The Goldrush

The Goldrush was possibly the most successful program WIDB ever had.   It was a live remote from Merlin’s, then the largest bar in Illinois, and put WIDB “on the map.”  Merlin’s held 1500 people, and it was packed for every Goldrush.

By 1974, students who had been protesting and rioting less than 20 months before were now streaking naked thru campus and watching “All my Children.”  They were less serious and looking for a good time.  It seems ironic from today’s view, but even though most were under 21, there was a yearning for the simpler and more carefree days of our youth in the 60’s, only a few years before.

It is fair to say that the 1960’s generally looked forward to new things, and there was a great willingness to accept change in the name of “progress,” especially with popular culture and music.  But by 1970, nostalgia began to creep in.  Radio formats played 50’s hits and called them “oldies.”  WIDB had a weekly oldies show as early as 1971 and WTAO aired such a show on Saturday afternoons in 1973 and ‘74.

Programmers at WIDB knew there was a great interest in 60’s hits, especially from The Beatles onward.  As early as 1971, WIDB had a weekly oldies show.  Until fall ‘72, weekends meant every other song was a 60’s hit.  In the Fall of 73, WIDB began airing the “Solid Gold Sunday Night Special” where requests were recorded and played with the song.  It was very popular.

To capitalize on this appeal, WIDB decided to have a “Sock Hop” at the Student Center.  Heavily promoted on WIDB as an “Oldies dance party,” the “Sock Hop” drew 900 to Ballrooms A-D.  But, of course, no alcohol could be served.

In his last few SIU and WIDB months, station veteran Sam Glick had a vision of WIDB’s oldie programming drawing large crowds to a bar on the strip and making lots of money.  So Sam brought Bill Hitchcock, owner of Merlin’s, to the Student Center Ballrooms during a “Sock Hop” and said, “There are a thousand people here that could be at Merlin’s buying beer from you.”  Within two months, The Goldrush debuted at Merlin’s.

Hitchcock liked the idea of not having to pay a band, but he insisted that an “established DJ” be used as the MC.  His idea of the proper DJ was Bill “Hard Guy” Anderson, a local non-radio DJ who would grease his hair, wear a leather jacket and bring his 45’s and phonograph to weddings, etc.

The Goldrush premiered on Sunday, April 19, 1974, and it was terrible.  “Hard Guy” hated WIDB and students in general, and apparently the feeling was mutual, as attendance was abysmal.  Within a few weeks, the show was moved to Wednesdays, and WIDB’s own Kevin J. Potts was installed as host.  By mid-May, Merlin was turning people away on Goldrush night.  A film crew from WSIU’s “Spotlight On Southern Illinois,” lead by show host Chuck Berardi, filmed the event both at Merlins and WIDB (that’s why we have the 16mm color Goldrush footage).

One of the most popular parts of The Goldrush involved contests and prizes.  Robert K. Weiss was the contest host and he dressed up in a gold outfit and called himself “King Midas.”  “Tele-trivia” was based on 60’s TV shows.  There was also a weekly dance contest.

Prizes were donated by local merchants and, oddly enough, one of the most popular prizes was a coupon from Déjà Vu, a massage parlor situated a few doors down from Merlin’s, for a free “local.”  WIDB stalwart Dave Silver was a big fan of this particular service and would take delight in winning a coupon, walking down to redeem it, then returning to try for another.  He wound up winning over 50% of the Déjà Vu coupons, sometimes redeeming two or three per night.

The show was detailed and complex to produce and engineer.  All audio from Merlin’s (DJ, contest participants) was sent back to WIDB on phone line to be mixed in with music and jingles (yes, jingles).  Gary Goldblatt and Ed Kasovic were the engineers—one at Merlin’s, one at the station.  The WIDB ‘air” was picked up at Merlin’s from the cable and that was the music for dancing.  There was an intercom connecting, Gary, Ed and Kevin.

The playlist had to be chosen, about 50 records for a 3 1/2 hour show.  The contest questions and answers had to be settled.  Kevin’s mic (at Merlins) had to be received at the station to be mixed in with music.  Jingles were on carts and were often played before or during songs.  When there was a contest, every answer was followed by a sound effect (on cart) either “loser” or “winner,” and if winner, then another cart with music for the “pleasure chest” girl who would emerge with the prizes hanging in front of her chest (don’t get me started), then another “Gold Rush” jingle cart, then a 2 minute 45 record, and talk on the intercom and get the next one ready.

So there was a lot of stuff to do at the station.  At Merlin’s, Ed would set up and control Kevin’s mic, and would control WIDB coming back to Merlin’s and the volume of the music.  When there were contests, multiple mics in front of the speakers caused feedback, which had to be controlled.  But generally, there was not much to do at Merlin’s except drink heavily and make sure there were no disasters.  Ed was on the intercom with Kevin and Gary, and a full night of their exchanges was once recorded by Dave.

Initially, Sam was Executive Producer, Gary was producer and station board operator, with Ed engineering at Merlin’s and Dave “helping.”  Gary and Ed would switch off from week to week, but Gary always did the playlist.

After Spring Quarter 1974, Gary and Sam graduated, but The Goldrush carried on, despite WIDB being off the air that summer.  In the fall, Bob Weiss left and Marty Bass (as Captain Zipoff) became the contest guy.  He was later replaced by Michael J. Cheylewski..

Halloween ‘74 brought the “Ghoul Rush,” when either Joel Preston or Jim Rohr decided to employ the “SIU Tour Train” to bring students from the towers to Merlin’s.  It was a huge success with packed trains transporting hundreds of costumed revelers.  Police tried to bring proceedings to a halt, but Joel and Jim had all of their papers in order and the train kept a’rollin’.

The Goldrush at times led to some dodgy activity.  Dave would turn up the power on the WIDB carrier-current transmitters in the dorms so he could ride all over campus in his Chevy Vega and listen to the show.  Budweiser became a major sponsor and built a set to facilitate a backstage “smoking” area.

One night, during the penultimate moment of the dance contest finals, while contestants were doing the “Dirty Dog” as 1500 drunken revelers urged them on, the tonearm was knocked off the record back at the station.  The intercom was immediately ablaze with “WTFIGOT!!” and Gary later claimed he accidently “bumped into” the turntable.  Now that the Statute of Limitations has expired, the real story can be told: Gary was sharing with a pretty young co-ed, who wanted to “do it” over the turntable.

By fall of 74, Todd Cave was Program Director, Wally Leisering was Music Director, and they changed WIDB’s music programming from hit-oriented to album rock, emphasizing the station’s FM audience, introducing live music shows and jazz and blues programming.  There was also more in-depth news and the station overall had a more professional sound.  As part of the transition, the station’s large collection of 45s was archived, except for Goldrush.  With about 50 songs played each week, 200 or so were pulled from the thousands in the library to create a monthly rotation of tracks.

So as WIDB’s regular programming was becoming more diverse, The Goldrush playlist was shrinking.  As WIDB became more activist and highbrow (hosting the show “Marijuana: From Narc to Norml”), The Goldrush veered for the gutter (e.g. when a woman would win a contest, a crowd chant of “No tits, no trophy!” was not uncommon).

With The Goldrush playing music not heard on WIDB and presenting an “image” at odds with that of the rest of the station, everyone who worked on The Goldrush became disconnected from the rest at WIDB.

Meanwhile, listeners who liked The Goldrush programming were irritated with the regular programming and those who thought WIDB had progressive creative programming were appalled to hear The Goldrush.  In RT classes, WIDB was ridiculed as the “No tits no trophy” station.

But The Goldrush made money.  By 1976, Merlin’s was the worldwide Budweiser “Retailer of the Year,” due to The Goldrush.  One of the contest prizes was 10 free beers.

By late 1976, Bill Hitchcock had died, Merlin’s turned into a disco and Kevin, Ed and Dave all left Carbondale.  Eventually there was an effort to revive The Goldrush with Tommy Thaviu.  Merlin’s eventually became T. J. McFly’s, closed in the early 80’s, became a paintball place in the 2000’s, and was torn down sometime in the last 7 years.

But many of us remember when Merlin’s was the largest bar in the State of Illinois and hosted the most successful show WIDB ever had.