Aug 7, 2014

Happy Birthday Bobby K

It’s Robert’s birthday! (Or it was, anyway, a couple days back.) So today we celebrate with some classic Krulwich radio and a backwards peek into the spirit and sensibility that, in many ways, drives our show.

For his birthday surprise we all listened to some old NPR pieces that Robert did in the 70s, 80s and early 90s — a news piece on the dawn of the ATM, a fake opera on interest rates, and the story of a family business splintered into relatives fighting to be first in the phone book. Along the way, we hear some incredible stories from Robert’s life … 

And, just to celebrate the man whose infectious curiosity draws so many people (including us) to his side … we share with you the kind of gonzo, full-throated Krulwich story we usually can’t include in the show … an epic of secret zoos, sewing machines, an alligator farm, a marching band, and a bus full of French tourists that save the day.

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JAD ABUMRAD: So a couple days ago we did this thing. We got Robert into the studio, and we ambushed him.


[STAFF SINGING: Happy birthday ...]


JAD: The whole staff rushed in. Singing, cake, the whole deal.




JAD: Now, Robert famously hates his birthday.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I have spent such a long time trying to hide my birthday from everybody!


JAD: But you can't really hide your birthday these days. And I have had the extremely good fortune to work with this man for over 10 years. So if you'll excuse us just this once, we want to take this podcast to celebrate Mr. Robert Krulwich.


ELLEN HORNE: So Robert, we didn't just bring you in here for cake and to listen to things. We were sort of thinking that we would love to share some of your earlier work as the next podcast.




ELLEN HORNE: Well, we should talk about it.


JAD: That's our Executive Producer, Ellen Horne. She dug up a bunch of his old work from the archives, and he eventually agreed to let us play some. And it's really interesting to hear this stuff, because I'm not sure a lot of people who listen to Radiolab really get how much Robert's sensibility drives this show. Like, his combination of theater and play and his desire to sound different than other stuff on the radio and to ignore the rules. But always, always in service of a genuine attempt to understand or explain something. And also, it's just amazing how many creative lives he lived before he came to Radiolab. Like, here's one -- here's a piece from 1979, which is just a few years after NPR began.


NPR HOST: ... banks these days, you've noticed they're trying out new systems. More and more, we're being asked to deal with machines instead of tellers, and that's the way the banks want it according to our business correspondent Robert Krulwich.


ROBERT: Right here in Washington, a few doors away from National Public Radio, there's a bank that offers you a chance at a color television set, and they have a treasure chest with 10 Susan B. Anthony dollars inside which could be yours if you are willing to stand through a three-minute demonstration of their new automatic teller system.


ROBERT: I don't know. That's just sort of a period I went through. Strongly nasal, because I thought nasal was sort of powerful. I think if you have a nose you should use it.


JAD: And the piece is actually about how banks are starting these crazy things called ATMs, and people are a little freaked out.


BANK CUSTOMER: I've had some interesting problems with these machines. They have eaten my card from time to time.


REPORTER: You mean, they -- they mutilate it?


BANK CUSTOMER: No, they go -- chomp!


JAD: And at one point, Robert, in order to explain why the banks were lobbying so hard for these ATMS, he almost bursts into song.


ROBERT: You send the check to Sears, Sears deposits the check in its bank, the bank sends the check to a regional bank, from there it goes to your regional bank which is in your very own area. They mail it back to your hometown bank which mails it back to you. In a statement you get at the end of the month, the check shows up in the packet, hopefully. Now remember, if you listen to the whole thing through, that is four different mailings for just one check with all that postage. Now wouldn't it be cheaper, the banks argue, to stop mailing the check from place to place to place and try another system?


ROBERT: That system is called electronic fund transfer, and already to cut down on postage and on handling ...


ROBERT: Oh, God! This is painful for me!


JAD: Here's another one we listened to. It's also from 1979. This one is a report about -- well, a "report" in quotes, about interest rates.


NPR HOST: There is intense pressure from two different groups for changes in interest rates. One groups wants them down, the other group wants them up even higher. Both sides are powerful and important to our economy, and the ins and outs of their struggles are worthy of an opera. In fact, they are an opera.


HOST: And now from the Palazzo Verde, we present this live performance of Alfredo Tucci's immortal opera, Rato Interesto. And here is our host, Seward Chapman.


ROBERT: Thank you very much. There aren't very many operas that deal exclusively with the subject of interest rates, but this one I think is the most magnificent of all. Tucci wrote it, we're told, in a single afternoon after a traumatic event that, according to his biographer Stanislaw Bricht, scarred him for life. Bricht says that Tucci was walking along a road in the city, when passing by in a tram he saw the exquisitely beautiful Sylvia Fine. And as she rode by, he knew that he wanted desperately to meet her. Although he was a poor composer, he decided that he would send her a gift that would impress her. And he chose wall-to-wall carpeting. In order to get the money for the carpet though, he had to get a household finance loan. To his horror, he found out what the interest rates were on the loan, and as he writes in his aria Ecce Ecce, they were prohibitive. Our first act today closely follows these real-life events, and as the act opens we're in the Italian section of Louisville, Kentucky, where Angelina, who also wants a wall-to-wall carpet learns that the interest rate is 18.5 percent. The scene begins as she gasps in astonishment and resolves not to buy the carpet. Non carpaccio blan. She and her friend Nina tell this to the carpet seller, Peregino. Peregino is greatly disturbed, then says, "Yo valu perce,' the businessman's lament, is what he sings. I see we're now ready for the act to begin, as Angelina learns that she cannot afford her carpet.




ROBERT: Now they go to Peregino. He's not happy.




ROBERT: So here's the thing about this. Paul Volcker at the time was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and what I do in Act Three is I take Paul and I -- from a press conference that he was in, which I was at, and I cut him into the opera.


PAUL VOLCKER: Ladies and gentlemen, we're face to face ...




PAUL VOLCKER: ... with economic difficulties, really unique in our experience. The question of whether we should putting another screw into interest rates is -- it's just one of those walking on a razor edge right now.




ROBERT: Act Three beautifully performed of Alfredo Tucci's international Ecce, particularly by Mr. Con getting a standing ovation. Mr. Con followed by Mr. Volcker ...


JAD: I can't believe that was on National Public Radio.


ROBERT: That was the crazy days. We -- we did things then, like I interviewed an anchovy. They aired all that kind of stuff.


JAD: So there was no gatekeepers? There was no ...




JAD: After the opera, we listened to something from 1992, which would be just after I graduated high school. And here Robert teams up with a couple of actors and comedians to do sort of a yearly recap thing.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich, and welcome to the second-annual edition of Backfire. This program has been a tradition on NPR since 1991, and this is the occasion when we gather to review the events of the year, in this case the year 1992. And once again, we were able to round up our regular observers. Buck Henry is a screenwriter and a pundit.


JAD: He wrote the movie The Graduate, by the way.


ROBERT: Jane Curtin is an actress and a pundit.


JAD: Original cast, Saturday Night Live.


ROBERT: Tony Hendra, a pundit.


JAD: Famous satirist.


ROBERT: And a pundit. And all three of you now.


TONY HENDRA: A double pundit.


ROBERT: A double pundit in Tony's case. Let's have the first question. It's from me, Robert Krulwich, pundit. What was the real explanation for President Bush's collapse, this is now all the way back a year ago, at the state dinner at Tokyo? Do you recall the event, Buck?


BUCK HENRY: I do, indeed. He collapsed, and more importantly he vomited on the -- was is the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister? On the Prime Minister's lap. But Bush, as you know, is an onomatopoetic name, anyway. Bush is the sound that you make when you throw up. So he could have simply been responding to someone saying, "By the way, what is your name?" And the sushi came with it. It is also, as I have read my history, a custom of world leaders from time to time to throw up on the lap of the minister of a friendly government. It demonstrates confidence in your host, a sense of the excellence of the dinner being served, and a tradition of giving back something you've been given.


JANE CURTIN: Bush being the consummate politician of giving his all.


ROBERT: How then do you account for the surprised expression and the lack of delight really, on the face of the Prime Minister when receiving this gift from President Bush?


JANE CURTIN: I think it was because it was done after the first course as opposed to after the complete meal.


ROBERT: Oh. In India, you simply throw your dinner in the face of your host before ingesting it.


TONY HENDRA: I'd like to point out, by the way, that there is some some misconception here, which is that this was a single event. It's actually apparently, this habit of throwing up in the nearest stranger's lap is -- was not just a question of courtesy, it's something that Bush has done ever since he was a little boy.


ROBERT: Oh, really?


TONY HENDRA: And in fact, it's the origin of his nickname, Poppy. Because his mother Mumsy used to refer to his inveterate habit of upchucking as "popping." His original family nickname was Projectile Poppy.


ROBERT: This would go on -- we would do this, like, for two hours and Mannoli, who was our editor, she would not even smile! There were sections where we would -- like, this was the least-listened to program on all of NPR. They reduced us from 12 a year to two a year to one only on New Year's Eve at 10 p.m. Do you know what it's like to be scheduled for 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve? That means you have failed. But then, this is how life works, I'm sitting in my house and the phone rings and it's the White House. And some guy says, "Do you -- is your group available on, like, next March the 3rd? We want them in the East Room." I said, "Of the White House?" He goes, "Yeah." I said, "Well, I don't think you do." I said, "Maybe you should just ask whoever's idea this was to, like, vet it or something."


ROBERT: So I -- about two weeks pass, and then the phone rings. He says, "Well, it's good news and bad news. I listened to it and yes, it isn't funny. But the people who think it's funny is a person, and this is the President of the United States. So that's the deal."


JAD: And what happened?


ROBERT: So we went. We went to the East Room. And it was incredible, really. My wife was there. And you look across at your wife and you're at the White House, the President laughing at these dumb jokes. There's certain moments where you feel strangely blessed, you know? Like -- like, either you were a really great giraffe in some previous life and this is your reward, or every so often God just leans down through the clouds and kisses you and says, like, "This will be just a chance for you to be -- enjoy."


JAD: Hmm.


ROBERT: And so that night I just -- that, you know, gosh they were -- it was a big deal.


JAD: There's a couple pieces that you've done pre-Radiolab where, like, as a young radio reporter -- you know how you were in your nose phase? We heard your nose phase. I think we all sort of start in some idea of what we should sound like, what we should do, what's -- what's permissible. And then you hear this thing come out of the radio, and you're like, "I didn't know you could do that! I just didn't know that was allowed!" I want to play one piece of yours that had that effect on me. I think you did this in 1981 or something. I heard it, you know, years later when it was featured on this website, but -- and this is pre-Radiolab. So I heard this and we hadn't met yet. This is – well, let's just play it.


ROBERT: The story of the Krasilovskys, one of the great commercial rivalries in New York history began when Sam Krasilovsky opened a moving company years and years and years ago.


PETER PERCOSIO: Way back, way back now. I can understand, even before my time, and I've been with the firm 22 years.


ROBERT: Peter Percosio runs the office of the Krasilovsky Trucking Company in Brooklyn.


PETER PERCOSIO: I imagine there was a big family of brothers, uncles, cousins, and they were all very competitive, you know?


ROBERT: Competitive is putting it mildly. The firm started in 1904 when Sam Krasilovsky and his brother Dave Krasilovsky formed a hauling company called Sam Krasilovsky and Bro -- the Bro is for brother. And they would move heavy things like church bells and statues. And to help them, they hired their nephew, Mike Krasilovsky. For 20 years, everything was fine with Sam, Dave and Mike, until Uncle Dave decided to bring his sons into the business.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: Under the circumstances, Mike had to disassociate himself from the uncles and start on his own.


ROBERT: That is Mike's brother, who will serve as our narrator in this story. Now, it is the late-1930s, there are now two Krasilovsky moving companys: Mike's and his uncles's. To remind customers that he was now in business for himself, Mike took out a series of display ads in the New York telephone book on the very page where the Krasilovskys are listed. And the ad said, "Remember Mike. There is only one Krasilvsky." In addition, his brother says ...


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: He put "Remember Mike" on all the trucks.


ROBERT: But it didn't work. Too many customers could not remember which Krasilovsky was which. They just opened the phone book and called any Krasilovsky. And that is when Mike got this incredible idea. He figured that if he could move ahead of his uncles in the telephone book, people would see his name first and then they'd call him first instead of the other Krasilovsky. So he decided to add a new listing in the telephone book. He took out the 'v' in Krasilovsky, and put in a 'u.' That made it Krasilousky.




ROBERT: Now that moved him one entry ahead of his uncles, since by the alphabet Us always precede Vs. But Mike Krasilousky, as he was now called, was not prepared for the perfidity of his cousin Milton Krasilovsky.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: Milton. Milton Krasilovsky was another young son. Son of David Krailovsky.


ROBERT: In the early 1940s, Milton started a new trucking company called Krasilousky -- with a U, as was the case with Mike. But to move ahead of Mike, he changed his first name from Milton to Mick.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: M-I-C-K Krasilousky with a U, hoping that he would be ahead of Mike in the listings.


ROBERT: Which of course he was. The uncles meanwhile, anxious to catch up, joined forces with Milton or Mick and created the Krasilosky Safe Company. They dropped the V in Krasilovsky, put an O, so the uncles Krasilosky moved ahead of Mike's Krasilousky.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: Mike was quite upset.


ROBERT: As well he might have been. For revenge, he countered with a great leap taking over the Atlas Safety Company, which moved him to the front of the telephone book leaving the Ks behind to the finer air of the A section. But one year later, the uncles were on the same page.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: The Acme Safe Company was a division of S. Krasilovsky and Brothers.


ROBERT: According to Mike's brother, by the mid-1950s, even though Mike still had only one moving business in Brooklyn on Metropolitan Avenue, Mike Krasilvosky by this time had 18 listings under 18 different names in the telephone book, while the uncles had 13 listings.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: Yes, we had listings throughout the Yellow Pages and white pages for one company so that we could get all the listings ahead of the other relatives.


ROBERT: Did you do it for fun? Or ...


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: No, this was not for fun. This was very serious. There was no reason, we felt, that another member of the family that has just walked in should capitalize on the name of Krasilovsky.


ROBERT: The final salvo was fired by the uncles. Actually, it was cousin on the uncles' side named Marvin. He created the AAA Acme Krasilovsky Safe Company. After that, the public was so completely confused that according to Richard Krasilovsky, all the Krasilovsky businesses began losing customers.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: It does affect the business when people say, "Who are you and who do you belong to?"


ROBERT: Mike died in the 1960s. His wife sold the business and changed her name from Krasilovsky to Krass and then moved to Florida. Mike's brother Monroe stayed in the business. He now calls his firm, however, the Empire Safe Company. He and his son Richard would like to use the name Krasilovsky -- it is, after all, their name -- but they don't dare, because there is now a whole new generation of Krasilovskys moving into the phone book.


RICHARD KRASILOVSKY: The original Acme company has now been split, so they are all over the lot. There are now more sons.


ROBERT: And there are more names. Here, with my colleague Margot Adler, we're going to read you the latest set of listings from the current New York telephone book and the New York Yellow Pages. Margot?


MARGOT ADLER: AAA Acme Krasilovsky.


ROBERT: Krasilovsky, Division of Acme Safe.


MARGOT ADLER: Krasilousky, Mike Trucking and Millwright Company.


ROBERT: Krasilovsky Brothers, Mike and Monroe.


MARGOT ADLER: Empire Krasilovsky Safe Company.


ROBERT: Krasilvsky Brothers Safe Company, Division of Safe Smiths, Inc.


MARGOT ADLER: Krasilovsky, Division of Acme Safe.


ROBERT: Mike Krasilovsky Safes.


MARGOT ADLER: Monroe Krasilovsky Safes.


ROBERT: Krasilovsky Safe Company, Inc.


MARGOT ADLER: Krasilovsky Safe Collection.


ROBERT: Acme Safe Company, Krasilovsky Division -- not connected with any other Krasilovsky.


JAD: We'll be back in a moment.


[SHOWAN: Hi, this is Showan Alaria, and I'm calling from Piscataway, New Jersey. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at Thanks!]




JAD: Jad here. So after Ellen Horne and I and the whole staff ambushed Robert in the studio and played him stories, towards the end of the whole thing, Robert went off on this insane digression. And this happens all the time in the studio. Like, he'll go off on something and we'll unfortunately cut it out because it's not part of the story we're telling, but in this case we're gonna put it in in honor of his birthday, and also because it just -- it just illustrates what an insanely curious dude he is. Like, he has this incredible curiosity that makes him like a heat-seeking missile for weirdo adventures. And that is what has attracted me to him and the entire staff to him, and probably a lot of the people who listen to him. So here's just a random digression of his. It's him telling the story of his first television piece for ABC News.


ROBERT: This is one the great -- I'm sitting on an airplane and the man next to me, you know, you just ask, like, what do you do? He says, "Oh, I'm in golf ball retrieval."


JAD: Mmm.


ROBERT: I said, "What?" He said, "I'm in golf ball retrieval."


JAD: Like in golf courses?


ROBERT: Yeah. "You know, we gather golf balls."


JAD: That's a thing. People make lots of money doing that.


ROBERT: I said, "How much money do you make?" He said, "Well, we make, you know, a dime for every ball that we recover, and then we pay that -- and we can sell it in Japan for a quarter." I said, "What's your problem?" He said, "Well, the problem we have, really, the only really one is -- is gators." I said, "What do you mean, gators?" "Well, they live in the water holes. And the kids who do this work are teenagers." And I said, "Well, you mean you hire teenagers, and then there's, like, wild animals that could eat them?" He said, "Well, obviously we have to remove the gators." I was thinking, "Golf ball retrieval. What an interesting story! That'll be a great story!" Then he's suddenly talking about gator removal. It's like, "Gator removal, that'll be great!" So he said, "Well -- well, we use a guy named Mr. Campbell. He's out in Florida." I said, "You mean, there's a guy who specializes?" "Yeah, he works Florida, Texas, Southern California." I said, "Well, I gotta go meet Mr. Campbell."


ROBERT: So I call Mr. Campbell. The phone is answered by some person who is not Mr. Campbell, it's his very angry wife. He, at age 80 has skipped out with some floozy and she is, like, pissed at him. So she says, "Well, if you're calling, he's not here. He's out with her." I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know. Because I was thinking maybe he'd be the subject of an interview. I would talk about, you know, alligator retrieval." "Well, did he ever mention the Grosse Pointe Zoo?" So being no fool, I said, "Occasionally." And it turned out that when they had lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan -- a very fancy suburb -- they had created the -- he had collected the largest collection of gators in -- in North America in his basement, in a series of tubs that he had built and irrigated. And every kid in the neighborhood whose parents were all at General Motors or something, all knew about this secret thing. The police didn't, the adults didn't, but the kids did. And she said in the course of this conversation, "Until the sewing incident."


JAD: What?


ROBERT: I said, "What?" Now, you can imagine the fever. I have gone from golf ball retrieval to alligator removal to now secret zoo in basement of fancy suburb. And suddenly, there's now the sewing machine incident. It turns out there was a sewing circle at this house that Mrs. Campbell, the aggrieved Mrs. Campbell, ran. And in this sewing circle they would bring Singer sewing machines. And one lady turned on her Singer sewing machine, and its vibration caused the alligator in the basement -- all of the alligators in the basement to go, "Raar!" It sounded like a jungle riot from the basement.


JAD: Wait, you're saying they were upstairs sewing, and below them these alligators were ...


ROBERT: 50 alligators, half of them male, going, "Raar!" when this lady turns on her -- so George Campbell figures out that it was a B-flat. So it was theory that it was a B-flat that caused the bellow.


JAD: Was that like the sound they make when they mate or when they fight? Or ...


ROBERT: Nobody knew a) if it were true; and no one knew why it would be true if it were true. So I tell this poor girl, Barbara Fadida from -- from ABC.


JAD: She was your producer?


ROBERT: Yeah. She's, like, 23 or something. I say, "You know what we're gonna do? We're gonna hire a marching band, a high-school marching band in full plumage, and we are gonna go to Florida to a place that is packed with alligators, a wildlife reserve. And I'm going to have these plumed high school people play B-flat to -- and there's gonna be 'Raar!' everywhere!"


ROBERT: So I get the high-school band. They get on a bus. I get the ABC crew, and I get the very nervous Barbara Fadida who doesn't know what I'm doing. And we all go out to the Audubon place. We arrive, and there's this mass of grass, and you can see alligators everywhere. The band gets up.




JAD: This is from the TV piece.


ROBERT: Phil Porter from the Cypress Lake High School marching band will now play a B-flat on the French horn.




ROBERT: We have no response. Mr. Porter will now play a B-flat on the tuba.




ROBERT: And there's not a sound, not a rustle, not interest. I'm looking at all these alligators. They don't wink, they don't blink, they don't move, they don't care. And Barbara Fadida's looking at me like, "What am I gonna do?" At that moment, a bus pulls in filled with French tourists who get out to go look at alligators. They come down the thing and they see all these gaily-dressed Americans in olive green and large plumes coming out of their head. Which is not apparently a French thing.


JAD: This is already a Fellini film that you're describing.


ROBERT: And so they say -- they say, "What's wrong?" And at this point I'm a little bit sad. And the sun -- at this point it's about 3:30 going on 4:00, and it's the wintertime, so we only have until about 6:00 before they have sunshine. And I say to them, "This is the situation." So they -- this guy from France says, "Oh, you see, this is the problem. In Michigan, they had -- they were in tubs. In tubs, right? It was in tubs. In porcelain. In porcelain? So the sound came from the sewing machine, down into the porcelain."


JAD: Oh, that's smart!


ROBERT: "This here is grass and water and mud. It's a different thing. You need to go to one of those parks up the road, where they put all the alligators in concrete. So it's like -- it's like the tubs." So I said, "Okay! That's the thing to do!" So now the people from France, they get in their bus. The bus -- the musicians, they get in the bus, their bus. George, his wife, their hangers-on, and the ABC crew, and Barbara Fadida going "Aaaaah!" get on the bus, and we all drive to -- well, it's in the piece.


ROBERT: Lester Piper's Everglades Wonder Gardens on old Route 41.


ROBERT: Now we arrive and there are 50 alligators in poured concrete sitting on islands. My camera crew is so certain that nothing is gonna happen that they get into the pit standing on these concrete islands not inches from these alligators. And the sun is now kissing the tops of the trees. So Fadida says, "Robert, we have one shot. I mean, do something. I can't go back to New York with nothing. I have nothing." And the French guy says, "You just need to put it in, in the concrete and you will be fine."


JAD: The French tourists?


ROBERT: Everybody's there! Yeah, so then -- so then we're standing there and ...


ROBERT: One more time. First, the French horn.




ROBERT: Okay, the tuba.




ROBERT: There's a kind of quiet.




ROBERT: And then there's a kind of a bubbling noise. The first thing that an alligator does when it's about to bellow is it shakes its ribcage. So all of a sudden it's like the whole pool of water turned to ginger ale. It's this fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy pop pop pop.


JAD: Whoa!


ROBERT: And then all the males, which is half the animals in this thing, all of them all at once make that noise.




ROBERT: This is the sound that Mrs. Campbell's sewing circle coming up through the basement.




ROBERT: Fadida starts praying. She's from North Africa. I don't know what she's doing. The French people are going [shouting in French]. And George -- and when that piece aired, it was my first -- because it was so -- like, you get a base, you get an audience, like say 4.5 million or something on a prime-time show, and then you get all the people who are clicking through, right? So those are called the butterflies. So I was given, I still have the chart of what happened that night on television. Like, people were looking and clicking and then they see this man with a plume, with a tuba and the alligators and the French guys and everything. And the audience goes boo-chi-goop, boo-chi-goop, boo-chi-goop. I'm adding, like, three million people every minute. I had such a high whatever that score is. Like, unbelievable. You know, the next week I did something internet and porn and it went actually in the opposite, which is a whole 'nother story. But for that week, I was like ...


JAD: You were king.


ROBERT: I was king.


JAD: And he still is.


RADIOLAB STAFF: Happy birthday!


JAD: Was this -- it wasn't an unpleasant experience for you, was it?


ROBERT: No, talking about myself is something I don't mind doing ever.


JAD: Thanks for listening.