“If Mel Torme is ‘The Velvet Fog,’ shouldn’t I at least be ‘The Elegant Mist’? Surveys indicate that even during station identification, which this is, you enjoy hearing my radio voice. From the studio at the antenna farm, I, Luther Craft (formerly Larry Krabenhoff), read your news, weather, commercials. I take requests, introduce singers, bands. On this, The Night Train Show, you want to hear Julie London, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mathis, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Gray and His Casa Loma Orchestra, Vic Damone, other soothing voices and bands. Anything from the 40’s and 50’s. Frankie Laine, Etta James, Percy Faith, Nat ‘King’ Cole.
“Demographics show that Superior, Wisconsin, needs an ‘easy listening’ station, that many of you are old and tired. In our station’s survey, sixty percent of you describe yourselves as ‘Young Old Timers.’ Forty percent of you receive Meals on Wheels. Twenty-two percent visit Senior Citizen Centers at least twice weekly for companionship. Five percent play canasta at the Centers.
“Hey, I’m a senior citizen. You and I, we don’t need demographic surveys to know we’re oldsters who like things done right. I am a voice broadcasting from an old town who knows our music is best.
“Golden Agers, 1390 AM is the place for you. The Night Train Show. That hint of raspiness in my voice suggests I’ve been around. I used to work at KSAD-Radio in these Twin Ports of Superior-Duluth, where our playlist consisted of sad songs. Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying,’ Elvis’s ‘Kentucky Rain,’ Johnny Ray’s ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’—mainly songs from the early-to-mid rock era.
“I’m glad I made the switch to the easy-listening format at 1390. This low, confident voice assures you when autumn leaves start to fall, we’ll have these moments to remember. It assures you, young at heart 1390 listeners, that ‘You’re sure to survive to a hundred and five, if you’re young at heart.’ (Remember that catchy Sinatra lyric?) Here I am to tell you love is a many splendored thing, ‘so if she’s the one,’ as Pat Boone reminds us, ‘don’t let her slip away.’ You won’t slip away from me, dear friends. There may be no one else for you but Luther.
“At 3 a.m., I hope I’m easy to listen to when I confess these personal matters. It’s you and me: Lute hugging the mic, speaking to you one on one, to your heart alone. I have love for each of you. Love for you on East Third Street all by yourself. Can’t sleep tonight?—I have love for you in the downstairs apartment on North Seventeenth, and for you, lonely lady, on South Tower Avenue. You’re still a Night Train fan, aren’t you? I need you, you know. I bet your lights are on. You’re broken-hearted over the fellow who left you. Despite what you say—that he was no good—you cry yourself to sleep. Sometimes you hum the Moulin Rouge theme from that wonderful movie John Huston directed with Jose Ferrer and Zsa Zsa in ’52. Was that the song you said, dear lady? Or was it ‘Theme From A Summer Place’? Call me tonight. Let me know. I’ve been waiting to hear from you. I forgot the title you once told me, but I haven’t forgotten you in your sadness, how your mother and you saw the movie when you were young. You sat in the enclosed smoking loge upstairs at the Superior Theater in East End. The wide glass window let you see the show while it kept your mother’s cigarette smoke from drifting downstairs. Half a century later, you watch Moulin Rouge or A Summer Place on the VCR that your ex-lover allowed you to keep when he returned to his wife—a payoff for your broken heart after loving him.
“I’m broken hearted, too. I told you my wife pulled out on me twenty years ago when I was still at KSAD. I was forty-eight then. That was the topic of last week’s Night Train Show: my disastrous marriage. Topics of the preceding weeks were a person’s faith in God and the joys of friendship for the senior citizen living in Superior, Wisconsin. Tonight’s topic is the story of my sister’s piano career.
“At 3 a.m. this night of a blue moon, the world is ours, dear listeners. We’ll grow old together a song at a time at 1390. Here’s an item to grow old by: Did you know a ‘blue moon’ has nothing to do with color, but with a coincidence that occurs when two full moons appear in the same month? This happens infrequently, which is why you hear the phrase ‘once in a blue moon.’”
“Tonight, from the studio at the antenna farm where twenty antennas beam every local radio and TV stations’ signal, give me fifteen minutes. Then we’ll have Rosemary Clooney, Glen Miller, Harry James, Sinatra again. If you listen, I’ll give you alone my heart in the middle of this night of a blue moon. You’ve been so good that I’ll offer you a very lonely, personal view of Luther. Please call, listener from the past whose song I forgot. At night on the radio, we’ll dream together. We’ll forget the present, forget what the Twin Ports and America have become in 2007. Are movies good these days? I don’t go to them. Before work last night, I watched five minutes of TV. An anorexic girl in a bikini balanced plates, saucers, and a teacup on the end of a stick while an emcee told her she could join the ‘tribal council.’ What does it mean, this and the iPods, MP3 players, and HGH Major League Baseball players insist they don’t use? When daylight comes, do you get the feeling, Golden Agers, that we don’t belong, we don’t understand America?
“Something’s off in the new century. I don’t want it. I get home at seven in the morning. I draw the blinds, put on a pot of coffee, play my 45’s and 78’s. I live in the darkness of the modern world remembering TWIRP dances at East High, Superior Blues minor-league baseball, ‘Catman’ Walker, the WEBC deejay.
“Duluth was a great city back then, too. You know that, 1390’s Duluth listeners. What a journey for us over the Arrowhead or Interstate Bridge from Superior. When ore and grain boats approached the bridges on the St. Louis River estuary, the bridges’ center spans lifted or swung out; the traffic stopped high up there. Buses, trucks, and automobiles sometimes had to wait a half hour. Duluth had a small amusement park on Minnesota Point. You could see it from up on the Interstate Bridge. The merry-go-round, the concession stand, miles of summer beaches—in the distance ‘red sails in the sunset.’ Life was quiet. Nothing extreme then in Superior-Duluth. To promote yourself during today’s Apocalypse, you have to wear black, contort your body when you swagger, say ‘yo’ to everything, send hand signals to your ‘homey.’ This will establish you as the Man, establish that you are from the ’hood, though Superior has no bad neighborhoods, so I don’t know which ’hood this could be. If you’re young, it’s important to be extreme, to be alienated, important to wear ‘bling,’ to ‘Do the Dew.’ I’m talking about white kids. It’s not for me to speak of anyone else. They make up ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Superior’s youth. Some of them despise their color. They want to leave the split-level or the historic home overlooking Hammond or Washington Park to live in an East St. Louis tenement. Despite his swagger, a boy from Superior wouldn’t last a minute down there. East St. Louis is someone else’s problem.
“I’m pounded from dreams, sometimes, by cars going by—kids named Michalski, Anderson, and Swenson playing hop-hip or hop, skip, and a-jump music on their radio. What’s appealing about AK-47s and drugs? Sometimes these kids park outside the station, radios thumping, blasting. I lock the gate at night. On cell phones, they call Luther in the studio. They say, ‘Yo, why you dissin’ my music, why you dissin’ Fi’ty Cent and Outkast?’ They suck the spirit from life, menace me—menace us, good listeners—with woofers, subwoofers, foul language. Sweatshirt hoods hide their faces. Let’s say there are eighty or ninety such kids in the city. You see them about. Their great-grandparents attend Concordia Lutheran, St. Alban the Martyr. Probably they are my listeners. Probably one of them is tuned in tonight. I know you’re sick of what you see, Great-grandparents.
“We must stick together. We can do this on the radio at night. We can do it another way by banding together to fight for our rights and our safety. We will draw the blinds at home, watch reruns of Wagon Train. Golden Agers, we’ll make a world out of the one left behind. What we had in the 40’s and 50’s was precious. I’m serious. This is my plan: I advocate for a life lived in the twilight of the past. It was good then. ‘Heavenly shades of night are falling. It’s twilight time.’ Why give this up? Why abandon Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in Show Boat or Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain? Why not form special interest groups where we treat ourselves differently from the way AARP does? Our groups will specialize in what twilight really offers—the notion that our lives have been fulfilled, the notion that a day is almost done. We will be local. We will be locally run. No AARP for us.
“I am, you know, for Greer Garson and Maureen O’Hara on the screen; for dinners with the family gathered round (if the kids aren’t there, imagine how it was when they were); for a deemphasis on reality TV and so-called news shows, for a reemphasis on old movies and easy listening. I propose the clubs we form spend afternoons enjoying yearbooks from Superior’s and Duluth’s high schools—old newspapers, too. Once a week someone can report on what happened in the Twin Ports on January 6, 1947, on August 1, 1950, on October 18, 1953. Cloquet, Proctor, and Two Harbors Golden Agers, we’ll reminisce about your glory days. During our meetings at area Drop-In Centers, we can listen to The Mills Brothers, The Inkspots, The Lettermen. We can dance and sing till ‘deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls.’ We’ll call ourselves ‘The Gold Club,’ ‘The Silver Club,’ ‘Traditions’ maybe. The point is, we must be deliberate. Members must agree the past is better, and we must want to make the past the present. We’ll live in the velvet fog of our youth. Call Luther. Call him tonight to tell him we can succeed by hiding out in memory. At my age, sixty-something years young, I have many, many memories.
“It’s no big deal about my sister, Maria. At 3:07 a.m., she’s someone to talk about. Three years older than me, she lives in Phoenix—Sun City, actually—with her husband. In that golden place, she’s probably gotten beyond the bad spot in her life some fifty-odd years ago. Sorrow recalled often will make you want to stop living. That’s my job, to get your mind off of things at 3:09 this morning. ‘Primrose Lane, life’s a holiday on Primrose Lane.’ Give me ten minutes, and I’ll get you back to the music of your life.
“Maria had a chance to be on Jack Paar. At the Superior Theater talent show, the first prize was a trip to Milwaukee where, we were told, a judge would choose the person who’d be on Mr. Paar’s program in New York City. I was in eighth grade. I never attended one talent show. That’s how strict our dad was. Movies playing before the talent show—things like Al Capone or Jane Russell in The Outlaw—were almost always in the ‘Morally Objectionable’ category on the list we followed in the Our Sunday Visitor, so I couldn’t go to them. I know this: Kids who tap-danced or made hand silhouettes and funny noises or performed magic tricks didn’t get past the first night of the competition. Those who played bebop or Fats Domino had a chance, because the place would be packed with high schoolers to cheer them on. Who’d applaud a tap-dancing eighth grader from Cooper School?
“I don’t remember adults entering the talent competition. Refresh me on this point. It’s never too late at night or too early in the morning to telephone your faithful Luther. Moulin Rouge lady, I want to hear from you. It isn’t All Soul’s Night, but May 31, a blue-moon night. Pretend it is All Soul’s, though, because it’s just your heart and mine. My soul is lonely. I have nothing awaiting me at home but old songs and a Mercury AG 4100 hi-fi from 1960 to spin them on, not even a console but a portable that ‘plays all records, sizes, and speeds—monaural or stereo.’
“Maria Krabenhoff, what a lovely name to say over the radio. ‘Maria, I just met a girl named Ma-ri-a.’ Somehow, playing ‘Malaguena’ and ‘Claire de Lune’ on the piano, she got through the month of preliminary competition. When Maria, a winner, came in with my parents at eleven o’clock, she’d be smiling. Out of gratitude to the theater manager, they’d stayed for the double feature. She was a sophomore. As far as my parents were concerned, she could see movies that were Morally Objectionable in Part if she advanced to the next week.
“‘Was it as exciting as ever tonight?’ Ma’d ask about the performance.
“‘Jack Paar’s still on,’ Dad would say, opening a bottle of beer at the kitchen table.
“‘I want to be on Your Hit Parade. I could accompany Snooky Lanson on ‘This Ol’ House’ and Gisele MacKenzie on ‘Canadian Sunset,’ Maria would say. Bustling about in the outfit she’d worn at her command performance at the Superior Theater, she must have thought she was in Vienna or Paris.
“‘You’re on your way. Jack Paar’s waiting,’ Dad would say, having another beer, opening one for my mother.
“WEBC 560 broadcast the final two Fridays live. Figuring she couldn’t win with the kind of music her piano teacher encouraged her to play, I still listened—mainly to hear someone perform a fast song with a beat. No one cares about classical music; Maria had no chance to win, my friends and I figured. We were pulling for a band from the North End called Ronnie Carl and the Roulettes.
“Our family and our relatives belonged as much to the East End neighborhood as we did to St. Francis Xavier Church. My parents bought groceries here, had our shoes fixed here, went to the dime store or Lederman’s Clothing Store here. Because of their talented daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Krabenhoff were suddenly important. This was ’57. No wonder the excitement about my sister. There was no cable TV, no multiplex theaters, no X Games. When Maria got through the semifinal night, Ma asked people in the bakery to come to the one remaining talent show to support her. My dad bought rounds for the guys at Stranko’s Tavern, then shifted his base of operations across the street to Howard’s Tavern, then down to Nadolski’s. My uncles and aunts lobbied their friends on Maria’s behalf. To see them acting like this, and Dad drinking so much because he couldn’t handle the excitement, was odd, for they were mainly quiet people who stayed out of the limelight. Maria’s success was now my parents’ and my relatives’ success. I knew this is when—tonight in 2007—I’d start to feel bad at this moment. I knew it. Stay tuned. We’ve got a commercial break—”
“Now that I’ve told you to pre-buy oil and propane from Como Oil for next year’s heating season, I can’t wait to give you the story. Something’s hidden in my heart. What have I got to lament? I ask those of you tuned in at 3:18 a.m. of a person’s life. Maybe I should lament that when people leave, I am lost. When I sign off from you, good listeners, I’m lost. My wife left. Did I tell you? I did? Yes, I forgot. When I look in the mirror in the living room at home, I see a radio personality who got the future he deserved. No one but Luther rides the Night Train. I am the Moonlight Gambler Frankie Laine told you about.
“When you’ve been in radio this long, in order to rest, you sometimes need a commercial break or a news break at the top of the hour when we go to the network. On this special night with Luther, I need no breaks, however. Are you out there? Are you with me? I don’t mean you with your music shaking the earth outside the gate.
“In ’57, I got jealous of my sister. If she persisted in playing classical music, then none of the kids in eighth grade—me included—wanted her winning. No one at East High School wanted Maria to win, I bet. My friends and I thought it was a setup between the theater manager and the grown-ups to choose her the winner. The adults believed my mature sister’s success would set a good example for the rest of us, and that’s why they came out on the last night of the talent competition—or so we figured. My buddies and I were wrong about the setup, which at least wasn’t an inside job as far as the manager was concerned. He had nothing to do with fixing the show. His job was to help promote a contest that was run by some guy from outside of town, a guy we heard was a talent scout.
“The week before the big night, I started getting dirty looks from kids who wanted Ronnie Carl and the Roulettes to win. ‘Why’s she wrecking it for us?’ they’d ask me at school or when I was going somewhere.
“I told them I’d disown her if she won. I had a lot of reasons to be angry. Because I was related to Maria Krabenhoff, the musician, there was my reputation to worry about. Everything in the house always revolved around my sister, with her honey-blonde hair, her green eyes, her long fingers racing over the keyboard. Her hands flew in the air when she played. You were reminded of Liberace.
“Fifty-some years later, I can tell you she didn’t stand a chance. After what Ronnie Carl and the Roulettes played, Liberace performing ‘The Warsaw Concerto’ couldn’t have won. Maybe it being the first Friday in Lent had something to do with how things turned out. Perhaps that year, on March 8, God descended over a theater that stood within sight of a steeple. Something holy happened a block from St. Francis.
“For a week, she’d practiced at school, so I had no idea what she’d be playing. Ear to the radio, I was excited after hearing the Roulettes, excited that nobody could beat them. Then someone introduced Maria. I heard kids boo. She coughed twice, I suppose out of nervousness, then started Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria,’ and I think people were so moved and affected by the selection that no one applauded, but when they did, it kept on for four full minutes on a Friday night. The roses she won (Ronnie Carl presented them to her) ended up in a cut-glass vase next to the Virgin’s statue on our dining-room table.
“When my sister and my mother left for Milwaukee, kids were hanging around the neighbor’s front porch watching everything at our house. Mr. Moniak would drive them to the train station while my dad was at work. After bringing out the suitcases, I beat it back inside the house. Ma looked at the downstairs picture window, then at my room upstairs to see why I wasn’t coming to say goodbye. The front of the gray-shingled house must have seemed as blank to my mother as Maria’s face at that moment: My sister couldn’t believe she was a star. Many East Enders had donated money for the trip. All expenses would be paid by the sponsor when they arrived in Milwaukee.
“To avoid the kids who’d watched her leave in Moniak’s car, I slipped out the back door and went down the alley to the drugstore, which, for a few days, had had stickers in the window advertising aspirin, cough syrup, pills, toothpaste, shaving cream—all for a penny if you bought one for the regular price. From 2 to 4 p.m., a disk jockey was broadcasting live the way we occasionally do today from Devinck Motors. When a song went out, he’d chat with customers. After the record ended, he’d go live over the air again advertising the sale in ‘Friendly East End.’
“A few grown-ups stood around watching when I got there. Two or three women from church busied themselves at the greeting-card rack. Some high schoolers were walking in. When I looked up from the comic book I was examining, I saw my future in Gerry ‘Catman’ Walker, who looked different, cooler, than I’d expected him to. Someone had pointed me out to him as the brother of a soon-to-be New York celebrity.
“‘Come on over,’ he said. ‘Do you want to make a request?’
“Pointing to the record he had playing on the turntable, he waited for it to end, then put down another record. Turning on the mic, he said, ‘This one goes out for Maria Krabenhoff.’ ‘That’s the name, right? She won the talent show?’ he asked me off-mic; then he held the microphone toward me. ‘What’s next for our listeners’ enjoyment?’ He wanted me to tell the radio audience what I’d requested.
“I stuttered. I was so nervous I asked him to say what it was, but ‘Catman’ Walker laughed and shook his head at me until, gathering strength, I whispered ‘Blue Moon,’ and for the three minutes it played, I was famous at a 1¢ sale.”
“My effort wasn’t worth a penny. There was no talent competition, no judge, no hotel reservations in downtown Milwaukee. We’d been set up by a stranger who’d convinced the theater manager, the entire neighborhood, and the city to trust him, then left with two months of talent-show money, probably a thousand dollars. They never caught him. You might remember reading about it in the paper.
“That night in a Milwaukee hotel, after she found out there’d be no Jack Paar Show, I wonder how Maria got through her sorrow. Knowing the embarrassment awaiting them at home, what could Ma have told her? Night after night from this area of broadcast antennas reddening the sky with fires that may never be extinguished, I play the songs of memory, recall the past, the losses, the hurt. Can you hear me, Maria? In the studio or in the house where we grew up and where I live alone, I wonder every night about you and about God’s presence in our lives. Why did this happen to you? Why did I act as I did? When you came home, I pretended to my friends you’d suffered a reverse divine intervention for playing what you’d played to keep Rockin’ Ronnie Carl from going to Milwaukee. I cannot forget the things I did, 1390 listeners. How do you forget music that haunts you?
“I won’t pretend to be what I’m not. You know me too well. Let me quote this one Bible verse, however, for I am generally not a holy man. In Numbers, when Aaron and Miriam grow jealous of Moses, he intercedes with the Lord to cure her of her ‘white leprosy,’ a mild punishment. The Lord says to him, ‘Suppose her father had spit in her face, would she not hide in shame for seven days?’ Maria, too, had been shamed. My parents had been shamed by what happened. The greatest shame was mine, I’ve seen over the years. They were innocent. I wasn’t. I’d hated her for a time.
“Maria returned to East High, but it was hell there for her. Kids laughed and talked about her. My parents didn’t know how to give back the quarters and dimes people had contributed for the trip. The bank had given ten dollars; Art Haugen at the drugstore, ten; St. Francis Church, fifteen.
“My mother kept us going by figuring a way out of the embarrassment of owing anyone anything. She worked hard around the neighborhood, baked for people, did favors for them. Dad stopped drinking. Maria got through the school year, but quit practicing the piano. Why should she have hidden in shame when she’d done nothing wrong? I was the one who should have been punished for what, like Aaron and Miriam, I’d done behind my sister’s back by ridiculing her.
“In time, Maria graduated, left home to work. I went in the service, kicked about for a year or two afterward, but I could never get the East End neighborhood out of my mind. When I returned home from my travels, I thought about selling insurance with my cousin, the American Family agent. But how could I insure others when I never insured myself? Where do you buy a policy against regret?
“With Maria out west, I grow lonely in the house where we grew up. Outside on the street, I hear car speakers pounding rap music, hip-hop. Things were better back then—no school shootings, no ear-splitting music. Here in the 1390 studio tonight, I think of the uninsured of long ago. Antennas beam signals to the sky, always outward, always away. Tonight, I have you with me to hear these transmissions from the heart. We go inward tonight, deep into the place where we try to make amends.
“At 3:26, let me tell you the signals of people from back then—Gerry ‘Catman’ Walker of 1¢ sale fame, my parents, my aunts and uncles—come in clearly everyday. Maria’s signal, I never hear, though. Never. Before taking the trip so many years ago that changed her life, I wonder if she heard my request. I wonder if she is listening tonight. This next song is for you, Beloved Sister, so far away. And it’s for you, Moulin Rouge lady. And for the rest of you 1390 listeners. Jo Stafford’s ‘Blue Moon.’ I’ll be quiet now and listen.”