Casey Kasem died Sunday, after a long career in broadcasting, from a disease that had already robbed him of the ability to speak.
He was a voice, foremost, but he was also a familiar face: A set of white teeth he kept on display like a row of medals in a smile perennially open-mouthed, as if he were always about to speak; twinkling eyes; a thick head of hair, which he wore in a ‘60s-ish pompadour long after the ‘60s were done, swept back, and kept black, his whole public life. That he was not a tall man only seemed to concentrate his particularly happy energy.
Kasem was a disc jockey for the Los Angeles AM station KRLA from 1963 to 1969, exactly the years you would want to be a Top 40 DJ in L.A., when the surf was up and the Strip was a wonderland and California generally speaking was the American center of the pop-mad world. He was already in his early 30s when he started at KRLA, but he was also just in his early 30s -- a grown-up, but not too grown up; a youthful voice of authority, an authoritative voice of youth. That was the job, then.
He was a local celebrity at first, in an age when television still created them, and when pop radio was a riot of individual voices, and every jock was a star in his town and time slot, before that medium was megacorped, focus-grouped and formatted to death. It was a decade too of (often radio-related) TV dance parties, local and syndicated; in L.A., you could choose from “Ninth Street West” (called “Hollywood A Go-Go” in its syndicated form) with KHJ’s Sam Riddle; “Shivaree,” hosted by KFWB’s Gene Weed; “The Lloyd Thaxton Show”’; and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which had moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia in 1964, and its out-of-doors companion piece, “Where the Action Is.”
Kasem’s “Shebang!” aired over KTLA from 1965 to 1968; watching clips of him there (and here and here), you get the impression of a guy slightly square by the standards of a rapidly changing time -- not unusual, after all, for that job in that decade -- but also very much at home, committed not just to the gig but to the music. Where Clark, for all his reputation “America’s oldest teenager,” could seem a little lordly, even disaffected; Kasem always projected enthusiasm and excitement, even after years of weeks of “American Top 40,” the syndicated radio show he co-created in 1970 and last hosted in 2004 (some of that time alongside its TV spinoff, “America’s Top 10"), he seemed fresh and confidential, a man with a story, or a trunk full of stories, to share.
Given his native exuberance, it’s not surprising that, after his musical projects, Kasem’s greatest success was in cartoons, and that his greatest characters were young people. He played Robin, the Boy Wonder, that wondering boy, in several series, but his gift to the ages is Shaggy, the human companion of the Great Dane known as Scooby Doo, one of animation’s best double acts. (They are single creature, essentially.) Creators Joe Ruby and Ken Spears based their characters on the cast of the late ‘50s-early ‘60s sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” and Kasem’s approach to Shaggy seems to me an elaboration on the panicked, gulping way that Bob Denver, as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, pronounced the word “work.” To learn that he played Shaggy is a surprise at first -- on the surface, they have nothing in common -- but only for a second, and then you hear it. If they are still talking about Casey Kasem in the 22nd century, it will surely be in this context.
I saw him, long ago, in a Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of “Grease” that starred Belinda Carlisle, who was a Go-Go, and Barry Williams, who was a Brady; Kasem played a disc jockey, appropriately, and I remember thinking, as he made his long and splashy entrance, “There is a man enjoying himself.”
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