Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Ol' Gussah

You may remember, shipmates, that back last century, I returned to my hometown. I had foolishly thought that I could bring my professional (read "outside of Massachusetts") radio experience and skills at selling Capodimonte figurines on national teevee back here.
And make a difference.
I was young, naive, and impossibly, incorrectly optimistic.
Until the town where I was born and the people I was raised to respect and the institutions I was supposed to cherish socked me in the gut enough times to make me despise the very stink of it. And I left it to its own filth.
But Gus Suneson never did think that way, and he did, eventually, make me see a Fall River that was worth the effort.
There were nights when I was working in the production studio on Rock Street, which was separated from the on-air studio by a wall and a huge pane of glass. I can't always be sure of why I was there that late. It might have been because I had been dragooned to work the board until we signed off. It might have been because I wanted to catch the evil dwarf who had been rifling through my desk. It might have been because I was waiting for the personality-disordered cokehead upstairs to leave the building. And rather than dub off some lame taped religious tract for air Sunday morning, I would flip on the studio monitor and listen to the ol' Gussah.
Back in those days, Gus would open his nighttime show with a monologue. In professional news/talk radio, this is done in order to load up the phones and kill time before the first commercial break. Although, like most local radio operatives, he had taught himself with very little coaching or instruction, Gus was a master at it. Whether a scathing and emotional diatribe about the evils of gambling the rent money away down at that new Indian casino in Connecticut or a soft-spoken paean to warm chocolate chip cookies and WHOLE milk ("...none of that 2 percent for the ol' Gussah"), Gus was an extraordinary orator.
I mean that with probably the most respect I can possibly muster for anyone involved in radio in Fall River. His voice was absolutely magnificent. He made his local accent an incredible asset, as he drew vowels out to impossible lengths and made certain words all the more important by emphasizing important consonants -- the ones that wouldn't normally sound in Fawrivvah speech.
His was a pure radio voice. The anger, the joy, the sly wink were all there in it. In it without any electronic chicanery. The rumble of his ire, the sweet hum of his contentment. Watching him through a studio window ruined it. Like when Richard Dreyfuss sees Wolfman Jack at the end of American Graffiti. Not because Gus wasn't an imposing figure -- because he sure was -- but because even his big emotive face lent no assist to the magnificently nuanced word picture that he was painting with strong and confident brush strokes.
Although much of his show featured calls from the warmhearted elderly who seemed to be the only people who listened in those days, many people who were my age tried to catch a minute or two of the chumminess afforded during the Gus Suneson show. Whether he was execrating the City Council (where one day he would sit), or whether he was sharing a tender moment with Emma after dodging her husband Injun Joe and she would sing "How Great Thou Art" or "Amazing Grace."
I'd joke with folks around the station about syndicating his show as a "down-home comedy program" like Prairie Home Companion. We wouldn't have had to write, produce, or change anything. And I still had connections.
But we decided that it would be ... unethical. Some of us didn't want to lose Gus to the dreaded outside world. His show was a symbol of what Fall River was at that time: an insular, parochial backwater filled with lovable characters who really had a connection to each other. They were home, and the thoroughly unprofessional and ill-managed and maladroit radio was a big comfy blanket.
And Gus tucked everybody in.
My mother, who was far too young to listen to old lady radio in those days, and who doesn't listen now, had a simple reaction to my nostalgia: "Everybody loved everybody in those days."
Maybe that was true on the radio, but I sometimes get the feeling that it was true about the whole town.
And as cheesy and cornball and inappropriately emotional as Gus Suneson was, I miss that guy's facile honesty.

( more here )


Jeff said...

Thanks for sharing your memory of Gus and his radio years. This is the kind of story I've been trying to get together or at least point to from the Gus Suneson blog. The blog was originally intended to be another platform for Gus to share his voice, but sadly we ran out of time. ...

ThirdMate said...

My sincere condolences, Jeff. My memories are almost twenty years old, and I still hear his voice and cherish his ... "advice."

I hope you keep up with that blog, as both a memorial to the man and as a celebration of that great family.


Lefty said...


I really enjoyed the post and also thank you for sharing your recollections.

I met Gus only a few times but feel that same sense of fondness that you have conveyed so well here.