Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cotton Watts: The Last Blackface

The best that can be said of Cotton Watts, the Florida Panhandle's last professional blackface entertainer, is that he was the product of an unenlightened age.

From 1947 to 1959, Watts was a staple of Panama City Beach summer nightlife, appearing at both the 98 Club and the near-by Surf-and-Sand Club.

Watts, a white entertainer, would perform parodies of the traditional songs, dances, and speech patterns of southern rural African-Americans, his face darkened with burnt cork.

Watts' career dated to the 1920s when he and Bud Davis formed a blackface duo that toured the nation's leading vaudeville circuits. It was Davis, manager of Panama City's Ritz Theater, who brought Watts to town. Watts performed three shows nightly, with his wife Chick--also in blackface--acting as mistress of ceremonies.

Recently, two minutes of rare film footage from a 1954 Cotton Watts' stage show surfaced. In it, Watts--dressed in his trademark leopard skin suit, white bow tie and oversized floppy shoes--runs through the following routine with Chick:

CHICK: I'm making a motion picture called The Lion Tamer.

COTTON: Ain't but one kinda lion I mess with...dat's a dandelion. Hey hey-y-y!

CHICK: Meet me tomorrow at the zoo at 9am. I want to get a moving picture of you in the lion cage.

COTTON: If you e-e-ever gets a picture of me in the lion cage, I'll be movin' alright!

CHICK: This lion's tame. He'll eat right off your hand.

COTTON:' off yo' leg, too!

CHICK: But you don't understand. This lion was raised on milk.

COTTON: So was I, but I eats poke' chops now!

CHICK: All I want to do is snap your picture while you enter the cage.

COTTON: Well you better snap me when I enter, 'cause you'll n-e-e-ver be able to focus when I leaves...'cause I'm Alabama bound!

(While the band strikes up a ragtime tune, Cotton performs a loose-limbed soft-shoe and tap, finally shuffling off-stage to applause. In the last seconds of film we catch a glimpse of the audience. Naturally, it's an all-white crowd).

The art of blackface minstrelsy has an interesting if reproachful history. The Encyclopedia of Popular Culture calls it, "the first uniquely American form of entertainment, developed not long after the Revolutionary War, as the young United States attempted to assert a national identity distinct from Britain's."

By the 1840s, minstrelsy had become America's most popular form of entertainment. Blackface comedians performed in virtually every vaudeville troupe through the 1920s.The genre didn't die with the advent of motion pictures, either. The first "talkie"--The Jazz Singer--featured a blackface Al Jolson singing Mammy.

When radio became America's primary entertainment vehicle, a blackface comedy team created the nation's most popular show: Amos 'n Andy.

By the 1950s, however, America had entered a new era of racial and social consciousness, and blackface was viewed as reinforcing a demeaning stereotype. Only in the Deep South did the genre continue, right up to the dawn of integration.

But the minstrel legacy, according to the Encyclopedia of African-American Experience, "is not wholly negative. Mistrelsy's energy, fast-paced rapartee, puns, double-entendres...had a major impact on American musical theater, motion pictures, radio and television...that transformed American humor."

Cotton Watts would have been one of the nation's last professional blackface comics. When he walked off the Club 98 stage for the last time in the summer of '59, the anachronistic art-form of an unenlightened era retired with him.

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, Aug. 20, 2000

World's Tallest Man...and worst actor

Every so often, even the most towering of tall tales turns out to be true. Like this one.

Thirty years ago--in January, 1971--the World's Tallest Man spent the weekend in Panama City.

All eight feet, two inches of him.

His name was Henry least that was how he billed himself. By the time he came to Panama City, he was already a veteran of some three decades in show business, dating back to the glory days of vaudeville as a member of the comedy team Hite, Lowe and Stanley. The troupe played clubs all over America.

The team broke up in 1963, and Hite struck out on his own. He made movies. Really bad movies. In fact, Hite was featured in one of the best really bad movies of all time. Entitled Monster A-Go-Go, this 1965 epic is so awful it's actually unintentionally funny.

Here's how film critic Phil Morton described the film: "A team of go-go dancers battle a ten-foot monster from outer space, whose mass is due to a radiation mishap. He can't dance, either." Another equally unimpressed movie critic wrote: "Henry was hired because of his height and his apparent disregard for self-embarrassment."

In Monsters a-Go-Go, Hite plays Frank Douglas, a role described by one critic as a"tall, gangly astronaut transformed by radiation into a tall, gangly, oatmeal-faced monster who, for no particular reason, murders every human being that's too slow to outrun him."

If Hite's movie career had its shortcomings, it was the only thing short about him. He wore a size 22 shoe, for example. "I don't have them shined," he liked to say. "I just run them through the car wash."

Hite's visit to Panama City was part of a promotional tour sponsored by the old Sunshine Foods "Sputnik" Store. Norman Griffin, 74, is a retired Sunshine executive who met the World's Tallest Man. "Actually, he was a real gentleman, very normal except for his height," Griffin recalls. "I guess he was used to being in the spotlight all his life."

(In reality, Hite was lucky--for a giant. Few people who experience such abnormal growth survive past their thirties. Although frequently beset by health complications due to his size, this gentle giant lived into his early-60s).

On his three-day visit to the Sunshine, Hite good-naturedly signed autographs and tirelessly explained to incredulous gawkers that both his parents and all twelve siblings were well under six-feet--and that his wife was 5'3".

But to smart alecks who dared ask "How's the weather up there?" Hite had a ready response. "I tell them it's raining," he said, "and then I pour my drink on them."

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Jan. 30, 2001

The selling of Doomsday

World tensions are running high: America faces down a foreign foe as its citizens brace for an uncertain future.

Headlines from today's Panama City News Herald? Not quite.

The date is October, 1961, and the planet holds its breath as American and Soviet tanks face each other, muzzle to muzzle, along Berlin's east-west border. Then, on Oct. 30, the Russians detonate a 50-megaton nuclear bomb in the skies over the Pacific; a test--or is it a warning? (A weather station in nearby Apalachicola, Florida, actually records the blast's shock waves, which last five minutes).

Fallout fever grips America. Newspapers across the nation--including the News Herald--run Fallout Tracking Maps, tracing the bomb's radioactive cloud as it treks eastward across the Pacific towards North America.

Overnight, it seems, a new phrase enters the nation's consciousness: Fallout shelter.

Nationally, plans are made to equipt schools with underground shelters, and students crouch under desks during air-raid drills--as if a school desk provided protection! Neighborhoods begin planning Fallout Shelter Clubs--a doomsday version of time-share.

Here in Panama City, The Bomb Shelter Company opens for business on West Highway 98, near present-day Zoo World. "A Russian attack," company manager John Carroll tells the News Herald, "would likely be at night, so you would probably be at home. A fallout shelter would be your means of existing."

A seven-by-six foot, six-person model--welded from 3/16" steel--sells for $1300. When the Bay County Fair opened October 30,visitors viewed a model shelter displayed at the fairground's main entrance. "An air filter system complete with exhaust and manually operated centrifugal blower is standard equipment," the News Herald reports. "Accessory kits provide radiation counters, different types of toilets, and motorized blowers."

Fallout Mania reached a peak in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within a year, however, the two superpowers had retreated from the brink of atomic Armageddon and signed their first-ever nuclear arms treaty, forever banning above-ground bomb testing.

By then, Fallout Mania had subsided. Panama City's Bomb Shelter Company closed, leaving the fallout shelter--like the hula hoop and the twist--a cultural curiosity of the early sixties.

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Oct. 22, 2000

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Roby Yonge: The Rise and Fall of a Top-40 Hero

For Ocala's Roby Yonge, it was perhaps the fastest ascent in the history of Top-40 radio, a rocket-ride to the pinnacle of his profession. It took Yonge less than a decade to rise from Ocala High School to his lofty position as the youngest disc jockey on the nation's most powerful station.

But it all unravelled one night in 1969 amidst a confluence of alcohol abuse and poor judgement. When Yonge died--in 1997 at age 54--he was remembered as the announcer who was fired on-the-air from WABC-New York for spreading the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead.

The story of Roby Yonge reads like a modern morality play, a lesson in what happens when real-life collides with our dreams.

Yonge was born at Ft. Jackson, NC, in 1943, the son of an army officer. The family soon moved to Ocala where Roby became hooked on radio. His first paid job--at fifteen, in 1958--was as a high school reporter for a small Ocala station.

Four years later Roby was hired by WCKR in Miami. There he met deejay Rick Shaw (still a fixture in Miami, playing oldies for WMXJ). "Roby had this natural talent to entertain and make you laugh," Shaw remembers. "It's not something that can be taught. Roby was just gifted. He had great pipes, too--a voice that sounded great on the radio."

In 1963, Shaw was hired by WQAM, Miami's top-rated Top-40 station. "I convinced the program director that Roby could be a great jock," Shaw said. It was Yonge's first big break.

Roby was an immediate hit on WQAM, especially among surfers. "As a joke one day I called Roby 'The Big Kahuna,'" Shaw remembers. "Roby loved it. He read books about Hawaiian surf lore and how the natives wore seaweed on their heads and chanted mystical prayers to make the surf come up. And Roby actually did that. In 1966, WQAM held our first annual Big Kahuna South Florida Surf Meet. It was all tongue-in-cheek: You can't surf South Beach because--well, there's no surf."

The night before the event Yonge visited South Beach. "He put seaweed on his head and chanted prayers," Shaw recalls. "Sure enough a hurricane blew up overnight. The next morning there was eight-foot surf on South Beach. Kids were convinced Roby did it. The next day ten thousand kids show up for surfing, live music, and food."

Thus Roby Yonge became Big Kahuna--the handsome young prince of the sea with power to command the tides. In the fall of 1968, Yonge mailed tapes to larger markets in hopes of moving up the career ladder. "One day," Roby later recalled, "I got a message to call Rick Sklar at WABC in New York. I crumpled the paper up and threw it away. I knew it was a joke."

Sklar was WABC's no-nonsense program director who ruled his station like a monarch, and for good reason. WABC was the most powerful station in America, heard in 40 states and sections of Canada and Mexico.
A few days later a telegram arrived at Yonge's home in Coral Gables: CALL RICK SKLAR AT WABC IMMEDIATELY. Sklar offered Yonge a job; there would be a ticket waiting for him at the National Airlines counter--a ticket to New York, radio's Everest.

When Roby arrived at the counter there was no ticket; someone at WABC, apparently, had forgotten to purchase it. Yonge, a life-long believer in the occult, should have recognized the omen. He paid for the ticket himself.

Roby was assigned WABC's coveted 1pm-3pm slot. Relations with the autocratic Sklar soured, however; Roby bristled under the station's tightly-restricted format, where jocks were expected to play certain songs on schedule and keep chatter to a minimum. "Roby was a non-conformist," Shaw recalls, "who did things his own way, ruffling the feathers of authority." Yonge was soon shunted to the overnight "graveyard" shift.

In early fall of 1969, Sklar informed Yonge that his contract would not be renewed when it expired in November. On the night of October 21, 1969, Roby sat down at the mic for his midnight-to-6am show knowing his short career at the apex of American radio was nearly at an end. About 30 minutes into his show, Roby's broadcast took a bizarre turn:

"...There's really something strange going on with the Beatle Paul...and I'd like to be able to say I told you about it first. Two weeks ago I ordered every Beatle album...I played them backwards and forwards and I played them at every speed. After ten years in broadcasting, I have never felt so sure of a thing as I feel right now..."

Roby took his listeners through a lengthy list of "clues" he had culled from Beatle albums: The left-handed bass on the grave of the Sgt. Pepper's cover, the ambiguous lyrics to any number of songs.

Then Yonge commited the ultimate sin: "Notice on the Magical Mystery Tour," he said, "the numbers that come out if you really get very, very high and look at the front of the album...You can see numbers if you get really high on something--OK? Work on that..."

From today's jaded perspective it's easy to underestimate Yonge's indescretion. In 1969, however, you simply did not go on the nation's flagship station and exhort listeners to imbibe hallucinogens.

Roby began to ramble . "Listen very carefully to Revolution #9," he told listeners. "Play it on a two-track machine after you've recorded it on a four-track machine and play it backwards"--as if listeners had access to such sophisticated equipment.

At 1:30am, at his home several blocks from the station, Rick Sklar was awakened by a phone call from the WABC newsroom. "You better turn on your radio," Sklar was told.

At 1:54 am, Sklar--still in his bathrobe--burst in the studio door. The record "Backfield in Motion" was playing. Yonge was on the phone with a friend from Miami. "Roby, hang up and get out," Sklar barked. When Roby froze, Sklar jerked the phone out of his hand and slammed it down.

Yonge, flanked by Sklar and an armed security guard, walked to the end of the hall and rode the elevator to the lobby. The ride was eight floors down, but it must have seemed an eternity to Yonge, a free-fall into a career black-hole from which his life would never recover.

Yonge soon returned to Florida, where his life seemed haunted by the ghost of a Beatle who, as it turned out, had never really died at all. Roby's contract as spokesman for a furniture chain dissolved with the firm's bankruptcy. He landed voice-over commercials for a cruise line; one of their ships caught fire and the spots were pulled. Ads he recorded for a regional airline were cancelled when one of their planes crashed. There was a failed investment in an unsuccessful recording studio.

In 1985 he reunited briefly with pal Rick Shaw, playing oldies on Miami's WAXY. Yonge's mom, Nancy, recalls that her son was, "at least once, schnockered on the air." Roby began to drift. "He moved around quite a bit," Nancy said, "and got hired and fired a lot." By the early '90s, Roby--by now twice divorced--had moved back to Ocala.

His final job on radio--in 1993, at Miami's WMRZ--was a talk show about the occult. Finally, Roby could indulge his interest in the supernatural. He even continued to insist that McCartney was dead. The show didn't last.

Yonge's health was fading. He began bleeding orally--blood on the pipes. "The alcohol was poisoning him," Nancy said.

The end came on July 18, 1997, in a bottle-strewn room in a run-down Miami motel where Yonge had been living. Roby--broke, unemployed, and too ill or high to get out of bed--summoned a motel handyman with a promise of twenty dollars to fetch a bottle of whiskey. By the time the handyman returned with a bottle, Roby Yonge, once the handsome young prince of American radio, lay dead.

Private services were held in Ocala. After laying her son to rest, Nancy Yonge felt obligated to take care of one last bit of business. She mailed the motel handyman a check for twenty dollars.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 8

The Houdini family comes to the Florida Panhandle

Harry Houdini--born Erich Weiss to a family of Jewish Hungarian immigrants--rose from an impoverished Wisconsin childhood to international stardom during the early-1900s as a magician and escape artist nonpariel, playing to packed houses in major cities around the globe.

But the Houdini name has connections to the Florida Panhandle as well.

In the hours before he died of peritonitis in October 1926, Harry Houdini summoned wife Bess and brother Theo to his deathbed and vowed to contact them from the afterlife.

Bess would spend the rest of her life attempting to contact her late husband. On February 8, 1937, she spent a night at Panama City's Dixie-Sherman Hotel where, the local newspaper reported, she conducted an eerie ceremony in the wee hours, a seance that failed to conjur Harry's spirit. Nonetheless, the incident has since blossomed into an oft-told legend among Bay County locals.

Not so well known is the Houdini family's other connection to the area.

On Jan 29, 1938, brother Theo--billed as the Great Hardeen--performed live at Panama City's Ritz Theater on Harrison Avenue. "In Hardeen," the News Herald reported, "Houdini lives again. It is the desire of Hardeen to carry on the feats of his brother and in this manner keep alive his wonderful name."

Hardeen headlined the largest show Panama City had ever witnessed. Ads boasted a "Broadway-style review...featuring 42 people, 15 big scenes, glorious and daringly different girls!" Due to itsburlesque nature, the show didn't begin until 11pm. Tickets cost 35 cents--big money in depression days. But the Houdini connection sold tickets.

As young boys, Harry and Theo (they would change their names upon entering show business) worked as a team, performing in beer halls and dime museums around Coney Island. Here they perfected the escape tricks that would propel one of them to international renown.

After a hit performance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair the brothers split, performing near-duplicate acts at separate venues. Theo, it was said, could replicate all his brother's tricks save one: the strait-jacket escape that would become Houdini's signature. (Harry could disclocate both his shoulders, say historians, Hardeen but one).

When Harry died, his will granted "all my theatrical effects and illusions to my brother." But Hardeen's fame and success was but a glint of Harry's. Theo, in the words of Houdini biographer Bert Sugar, "possessed none of his brother's personality and flair." Clearly, Harry's magic lay within.

The highlight of Hardeen's performance at the Ritz was an attempt at the family trademark, the escape from a strait-jacket while in full view of the audience. As usual, however, Theo reduced his brother's artistry to low comedy, intentionally bungling the escape for easy laughter.

By the early-1940s, rheumatism had destroyed Theo's ability to perform, and he died in 1945. The Northwest Florida tour would be among his last.

"To be born into near fame is a dreadful fate," Sugar wrote of Theo. Indeed, for all the escapes Theo performed as the Great Hardeen, the one escape he could never truly make was from beneath his brother's shadow.

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, Aug. 8, 2000

The PGA Championships of 1971 and 1987: Golf's only two major championships ever played on Florida soil.

As each new year begins, professional golfers fine-tune their considerable skills in preparation for the season's four major tournaments--the Masters in April, U.S. Open in June, British Open in July, and PGA Championship in August.

Savvy fans know that a pro may win a dozen Houston Opens in his career...but without a major victory it is a career without distinction. That's why Tiger Woods' goal since he was knee-high to Mike Douglas has been to shatter Jack Nicklaus' all-time record for most victories in majors: 18.

Yet in nearly 400 majors played since the inaugural British Open in 1860, only two have ever been contested in Florida: the PGA Championships of 1971 and 1987. Both were held at the PGA National East course in Palm Beach Gardens (now Ballen Isles Country Club), and both tournaments made history.

The 1971 event was held February 25-28 in an attempt to escape summer's crushing heat. It was the first and only time the PGA Championship was contested as the season's first--not final--major.

Jack Nicklaus, 33, was America's top golfer and the pre-tournament favorite. Born and raised in Ohio, Nicklaus (above, left) had only recently migrated south, the better to work on his game full time. He built a home for wife Barbara and son Jackie at Lost Tree Village in North Palm Beach, five miles from the East Course.

For Jack, there was additional motivation besides the $40,000 first place check. If Nicklaus could win the tournament, he would become the first golfer ever to win all four majors twice each. (Other than Jack, only Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen held career victories in all four majors--a list Tiger joined in 2000).

Sure enough, Nicklaus shot 69-69-70-73 to beat former Masters and U.S. Open champ Billy Casper by two shots. It was Jack's first win in Florida as well. "The gods of golf," he said afterwards, "were smiling on me."

The 1987 PGA Championship, held August 6-9, was historic too. Larry Nelson (right) beat Lanny Wadkins in a playoff on Sunday, but for fervent fans, the real history occurred Thursday, during the tournament's first round.

That's when, for the first time in their respective careers, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson played together as a threesome. Tournament organizers had hoped to cash-in on the three's marquee-value, but failed to factor-in Florida`s unforgiving heat: Watson shot 70 and Nicklaus and Palmer each shot 76--poor scores indeed.

"It felt like 140-degrees," Watson told reporters later. "The heat got to me today more than any other round I can remember--I felt rubbery." On the putting greens, Palmer had to time his stroke between beads of perspiration dripping off the bill of his visor. "In my 57 years," he said, "I've never been this wet."

Nicklaus was in no mood to talk. He brushed past reporters without a word and strode to the parking lot, slammed his clubs into the trunk, peeled out of the driveway, and headed back to the cool comfort of Lost Tree Village.

Jack Nicklaus had just discovered a truth Sunshine State duffers have known all along: When it comes to playing golf in mid-summer in Florida, it's not just the's the futility!

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18