Photographs by Robert Sebree
Profile by Susan Reifer
Although Doug “the Greaseman” Tracht has generated a fat file of complaints from angry listeners, his faithful fans number in the millions. One of them is his wife, Anita.
Every Monday through Friday, in an unmarked room in an undistinguished office building near the Hollywood Freeway, the phone lines light up like a Christmas tree. Regulars are calling the Greaseman's private broadcasting studio from New York and New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Atlanta and San Jose, California, hoping to talk to the big man on the phone. "We just want to tell him how much we love him," one caller says. "I've got a girl problem and I need some help," says another An older woman with a New York accent says, "I've got two broken arms and he's helping me heal."
The Greaseman leans into his microphone, frothing a little at the mouth, getting very into a comedy bit. "I believe I lived as the Emperor Tuchus Faceas," he says. His deep voice- his "bosso grosso," as he puts it--resonates to millions of rapt radio listeners across the land. "My bride Sleazebaggius was by my side. My son Foreskinnius, my daughter Vaginitis, made us a complete and well rounded family"
The show's producer rifles through the sound effects, selecting titles like “man romping” and "satisfied woman." As he pops them into the decks, the Greaseman nods in affirmation but doesn't skip a beat of his ribald ad lib, "My word was law. Whenever a young maiden would get married in the kingdom, her first night had to be spent with me. It was a royal proclamation that I would cut the first slice as emperor. That's how it was when Testicules married Cleo Splatra. I had her. When Ejaculus married Jailbatius, oooh, my night was the first night.
"I'll never forget it when Poontangia was going to be wed." The Greaseman glints wickedly, moves even closer to his microphone, and lowers his voice to a more sultry tone. "She came into my chambers. I said, 'My little blossom, my child, are you ready for the royal procedure? She said, 'Sire, do we have to?' I said, 'Yes, it is law. Drop thy gown, sweet little princess, and let the procedure begin.'" The Greaseman begins to rant, a vein popping out on his neck as he builds to a finale. His fingers play deftly across the control panel Listeners hear a gasp and a sigh, squeaks, squishes, groans, and squirting sounds. "Who's your emperor, who's your emperor, who's your emperor, who's your emperor? Oh, aaggh, bbtttppp, gyeahhh, bbttppp, gyeahhh!" He sits back in his chair, heaves a sigh, slaps a Who platter in the CD player, and takes another call.
At age 43, Doug "the Greaseman" Tracht is a controversial veteran of the world of broad casting. His 24 year career spans markets from Ithaca, New York, to Jacksonville, Florida, to D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, Currently, his show is in live syndication, reaching an estimated two and a half million listeners every day.
"The Greaseman Show" is a cartoon for the ears, a fast paced barrage of ad libbed songs, stories, and jokes, screaming with multiple layers of sound effects, teeming with sexual squeals, screeching tire peels, deep throated guttural utterances, and lots and lots of gunfire. Calls from listeners alternate with the stories of recurring characters and their colorful adventures. Every topic is fair game, and every sound effect is like the anvil that drops on Wile E. Coyote's head. Tracht denies he's the latest shock jock, and rightfully so, "I'm telling jokes," he says. "The bottom line -it's a comedy show."
The Greaseman's sense of humor has spawned a huge following of faithful fans, ranging from valley girls to Boy Scouts and from southern truckers to rocket scientists. Greasemania has even spread to the Internet, where fans like Jan Berkeley, a software engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and Wil Jamison, a farmer and police officer in Newark, Delaware swap Greaseman gab in cyberspace. But for every fan, there's a critic. And with the Greaseman, there's no middle ground.
The Federal Communications Commission's fat file of complaints on the Greaseman reveals exactly how scurrilous his detractors find him. The Greaseman "crossed the line into [the] pornographic ... in a graphic conversation with a woman caller, discussing oral sex and masturbation to the tune of 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas,'" wrote one angry listener.
Another called his show "offensive, obscene, disgusting, and unfit for our nation's airwaves." The author of this letter, a woman, was shocked by a singsong comedy bit that was, coincidentally, also about female masturbation. She referred to graphic sound effects and particularly offensive phrases: "Find your hot button. Her body goes rigid. You need to wipe it up with a sponge."
It was a gray day for the Greaseman when an envelope arrived at Washington's WWDC from the FC.C. It was the mid eighties, and the complaints, it seemed, had caught up with him. But the letter was from then F.C.C. chairman Mark Fowler not the enforcement division and it was not the sort of missive deejays dread. "It said, 'Hey, I'm a fan,'" recalls Bill Scanlan, the producer of 'The Greaseman Show.' 'Doug had it in a frame on his wall for a long time." Fowler, now resident special counsel at the prestigious law firm of Latham & Watkins in D.C., declined to be interviewed for this magazine, but he would say one thing about the Greaseman: "I certainly have been a fan."
To date, unlike Howard Stern, the Greaseman has never been cited by the FCC.
A murky Polaroid of Tracht and Bob Hope is tacked to a bulletin board in the Greaseman's studio Racks holding hundreds of color coded music and sound effects cartridges line the walls. ”Greaseman! Hey!" says a caller with a thick New Jersey accent. "Hey, what should I give my funny little honey?"
Grease's blue eyes twinkle and a deviously sweet smile spreads across his ruddy face. “Well, you can do what I do sing my honey a love song There's nothing like it. Sometimes late at night, I'll look over at my baby and I'll say, 'Put your chin on my doodads / Watch them ricochet. / That's it. / Make a scrot soufflé / Sweet bliss. I I'll be such a happy lad."'
Tracht sings to the tune of Paul Anka's "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," hitting every note on key as a wordless remix plays in the background. Bill Scanlan and Assistant Producer Joel Thatcher bob their heads in time, cracking grins and singing along silently as they go about their work
"Put your face next to my sac / Zesty gobbledoogee I Don't rest. / Squirting ten c.c.s / ingest. Doodads going whack, whack, whack."
Technically, to the uninitiated, the comic mélange could mean anything. "You're given limits when you do a radio show by the boss, the F.C.C.,” says Tracht. "You have limits. I think the real art comes in being able to still entertain, still be wacky, without having to break the law to get listeners, without having to bring down the whole house of cards while you're rocking. I love to be wild, crazy, and outrageous. I don't think I need to violate the law to do it. But that's tricky."
Becoming acclimated to the show's zesty satire, explains Tracht, takes time "People have to get into it and understand what's happening. I'm not just throwing it all in your face and you sit there, Grandma appalled, little children turned to lives of prostitution. This is the show you can listen to with the mishpocheh, the whole family."
While many disagree, Tracht, unlike today's popular cadre of shock locks, uses no actual profanities or forbidden language on the air. That, he believes, is only self defeating. “If you get on the radio and you say 'fuck,’” he says, "then what are you going to say tomorrow, ‘motherfuck’? If you're playing the game of just trying to top your outrage from the day before, then eventually you're going to run out of dirty words, and sooner or later you have to be talented." Without talent, Tracht says, you're out of a job.
As the Greaseman sees it, his talent is being able to "take a germ of an idea and run with it. Someone can call up and say, 'Grease, what about this?’ and then, boom, you've got a five minute story with sound effects, bits, wacky punch lines."
Pamela, a 21 year old from Atlanta, calls the Greaseman to ask why convicts are so well treated in prison. She saw something about it on a talk show, she explains, and now she's "getting really hot about it " The Greaseman knows exactly what she means He adopts that Ralph Kramden edge to his voice as he begins to rant: "Ehhh, they sit there on death row year after year, taking taxpayer dollars, filing motion after motion. I'd love to walk down there with the 870. Would you come down there with me, Pamela? You're old enough to be lead slinging with me. I'll pick you up at your place." The Greaseman slides effortlessly into a bit, replete with dozens of sound effects, in which he drives his battered Biscayne over to Pamela's house, picks her up, and shows her how to use a double action Winchester. Together they sneak into a local prison "wipe out everybody on death row" in a flurry of gunfire and screams, then peel out of the parking lot. Tracht’s humor is punch-line driven, and this bit is no exception. As the sound of screeching tires deafens those in the studio, the Greaseman calmly returns to his caller "So what do you think, Pamela? Pizza? Chinese?"
The Greaseman thinks on his feet. While Tracht, Scanlan, and Thatcher do meet a few hours before each day's show, swapping ideas and working out punch lines for bits they've invented, the show is done live and without a script of any kind. All Tracht takes on the air is a thin file folder of newspaper clippings and a blue legal pad with one line notes, reminding him of various topics and ideas "I just write down a sentence," he explains, "and then rely on the Exorcist factor to kick the rest in."
The Exorcist factor? "Sometimes in the midst of a bit, I get going like a bat out of hell," Tracht says with a laugh. "I get a little outside of myself and think, This is really amazing. Look at all this stuff coming out here. It goes so fast, faster than I can even think about it. It reminds me of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I just stand back, it comes out of my mouth, and then it's over" That so called Exorcist factor has been sewing him well for close to 25 years. “I just thank God,' says Tracht. "I hope it never stops."
Tracht relaxes in the living room of his new home, the Grease Palace, a bright and airy private enclave perched high in the Santa Monica mountains off Mulholland Drive. Dressed in his standard ostrich skin cowboy boots, Lee leans, and a STOLEN FROM THE L.A.P.D. T shirt, he settles into the semicircular white couch, gazes out over the panoramic view, and begins to tell the story of his life. It's a rare stormy day in Los Angeles, and there's a bit of a chill in the air. Tracht huddles under a pink afghan for warmth as he talks. He's a big, strapping man, and it's an odd sight.
Tracht grew up in the South Bronx, a tall, skinny class clown who loved to read, devouring adventure stories and gumshoe detective novels, which would have a great stylistic influence on his later career. His mother, Gertrude, a Lutheran immigrant from Germany, raised Doug and his sister, Diana, until they were in their mid teens, then she went to work at Hunter College. His father, Alfred, a native New Yorker, sold dental supplies, but he was "a very sophisticated piano and violin playing kind of daddy, a very big classical music fan."
As for radio, it all began at a small 1,000 watt station. While still a student at DeWitt Clinton High School, Tracht overheard a wisecracking deejay on the Fordham University station that his father tuned into for its occasional classical music programming. "I called up and asked the guy, 'Are you a student there?' He said, Yeah, I m majoring In English. I just do this for fun.' I thought, Whoa, that's me," Tracht recalls. He entered Ithaca College, enrolled as a broadcasting major, and immediately landed a gig at the college radio station.
Tracht took to the airwaves as though he'd been born with baby size headphones fixed fast to his little head. But he was never content with just spinning platters "From the first day I got on the air, I was trying to do comedy bits and tell jokes,' says Tracht. “After my first year in college, I had this station in Buffalo, New York, offer me a big time job. Whistle, WYSL. They called their new records Whistle Missles. It was a hit station back in 1969 and 1970 I'm thinking, Wow, I'm 19 years old, going to the nation a 14th market."
Tracht's parents, however, weren't thrilled. Gertrude and Al had been counting on him to be the family's first college graduate "They were crushed at the thought that I would quit college," Tracht remembers Guilt won out He turned down the WYSL job, but he immediately landed another paying position at a local Top 40 station in Ithaca, New York. WTKO was only a 1,000 watt, daytime station. Nevertheless, as Tracht says, "It was the real McCoy'
By his junior year, Tracht had moved to a larger station in Binghamton, New York, and started doing late night radio The Greasernan moniker was born soon after. "In those days of Top 40, everybody who was on the radio was 'cookin','" explains Tracht. “Cookin' with the Temptations. Cookin' Four Tops, that kind of thing. Which meant they were really rockin'. One day I said I was cookin with heavy grease. It was my way of saying I was out cookin' the other guys. I said it enough times, so one day one of the other deejays referred to me as the Greaseman."
When he stopped calling himself Dougie T and started calling himself the Greaseman, his now distinct persona emerged, "As the months went by, my voice was getting lower, and I was developing this radio image of a guy who was 50 years old with a potbelly and a tattoo- a truck driving, cigar smoking kind of guy," Tracht explains. "I'd always been rail thin. At six foot two I probably weighed no more than 150. I was using radio to be the man I never could be, a guy with that swaggering bravado."
And guys with that swaggering bravado, that Manny machismo, were Tracht's heroes. "I was always a big Clint Eastwood fan, and Steve McQueen, he was pretty good," recalls Tracht. "But I am a big Bill McKinney fan. I remember going to Deliverance. And maybe it was coincidence but I walked into that movie feeling fine and when I came out, I had a raging fever and the flu. It really terrified me. The look in that guy's eyes The man was so scary" Tracht is talking about director John Boorman's 1972 film Deliverance and its notorious "squeal like a pig" scene, in which a perverted mountain man played by McKinney, sodomizes another grown man, played by Ned Beatty, at gunpoint. Even now, listeners often call to ask the Greaseman deconstructionist questions on Deliverance 'Why would Bill McKinney want to pick the fat boy instead of Jon Voight or Burt Reynolds?" and sound bites of squeals pepper "The Greaseman Show."
After college graduation and a quick marriage that lasted only a year and a half, Tracht breezed through a series of stations—Rochester, New York's WAXC; Washington, D.C.'s WRC and Hartford, Connecticut’s WPOP -seeking ever larger audiences and better broadcast hours. Program directors and station managers in bigger cities sent requests for tapes of his show, but job offers in the major markets did not come.
"I'd send the tape," Tracht says, "and then the guy would call back and ask for another tape." The program director would explain he was using Tracht's tapes to motivate his other disc jockeys or simply for the pure enjoyment of staffers. "I said, 'Well, uh, could I maybe be considered for a job there?’” Tracht recalls. "And the guy would say, 'Oh, geez! I couldn't put that on the air. I could never put that on the air. But please send me a tape. I love those bits you do.'"
In 1975 Tracht landed a morning drive time gig on Jacksonville, Florida's WAPE, a station that recognized and encouraged his potential and did not fear his content. ") thought, Schweet!" recalls Tracht. "The gloves are off!"
One enduring Grease fan favorite from Tracht’s Jacksonville years is "The Redneck Song." Guitar picking from an old Roy Clark album imbues the tune with its down home flavor. In one version, Grease advises lonely men to 'make a mental picture, and then get moving on your manly fixture. / Think of that sweet thing you met at work. / You looked kindle clumsy, you felt like a jerk. / Imagine her sitting there at the typing pool / Holding on tight to that testosterone tool. I Picture her standing there as you're getting hotter / Saying, 'Don't worry, baby, I'll use the blotter!' / Oh, baby, I'm a redneck. / Can't help it, I'm a redneck. / Oh, yeah! Oh, Daddy!"
The gloves were off, indeed, and the Greaseman soon hit it big in the southeast, He began bodybuilding, adding 30 pounds in the course of a year and acquiring what he now calls "the bulky edge.' That edge gave him the confidence to "use the blower”--to take calls from listeners while on the air.
"You get a lot of weird calls," says Tracht. "At first they'd intimidate me a little bit. Then I got big," Whether it was the calls from listeners, the constantly increasing array of sound effects the slapping, the shooting, the squealing, the booing or the new bulky bravado that allowed Tracht to step out from behind his radio persona, the Greaseman's radio tide had turned for good.
In 1982 the Greaseman made the move to FM, joining the lineup at Washington, D.C.'s solid rocker, WWDC. Tracht replaced Howard Stern, who had been fired, and "The Greaseman Show" quickly moved to the top of the drive-time heap.
An intern was added, then a producer. Live studio audiences were brought in four days a week including, on at least one occasion, a busload of staffers from the F.C.C.
Tracht's ten year run in Washington was marred by only one incident, an off-color comment he made in January 1986, regarding the then new federal holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In essence, Tracht said that if the assassination of one black leader led to a day off, then shooting four more blacks would lead to a whole week off. "I got reamed badly by the press on that one," Tracht says, "I told a joke, which is one of hundreds of thousands I've told over the years, meant totally as a joke." News of this so called joke reached the newspapers. I was taken, insists Tracht, "totally" out of context. “And then people who never listen to my show read that and thought, Who is this nut?"
Irate citizens from as far away as Florida and Michigan wrote to the F.C.C., requesting that Tracht and WWDC be censured. But, according to an F.C.C. spokesperson, the agency did not deem it necessary to take action Tracht apologized on the air and appeared on local television, rebutting an editorial that insisted he be fired.
"I said if anyone was offended by that joke, I didn't mean anything by it, please forgive me. And then nothing ever came of it. I read some quote where the N.A.A.C.P. said something along the line of, 'He apologized to our satisfaction '"
If there's one thing he learned, Tracht says, it's that "anything comedically you do is going to be offensive to somebody If I do a bit about how I just drove my car and clipped a lamppost when I came home late at night, someone's going to say, 'My father was just killed in a car accident, waaah!' So I've realized you can open your mouth and talk about the weather, and someone's going to get offended about it. You just have to stay within the law of broadcast standards as defined by the F.C.C. and go for it" Tracht, however, does have one regret over the Martin Luther King Day incident: "The only thing that annoys me--and this really pisses me off- is that some mention of it will be in my obituary"
Tracht strides into Gold's Gym in North Hollywood. A big smile spreads across his face as soon as he walks through the door. "Bill's here!" he says. "Bill McKinney! Schweet!"
Sure enough, there he is, the scary mountain man himself, working out with his trainer and looking incredibly fit in a blue and black striped unitard. McKinney saunters over and shakes Tracht's hand. "How ya doin’ buddy?" he says, McKinney, fresh off the set of City Slickers II, tells Tracht that all the crew guys love the Greaseman. "Did I tell you Lovitz is a fan?" says McKinney, referring to actor Jon Lovitz.
Tracht huffs and puffs through his workout, striving for what he calls "Meaningless muscle mass" as he does arm curls, pull ups, and dips. Skinny actress types climb away on the StairMasters and insanely pumped up guys in tights eat health muffins and protein mix on a nearby bench. McKinney's maniacal laugh periodically echoes through the room. "Some people come to L.A. to make it in movies,” cracks Tracht. "I came to L.A. so I could lift weights with Bill McKinney It's a dream come true I know if I don't get all the reps, I'll have to squeal like a pig.”
In 1993, after a ten year stint at WWDC, Tracht decided that being the number-one drive time deejay in the nation's capital and an underground hero was not enough. He took Infinity Broadcasting Corporation's Mel Karmizan up on a long standing offer and moved into nationwide syndication. Tracht and his wife, Anita, closed up their house in Maryland and flew to Los Angeles, bringing only a few photographs and a dozen or so pairs of Tracht's favorite boots. "The Greaseman Show" began to air on Infinity owned stations in Atlanta; San Jose, California; New York; Philadelphia; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C., while Infinity tried to lock down an interested station in L.A. "The Greaseman Show" eventually landed at KLOS, one of the Southland's legendary rock stations. "The game plan," says Tracht, "is to make this thing as colossal as possible."
"We're expecting nothing less than for the Greaseman to be number one at night," predicts Ken Stevens, the vice-president and general manager of Infinity's Baltimore, Philadelphia, and D.C. affiliates. "You don't want to bet against his success."
Critics, however, argue that the Greaseman's ratings "aren't holding up" and that his show is "bringing down Infinity Broadcasting." In February of this year, KILOS cut the four hour show down to one and buried it in a late night time slot, telling callers that "the ratings were down and people were complaining." The word on the street is that KLOS management got cold feet. A new classic rock station, Arrow 93, was luring away those KLOS listeners who wanted to hear some good old Pink Floyd and maybe "Stairway to Heaven" instead of the comedic shriekings of "The Greaseman Show."
The Greaseman's fans and associates remain faithful and unbowed. Listeners blasted the KLOS decision in a flurry of letters, accusing the station of pandering to "the average teenage idiot" and succumbing to pressure from "prudes, the NOW gang, and the homosexual community,"
Tracht's talented right hand man, producer Bill Scanlan, groused that the new time slot is "shorter than John Bobbitt's hydraulics" and called the KLOS cutback "the stupidest move I've ever seen in radio."
Stevens agrees. "It's a mistake," he snorted in a telephone interview. "I can't imagine what they'd be running at night that would be more successful than the Greaseman." As for the Greaseman dragging Infinity down, Stevens retorts, "It's a popular thing to do in the radio business to stand back and take shots at personality shows that are basically kicking everyone else's ass. He's not dragging us down at all. We started making money the first day."
Tracht is unconcerned about any controversy surrounding "The Greaseman Show" For him, it's life and business as usual He opens the padded red door of Jack's Cinnamon Cinder, releasing a puff of smoke from the smog-smeared neighborhood bar into the unusually crisp and clear Burbank night. Inside, a few young guys, cigarettes dangling from their lips, play darts while a dozen folks line-dance nearby to the strains of Billy Ray Cyrus's "Achy Breaky Heart."
A group of burly, mustachioed off-duty Los Angeles police officers cluster around two small tables, having a few drinks and celebrating the promotion of their buddy, Keith Moreland, to sergeant. It's a pretty sedate crowd, but they all leap to their feet as Tracht strides through the door with his blond-bombshell wife on one arm. Moreland grabs Tracht’s hand and slaps him on the back. "Buddy!" exclaims Moreland. "Glad you could make it!"
The friendship may seem strange, but Moreland insists it makes perfect sense. After taking a bullet in the line of duty, Moreland was confined to a hospital bed with nothing to do. Bored and depressed, he began tuning in to the radio and discovered "The Greaseman Show." The Grease's "Lawman" bits, in which a renegade officer alternately pulverizes and blows away other people, cracked Moreland up. "I just laughed and laughed, and I kept tuning in. He helped me get well," says Moreland.
To some the Greaseman is simply funny. Others are grossly offended and call him a menace. But to this L.A.P.D. sergeant, the Greaseman is a gift from above. In Moreland's words: "He's manna from heaven."