Well, as Russ used to say, "Your wish is my command. Allll-most."
We met sometime in the late '60s, when television producer Tom Gericke, came up with an idea for a TV version of Russ' "All Night Flight." I wrote the proposal for the show. It never happened, but we became friends for life. He made pasta for me and Dianne at our home; I joined him and his radio pals Tommy Saunders and John Catchings for frequent lunches. When he had a stroke in 1997, we got to know his five children, whose photos I'd seen on display in his apartment.
I'd learned Russ' story many years earlier for a magazine article, and later for a radio show. Syracuse's show on KYA in San Francisco made me want to stay up, and that's the highest compliment I can think of for an all-night DJ.
His radio nickname is "The Moose," but in the mid-'60s, he was "Your Captain," pilot of the "All-Night Flight" on the "Super Freak 1260" (KYA's dial position), streaking madly toward that most frightening of destinations, "International Nowhere."
He flew directly into the headwinds of the '60s -- protests, civil rights, free speech, long hair, war, drugs -- with what seemed to be a perfect blend of silliness, surrealism and cynicism. Every night he played rock 'n' roll and personified freedom.
If there was a record on he didn't like, he'd have his engineer hit a sound-effects cartridge of a bombing attack, and the record would soon grind to a pathetic halt. In a lilting, laughing voice, he got away with sayings like, "May the bird of paradise eat your face completely." He gleefully attacked sponsors. His biggest advertiser was Mayfair supermarkets, which used a jingle sung by "Bob and Penny Mayfair." One night, Syracuse bombed the bouncy couple.
A gifted singer, he imitated a trumpet and tooted along with Bert Kaempfert songs. When he read or heard something he didn't quite get, he'd quick-glide into a falsetto "whaaat?" that fans like me soon adapted into our daily lives. He had an imaginary crew and offered in-flight movies (he once announced "Exodus" and listed as its stars some DJs who'd left KYA). At 4 a.m., he had his imaginary flight attendants handing out "after-crash mints," and at 5:15, he delivered a farm report, doing the voices of Barnyard Benny and Cy Lo.
"You could hear tractors in the background knocking down the barn," he said. A DJ at another station told Syracuse that when he turned his radio on at 2 a.m., "Everything was so bland. Then I'd hit your show, and it was like punching into a circus."
All this was before FM and "underground radio." In fact, long before Tom Donahue hooked up with KMPX, Syracuse was a hero of what came to be known as the counterculture, and when some radio people talk about the true beginnings of free-form radio, they talk about the Moose.
But he wasn't what a lot of people thought he was. In 1965, when the Family Dog, the hippie commune turned production company, staged its first dance concert at Longshoreman's Hall, Syracuse was asked to emcee. Family Dog assumed he was part of the drug culture. When he got the invitation, he says, "I thought it'd be a record hop. I had no idea."
Syracuse described himself as "a family man. I was living with my wife, and I may have had my driftwood shop in the Village Fair. They used to think I was on drugs. I had hot chocolate! I was turned on by what I was doing. I mean, a cheeseburger used to turn me on when I was hungry. It'd answer my senses."
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Syracuse had been in radio since 1956, working three years at WKBW and leaving for San Francisco and KYA in 1962. When the owner asked him to be program director, he balked at the promotion. "I told him that I got into radio to be behind the mike and not behind a desk. That was a blow to his ego, so he decided, 'All right, if he wants to be behind the microphone, I'll teach him. I'll put him on the all-night show.'"
The graveyard shift, Syracuse said, "was always regarded as a prison. And I figured, if I'm already in prison, they can't do anything more to me, so I'll do whatever I feel like doing. ... In Top 40, you have no creativity whatsoever. As soon as I got on the all-night show, it was like letting a wild lion out of a cage ... and that's when I had the fun."
Syracuse concocted odd contests and characters, and, two years before "The Dating Game" premiered on television, he was conducting "The Love Line" over the phones at KYA, interviewing singles (typical question: "How do you like your steak done?") and connecting them with others. "There was one couple who met on 'The Love Line' at KYA, got engaged when I went to KNBR, and got married in the studio here at KSFO," he once recalled with a chuckle.
Syracuse fit perfectly with Top 40; he could talk a record up and hit the post with his ears closed, and he worked the phones with the best of them. But he also slid easily into other formats, making adjustments to his shtick as necessary, and shrugging off the uncertainties of the business. In 1986, he looked back at 24 years in San Francisco. He'd worked at KYA four different times, at KSFO three times, at KFRC twice -- just before and just after its peak Top 40 years -- and at four other stations.
"As long as we're talking about radio," he reasoned, "any kind of change shouldn't come as a surprise."
Syracuse died April 18, 2000. Dianne and I hosted a memorial celebration at our home, and guests included Saunders, Jim Lange and his wife Nancy Fleming, Al Hart, Dan Sorkin, Dave Sholin, Jill Broadbent, and many other friends and family members. Bobby Ocean, Catchings and I produced an audio tribute that can be found below on this page.
For the memorial, Norman Davis, who lost his DJ job when Syracuse and Saunders arrived at KYA but became an admirer nonetheless, sent an audio tribute. "He always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face," he said. "Russ was one of the most original and charming radio personalities I ever heard. When you're making that toast today, raise one for me, too, in honor of a good man who created joy on the radio and who left smiles behind on his journey through life."
"These last couple of years have been difficult," I said that day. "But I suspect it's been tougher on Russ than on anyone else. He was a man of great pride. He had a lust for life, and to be robbed of his facility for speech, to have the constantly racing mind and wit that he had, and not be able to express himself fully -- that had to be despairing. But now, he is at peace. And if he feared that he'd been silenced, he needed have no such fears. His shows live on through recordings. He had a good life, but I like to think he's in an even better place now. He got there, of course, by way of the Super Freak. And he, of course, was the Captain. He always will be."
Laminated yak fat sandwiches for everyone!
Special thanks to Ben Fong-Torres for recordings and biographical information included in this presentation.