Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.
The theme song swells as Willard Scott beseeches Washingtonians to "Be listening again next week, when you'll hear Mr. Fix-It say . . . "
" . . . Owieeeeee!" Ed Walker squeals as a hammer nails him hard and the Joy Boys wrap up another loony evening of sweet parody and good cheer.
Walker and Scott, radio playmates who frolicked on the airwaves of WRC each weekday evening from 1955 to 1972, aimed only to live up to their goofy signature theme song: "We are the Joy Boys of radio, we chase electrons to and fro." By 1965, they -- along with their morning counterparts, Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver on WMAL -- dominated Washington, providing entertainment, companionship and community to a city on the verge of powerful change.
From the NBC studios on Nebraska Avenue NW, they presided over a cavalcade of characters who poked gentle fun at the city's foibles. Robin Hood of Rock Creek Park took pleasure in piercing the illusions and picking the pockets of the city's self-important. The Washer-Dryer Report spoofed TV's Huntley and Brinkley. And organist Sleepy Hammond parodied the calcifying pop culture that was then being swept away by the rock revolution, the hippies and the black power movement. The roughest language to be heard on the Joy Boys show was a sneering use of the slur "fink."
Washington was perched on the precipice of decline, and the suburbs were on the launch pad for decades of boom. Developments started popping out of empty fields, roads were being built in every direction, shopping centers had begun to suck the life out of the city. The middle class was already in mid-flight.
But for just a bit longer, on the radio, Washingtonians permitted themselves the illusion that everything was as it had been.
The radio teams were a happy-go-lucky reflection of the final chapter in the American myth of homogeneity, a bubble of apparent harmony about to be burst by the collective shout of political dissent and social discord known as the '60s. Broadcasting executives had not yet bought into focus groups and the doctrine of thinly sliced demographics; performers could still reach for the broadest of audiences.
"We knew, of course, that Washington had several strata: the international set, the big businesses, the federal workers and the black community," says Harden, now retired in Chevy Chase. "But we could still be broad and invite them all equally."
"Our audience was everybody," agrees Scott, the "tobacco-chewing dirt farmer from Upperville" who served simultaneously as a radio Joy Boy, TV's Bozo the Clown, fast food's Ronald McDonald and the Channel 4 weatherman. "That idea did really well into the mid-'60s, but by 1972, the station would turn into the `Rock of the Capital' and dump us like a bad hat."
In 1965, radio was still, in some houses at least, an activity that people sat down to after dinner, though TV was already asserting its hegemony in the evenings. (The radio listings in The Washington Post were still longer than the TV listings.)
The parade of sponsors on the shows summons an era when there were still doubleheaders in baseball, and baseball was still in Washington. Walker and Scott performed ad-libbed advertisements for Small's Nursery, Dyer Brothers Home Decorating Centers (which described its Tysons location as "McLean, across from the Tysons Corner Shopping Center"), and Slenderella, a Weight Watchers competitor that did not appreciate Walker's addition of this slogan: "If you go to Slenderella's, you can go home and eat like a horse."
Washington seemed to be a simple place -- socially and geographically. When Harden and Weaver started doing traffic reports, they were limited to the District, tracking the flow along Connecticut, Wisconsin and New Hampshire avenues.
On the Joy Boys show, another kind of commuter service revealed the innocence of the era: The theme from "Dragnet" swells and it's time for "Car Alert." Ed Walker intones, "If your car isn't where it oughta be, here's the man who'll help."
Through the telephone static comes the voice of authority. "This is David W. Tomkins, auto-theft unit, Metropolitan Police Department. We have reported stolen today from the unit block of Sixth Street SE a 1962 Chevy Impala, four-door, white. If you have any information, call. . . . Take no action yourself."
When the Capital Beltway opened in 1964, Walker and Scott mounted a contest, offering the winner a limo ride around the new road, complete with a keg of beer and a suite at the Sheraton Silver Spring.
By the mid-'60s, Harden and Weaver, who launched their daily program in 1960, owned the mornings, and the Joy Boys sat atop the evening ratings, competing against Felix Grant's jazz on WMAL and the original "Nightline," a WTOP talk show with Bob Raiford. AM was still king, top 40 served up the Beatles and the Supremes further up the dial, and FM was a quirky upstart mostly for the classics, show tunes and occasional "underground" rock.
The comedy and banter of the Joy Boys and Harden and Weaver were not unique to Washington. Both teams laced their sketches with local characters but drew inspiration from the greatest of daily radio comics, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, then in Boston. Most big cities had a radio duo who spoofed soap operas, TV shows, commercials and politicians between headlines, sports and weather reports. In the industry, this was known as MOR -- middle of the road.
Nonetheless, the local shows sounded like Washington. Theirs was a quiet humor, restricted by a reticence that the culture soon would discard as square and old-fashioned. But before they vanished, these shows did what many media efforts dream of, but never quite accomplish: They created community.
Their characters became part of the daily conversation in offices, schools and shops. Harden and Weaver's Rocky Rockmont, a fictional car salesman from a Chevy dealer, won so much currency that the actual salesmen at the dealership donned buttons saying, "Hi, I'm Rocky." When the WMAL duo made fun of the kitchen help at Sam Wong's Moon Palace restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue NW, business there soared, and the owner became a regional celebrity. After Harden and Weaver started putting the Eastern High School choir on the air to sing each Christmas season, it gained a following and reputation that persist three decades later.
The records the shows played were a mix of the last glory days of the big bands and the easy-listening ditties of the pre-rock '60s, and the jokes came nowhere near the edge. "We were subtle enough for adults, wacky enough for kids," says Scott, who still makes weekly appearances on NBC's "Today" show.
Walker and Scott were children of radio. Scott, now 65, knew his path from age 8, when he went to an Errol Flynn movie and then wandered upstairs to WTOP, heard Eric Sevareid and was hooked. Walker, 66, lived by radio -- Captain Midnight, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, Jack Benny. "It was my comic books, my books, my movies," he says, noting that he was born blind and from age 8 accompanied a family friend, an engineer at WOL, to work.
The two men met at American University, where, in 1950, Walker helped launch the campus radio station. Scott joined the next year. They were "closer than most brothers," Scott says. So close that one day, Scott let an eager Walker take over the driving duties on the Whitehurst Freeway. No lives were lost.
They would remain the Joy Boys on the air for 17 years, always working more through a brain meld than from scripts. Their sketches were mostly improvised riffs off "lead lines" -- basically, a list of characters and a line or two setting up the situation -- that Scott would write down. Walker would commit the outline to memory or make notes on his Braille typewriter.
The Joy Boys' menagerie of characters -- Walker did most of the exotic voices; Scott, despite his later career as comic relief on TV, was more the straight man -- included the adolescent Perky the Page; society reporter Lotta Lip; Bal'mer Benny, the poet of the Patapsco; and a number of foreigners whose accents and personalities were, at the least, politically incorrect ("Buenos noches, cockroaches," one Scott character liked to say).
Walker had fun as Mr. Answer Man, a know-it-all who served up lame jokes in a precious monotone: "What was the inspiration for the song `Melancholy Baby'?" a listener from Falls Church asked.
"The composer had a girlfriend with a head like a melon and a face like a collie," Walker replied dully. "Hence Melancholy Baby."
Around town, kids traded Mr. Answer Man imitations, and adults found themselves stepping out to the eateries Walker and Scott pushed. Restaurants were the Joy Boys' lifeblood, and Scott put on many of his signature pounds at places such as Eddie Leonard's Sandwich Shops, the Bethesda Crab House and the John Bull restaurant in Alexandria.
"What a beautiful place to go for dinner," he rhapsodizes one evening, in a typical improvised spot for the John Bull that captures the era and the place perfectly. "The candlelight at night, the piano music in the background, the head waiter to seat you and light you, if you need that. The man to bring you the butter and those little delicious corn sticks, and the special blend of cheese that they put on the table. And the relish tray, the olives, the black and the green, and the pimentos, with Boston bulls hanging their tongues out there. Try the Dover sole, the roast beef, maybe a side order of some stewed tomatoes. Their onion soup -- a crock of onion soup baked in its own little crock, with a little Melba round. You stick the spoon in it and a little onion soup bubbles up through the cheese, oh, oh, oh."
But the '60s -- the revolution in pop music, the elbows-out advance of the boomers, the new appetite for edge, raunch and shock -- pushed the Joy Boys aside. WRC, fighting a losing battle to keep AM radio relevant, tried pop tunes and failed. TV and FM won the media wars, leaving AM to cheap talk and foreign languages. In 1972, the station let Walker and Scott go -- a story so big that Channel 9's Max Robinson and Gordon Peterson devoted a stunning nine minutes of the evening news to a farewell to the Joy Boys.
Twenty-seven years later, Scott and Walker share an office at NBC. Scott makes appearances, covers parades for the network, turns up on all manner of ads. Walker handles his partner's phone calls and hosts a Sunday night WAMU radio nostalgia show, "The Big Broadcast."
"The Joy Boys' bits were corny; for the most part, they were terrible," Scott says. "But there was a certain spirit."
"We had a certain understanding of each other," Walker adds. "A warmth."
Scott: "It was part of a time." He pauses, then growls, "Ahhhh, go gum a doughnut."
Some material in this article was drawn from archival recordings of the Joy Boys at the Library of Congress and in the private collection of Greg Patenaude.