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by Claude Hall
and Rollye James
Claude: “Radio has its heroes and it’s non-heroes. Some have fascinated me … such as the
man behind Gordon McLendon. The way I heard it is that he was a lawyer and took a movie
theater in lieu of payment for services rendered. That was the beginning of the McLendon
financial empire. One of the people who worked for him and son Gordon is Ken Dowe, who
has been an outstanding radio personality, program director, manager and owner during his
Ken Dowe, Dallas and Santa Fe: “Hi, Claude & Rollye. It is not wise to wrap up at 3AM
what one writes, and then email it as the finished product. I got a few hours sleep, edited, and
am sending again. Please repair any of the errors I may have missed, and go forth! B.R.
McLendon, Gordon's dad. I could have written 100+ more pages, but this will give you an
idea. Claude Hall is a friend of many decades, a retired and highly respected editor of the
venerable Billboard Magazine. Claude reminded me that Gordon McLendon was a
broadcasting superstar, and my mentor: but, his dad was very quietly involved ... wasn't he?
He wondered if I might write a bit of a profile of a forgotten man that he could print in his
internet column. So, I did as Claude asked. Now, he owes me a copy of his book! Some of
you knew about B.R. McLendon. Here's a tiny bit of the man who was quite familiar to me
during my years with the McLendons:
In the beginning was Gordon McLendon. Well, not really. Barton R. McLendon begat
Gordon. B.R. was the first star of the double feature and a much larger part of his son’s
incredible radio rise than most ever realized. A force to be reckoned with from the beginning,
blazing across the AM/FM airwaves and into movie theaters, too. The McLendon empire. Two
You can get a sense of B.R.’s uncommon will power by how important it was to him that
Gordon be born in Texas. Barton McLendon began his film business in Idabel, OK. But,
prepared well for the future. As Mrs. McLendon was about to deliver their first child B.R.,
interrupted by putting her into his car and racing across dirt roads from Idabel to Atlanta
(Texas) 90 miles away. There she gave birth to a son. Gordon was born…in TEXAS. B.R.
was genetically determined like few others.
Gordon was likely a genius. A linguist in the Navy during WWII. A translator. An interpreter
of Japanese for the Allied Forces. B.R. sent his son to Yale to study law. But, Gordon was an
innovative lad and a daring entrepreneur. Instead, he created for network radio a nationwide
audience with his “Old Scotsman’s” broadcasts of Major League baseball, by “Imagining"
the actual games much more colorfully (and, successfully) than MLB’s play by play. He did
this entirely from the delivery of punched-out teleprinter paper that cryptically transmitted the
game action. Similar to the first deliveries of Wall St. Stock reports to brokers. Succinct scores
and limited information: "Snyder at bat. Spahn pitching. Fast ball. Two balls. One strike.”
Little more than the bare essence.
Gordon made magic out of the mundane:
"Good afternoon, everybody, ever where! This is the Old Scotsman! It's a steamy August
afternoon here in Brooklyn! "
"STRIKE to the Duke as Spahn twists a high curve into a close shave for the Dodger....and the
whole stadium just got hotter! Duke is not happy, either. Three balls, one strike! One out.
PeeWee's liable to have his spikes flashing into third if Snyder drives Warren's fastball into
right. It’s the bottom of the eighth. Still tied at two and two! And, here comes the heater!!"
The tape punch-out would actually have read little more than something like:
"Ball four. Snyder walks."
America loved the fun, hearing the game of the day with McLendon's mellifluous tones, the
myriad embellishments, and Gordon's nuanced and sparkling "Major League" performances.
All performed from a crummy little studio in an old hotel located on the back side of Dallas.
MLB successfully sued for profiting from their product. (Imagine that.) His Liberty
Broadcasting folded. The “Old” Scotsman was 27 years old.
Not to worry: B.R.'s boy was smarter than just about everybody and from that misadventure,
there remained a small radio station. KLIF, housed in the old Oak CLIFF hotel. The story of
the creation of Top 40 and other wildly successful radio formats by Gordon is an oft told tale
that recounts most of the history of the McLendons. But, not all.
Behind the curtain was the man the public didn’t know. A father who recognized that his son
was hardly average in any way. And, if his boy wanted to get into the radio business he would
stake him. For 51...%. Hey, business is business. The old gentleman would always call the
game from the shadows: Gordon's dad, B.R. McLendon. "Mr. Mac.”
In the mid-sixtes I was placed at the helm of the vaunted KLIF’s morning radio program.
With an alter-ego character and the fabulously talented Brad Messer riding by my side, the
McLendon’s Flagship station KLIF-the Mighty 1190-Dallas remained a power player in the
radio game. So much so that when the nation’s #1 TV star Dick Van Dyke called to see if
he could do my radio show with me on an upcoming morning, I said: “Sure. Why not. We’ll
have fun.” And, we did. He was hilarious and the telephones burned up with enthusiastic
listeners joining the morning merriment.
At 9AM my show was over. But, not the excitement. The Hot-Line flashed. “Hello.” A
too-quiet Texas voice said, “Ken. This is B.R. McLendon.” He instructed that I come
immediately to the executive offices. And, I was to bring with me Al Lurie, the General
Manager. And, the National Program Director, the uber brilliant Bill Stewart. Uh oh. Firing
squad. Usually, an invitation from B.R. was most likely an execution. We had no idea why
we were being summoned. “You boys come on in, and shut the door!” Our introduction to
the rising tsunami.
“Have I not always treated y’all well, been fair to each of you?” We were watching the steam
from Mr. Mac’s every visible orifice. His face and bald head were the color of volcano rocks.
We had no idea what in the world had him so worked up. Then he spoke again: “What gave
you the idea to put Dick Van Dyke on my radio station this morning?” Well, we all thought it
was a good idea and we gave I thought a pretty convincing response, if a bit too garrulous. Mr.
Mac was still boiling, but the pressure didn’t blow until I answered his next question which
had to do with the reason Van Dyke was in town, and why he might have wanted to be on the
city’s #1 station.
Being facile minded I leaped in to claim the quick-thinker prize: "To promote his new movie, I
suppose, Mr. Mac.” Suddenly all became clear, as we realized Dick’s movie was not showing
at a McLendon theater, but at the competitor’s theaters. Bingo. Waterboarding would have
been preferred. Mr. Mac ranted, he raged, he let loose the filthiest language I’d ever heard.
Non-stop. He told Al he’d never thought he had the brains to manage KLIF (Al was a
Harvard grad). He lit into me, saying he and Gordon had such great expectations for me, that I
must not be as smart as they had believed. Bill, alone, had the guts to say he frankly thought it
was a truly great idea. (Mistake)
With the theatrics of all 3 Stooges in one, Mr. Mac was alternately crying, screaming, and
cursing. Telling Bill he expected that, “…from you, you stupid SOB! Get out, get out, get out
of my office and my building!!” All, because we forgot the McLendon theater chain was the
center of his universe? Which he had just cogently explained, “As long as I own 51% of this
company, the theaters are the backbone of this business, and don’t you forget it! Not ever!
*&^$!*() you ___(*%%#(*&% s “!!!!
Could you repeat that Mr. Mac? I missed the last part." (I DID NOT say that.) Surprisingly, I
was not terminated. Nor, was Bill, nor Al. We were all shocked after one day passed. Then
two, three…and still...nothing. I don’t know why. No one else did, either. We had
unknowingly spat upon the Holy Grail, and in doing so …the Holy Father. Was the theater
business truly that important in the McLendon scheme of things? Are you kidding me?
A week or two later as the then Program Director, I decided that having a Hot Dog Eating
contest at the McLENDON’s GEMINI DRIVE IN THEATER (“With three screens!”) might
assuage our sacrilege. As the festivities wrapped a happy and well dressed older gentleman
stepped out of the huge and cheering Gemini crowd.
Mr. Mac stood there, cigar in mouth, derby sitting jauntily on his bald head: “It’s about time
somebody around here started using his head for something besides a hat rack. Good
thinking, Ken.” Reaching into his pocket for a billfold choked with $100 bills, he lifted one of
them and pressed it into my twitching hand. “You use this to take that pretty little wife of
yours to dinner on me.” Of course I tried politely to decline payment for my servile make up
ploy. “Aww, you don’t have to do that, Mr. Mac.” He looked at me with serial killer eyes and
said: “Don’t tell me what I have to do!” The movie theaters temporarily took the inside track
at the McLendon Company. Indeed, the theaters were important! Very important.
When the late ‘60s came to pass I was given a roll I very much enjoyed. Gordon surprised me
with the title Executive Vice President of the McLendon Corporation. As he said, “ the first
and only one we’ll ever have.” Very humbling, and quite the honor. He was placing me in
charge of all McLendon stations. San Francisco. Dallas. Buffalo. Chicago. Detroit. Los
Angeles. (Note please! We also operated a large chain of multi-screen theaters and drive ins.)
Also, McLendon held more stock in Columbia Pictures than anyone.
Gordon told me to make any call that was best for the company. I didn’t require approval
from anyone. “Except, if you have a problem with my personal assistant, Billie…let me
know. I’ll handle. (I didn’t) And, if you have any difficulty with the old man (Mr. Mac), I’d
let that go if I were you." Gordon did the same. Mr. Mac was off limits for him, too.
I interviewed countless wackos with schemes that required McLendon venture capital. We
stayed with what we knew. Radio. Motion pictures. Oil. Real Estate, and suddenly... gold &
silver. (Gordon was right, again.) The building nearly fell in once when every one except the
executive floor was told to leave and a billion pounds or more of McLendon owned gold and
silver was secreted into the bowels of the McLendon Executive offices.
Gordon often joked (?) that only a handful were allowed there on the top floor, the executive
suite. I think maybe 6 or 7 was about it. “To get up here you have to be intellectually
gifted…or, certifiably insane," he said. I think I reached the top rung on the latter attribute.
Now, I wonder about Mr. Mac. I learned by quantum leaps from Gordon, but I received many
great lessons from his dad, too.
Mr. Mac: “Good Morning, Ken. How was your trip to Chicago? Sit down and talk to me.”
"It was good, Mr. Mac. I need to speak a bit more with Gordon about what’s going on up
there. May I be completely candid with you about the Chicago stations?”
“You damn well better be straight with me! You tell me what’s going on, and I mean don’t
sugar coat it!” (Oops! I needed to develop slightly more harmony in my discussions with the
“Well, I said…I am not of the opinion that ___whom we have there is the man for that job.
Gordon disagrees. I intend to bring it up with him in more detail later today.”
“You let me tell you what I think! I was up there a week ago, and you know what I noticed?
It’s too ___quiet there! There weren’t any typewriters typing…no telephones ringing!
Noting going on! Nobody busy! It was too quiet! I don’t like quiet, Ken! You get me some
noise going in Chicago. Get me some people working. That makes noise! I don’t like
QUIET! You get that to STOP. You hear me?”
“LOUD and clear, Mr. Mac.” He was right, too. I turned up the noise.
As the McLendons closed out their radio and film business in the 70’s, we finished up the
sales of all the stations except one, our new #1 station…KNUS. Created by me and a handful
of other crazies in the third floor la-bor-a-tory. Overnight, the top ranked FM station in
Dallas, and one of the first highly rated FMs in America. Mr. Mac was really proud of going
out like this and he liked discussing the phenomenon of finishing on top. (He liked assets of
nearly a billion dollars they had earned, even more!) He asked me how the “receivables” were
at KNUS. I told him they were quite good, but that our 90 days and out were higher than they
should have been. He agreed, and then asked what I thought was a meaningless question:
“Did you pay cash for your car?” I answered, “No, sir. I did not.”
“Well, did you finance it at a bank?” I did.
“Do you like that bank?” I did.
Mr. Mac said to me that this meant to him that I was paying the bank back according to the
terms of our agreement. You LIKE your bank. If you were not paying them in a timely
manner, you would be having unpleasant discussions with them. You would not like them. If
you allow people to not pay you money they owe you, that will dislike you, too They will will
say bad things about me! I don’t like that! I want you to go downstairs and tell that sales
department to GET ME MY MONEY! AND, DO NOT LET PEOPLE DISLIKE ME! GO
MAKE ME FRIENDS BY COLLECTING WHAT IS OWED! Ha ha! (not funny)
Another lesson from B.R. McLendon. Just a handful of illustrations about the invisible
McLendon. But, a man of superior sagacity. As tough as the 19th Century into which he was
born. A different leader, without the creativity of his son, but no less important.
Mr. Mac was shrewd, tough, and had an uncanny ability to manage ready cash needs
necessary to grow the broadcasting… or, theater businesses. He was the fulcrum of the
McLendon Corporation. The overseer. The eagle.
The man in the high castle.”
Ken Dowe still lookin' good in 2015!
Rollye: Priceless memories— and the best part is that according to a subsequent email from
Ken, my hunger for more will be satisfied:
Ken Dowe: One day I'll have to share more from Mr. Mac's adventures. Like: The day he
came into the KLIF control room, grabbed the Grey tone arm off the playing Nat Cole LP, and
slammed it down over Bill Stewart's head. He stormed out shouting, "I told you I don't like
that kind of music!"
Or, when when got into a dust-up with a customer at his Preston Royal theater, and ran after
the guy. Slowing just enough to plant a kick in the fellow's rear end, he swung his leg ...and
fell on his own behind."
And, when an office elevator full of KNUS hippy-looking jocks elicited a challenging, "Who
the hell are they!!"....I disabled the bomb by saying: "No problem, Mr. Mac. They're just
"Tune in again next week for, HERE COMES THE OLD MAN! Same time. Same station!"
Rollye: Earlier in the week, Claude asked me to write the intro to this week’s column. He
suggested I might want to begin with more about Bill Taylor, one of radio’s unsung heroes (of
which there are many and every one of them has a place in my heart). I was ready to follow
through— until I saw Ken Dowe’s take on B.R. McLendon and immediately recognized a
great lead when I saw it. So, I was doubly pleased to get a message from Claude yesterday—
not only so he could do the lead for this inaugural email-also column (which hopefully you’re
seeing in your inbox if you signed up), but also to confirm my instincts on a great story. I was
pondering whether to add a picture I’d had hanging around for years but was on the line about
its taste (and maybe its provenance), but when the next email from Claude contained the very
same shot, I figured I was on the right track. Forgive us both if it offends you:
L-R Bill Holley, Ron Rice, Frank Jolle, Terry Byrd, Dan Patrick, Bill Ward
Rollye: The back story is that the KBOX jocks were gathered together on the roof of the
Southland Life Building in 1965 for a shot to be used on one of the oldies compilation albums
that Roulette put together for stations across the country. (This was one was KBOX
DUSTYDISCS.) While they were there, Balaban’s John Box brought out the banner. The
picture (with Gordon's first name misspelled, no less) wound up on a Christmas card that Box
sent to McLendon that year, and now it’s seen on a variety of internet sites. Radio’s glory
years may be past-tense for most of us, but the amazing upside of today is how much evidence
of what it was when it captured us, is available online— which brings me to some great news
from John Long:
John Long: The Georgia Radio Hall of Fame partnered with Georgia State University for The
History of Radio Broadcasting in Georgia several years ago. The mission was to gather and
preserve documents, photos, and audio from Georgia radio. Paul Drew’s widow Ann, donated
nearly the entire library of his 60’s music publication, The Southern Music Survey. Georgia
State technicians recently completed digitizing the issues and they are now available online.
They are keyword searchable and downloadable as PDFs. Drew was one of the earliest
reporters to the Bill Gavin Report and modeled SMS after the San Francisco publication.
Drew sold the publication in 1966. It eventually was sold again and the name changed to the
Radio Music Report.
Mel Phillips: The book is in the mail (really). Please let Claude know too. "The Birthday Hall
Of Fame" is now available in both Kindle edition & paperback here
Rollye: Looking forward to it, Mel! Thank you. Last week we reprinted a picture from Ron
Jacobs’ blog featuring Jacobs, Elvis and “an RCA representative”. The RCA distributor was
Art Kaye, and the picture accompanied a great story about, among other things, an
impromptu promotion gone good which led to Ron emceeing Elvis’ 1961 Hawaii appearance.
Cary Pall: Got the callup to Columbus Sunday night. A donor was found for me and one
other lucky person. Unfortunately, that's where the luck ended. Donor kidneys were unusable
due to disease. So, back home to Cincinnati at 4am. Better to find out before the parts go in!
And the other good news is...I must be at the top of the list. Another one could turn up "at any
moment" (as the CKLW contest promos used to say). Speaking of The Big 8, there's an outfit
called "Down With Detroit
" that sells several Motor City-based clothing items, including a
Rollye: While a frustrating saga, I think it’s encouraging news for Cary. I’m sure many of you
will join me in keeping him in our prayers. Likewise please put in a word for every one in our
community facing hard health times— especially Claude Hall who I’m counting on being
with us for a long time to come! I’ll step in as often as needed, but nothing beats Claude.
Rich Robbin (to Claude): “Thank you for bringing back the option to receive your great
weekly pieces via email ... as always, YOU ROCK, pal!”
Rollye: I’m keeping my fingers crossed (making typing near impossible) that those of you
who have signed up to receive Vox Jox in your inbox will be able to do so this week. If you
haven’t joined the mailing list and want to be on it, the link is at the top of this page. After
you fill out the form, you’ll get a confirming email, which you’ll need to acknowledge before
being added, but after that, you’re in! Claude and I have both received a lot of positive
feedback about it, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it lives up to your expectations.