Radio story #4: The “Hawk”

Ronnie-Hawkins1Before we get to Ronnie Hawkins and the summer’s night concert at the Alexandra I should set the stage. The Alexandra was a roller rink on the edge of Hamilton’s downtown. It opened on Christmas Day 1906. It was a popular entertainment spot that featured skating, dancing, big band music and some great rock n’ roll concerts. The roller rink is no more. It closed down in April 1964 and was torn down soon thereafter and replaced with an office complex called the Undermount.

You can’t be too surprised that the Alex was torn down … it was a fire hazard waiting for a match. It was basically a wood structure and inside you were held captive by the high walls that enclosed it. At one end of the rink there was a stage and this where many an artist entertained weekend audiences.

I can remember, as a young teenager, taking the bus with friends down to the Alex. We were all roller skaters. old roller skates We’d been doing it since we were in public school. We skated to school, we skated the streets in the evenings and we had lots of skinned parts on our body to prove our dedication. The Alex was special .. you rented boot skates with hardwood wheels … wow, what an experience. skates copy We felt so grown up, in the downtown, with the music playing and holding hands with our current female friend. Sweet times. roller rink ticket

I’d been at the station about a year and, at just 20 years of age, I was at the centre of the rock n’ roll excitement … and at times, just a little overtaken by it all. Ronnie Hawkins was coming to town to do a concert at the Alex and the station said that the promoter had asked if I would be the Emcee. It was a paying gig and it was Ronnie Hawkins – of course I would do it. I loved those guys.ronnie hawkins 3

It was a hot summer’s eve and inside the Alex it was getting steamy as the throng of teenagers arrived. The wooden floor and wooden walls held the heat adding to the energy of this highly anticipated event. No breeze, no air conditioning just a thick humidity that was quickly losing it’s oxygen as the crowd grew. It was going to be a sold out night and when everyone started dancing the place would be just thrumming (is that a word?) with energy.

I could feel my nervous energy starting to build. I was all decked out in my bright blue station jacket, white shirt and formal bow tie … wow, I felt like a pretty slick dude. There were a few hello’s as I pushed through the crowd, a few nice glances from some of the young ladies, and squinted eyes from their dates. Yeh, typical Saturday night. ronnie hawkins 2I climbed the wooden stairs and went to what they called backstage. It was really a storage area of some sort, that doubled as a place where acts could relax before going on. I made my introduction to Ronnie and the members of the band. They were pleasant towards me but I could tell that my station outfit relegated me to “outsider” status with this band of jolly rogues. Despite their thin assessment of me it was all very polite and, we agreed, it was going to be a hot night. After a brief back and forth it was time to do some rock n roll.

The stage at the Alexandra was not the biggest in the city but it was big enough for bands and rock groups to put on some great shows. Tonight would be no different. I went out on stage, introduced myself, made some not-so-memorable comments and received a good round of cheers and applause mixed in with a few hoots. All in all it felt like a good start. As I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks the volume level went off the scale. The crowd went wild. Ronnie-Hawkins2 I started to worry that the nails might come out of the walls and the whole place would fall on our heads. Ronnie and the band took over the stage and for the next hour they just sent everyone into a dancing, cheering frenzy. Meanwhile, the temperature kept rising. It was probably more than 80F in the old Alex and getting hotter. Inside my station jacket hell had taken hold and my shirt was stuck to my body, adding to the rush of perspiration down my legs. Even my socks were soaked.

It came time for the blessed break and we all went back to the little room behind the stage. Ronnie and the band sat down on some wooden chairs, pulling them into a horseshoe. Quick as a bunny, out came a 26’er of scotch. Each of the guys took a shot. They talked about the first set, what was good, the cute girls, the heat, the next set .. and on, for about 15 minutes. I was the outsider in the group, keeping an eye on the time and, though I was offered a shot, I was drinking water. Once the break time finished I asked the Ronnie if I could introduce the second half.
“Hell no boy! We’re not done our break”. This was directed at me as a new round of shots was being poured out for the group. I could hear the murmur of the audience, anticipating the start of the second set. What was I going to do? Ronnie gave me the direction, “Just go out and entertain them for a bit.”

I’d never done improv or stand up. I was pretty fair at adlibbing but I never expected to go out in front of a crowd and, on the spur of the moment, be entertaining or, at the very least, interesting.

I strolled onto the stage, enjoying the enthusiastic welcome of this mass of teenagers. I knew it wasn’t for me. It was for the start of the show. I felt a little awkward knowing what I knew. I did the expected things a young jock does. You know. “Is everyone having a great time” That’s such a lovely slowball pitch. Everyone can hit that. The crowd responds. “You all look so fabulous tonight and you dance like you’re on American Bandstand” Another nice pitch. It get the expected yeas and cheers. From here on in it is very uphill. I don’t know what I said or did but I managed to do some bits that had them laughing and applauding for almost 15 minutes. It was really a case of “do it” or “you die”. By the last quip or two the crowd was no longer amused. Not even slightly. They were there for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, not this perspired d.j. with fear in his eyes. As I quickly exited the stage, I promised them Ronnie was coming. The crowd was in its own frenzy, chanting “we want Ronnie”, over and over and over.
ronnie hawkins 1
Backstage the party was going just fine. It was obvious that another shot or two had been shared. I said to Ronnie “OK guys, it’s time to hit the stage”. One of the band members said, “but the bottle isn’t empty yet and we ain’t goin’ on until it’s done.” In a very squeeky voice I shrieked “if you don’t get out on that stage right now, they are going to kill me!” I remember those words so precisely all these years later. They were uttered not so much out of fear as they were out of frustration.

In that moment Ronnie Hawkins stood up and, with a good humoured smile and laughing voice, said to the Hawks “Come on guys, let’s go save this boy’s life.”

I went out on stage, with the crowd watching closely, and they could sense that they were going to be granted what they had been chanting for for the last five minutes. I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and the band and I were rewarded with a deafening cheer. The band jumped in and blew the house down ’till pretty well all the oxygen in the old Alex was pretty well spent, and I was left with another memorable moment to look back on all these years later with my own good humoured smile.
Ronnie hawkins 4

Radio Story #3: The Bomb!

1960 saw CKOC, like many radio stations, move to the popular music/news format. Television had killed old time radio by taking away the dramas, quiz shows and soap operas. CKOC became a Hit Parade Station and “OC The Busy Bee” was born. I joined the station in 1962 to become a small part of the station’s Rock ‘n Roll era.
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I loved summer. Sunny days with ice cream clouds and steamy, humid nights were just made for rock ‘n roll. There was a special magic to the music of summer. (in the picture to the left I’m seated on the ground enjoying a Dairy Queen Block Party with the other OC guys) The tempo and the tone changed when summer rolled around. We DJ’s, suffered through the winter and early spring just waiting for the first arrivals of promo discs and the summer music that would once again propel us through the greatest season of the year. Heat Wave, Under the Boardwalk, California Girls, Wipeout, Let’s Twist Again, Green Onions and on and on and on … each year a new collection of memorable hits.

CKOC was located at 73 Garfield Ave South in the east end of Hamilton. It was a 2-storey building originally built by Bell Telephone to house the Garfield Exchange. Over the years the building had also served as offices for the steel company and as a school for the blind.

I was on the 6 to midnight shift in 1963 and ’64. It runs in my mind that this particular event happened in 1964. It was one of those fine evenings, you know the type, the pavement was still hot from the day, the shadows were getting longer and there was a sense of ease as the quiet of the evening started to permeate the neighbourhoods of Hamilton. Meanwhile, in the studio, we were pumping out great songs from our “sensational sixty”, the play list of the best songs of the moment.
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I was in my first hour, six to seven pm. There were still a few people around the station, finishing up for the day. This was not unusual, considering that we lived and breathed radio. Acolytes of the medium. The studio was a large room on the second floor of the building, probably about twenty by twenty and from my perch in main control I had two announce booths in front of me, another “news” booth behind me, a door that led to the hall, with a small window, to my right, and racks of equipment to my left. My window on the world was limited, but through that tiny door window I could see people as they walked by the door.

This particular evening I became aware of quite a bit of activity in the hall. Even when I was on the air I could tell, from my peripheral vision, that there was more traffic than normal for seven forty-five in the evening. While one of the songs was playing I poked my head out into the hall to see what was going on. A policeman was in the hall! What?!
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I asked, “what’s going on officer?”

He came back to the studio door and then stepped into main control. His body language suggested he wanted a private conversation. I thought we’d been raided, or someone was arrested, which, in those days, wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. The policeman was a big man, about six three. He was in full uniform and had his cap at a serious angle. I was impressed, and a touch anxious, at the size of the revolver strapped to his hip.

His first few words would stun me.

“Sir, I don’t want you to be afraid or unduly concerned, but there has been a bomb threat.”

I was immediately and duly concerned. “Whaaat? What on earth”, I exclaimed.

“Well sir, the caller said they had placed a bomb in the building and it is due to go off at seven p.m.”
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My eyes snapped to the large clock on the front wall. It was 6.50 p.m.

“Don’t worry about it, we’re pretty sure it’s a hoax, so, please, just continue on with what you are doing.”

With that confidence building comment having been shared, he left the studio. I could barely believe it. Carry on with what you are doing. Right. Easy for him to say. He left the room and went someplace safe I’m sure.

I went on the air and with my mind in a bit of a blur, and keeping one eye on the clock, I announced the next tune. The clock approached 6.55 p.m. I knew I would have time for one more song before we went up to detonation time. End of song, some words were uttered, I thought of saying goodbye to everyone “If I die, know I love you all!” As the next song came on, I became aware of the fact that in the last seven minutes I hadn’t seen anyone in the hall and the policeman hadn’t come back to see if I was hyperventallating. I was.
While my final song was on, not knowing if would be my final, final song, I went out into the hall. Empty. No one there. I called out. No answer. I went to the window to look down to Garfield Avenue to see if anyone was there. They were ALL there. people with colour copy The firemen, the ambulance, CKOC staffers, neighbours and even my nice policeman and his friends in blue were there too. And they were all looking up at ME. No one waved or said “good luck.” They just stared, as if they were waiting for me to become nanoparticles when the magical hour rolled around.
I went back into the studio, sat down at the console and watched as the clock ticked the seconds off. That last half minute of time seemed to take a lifetime. When the clock hit seven p.m. and nothing happend, I finally exhaled. I’m not sure why I was holding my breath. Perhaps I was just enjoying my last breath to the fullest.

At 7.02 p.m. the policeman came back into the studio and proudly announced, it was a hoax. “I told you.” I wanted to tell him he was a chickenshit for not keeping me company in those final moments. I didn’t. He had the big gun.

… and at 7.15 p.m. the hits just kept on rollin!IMG_0055

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