“Accomplishment of the difficult tends to show what men are! “
By Neil Ross, Manhattan Beach, CA.
This piece was originally written for an LA radio website in answer to the question: Where were you when you heard about the Kennedy assassination? In my case the answer was 1150 West Olive in Burbank – The Ogden School.
After getting my First Class License I worked twenty plus years in radio with stops at KGMB in Honolulu, KCBQ San Diego, KYA San Francisco and finally 710 KMPC Los Angeles. Then I left radio for voice-overs.
I went back to 1150 West Olive in 2008 for a recording session. What a strange feeling to stand, forty five years later, in a studio where the classroom had been. I told the guys at the studio a little bit of the history of their building. Then I told them this story.
On the morning of November 22, 1963 I was seated in class at the William B. Ogden Radio Operational Engineering School at 1150 West Olive in Burbank, California. The school was what was known in those days as a ‘ticket mill.’ It existed solely for the purpose of cramming enough knowledge into the empty heads of aspiring disc-jockeys to allow them to pass the FCC First Class License exam. A test which was infamous for its difficulty, frequently defeating even MIT graduates.
In those days most medium market radio stations were ‘combo’ – meaning the DJ would also be responsible for transmitter readings. Any station that was directional, or over ten thousand watts, had to have someone with a ‘first phone’ (as it was commonly known) on duty at all times. Major market stations had transmitter engineers, low powered small market stations usually didn’t require a first class operator. But in the medium markets the first phone was nearly always mandatory. A jock without one simply couldn’t move up. “We’d love to hire you but we had to go with a guy with a first phone – he ain’t half the talent you are, but he’s got the ticket.”
I only had to hear that a few times before I started making inquiries about the best way to acquire that ‘ticket.’ Without exception the old pro’s told me: “Go to Ogden’s.” William B. (Bill) Ogden was one of the most unforgettable people I ever met. Put five or six Ogden grads in a room together and they can talk about him for hours. An irascible, chain smoking little firebrand of a man with a razor sharp wit and a dazzling intellect, he was a true auto-didact.
I don’t believe he even finished High School. He certainly had no College. All he knew was gleaned from courses he took in the Army in World War Two and his own voracious reading, yet his brilliant teaching methods led to offers from prestigious Universities throughout the land. He spurned them all. He didn’t want to be second guessed by third rate administrators. That’s why he started his own school.
He answered to no one – except, perhaps, for his wife, Tally, who ran the school office. He was more than a match for a class full of radio geeks. Many a student crossed verbal swords with him. All came away bloodied. Except perhaps, a friend of mine who told me he once got Bill so angry that as he (Ogden) was screaming at him, his false teeth flew out and landed at my friend’s feet.
Wordlessly my friend retrieved Bill’s teeth and handed them back to him and class quietly resumed. My friend didn’t consider that a victory – more like a draw. Standing at the front of the class for hours at a stretch, chain smoking and gobbling throat drops.
Ogden would hold forth on the arcane intricacies of electronics and when he sensed the group was approaching overload, would effortlessly segue into fascinating tales of his Army experiences. Those who needed sleep would put their heads down on their desks and ask the guy next to them to wake them up “when he gets back to teaching.” The rest would stay awake and listen, fascinated. Ogden didn’t mind if people slept during his stories. He knew they needed the sleep.
Classes went seven days a week from AM until at least midnight with one hour for lunch two hours for dinner. Ogden ordered people never to work past two AM, “it screws you up for the next day.” No s—, Bill.
Ogden could read people like no one else I’ve ever met and he knew how to handle just about everybody. The cocky ones he would systematically beat down until they started to take the test seriously. The timid ones he would build up into world beaters. If he sensed you were starting to hate him he would use that.
Many a student went down to the FCC and aced the test just to “show that little son-of-a-bitch” that they could do it. Once they passed, Ogden’s beaming face would tell them that no one was happier than he and that they’d just been ‘punked’ by the master manipulator.
The school slogan was: “Accomplishment of the difficult tends to show what men are.” By the time Ogden got through with you the truth of that saying was self evident. The six weeks I spent in his school were more intense than anything else I have ever experienced – including U.S. Navy boot camp.
And then there was the assassination. Before I get to that I have to explain one more thing about Ogden. He was perennially at war with the FCC. He was the kind of guy who hated any kind of bureaucracy to begin with, and he was particularly enraged by the FCC. He considered their tests to be worthless and their treatment of the people who came in to take them high handed to say the least.
He directed most of his rage toward the man who ran the L.A. office of the FCC – J. Lee Smith. I have no idea if it was deserved or not, but hardly a day in class would go by without Ogden regaling us with some story or other of J. Lee Smith’s alleged perfidy.
Suffice it to say that when I finally made it down to the local FCC office to take the test, I figured I’d see a guy in a red suit with pointy ears and a tail and that would be J. Lee Smith.
On the morning of November 22nd, 1963 around eleven AM we were at our desks doing independent study. Ogden was back in his office resting up for the next tirade. A student strode to the front of the class He was one of those guys who endlessly tries to be funny and usually fails. He cleared his throat and said: “May I have your attention please.” We thought he was going for humor.
There were groans and cries of “sit down, shut up, eat me, give it a rest” etc. He plowed on. “The President has just been shot.” Now we were really incensed. “Hey man, that ain’t funny!! Sit down a..hole” etc. He continued: “No! It’s true!! Ogden has it on the radio in his office.”
We trooped to the back of the school and stood in Odgen’s doorway. No one had the guts to actually go in his office without an invitation and he didn’t proffer one. Ogden was seated at his desk staring into the middle distance the way one does when one is listening, really listening to the radio. We stood outside and listened too. It took about an hour.
The bulletins went from shots fired to shots fired near the motorcade to shots fired at the President to President wounded, President gravely wounded, President taken to Parkland Hospital, priest summoned to administer last rites and finally, numbingly, horribly, unbelievably – President Kennedy was dead.
And then Bill Ogden did an amazing thing. Imagine the moment. Some of us (me included) are less than a week away from going down to take the First Class test. As Ogden had told us often -the timing was critical. You were required to know so much to get through the test that you could only hold it all in your head for about forty eight hours, then you’d start to lose it. (Ogden administered his own test before he’d let you go down. 1200 questions. Get more than 25 wrong and he wouldn’t let you go.) He had to build you up to a peak and time it to happen just before you tested.
We’re at the critical point and the President has just been shot. To the agonizing emotional pain of that add the practical questions. Will the FCC be open next week? Will the FCC even exist next week? Hell, will the damn country even exist next week? Who can study under these conditions? Yet we had to and Ogden knew it.
He snapped off the radio, stood up and faced us. There was a long deafening silence and then Ogden yelled, “Well, they got Kennedy, but they didn’t get J. Lee Smith. Get back in there!!! “ That’s what he said, word for word. I can still hear his voice forty five years later. He said a lot more which I don’t remember but, thanks to his passionate pep talk, eventually we did “get back in there” and while a nation mourned, we continued to hit the books.
We felt like bastards for doing it but as Bill told us, there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about the situation except not let it beat us. And it didn’t.
The middle of the next week the FCC reopened and the group that was scheduled to take the test (me included) took it and every one of us passed. A month or so later I turned nineteen.
A couple of weeks before that driving around Burbank, I heard my first Beatle record. Casey Kasem played it on KRLA. I turned to my new friend Larry Huffman (we had met at Ogden’s and are friends to this day) and said: “No way, man. Never happen. These English guys just don’t know how to rock!” (Even then I had my finger unerringly on the pulse of the public.)
In January, First Class License (signed by J. Lee Smith) in hand, I headed off to a new radio job in Idaho. Kennedy was dead. The Beatles were born. The sixties were kicking into high gear. I found the country of Viet Nam popping up in more and more newscasts that I ripped and read, little suspecting that a few years later I would be there.
The next decade was going to be a very rough ride. I like to think my experience at Ogden’s helped prepare me for it. Like the man said: Accomplishment of the difficult tends to show what men are.
Warning! Strong Language! From his book, “Vocal Recall,” Neil narrates his impressions of William B. Ogden. The Modesto Radio Museum thinks you’ll enjoy Neil’s memories:
|Neil Ross is a solid, versatile voice-over pro whose work runs the gamut from announcing both the Academy and Prime Time Emmy Awards telecasts to voicing outrageous cartoon characters and everything in between.
He’s voiced radio and television commercials for a wide range of major retail clients including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Kelloggs, Southwest Airlines, Volkswagen, Anheuser-Busch and many others.
He’s done promos for all the major television networks as well as cable channels and network affiliates. For five years he was the voice of Game Show Network (now GSN).
In 2003 he was co-announcer on the 75th Annual Academy Awards telecast. In September
of 2004 Neil was the announcer on the 56th Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards telecast. Since 2010 Neil has been the announcer on the AFI Life Achievement Award telecasts including the Emmy Award winning salute to Mel Brooks in 2013.
Neil Ross has narrated NOVA programs for PBS including Mars Dead or Alive and The Wright Brothers. He’s voiced A&E Biographies on Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley and E! True Hollywood Stories on Diana-Princess of Wales and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Neil narrated the Movie Magic series which ran for five seasons on Discovery.
Neil has performed in over fifteen hundred episodes of television and feature animation including the role of Honest John in Steven Spielberg’s An American Tail. His voice characterizations can also be heard on numerous top selling interactive games.
Neil’s voice work has been heard in many Television sitcoms and feature films. Most notably in multiple episodes of Seinfeld, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Steven Spielberg’s Back To The Future II, Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter and Gus Van Sant’s Milk.