Chickenman, Signing Off

Two weeks of every summer of my pre-teen and teen years were spent on Long Beach Island, following a script that reflected the 1970s in so many ways: fresh pastry for breakfast, a quick jaunt off the beach for lunch, and before the advent of smart phones and digital music, entertainment in the form of magazines, books, puzzles, and broadcast radio. Each and every weekday — ten of the fourteen, the quieter days when most of the fathers you saw were truly on vacation and not shuttling back to a (hopefully foreshortened) work week — we tuned into WJRZ-FM at lunchtime, ostensibly to hear the news, somewhat ironically to hear Paul Harvey’s meta-news delivery and the ultimate entertainment, an episode of Dick Orkin’s “Chickenman”.

Here’s what I remember about listening to WJRZ: It provided me a sense that radio could really be that “companion unobtrusive”, and yet the top-40 format left room for Peter Frampton and Genesis. I cherished the local ads (“the Ship Bottom Motor Lodge, the one and only circular motel on the island”) to the point that I believe many hours spent in the 1980s producing ads for WPRB-FM were the by-product of knowing that a 10 second intro could capture the sights, smells and tastes of a favorite place with description alone. Marking time through the wide range of music, syndicated news, national and local advertisements and relatively unknown DJs, for the extent of those summers, was the daily episode of Chickenman. Like clockwork, you could count it on for moving along a story that was basically about nothing — no super powers, no crimes real or imagined, no serious tension. It was Seinfeld and The Office before we knew that nothing could be funny.

Listening to Chickenman, a campy send up of Batman and the radio serializations of a prior decade, my sister and I decided that we could write and record our own episodes and have some fun. So my love of recording and production began with a cheap cassette recorder and a pencil to precisely wind the tapes. Chickenman had a brief fling with environmental consciousness as the series wound down in popularity, but Benton Harbor (Chickenman’s Clark Kent) couldn’t make social justice trendy. And the next summer I brought a portable stereo to LBI with a milk crate of vinyl, choosing the music and the pacing and slowly fading WJRZ and Chickenman into the wonderful, sunset tinged memories of endless summers.

But as the outro squawked, “he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere” and we never really forgot the feathered non-crime non-fighter, not until today when Dick Orkin died. Indirectly, those five minute intervals of his shared creativity — less than an hour of each summer — led me into college radio, music production, advertising, public speaking, sales, and through a transitive closure that would make Godel blush, these very blog entries.

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