My hero passed away yesterday. Charles Twain “Huckleberry Chuck” Clemans was 86 (born December 27, 1934).
When I was a kid in junior high school I just sorta thought I’d become an attorney. It certainly wasn’t a passion and it’s not like I put a lot of thought into it. My research consisted of watching weekly episodes of Perry Mason and thinking That was cool.
That all changed in April, 1962.
KMEN 129, a new radio station, had hit the airwaves about a month earlier. I continued listening to KFXM, the original Top 40 station in my hometown, until my sister told me that all the cool high school kids had switched over to this new station. So as I was getting ready for school the next morning I twisted the radio dial from 590 where KFXM was found to 1290 where KMEN was located.
I never switched back. KMEN was frantic, non-stop fun. The DJs were hilarious. The contests were outrageous. They put listeners on the air. It was like nothing I had ever heard. (It was one of the most phenomenal success stories in the history of radio and was actually unlike anything anyone had ever heard.)
The best of those DJs was Huckleberry Chuck Clemans, who made listeners laugh between 6 and 9 a.m. every morning. His great uncle was Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens, one of America’s greatest novelists and humorists, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and so many others, and the funny gene had clearly been passed down to Chuck.
Listening to Huckleberry changed my life because it gradually dawned on me that it might be possible to make a living by making people laugh. It seemed like that would be a lot more fun than making murderers confess on the witness stand.
I decided to become friends with Huckleberry and learn more about this crazy radio business. I called KMEN’s request line (Turner 8-1290 in San Bernardino and Overland 6-1291 in Riverside) every morning to tell him a joke. I showed up at all his personal appearances. And he occasionally put me on the air either because I said something funny on the request line or because he needed someone to play straight man during one of his comedy bits.
He created an Indian tribe and gave listeners Indian names to match their personalities. My name was Smiling Fox. (Probably very politically incorrect today, but pretty damn funny back in 1962.) He, of course, was the leader of the tribe and his name was Chief Raunchy Wolf.
He created a robot named Rollo who became his on-air sidekick. One day Rollo was missing and Chuck said, “Rollo’s probably out in the lobby playing with the cigarette machine’s knobs again.”
KMEN held a cake baking contest and I won third place by creating a cake that looked like Huckleberry.
As I said earlier, KMEN created outrageous promotions. One of them pitted all the DJs against each other in the KMEN Walk-Back-and-Forth, a competition in which the DJs had to walk twenty miles from San Bernardino to Riverside and back and forth and back and forth until only one DJ remained. Huckleberry was a gifted athlete, an All American swimmer at Stanford University. I lasted only about ten miles before I pooped out, but he racked up another 90 miles before finally being declared the winner.
One year KMEN staged what it called a Talk-A-Thon. Huckleberry’s assignment was to sit in a motor home in San Bernardino’s Perris Hill Park and talk non-stop until he broke the world record for continuous talking. For reasons I cannot explain except for the fact that they also thought Huckleberry was funny, my parents allowed me to spend all night in the crowd outside that trailer. It was the night of my sister’s wedding and I showed up in my rented tuxedo. Huckleberry finally invited me inside, handed me the microphone, and said, “I get a five minute break every hour. I want you to sit here and talk to the crowd while I rest.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything more intelligent nor more intelligible than “Uhhhhhhh” for the next five minutes, but he told me what a great job I’d done. Greatest compliment I had ever received.
“You weren’t like the other kids,” he once recalled. ”They just wanted free records, but you were interested in the performance.”
One of the worst days of my life came during my senior year in high school. One cold January morning, my hero announced near the end of his show that he was leaving KMEN that day after four incredible years of #1 ratings. I mourned as if a family member had died. (Many years later I stumbled across an old reel-to-reel tape of the last five minutes of his final show on KMEN. It was very funny and very emotional and he had trouble getting through it before breaking down in tears.)
As successful radio personalities do, Chuck moved up to a larger market. In this case, he became the new morning man at KCBQ, the number one station in San Diego. But it proved impossible to recreate the magic that had been KMEN and he eventually left the radio business in an effort to deal with his own personal demons.
No matter where life took us and no matter what endeavors we attempted, Huckleberry and I stayed in touch. I’ve often said that his words of wisdom led to whatever success I’ve achieved. After he became a stock broker in Phoenix he wrote me a long letter that among other things said, “Take my word for it, there’s no room in radio for tenors.”
I had already realized that I was no Huckleberry, that I didn’t have whatever magic combination of ingredients it took to become a successful radio personality. I had figured out that I was much better at writing material for other people to deliver than I was at delivering it myself. I changed my college major from radio to advertising.
Huckleberry and I remained friends to the end. I tried to see him every time I found my way to San Diego and oftentimes went far out of my way just to get there. Between visits we stayed in touch via email and phone.
Huckleberry never lost his great sense of humor and could always come up with a story that made me laugh.
Oddly enough, our roles completely reversed over the years. For the last few years, he always made a point of telling me that I was his hero. It boggled my mind every time he said it. How could that possibly be?
Here’s the last photo of me with Hucky. It was taken in his living room in San Diego. Look just to the right of the lamp and you’ll see a small framed photo. Look closely enough and you’ll discover that it’s same one you’ll find in the middle of this story — the 1965 photo of me, my hero, and my third place-winning Huckleberry cake. I can’t tell you how honored I am to know that it hung on the wall right above Chuck’s favorite chair.
Thanks for the laughs, Huckleberry. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for the wise counsel. Thanks for the friendship. I’ll miss you.
Rest in peace.