Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ken Levine -- a.k.a. Beaver Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on the classic 50s sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, passed away several years ago.  She was 94.  Not the star that Lauren Bacall was, but as a kid I marveled at how she cooked and cleaned and always wore a party dress and pearls.  My mom never did.   But for years it was an honor to be mistaken for Barbara's TV son.

I guess that requires an explanation, huh?

Okay, that means a look back at my checkered radio career...

After being fired from KMEN San Bernardino in late ‘73 I sat out of work for six months. Apparently no one wanted a wise-ass disc jockey with a light voice. I couldn’t even land a gig doing all-nights in Fresno. Ironically, when I did get an offer it was to do evenings at WDRQ, Detroit. So I wasn’t good enough for market #100 but I was fine for market #4.

More on my actual adventures in Detroit in future posts but today I want to concentrate on my name. No rock station would let me use my actual name (Levine sounded too… uh, “Red Sea Pedestrian”). And in general disc jockeys had very generic names. Johnny Mitchell. Steve Clark. Bob Shannon. Take any two simple first names and slam them together.

Needless to say, to audiences these disc jockeys were interchangeable. In some cases stations changed personnel but just kept the name. So Bill Bailey could be the afternoon man but over the course of three years that could be four different guys.

In Bakersfield and San Bernardino I was Ken Stevens. When I got the job in Detroit I decided to make a change. I took the moniker Beaver Cleaver.

Why?

I wanted something distinctive. I wanted something memorable. The first time the listener heard, “Hi, this is Beaver Cleaver” I wanted him to say "What the fuck?!"   Any major program director will tell you -- if you can get the audience to say "What the fuck?!" you've won. 

It was a name everybody knew from the TV show. I figured a lot of people would wonder if I was Jerry Mathers (who played the Beav). This might even prompt some discussion in various Detroit high schools. How often did you discuss disc jockeys in your high school?

I also liked that the name was easy to say. As opposed to Illya Kuryakin, my second choice (although it would have been fun to hear jingle singers trying to sing Illya Kuryakin).

I’d like to take credit for being the first disc jockey to do something like this, but the truth is I wasn’t. Art Ferguson debuted on KHJ in 1967 as Charlie Tuna. At the time Charlie the Tuna was the cartoon mascot of the Starkist Tuna ad campaign. Whether it was Art’s idea or a program director I thought it was genius.

One other side benefit to “Beaver Cleaver” was that I could use it for double entendres. Remember this was for a teenage audience. I came on the first night and said, “This is the grand opening of the Beaver.” Yes, it was juvenile but my goal was to make noise. I'm sure I got some more "What the fucks?!" with that one. 

Anyway, it worked. People did take notice and remember. A few years ago I was having lunch with Tom Hanks. He was saying he grew up in the Bay Area and I mentioned I was a disc jockey in San Francisco at that time. “Who were you?” he asked. When I told him his eyes lit up and immediately he said, “Beaver Cleaver! KYA! Boss of the Bay!” I don’t think he would have remembered the name I used in Bakersfield.  (I bet you can't either and you just read it fifteen seconds ago.)  

So I used that handle at WDRQ and future stops as a DJ. Later that year I was hired by K100 in Los Angeles. (A year before I couldn’t get arrested in Fresno.) The station was owned by Bill Drake & Gene Chenault, the architects of the KHJ Boss Radio format that was the rage of the 60s. I was brought in to do evenings, following the Real Don Steele. It was a dream job except I hated the program director. When I say he was clueless, here’s how clueless:

The day I was slated to debut the station had all of the other jocks hyping my arrival. The PD stopped in the booth and midday guy, Eric Chase jokingly asked if I was going to have Wally and Lumpy join me my first night. The PD said, “What are you talking about?” Eric said, “Wally and Lumpy – the Beav's brother and his dufus friend.” The PD was completely confused. Eric said, “Y’know, from the TV show. From LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.” The PD’s eyes widened in horror. “There’s a TV show?!”

How the fuck could this moron not have heard of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER?

So he calls me into his office panicked. There were already promos on the air. What if we got sued? I tried to calm him down. “If we get sued,” I said, “it’s the best thing that could ever happen to us.” Now he was really perplexed. I reasoned that in the highly unlikely event we were sued this would become a big story. The local TV stations would probably cover it. K100 would get more free publicity than it could ever imagine. I would stop using Beaver Cleaver and the station could invite listeners to come up with my new name. Fortunately, owner Bill Drake thought that was brilliant and I was allowed to keep calling myself Mrs. Cleaver’s Beaver.

For the record, I was never sued. And continued to use the name until 1980. By the way, Frank Bank, who played “Lumpy”, is now Jerry Mathers’s investment adviser.

32 comments:

BrettJ said...

Ken - I wasn't sure, so I looked it up. Barbara Billingslee passed awy in 2010 (I was a fan and even enjoyed her work on Muppet Babies). Frank Bank died in 2013. Is this an older post you forgot to re-date?

BrettJ in Canada

Roger M said...

yup, here's his original post
http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/10/beaver-cleaver.html

Hey ken, reposts are fine but truth in advertising. should be labeled as such.

Although it does make me chuckle about the people outraged by the shecky post. That was from oct 2010 also.

John in Ottawa said...

I hate to be a pain, Ken - especially during a week with a lot of pile-ons within the comments - but I've wondered why you got away with using what I'd think would be a copyrighted name. I'm sure if I went on air and called myself Cliff Clavin, or Opie Taylor, there'd be a cease-and-desist letter at the desk by the end of the shift. How was this any different?

(Thanks for the blog, by the way - reposts and all. It's one of the few things I check every day.)

doug thompson said...

Ken, I know this is a repeat column, but I had always heard from a friend who worked there) that Art Ferguson was given the name Charlie Tuna by the PD at KOMA in Oaklahoma City. He came to KHJ in LA already named.

Jeff C in DC said...

How on earth did "cleaving a beaver" get onto network tv in the 50s?! And as a name for a kid? Beaver Cleaver?!? Was this the most successful dare in television history, or had this slang not yet appeared?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken Levine said...

Yes, from time to time I re-post on the weekends. I will talk about that in tomorrow's post. Warning: I'm going to be cranky.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Encore presentation! "If I haven't seen it, it's new to me!"

Joe Klein said...

Ken another really funny DJ moniker I recall from the early 70's was SKIP TOOMALOO, but I can't remember who used that name.

blinky said...

Hey give Beaver, uh I mean Ken, a break! You try writing a free blog 7 days a week year after year. I tried writing a blog once a week and I ran dry in a month.
By the way my wife worked in radio in Sarasota WQSR/WSRZ in ~1980 and they had a DJ named Charlie Brown.

Rob Frankel said...

To add to Doug Thompson's comment, I recall that sometime around 1979, Tuna took a poll to see if people would be OK with him reverting to his real name. Listeners overwhelmingly voted for "Charlie Tuna" as their name of choice.

HighHawk said...

A very long time ago when I was doing classical radio in a midsize market, I'd lose the real name for April 1st and do portions of the show like Top 40. Phil Harmonic never quite got to be any more than that but it's a radio persona that I remember fondly.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Names can't be copyrighted. They *could* be trademarked, but very few characters' names are commercially valuable enough, I would have thought - or unique enough. It would be pretty awful if your name was Sheldon Cooper and THE BIG BANG THEORY had copyrighted it.

wg

Anonymous said...

Frank Bank, investment advisor?

Franc Banc would be a good name for a French DJ.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I think that using contrived names is an affront to the principles of honesty that permeate the hallowed halls of show business.

- BBA

HarryOsibin said...

Great post. I am proud to have worked at KYA in '74 with Beever Cleever (SP) as Mighty Mitch.

Cheryl Marks said...

Light voice? Perfect for Baseball. Wish you were still calling games for the M's - especially now that they're winning. #MyOhMy

ODJennings said...

'Yes, from time to time I re-post on the weekends. I will talk about that in tomorrow's post. Warning: I'm going to be cranky."


Let's not think of it as a re-post, let's think of these as "Best of Ken Levine" and be thankful we have a chance to revisit them.

If you're cranky, turn on the Little League World Series on ABC right now. Las Vegas vs Chicago, and some most entertaining baseball I've watched in years.

rockgolf said...

@John in Ottawa: Don't be so sure you can copyright names. I know there was a jock in Buffalo in the 80s or 90s called Sam Malone.
And of course, Sandy Beach is a perennial fave.

Mens Brain said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ron Rettig said...

So now you must let your millennial readers know who Illya Kuryakin was!

Anonymous said...

The Adventures Of Dobie Gillis always used some great names. That's Dobie with a B.The G in Maynard G. Krebs stood for Walter (his father was a poor speller). And of course, Professor Imogene Burkhart was played by actress Jean Byron. Except that Jean Byron was her stage name. Her real name was Imogene Burkhart.

pumpkinhead said...

Actually, I did remember the name you used in Bakersfield 15 seconds later. Actually, 40 seconds later. I read slowly.

Dodgerdog said...

One of my favorite fake names is "Rich Mann." Easily debunked, sadly.

Brian Drake said...

My favorite jock name belonged to a fellow in San Francisco who I believe worked for KFRC back in the '60s. Rick Shaw.

One I like even more, recently, came from the sister's dentist. As soon as I heard it, I wished I was still spinning records instead of working as a newsman. Rod Johnson.

Lord Lillis said...

I don't mind the "summer reruns" at all but I am a bit confused. It's hard to reconcile the blogger who recounts with glee the "Opening of the Beaver" and "Mrs. Cleavers' Beaver" with the same one who was so bent out of shape about "The way to a girl's heart is through the butt".

Perhaps tomorrow's post will clear all this up. But I hope it's not too cranky; that's what Earl Pomerantz' blog is for.

JoeyH said...

There was a big kerfuffle over who could use the name Johnny Rabbitt, which Todd Storz invented for his pioneering top 40 stations (and which I heard on KXOK in St. Louis).

Storz trademarked the name in 1964 and later sued Ron Elz, the first Rabbitt, who moved crosstown to WIL and continued to use the name.

The second Rabbitt, Don Pietromonaco, is the jock most people likely remember when they think of their teen years and the Big 630.

Today, with the trademark long expired, Elz appears as The Rabbitt weekends on blowtorch KMOX.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm surprised you left that porno spam in.

I have no problem with reruns. As one of the older readers here I barely remember what I had for lunch, much less what your said years ago. Encores are fine with me.

The name Beaver came about because Wally, Beave's older brother, couldn't pronounce Beaver's real name, Theodore, when they were young.

Johnny Walker said...

As per the legal agreement my parent's signed when I was born, I have to give a certain scotch distillery two week's written notice if I'm going to go outside wearing a top hat and cane.

Not being American, I never got the "Beaver Cleaver" reference before. I'm glad it's finally been explained!

Anonymous said...

Ken,
I enjoy your Blog and the many different stories you tell in it. In several including this one you've mentioned the Real Don Steel. I thought you'd like to know I was streaming the pilot episode for the Rockford Files last week and in the second of two parts Jim Garner goes to a club at night that has a large marque and in big red letters is an ad for a dance party with the Real Don Steel.

Thanks for the stories,

Larry in San Francisco

McAlvie said...

Ha! Mrs. Cleaver's pearls were a running joke in the family when I was a kid, especially first thing in the morning. How June managed to have every hair in place before breakfast was a source of wonder.

dougR said...

I don't mind that this is a re-post—presumably the comments are new (they are, right? You guys aren't reposting your old comments too, are ya?). I LOVED Charlie Tuna, used to get him at night up in the Colorado Rockies on the skip from KOMA Oklahoma City. That whole Top-40 AM radio thing, with all the reverb, the wild-tracks, the fast talking, the bad puns, was perfect for a teenage wiseass like me. Charlie Tuna knew that the music was important, and everything else was kinda dumb, . I have a couple of his airchecks from Reel Radio—they're scoped, which is a shame, but he sounds as fresh and playfully cynical as ever (and the audio quality sucks, just like it did when I listened up in the mountains on my tinny AM transistor, back in the 60s.)