Volume 73, Number 43 | February 25 - March 2, 2004



Listen to your Cousin

By Jerry Tallmer

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Bruce Morrow with one of his landscape photographs.

Michael Harrington, a very serious radical, author of “The Other America,” a book about poverty that changed a lot of things, and with it all, a dashing, charismatic, lionized young standout of the 1960s, once blithely remarked to this writer, while en route to speak to some college kids: “I’m like a jukebox. Put a quarter in me and I’ll talk about anything.”

Bruce Morrow’s jukebox, the big ornate 1939 Peacock that stands in a corner of his and his wife’s spacious living room a stone’s throw north of the Angelika Theater, only plays rock ’n’ roll, and you don’t have to put a quarter in Cousin Brucie to have him talk about anything. Freely, fully, entertainingly.

Like this:

“I’m a radio guy but I’m also a photographer and artist and graphic designer. I walked into a shop in the Village and found this ‘graphic’ [the Peacock] looking me in the eye. It only plays 78 rpm, so I converted all my rock-’n’-roll 45 rpm’s to 78, because I didn’t want to hear swing and jazz, I’m not particularly interested in that . . .”

Morrow was asked what the song was that was just then playing.

“ ‘Could This Be Magic,’ by The Dubs.”

The Dubs?

“Yeah, D-U-B-S. They couldn’t afford the second ‘B.’ ”

These premises — three floors, connected by spiral staircase — were once an old warehouse servicing a factory next door. One wall is original brick, and in the center of this wall is a sign: MENDHAM POST OFFICE.

“Mendham, New Jersey,” Morrow specifies. “New Jersey, state of confusion. No, don’t print that. I’m going to be governor there some day.”

He is a big tall guy whose ripe good looks are as forthcoming — maybe the word is “abundant” — as his speech. He has been in radio since, really, N.Y.U. (B.S. in education), where, he says, he founded the college radio station; has been in it professionally since walking into 1010 WINS at 18 or 19 and landing a job as staff announcer. It was there, one night in 1956, that Bruce Morrow became Cousin Brucie.

He’s told it many times before, but here and now he tells it like this:

“A security guard came into the studio where I was putting on a record, and said: ‘This elderly lady wants to see you.’ I said: ‘Show her in,’ and a sweet white-haired lady came in and said: ‘Do you believe we’re all related?’

“As soon as she said that, I knew I was going to get hit for money. Then she said: ‘Well, cousin, lend me 50 cents to get home,’ which I did. That night, driving home myself through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, a light went on. The next day I went in and spoke to the station manager, Mel Leeds, he’s no longer with us.

“ ‘Mr. Leeds,’ I said, ‘I’d like on the air to be called Cousin Brucie.’ Mel Leeds said: ‘That’s the supidest, corniest thing I’ve ever heard. This is not Morgantown, Oklahoma. This is the Big Apple.’

“I said: ‘Mr. Leeds, we’re New Yorkers, and we New Yorkers are corny. Everybody likes their cousins.’

“He looked at me and said: ‘O.K., kid, try it. But don’t overdo it, or you’ll get fired.’ The next morning, at 8:30, he called me on the telephone. He said: ‘I want you in here in 20 minutes.’

“I was so scared, I asked my father to go in with me. We went into Mel Leeds’ office, and Mel Leeds said: ‘You’re fired, kid — and here’s your new contract with this station.’ “

Bruce Morrow, 44-plus years in radio, conducts a guided tour of that big main room where the Peacock jukebox stands in one corner and MENDHAM POST OFFICE stares out from the brick wall. He and his wife Jodie Berlin Morrow, Ph.D., who works with young people who have cranial facial difficulties, have been married 30 years, have lived here 17 years, lived before that on Sutton Place.

“And we also have a place, the Captain’s House, in Ulster County. Up there I swim and wash my cars and hike. There’s a lot of — how would you say? — tension, in my business.” Amends it: “Positive tension.”

On some glass shelving is Morrow’s collection of some 20 vintage radios. “Listeners send them to me. Here’s the Rolls Royce of radios, a 1952 or ’53 Zenith. If you have this one, you’re rich. That blue one over there’s a Bulova. The brown Bakelite one is a Fada P-38, from the 1940s.”

On adjacent shelving are his vintage TV’s. “See that one up there? It wasn’t even called television in those days, 1938, ’39. It was called Pilot Radio.” Sure enough, the object he indicates doesn’t look like a television, it looks like a table radio — but right in the center there’s a rectangle maybe 3 inches wide, 2 inches high. That’s the TV screen.

On a pedestal is an Edison gramophone, circa 1903, complete with big morning-glory horn, crank handle, wax cylinders. Morrow hums, a la Rudy Vallee: “My time / is your time — remember that?” High overhead is another gramophone; beyond, the kitchen. “Downstairs are our offices, the TV room and the bedroom.”

The jukebox was an object of awe to the men of Engine Company 9 who came in to put out a fire here a couple of years ago. Morrow believes they lost 11 men on September 11, 2001. “I’m a photographer. We held an auction for them and raised about 13 grand. I try to stay involved in my community.”

At present a batch of his photographs of this city and of Yellowstone National Park — “geysers like on another planet” — are on the walls of Ennio & Michael Ristorante on LaGuardia Place, a three-minute walk from here.

He also stays involved in his community as president, these past nine years, of Variety: The Children’s Charity, a 75-year-old organization that raises money “for anything related to children’s problems, physical, emotional, psychiatric” — for instance, a pediatric oncology suite at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“I as a child had asthma, and I’ve always been very upset at the lack of asthma outpatient clinics in New York,” he says. “This is a crusade of mine” — which makes him all the more proud that Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx has just instituted a Cousin Brucie Asthma Center for Children.

Bruce Morrow was born in Brooklyn October, 13, 1937, one of the two sons of Abe and Minna Meyerowitz, both of whom were born in this country; both are gone now. Abe Meyerowitz, when not roped in as chaperone for a command appearance before the station manager of 1010 WINS, manufactured children’s clothing.

Bruce went to Madison High School, where he fell in love with radio, and with radio’s Alan Freed, the foremost fomenter of rock ’n’ roll that ever was (or to put it another way, the man Tony Bennett blames for rock ’n’ roll).

“And there was a fellow named Jack Lacy. Remember him? ‘Listen to Lacy.’ He advised me not to go into this business. ‘It’s boring.’ Well, to this day,” says Cousin Brucie, “I’m as excited as the very first day. I feel it in my belly when that light goes on: ‘ON AIR.’ Of course it’s different now. Everything’s digitalized except me — what little is left of my brain — so far.”

His eyes light up, you might say his tongue lights up, when he launches into: “Radio has a wonderful capacity no other medium has: It spurs the imagination. I can build you a set that would cost you $10 million: It’s called Theater of the Imagination . . . And nobody uses it any more. Very sad.”

He and Jodie Berlin met on a blind date in New York. “I was divorced, and having a very good time, but this was love at first sight.” Morrow has three grown children from a previous marriage: Jon, a doctor; Paige, “a mommy and TV producer”; and Meredith, who runs a shop in Florida.

These days he’s on the air at WCBS-FM. 101.1, Wednesdays, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., with “Cousin Brucie’s Yearbook,” and Saturdays, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., with “Cousin Brucie’s Saturday Night Oldies Party” — “the show,” he says, “that everybody in New York grew up on. Basically I play music of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. Motown, soul and great rock ’n’ roll. On the ‘Yearbook’ I’ll take a specific year, 1967 say, and talk about the events of that year, the movies, the music and so on.

“People like to be reminded of the good old days — which weren’t really all that good. Fortunately, God’s engineer gave us an analog brain rather than a digital brain. An analog brain which has an eraser in it that filters out the bad.”

It hasn’t filtered out of Bruce Morrow’s brain that he’s in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Hall of Fame, the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, and that in 1994 Mayor Rudolf Giuliani proclaimed the corner of 52nd St. and Sixth Ave., hard by the WCBS-TV studio, “Cousin Brucie Way.”

“And what’s nice about this, I’m still here to enjoy it,” Morrow says with a laugh. “In 1987, I think it was, in Chicago, I was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame along with Arthur Godfrey, the Lone Ranger and Alan Freed. I was the only one standing. The others were photographs.”

Cousin Brucie has had hitches at 1010 WINS, at stations in Miami, at WABC/New York (13 years) and at WCBS-FM. It was while he was at WABC that one hot summer’s day in 1965 he found himself hanging by a belt half out of an eighth-floor window of the Hotel Warwick, Sixth Avenue and 54th Street, extending a microphone to pick up the screams of the 6,000 kids down below who had come to welcome the Beatles to America.

“First I was at Idlewild [now J.F.K.] when they landed. There was a rather hostile press conference in a makeshift area at the airport. I was herded into it. John Lennon said to me: ‘Why is your press angry at us?’ I said: ‘Not angry. They’re doing their job. John, here’s my prediction: Within three months, this will all change to your advantage.’

“I was wrong. It took three days.

“These charming boys. When they went on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ the deal was sealed. It was waxed. Seventy-four million people watching. Everybody watching. I thought it would be a great hype for our business. I didn’t look beyond that.

“See, the Beatles transformed our music, and more than music. They became part of our culture: our dress, our coif and our speech.

“So here I am,” says Bruce Morrow, retelling it as he has lately told ‘Nightline’ and the ‘Today Show’ and anyone else who asked him. “Here I am, hanging out of that window with 6,000 kids down there, each of them with a little radio to their ear.

“Inside the hotel, riding on top of the elevators were kids. In the laundry baskets were kids. Into the room that was our studio comes Ringo Starr, battered and bleeding. ‘I’ve lost my Saint Christopher medal,’ he says. ‘The one my Auntie gave me. I’ve got to have it back.’ I say to him: ‘Ringo, if you get it back, will you give the finder a kiss?’ He says yes.

“I go to the window and relay this through my mike to those 6,000 kids down below, and all you could hear was a great ‘Ehhhhhhhhhh!’ as they took it in. It looked like a flower opening.

“Pretty soon I get a call from a Mrs. McGowen. ‘I’m Angie McGowen’s mother,’ she says. ‘And my daughter’s in trouble. She’s found Ringo’s medal.’ ”

Even 40 years later, Morrow’s voice puts Mrs. McGowen’s “found” in quotation marks. Very likely, those quotation marks say, it was Angie McG. who bloodied Ringo’s nose when that medal disappeared from around his neck.

“So I get Mrs. McGowen and her daughter a police escort, they arrive, I lock them up, I get them on the air, Ringo’s a gentleman, he gets his medallion back and kisses Angie.

“That’s a soap opera for real,” says Cousin Brucie 2004. “That’s the first reality show.”

Put another quarter in the old jukebox and smile, smile, smile. “Come and look at the photographs at Ennio & Michael’s. I’ll walk you over,” Bruce Morrow says.

And he did. He and Jodie. A cold day, but warm in the sunshine.


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