45 Years After The "Paul Is Dead" Hoax
By Scott Benjamin
These days his voiceover track announces that Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie are live from Studio 1A.
However, Les Marshak is the answer to this trivia question: Who went on the air for the rest of Musicradio77 WABC’s overnight show of Tuesday, Oct. 21, 1969 after Roby Yonge was removed from the building for lending credence to the “Paul is dead” rumors?
“In 1969, who would have known that the story would continue for so long,” Les said in an October 8, 2014 phone interview with Musicradio77.com.
The broadcast has become a prominent part of the Musicradio77 folklore. A film class from the Netherlands even interviewed Les in the 1990s about the “Paul is dead” rumors.
Roby had arrived at WABC in late December 1967 with fanfare as the station even sponsored a contest for the photos and art work that most resembled him. Actor Vincent Price hosted the awards ceremony.
Musicradio77 had just jettisoned some of its cumbersome network commitments, including the Breakfast Club, and Roby, who had been known as the Big Kahuna in Miami, had the 1-3 p.m. shift for about a year. But then his career declined as he was shifted to just Sunday mornings and then took the overnight show in August 1969 after Charlie Greer departed.
He had two weeks remaining on his contract when he began discussing the rumors that Beatle Paul McCartney had died in an auto accident in 1966 and a look-a-like had taken his place.
The WABC switchboard was overloaded with phone calls after Roby announced that he had spoken by phone the night before with 30 researchers at the University of Indiana and then proceeded to list reported clues in Beatles albums that indicated that “Paul the Beatle” was dead. Reports have indicated that the station’s signal could be reached in 39 states at night.
Les, who was an ABC “summer relief staff announcer” at the time and also had started doing the Sunday 2 to 5 a.m. show in early August, was summoned to the station by famed program director Rick Sklar to finish the overnight show as a security guard removed Roby from the studio.
Wikipedia.org has reported that later that day The Beatles issued a statement calling the rumors “a load of rubbish.”
Today, Les and Paul McCartney belong to the same gym on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Paul’s wife, Nancy Shevell, was already a member before they married in 2011.
“People at the gym will wave to him, but unless they are a friend they usually don’t talk to him to avoid making a fuss over him being a Beatle and maybe making him uncomfortable,” Les said.
“I have thought about trying to talk to him while he is on the stair-master,” Les said of how that “Paul is dead” broadcast changed his career as he continued to do the overnight show for nearly four months, then went to mornings at WPIX-FM, which led to a voiceover career that went full-time in 1977 and has included work on the Academy Awards and Tony Awards.
“WABC had quite a relationship with the Beatles, right from the beginning, since (WABC air personality] Bruce [Morrow] interviewed them when they arrived in the United States in 1964,” he added.
“Maybe I’ll talk to his wife and ask if I could get a moment with him to share the story,” he said.
Les, who already was the announcer for NBC’s Weekend Today, added the Today show to his portfolio in 2006, about three years after the 2003 death of longtime NBC staff announcer Fred Facey, who had been the voice of Today since 1984.
When Meredith Vieira succeeded Katie Couric as co-host, the show could no longer use the tracks that Fred had recorded years earlier, but Les didn’t get the position until “they invited everybody [the top voiceover announcers] in the city” to audition.
“It’s a great gig,” he said of his work for both the weekday and weekend editions of Today, for which he records last-minute tracks as well as voiceovers for new features.
Although Les has been able to record voiceovers for many years from his homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons on Long Island, he makes it a point to check in periodically at the NBC studios to speak with the engineer and the production staff.
However, after eight years he hasn’t met Matt Lauer, even though they both frequent a pet store in the Hamptons, where Matt also has a weekend home.
“I’ve told the pet store owner to call me sometime when Matt is there so I can dash over and meet him,” Les said with a laugh.
He said he installed a full home studio at his Long Island home in the 1990s when he was the announcer for NBC Sports so he could spend the weekends there and still be immediately available for updates when his beeper rang.
Les said he appreciates being able to work from both of his homes, but that there have been at least two negative consequences.
“I’m a people person, so I miss the regular interaction and being out and schmoozing with the engineer and the producer at the studio,” he said.
Also, he said the full home studio also has created technical burdens.
“In addition to being a voiceover announcer you also become a glorified engineer,” Les said. “It is a little scary at times when you are trying to get the system to work and the engineer is telling you on the phone that they can’t hear anything.”
As a teen-ager he quickly became adept at shooting a small Bell & Howell video camera, which he used to document family events and the sidewalk outside Yankee Stadium, seven blocks from where they lived.
The video he had of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, broadcaster Mel Allen and others became a feature on WNBC Channel 4’s “Mike’d Up” in July 2008, the year before the new Yankee Stadium opened.
“It proves the point that if you have something of value in your closet, don’t discard it,” Les said.
He said the feature, which he narrated and included footage of him walking through the ballpark, was nominated for a local Emmy.
“It was one of the three or four most exciting things to happen during my career,” Les said.
He said he has been to the new Yankee Stadium twice.
“The first thing you see are two enormous restaurants,” Les said. “It’s like going to a Vegas resort. It’s not the same as the old ballpark where you had the constant smell of hot dogs, mustards and beer.”
“As is the case in the other ballparks, there is a lot of noise from the scoreboard and on the public address system,” he added “I long for the quiet of the old Yankee Stadium.”
However, he is pleased that the structure of the new Yankee Stadium includes the façade and other features from the ballpark of his youth.
Through the years, Les has announced the Academy Awards three times, the Tony Awards 21 times and done countless commercials for Macy’s and other clients.
However, he said the market has changed recently.
“The buyers are taking more people just off the street and are not seeking as much the traditional announcer with the thunder throat,” Les said.
“Don Pardo became a prototype,” he said of the legendary NBC Saturday Night Live announcer with the booming voice who died in Aug. 2014. “I have been to auditions where the specs stated that they wanted a ‘Pardo-type read.’ That doesn’t happen much anymore.”
“I think people under 40 don’t know the concept of a Ted Brown, Bob Lewis or Dan Ingram being on the radio and also doing a lot of the commercials that they hear on the radio,” he said of the longtime New York City air personalities that did considerable voiceover work.
He said he still gets work on television specials, such as the NBC Thanksgiving Day parade and documentaries for PBS and the Discovery Channel, but not as much as some years ago.
“Veteran actors like F. Murray Abraham, Peter Coyote, and Liev Schreiber are frequent narrators on documentaries produced for PBS, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel,” Les said. “That's been a trend in recent years to book celebrity actors for these narrations.”
Les has been represented by Don Buchwald & Associates since 1988, the same agency that handles Howard Stern.
He said a good agent knows the limits of being a tough negotiator.
“You want someone who is aggressive but who is not going to clobber the buyer over the head,” Les said. “Occasionally, I’ve had a buyer say, ‘What is with your agent. He yelled at me over the phone.’ ”
“I would rather make less money and maintain a good relationship,” he said.
“Some people switch agents,” Les said. “I have been tempted, but I always ask, ‘Give me a good reason to switch,’ because you see voiceover announcers change to another agent and then go back to the original agent after their expectations haven’t been met.”
WABC Musicradio 77 Home Page