Sounding and Signing Off
It was either late 1959 or early 1960, and, coming off active duty, I was working a temporary job for RCA. We had a traveling program promoting RCA’s stereophonic sound system, which had come late to the game. The presentation included a history of recorded sound, in which RCA had played a dominant role. We traveled with an example of a cylinder record, which preceded the platter style, and an old wind-up horn player and a recording by the great tenor John McCormack, no relation. When we got to the modern stereo portion of the show we played tapes (a novelty at the time) of a variety of recordings, including some first-class orchestral bits, some stuff from Richard Rodgers’ “Victory at Sea.” Then, presumably, we thrilled our listeners with the roar of a race car zooming past, from one side of the room to the other, and the thunderous decibels of a rocket being launched. I added a silly sight gag to the rocket action, a little spring-loaded plastic rocket that I hid behind the lectern and shot off when the sound of a rocket launch was played. They loved it in Bluefield, W.Va., and Tocoa, Ga.
The presentation was baby talk to sound engineers, for whom we occasionally and uncomfortably performed. But most of our audiences were fairly unsophisticated – service club luncheons, church groups and schools, mostly in small towns where stereo was a novelty, and the history of recorded sound was educational. It came to pass that one of those towns was Titusville, across the broad expanse of water from Cape Canaveral. It was a noon show for Kiwanis or some such group and all went well until we got into the stereo portion. As I prepared to launch our rocket, the audience of men, maybe 75 guys, all jumped up as if escaping electrified chairs and raced to the picture window of the restaurant. I wondered what was going on until the room began to tremble, and then across the river we could see the flames of a rocket being launched. I had witnessed military rockets fired, but this was awesome by comparison. This was before manned vehicles, and was hardly a daily occurrence at the space center. My audience could be excused for abandoning the RCA show for a live performance. When things calmed down, our rocket sound demonstration paled by comparison, but the amusing coincidence was not lost on the audience.
That memory returned this weekend when watching the last launching of the Atlantis program, and listening to the description of the historic event by NBC’s Jay Barbree. In the past I have written about notable people who contributed to our magazines over a four-decade history. Larry King, when he was out of work between his popular radio show in Miami and his debut as a long-time talk show host on CNN, wrote a few gossipy pieces when we had Miami Magazine. They were not bad for what we paid him, which was almost nothing. And Bill O’Reilly, at the time a graduate student and teacher in Miami, had a brief, equally poorly paid stint as a film reviewer for the same magazine.
This weekend was a reminder of another, soon-to-be nationally known broadcast figure whose byline appeared in our books some 30 years ago. Actually, Jay Barbree was already a familiar name, at least to NBC viewers. He had been covering the space program almost from its beginning. In fact, he was already at the Cape that day when my spiel was interrupted by the launch. Years later we published Indian River Life, a magazine whose northern circulation limits bordered on the space coast. Some of our readers lived close enough to Cape Canaveral to eyeball the space shot launches. I recall that Jay’s work at NBC was not a full-time job, and he had time to write a few pieces for our books, and was a most valuable contact in the exciting new world of space exploration. He was also a great guy to be around, a class act from go.
Jay was close enough to our operation that it cost him some money. A financial advisor came up with a scheme to take our company public, and Jay bought some stock. It was, in retrospect, a harebrained idea, although had all our shareholders been as honorable as Jay, it might have actually worked. It turned out to be the beginning of legal turmoil that lasted almost a decade.
Under the circumstances, one would think Jay would have nothing further to do with anyone in our company. But several years later he went out of his way to help me reach important sources on a freelance story I wrote for the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday magazine. Thanks to Jay’s contacts with the aviation community, it was a pretty good piece. I needed the money.
Thus, a rich dose of nostalgia Saturday as I listened to Jay Barbree's NBC colleagues close an era in space exploration, and affectionately salute what may also be the end of a career of a man whose credentials are also outer space. He covered 135 launches, going back to 1957. He was part of an Emmy Award-winning team. He wrote seven books. He was there, close to the pad, a voice of history, in triumph and tragedy, from beginning to end.