In 1971 I was hired by station KPPC in Pasadena, Calif. to do a once-a-week program of rare rock & roll oldies from my record collection. From the very beginning, the funniest and most bizarre items got the best audience response, and the program quickly mutated into a two-hour extravaganza of "mad music and crazy comedy."
It still sometimes seems like all that happened yesterday, but it has indeed been twenty years. In September and October we celebrated the anniversary with a transcontinental tour and a cable TV special.
The TV show featured live performances by (in alphabetical order) Benny Bell ("Shaving Cream"), Bill Frenzer of Ogden Edsl ("Dead Puppies"), Eddie Lawrence ("The Old Philosopher"), Bobby "Boris" Pickett ("Monster Mash"), the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra "2001 Kazoostra", Tiny Tim ("Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips With Me"), Uncle Floyd ("Deep in the Heart of Jersey"), Sheb Wooley ("The Purple People Eater"), and "Weird Al" Yankovic ("Addicted to Spuds" and a new polka medley of hits of the 90s.) Weird Al's band, expanded to an 11-piece orchestra, backed most of the performances. Video clips by Allan Sherman ("Sarah Jackman") and Barnes & Barnes ("Fish Heads") were shown, and several other well-known funny people (Stan Freberg, Cheech Marin, Ray Stevens, Father Guido Sarducci, George Carlin) sent videotaped "anniversary cards" (which director Jay Levey inserted at the last minute as a total surprise to me -- I was fairly bowled over).
Everybody looked and sounded terrific. I know it was as thrilling for longtime fans as it was for me, and I couldn't have imagined a better introduction for anyone curious to see and hear what Dementia is all about.
The special was show on the Comedy Central channel on October 30th and 31st and November 8th. We understand several further airings are planned, so watch your local cable TV listings for "Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary TV Party."
(The Comedy Central cable network was formed early in 1991 when HBO's Comedy Channel merged with HA-TV, an MTV offshoot. It presents a delightful mix of funny movies, classic comedy TV shows such as "SCTV" and video clips of live comedy performances from all across the USA. Check your local cable TV listings, and if your local cable system doesn't carry it, call or write to them and ask them whey the @%#*! not!)
The special was taped before a live audience on October 13th, in (appropriately enough) Pasadena, Calif., just a few blocks from where I did my first Demented radio shows twenty years earlier.
The TV taping was the climax of a nationwide tour that began September 3rd in Albany, N.Y.. Except for the bad weather in the Midwest that delayed my plane by more than two hours, the Albany stop was typical: a couple of live guest appearances on our local radio affiliate (WPYX), an autograph session at a local record store, local newspaper and TV interviews, and a film program at a movie theatre hosted by your obedient Doctor. We call the film program "Dement-O-Rama". It features highlights from my 20th Anniversary video collection on Rhino Home Video (Spike Jones' "Cocktails for Two", Allan Sherman's "Sarah Jackman", Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher", Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater", and of course Barnes & Barnes' "Fish Heads") plus other longtime Demented favorites such as "Wizard of Speed and Time", "A Bird for All Seasons" with Bill Murray, "The Great Cognito" (an early piece by Will Vinton, creator of those loveable California Raisins), "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Ricky", and the film school class assignment project that will never die, Marv Newland's "Bambi Meets Godzilla." (many comedy buffs have seen "Bambi" so many times that they've started chanting along with the film's titles, almost like crowds watching "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" -- still it never fails to get one of the biggest cheers of the program.)
Adding lots of extra spice to the show is an assortment of trailers from beloved trash movies of the 50s and 60s. "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman", "The Brain That Wouldn't Die", "Curfew Breakers" and "The Thing With Two Heads". I love these trailers because we can enjoy all the $1.98 special effects in these treasured turkeys without having to sit through all the dismal dialogue. Our audiences, without exception, loved them all too. In several cities, director Stan Sheff also supplied us with his 1989 feature film made very much in the same spirit, "Lobster Man from Mars". That's the infamous cult film with Tony Curtis, Patrick Macnee, Billy Barty, and yours truly as the off-screen Narrator. Lobster Man made a fitting climax to the program in every way. (It's available on home video; rent it if you get a chance. Watch for Bobby "Boris" Pickett doing two brief but colorful parts in a scene on the planet Mars near the beginning of the film.)
Next stop was Philadelphia. For some reason or another my radio show wasn't on there, and there was no film program scheduled, but we had a great crowd of friends and autograph seekers at a Sam Goody store, and a great time guesting on Gonzo Greg's evening show on WMMR. While in the City of Brotherly love I got to renew my friendship with Jerry Samuels, AKA Napoleon XIV...his quintessential 1966 novelty hit "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" was just one highlight on a long and varied career. Currently he performs pop standards at the piano, just like he did for years in piano bars...but he finds much more appreciative and respectful audiences these days in senior citizens' homes. He also manages several other performers.
We spent four pleasant days in the Baltimore-Washington area, with guest appearances on our affiliate WHFS and film shows at two remarkable theatres. The Senator Theatre in Baltimore is a beautifully preserved Art Deco neighborhood picture palace, but it's even more remarkable for the effort that owner Tom Keifaber has devoted to building and maintaining a state-of-the-art quality projection and sound system. The Bethesda Cinema and Draft House, in a Washington suburb, is an old moviehouse that's been converted into a cinema nightclub, where patrons can enjoy fine food and excellent draft beers along with first-class big-screen cinema. Here, for the first time on the tour, I did the "nightclub" version of the show; instead of Lobster Man we did an extended version of the "Dement-O-Rama" program of short films interspersed with audiotape excerpts of Funny Five favorites. (Just because there's no video for "Dead Puppies" doesn't mean that audiences have to go without hearing it when they come to see me, I always say!) In our nightclub appearances I also sang Benny Bell's "Shaving Cream," making up new verses as I went along.
Next stop was back in Pennsylvania, where the Harrisburg-York-Lancaster area is well served with Dementia and other fine music by FM station Starview-92. Wonderful people, a fine crowd in the big, well-equipped auditorium at the Host Resort in Lancaster, and my only chance to go thrift-shopping the entire tour. (Every place else, I was just too busy, which is as it should be, I suppose!)
On to Boston, and tons of radio fun on WZLX with the marvelously manic Barry Scott on his legendary Lost 45's radio show...and I'm a notorious late-sleeper but it was a true pleasure to get up early to join Annalisa on her most entertaining morning show. WZLX truly puts the class in classic rock. There were film shows with Lobster Man at two fine theatres, the Coolidge Corner Cinema and the Somerville Theatre. I didn't realize this until later on, but the Somerville is the very theatre that Bobby Pickett grew up in (his father was the manager) and it was there that he learned that Boris Karlorff impression that served him so well in "Monster Mash."
In Boston I finally got to do something I'd been trying to put together for a decade or more: an in-depth interview with Tom Lehrer. By now you've probably heard it on the radio show...absolutely one of our all time highlights. We all wish we could change Tom's mind about his seif-imposed "retirement" of course! He's in fine health and spirits, and a most gracious guest. Many, many thanks to WZLX for the use of their fime production facilities, and to Barry Scott for his first-class engineering.
Boston to New York on Amtrak (whoo-whoo!) Our three days in the Apple included TV time with the legendary Joe Franklin (his talk show is carried nationwide by many cable systems) and New Jersey's favorite - Uncle Floyd, lots of autographs at a busy Sam Goody's in midtown Manhattan (not too far from where the late Mr. Goody had his original store in the 1950s, the first dealer anywhere to sell new records everyday at a deep discount)...and four big shows of live Demented music at the world-famous Bottom Line nightclub. These shows featured many of the same performers who would later appear on the TV special: Benny Bell, Eddie Lawrence, Bobby Pickett, Tiny Tim, Uncle Floyd and Sheb Wooley, plus a fine five-piece band of local players.
I also had an enlightening tour of the brand-new Museum of Television and Radio (formerly the Museum of Broadcasting) where a large library of TV and radio classics are available for private listening on highly advanced equipment. Extensive research material is available for scholars and historians...the Museum is a must stop for any NYC visitors interested in the history of the American airwaves.
After the Apple came our all-too-brief Midwestern blitz. In Cleveland Bob Ebersole, my reliable, resourceful and ever-entertaining tour manager got a chance to show me around his hometown a little bit, and introduce me to friends and family. The WMJI morning show with Lanigan & Webster was a real treat, and "Dement-O-Rama" at a funky nightclub called Peabody's Down Under played to our most boisterous gathering of the tour.
Every tour has its scheduling quirks, and the craziest one of this tour was that no club or theatre appearance was scheduled for Chicago. I'm told that no completely suitable venue was available for the one day we were able to spend there. My apologies to the many Dementites who wanted to see me in the Windy City. In any case I did get to spend a most exciting hour on WLUP (AM and FM) with Jonathon Brandmeier. Critics may have trashed Jonathon's TV show, but the man is a complete master of morning radio, totally in control, totally enthusiastic and a great booster of funny music old and new. I also had a chance to meet many local fans at the downtown Sam Goody store, right next to Chicago's famous elevated railway.
Minneapolis -- my hometown, and a first-ever chance to do a full-fledged nightclub show in front of my own family. Thanks to the Fine Line Cafe for great facilities and crew, fine food, and a splendid setting for many happy reunions. After the show I was delighted to find that one of my very favorite contemporary bands, the Meat Puppets, was playing right up the street, at the same club where Prince's "Purple Rain" was filmed. A great chance to get my rocks off, so to speak. I even got to introduce the Puppets on stage. I also had a great time blowing my horns and sirens and spinning Demented tunes with Robin, B.T. and The Breakfast Club on KJJO-FM.
American Airlines from Minneapolis to Denver by way of Dallas -- look at a map and try to figure that out; that's the way the airline business is these days! During our first evening, a stimulating hour on talk-radio KOA (an AM station that covers literally half the USA at night) with zany but knowledgeable host George Weber (who likes to say he's politically incorrect and proud of it! More power to him). Then out to Boulder the next morning, where Dennis and Peter virtually let me take over their entire high-rated morning show on KBCO (which I'm delighted to say is among the newest affiliates of the Dr. Demento show, bringing Dementia back to the long-deprived Denver metropolitan area). Our show that evening was at the Boulder Theatre, another movie palace (actually going back to vaudeville days) which has been converted to a nightclub. KBCO's extensive publicity for the show helped bring in a large and enthusiastic gathering.
After a couple of days to catch our breath in L.A. we motored to the north San Diego County area. People who live in this growing but still relatively uncrowded area are convinced it's the next thing to Paradise, and they may be right. Our "North County" affiliate, KKOS, welcomed us like family. "Dement-O-Rama" that evening (with "Lobster Man") was at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas, two blocks from the Pacific and about 50 feet from where Amtrak's LA-San Diego commuter trains blast through at 90 MPH plus. When I hosted a film show there back in 1976 all the theatre seats had been taken out and replaced by couches -- movies hippie style! Today the theatre seats are back in and the place looks very much like it must have in the 1930s. The La Paloma hosts both films and concerts -- famed revue singer Kaye Ballard was in the night after us.
Then came San Francisco. Actually I made two trips to the Bay area. On Saturday, October 12th we had a live 20th Anniversary Concert with many of the same artists who were on the TV special...more about that in a moment. The previous Sunday, October 6, my longtime radio affiliate KFOG put on a veritable marathon of Dementia. From 6 to 8 p.m. I was a special guest on M. Dung's "Idiot Show", where KFOG's irrepressibie morning man M. Dung has carte blanche to spin the most amazing trash and treasures from his fabulous collection of 45's. From 8 to 10 came a special two-hour edition of the Dr. Demento show, spotlighting many of the artists who were to perform the following Saturday. And then from 10 to midnight, the regularly scheduled Dr. Demento Show. What a blast! The following day I had a fine conversation on talk radio KNBR with genial host Peter Collins and many highly Demented listeners.
Our concert on the 12th was at the Warfield Theatre, on Market Street in the heart of downtown San Francisco. An absolutely gorgeous place...built for legitimate theatre in the Roaring 1920s, its ornate splendor lovingly restored for contemporary music.
Eddie Lawrence, Bobby Pickett, Tiny Tim and Sheb Wooley knocked out the crowd, as they did in New York. Bill Frenzer flew up from L.A. to sing "Dead Puppies" (with a hilarious new introduction, just like on the TV special)...and to top off the show, Weird Al, with his big band and the Dementites. Also some great local talent: S.F. favorites The Dinos reverting to their 1970s identity as Little Roger and the Goosebumps to recreate their legendary Demented hit "Gilligan's Island Stairway," and attorney-turned-comic Loose Bruce Kerr with several of the hilarious topical tunes you've heard him sing on the radio show.
Then a morning flight to L.A. for all-day rehearsals and the concert/TV taping at the Raymond Theatre in Pasadena.
Thanks again to everyone who came out to one of the shows or listened to my radio appearances...hello again to everyone I met at Sam Goody or Musicland stores...and my warmest appreciation to everyone at Rhino, Comedy Central, Westwood One, Imaginary Entertainment and all the radio stations, theatres and clubs who did so much to pull this thing together. Can't wait to do it again soon, and visit a lot of the Demented places I didn't get to this time!
After years in the making, it's now reality...Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary Collection of the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time.
It's a bargain-priced 2-cassette, (or) 2-CD package, of the Dr. Demento Show -- the very best of the previous compilations plus a bunch of songs people are ALWAYS asking me about -- "Hey Doctor, why isn't that on one of your albums?"
You'll find the complete song list elsewhere in this newsletter, but I'd like to draw special attention to a few items I was especially happy to be able to include.
"Delicious" by Jim Backus is the opening cut -- its first line, "Oooh, we gonna have fun!" is exactly what the entire almost-2-hour program aims for. "Delicious" hasn't been available anywhere (except on one lousy-sounding bootleg) since the original 45 dropped off the charts back in 1958. We got it straight off the original master tape, and it sounds fantastic.
Probably the most-demanded "unavailable" item is "Ti Kwan Leep"/"Boot To the Head" by The Frantics. This has been on our year-end countdown every year since it came out in 1987, but it's never been available outside of Canada, and isn't easy to find there either. This is its first appearance anywhere on CD.
One cut appears here for the first time anywhere, in any format: our most requested song for the whole year of 1989, "Wappin" by Darrell Hammond and Christopher Snell.
Songs appearing for the first time anywhere on compact disc include the rare orchestral version of "Masochism Tango" by Tom Lehrer (his "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is here too), "The Scotsman" by Bryan Bowers, "The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati" by Rose & the Arrangement, and that eternal Funny Five favorite, "Existential Blues" by Tom "T-Bone" Stankus.
Another item in that category (which also appears for the first time on any Dr. Demento collection) is "The Ballad of Irving" by Frank Gallop. For this one I have to give a special tip of the tophat to Bill Inglot, who assembled the first-generation master tapes that were used to prepare the album. (Ken Perry of A&M Mastering did the terrific digital transfers). Bill has quite a reputation as a tape detective; there are many cases in which he's managed to find an original first-generation master tape even when the company that originally made the recording no longer exists or has completely lost track of it. When Rhino Records made the arrangements for us to include "Irving," the tape we originally received from the company that owns the master was a revised version with different lyrics. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind, so Bill got out his magic master tape detector, or whatever he uses, and in a matter of days had unearthed a forgotten roll of tape containing the original, unedited version. What's more, it contained an additional verse that I'd never heard before, and quite possibly no one else either since the recording session. We decided to leave it in...and while he was at it, Bill remixed the song from the multi-track session tape, using noiseless digital equipment that didn't exist when the song was first released.
Bill also remixed "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" by Allan Sherman. He didn't change a thing...but you may well notice, especially on CD, that it has more sparkle and clarity than it used to.
I'm also very happy with the way two Spike Jones cuts came out. Both have been on CD before, but previous reissues had always suffered from unnecessary echo which was added in the 1960s. They're crisp and clean here, and a lot more lifelike; you can feel the bite of Spike's terrific bass players (including George Rock on "Cocktails") and hear every glug and gunshot (and the notorious "bird" on "Der Fuehrer's Face") in pristine mono, the way Spike recorded it.
One more thing that really pleased me; after suffering through what seemed like an endless maze of legal and corporate nightmares, we've finally been able to include a Frank Zappa song on one of my compilations. I surveyed reams and boxes of old playlists and request tallies and realized that, over the years, "Dancin' Fool" was the single most-requested Frank Zappa song on my show, so here it is. Other major Demented hits appearing for the first time on one of my albums include "Witch Doctor", "Beep Beep" and "St. George and the Dragonet."
I'm real delighted with this one and hope you will be too. But keep those requests coming, and we'll start working on the next one!
Ever since I hosted a couple of April Fool's Day Specials for MTV (Before that, even, now that I think of it) people have been saying -- "Doctor, why don't you make a video yourself?"
To celebrate my 20th anniversary on the air, I've done just that, and it's now available in stores everywhere from Rhino Video (and, or course, available by mail from the Demento Society -- see the enclosed order form).
Some of them were easy to pick - "Fish Heads", "Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun", "Wet Dream". Of course Weird Al had to be in there -- but which one? That was a little more difficult, but I went with "I Lost On Jeopardy". It hasn't been seen as often as some of the others and it may well be the funniest of them all. Besides, I like myself in that one.
"Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper is another one that got a lot of good response on my MTV specials...and of all the rap videos I've seen, "Girls Ain't Nothin' But Trouble" by D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince is the funniest both visually and lyrically. Even people who hate rap seem to enjoy this one.
On the rest of the program I had a very valuable behind-the scene collaborator. His name is Mark Cantor and about the best way I could introduce Mark is to say that I try to be to funny records what Mark is to musical performances on film. Long before the modern video age, musical performers of every kind were being filmed for a variety of uses -- as short features for movie theatres, for all sorts of television programs, and even for automatic coin machines that were set up in taverns and candy stores and such, and showed the films on setups that looked like 1940 versions of today's big-screen TVs. And, of course, there was a lot of fine music in Hollywood feature films as well.
Spike Jones' "Cocktails for Two" came from a 1945 feature film. First-class Hollywood production values help make this as visually exciting as some of today's videos. Unlike some of Spike's performances of "Cocktails" on other videos, this has the same City Slickers that made the hit record less than a year earlier, including lead vocalist Carl Grayson and trumpeter George Rock.
Also from a feature film -- this time a low-budget affair intended for (largely segregated) black audiences -- is "Jack You're Dead" by Louis Jordan, whose speedy and salty jump tunes of the 1940s were ancestors of rock 'n roll and of rap as well. From earlier in the 1940s we have two more legendary black entertainers, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. In addition to being one of the two or three greatest jazz pianists of all time, the 300-pound Waller was a charismatic clown of the first order, and we have his most famous comedy number, "Your Feet's Too Big." There's definitely never been another showman quite like Cab Calloway, and we have a splendid vintage take of his "Minnie the Moocher." (Trivia: on the tape I mention that I was at a major league baseball game once, and between innings "Minnie" was played on the P.A. system; hearing 30,000 or so people holler "Hi-de-hi-de-hi" after Cab was a remarkable experience in mass Dementia. The location was Exhibition Stadium, home of the Toronto Blue Jays before they moved into their new Skydome).
The Fats Wailer clip, incidentally, came from one of those films especially made for those machines that looked like big-screen TVs; they were called "Soundies."
Finding the clip of Allan Sherman doing his first hit song "Sarah Jackman" was a real treat. Sherman did a lot of TV, but most of the tapes (if any were made) have vanished or are inaccessible. With Mark's help we were able to find a half-hour special that was done (here's a little more trivia) largely to promote his debut as a straight-ahead pop crooner, a phase of his career that went absolutely nowhere. Fortunately he did reprise some of his greatest comedy numbers, including "Sarah Jackman" for which he was joined by Christine Nelson, the voice of Sarah on the original "My Son the Folksinger" album.
Perhaps Mark's most unusual find was Sheb Wooley doing "The Purple People Eater," his 1958 #1 hit which was in fact the fastest selling 45 RPM single in history up to that time. It's from a nearly forgotten country-oriented variety show called "Star Route", whose prop department must have had a lot of fun constructing a Purple People Eater for the occasion. I'm sure any purple people that might have been in the vicinity of the studio were speedily devoured.
My "intros and "outros" for the new video were done at a collectibles shop on the upscale West Side of Los Angeles -- the kind of place that has all the neat junk you had when you were a kid, and your mother threw away when you went to college...you can get it all back for twenty times the original price! Rhino Video rented the place and its entire stock for a day, and the fantastic assortment of trash 'n treasures made a most colorful backdrop. Maybe you'll even catch a glimpse of something you used to have. Finally -- and this is a classic example of "what goes around comes around" or some other semi-meaningless cliche -- the photographer who shot my picture for the front cover of the video package (and for my audio CD and tape as well) was Rocky Schenck, who 13 years earlier had been the cameraman for the original "Fish Heads" video that leads off the program.
Hope you have as much fun watching The Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection as I did putting it together -- and if you've got some suggestions for the 21st Anniversary, I'd love to hear from you!