One of my heroes passed away yesterday. Charles Twain “Huckleberry Chuck” Clemans was one month short of 87 (born December 27, 1933).
When I was in junior high school I just kinda-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 cranked 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. 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. Several years later, during my last two years of college, I worked as a DJ on a local radio station in Eugene, Oregon. During the job interview the station’s program director asked me where I was from. When I said, “San Bernardino,” he was momentarily transported to another time and place. “Wow. San Bernardino.” A wistful look crossed his face. “Did you listen to KMEN? It was one of the best radio stations in the country. It had some great DJs.”)
The best of those DJs was Huckleberry Chuck Clemans, who made listeners laugh between 6 and 9 a.m. every morning. That means his voice would have been the one I heard that first morning I tuned in to KMEN.
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.
I was always a funny kid and I enjoyed making people laugh, and listening to Huckleberry changed my life because it gradually dawned on me that it might be possible to make a living by doing something fun and creative. It seemed like amusing people would be a lot more fun than writing contracts and cross-examining witnesses.
I decided to become friends with this Huckleberry character and learn more about his crazy radio business. I called KMEN’s request lines (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 his own Indian tribe and gave listeners Indian names to match their personalities. (Probably very politically incorrect today, but pretty damn funny back in 1962.) I was dubbed Smiling Fox. He, of course, was the leader of the tribe and named himself Chief Raunchy Wolf, an appropriate moniker.
He built a robot named Rollo who became his on-air sidekick. One day Rollo was missing and Chuck explained his absence by saying, “Rollo’s probably out in the lobby caressing the cigarette machine’s knobs again.” As I said, Chief Raunchy Wolf was an appropriate moniker.
He told crazy stories about KMEN’s 314-pound secretary (a beautiful girl named Sheila who didn’t weigh 120 on her worst day). On the other hand, he had a frequent caller he dubbed Mystery Sue. Everyone in town awaited Mystery Sue’s sexy, breathy tones and thought, “If she’s half as beautiful as her voice…” Turns out she wasn’t, but in Huckleberry’s creative radio world, anything was possible. Like Orson Welles, who had coined the term, Chuck understood that radio was “The Theater of the Mind” and created worlds and characters that could only be “seen” through his listeners’ ears.
KMEN held a cake baking contest and I won third place by decorating a cake to look like Huckleberry (that’s Hucky, the cake and 16-year old me in the photo to the right).
As I said earlier, KMEN put together outrageous promotions. One of them pitted all the DJs against each other in the KMEN Walk-Back-and-Forth, a competition in which they had to walk twenty miles from San Bernardino to Riverside and back and forth and back and forth until only one DJ remained. Huge crowds of listeners hiked along with all the DJs, but Huckleberry’s crowd dwarfed all the others. I lasted only about ten miles before my ankles surrendered, but Chuck, a gifted athlete, an All American swimmer at Stanford, 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 blather 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 so I showed up after the ceremony in my rented tuxedo. Huckleberry invited me inside and said, “If you’re gonna dress like an emcee, you’ll need to act like one.” He thrust his microphone into my hand and continued, “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. It was the best compliment I had ever been given.
“You weren’t like the other kids,” he once recalled. ”They just wanted free records, but you were interested in the performance.”
I’ve often thought that great radio stations are like meteors that flash through the night sky. They’re rare and beautiful and light up everything in their path, and almost before you’re aware they’re there, they’re gone. It’s an especially appropriate metaphor for KMEN. The station was a special combination of the right people in the right place and at the right time. It blazed brightly, but briefly, and then, like those metaphoric meteors, it started to break apart as it fell to earth. Other DJs began leaving for better gigs in bigger markets, but Huckleberry understood the magic that was KMEN better than most and was reluctant to leave. He turned down lucrative job offers in San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle over the years. But it eventually became impossible to ignore the inevitable. Brian Lord, one of his original KMEN cohorts, recalled a downcast Huckleberry forlornly lamenting that “God doesn’t live here anymore.”
One of the worst days of my life came during my senior year in high school. On a chilly January morning, my hero announced near the end of his show that he was leaving KMEN that day after four years of incredible #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 few minutes of his final show on KMEN. It was both funny and poignant and he had trouble getting through it before choking up and fighting back the 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 repeat the alchemy that had created 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 can’t tell you how much I regret that I lost that letter during one of the many moves I’ve made over the years.)
I had already realized that I was no Huckleberry, that I didn’t have whatever elusive 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.
At one point Chuck and I lost track of each other for a couple years. When we finally reunited, he threw his arms around me and said, “I’ve missed you, Smiling Fox.” He was still my hero and I always had a hard time accepting the idea that he might have come to think as highly of me as I had always thought of him, so I was stunned (and delighted) that he still remembered the silly Indian tribe name he had given me so many years earlier.
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.
He never lost his great sense of humor. I’d say, “Tell me a radio story,” and he could always come up with one 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?
Marvelous athletes like Chuck always find a way to vanquish their opponents. But one opponent, Father Time, remains stubbornly undefeated. Chuck had become increasingly frail over the course of the last few years. He hated the twice a week dialysis sessions he was forced to endure. Then he suffered a badly broken leg and went through a long, painful recovery and rehab. Finally, just a few months ago, he underwent heart surgery. I called him in the hospital and somehow, after all these travails, he sounded stronger, younger than he had in years. “Jesus, Clemans,” I said, “you’re one tough son of a bitch.” He just laughed.
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 found in the middle of this story — the 1965 shot of me, my hero, and my third place-winning Huckleberry cake. I am just so honored that Chuck hung it on the wall right above his favorite easy chair.
Thanks for the laughs, Huckleberry. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for the wise counsel. And thanks for the friendship. I’ll miss you.
Rest in peace.