by Dennis Daniel
Recently, I began to think about how I ended up doing what I do for a living. When I was a little kid, I never said, "When I grow up I'm going to be a Production Director." I didn't even know what a Production Director was! Looking back, I believe the first thing I wanted to be was a ventriloquist. I had my own little Danny O'Day dummy. (Remember Danny O'Day and Knucklehead? The Paul Winchell show?) The dummy came with a record that taught you how to throw your voice. I used to sit there, Danny on my lap, trying to speak with my tongue tightly enclosed within my closed mouth. One time, my father came crashing through my room door, screaming "You're not going to be a ventriloquist! There are only two in the world! It's no way to make a living!" (My dad's foot was firmly planted in reality.) Still, I wanted to have something to do with puppets or dummies (I guess I got my wish in a roundabout way). I was in love with Shari Lewis! That darling little voice she used to put on for Lambchop was heaven to me! When I was about 14, I remember a ventriloquist special on HBO that featured all the best in the field, including Shari! Since puberty was in full swing, I recall my astonishment at the size of Shari's breasts! Lambchops indeed!
I digress. Sorry.
The point is...I didn't think about a career in radio. As I got older, I thought about becoming a stand up comic/impressionist. I used to watch a show on ABC called The Kopykats. It starred all the famous impressionists, Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, and George Kirby, to name a few. I taped the show every week and learned how to do voices by mimicking the mimickers. It was the beginning of my fascination with "the voice." I played with my tape recorder all the time, doing all kinds of crazy voices and home made "plays." (Does any of this sound familiar?) Of course, I was also taping all my favorite movies and learning the lines by heart. In high school, I became known for my impression abilities, and I performed at all the high school talent shows. In 11th grade, I took a filmmaking class where I wrote, directed, and starred in the class project called "Columbo and Baretta Meet The Mangled Mad Monsters."
An actor. A filmmaker. A director. A film editor. Ahhh, that's what I'll be!
My first year in college, I took the usual Liberal Arts courses. (ZZZZZ.) One day, I was sitting in the cafeteria and I heard the college radio station. I decided to get in touch with the person in charge to see if I could get on. I loved The Beatles, and I had an extensive collection of albums and bootlegs. Plus, I could imitate them introducing their own songs with little tidbits of info about how they wrote them! I presented this idea to the Program Director. He not only loved it, he gave me his shift! It was here that radio really first came into my life. The college station was open Monday through Thursday and transmitted to the dorms, the Student Union Building, and the offices on campus. On Friday, I would haul all of my albums into two giant suitcases and drag them to the basement studio. I'd stay on the air all day! I was hooked, no doubt about it.
Since the radio station was just a club, and the college didn't have any communications courses, I transferred to New York Tech. It was here that I first ran into those uppity-nosed college radio station "clichés." I thought, "Gee. I've got lots of tapes of me on the air, it should be easy getting a shift." Wrong. Mr. Eager wasn't given the time of day. Mr. Freshman was ignored. Sooo...I just took my courses and worked at a Taco Bell as a night manager. The year was 1978. I still had no clue what I would do in radio. Production wasn't even a twinkle in my eye.
Taco Bell changed all that.
I goofed around with the girls I worked with all the time, doing impressions. One night, a traveling manager (one of those guys who's in charge of a district of stores) came in to check us out. I started joking with him right away, doing my impressions and stand up routines. When I finished, he looked me in the eye and said, "You're pretty good. You should talk to my wife, she owns an ad agency."
A door was opened.
I went down to Topline Design with all my stuff! Write-ups in local papers, scripts, college radio projects, the works! I put on a show for them in their office. They sat there, stunned! When I was done, they hired me to write five commercials for a local ski shop! I did impressions of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, W.C. Fields, and Abbott and Costello. I was paid $50 a spot! $250 bucks! And it took me no time at all to write the spots! I remember getting up at 5 a.m., just so I could hear them air! (Does THAT sound familiar?) Eventually, I worked full time for Topline and recorded my commercials at WBAB's studios. It was there that I made the connections that would lead to my working for them several years later (after a morning stint at WPDH.)
So, as you can see, I didn't grow up wanting to be a Production Director; I kinda fell into it. This is, of course, the Readers Digest version of my story. I would love (and I mean LOVE) to hear what your story is! Please call or write me and let me know how you got into the seat you're in now. As many letters that I receive, I will share monthly in my column. I think it's fascinating to see how one actually becomes a Production Director. What do you think? Is your story worth telling?
A final note: In my last column, I spoke about relating to other artists and applying the lessons they've learned in life with my own. One person I singled out was Mozart. I've gotten some flack from some people who think I was comparing myself to him. Come on! That's not my point! What I'm saying is: he was a human being; so am I. He had talent; so do I. He made mistakes. I can look at them and learn from them. Besides, what's wrong with identifying with great artists? Nothing wrong with feeling pride. (By the way, I forgot to mention the most influential person of all in my life...ERNIE KOVACS! On his tombstone it says "Nothing In Moderation." Amen.)