Thursday, January 13, 2011

Joe Campbell's Sentimental Journey

 In addition to Don, several cartoonists have captured Joe’s craggy features, elastic
expressions and accomplishment over the years

Spending a few hours with Joe Campbell is a “Sentimental Journey” indeed.
He’s immediately in character, and there are lots of them.
There he goes: “Jack Armstrong, all American boy,” he intones.  “Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys.”
Then a commercial break for Armstrong’s sponsor, Wheaties:  “Won’t you try Wheaties, the best breakfast found in the land?”
Then on to “Little Orphan Annie: She’s a little chatterbox, that gal with auburn locks.”  At the key point, Sandy chimes in: “Arf, arf.”
At almost 84, Joe Campbell, “The Voice of Oneonta,” whose “Sentimental Journey” – spoofs of those old radio shows, plus Big Band favorites, aired for decades over WDOS-AM 730, Oneonta – still captivates.
As he gathers force, the back room of his bungalow on Grand Street disappears.  The boombox has become a Philco “Five Star Baby Grand.”   Your back in Joe’s boyhood days before World War II.  You join his family gathered around the radio, imagining adventure, romance, journeys to distant lands, as WGY crackles out of the net-covered speakers.
As Joe, born in Moosic, Pa., grew up on Cliff Street, and Union Street, and Maple Street, there was stability:  dad, Buchanan Campbell, D&H foremen of engineers, sat in his armchair, reading the Binghamton Evening Press.  Mom Elizabeth would sew, and Joe, brother Bill and sister Ada (now Day, of Otego), would crowd around the console.
“That was it,” said Campbell.  “There was no TV of any consequence.  There was the radio in front room.”
As long as he can remember, Joe Campbell wanted to be in radio.
He first realized he had a talent for mimicry at Oneonta High School, then on Academy Street. 
The revered principal, Charles Belden, recruited Joe, a three-letter man, and other BMOCs, to found “The Saturday Night Club.”  (Students had been up to some mischief around the city, and Belden wanted them to have a healthful outlet for fun.)
There were card games.  A jukebox with the latest dance tunes.   And, as things evolved, a floor show.  “That gave me a chance to get up there and ham it up,” Joe recalled.
Joe Romanelli would do Jimmy Durante.  Timmy Williams would imitate other stars of the day.  And Joe figured he’d try stand-up comedy.
He told his first joke.  Dead silence in the packed bleachers.  Finally, someone in the back yelled, “Hey, Campbell: sit down.”
Joe replied, “No, I’ll do sit-down comedy.” And he sat down on the floor.
“That brought a big laugh,” and Joe was on his way.
Graduating from OHS in 1945, he was immediately drafted and found himself at a “separation center” in Fort Dix, processing out GIs flooding home from Europe and the Pacific.
Discharged, he used the GI Bill to attend Colgate, where he joined Delta Upsilon, studied philosophy and graduated in 1952.  But even then he was hanging around the Hotel Oneonta on holidays.
For something had happened while he was away:  In 1947, Charley Hobart went on the air from the top floor of the hotel with these historic words, “This is WDOS, the Star station.”
Otsego County had listened to radio for two decades, but now it had the first station of its own, and Joe wanted in.
He auditioned with Hobart.  He read a news story ripped off the wire.  He read a sports story.  “Well, we’re going to take a chance on you,” said the station manager, signalling the start of a 50-year career.
Bill Bennet was “The Sunshine Boy,” signing on at 8:15 a.m.  Ted Roodhoff presided over “The Farm Journal of the Air.”  Denny Sullivan was the DJ, and when he went on to a bigger market, Joe took over his popular “Request, Granted” show.
Listeners would send in requests by postcard; Joe would play the selections.  And they would call in, through the Hotel Oneonta switchboard.
“Good afternoon, sir.  Do you have a request?” he asked cheerfully on his first day.
“Bring back Denny Sullivan!” the voice at the other end of the line growled.
“I was crushed,” said Joe, but not too crushed to consider giving it up. 
He was teaching in Walton, where he spent much of four years at Ma Peck’s Boarding House, $12 a week, room and board, and coming back to Oneonta whenever he could.
But in 1957, he joined the city school system, where he would teach fifth and sixth grades until 1991.  “I just loved teaching,” he said.  “I had a lot of very good students; wonderful young people.”
At OHS, he had played football with Ed House, one of OHS’ all-time greats, and George Kershaw, the first local player to make it to the NFL, the Giants.  Now he joined the coaching staff, guiding such players at Mark May, who would later help the Washington Redskins to Super Bowl XVI, (although an injury kept him off the field.)
And he was married and raising a family.
And there was radio, radio, radio.  (When May was playing for Pitt, he confided to Joe on a trip home that he was a frontrunner for the prestigious Outland Trophy, to be awarded the following week.  Joe  and Mark conducted an interview just as if he’d already won it.  And when he did, Joe aired it, to everyone’s amazement at his “scoop.”)
In the 1950s, Joe hosted “The Saturday Night Dance Party,” although station owner James Ottaway, Sr. – his Ottaway Newspapers also owned The Daily Star at the time – was out of synch with changing tastes.  Every evening, WDOS would play classical music.
At “Dance Party,” Joe would play the Top 10.  Until Elvis Presley came along, to Number One before long.  The word came down, “Don’t play any Elvis on the radio station.”
“The whole idea of rock and roll – it was too rough and raw for the older people,” Joe said. 
The whole radio business was evolving.  WDLA had come on the air in Delhi soon after WDOS.  WCHN appeared in Norwich.  WSRK, “Good New Radio,” featuring Pastor Mel Farmer, entered the market.  The owner of Brackett’s Bookstore launched WZOZ in the 1960s.
About that time, restrictions tightened on owning a newspaper and radio station in the same market, and Ottaway divested WDOS.  “With each owner, things changed,” said Joe.
The station had long before moved from the Hotel Oneonta, to Chestnut and West, to 2 Market, to the Southside, to Route 7, next to Brooks.
Formats changed too.  But some things stayed the same.  The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter.  The Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Count Basie.  Those men had song writers, composers and performers on the payroll.  Their orchestras went on the road, playing at The Pavilion at Canadarago Lake and other local venues.
In the 1980s, Joe Campbell discovered their fan bases endured when  he launched “Sentimental Journey,” the radio show he’s most remembered for today.  He would play the old favorites, and spoof the old shows, creating such knock-offs as “Max Headstrong,” a tribute to his boyhood hero.
Don Sherwood, the nationally prominent comic-strip creator who passed away in 2009, was one of his biggest fans.  So was the late Joe Fioravanti, the retired professor.  And Al Gallodoro, the jazz great who brought his sax to Oneonta when rising costs took the Big Bands off the road.
During this time, his family grown – two sons, two daughters, and, now, seven grandchildren (wife Judy is an interior decorator locally and in New York City) – the honors began to pour in.
Mayor David Brenner presented Joe with the keys to the city in 1997.  In 2005, the OHS Alumni Association honored him as Alumnus of the Year.
One WDOS manager, Ted Nixon, ordered “Sentimental Journey” off the air about that time.  The phones rang off the hook.  A week later, Nixon told him, “Put your ‘Sentimental Journey’ back on.”
In 2002, Joe Campbell decided to take a break.  And so, after a half-century plus one year, without fanfare, he did. 
Every once in a while, George Wells, general manager at Central New York Radio, which now owns WDOS, urges Joe to revive “Sentimental Journey.”  As he walks around town, folks call out to him, “Bring back ‘Sentimental Journey.’”
Joe pauses.  “I never really signed off or anything,” he muses.  So who knows?

Joe Campbell’s cartoonist pal, Don “Dan Flagg” Sherwood, captured the early decades of WDOS radio, from Charley Hobart, who hired Joe, to “The Voice of Oneonta” himself. 

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