On Sunday nights in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, high school kids tuned in to "Dr. Demento's" off-the-wall radio show. Dr. Demento was Barret Hansen, and his mix of "mad music and crazy comedy," was the most popular show in its time slot. Later, the two-hour show was syndicated to cities throughout the country.
Dr. Demento - with his train whistles, duck calls, and squeaky rubber toys -played everything from 1940s Spike Jones songs, to then-cutting-edge humorists Monty Python, to satirist Tom Lehrer, to underground rocker Frank Zappa. He'd mix in musical parodies from amateur and professional singers and comedians.
Underneath Demento's customary top hat was a musical scholar. He has an extensive collection (hundreds of thousands) of old and odd recordings that date back to his 1950s childhood. He also holds a BA and an MA in classical and folk music he earned at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1960s.
"Commercial radio doesn't care too much about master's degrees or anything like that," Demento said by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "I could easily see myself as a more scholarly sort on education radio or somewhere."
It was while he was completing his thesis on the evolution of American Rhythm and Blues music that Demento made his Los Angeles radio debut with a program featuring prewar blues and country music on KPFK.
Five years later, in 1970, he landed a job at KPPC, then a well-known progressive radio station in the area. A staff member gave him the name.
From there he moved to KMET, a mainstream station, and his popularity soared. Listeners couldn't seem to get enough of such bygone favorites as "The Purple People Eater" and "The Monster Mash," as well as freaky new amateur submissions. (Among them was a teenaged "Weird Al" Yankovic. He submitted a song about his family's Plymouth Belvedere.)
Dr. Demento is still out there. Though the show is not as popular now, some of the teens who loyally listened in the 1970s still tune in as adults. Dr. Demento's weekly one-hour show is still distributed nationally to about 100 stations from On the Radio Broadcasting in Santa Monica, Calif.
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