Buy Some of Him Today
Stanley Freberg, Stanley Freberg, buy some of him today,
This show is costing a hundred bucks, and brother that is hay,
He'll make you chuckle chuckle chuckle when he appears,
He filters the jokes all the way to your ears,
Stanley Freberg, Stanley Freeberg...the all American dog.
Sadly, It's Too Late
Stan Freberg died two years ago today. Freberg was an idol of mine from the day I first heard Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, and remains thus, albeit a now life-free one. I don't remember the circumstances under which I first heard the Columbus Discovers America cut, but to this day, the Columbus sketch in particular along with the entire album remains the best comedy ever recorded. I suppose I should add "in my opinion" but it might become yours, too. (Yes, it's even funnier than Freberg's own Gray Flannel Hatful of Teenage Werewolves.)
Listen to Columbus. If you don't appreciate it and, preferably, laugh out loud, feel free to skip to the T-shirt of the Day.
My college chum Joe and I went to see That Man From Rio starring Jean-Paul Belmondo back in '64. In the movie there was a scene of massive destruction, and upon hearing it, one of the characters said "What was that?" A guy in the row behind us yelled out "French horns." That was my first inkling that Freberg wasn't my own private phenomenon.
Freberg had an interesting and distinctive voice. His cast of voice actors all had unique ways of expressing their characters, and some of their more pithy utterances, though only a few words each, were quite risible. When I was working at WABC I spent a number of hours editing (yes, with a razor blade) a bunch of these and putting them on cartridges for insertion in programs. These so-called "wild tracks" would occasionally be inserted by the DJs to augment their own humor, such as it used to be. Sadly, radio humor has mostly gone out with razor-blade editing.
Tom Sweet and His Electric Milky Way Machine
Notwithstanding his wonderful comedy albums, Freberg's claim to fame was his radio advertising career. He not only did a number of famous product commercials—Jeno's Pizza, The Chevrolet Baccaruda, and the inevitable host of others—he advertised radio itself. These Who Listens to Radio spots are classic. Remember the 10-ton Maraschino cherry? Or "Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles"?
He did a series of radio ads for Milky Way candy bars in the style of Tom Swift stories. (Boy genius saves the world with his inventions.) Unfortunately, the campaign was discontinued before the series of ads could run in its entirety. Again at WABC I had access to the entire set of "episodes." I was careful to preserve them all, including the ones that never aired. I seem to have been equally careful to lose or misplace them, sad to say.
John Kraus Autograph
Back in the '70s when the company was smaller I used to go to California to person our stand at trade shows. I would make an effort to visit customers during spare hours, and I had occasion to stop at Capitol Records. On one trip I met John Kraus, whose name I didn't recognize at the time. Somehow, probably due to the Capitol connection, the subject of Freberg came up, and I mentioned that Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America was my favorite comedy album. Turns out that:
- John Kraus was the recording engineer on the project.
- It was done, incredibly, and like a lot of recordings before multitrack, on a three-track recorder.
- He just happened to have the master tape of the album nearby in the vault.
Maybe I was starry-eyed, or possibly even salivating at this point. He brought out the tape. I stared at it for a minute, and he put it back. OK, anti-climax, but how many of you have ever seen the three-track master of that album, huh?
I am not an autograph collector. The very few that I have acquired came to me at random, usually because I purchased a book at a library sale that just happened to have the author's signature. I doubt that many recording engineers have been asked for autographs, but I put John to the Question and he happily obliged. Of course I didn't happen to have the album with me, but we arranged for me to get it with his autograph. Which leads into the one time I "met" Freberg.
The Dallas NAB Show
I think it was Dallas, although it may have been Houston. I don't remember the exact year—mid-'80s most likely. I read that Stan Freberg was to be a keynote speaker at NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention. (Why? He was Mr. Radio Advertising.) I spent a couple of decades hating to travel by air—after the '70s when I often got a full row of seats on a Boeing 747 while taking the "red eye" back from LA, and before the most recent five years or so when I've become a semi-"frequent-flyer," accepting commercial bribery as my due. I stopped going to NAB conventions long before Dallas, and only started again now that its current venue, Las Vegas, is driving distance.
I made an exception, though, for Freberg. I had never met and never expected to meet him, and I saw this as an opportunity. I somehow managed to get a seat at a table in front of where he was going to deliver his talk, and accosted him on the way to the stage. I thrust forth my USA album, the very same one previously signed by the guy who engineered the recording. In doing "research" for this blogitem I discovered a copy signed by Freberg alone selling for $150. I can't help wondering how much my doubly-signed album would be worth. How crass! But not so crass as the following admission.
As I accosted Freberg while he was walking to his podium, the president of NAB, acting as MC, interrupted the proceedings to say Grace. (Here's a convenient link for the increasing number of folks who know as much about that subject as I do and for whom it is also not a tradition.) I was paying attention only to my immediate encounter with Freberg and even he, talented as he was, couldn't sign and pray simultaneously. I stood there, at the front of the room, looking somewhat abashed*, along with a head-bowed Freberg, until the prayer was complete. He duly signed my album, I sat down to an indifferent meal and a wonderful talk, of which I remember not a single word. But I was and remain very glad I attended.
Autobiography: It Only Hurts When I Laugh
I bought his 1988 autobiography, new, at full price, from an actual store. If that doesn't show how much I admired him, you simply don't understand this blogger's relationship with the phrase "full price." It revealed much I didn't know about him, and I have to assume it was published after his NAB talk. If it had come out earlier, I would have realized he was a religious person and might have avoided the Grace gaffe related above. And I would have asked him to autograph the book as well.
Ask A Simple Question, You Get a Pageant
In this case, you didn't even have to ask! There's plenty of Frebergiana on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet. For even more of a pageant, enjoy some of his interviews and especially his radio spots. I wish I had more personal anecdotes to relate. He was one of the small group of admirees with whom I had a few moments of personal contact and from whom I derived a lifetime of enjoyment. Paul Kantner is in the was group, and Tom Lehrer, a still is, approaches 90. Sigh.
* I don't do abashed very well, and mortified is right out. Nonetheless, the fact that I even remember that part of the event must indicate I'm capable of embarrassment.