Saturday, July 07, 2018

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”, was once Jerry Mathers’s investment adviser.

27 comments :

therealshell said...

I believe that Frank Bank passed away, if I'm not mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Two points:
Barbara Billinglsey, who was superb in the role, wore pearls and high necked sweaters because of a cleft in her neck. Occasionally you can see it.
Leave It To Beaver ran only 28 fewer total episodes than Frasier.

Karan G. said...

Great story! You had strong intuitive skills at a young age on how to be successful. Sadly, Frank Bank passed away a few years back. Stu Shostak did the video montage for his funeral.

Janet Ybarra said...

Very cool Tom Hanks was a fan of yours. Too bad you never got Barbara Billingsley to tape promos for you. Do you know if anyone is using Beaver Cleaver today?

It seems like today (at least around here in the DC area) there's a trend toward one-name DJs. The morning guy on one classic rock station here goes by Stash. He had been the afternoon guy at 98 Rock (the major Baltimore rock station) for many years before being fired from there after a major drunk driving accident. He got his act together and got the new gig.

Then on another classic rock station, the afternoon guy goes by just Bodhi.

For years around here, one of the biggest morning shows was KML, which stood for the names of the DJs, Kirk, Mark and Lopez.

The show was effectively ended when Lopez, the newsguy and straightman to the other two died of lung cancer. The death of Lopez was big news around here.

Actually, that's one of the biggest things I miss about radio from 20 or more years ago: the multi personality drive time show. I can't think of anyone doing them anymore and of course it's the almighty dollar.

Today they cover it over like lack of personality is a good thing, calling it "Shut up and rock," or somesuch. Just not the same.

keith brodkorb said...

Hey Ken, maybe you could bank a few posts about the worst and best songs you endured during your time spinning top 40 radio.Even the great songs became a pain in the 8 times a day the same song got played while in heavy rotation. And maybe a post about which songs you thought should have been a hit, but just didn't quite make it. thank you

Janet Ybarra said...

Oh and it's funny you mentioned Illya Kuryakin since another recent post discussed inside jokes. Kuryakin, of course, was the villain agent on MAN FROM UNCLE, played decades ago by David McCallum.

Today, of course, McCallum plays "Ducky," the medical examiner on NCIS.

An early episode of NCIS features Agent Kate Todd asking Gibbs what Ducky looked like when he was younger. Gibbs shoots back, "Illya Kuryakin."

Funny inside joke if you got it.

Ray Barrington said...

Signs we're getting old... I mentioned your blog to a young friend who asked what you did. I told him about writing, play by play and started to say "and he was a DJ in old-time radio... And then I realized that to me at 61 old-time radio meant Jack Benny, Gangbusters and Amos & Andy.

Mike Doran said...

As any UNCLE fan of long standing knows, Illya Kuryakin was never a 'villain'; he was Napoleon Solo's good-guy partner-agent, reporting to Mr. Waverly.
Of course, in the early going, he was a bit on the surly side, as Russians were supposed to be.
But then the mid-'60s teen girls discovered David McCallum, and the UNCLE producers made the necessary adjustments, and you know the rest …
My all-time favorite Illya line was during UNCLE's first season, on the occasion of Illya getting his first lead role in an episode.
When Mr. Waverly asks if Illya is free to take on the case, Illya replies:
"No man is free who must work for a living."

Victor Velasco said...

"...there's a guy on KYA who calls himself Beaver Cleaver?!?!"
"...the REAL one?"
"there's no 'real one'! It was just a guy!"
"the SAME guy?"

This is the general flow of conversation between me and my friends over your stint at KYA. Thanks for the fun.

Cheryl Marks said...

I was the MC for my company's Halloween costume contest the year of the Senate hearings for Clarence Thomas appointment to the Supreme Court. Things were going well until a contestant in a black robe holding a Coke can with black wires attached introduced himself as Clarence Thomas. The crowd went wild and all I could do was clear my throat which got another wild reaction from the crowd. The next contestant who happened to be our Librarian was dressed in a nice "party dress and pearls." She introduced herself as June Cleaver. Without thinking. I asked, " Well June,how's the Beaver?"
Needless to say everyone lost it.

By the way, this was a division of HP - very conservative company, but we were a small division in the Pacific Northwest and didn't fit the corporate image. Fortunately I kept my job. Not sure I would have given today's environment.

thirteen said...

Just occurred to me that Frank Bank would have done for a DJ name.

Don Jennett said...

Ken, just last weekend I was listening to a 1976 aircheck of you on B-100 (KFMB-FM) in San Diego. Amazing enough that you guys even had the song on the playlist, but your outro said it all: "Those are The Runaways, and I'm proud to say we're the first radio station to bust their Cherry Bomb record."

Dave Mackey said...

One of the announcers at Woodstock was named Chip Monck. (!) I believe he was the one who told everyone about the brown acid.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I got my start on my high school, radio station. The student who ran it didn't like my real name. He said "Bloodworth" didn't have the right sound. So he changed my name to Mike "Carter." The sad part is that no one will ever know that was me. I was sick on the day the photos were taken for the yearbook. And they didn't bother to include me with a "not shown." So, if I ever decide to go to one of my reunions my one claim to fame in high school has been essentially erased from history. However, in my professional career I did use my REAL name.
M.B.
P.S. We got a break from the heat today. Its only 102°.

Tom Galloway said...

Relatively recently, a Bay Area DJ was going by "Parker Lewis". I found that particularly amusing because:

1) I did recall the show Parker Lewis Can't Lose (early 90s)

2) As it happens, PLCL was the first tv show to interact with fans over the Internet. There was a mailing list, and the producers got copies of it.

3) Said interaction included some members of the list making background cameos on the show (there was a promotion thing about this with Entertainment Tonight), as well as other members getting to visit the set (no audience).

4) Yours truly was one of the latter, and they were kind enough to ask me to sit in on the daily writers room meeting. The cast and production folk were all very nice, and my only regret was that there was never a good opportunity for me to have met the episode's guest star, Phil Hartman.

Dave Wrighteous said...

I had the (sorta) pleasure of meeting Jerry Mathers about 25 years ago at a TV personalities convention in New Jersey.
After getting autographs from the late,great Adam West and the still living Burt Ward, me and a pal got into a LOOONG line for Clayton "The Lone Ranger" Moore and I asked him to hold my place while I got an autograph from The Beav, who had NOBODY waiting for him!
So I took up an 8X10 and he signed it and I tried engaging him with small talk about the show.
One word answers. Nothing coming back but crickets chirping. If any of you remember that episode of Married With Children Jerry was in, it was kinda like that (though I was a fan and not taking the piss AT ALL!).
I still have the photo and still love the man and show, but Jerry was kinda odd :/

Pat Reeder said...

To keith brodkorb, re: worst songs for DJs...

During my first job in radio, at a small town C&W station in central Texas, "You Light Up My Life" by Debbie Boone entered the charts and, like an unemployed in-law, stubbornly refused to leave. We had to play it every hour for day after day, week after week, month after month. In retrospect, it's not a bad record, but we were just so sick of it, we were ready to slash our wrists if we had to keep playing it. Just hearing the plinking piano notes of the intro was enough to induce nausea.

The day that it finally dropped out of the top 40 and regular rotation, the DJs actually held a party to celebrate. No more "You Light Up My Life!" Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!

So with great happiness and relief, I took my place in the studio, started my evening show, then picked up the listener line to take the first call of the night. And this is what I heard:

"Could you play 'You Light Up My Life'?"

AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Janet Ybarra said...

Dave, believe it or not, I've met a few celebrities like that, when they are "on," on stage, in front of a camera, whatever, they are on. Aside from that, they can be incredible introverts and painfully shy.

Or maybe just an off day.

Tom Benson said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing!

Paul Knauer said...

Unfortunately, Frank Bank DID pass several years back.

A bit of Frank Bank trivia for you:

Frank hosted his own show for a time on KNHN Radio in Kansas City. I was the Ops Dir. and regularly ran the show. It was a financial advice show (I can't remember the name... Frank on Finance, maybe? It was 25 years ago.)

Frank was also my financial advisor for a time, so if we're playing six degrees of Beaver... I'm only one degree removed. (Tell me that didn't get your comedy mind running for a second, Ken.)

Frank was in our fantasy football league. His team was the Tijuana JalapeƱos. He won more than one title, and was the guy who most consistently thought his 5 scrubs were worth your 1 stud.

He was a big personality, who would have loved getting a mention in your blog.

Larry Mondello said...

I had an encounter with Jerry Mathers, he came through my line at the supermarket, it happened to be Christmas Eve. I confirmed he was Jerry Mathers and then I mentioned to him that Jerry had gone to high school with my older brother and that there was a picture of Jerry and my brother in the school annual. The look on Jerry's wife's face was priceless, she was so happy that he had been recognized but not as Beaver but from his regular life as Jerry.

Dave Wrighteous said...

Janet, to me it seemed that Jerry wasn't shy or "on", but more sad. His "salad days" came and went before he was old enough to drive, and other that the "Still The Beaver" series, the guy never had a career really.
Another child star, Jay North AKA Dennis the Menace was supposed to be at the show as well, but apparently had an issue with the reservation at the hotel and left in a huff.
Adam West and Clayton Moore were wonderful, in that they both seemed to know they were typecast and could never escape that, but were appreciative and gracious to any and all who loved their work. As such, their lines were a LOT longer than Jerry's.

Janet Ybarra said...

Dave, I see your point but I think it's a little sad that Jerry was sad. Yes, his fame came and went young but instead of looking at that as a burden, he could have parlayed that into something wonderful if he had wanted. Burt Ward, for instance, found a passion in animal rescue. Jerry's "brother," Tony Dow found a career behind the camera.

Even the guy who played Eddie Haskell found fulfillment later as a police officer.

Just sad Jerry was sad for want of a "second act," so to speak.

The little girl from the sitcom BENSON, I believe, got out of the business and found fulfillment as a psychotherapist.

A child star need not be an actor forever.

Rock Golf said...

You may find it interesting that in the 1980's there was a disc Jockey at a Buffalo rock station who used the name...

Sam Malone.

Is that something the Charles Brothers would sue over?

Robert D Sharp said...

Art Ferguson was using Charlie Tuna at least as far back as 1966 when he was at KOMA in Oklahoma City. For some reason he was Charlie Tunah during his brief stint at WMEX, Boston in 1967 before starting at KHJ on Thanksgiving Day that year.

At some point in he long career in LA he asked the listeners if he should continue to call himself Charlie Tuna, or use his real name. The vote for Charlie. Sorry Art.

Unknown said...

Beaver lasted six seasons. Frasier ran eleven there were a lot more episodes per season in the 50s and 60s.

Rick Kaplan said...

Beaver ran for six seasons. Frasier eleven. Lot more shows per season back then