The longtime morning show host of classical music station WFMT in Chicago, Carl Grapentine, signed off today after 22 years with the broadcast. He's been broadcasting for 42 years, starting in Detroit, but he's been at WFMT for 32 years. He'll continue at the station, he's not retiring, but it'll be for special projects and a regular podcast.
How he came to WFMT is an amusing story. He was working in Detroit at classical music station WQRS that had, in fact, modeled itself after WFMT. He had made his first connection with the Chicago station a few years earlier when he was visiting the city at a broadcast convention and had met Norm Pellegrini, the station's longtime Program Director.
“That brings us to the summer of 1985,” he remembers. “I was in Chicago for a few days so I called Norm and asked if I could stop by, say hello, and see the new WFMT studios at 3 Illinois Center. We were sitting in his corner office overlooking the lake when someone popped in and asked me, ‘Did you say you were from the Detroit? I think your radio station was sold this morning!’”
“Naturally I was shocked. Later in the day I made some phone calls and found the story to be true. But the important detail is what Norm said to the news. ‘Y’know…we have an opening here!’ That was late July 1985. After the exchanges of some taped auditions and an in-person interview, I was invited to join WFMT. My first day on the air was January 9, 1986.”
Thanks to the magic of streaming on the Internet, I've gotten to hear him on occasion here in Los Angeles, though I really haven't listened to his show much in recent years -- with the two hour time difference, a Chicago morning show starts around 4 AM on the West Coast. The guy has a terrific program and is a wonderful host, with a warm voice and engaging personalty -- but I have my limits. Still, I would be sure to listen to him on my trips to Chicago.
This week, however, I made sure to check in for his finale. And I got up a bit early to hear today's last morning broadcast. He deserved nothing less, for a particular reason, which I'll explain.
I have somewhat of a connection with the good fellow. Actually, my mother did. When she passed away in 2011, I told the story about it at her memorial service. (And I posted the speech here a couple years later.)
A brief background.
My mother had polio. It greatly limited her activity, but she was still respectably mobile, and would even take many world trips with my dad. She'd get tired out very regularly, though even that didn't stop her. She had her additional connection to the world -- she used a telephone like Jascha Haiffetz used a violin. She'd call anyone and everyone and was masterful on the phone. In part, too, because she was so sweet. That helped a lot with her phone magic.
(After my dad had quadruple bypass surgery several decades ago, he cut down greatly on eating meat. One of his favorite foods was the wonderful chili at my fave Charlie Beinlich's -- which I've written about. But my mom called them up and got them to make meatless chili for him. She's call ahead, tell them how many bowls they'd need, and then show up for dinner. This went on for years. But no, that's not the fun part of the story. A couple years ago, my mother had passed away at this point, I was in Chicago and would be going in to Beinlich's for lunch. I knew my dad would like their chili, so I called up and explained who I was and asked if they could make a couple of bowls of the meatless chili that I could pick up for my dad. To my surprise, the long-time owner, a wonderful guy, said, "No." But I loved his reason. "We only did that for your mother.")
Trust me, I'm getting to Carl Grapentine in a moment.
She just was just a maestro on the phone. And WFMT was one of her main outlets. She listened to the station all the time. It just flowed through the house. She loved WFMT. But she didn't always catch what a piece of music was, or who played it. So, she would often call up to ask. They eventually got to recognize her voice, and were always wonderful in getting the answers for her.
And that brings us to the story. I'll start a little before, to add a bit more perspective.
And she never complained. This wonderful person who lived pretty much most of her life in pain, wouldn't complain. It was her life. It was life. She accepted it.
I want to put Carl Grapentine and the relationship he had with my mother in perspective.
I have a good friend RIch Capparela who is a terrific classical music announcer. He's been on several stations, but mostly KUSC here in Los Angeles. And for many years, he had the morning show. So, I figured he'd appreciate the story. When I told him, he didn't just appreciate it -- he was stunning by it. "I would never do that," he said. It wasn't that he didn't want to be nice -- Rich is actually an incredibly nice person. A listener once asked if he'd do a favor for her mother who loved his show and asked if he'd record something for her birthday, that the daughter would play and make it seem like it was the daily broadcast, to trick her mother as a birthday gift. And Rich did that. Pretty nice. But nicer still, when the mother had to go into the hospital for some reason, Rich went to visit her here. Awfully nice guy, as I said. It has an even better pay off -- they fell in love and got married. So, when Rich Capparela says he wouldn't have done what Carl Grapentine did, that speaks volumes. His reason was a very good one -- it was because of the responsibility. If something happened at the station and he couldn't make the call when he said he would -- or if he just simply forgot -- or for whatever reason he couldn't make the call, he just didn't want the responsibility of screwing up and causing a problem for someone.
But Carl Grapentine made the call. In fairness, it probably helped that he'd been taking phone calls from my mother for years and likely felt that he knew her, and liked her. But whatever the reason, he made the call.
So, I made sure to set my alarm early and get up to listen to his final morning show broadcast.
I should have phoned him and asked him to give me a wake-up call...
As I post this, there are still 40 minutes to go before he signs off at 10 AM Chicago time. (At 9 AM he played his last "official" piece of music from the playlist -- the trio leading into the duet at the end of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, the last thing he played on the air in his final show on WQRS in Detroit, as well, which is among the seven reasons he gave why he chose it -- but there's a final hour of "bonus show," pieces of personal music he wanted to wrap up with.) If you catch this article before then and want to give it a listen, you can click here to stream the show.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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