seven-fifteen at night, then getting my makeup off and going back to the radio station to get my music ready for the next day, getting home at nine-thirty, eating dinner, looking at my lines for a few minutes, and then falling asleep. I got so I was Uncle Daddy to my kids. ‘My wife, what’s her name’ and all those jokes were apropos. When I’d drive in the driveway, the kids would say, ‘Hey, here comes Bob Crane.’ I got Bob Sutton (general manager of KNX) on the phone and said, ‘I’ve had it, buddy. I’m bugging out early,’ and that was that. Fortunately, there is such a great group of guys over there that they understood.” 
Despite the signed contract, CBS and KNX realized that it was dangerous to Bob’s health for him to continue at full capacity in both Hogan’s Heroes and at KNX. So, with the approval of KNX and CBS, Bob bowed out of radio. It was a pivotal decision for Bob to leave the medium he had always loved and that had made him both wealthy and famous. After more than fifteen consecutive years behind the microphone, from one coast to the other, Bob hosted “The Bob Crane Show” live for the last time over KNX on Monday, August 16, 1965. (pp. 215-216/hardcover edition, © Carol M. Ford). 
Bob Crane brought a whole new dimension to radio. He incorporated what KNX termed his "show stuff" (in other words, his skits, gimmicks, and drumming) with the traditional programming of music and commercials. Bob invented what was known as "sampling"—not breaking his show into segments, but rather, having everything flow together. A commercial became part of a skit became part of the next record, during which he would also drum along, and then some pieces were revisited later during another part of the show. It all flowed together; none of it was compartmentalized.

A gifted voice impersonator, KNX also hailed him as radio's "Man of a Thousand Voices," and most of the voices heard on Bob's show were created and performed by Bob himself. People listening would swear they were hearing Bob carrying on a conversation with another person in a particular skit, but in reality, in many cases, it was all performed by Bob and then pre-recorded.

Of course, Bob's KNX celebrity interviews were unparalleled in radio at the time, and should still today command great respect. These interviews are a treasure trove of Hollywood history. During his tenure at KNX, he interviewed thousands of celebrities and Hollywood notables. So successful and entertaining were his interviews, that producers urged Bob to transition his radio show to television. They also pressed him to replace Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. After Bob declined, it went to Johnny Carson.

Bob's colleagues in radio have referred to him as a radio genius. Much of what Bob did behind the mic seemed to flow right from his mind, without any preparation. And while some of that is true—some of his quips and ad libs were spontaneous—he prepared extensively for his radio show, so much so, that when he launched into his program each morning, it all flowed together. He was very much at home behind a microphone, and he enjoyed every second of it.

Bob stayed close to radio for his entire life. During Hogan's Heroes, he donated many hours of his time with the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Network. Following the cancellation of the series, he returned to radio briefly, working at KMPC, where he filled in for his former broadcasting competition, Dick Whittinghill, and then provided a year-long series of specials for the station. In 1976, he returned to WICC in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he helped the station celebrate its 50th anniversary.

In radio, Bob Crane became a star. We all know him as the wise-cracking Colonel Hogan, but radio is where he got his basic training. He learned new skills at every station, beginning at WLEA in Hornell, New York, in 1950, and he carried those skills with him throughout radio and beyond into acting and directing. The impromptu title bestowed upon him—"King of the LA Airwaves"—is mostly accurate. He truly was, but not just in Los Angeles! 

Shortly before his death, Bob hinted at possibly wanting to write his own autobiography. Imagine what we might have learned—and specifically about radio and his time at KNX—if his life had not been cut short and he had only been allowed that opportunity.