It’s sooo cold……
(A Puget Sound Radio Exclusive)
Living in Winnipeg you always have a clever answer to those three words. I remember using one on the air at CKY;
“It’s so cold they’ve replaced the fig leaf on the Golden Boy with a piece of warm toast.”
Not from Winnipeg? The Golden Boy is a golden statue of a naked boy high atop Manitoba’s Parliament buildings.
It was February 18th, 1966 and Winnipeg was recording its coldest day in history, a record that still stands today. That was the morning I awoke to -49(F). AND….this was the day I had planned a fun car trip south to Fargo N.D. to see a couple of my radio friends; Chuck Dann who I had worked with previously at CKY and Chuck Knapp. Both were now working as DJs at KQWB, in Fargo and their radio station was presenting the “Gene Pitney Show“ that Saturday night. I had the weekend off and I had organized for a gang of us to go down for the show. There was me, my colleague and friend John Wells, and two girls from school who also wanted to see the concert.
In any case, I had reserved the biggest three room suite in the best Motor Hotel in Fargo for all of us. There would be a room for the guys, a room for the girls and even an extra room. This weekend concert was typical of the times featuring a big collection of recording artists and one big headliner. This show featured Len Barry “1-2-3”, Bobby Goldsboro “Little Things, The Outsiders “Time Won’t Let Me”, Chad and Jeremy “Summer Song”, BJ Thomas “I’m so Lonesome I could cry”, Norma Tanega “Walkin’ my Cat named Dog”, The McCoys “Hang on Sloopy” and the main attraction, a big-time superstar of the 60s, the one and only Gene Pitney.
The trip from Winnipeg to Fargo is usually a breeze. It’s about 60 miles to the border then about another 150 miles straight down to Fargo. But now it’s all happening on the coldest day ever in Winnipeg. It was early in the morning and I can still see my father, lathered in shaving cream; poking his head in my bedroom door with a reasonable question, “Are you still going to travel?” He then added with some concern, “Son, are you aware that it’s 49 below?” Hell I was only 20 and still invincible. My Pop had promised me his 1965 Tempest Lemans for the drive. It was a new car, good heater and an AM radio. Besides, my friends were all going to be driving down, my two DJ pals were waiting for me in Fargo and the concert was going to be the “Swingin’ Best” ever. Besides this was winter and we always plugged in both car heaters. One heater kept the engine block warm and the other was connected to a small interior space heater with fan. I knew the engine would start and the interior heater would be “toasty warm” in spite of the -49 degree weather. So typical of a mindless 20 year old, for outer wear, I took no coat, just a little blue plaid sweater shirt. I was not exactly dressed for -49. To be honest I would have been chilly at +49. But the car was warm and I headed out, CKY radio was cranked up on the AM radio and life was good.
The route took me to Pembina Highway then straight down “Manitoba 75” to the US border at Emerson. It was cold but as most prairie people can attest; when it’s really cold, it’s usually bright and sunny at the same time. So in reality, it was a beautiful morning for a three hour drive. Yes, it was beautiful until that frightening moment about 25 miles south of Winnipeg, when I could feel the car engine sputter, jerk, shimmy and then completely shut down. “Yikes,” there I was parked on the side of the road, it was -49, I had no coat, I was alone and about to freeze to death in a 1965 Pontiac. Fortunately Highway 75 is well-travelled and I was thrilled to see another vehicle approaching from behind about a mile away. I jumped out of my car and flagged down the approaching vehicle. They stopped; I jumped in and thanked this delightful elderly couple for saving my life. They were locals and knew of a service station about 8-10 miles south. Great, I’m not going to die after all. We arrived at the service station; I spoke to the owner/mechanic and described my vehicle’s problem. He quickly let me know, “Happens all the time in this very cold weather.” I repeated my Grade 12 year at Kelvin High in Winnipeg because I couldn’t pass chemistry. Had I been a better student I would have known that gasoline, even with an alcohol base, will still freeze at temps of -40 and colder. The mechanic would come to my aid though; he would drive me back to my car, put a can of antifreeze type stuff in the gas tank and I’d be on my way. What he didn’t tell me was that the service vehicle we’d be driving back in was an “open air Jeep.” There’s a picture on this page that gives you some idea what condition I was in after that 10 mile drive, in the open, speeding down the highway, on the very coldest day in history.
But the “gasoline antifreeze” did the trick. We got the engine started; I spent a few minutes thawing out my body as the car warmed up and before long I was back on the highway heading south to Fargo. I would arrive late afternoon, the day before the big concert. John was already there, the girls; Barb and Mary arrived shortly thereafter and Chuck Knapp met us all that the Hotel. It was the typical Hotel/Motel you see everywhere, with two floors and the second floor rooms accessed from a walkway which allows you a view below of a restaurant in a center court. Our 3 room suite was great, we hung out a while and then Chuck said, “Let’s go visiting.” As it turned out all the artists who would be performing at the concert were also staying at the same Motel/Hotel. We headed out the door onto the walkway and actually met many of the “stars” who had checked into their rooms. Bobby Goldsboro was a sweet guy; BJ Thomas seemed a bit sullen; had a beer with Sonny Geraci and the Outsiders, shook hands with Len Barry and much to our surprise and pleasure Gene Pitney’s door was open and he invited us into his room.
I remember it so clearly even to this day. The room was dark, his suitcases were unpacked and he pulled up chairs for us to sit on while he ate the dinner he had ordered earlier. My most vivid memory of that visit with this major superstar in his Motel room was that he was watching TV. He was staring at the Dick Van Dyke show and in the middle of his steak and fries he stood up, and I can still hear him saying, “I really think that woman is hot!” I could never again look at Mary Tyler Moore in quite the same way.
We had our dinner downstairs and we still had more “Brushes with celebrities.” At the next table the “Hang on Sloopy/Fever” band; The McCoys were also dining. They seemed very friendly and surprisingly, two of them came over to our table. I could be wrong but I’m guessing they had their eyes on Barb and Mary. After some conversation they confided to us, “This Motel is sold out and through some error we only have one room and there are four of us in the band.” I spoke up, “Hey guys we have a big suite with an extra room!” They thought about it, whispered to each other, gave more than another passing glance at the girls and like true rock stars they simply uttered one word, “Solid.”
They took me up on my offer. Hey what could be better than that? A great concert the next night and to top it off, Ron Brandon and Rick Herringer(later to become Derringer) from the McCoys were going to “hang out” with us in our room. They brought their stuff over, we ordered up some beers and pizza, spent the evening telling lies and at about 2 in the morning we all retreated to our rooms, and yes, the girls stayed together in their own room. As for me, a Radio DJ with about 6 months in the business I had just experienced my first real “Meet and Greet” and believe me, it was one to truly remember.
The concert the following night was now secondary, but it was pretty good as well.