Sunday, April 6, 2008

The O'Day Conspiracy

Writing recently about my brief foray into deejaying (radio, that is, not hip-hop) reminded me about the odd experiences I had with a disc jockey named Pat O'Day, probably the all-time best-known jock from this part of the country. (The photo is not of O'Day, but rather Sam Phillips, who was sort of Pat's role model.) O'Day was variously a deejay, a concert promoter, an m.c., a busy entrepreneur, a station manager, and god knows what else, most of those careers overlapping and continuing on for decades--in fact, at 75 or 80 he's still on television doing ads for Schick Shadel!

Here's how I came to know Pat... When I moved on from the University of Washington's Alumnus Magazine to the original Seattle Magazine (circa 1965-1973), I quickly became the local-color writer on staff, impressionistically covering archeological digs, Olympic Peninsula logging, the Black Power movement in Seattle, the then-new Seattle Repertory Theater, and so on. I tended to write multiple smaller descriptive scenes that, combined together, gave a bigger overview.

Anyway, Pat O'Day was THE major force in radio and rock music concerts at the time, and the editors decided to profile him. Pat's ego was healthy enough that he was quite willing to welcome me and a photographer into his life. I interviewed him a few times and visited his station--the regional powerhouse KJR--as well as a concert or two he was promoting (got to meet the guys in Buffalo Springfield at one); I hung out at his home in Bellevue, and so on. Then I wrote up the story.

Now, Seattle Magazine was known then as a wise-ass, full-of-attitude, gadfly-on-the-rump monthly journal, always willing to pry into things and take a sarcastic stand whenever possible. I locked horns with the editors often, as those carpetbagger East Coast snobs rearranged or rewrote my copy to give it an edge, sometimes rather mean-spirited. For example, I profiled an old-time police chief up in Darrington in the Cascade foothills who claimed to have been on the posse that hunted down Bonnie and Clyde; he had lots of other good stories too. And I added plenty of local color and scenic history; the town had been founded by loggers and others from North Carolina, and was still a hotbed of Tarheel culture in a strange and distant place--with tobacco-chewing workers, bluegrass music, Southern food and manners, etc.

Well, I told the chief's story sympathetically, but the editors turned it into a sarcastic piece mocking dumb rednecks. When it ran, we (meaning I) got nasty letters and angry phonecalls, and the old guy lost his job for innocently helping to make a mockery of Darrington. And when I turned in the O'Day story, the churls went to work again, playing up Pat's nouveau riche suburban lifestyle, his motel-like house furnishings, the big-hair look of his wife, his own obvious toupee, and so on. When the article appeared, well, he definitely wasn't happy with me. (In point of fact, I only lasted a little over a year on staff at the magazine; just couldn't stand the editorial policies and general rewrite interference.)

So we parted ways, both and all of us. Several years went by. I was busy with Rainier and other TV and radio ads, working often with a company called Kaye-Smith Productions (the owners being actor-comedian Danny Kaye and businessman Lester Smith). And in the course of things, KJR and other stations Pat was connected with were acquired by the Kaye-Smith parent organization.

Out of the blue one morning I got a call from O'Day, who wanted to talk to me about a writing project; I had continued to write scripts and such, freelancing apart from my regular job (the next blog chapter will discuss that), and someone at Kaye-Smith had recommended me. So I went to see Pat.

This was the post-Watergate era, when many strange figures connected with Nixon and his minions had made it into dubious history. (Which reminds me that I interviewed John Erlichman for an article before he ever went on to D.C. and disaster.) And O'Day wanted me to write what's called a "treatment," meaning a pared-down script with plot and scenes but without most dialogue and camera shots spelled out, expanding his conspiracy idea. Can't remember whether it was E. Howard Hunt or Gordon Liddy, but one of those creeps was married to a woman who died in a mysterious plane crash; and there was some speculation that she had been killed to keep her husband from telling all.

That was the extent of it. Pat wanted me to turn this broad suspicion into the script for a feature film. I wasn't too excited by the thing, to tell the truth, but he was willing to pay me $2500 for my time, so I went at it. Dreamed up minor characters, twists and turns in the behind-the-scenes action, showed how and why the wife died, etc. Typed it up clean, about 25 pages of stripped-down story, and turned it over to O'Day, who intended to use his Kaye-Smith and other show-biz connections to get a production going; I'd even get to write the shooting script maybe (wasn't holding my breath). He seemed pleased, told me to submit a bill, which I did.

A month went by; no check. I invoiced him again. Another month; still no money. I phoned a few times as a third month went by, couldn't even get him on the phone of course. Finally I asked a lawyer friend to send him a threatening letter... and was then paid within about a week!

I don't know if O'Day was making me sweat for the long-ago article, or merely being a typical, slow-to-pay producer hustler, but the $2500 check actually arrived at just the right time. I used it as the small down payment due on the house my first wife and I were trying to buy. Sold that house a decade later for big bucks, and I certainly owed some of our good fortune to my prickly dealings with one famous deejay!

The conspiracy movie was never made, of course.

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