The last two weeks, I’ve enjoyed a couple of great radio station Christmas Parties. A week ago, we enjoyed a great Cumulus New York Christmas Party (since there are now 4 radio stations on the 17th Floor of 2 Penn, it’s no longer a WABC/WPLJ Christmas Party) at the Skylark Roof Top on West 39th Street. Orchestrated by Deb and Michelle in our Business Department, it was a great event, and everyone had a great time. As did those of us who traveled around the corner for NY Market Manager Chad Lopez’s after party (thanks Chad!). Then, this past Friday night, I attended the 4th Annual WABC/WPLJ Alumni Holiday Extravaganza, orchestrated by Jill Vitale at the Statler Grill. It was great to spend the night with folks I still work with at WABC, and with folks like Dr. Judy Kuriansky that we worked with in the 80s! The drinks were flowing at both, and the holiday spirit (and spirits) made me think back to the many radio station Christmas parties I’ve enjoyed ever since my first in 1972.
My first real radio station Christmas party was the WHN Radio party of December, 1972, and frankly, it was a heck of a way to start! The party was held at a very classy east side restaurant, The Sign of the Dove, on 3rd Avenue and 65th Street. I think I was off that day, so I came from home and was one of the first folks to arrive. As a 22 year old in my first year of working for a real company, I didn’t know what to expect, but even my wildest dreams did not compare to what I saw. The Sign of the Dove was an elegant continental style restaurant that had hosted parties for the likes of Jackie Kennedy, and on one December night in 1972, for the staff of WHN. The surroundings were beautiful, and as I was ushered to an open upper floor space with skylights and art work, part of me wondered what I was doing there. The meal was elegant and incredible, but the thing I was most taken with, was the whole prosciutto that was being thinly sliced on the buffet table! When the festivities officially started with a few remarks by the station’s General Manager, we were all told that the usual Storer Holiday bonus would be given that year (I think it was $100 for every year you’d worked there), and were then surprised to all be given Seiko watches as a Christmas present from the station! Wow, I thought, is this what working for a real radio station is like? An elegant party, a Christmas bonus, and a $100 Seiko watch as a gift? I could get used to that kind of treatment!!
It’s good I didn’t, because the station must have been doing very well in 1972, because the “party” WHN had in 1973 was a real night and day experience. In 1973 there was a smaller, intimate party one afternoon in the GM’s office! Rather than a full bar and a carving board filled with delights like at The Sign of the Dove (sniff…no hand carved prosciutto), in 1973 we were offered soda and what looked like a Ritz cracker with Oscar Meyer liverwurst spread on it. Oh, and there were also no Seikos that year either. No ,in 1972 we had a “grab bag”, and I think I pulled out a $3 bottle of women’s perfume….I conveniently left it at the party! So a big lesson learned that year about what to expect from a radio station Christmas Party…I learned you never knew what to expect!!
That was a valuable lesson to learn, because 1974 brought an even more different event! Although money was still tight at 400 Park Avenue the next year, they managed to get a trade deal with an Italian restaurant on the upper west side, and once again have a real party. I remember that the day of the party was cold and snowy, and that getting to the location off Central Park West was a real pain that evening. It seemed like everyone was of the same mind that night; a nice drink now that we were in from the cold would be just the ticket. Unfortunately, the bartender had a heavy hand, and with that first drink, the majority of the staff was blotto! I remember having a conversation with Chuck Renwick (WHN’s General Manager at the time) that made no sense, as did little else that night. The one memory I do clearly have was of leaving the restaurant in a group that included our Production Director Allan Kaltor (yes, that Allan Kaltor who later went on to David Letterman Show fame). Allan got outside the restaurant, raised his hand to hail a cab, and just kept going face first into a snow bank. Yes, it was just that kind of party!
Now, parties at ABC were interesting to say the least: at least in my early years with the company. This was the age during which ABC threw money at everything, so there was both a WABC party and a WPLJ party, and since we were members of the WABC/WPLJ Engineering Department, we were one of the few groups at the stations that got invited to both! Traditionally, the WABC party was a loud raucous affair in the Wine Cellar of Mama Leone’s on West 48 Street, and the WPLJ party was an equally loud and raucous but perhaps slightly classier affair at the Promenade Cafe at the Rockefeller Center skating rink! The one thing they both had in common, is that they were full of people none of us knew!
When we talk about WABC and WPLJ, you have to realize that in those days, they were in essence, small companies. All told, there were probably under a hundred folks working at each of them, so when you go to a Christmas Party and find 300 plus people in attendance, you know that there are more than just spouses and friends making up the difference. In those days in New York, some division of ABC must have had a Christmas party every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and we were sure that there was a group of folks who just spent that period of the year going from party to party. We knew that was true to some extent, because we’d see the same people we didn’t know at the WABC and the WPLJ parties!
One of my favorite post Christmas Party memories is the year that the WABC and the WPLJ parties were on consecutive nights. The next day, WPLJ’s mid-day jock, John Zackerly (the original Cool Ghoul from late night TV fame), wrote the following on the WPLJ Trouble Report: “If the Engineers are to be invited to both the AM and FM Christmas parties, could the parties please NOT be scheduled on consecutive nights in coming years?” I assume that Zack had a rather trying 2 days!
I always remember that one poor bastard that had to make the rounds was the then President of ABC, Elton Rule, and I’ll always remember the year that his visit to the WABC party was special! Everyone in the company knew who he was, but often times what would happen when he’d stop by, was that the station General Manager would be stuck with him. On this particular year, WABC had a Department Head meeting the morning of the WABC Christmas Party at Mama Leone’s, and GM Al Racco begged folks to bring members of their departments up and talk to Mr. Rule, so that he wasn’t stuck with him all night. Someone asked, what should they talk to Mr. Rule about, and Al Racco replied, “I don’t give a damn if you tell him you love his tie…just don’t leave me stuck with him all night!” WABC Assistant Chief Bob Deitch was in that meeting, and later in the day shared the discussion about the Christmas Party to our Maintenance Group Seven, George Berger, and the die was cast!
Before I go on, let me give you a clear picture of who George Berger was. A product of the radio station at Hofstra University, George was a genius with computers, audio design, and studio design. He was a person who could solve virtually any problem from audio processing to remotes, to playing the best practical jokes ever! He was responsible for the most incredible, sexy, user friendly WABC and WPLJ studios built around custom Rupert Neve boards that always took into consideration what the job they’d be doing, and what the users’ needs were. George was the one that would take whatever it took to design a solution, to any problem in the radio stations. As I said, George was a genius, but he was also a great friend. Although maintenance was his area of expertise, when my kids were little, and because he was Jewish, he would come in and work my air shift on Christmas Day so that I could stay home with my family! George always had a twinkle in his eye, and a solution in his brain, and he left us way too young in life, and will always be missed by his friends who loved him!
Okay, so as I said, he was also a genius with practical jokes, and fearless, and as soon as Bob Deitch shared details of the Department Head Meeting, George knew exactly what he’d be doing at that night’s party. After work, everyone journeyed from the ABC Building over to Mama’s on a West 48th Street and the party began. As there were always a lot of ABC Corporate parties on any given night during the holiday season, our party was well underway before Mr. Rule arrived, and as per usual, he gravitated to the station GM. There was a small group of staff around the duo when George instigated Bob Deitch to take him up and introduce him to the President of ABC. No sooner had that introduction been completed, when George said, “Oh, Mr. Rule, what a great looking tie!” As poor Elton looked down to try and figure out what was so great looking about his tie, GM Racco shot a withering look, but George was all smiles!
There have been many more parties over the years that stick out in my mind, including ones where the GM stood on a grand piano, with his tie around his forehead, drunkenly singing into a beer bottle, or where people were handed drinks to try that were made with breast milk, ones where show hosts were asked to leave by the GM, because of their “risqué” dancing style, and ones where recently dismissed hosts were escorted out by the Program Director, but those are tales for another time and more VODKA!
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!