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By William Michael Smith
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All I know for sure is this: Like Dorothy said to Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Good-bye and na shledanou, Bill Mraz Dance Hall, and thanks from all of us for all the memories. The 56-year-old Czech dance hall hosted its last dance on October 23. Early the next morning, an electrical fire broke out and the historic polka palace burned to the ground.
And it wasn't the only super-retro-cool institution to get some bad news last week. Two years after the dance hall opened its doors, in 1950, the 19-year-old Paul Berlin started spinning records on Houston radio. Fifty-four years later, Berlin, who is in the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stood in the way of Clear Channel Radio's determined drive to rid Houston's airwaves of all that is local and unique. Berlin, the midday host on "beautiful music" station KBME-AM 790, was given his walking papers effective December 15, when the station flips to a sports talk format dominated by national shows courtesy of ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio. Which will spell bigger ratings among much-coveted 18- to 35-year-old men, Clear Channel believes.
David Beebe of the El Orbits, for one, is furious. "I can't believe they're doing that," Beebe says. "I think it's ridiculous that a station that obviously had such a loyal audience can be shut down."
Sure, Beebe isn't a typical 33-year-old, but there's no denying that during the daytime, the mix concocted by Berlin and his cohorts Scott Arthur and Bob Elliott -- which often ranged from Ray Charles to the Beatles to Nat "King" Cole to the Carpenters to Louis Armstrong -- was as intoxicating as any to be found on Houston's arid airwaves. "I know Clear Channel will say that they aren't getting the 18-to-35s, but you kind of are," Beebe says. "Guys like me -- I haven't listened to anything besides KPFT and that for, like, the last five years. No other stations at all -- not even the classic country station, which is okay. Weekends I do KPFT, weekdays I do KBME, and that's it, all day long, all the time."
And so another subscriber to satellite radio has been born. "For me, I've just accepted that I'm just gonna have to start paying another monthly bill," Beebe says. "I don't want to have to listen to the shittiest of the shit, so I'm gonna have to get satellite radio."
And for the record, Beebe is pretty torn up about the Bill Mraz Dance Hall as well. "When something like that happens, it just makes me feel helpless," he says. "I can bitch about 790, but the Mraz thing is just sad. Nobody wins on that deal. People who are doing things with their lives that create soul for the world -- guys like Grady Gaines or whoever -- they really need to keep doing it, because it's harder to do. It's harder to do in today's world. It's discouraged today. It makes me kinda mad. It makes me say, 'Man, I'm not gonna play "Brick House" tonight. If y'all wanna hear disco, I'm gonna play "Hollywood Swingers." 'Cause you don't hear that on the radio all the time, and it's just as good as "Brick House." ' It just makes me realize that special things are special."
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