In 1965, with a passion found only in seventeen year-old boys, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a living. The idea of being on the radio burned in me with a blinding intensity and, like all kids certain of their destiny, I concentrated on little else. School? Who needs it?! I would graduate from the prison that was high school the following year glad to be forever free of parents, teachers and all other roadblocks to my dreams. Broadcasting beckoned. Radio would put me through college and, with the exception of time out for Army service, would be the work that sustained me for the rest of my professional life.
In addition to working as a carry out boy for Oscar Swanson, the "Watermelon King", at Swanson's Super Store on the "Miracle Mile" I had conned my way into a part-time gofer job at the local radio station located on the north side of the windswept cow town of Spencer, Iowa. I waxed floors, changed tapes on the automation system and ran errands for the air staff. It was the first punch on my ticket to radio nirvana. The station was a plodding small town operation that nobody under 40 listened to for anything other than weather reports and occasional school closings when the snow was ass deep . It was a spectacularly un-hip operation but to my unsophisticated eyes it was the gateway to big cities and the great radio stations of my dreams.
Lake Okoboji, a few miles to the north of Spencer, was and still is a major vacation and recreation destination for much of the upper Midwest. As a consequence there were several nice hotels and restaurants around the lake that would sometimes book major talent during the summer months. The summer of '65 saw major rock n' roll acts like Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, Herman's Hermits and others play the Roof Garden in Arnolds Park, a major youth attraction on the lake. Venues that catered to an older more sophisticated crowd booked mostly unheard of acts that generally stayed out of the way of the headliner: STEAK and POTATOES. The exception was The New Inn, at that time the newest and nicest resort on the lake. That summer a story in the local paper said that they had booked the very talented jazz singer, Marilyn Maye, for an extended engagement. I couldn't believe it! She was a terrific talent who had appeared many times on the Tonight Show and was enjoying success on the pop charts as well as being the darling of jazz critics. She was a favorite of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson and had a fantastic debut album, "Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye", that was selling very well.
Like me, my pal, Mike Swanson, Oscar's son, was a Marilyn Maye fan. While working clean up at the store one evening we wondered if we could possibly fake enough maturity (something I struggle with to this day) to head for the New Inn to see her show. Figuring as long as we didn't try to order booze there was nothing to prevent us from putting on a coat and tie, buying a ticket to the show, ordering Shirley Temples and acting like we belonged in a dimly lit lounge. We decided to do it. Big time nightclubbers for at least one evening!
That Friday night feeling at least 30 but most likely looking 9 years-old, Mike and I found ourselves ringside for Marilyn's show. She was superb. When it came time for her to take a little break I somehow summoned the courage to approach and ask if I might interview her after the show. I semi-fibbed that I was working in radio and would love to ask her a few questions. I had no tape recorder with me but did have a pen and a small notebook to pull off the act. I'm certain she wasn't fooled. She said that she would be happy to chat with me after the show. I remember very little about the rest of the performance as I was now a nervous wreck knee deep in wondering how I was going to pretend any degree of professionalism. Questions? What was I going to ask her?! "What's your favorite food?" I needn't have worried.
What prompted this long ago reverie was a story in this week's Wall Street Journal featuring a story by Alexandra Wolfe detailing Marilyn's still active career at the age of 90. She still plays New York clubs like Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, Feinstein's, 54 Below, the Metropolitan Room, Birdland and just two years ago performed for the first time at Jazz at Lincoln Center's annual gala. In April she'll celebrate her birthday with a run at 54 Below. "Even though I'm blessed my voice is still hanging in there," she adds "I don't like to play the age card."
I'm already checking on April flights to New York. This now nearly 70 year-old going on 17 still appreciates the very classy 90 year-old who didn't play the age card fifty-three years ago this summer. Marilyn Maye is still Marvelous indeed.