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WBBF in Rochester Bans “They’re Coming to Take Me Away—Ha Haaa!”

The stressor that triggered a mental breakdown in “They’re coming to take me away, ha haa” was a runaway dog, not a girlfriend! The artist included the line, “They'll find you yet and when they do, they'll put you in the ASPCA, you mangy mutt" to defuse the charge that he was making fun of mentally ill persons. “And it worked!” said Jerry Samuels, the songwriter.

It didn’t work for Rochester’s WBBF, the station for kids throughout my childhood. I well remember the 1966 novelty song. It instantly soared to the top of the station’s playlist—and then it disappeared. A most unusual public service announcement (as though from God, from the perspective of a child) then stated that the song had been pulled because it made fun of the mentally ill.

Apparently, WBBF’s action was as unusual as their PSA. Wikipedia (accessed 10/15/2019) makes no mention of the song’s being unwelcome anywhere. And yet it clearly did make fun of the mentally ill—WBBF was right. “And I’ll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats, and they’re coming to take me awaayyy ha haaa! — to the ‘funny farm,’ where life is beautiful all the time”—you don’t think that’s making fun of the mentally ill? What difference does it make whether the trigger is a runaway girlfriend or a runaway dog?

In fact, I remember that line about the “mangy mutt” and I took it for just bitter words directed at the girlfriend—I’m not sure that I knew what the ASPCA was back then. Had the lyrics been, “Lollypop Farm,” it would have been a different story for anyone in Monroe County, even if meaningless for those anywhere else.

This makes me reflect on the AM radio of my youth, WBBF. Only that station, and the more avant-grade and unpredictable WSAY played the songs popular with my g-g-generation. All the rest played Perry Como. There was no FM radio at the time.

Was WBBF unusually responsible back then—a pillar among young-people stations? I am inclined to assign it that grade retroactively. I certainly know that it could be hilarious. Jack Palvino was the morning host, and he intertwined jokes that still hold up, decades later. I still remember them, and smile whenever I do.

“Friends, do you have bills to pay?” one seeming commercial began. “Well, please give it back. Bill’s head is getting cold.”

Jack ran a lot of spots like that. It must have been some subscription service for jokes—unless he just made them up, which is possible. Even the more raucous ones like the teary, “I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!” and a sympathetic Jack would say, “You poor man! You can tell me—what is it you can’t stand?” to which the answer would be, “YOUR FACE!” still prompts a grin, juvenile though it is.

And don’t get me going about Chickenman, a spoof on Superman! Chickenman offered his services to the city as crimefighter, and they would have just as soon that he dropped dead. A horrible klutz with a secret identity like Superman—he woke the police commissioner’s secretary, Miss Helpinger, out of a sound sleep, disguising his voice (which she instantly saw through) to report that he had been kidnapped. Somehow he managed to set his wings on fire with his utility laser light and as the approaching fire truck sirens could be heard in the background, the exasperated secretary advised him to flap his wings, for this would serve to put out the fire—or perhaps it would serve to spread it, which may have been her real aim.

As young teens, Jack Palvino inspired us to try our hand doing the same. My best chum, a few houses down, was a hobbyist with electronics. He built a radio station. We named it WNOR. It’s antenna stretched from his bedroom window to a weeping-willow tree 100 yards away. WNOR station had a radius of about a mile—we walked around the block to check—and we would spend much time after school spinning our limited number of records during on-air sessions. The “Evil One” in our mind, at the time, was the FCC, which supposedly raided and shut down stations such as ours—this reputedly was the fate of one such pirate station (I loved the term—pirates!) several miles to the south of us.

We copied Jack Palvino’s techniques, inventing the series of short snippets, “Golf tips—-(cue a golf swing by the mike)—with Jack Bogey”—Jack Nicklaus was all the rage back then. A listener would ask Jack if he preferred his woods, and Jack would say that he did not because he lost too many balls there. We were kids, you must remember.

The creative phase even carried through when I later attended Potsdam State and volunteered for the student radio station—I forget what the call letters there were. Another chum and I took the morning slot—just like Jack had done in my childhood. A few minutes after the sports report, read off the AP wire, we wrote alternating “special” sports reports, with mine running down his team (Syracuse) and his running down mine.

Jack Palvino made his life career in radio, though he was only behind the microphone during my youth. From time to time, his name would pop up in local news, as would that of Nick Nickson, another WBBF mainstay. I wonder where they are today—and even if they are yet alive. I will look it up after finishing this post.

And—coming back to the topic of mental illness—if you had a mental breakdown in Rochester, they would take you to the R-wing of Strong Hospital. Throughout my adult life this has been so. It still is. It has never occurred to me to ask, “Where does the R come from?” Nevertheless, I discovered the answer to the question I had never asked during a recent visit to the Jello Museum in nearly Leroy, NY. Heir to the Jello fortune, Helen Rivas gave $2.1 million to the hospital for the purpose of a facility to treat those suffering mental illness, and the R stands for Rivas.

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