Al Jarvis: Pioneer Disc Jockey

Laurence W Etling. Popular Music and Society. Volume 23, Issue 3. Fall 1999.

The year is 1934, the dawn of the big band era. The music that is beginning to sweep America sweeps across a dance floor from orchestras on four revolving bandstands. For Los Angeles radio listeners, the scene is vividly captured by an announcer who introduces each song amid applause from the audience.

The world’s largest ballroom is the domain of a short, red-haired man who spins into his microphone the images of dancers and musicians. He also spins records, for the ballroom is an imaginary one, existing only on the airwaves as the creation of one of America’s forgotten broadcasting pioneers.

Although he never received the national accolades given to other top announcers of the 1940s and 1950s, many of whom gained fame via network radio, Al Jarvis was one of America’s most innovative radio and television personalities. He has been called the first real disc jockey, as the term is defined in modern broadcasting.

While his legacy has been overlooked by most broadcast and pop music historians, he was largely responsible for the success of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Frankie Lame, and many others. Andre Previn was first heard on his program. He was also one of the first video disc jockeys, started the West Coast’s first TV teen dance show, and launched Betty White’s television career.

The World’s Largest Make Believe Ballroom

Al Jarvis was born in Russia in 1909 and emigrated to the U.S. by way of Canada, where he worked in a bank. He had done some acting in high school and was chosen from several applicants to perform at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, where “he was considered extremely talented” (Loeb). He got his first radio announcing job at about age twenty by answering a newspaper ad, and later joined Warner Brothers’ station KFWB. He soon developed an informal on-air style, using information about musicians gleaned from reading Billboard and Variety (Dexter, “Origin”).

In the summer of 1934, KFWB manager Jerry King issued a memo asking for program ideas. Jarvis proposed using recorded music to construct an imaginary ballroom, the idea being to “create in the minds of the dialers the illusion that they are skimming across the dance floor. […] Wisecrack in between numbers in the manner of an emcee” (“Make Believe Ballroom” 39). Prior to this, announcers playing recorded music stated apologetically that the next song would be from a phonograph record. Al Jarvis’ inspired discovery was that the Federal Communications Commission required only a disclaimer that an entire program be identified as being from records, not an individual announcement before each song (Jarvis, “Disc Jockey”).

“I came up with the format for the `Make Believe Ballroom,’ a program consisting of four revolving bandstands. […] It wasn’t very long before Bing Crosby himself would call up and ask me to spin a few” (“Disc Jockey” 39). Sound effects records were used for crowd noise and applause, while song introductions and other patter were entirely ad libbed (Weiss, Interview). Thus was born one of the most enduring institutions of American radio, first known as The World’s Largest Make Believe Ballroom.

The idea would be copied by disc jockeys across the country, most notably Martin Block, who was working in Los Angeles radio when Jarvis conceived the program. Block moved to New York and started a similar show on WHEW, claiming credit for its invention and using it to propel himself to fame and fortune as the first millionaire disc jockey (“Jockey’s Life”).

Due to his extensive use of discs, Al Jarvis was soon referred to in the radio columns of the Los Angeles Times as “The Record Man,” and exposure on Make Believe Ballroom was instrumental to the success of many stars of the era, such as Benny Goodman.

The 25-year-old Goodman organized his first national tour as a band leader in 1934. It was a disappointing effort, although it landed him an RCA Victor recording contract (Dexter, Jazz Cavalcade). A similar tour the next year was also a bust and “audiences along the way were less than enthusiastic. […] In Denver dancers actually asked for their money back” (Collier 262). At the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, however, “pandemonium burst forth. His band overnight became the most popular in the history of American popular music” (Dexter, Jazz Cavalcade 89). Al Jarvis had been airing Goodman’s records on his show, and “it was clear that the record-playing radio personality was a force to be reckoned with” (Denisoff 234).

Another bandleader whose career was boosted by the popular disc jockey was Stan Kenton. In 1938, he joined former Goodman saxophonist Vido Musso to form a new orchestra under the sponsorship of AI Jarvis, who helped book their venues (Easton). Kenton soon assumed control of the band, which met with some success, but he had doubts about his leadership abilities. In 1941, the group was booked into the Glendale Civic Auditorium. Kenton wanted someone else to lead the orchestra, but Jarvis insisted that Kenton had the personality and charisma to do it, and his judgment was vindicated when “more than 2,000 people jammed the hail while nearly twice that many lined up outside” (Lee 42).

Bob Weiss, later European Director for Capitol Records, began his music career as a producer for Make Believe Ballroom. He recalled that the avant-garde Kenton had trouble getting his music heard. “In the early days, a lot of stations were more or less not inclined to play Stan. It was too far out, but Al was always a pioneer. He plugged Stan and he plugged Nat. He was the first one to really give air time to Nat King Cole” (Interview).

Nat Cole’s trio joined Lionel Hampton in 1940 to record “Jivin’ with Jarvis.” The disc jockey played the song on the air and began featuring Cole every Saturday; they would chat and Cole would play a few tunes (course).

Due to the racial climate of the day, black musicians had difficulty getting air time, and Jarvis was one of the few disc jockeys to play their records. According to Hampton “he would let the black musicians all come do interviews on his radio show. He was very liberal about that. […] He gave blacks a lot of play” (Hampton, Interview). According to Weiss, “Nat could have been relegated to what they called `race records,’ but Al did not believe that […] He was a very liberal person; he didn’t believe there was a color line” (Weiss, Interview). Jarvis became vice president of the Inter-Racial Film and Radio Guild, an organization formed to protect the interests of minorities in the entertainment industries (“IFRG”; “Show Time”).

Hampton wrote “Jivin’ with Jarvis” as a tribute to the disc jockey and it was an indication of Jarvis’ following among musicians that by late 1940 it was “the rage out here everywhere. Other bands are adding it to their books as fast as arrangers can knock it out” (“Hampton’s” 7).

Part of Jarvis’ popularity within the music industry undoubtedly was his affinity for big bands. According to bandleader Charlie Barnet, “Al Jarvis was probably the first disc jockey to play big swing band records. […] and was one of the driving forces in promoting big band swing” (Barnet, Letter).

He was also responsible for launching the careers of many solo performers such as Frankie Lame, who, in 1943, was performing at a Los Angeles nightclub. He had recorded “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful” for Mercury Records; Jarvis liked the song and began playing it. He also organized a troupe of performers to entertain at Army hospitals on Sundays, and took the singer with him. He asked Lame to organize a combo, known as the Make Believe Ballroom Four, which performed on the radio show, sparking bookings at various night clubs.

“One night a 16-year-old sax player walked in and asked if he could sit in, which he did: ‘ Laine pulled the youngster off the stage, however, upon discovering his age. His name was Stan Getz (Laine).

Lame credited Jarvis for making a hit of “Mule Train,” the song that catapulted him to stardom. “The day that it first came out, it was played on the air on his program, before anybody else in the country played it, and I owe him an awful lot.” Laine recalled another performer who got his start on Jarvis’s radio show.

I brought him Andrea Previn, whom I heard in a little bar one afternoon in a jam session. And he had Andre Previn play a duet with Nat Cole the same day that Nat was visiting. (Laine)

Bob Weiss also remembered how Previn’s career was started by the disk jockey.

There was a musician who was just known as a jazz pianist. He was a young kid, and he was only 13 or 14 … and he was Andre Previn. Now, he was actually launched by Jarvis as a jazz musician, and Al actually started this man on his way. (Interview)

Since his home base was the country’s entertainment capital, Al Jarvis was, without doubt, the most popular disc jockey on the West Coast in the 1940s. He worked at most Los Angeles radio stations, including KFWB, KFAC, KMTR, KFI, KNX, KHJ, and KFVD, sometimes hosting shows on several stations concurrently. His guest roster included Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Bob Hope, and Billie Holiday (“KFWB Disc”; “Leaders Stage”; Dexter, Playback). Bob Weiss called him the king of the local disc jockeys. “Anybody coming into town, making a theater appearance, a concert appearance, a club date, whatever, they always did a guest [appearance] with Al. […] All these people were his friends” (Weiss, Interview).

On March 4, 1944, Jarvis hosted the first record show on a network hookup. Down Beat Derby aired on the Don Lee network, a chain of 35 stations affiliated with Mutual and stretching from California to Idaho (“Disc Show”). Two years later, he organized the first of several Make Believe Ballroom in Person shows at the Hollywood Bowl, with proceeds going to charity. Performers included Bob Hope, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, and Art Tatum (“Jarvis’ Make Believe”).

Given his music contacts, it is not surprising that Jarvis was also involved in other entertainment fields, and started one of the country’s first record stores. Shortly after conceiving Make Believe Ballroom, he went into partnership with Eleanor Roycroft to open the Hollywood House of Music, and plugged it on the air in return for discs for his show (Weiss, Interview).

In 1937, he joined forces with Glenn Wallichs. Above the record store, Wallichs opened a small studio called Glenn Wallichs’ Recordings, where he transcribed announcers’ audition discs and air checks on acetate records (Wallichs). Wallichs and Jarvis later built a broadcast studio at the same location, from which Jarvis aired Make Believe Ballroom on KFWB (Weiss, “Memories”).

Glenn and his father Oscar later started the first of several Music City stores, at Hollywood and Vine (“Music City”). Located near NBC’s radio studios, it became a hangout for those in the music business and evolved into the country’s largest record store chain. Those frequently dropping by included songwriter Johnny Mercer and Paramount Pictures producer Buddy DeSylva, who joined Wallichs to start Capitol Records in 1942. Aging the first artists signed to the label were Jarvis prot6gbs Nat Cole and Stan Kenton.

Jarvis himself produced some big band records with Wallichs, but none are known to be extant (Driggs and Lewine). He later established his own music publishing company (Bandy, “D.J.s”).

Jarvis Discovers Television and Betty White

A broadcasting innovator, Al Jarvis embraced television upon the arrival of the new medium in the late 1940s, becoming the first West Coast radio personality to make the transition. He was one of the first video jockeys in the country, certainly the first on the West Coast. In 1947, KTLA-TV tried a new type of programming to the three thousand Los Angeles TV sets-a video disc jockey show. Using short “soundie” musical films and guest stars lip synching to recordings, Jarvis “demonstrated himself to be equipped for the medium’s demand of scriptlessness. […] Patter between soundie takes and guestings was passably good and just as passably delivered” (Hurley 30). Singers included a mixture of contemporary stars such as the Modernaires and “ancient 16m reels of Rudy Vallee” (Hurley 30).

In 1949, Don Fedderson, who had been station manager at KLAC radio when it aired Make Believe Ballroom, asked Jarvis to host a fivehour daily television show on KLAC-TV (Jarvis, “Following”). It was called Hollywood on Television, known in the industry as H.O.T. Jarvis needed an assistant, and was impressed by a young lady he had seen on a Dick Haynes TV special-Betty White.

H.O.T. used one camera and was ad-libbed for the entire five hours, although Jarvis played records to help fill the time (White, Here We Go). As the music played, the audience watched Jarvis and White chatting on the set; viewer response was immediate and enthusiastic. They soon eliminated the records and drew upon Jarvis’ music contacts to add guest stars such as Peggy Lee and Nat Cole (White, Here We Go). Besides celebrity interviews, H.O.T. included race results posted on a blackboard, news reports, spelling bees, and a chiropractor (“Bookies”’). The show later expanded to 5 1/2 hours daily with an additional 5 1/2 hours on Saturday, for a total of 33 hours of live television a week. At that time, KLAC-TV was telecasting for only 96 1l2 hours weekly (Knudson).

Jarvis and White added a Saturday night amateur talent program, The Al Jarvis Show, in June 1951. Later that year, KLAC-TV offered White a Sunday evening talk/music program, The Betty White Show, (White, Here We Go). She later starred in Life with Elizabeth and, of course, The Golden Girls.

A perusal of the ratings for September and October 1951, shows that Al Jarvis could truly have claimed to be king of Los Angeles television. His afternoon show on KLAC-TV aired from 12:30 to 5:15 and he returned to host programs from 7:00 to 8:00 and 9:30 to 10:30 (Los Angeles Television).

Early in 1952, Jarvis moved from KLAC-TV to KECA-TV, his replacement on H.O.T. being the rising young actor Eddie Albert. Albert hosted the show for six months before being replaced by Betty White, who stayed for two years (White, Letter).

Among Jarvis’ discoveries at KECA-TV was freckle-faced teenager Jimmy Boyd, whose recording of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” made pop music history by selling more than 2 million copies in December 1952 (“Boyd”). Jarvis’ KECA-TV contract also included a daily radio show for the same company and reportedly made him the highest paid radio and television personality on the West Coast (“Al Jarvis’“).

In 1952, he hosted Al Jarvis Movies on KECA-TV (`”Television Chatter”), and the next year added another television DJ show, with guest stars (“Video-Radio Briefs” 26), as well as an afternoon cooking program on the same station (“Video-Radio Briefs” 28). He also returned to KFWB radio in 1953, with a daily revival of Make Believe Ballroom (“Picture”).

One of the first afternoon TV teen-age dance shows, Al Jarvis’ Hi Jinx, debuted on KABC in 1954. It was aimed at “the much-discussed juvenile delinquency problem. Here the youngsters are given a chance to enjoy themselves under the eyes of their own parents” (Lamarre 10). The show aired at 4:30 p.m. weekdays, with a Saturday edition from 9-10 p.m. (“Directory”). It featured rock ‘n’ roll music and “neojitterbug dancing” (Paul 243).

Marilyn Jarvis, sometime TV co-host, recalled that her husband was offered a chance to host a dance show proposed for national syndication but, due to the racial climate of the times, black performers could not appear. He refused the offer, and thus a chance at national stardom as host of Bandstand (Jarvis, Interview).

In addition to his television work, Al Jarvis appeared in at least three movies. The first was Make Believe Ballroom, whose storyline involved a musical quiz show organized by Jarvis for his radio show. The 1949 production was basically a showcase for musical stars such as Frankie Lame, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa (“Make Believe Ballroom” 11).

In 1953, Jarvis appeared in The Twonky, which starred Hans Conned as a philosophy professor whose way of life is threatened by a berserk TV set (Hardy). Another science fiction effort was 1961’s The Phantom Planet, in which an astronaut lands on an asteroid and becomes involved in saving a race of little people (Hash and Ross vol. 1). This film was probably most noteworthy for the appearance, as a cannibalistic monster, of Richard Kiel, who later achieved stardom as “Jaws” in some James Bond movies.

Format Radio and the Decline of the Disc Jockey

Despite his television work, Jarvis’s entertainment roots remained grounded in radio, and his professional life would wither when the medium irrevocably changed in the 1950s. Radio programming was altered dramatically with the advent of the Top 40 format, as many stalions adopted a “hits only” sound. Concomitant with this was the rising popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, which replaced middle-of the-road music as the mainstay of most disc jockey programs (Bundy, “Radio”). Pioneered by Todd Storz, Top 40 radio meant that program directors, rather than disc jockeys, now controlled music programming.

In 1956, KLAC abandoned air personalities in favor of “30 Top Tunes:’ Station president Mortimer Hall claimed that “the majority of listeners want to hear only the best-selling records … So from now on, KLAC will present only these top records around the clock (“Top 30” 50). Al Jarvis predicted that the trend would “turn radio into a juke box” (Bundy, “Radio” 31).

In March 1958, the First Annual Disk Jockey Convention was held in Kansas City, the main point of discussion being the restructuring of radio formats. Many jockeys were rebelling against Top 40, “which they interpret as a move to de-activate them as personalities by confining their duties to impersonal intros fox top-selling singles” (Bandy, “Deejay., 2).

The next month, veteran disc jockeys Gene Norman and Dick Haynes quit KLAC, charging that “stereotype radio leaves no opportunity to be creative and interesting” (“2 D.J.s” 1). Mortimer Hall declared bluntly that “the day of the disc jockey is over” (“Scatter Platter” 11). In 1959, KFWB began using a Univac computer in developing its programming (“KFWB Calls”).

Al Jarvis’s radio career faded with the advent of Top 40. On January 1, 1958, KFWB inaugurated “Color Radio,” featuring only “Fabulous 40” songs, most of them rock ‘n’ roll. It also included the Top 40 hallmarks of electronic news jingles and an endless stream of contests (“Color Radio”). Aimed at teenagers, the format ill-suited the 49-yearold Jarvis, who left shortly after. He was heard sporadically on numerous stations over the next few years, with short stints on KFMB, KHJ, KFWB, and several low-powered suburban stations. He also continued his television work until 1960 with a late-night talk show that, while garnering respectable numbers on KABC, was overwhelmed by the popularity of Jack Paar (Los Angeles Television).

Jarvis’s final radio air shift was at KEZY in Anaheim, where he proved that some of the old magic remained. Owner Cliff Gill recalled that “he developed an audience of housewives who were so loyal they picketed the station when the new owners fared him when I sold the station in 1964” (Gill). He subsequently worked as an account executive at some suburban stations and as a salesman for Holiday Magic Cosmetics (Qua).

Jarvis never lost his love for announcing, but an attempted return to broadcasting ended sadly in 1969. He picketed KMPC with a sign reading `”There Must Be a Place for Me in Radio,” and told reporters about an idea for a new show. “It’s called Soundscope and it will appeal to preteens, teens and adults. I know it will work and I want the chance to try it out on some radio station in Los Angeles” (62). But when neither KMPC nor any other station showed an interest, the career of the West Coast’s most innovative broadcasting personality was over.

Although Al Jarvis certainly was not the first to play recorded music on the airwaves, exactly who has the most legitimate claim to that distinction is still debated (Passman). However, a distinction should be drawn between the pioneers who used recorded music to entertain steam ship operators and crystal set enthusiasts and the concept of the disc jockey as it is known today. “Invariably when the subject of the first disc jockey comes up, the name is Martin Block” (Passman 47). Using the power of New York’s WNEW transmitter, Block attracted huge audiences and established himself as the most popular DJ of his time.

Those who worked with Al Jarvis, however, have a different perspective. According to Bob Weiss, Jarvis was “the forerunner of what later became disc jockeys in America, the way they broadcast. […] You could say he was really recognized as the first important disc jockey of his kind” (Interview). Weiss also regretted that his mentor never received the acclaim accorded Martin Block as the creator of Make Believe Ballroom:

I was always very perturbed to see Martin Block taking the credit… when in fact he was a sponger. He did not create or originate, he imitated. […] When I went back East, I heard Martin Block and I said `Oh, God, he doesn’t hold a candle to Al.’ […] This was Al’s show, and he just took it and copied it exactly. (Interview)

On April 23, 1970, Al Jams suffered a heart attack and died in a Newport Beach hospital. Ironically, at the time of his death a tribute was being organized for the Hollywood Palladium, with many stars planning to perform.

Ted Quillin, a disc jockey who worked with him at KFWB before the Top 40 switch, believed Jarvis died of a broken heart when he could no longer get a radio show (Interview). Bob Weiss concurred. “He died of a broken heart because of the way he was treated in the latter years of his life” (Interview).

While these assessments may be melodramatic, it was inarguably a sad end to the career of a man who had been a vital part of the music and broadcast industries in America, and whose legacy endured in many of his radio and television programs, widely imitated, that were enjoyed by millions over several decades.