Notes: In all probability these 14 typescripts are the earliest surviving writing from Rod McKuen (1933–2015) the enigmatic singer-songwriter. Today, he is increasing seen as a queer pioneer* and these scripts will strengthen that view. McKuen joined the Bay Area Mattachine Society at age 19, about the time he began reading barely concealed and even openly gay poems about romantic hookups with men on AM radio in San Francisco.
Throughout his career, McKuen wrote gender neutral love songs and poems that could be read as gay or straight. He publicly rejected labels for his sexuality, but lived with his lover, Ed Habib, for 60 years. He is probably the best-selling American poet in history, with some 60 million books sold. He also sold 100 million records and wrote songs performed by Glenn Yarbrough, Petula Clark, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, and Madonna.
McKuen wrote these scripts for his weekly show on Oakland's KROW 960 AM radio station. He started the program when he was 17 and continued it for two and a half years, until he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea.
The earliest script here, dated Nov. 18, 1950, paired McKuen with Bruce Sedley, an experienced radio personality on KROW. The Blumenfeld theater chain sponsored that show, "Rhonda Vou with Rod," which was jokey and filled with puns and recurring characters. "You walk up to a sales lady and say, 'I want to see a Christmas present for a woman,' to which she replies, 'For your wife or do you want something more expensive?'" There are seven Rhonda Vue scripts, dating from November 1950 to February 1951.
In late 1950 (Dec. 9), McKuen announced that he was "switching from stale jokes and equally stale situations" because "lately I haven't been getting too much response from you listeners out there." For much of his career, McKuen chased public adoration, going from radio DJ to poet to actor to novelty act to songwriter to singer to poet and back again, searching for and growing his audience with each reinvention.
His new show, "Rendezvous with Rod" dropped the sidekick and tightly integrated poetic monologues with musical standards and pop hits, the themes and atmosphere of one blending seamlessly into the other. His recurring topics are the search for love, intense feelings of loneliness, and the emptiness following breakups.
The spoken interludes treat hooking up and cohabitation with surprising directness for 1950s radio: "One morning you awake / And love is gone / The pillow beside you / Is undented" (Dec. 27, 1952) or "Morning still comes early / But it comes without you" (Jan 3, 1953) or "It was always a hotel room... an apartment ... / A place to sleep and love / A place to forget about sleeping... " (Dec. 6, 1952).
Sex even makes an occasional appearance. A poem that begins with a furtive exchange of phone numbers on a dark street, seemingly between men ("A figure stands in the shadows / A face / And a body"), ends with the poem's narrator finding a more open reception in a bar. "She smiles / and soon you're away / Hailing a taxi /... Arms find their way / And when the lights are out / You're not lonely anymore /... Inside somewhere in the darkness / Two strangers move together" (Dec. 6, 1952).
Other passages can be read as covertly queer:
"If God grows angry / If the world says it's wrong / I'll still remember / No one can take that away / As long as people go on wanting each other / I'll go on wanting you." (Dec. 26, 1952);
"I don't want anyone to know / They wouldn't understand anyway / The silent knowing glances / If we were in a crowded room / The looks across the table at dinner-time / The brief glimpse / When no one was watching / The open stare / The touch / The hand held tightly / That no one knew about... / We touched each other in a crowd / And no one knew / It was a different way / But it was love." (Jan. 3, 1953).
"Being caught in your arms / And not being ashamed / Holding you / And kissing your neck / Touching your neck hair / ... / If it's wrong for me to want you / Then I don't care if it's wrong" (Dec. 26, 1952).
A Dec. 6, 1952 poem is more explicit. McKuen narrates, presumably from a male point of view: "You see something you want / A woman slender." When that encounter comes to naught, the poem continues: "A ride is offered / He's lonely too / Across the bridge you ride / Up three flights of stairs / The apartment is small / Love comes / ... / Time passes ... / Don't go, he says / Back over the bridge you ride / The once in a lifetime is gone." Then the poem's narrator seems to hook up with a woman on a beach: "At last you're alone / And there she is / Lying face down on the sand / The sun censors nothing / Hours later ... / You arise ... walk back down the beach / You one way ... she another." Even today, almost 70 years later, it would take real courage for a nineteen-year-old to perform that live on the radio.
McKuen abruptly announced the end of his show at the top of the January 10, 1953, script. However, according to McKuen's biographer, Barry Alfonso, the show continued for several more months, until he left the Bay Area for basic training.
Shortly after McKuen died his partner, Ed Habib, destroyed most of his literary archive, filling a large Dumpster during a rainstorm, despite your cataloguer's best efforts to convince him to preserve it. Very little escaped that purge and to the best of my knowledge, these typescripts are by far McKuen's earliest surviving work.
This archive includes:
Seven scripts for Rhonda vou with Rod, totaling 106 leaves: Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 9, and Dec. 16, 1950; Jan. 13 (mislabeled 1950 on the front sheet); Jan. 27, and Feb. 3, 1951.
Seven scripts for Rendezvous with Rod, totaling 157 leaves: Dec. 6, Dec. 13, Dec. 18, Dec. 26, and Dec. 27, 1952; Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, 1953.
* See, for example, Christopher Harrity, "Rod McKuen's recent passing revives memories of teenage angst — and first love" in The Advocate, Jan. 30, 2015 and Barry Alfonso, "Rod McKuen: Poet, Songwriter, Gay Activist" in The Gay & Lesbian Review, September/October 2019.
Edition + Condition: These are mostly carbon-copy typescripts; a few are marked as Bruce Smedley's copies. The earliest scripts are laid into a file folder; the later ones are bound into a paper folder with brads. Generally the contents are very good or better.
Publication: Oakland, CA: KROW Radio, 1950–1953.
Item No: #307731