Wolfman Jack

American Graffiti

KRE Radio, Berkeley

Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti Photo)
Wolfman Jack howls in a publicity photo for “American Graffiti” in the KRE studio.

In  August 1972, George Lucas filmed the radio station scenes for his soon-to-be-classic film, “American Graffiti,” at the studios of KRE radio (1400 AM and 102.9 FM) on the shores of Aquatic Park in Berkeley.

The scenes involved Curt Henderson (played by Richard Dreyfuss), who is on a quest to locate a beautiful blonde woman who cruises the streets of Modesto in a sweet 1956 T-Bird. The quest lands him at a radio station on the rural outskirts of town, with KRE standing in for the station which employs – Curt hopes – the nocturnal, howlin’, prowlin’ Wolfman Jack, who provides the soundtrack for the local teenagers.

But instead of finding the Wolfman, Curt finds only a goateed fellow (identified unremarkably as “MANAGER” in the screenplay) who plays the recordings that his boss – Wolfman Jack – sends him. Curt is disappointed, but the fellow offers to get Curt’s note to the Wolfman, but with no guarantee of any results. (He also offers Curt a popsicle from the station’s broken-down freezer before they all melt.)

Wolfman Jack (Photo Circa 1980)
Wolfman Jack, circa 1980. (Photo courtesy of Wolfman Jack Licensing)

Spoiler alert: the fellow in the radio station studio is … actually the real Wolfman Jack in the flesh.

XERB Radio Studio (Photo)
The actual XERB Radio studio building at 4007 West Sixth Street in Los Angeles’ Wilshire district, as seen around 1969.

In reality, Wolfman Jack recorded his program at a shag-carpeted studio on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. From there, the tapes were transported over the border to the transmitter site of XERB (1090 AM) in the resort town of Rosarito Beach, Baja California, where they were played (usually delayed by one day) over the station’s powerful 50,000-watt signal, which was directed up the Pacific Coast and came in like a local, especially at night, from San Diego and Los Angeles on up through Canada, as well as points east across the USA.

Wolfman Jack on XERB (October 17, 1967)

One of only a handful of Wolfman Jack airchecks in existence – everyone listened, but only a few made recordings. While American Graffiti’s soundtrack focused mostly on late 1950s and early 1960s popular hits, the Wolfman actually spun an almost exclusive menu of Soul and Rhythm & Blues records, playing off the “R” and “B” in XERB’s call letters. Along with awkward callers, pitches for photos of himself and promos for local advertisers, Wolfie kept his audience enthralled with his utterly unique style.

XERB Matchbook Cover (Photo)
A matchbook cover from XERB, circa 1969. (Collection of the author.)

XERB became XEPRS (“The Soul Express”) in 1971. The station’s Mexico-based owners decided to force Wolfman out of the operation – thinking they could make more money with him out of the picture. However, with the success of his appearance in American Graffiti – which he was offered just weeks after being ousted from the radio station in April 1972 – the Wolfman was able to build a lucrative post-XERB career as a TV host (most notably on “The Midnight Special”), commercial pitchman, actor, and syndicated disc jockey.

Aside from a single shot of a transmitter tower and the sequence of Curt arriving in darkness at the station in his clunky Citroën Deux Chevaux – which were filmed at KTOB in Petaluma – the scenes of Curt talking with Wolfman on the intercom at the station’s front door, and the conversation between the two in the studio, were filmed entirely at KRE’s facility in Berkeley.

Several decades after American Graffiti’s release in 1973, the California Historical Radio Society (CHRS) leased the old KRE studio building – now in an advanced state of disrepair – and restored it inside and out as its headquarters and home of the nascent Bay Area Radio Museum and Hall of Fame.

KRE Studio (Circa 1990s Photo)
The KRE Building in Berkeley during the 1990s, prior to its facelift as a radio museum. (John Schneider photo)

Included in CHRS’s rehabilitation of the KRE  was the restoration of the old studio back to its configuration during the filming of American Graffiti. During CHRS “open house” events, including the annual “Radio Day By The Bay” celebrations, visitors were invited into the studio to have their photo taken behind the console in Wolfman Jack style.

The studio was later dismantled when CHRS acquired its own museum facility in Alameda, known as “Radio Central.”

Wolfman Jack, whose real name was Robert Weston Smith, died on July 1, 1995, at his home in North Carolina. He was 57 years old.

Wolfman Jack and Richard Dreyfuss (Photo)
Wolfman Jack and Richard Dreyfuss (as Curt Henderson) in the studio at KRE in Berkeley, in a scene from American Graffiti.
Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti Photo)
Wolfman Jack enjoys a popsicle – before they all melt – in a scene from American Graffiti.

From the screenplay by George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck:

Listen, it's early in the morning. Now, I can't really talk for the Wolfman. But I think if he was here he'd tell you to get your ass in gear. Now, no offense to your home town here, but this place ain't exactly the hub of the universe, if you know what I mean. And well – I'll tell you this much – the Wolfman does come in here now and then, with tapes, to check up on me, you know, and when I hear the stories he got about the places he goes. Hell, here I sit while there's a big beautiful world out there, don't ya know. Wolfman comes in last time talking about some exotic jungle country, handing me cigars he says was rolled on the naked thighs of brown beauties. The Wolfman been everywhere and he seen everything. He got so many stories, so many memories. And here I sit sucking on popsicles.

Curt looks at him a moment.

Why don't you leave?

Well, I'm no kid anymore. I been here a long time. And the Wolfman – well, the Wolfman gave me my start and he's sorta become my life. I can't leave him now. Gotta be loyal to the Wolfman, you understand.
Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti Photo)
Wolfman Jack in the KRE studio, with the station’s transmitter room visible through the window behind him.
Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti Photo)
Wolfman Jack plays a recording of his boss – also Wolfman Jack – for Curt.
Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti Photo)
The Wolfman reacts to Curt’s poor choice to not leave town to attend college back east.
Carter B. Smith (1962 Photo)
Carter B. Smith (BARHOF 2007) in the KRE studio in 1962 – ten years before the Wolfman Jack scenes in American Graffiti were filmed in the same room.
Related Exhibits:
Wolfman Jack (Circa 1967)
Wolfman Jack on an XERB Soul Monster music survey from around 1967.

Text by David Jackson, whose favorite movie of all time is “American Graffiti”; by no small coincidence, the radio station scenes with Wolfman Jack and Curt Henderson were filmed at KRE on the same day he turned 14 years old. Special thanks to Kip Pullman at Kip’s American Graffiti Blog and Jay Harvey at Wolfman Jack Licensing. American Graffiti production and publicity photos courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.