Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Good Morning, Vietnam & Richmond

I am what is known in the business as a "radio rat." I loved both my stints working in radio and I continue to listen to the radio daily (although I've given up entirely on commercial radio).

All of which is just a prelude to explaining how excited I was when I discovered that Adrian Cronauer, the DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, was speaking at the Virginia War Memorial today.

The topic of the talk was "Radio During War" and also featured Vietnam-era DJs Tony Booth and Paul Bottoms. When I arrived, it was to a rapidly-filling room of mostly men and judging by the caps and jackets, a lot of them were former soldiers.

When Tony asked how many in the room were Vietnam vets, probably 60% of the room raised their hands. It made for the kind of audience who nodded at references to Hanoi Hannah, Chicken Man and the floating Mekong Bar.

Cronauer, looking much more handsome than Robin Williams could ever hope to, began by telling a story about when Gypsy Rose Lee visited Vietnam.

The men expected her to strip, but instead, "She put on one of the best song and dance shows I'd ever seen," he said, including an hour and a half encore.

He was interviewing her for Armed Forces Radio and said that, "She had the most gorgeous set of legs of any woman I'd ever seen. During the interview, she crossed them and I was stumped for words. That doesn't happen much with me."

Cronauer's two-year tour of duty launched his signature opening, "Good morning, Vietnam" which continued to be used by successive DJs after he was discharged in spring 1966.

Because most of his audience were teenagers and guys in their early 20s who had never been out of their hometowns, much less the country before, culture shock "set in with a vengeance" so the DJs felt their mission was to be an antidote to the soldiers' homesickness.

They did that with block programming, two and three hour sets of music geared to one genre at a time. That way, a G.I. who was a fan of soul music or country music could count on a certain period every day when that music would be played.

All three of the speakers spoke a lot about the military's censorship, not just of news items (no mention of napalm, drug use by soldiers or that U.S. troops were ever ambushed) but of inappropriate music.

Paul played a medley of some of the songs that were axed by the brass, including "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner (blasphemous!), the theme to Hair (the line, "Oh, say can you see my eyes? If you can then my hair's too short" also because it messed with our national anthem) and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" (because of a reference to "the crazy Asian war," actually about Korea).

Cronauer asked how many in the audience had seen the movie and most people raised their hands. "If I'd done all the things Robin Williams did in the film, I'd still be in jail," he laughed. That's war Hollywood-style for you.

The talk wound down with a couple of lists. Cronauer said that there were three things anyone who listened to Armed Forces radio remembers. "Hearing 'good morning, Vietnam,' Chris Noel, the sexy starlet who taped shows for AFR, and Chicken Man."

During the question and answer period, a vet stood up and thanked the speakers, saying that "The four most important things in Vietnam were not getting shot, the food, mail call and Armed Forces Radio." Applause backed him up on that.

Cronauer acknowledged at least one soldier who might not have agreed with that sentiment. "I was told he heard me say 'Good morning, Vietnam' and picked up his 45 and shot the radio."

From what I heard today, it sounds like he was in the minority.

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