At 59, a More Mature and Reflective Doug Tracht Still Sings Praises of "Gobble-Doo-Gee" from his Potomac Grease Palace
By James Eppard
Early on a fall morning in 1982, as Washington area radio listeners set off on their commutes, the Greaseman embarked on one of his trademark ad-libs. The new morning-drive deejay for DC-101 was railing about noisy, remote-controlled airplanes when he launched seamlessly into a fantasy bit where he retrofitted his own model aircraft with an array of weaponry to shoot down the others. Unfortunately, his plane would end up possessed by Damien, an evil progeny in the Greaseman’s perverse theater of the mind, and turn its fire back on Grease.
The ensuing tale became local radio legend, not for its glamorizing of guns or satanic allusions (those were OK), but for testing the Greaseman’s improvisational limitations. As the deejay weaved his ever-more-complicated yarn, he lost sight of the ending. The bit went on and on. Converging plots hit walls and ricocheted unpredictably. The unflappable storyteller suddenly found himself running in place, seeking a thread to tie up the convoluted tale. Rapt listeners, meanwhile, having followed the string this far, idled in their cars, delaying arrivals at work and school for the promised payoff, the money shot—the “bless-ed relief!”
Alas, there would be none. The zesty session just petered out. A chastened Greaseman told listeners, “Hey sorry, I’m only human,” and cut to commercials.
The aborted episode—now a fan collectible—became known as the “Bit Without an Ending.” Looking back, the same title could apply to Greaseman Doug Tracht’s radio career. Like his airplane fantasy, Tracht’s professional narrative started out simple, grew meteorically, and then suddenly and dramatically went awry. But his story didn’t end there. Like Sgt. Fury in “Quang Tri,” Tracht would fight his way back through a scorched landscape, and emerge with still another surprising plot twist.
“I’m actually happier than I’ve ever been,” Tracht, 59, said recently from his home in Potomac, the so-called Grease Palace, where he lives when he’s not in Jacksonville, Fla., doing afternoons on Rock 105 (rock105i.com). “I’m enjoying exactly what I’m doing. I’m in good health. I’m in good shape. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.” For more than a year now, Tracht has been keeping alive Greaseman mainstays like Mrs. Baumgartner, Clinton (Eastwood living an alternative lifestyle) and Emperor Tuchasfacias for the classic rock crowd in Jacksonville—and anyone else with the bandwidth to stream his four-hour show or download his 80-minute podcasts. In an interview, Tracht said he’s blessed by his current fortunes and not interested in revisiting his well-documented fall from radio grace.
“Negativity,” he said. “I’d rather deal with the positive. I live in Florida in the winter, Maryland in the summer, and life is good. My show is edgier than ever. I work for a company that lets me get the job done.”
In fact, the Cox Media station recruited Tracht out of semi-retirement in 2008 and initially let him do all his shows from his in-home studio. As he caught on, the station wanted him to do appearances—mingle with the maggotry—in Jacksonville, so Tracht obliged, ever eager to please his new benefactor and the fans who stuck with him through difficult times.
On the Greaseman’s Facebook page, D.C.–area fans still make up the bulk of his more than 4,000 friends—judging by the daily stream of messages they leave. “OMG!” said one middle-aged woman, apparently surprised to see that the Greaseman is still around, his still-bulky visage leering back at her. “I used to live in Southern Maryland in ’82 and ’83. Used to listen to your show on the LONG commute to work every morning. Great memories!”
“The fanbase has always been supportive,” Tracht said. “You’ll see all the wonderful things people say. I think the biggest legacy you can have in life is that you’ve touched and made happy millions of people. See some of the things these people write. That’s tremendous support.”
It’s strong medicine for a deejay whose career was on life support following a racially insensitive verbal gaffe 11 years ago. The Greaseman was already on thin ice for his racially tinged remarks in 1986 about the new Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He was forgiven, but placed on the public’s version of double-super-secret probation. Then in 1999, the Greaseman put his foot in his mouth entirely with an over-the-top, off-the-cuff remark that for many confirmed their worst fears about Tracht’s racial bona fides. He was fired and essentially exiled from any significant airwaves for almost a decade.
In a magazine interview in 1994, well before the 1999 gaffe, the Greaseman described what he calls “the Exorcist Factor,” when the spirit takes over and words flow from his mouth like projectile pea soup. It might explain both his genius in constructing elaborate “cartoons for the ears” and the two slipups that nearly ended his career. “Look at all this stuff coming out here,” he said in the interview. “It goes so fast, faster than I can think about. I just stand back, it comes out of my mouth, and then it’s over.”
After his firing, Tracht apologized to anyone who would listen, fretting once that his obituary would be stained by a couple of isolated moments of stupidity. But he was radioactive, and it takes a long time for a nuclear winter to dissipate. The story could have ended there. Cut to commercial. But Tracht’s characters wouldn’t die. Videos of the Greaseman’s in-studio bits thrived on YouTube, and a market opened up on eBay to trade old Grease tapes. Small-market stations eventually gave Tracht time slots—stations not much bigger than his college days when he was so hot he was “cookin’ with grease.” Even DC-101 put him back on Saturdays for a brief period that probably triggered flashbacks for serendipitous listeners. “Did someone just say, ‘Hobble-do-gaga’?”
Today’s Greaseman is upbeat—side-slappin’ and toe-tappin’ in the Greaseman’s unique guttural idiom. The show is big on “topicality” (current events) and proven staples—Sgt. Fury was recently sighted in Kabul (rhymes with hobble!). As always, Tracht plays to his base.
“I’ve updated my bits as time goes by,” he said. “But I think people need the meat-and-potatoes Grease. Let’s face it, Frank Sinatra was 85 but he couldn’t get off the stage without singing ‘My Way’ and ‘New York, New York.’ So I can do all the new and twisted stuff, but you know what? I’m not going to get off the stage without people yelling for me to do the Tuna Fish song or what it must be like to be a lawman.”
Tracht’s story arc looks pretty clear at this point. A more-reflective Grease has emerged from the murky plot of his own making. Maybe this narrative has a more satisfying end than his doomed 1982 bit. Tracht has a good time slot in a medium market, good friends and good health, due in part to a rigorous gym regimen. “There comes a time in your life when you get tired of climbing mountains all the time,” he said. “It’s a time of life when you gotta say what makes you—Johnny Avocado, the Duke of Dangle, the Prince of Pppppoit—what makes you happy?”
In full Grease mode, Tracht proclaims, “I’ll shoot my guns, drink my gin and squeeze my sweetie and that’s the plan for the future. I mean life couldn’t be better.”
If this were a classic bit, this is where the Greaseman would be cradling a bone-dry (martini), kids scampering nearby, folks exchanging pleasantries under a sun-kissed sky, an ice cream truck passing by with Carlos the International Terrorist … CARLOS THE INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST!!! Aaaaaghh!
Hear the “Bit Without an Ending”.