12/23/14

CYNICS CHOICE: A CHRISTMAS REMEMBRANCE

When I was a kid growing up in LA in the 1970s, there were two announcer/emcee's whose shows held special import for me. One was Ben Hunter (who I wrote about a while back), whose noontime KTTV afternoon classic movie show was often reason enough for me to play sick and stay home from school. The other was a man named Brian Clewer, who hosted a radio show on Sunday mornings called "Cynics Choice". Airing on KFAC (the go-to classical station at the time) from 9AM to noon, Cynics Choice was an all-British comedy compendium that served to introduce me to the Goon Show, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, The Two Ronnies, Tony Hancock and even Benny Hill, whose television show had yet to come to American airwaves.

Listening to CC, one was able to enter a sort of British fugue state, losing oneself for three hours in comedy, music and interviews. (I recall listening to Michael Parkinson interviewing the Goons, David Frost interviewing Richard Burton, etc.) But beyond the recorded material, there was Clewer himself, a genteel, pleasant and slightly wry Brit who served as the show's "houseman" (think Anthony Hopkins in "Remains Of The Day"), politely but authoritatively guiding the listener through the British comedy and cultural landscape that he so clearly revered. So taken was I with the England that I came to know on Sunday mornings in LA, that I announced to my parents that I'd decided to 'convert' to Englishness. I diligently practiced my English accent and studied a map of London that I found in a Fodor that was lying around our den. (I decided Kensington was the neighborhood for me. My accent was quite convincing actually and I can still do it. Frequently I use it to mess with bill collectors on the phone.)

But there was more to Mr. Clewer's talents and activities than the radio show. He also owned a store that he used to advertise on his show called 'The Continental Shop'. It sold all things British--foods, music, records, royal gimmickry etc.--as well as serving as a travel agency for trips abroad. From the sound of the commercials, I had an image of 'The Continental Shop' being a sort of London-In-a-Box, a mini-version that contained everything good and delicious about the empire. The fact that Brian Clewer ran the place with his wife also seemed terribly English--they were shopkeeps.

So why have I labeled this little entry a "Christmas remembrance"? Well, one Xmas (think it was '75) I was asked by my mother if there was something unusual or special that I would like that year. Generally, Christmast morning was an event designed to restock my book and record shelves for the following twelve months. I thought about it and finally landed on the idea of making a trip to the Continental Shop to buy something British...and, most importantly, to meet the radio host who'd become my Sunday morning friend.

The store was then located on Wilshire Blvd. heading downtown, in the now no-longer standing Ambassador Hotel, a great relic of 1920s LA (pictured left). On the day after Christmas (the better to avoid the crowds) my mother and I made the journey. We entered the store and, to my disappointment, saw that it was being tended that day by a man who wasn't Brian Clewer. You may ask, "how did you know it wasn't Brian Clewer?" Simple. He didn't look like the man who I pictured talking on the radio. You see, this was my first experience with the odd syndrome of having a "radio-friend". People on the radio are in your house and/or car with you. They are speaking to you personally (so it seems). They can be relied on to be at a certain time and place regularly. Assuming the two of you get along (i.e., you like their show and thus you share the same taste), they become your perfect imaginary friend, a "Harvey" kind of partner who you know is there but who others don't see. And it can be mighty strange when you meet them in person and they turn out to not be the person you've known in your head--we somehow draw a mental picture of a face to go with the disembodied voice of our friend.

Disappointed but not wanting the trip to be a waste, we purchased a record album (probably Morcambe and Wise who I was then very into) and, while my mom paid for it, the man behind the desk smiled at me and said, "Tell me, is this record for you?" To my shock, it was the voice of Brian Clewer! I struggled to put together the 'right' voice coming out of the 'wrong' man, but managed to answer and tell him how much I enjoyed his radio show. He was terribly nice and we chatted a bit about my favorite British comics. While I'm quite sure I didn't use my English accent, I believe I told him that I wanted to become English. He told me that at the very least I should visit the place and recommended we use his shop's travel service to book tickets. And that was that.

Clewer died in 2008, but his wife still runs the shop, which has since relocated to the very Brit-centric Santa Monica. Below I've posted a completel Good Show from the mid-fifties (naturally it was Cynics Choice that turned me onto the Goons) as well as a commercial spot I found of Clewer talking up the shop, done in the early 90s. As yet, I've not located any tapes of the long defunct radio show. But I think of it pretty much every Sunday at 9AM.






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2 comments:

  1. Great story, I can see you two standing in that store.
    Just beautiful. Cherry O Old Chap.
    "probably that is spelled incorrectly"
    Have a great Xmas & Holiday season for all.
    Benny Hill, My Favorite

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