DICK WHITTONGTON – THE SWEET CHILD
By James Brown
(Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 1975)
“Did you know that I met a Rooshion in Spokane? He was a communist not Amurkan. And I’m here to save Amurka! And to play the heavy hits.”
Richard Whittington, 1975
The Sweet Child was engaged in some serious dialogue was friends, “Alright, uh huh, yea…what? Uhhhhhh, OK…let’s do it!” he mumbled, producing his “Afro soul comb” to properly justify his “naturally full and curly hair.” Hair, in fact, would be the theme on this particular day. The morning agenda called for a man who actually read strands of hair and charter the stock market with the results. For Sweet Dick Whittington, it
was the beginning of a routine afternoon.
Whittington is a radio star – a rather casual distinction bestowed on many but deserved by contemporary radio’s age of the endless jukebox. Whittington, who currently works the midday hours (10 am – 1 pm) on KFI, is one of those few – a genuine creative talent.
Whittington’s mind operates on a different current than most. His humor – delivered in a combustible stream of consciousness style – is self- described as “premise comedy.” The idea is to take an outrageous though, and then follow it step-by-step to its logical conclusion.
The results over the years have found him phoning the Pope to wish him a happy birthday, hanging a cheap motel room print in the men’s room at the Louvre, attempting to sell a hijacked airliner to Fidel Castro, inquiring of the Department of Agriculture if there is truth to the rumor that they are
going to begin paper-training cows and hosting a 24-minute acne telethon with unlisted telephone numbers.
You get the idea. But on this particular day, Whittington would devote himself to relatively simple pursuits. The tone was set by one of his periodic on-the-air conversation with God – who seems forever willing to
pour out His troubles to the man he calls “Sinner Dick – and don’t forget to keep on playing those heavy hits!”
When not conversing with the Lord, Whittington busied himself by rearranging the life of a young man whose upper teeth had been knocked out in an auto accident and who couldn’t afford a dental plate. Through various pleas and phone calls, Whittington found an upper plate donor, discovered a dentist in San Diego willing to fit the plate free of charge and even arranged a date for the young man – a catered luncheon at KFI.
“This is the most heart-rendering thing you’ll hear in your whole rotten lives.” Whittington told his audience. He was thoroughly pleased with himself. In his three hours on the air, Whittington had played about six “heavy hits.”
“Hello, this is “Sweet….this is Dick Whittington,” he told the KFI switchboard. He was off the air now and in the process of exorcising that mad character in the broadcast booth. Because, once out of character, Dick Whittington is remarkably unlike the “Sweet Child” he allows his listeners to know.
In the general vicinity of 40 years old, with that “naturally curly” hair showing definite signs of fatigue, the offstage Whittington is a tense, serious, almost shy individual in an apparent race with his own nervous energy. He is a compact man whose sharp features are dominated by a nose which has been broken so often that it looks at though someone haphazardly slapped a piece of clay between his eyes.
“The Sweet Dick business isn’t me at all,” Whittington said softly. “It’s an ego thing, a way of projecting myself. I mean, basically this is a silly business for a man of my age to be in….a ridiculous business….”
As one might imagine, Dick Whittington’s career has not been a tranquil ride to The Big Time. In his 21 years in radio, he has had, by his own count, 20 jobs. And this does not include the several television careers he has walking in and out of. All that time has been spent in a profession he had sworn never to enter.
“I purposely avoided radio because my mother worked in it for many years,” Whittington said. “She was a writer and broadcaster for the Mutual Network and I just didn’t want the identification. I wanted to be a fighter, had around 10 pro fights and got beaten up pretty bad. You see this nose? It’s practically all plastic!
Anyway, I had an operation on it and came out of it with a deeper voice – and that’s the God’s truth! I was 19 or 20, pretty much at loose ends, so I decided to take a job in Delaware.”
That first job lasted only a few months. His mother fired him. “That’s a true story,” Whittington laughed. “She was programming the station and I had been messing around on the air, not playing enough records. She told me ‘I can’t disown you, but I can fire you’ And she did.”
It was also in Delaware that Whittington developed an unlikely professional alliance with late Joe Pyne – who of course later became the scourge of Los Angele talk radio in the early ‘60s.
“Joe Pyne practically raised me,” Whittington said. “We went from station to station, he developing what became his style and me developing my own. We were at opposite ends politically, but I had a great amount of affection and admiration for the man. I learned how to talk to people. You know I’m really not a good disc jockey in a traditional sense. But I communicate – it’s my talent.”
Whittington made some abortive attempts at the Los Angeles radio markets in the early ‘60s – being hired and fired at KLAC, working for a time as a Fuller Brush man and a self-described “Grade B nightclub comic” – before finding his way in 1968, to KGIL in the San Fernando Valley.
It was there, in that 5,000-watt regional borough, that the full extent of Whittington’s off-center comedy began to take shape – guiding the morning freeway commuters over the mountain.
“It was a time when I couldn’t get arrested in this town,” Whittington said. “That was when Stan Warwick called me for the job at KGIL. It wasn’t for much money then, but he gave me an opportunity to do virtually anything I wanted to do.”
Whittington took him up on it, and during his seven years at KGIL engaged in a succession of stunts which have since become legend. For instance, there was his war on “The People’s Republic of Catalina,” raising an army of listeners, each outfitted in a uniform from “the war of their choice” who tap-danced across the Catalina beach to claim victory for America.
Other Whittington gems included his race around the world with an idling car; Earl Lukekraft, a man who “could throw a pumpkin 130 yards,” and who was the answer to the L. A. Rams’ quarterback troubles; boxing three rounds with Art Aragon; and his film, “First Fox Trot in Fargo,” which told “the love story between an arthritic rooster and a young chicken.”
One of the stunts for which Whittington is least proud concerned the aftermath of the 1971 earthquake, when he hired a woman to impersonate seer Jeanne Dixon and predict a second quake.
“The roof caved in,” Whittington said. “Ed Davis, Sam Yorty, George Putnam – they all went after me – it damn near became an international incident. And I was wrong, I stepped over the line. KGIL would have had every right to fire me on the spot, but they didn’t. It was one of the reasons I stayed on at KGIL for seven years. They stood by me, even when I was wrong.”
Whittington eventually did leave late last year, chalking it up to seven years of pent-up exhaustion, and to the feeling that he was slipping…that his work was becoming forced.
At the time, he had the full intention of staying away from radio for at least a year. There were several television proposals – a c- hosting role in the ABC summer series Almost Anything Goes, and an as yet unrealized shot at hosting a local talk-entertainment program.
But when the call came in April from KFI, Whittington found himself willing to get back into radio in the unfamiliar role of midday disc jockey.
“It was the challenge, and the fact that KFI has this tremendous signal,” he said. “I had to find out who was listening out there at this time of the day, and I had to adjust to a much slower pace here. I’m not trying to take people into work in the morning like I did at KGIL. In that regard, it has been an adjustment.”
But no time barriers can dampen his style for long. He was already preparing a remote broadcast from a local collage campus, where he is to receive a phony doctorate. And then he just might walk across Death Valley backwards – because, well – because anyone can walk across looking straight ahead.
“Radio is still a relatable medium,” Whittington said, “but you have to treat the audience like people. You’re not a hero to them, you’ re just a person. I’ve died a million times with some of my bits, but it doesn’t matter because the idea’s the thing, there doesn’t have to be a punchline.
“And when I win, when something goes over…I’m a hundred feet tall. That’s when I can say Dick Whittington accomplished something today.”