Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Crusin' With Cousin Brucie

I first met Cousin Brucie in November of 1995. Back then, I was the director of marketing and events for IGPC, the world’s largest postal agency. I was organizing an international postal tribute to John Lennon, marking the 15th anniversary of his assassination. A major event to “unveil” the Lennon stamps at the Hard Rock Café was in the works. A ticket-giveaway promotion with WCBS-FM (NY’s Oldies station) led me to Bruce, who immediately volunteered to MC the festivities. Now, he was coming by to review the event timeline a few weeks early.

          “Hello Cousin Lonnie,” he said in his most endearing radio voice, entering our conference room.  “It’s really an honor to be involved in this groovy stamp event. So tell me: what can I do to help you make it even better?”

          I found it truly humbling that this icon of the New York airwaves – a radio voice that I (and my parents) had grown up on - was standing before me, addressing me as an honorary “cousin.” Even more impressive was his immediate willingness to roll up his sleeves and offer a helping hand. And boy did he ever!

Mary Wilson, Peter Noone and Billy J. Kramer 
          Up to that point, I was scrambling to round up enough high-profile personalities to help participate in the ceremony. We had eight stamps to unveil for eight different governments. I had managed to secure appearances by Mary Wilson (the Supremes), singer Billy J. Kramer, NY Governor, George Pataki, plus a house band to play a set of John Lennon songs. By my scorecard, I was short five celebrity unveilers with only three weeks to go until the big day.
Bruce popped open a small black phonebook from the breast pocket of his jacket and started running through some names. “How ‘bout Peter Noone?” he asked. “That guy knew the Beatles from his Herman’s Hermits days. Oh, and what about Leslie Gore? She’s right here in New York.” His smile lit up the room as he flipped through the pages. “And maybe, if we ask nicely, we can get you Dion DiMucci (Dion & the Belmonts).”

Incredibly, Cousin Brucie’s influence turned out to be even more persuasive than I could have imagined. Not only did he help land those pop stars of yesteryear, but he also hooked me up with famed Beatles concert promoter, Sid Bernstein. And for our stage announcer, he successfully recruited Les Marshak, the voiceover host of every major televised award show in America including the Oscars.

Our jam-packed ceremony on the morning of December 8th, 1995 was the event of the season. Every TV station in NY was on hand. Local, regional and national newspapers too! Flashbulbs popping everywhere. We had each musical presenter perform a John Lennon song with our house band. Cousin Brucie, of course, was front and center. And from this magical day, a special friendship was born.

Cousin Brucie Interviews The Beatles in 1964
Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow) began his radio career back in 1959. He made a name for himself in New York on the old WABC AM radio in the early 60s. He got to interview Elvis Presley during a rare visit to NYC, and later, The Beatles for their first American radio interview in 1964. For more than six decades, Bruce has hosted a wide array of Top-40 shows – both national and regional – on AM, FM and now satellite radio. He was a music correspondent on Good Morning America. He appeared as a magician in the 1997 film classic, Dirty Dancing. There’s even a section of 52nd Street in Manhattan named after him.

In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, I invented an iconic NY radio personality as a noteworthy supporting character. Larry Jacobs is the program director and afternoon drive host on the fictional WNYR – a man who attempts to help revive the career of our protagonist, Johnny Elias, after his public downfall. Several early readers of my novel, including my editor asked me if I based Larry on anyone in particular. A few suspected that I had Cousin Brucie in mind.

The truth is: There are some parallels between my fictional radio icon and the great Cousin Brucie. Both live downtown in Greenwich Village. Both are aficionados of classic rock & roll. Both are aligned with great charitable causes. However, the personalities are vastly different, as is their physical appearance and domestic situations (Bruce being a happily married family man, while Larry is bitterly divorced). And the real-life Cousin Brucie is a far more charming and a notably more sensible decision maker. But in the similarities column, both men have a keen sense of using the medium of radio for extraordinary, spontaneous promotion.

Cousin Brucie and I with The Flying Elvi at Stampfest '96
In September of 1996, Bruce served as my on-stage host for StampFest, a postage stamp festival at NY’s South Street Seaport, that drew some 27,000 attendees. Successful as the event was, the ending was shockingly abrupt.  Late afternoon hurricane-like conditions suddenly sent the masses scattering… just as the Flying Elvi were skydiving over the East River for our grand finale.

I’ll never forget the phone call early the next morning from Cousin Brucie. He roused me from my discouragement and offered to head back down to the Seaport that afternoon to finish up the final performances and ceremony. I raced to get the details organized, then wondered if anyone would bother showing up to witness it.

Leave it to Bruce to work his magic. Within minutes of getting the plans together, the “cuz” was phoning in on air at CBS-FM, urging all listeners to head downtown at lunchtime for the Elvis-themed conclusion to the festival. Okay, so we didn’t draw the massive crowd from Sunday. But he did manage to recruit about 400 people on a Monday afternoon to witness the last portion of our unique postal program.

Unquestionably, it was this real-life story that help to inspire the heroic promotional efforts of my fictional Larry Jacobs in his attempt to hype the attempted renegade Central Park concert by Johnny Elias. Larry’s masterful on-air publicity on the day of the unscheduled show is borrowed straight out of Cousin Brucie’s playbook. Only in this case, boosted to the umpteenth degree of my imagination. No doubt a strategy that the legendary “cuz” would be proud of.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.

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