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Runnin' With The Rabbitt...by Jonnie King

Introduction:

These thoughts and memories about my longtime friendship with Don Pietromonaco are the first I've ever shared in a public forum. I'm a very private person in a very public profession. And so, outside of some close personal & professional friends, most of what I'm saying here will be your first insight into BOTH of our lives. And, I fondly dedicate these pages as a tribute to the memory of one of the most consumate performers I've ever known: Don Pietromonaco.

I also want to thank Mike Anderson who took the time to put this much-needed Website together and bear the brunt of the costs for same...helping to preserve the history of a legendary St. Louis Broadcast Facility: 630/KXOK.

In addition, I thank Don's wonderful daughter Dena. A good friend of mine for the last few years, Dena urged me to put "down on paper" my stories and memories of her Dad, and, with Mike's help this has become a reality. Dena, your Dad would be proud of you!

There are conscious choices that we make in life that lead us down the path to either personal or professional goals. But, sometimes "fate" comes into the picture and nudges us in one direction or another...and, our lives are changed forever.

One of my favorite TV Commercials from a few Seasons ago showed two people on a definite course to meet each other. On a busy New York street coming from one direction was a beautiful, drop-dead gorgeous woman. From the other direction came a well-dressed, handsome guy. They were on target to meet each other dead-on, and were just a few feet from one another when the man stopped to look at his watch. At that exact moment the girl passed by, and , of course, they never met, never got together, never raised a family...their "window of opportunity" had passed them by.

By the same token, you can probably count on either hand the small number of people in your own life that truly made a difference personally or professionally.

Sometimes, that "window of opportunity" to change your life, AND that person who helps you, come from the same direction...it's up to you to perceive it as such and follow it through.

For me, my change of direction began when I moved to California, attended the Pasadena Playhouse, moved back here to work at the Crystal Palace in Gaslight Square, and then followed that by being a part of the Actor's Workshop. All of that, as a part of my "history", led me to the KXOK Studios on May 11th, 1965 and a meeting with the man who would be instrumental in my future: Don Pietromonaco/ Johnny Rabbitt.

There are some things about Don that many people don't know. For instance, he served in the Army in the late '50's. He was stationed in Germany at the same time that Elvis was and met him there. He worked on Armed Forces Radio as an announcer in Frankfort. And, he also met and married his wife while in Germany and brought her back to the U.S. with him when he was discharged.

Don had also been an Actor since he was a child. He'd appeared on Network Radio Programs such as "Red Ryder" and "Doorway to Life". His TV Appearances included "The Eve Arden Show", "Armchair Detective" , and, "Oh Susanna". His feature film credits: "An Affair To Remember", "Shake, Rattle n' Rock", "Mrs. Mike", "Follow The Sun", & "The Boy With The Green Hair", to name a few. And, any serious Actor has Stage Credits, and Don's included roles in "Oliver Twist", "Mr. Roberts", "Our Town", and, at our mutual Pasadena Playhouse site, "Strange Bedfellows" and "This Young World".

When we first met and Don learned that I had attended the Playhouse, there was an immediate bond that was formed. We also found out that we had both acted in "Our Town" and "Mr. Roberts". And, like two former NFL Players who had played for the same team or coach, or, former Vietnam Vets who had served in the same Company, we had our "history" of having acted in Mainstage Productions at the Pasadena Playhouse. The prestigious Playhouse Mainstage was a theatre that had 1,000 seats, and to an Actor in California at that time working on that stage was almost like Carnegie Hall to a musician in New York.

That's what made Don so SPECIAL as a Radio Performer ! His Acting background and his great imagination made what he did work so well. When you hear "The Rabbitt" and his sidekick "Bruno J. Grunion" you're experiencing TRUE "Theatre of The Mind"! Like Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy or Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody, you ACTUALLY BELIEVE Bruno is a real-life entity...somebody's wise-cracking little brother or the "class clown" you remember from school. The "little guy" with a good heart, but with a mind of his own who is always getting into trouble. Or, like "Kramer" from "Seinfeld", has a great scheme he thinks will work, but it never does.

Listen to some of his airchecks on this Website again with all of the above in mind, and you'll once more discover the true "art form" that Don Pietromonaco created in his version of "The Johnny Rabbit Show" on KXOK. He brought a new dimension to his St. Louis listeners and to AM Radio that has NEVER been equaled.

Part 1: On meeting The Man

Many readers of this site may know me for my many years as a Radio Personality or for my syndicated feature for Morning Radio, The Breakfast Serial, but what most of you don't know is that one of the most instrumental people in my life and in my career was Don Pietromonaco...KXOK's Johnny Rabbitt.

So, on this Website, I hope to bring you a fuller understanding of one of the most talented and unique performers that I've ever met. A man who was my friend, my mentor and one of the most dynamic individuals I've ever known: Don Pietromonaco.

As we all know, when telling a story of this nature, it's always best to begin at the beginning. For me, that would be when I returned to St. Louis in October of 1964 after studying at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. I had acted locally for many years, but had traveled to California to really hone and polish my craft.

On my return, I was lucky enough to be cast in an improvisational revue at Gaslight Square's world famous Crystal Palace. This was the true highlight of my career...to be on the same stage as The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller , Lenny Bruce & Barbra Streisand! This was a dream come true. We were called The Impulse Players. And we were good.

After our run at the Palace was over, the Director decided to form The Actor's Workshop. For those of us with experience it was a chance to take our shows on the road occassionaly, and for some of the younger actors it was a chance to learn. It would also turn out to be a pivotal time in my life, because I was about to meet St. Louis' hottest Radio Personality.

I've always been into music. My mother always told me that the only way she could get me to sleep as a baby was to put a radio playing music next to my crib. I knew all the hit songs, bought records with spare money I saved up, did my own "DJ" shows in my room at home, and even played drums with a lot of local groups for years. So, it came as no surprise that when I returned to St. Louis I definitely noticed a change at some of the local stations. In those days it was basically KXOK & WIL. KWK & KSD were not really an issue then as they had been a few years earlier.

KXOK became the station I listened to most, especially at night. The 7-Midnite Personality was Johnny Rabbitt and I thought he really brought a SUPER presence to the show. Plus, as an actor, I loved the sense of theatre of the mind he brought to his audience with his sidekick Bruno J. Grunion. (The name "Grunion" itself was a California "in joke"...if you lived there for any length of time, you were well aware of the "grunion runs" in the Pacific Ocean. Taking your girl to the beach at nite to watch for a grunion run was a great way to make out !! Like going to a drive-in with NO movie !!)

By the Spring of 1965 The Actor's Workshop was in gear, but as with most theatre groups in the area we didn't have much of a budget for publicity. Well, one night as I was driving home from one of our shows and listening to "The Rabbitt" on the radio I thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be neat if HE could give us some PSA's on KXOK!"

The next day I called the Director and ran the idea by him. He thought it was a great idea and gave me the go-ahead to make the contact. So, on the night of May 11th, 1965, I drove down to Radio Park.

I'd never been to the Radio Park Studios, and even the parking lot was interesting, to say the least. The building was old and big...an old mansion at one time. Lots of rooms and different levels. It was about 8PM when I got there and, naturally, Rabbitt was on the air. There was a buzzer at the front door that you rang, and a few minutes after I rang it a young man came to the door to find out what I wanted. I gave him one of my business cards from The Actor's Workshop and told him that I'd like to see Mr. Rabbitt about a show we were doing.

A few minutes later, the young man came back and said to come on in and that the Rabbitt wanted to see me. I was led down a hall, past some rooms and into what actor's call a "green room" or waiting area that had an "on the air" monitor playing in it. A few minutes more and "the man" himself came out to greet me. He was short, athletic looking, had a firm handshake. He had my card in his hand and said, "You're an actor, that's great! I was an actor since I was a kid. I'm from California...did some movies before I got into Radio." I told him I'd just gotten back from LA a few months ago myself and that I'd studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. After hearing that he said, "Come on into the Studio with me. Let's talk!"

The conversation centered around music, acting, California and radio. And, about a half hour later, he said, "Let's do an interview for your Actor's Workshop project. We did it, and I said that I'd better leave so that he could get back to his show. I thanked him for his courtesy of seeing me and the interview. He said, "You have to come back! We have to get together sometime soon 'cause you're one of the only people that I've met since I've been in St. Louis that really knows about acting and the places I'm used to in California. I do my show like I was doing a theatrical production and you happen to be one of the only people who can relate to that."

I thanked him again, and on my way home that night I felt that I had not only met one of the best Radio Personalities I'd ever heard, but I felt the beginning of a bond and a friendship with this person. As it turned out, due to that chance meeting, he would become one of the most important persons in my life and my career.

Part 2: The adventures begin...

1965 was a pivotal year for music and for radio formats & personalities across the country. Todd Storz has always been considered to be the "Founding Father" of Top 40 Radio...followed closely by Gordon McLendon and his chain of stations. But, in 1965 at KHJ in Los Angeles, Bill Drake & Gene Chenault debuted "Boss Radio" and set a whole new set of systems and personalites into play that shook the industry from top to bottom.

For St. Louis in 1965 though things had not gotten to that point yet. KXOK and WIL were still the stations that the "Top 40" listeners tuned into for music...with KXOK still in the driver's seat by a long shot. And Bud Connell and his crew continued to surge ahead on all fronts. Keeping their audience entertained with "adult" sounding personalites that related to the City and played the music they wanted to hear. But, with the addition of Don Pietromonaco as the 7 to Midnight Personality "Johnny Rabbitt" things were about to get VERY INTERESTING!

Don's ability to bring his acting background to his radio show was one of his main assets. If you listen to the other airchecks of some of those really great voices on the KXOK Staff at the time, you'll notice that Don's was different. Ray Otis, Richard Ward Fatherly, Peter Martin, Steven B. Stevens, Robert R. Lynn, Keith Morris, Willam A. Hopkins...all had wonderful voices that resonated through that reverb-tinged frequency with authority and pleasantness at the same time. Not easy to do. But, if you listen closely, you'll also hear a "sameness of sound" that was featured with all of these great performers...evidently orchestrated as part of the master plan. And, there was nothing wrong with that at all. These men were all TRUE professionals and that showed every time they opened the mike. But, Don's voice was different from the rest. And, that was EXACTLY what was needed for the 7 to Midnight time period.

Don's creativity and his addition to the mix of "Bruno J. Grunion" was on the verge of taking St. Louis by storm, and 1965 was that formative year for both of us that helped bond us as friends. Having recently returned from California I was re-learning St. Louis and Don was getting his first real taste of the Mid-West.

The music industry was going through some real growing pains in 1965. The British Invasion of 1964 had filtered previously unknown groups into the forefront of USA record sales. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Freddy & The Dreamers, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Manfred Mann, Dusty Springfield, Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy...well, you get the picture. It was "Hip To Be Brit" ! Many long established stars were just about out of a gig or a record label because of this.

But, just about all of the labels in those days had record reps in all of the Major Markets around the country. And, whether they were trying to promote true "British Invasion" artists or American "sound alikes", or even some of their long-running artists ,St. Louis had MANY record promoters that worked the stations. I think at one time there were over 30 Promo men based here. Some of them would include: Gene Denonovich (One of the nicest people on the planet), Don Miller (He helped me prep for my "3rd Class License), Lester Neal, Dave & Don Swengross, & Dominic LaMetta.

Now, although Don had to work within the framework of the well-established KXOK format, all of the Reps knew the importance of "connecting" with him on a one-to-one basis as he began to do outside gigs, station appearances, when their artists were in town for shows, etc. And, there were two main "watering holes" that the "Crew" established. One was "The Rabbitt Hutch" at the Tack Room of the Chase and the other was at "Luigi's West" in North West County on Natural Bridge. (Yes, there was also a select-spot "Hutch" at the Playboy Club where Don's then-wife worked, but that was not frequented as much as the others.)

I continued to work with the Actor's Workshop, and since I also played drums in those days, worked with a group in "The Red Pony " Lounge across from the Chrysler Plant occasionally on weekends. So, it was a few months into our friendship when I had a night off and Don invited me to join him for dinner at the Chase. He had to stop by the station first for something and asked me to meet him there. I did and he said to just leave my car there and we'd go in his Riviera. Don and I shared this great love of automobiles, but more on that later.

Since I had never driven with him before I didn't know what to expect...but, I soon learned the meaning of what "Kamikaze Driving" is all about. Behind the wheel, Don was a madman !! "Oh, come now !", you say...but it was true. He was always one of the nicest guys in the world, but when he was behind the wheel...well, I think even St. Christopher, The Patron Saint of Travelers, prayed to a Higher Authority when Don was on the streets !

That first night we had dinner at the Chase the food was great, the atmosphere was wonderful and the conversation never stopped. Many of "The Rabbitt's" friends stopped by as did "Hack" who was the Major Domo at the Chase for about a Century I think. All of a sudden Don looked at his watch and said, "Geez ! It's 10 minutes to 7 ! We've gotta split !!" Which we did post-haste. But, if my ride down to the restaurant was an eventful one, the ride back was one where I had my eyes closed most of the time !! Don was zipping in and out of traffic, honking the horn, cutting in front of slow-driving St. Louis Senior Citizens, whizzing through Amber Traffic Lights like they were Green, barely slowing down for Red Lights and if there was little or no oncoming traffic at Red Light Intersections barreling through them like he really had the right-of-way !

At the time I do remember remarking that he would have made a great Ambulance Driver if he ever thought about another Profession, but that I didn't want to be in the back on a gurney if he was at the wheel. But, right on cue as we pulled into the Radio Park driveway, the station ID and the "Johnny Rabbitt" Show Intro came on the air and before the first record was over we were in the Studio, he was at the mike and took over as if he'd been there for hours.

The above scenario, with variations-on-the-theme, was repeated many times during our on-the-street excursions. Ever so often I'd bring up that first "Ride With The Rabbitt" story and we'd always laugh about it...but, Don's driving NEVER improved. At one time, because of the Porsche he owned , I thought he was reliving the "road traits" of his idol James Dean. But, later, I figured it was just Don "being Don". And, you know, in all the times I rode with him we NEVER had an accident. I guess St. Christopher did get through to that "Higher Authority" !

Part 3: The adventures continue...

Putting these thoughts and stories down on paper after so long a time, brings them back to me with crystal clarity. And, in doing so, I relive all of those moments with both joy and sadness. The fun we had at that time was beyond anything you could imagine. Don, and the "Crew" that he had assembled at that place and time, were truly some of the best you could ever hope to run with. To be associated with KXOK and "The Rabbitt" put you in a very special class indeed.

The sad part was that, like the Glory Seasons of the St. Louis Rams from 1999 - 2001, OUR "team" was also, eventually, dismantled. But it was a great ride while it lasted! And those are the memories that will stay with me forever. Because Don Pietromonaco was my friend, and to have shared those moments with him are what made them so special.

What made Don so great was not just his "Rabbitt" on-air persona and the ability to execute it perfectly, but the fact that he was like a bolt of lightning...just waiting to strike. It's sometimes difficult to express how someone's "aura" affects those around them. Don's was exceptionally powerful. Like working in a show with a really great actor who can bring the entire cast up by his presence and talent in every scene that anyone would have with him, being around Don had that same effect. He made you a better person. Made you think. Made you happy you were alive and that he was your friend.

Now, let me explain one thing. For those of you reading this site who are not in "the biz", I'll try to enlighten you to some info that today may seem common knowledge, but 40 years ago was not generally known. Many of the "company" owned stations around the country like Storz Broadcasting, LIN Broadcasting, etc., used "house names" for their Radio Personalities. The reasoning was simple: with consistent names for your "on-the-air" personalities, no matter if there were personnel changes, the names remained the same. So, especially during rating periods, the listeners were sure to hear their favorite "dj's"...at least that's who they THOUGHT they were hearing.

Here's an example of how it worked: When I was at KAAY/Little Rock working for LIN Broadcasting, one of our "house" names was "Mike McCormick". Let's say that the personality using "Mike Mc Cormick" stayed at the station for a year or so then got an opportunity to move to another market. When he left that "house name" went to the bottom of the list. Then, maybe a year or two later when someone new came to work for us, the GM and the PD would say "Let's make him "Mike McCormick"...we haven't used that name for awhile." Subsequently, when the new "Mike" hit the airwaves, the listeners would say: "Hey, old Mike's back ! I haven't heard him in a long time, but it's sure good to hear him again"...or, something to that effect. It was all about name retention and re-enforcement. And, at that time it worked for the "good will" of the station and for ratings. ( As usual though, if the personality involved was moving to another station in the same market, he could not take the "house name" with him. It was owned by the company and they had complete rights to it in that city.)

Having said that, while those in our group might have occasionally called Don by his real name in private, that would NEVER be done in public. Protecting his identity was always of prime importance so he was generally referred to as "Johnny" or "The Rabbitt". His legal name was never uttered at the station or at an appearance.

One of the really neat things about "The Johnny Rabbitt Show" was the fact that "The Rabbitt" got so many phone calls during his 7 to Midnight air shift that it required a group of "Kay" girls to answer the phones, check on giveaways and prizes, etc. And, a great bunch of girls they were ! Everyone of them was a winner ! They worked hard, did a good job and they were cute! The list of "Kay" girls that were there during my years with Don were: Sharon Lowe, Kathy Gillen, Joanne DeVoogt, Linda With, Sharon Singer, and a very cute little blonde named Joannie. And, yes, if you must know I DID date some of them! But, just WHO they were is between them and myself. (If I have inadvertantly left anyone out, believe me it was not intentional.)

As a sidebar to the above, Kathy Gillen and I had actually gone to school together a few years earlier. She was Freshman or Sophmore when I was a Senior. The first night that I went to the station when she was working there was a super-surprise for both of us! I didn't know that she worked there, and she didn't know that Don and I were friends. It was a REAL shock for both of us ! And it was also a shock for Don who had no idea that we knew each other. So after much hugging, squeezing and chatter between the two of us, we let him in on the story. He thought that was really cool, and even had someone else sit in on the phones for a few minutes so that Kathy and I could go have a few private moments to ourselves. That's just the kind of guy he was.

He was always happy seeing his friends attain happiness. And, in so doing, the bonds between he and his friends were strengthend and grew. And, to this very day I sincerely miss my friend Don.

Part 4: The adventures continue again...

Music is one of the most important connections we have to our emotions and our lives.

It is our 'time machine' that transports us back to various events that we experienced: some good, some bad. But always, on a personal level, just hearing a particular song can sometimes take us back to a very special time in our life and bring to life the people we were with when we heard it. And if we close our eyes and concentrate we are almost able to 're-live' that time-period all over again. The sounds, the smells, the weather, the laughter, the car we owned, the places we went, the girl we were with, our family, our friends...it can ALL come back to us in a song.

As I write these memories of my friend Don, the music of that first year we became friends - 1965 - comes back to me SO vividly ! "Satisfaction", "Turn, Turn, Turn", "Count Me In", "Lover's Concerto", "The Cheater", "We Can Work It Out", "Flowers On The Wall", "Rescue Me", "The Sounds Of Silence"...the list goes on and on. And so do the memories.

In the Summer of 1965 I had made plans to visit the World's Fair in New York. Don and I were both excited about this because I was set to see some Broadway show's and bring back some Programs and Playbill's to share with him. No matter how long you've been an Actor, seeing the Pro's do it on Broadway is a very special experience and I was privileged to see Streisand in her original run of "Funny Girl" and Anthony Newley and the great Cyril Ritchard in "The Roar of the Greasepaint". Don was floored when I brought him back some souvenirs and showed him my program autographed by both Newley and Ritchard !

By the Fall, my schedule was in full-swing: I had been cast in a show at Fontbonne, was still playing drums occasionally, had registered at SLU to take some night classes, and, of course, continued dinners, visits & get-togethers with "The Rabbitt". Our mutual love of cars also manifested itself in the "1965 KXOK Autorama" at Keil Auditorium.

Outside of Marlon Brando & Rod Steiger, Don's acting "idol" was James Dean. He loved everything that Dean did...even named his sweet daughter "Dena". So, a few years earlier after he had saved up some money, he had purchased a car like James Dean had at onetime: a 356 Porsche Speedster. It was white with a black top and was a rare car even then. So, it was only fitting that it be displayed in a special section at the Autorama so that all of Rabbitt's fans and listeners could see it in person. I still have pictures of that event showing Don, Nick Charles and others. And there is a special picture of the Porsche with my friend "Kay-Girl" Kathy Gillen posed on the hood.

Ironically, that was one of the last 'good times' I had for awhile. A couple of weeks later, I came down with a very severe Viral Infection. I was in the ICU for about 10 days and ended up being in the hospital for a total of 32 days. All the while I was there Don never forgot me. He sent telegrams ( remember those), cards, called me every few days and mentioned me on the air with "get well" messages a few times a week. As sick as I was, those things always cheered me up...but that was the kind of friend Don was.

I got out of the hospital a couple of weeks before Christmas and started my recuperation. By the 29th of December I was feeling somewhat better and Don had invited me down to visit him on the air. We had a great time, he was glad to see me back "among the living" and the evening was just great ! Kathy Gillen was working there that night and asked me if I felt good enough to spend New Year's Eve with her. Her roommate was going out for New Year's and Kathy didn't have any plans. Neither did I, so we spent a nice, relaxing evening at her apartment and brought the New Year of 1966 in together. And, when I hear the music we shared together that night, the memories come back all-over again and I am transported back to that VERY Special, VERY Personal time: the New Year's Eve of 1965.

And that, my friends, is what the " Power of Music " is all about.