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Clay Cole - Timeline

Clay Cole - Timeline
Clay Cole is born Albert Franklin Rucker, Jr. in Youngstown, Ohio, during the early morning hours of January 1, 1938 - a New Year's baby, and the firstborn of Evelyn and Albert Rucker, Sr.

Baby Clay Cole (Al Rucker, Jr)

The Rucker family shares a home with Clay's maternal grandparents and uncles.  They live in Hubbard, Ohio, a small town of 7,000.  Clay grows up surrounded by music and comedy, thanks to the radio and the Saturday night shindigs staged by the men of the family.  The child also becomes a frequent movie-goer and promptly falls in love with the glamorous, black-and-white images of 1940s Manhattan come to life on the big screen.  Not surprisingly, he also loves the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney series of musicals.  Inspired by these, the boy begins putting on shows in his backyard, ranging from vaudevillian skits to puppet shows, handling all of the writing and directing by himself.
1944 - 1951
The Ruckers move to Youngstown to be closer to the senior Rucker's work, living in a townhouse owned by the company.  Clay's backyard productions continue, with a new cast.
At the age of eleven, while in the sixth grade, Clay has a small part in a school Thanksgiving play.  During this time, the boy spies an audition notice in the local paper for a production of The Indian Captive at the Youngstown Playhouse.  Impressed with the boy's performance, the director casts Clay in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness, for its two-week run on the main stage.
In the audience during one of the performances is Elaine Carroll, producer of a live radio show, Enchanted Forest.  As a result, Clay is cast as the male juvenile lead, Tommy.  The show is broadcast at 5:00 p.m. every weekday afternoon, live from the WKBN studios.  Now a working actor receiving a paycheck, Clay takes the bus from school to downtown Youngstown every day, headed for the local YMCA building, where the studios are housed.  In addition to his work on the Enchanted Forest, Clay is the one called whenever a boy is needed for a local radio production of any sort.
The Ruckers become the first family in their neighborhood to own a television.  Clay quickly becomes enamored of the variety and music shows that are springing up on the three existing networks - NBC, CBS, and Dumont.
The winds of change are blowing; Clay's career as a boy actor comes to an abrupt end when he hits puberty and his voice cracks while he's working on the production "Survival Under Atomic Attack."  The Rucker family moves back in with Evelyn Rucker's parents in Hubbard, and Clay, now a teenager and an out-of-work actor, attempts to live like a "normal kid."

1951 - 1957
Clay begins writing a teenage gossip column for his local newspaper, The Hubbard News.  He joins the staff as a feature writer, later being promoted to Associate Editor.  In addition to the gossip column, Clay also pens a show-biz column called "The Spice of Life."
In 1953, Clay puts together an act for a charity show, recruiting four female classmates to join him as Al Rucker and the Baby Sitters.  Their innovative act, lip-syncing to the popular records of the day, is such a hit that they are invited to perform on a local TV show by Clay's old employer, WKBN, which is now WKBN-TV.  This leads to frequent appearances on a nightly variety series, which in turn leads to 15-year-old Clay becoming host of his own Saturday-night show geared to that new demographic: teenagers.  The show is called Rucker's Rumpus Room and features the Baby Sitters along with four male counterparts known as The Collegians.  In 1954, capitalizing on the local passion for sports, Clay creates a radio show called the Varsity, which airs on Fridays during the entire football season that year.  It is on this show that Clay spins his very first rock 'n' roll record: "Sh-Boom" by The Crew-Cuts.
Rucker's Rumpus Room ends its run a few days prior to New Year's Day, 1955, which is Clay's 17th birthday; a birthday cake is brought out amidst the New Year noisemakers and final goodbyes.  Within a week, as the result of a Rotary Club performance, Clay and his father are invited to meet with the sales manager of local NBC affiliate,WFMJ-TV.  Rucker's Rumpus Room transitions to the new station on January 8th without having even stopped to take a breath.  The cast of nine is paid $50.00 a week (total, not per person) and has a $20.00 costume budget.  To compensate for this somewhat unremarkable pay scale, the station gives Clay an additional position as a weekend booth announcer.
Rock and roll records have begun charting, and the Rucker's Rumpus Room players are gradually adding more and more such recordings to their performances; before long, Clay realizes that he is actually hosting a rock and roll show.  Sock hops are gaining popularity, and Clay easily convinces the head honchos at WFMJ to debut a new program - One O'Clock Jump, which features Clay dancing with teenage studio audience members.  This airs on Saturdays also, a few hours prior to the Rumpus Room.
At the age of nineteen, with four years of television hosting under his belt, Clay realizes that it's time to leave his small town and move on to bigger and better things - and brighter lights.  With an eye towards a vocation in show business, Clay turns down a firm offer of a job as a deejay in Buffalo, New York, and instead finds himself residing on the island of Manhattan in the summer of 1957, primed for a lifelong career as a song and dance man.

1957 - 1960

Clay gives himself a ten-year deadline to either make it in the big city or return to Ohio and become a writer for the local newspaper.  Once in New York City, he lands a job as a page with NBC.  The station reformats the Tonight Show with Jack Paar taking over hosting duties from Steve Allen.  A night shift is created for the page division, and Clay is selected to work the Paar show, not just for the first night but nearly every night for most of the rest of the season.

A fellow NBC page named Tom Pyle, fascinated by Clay's history as a TV host back in Youngstown, asks Clay for permission to shop the idea around and see whether a buyer could be found for the concept.  A television station in Providence, Rhode Island, WJAR, signs Clay up for a half-hour Saturday evening time slot.  Four girls and three guys are signed up to join the program, which is called Al Rucker and the Seven Teens.  The eight youngsters rehearse wherever they can on weeknights and drive from Manhattan to Rhode Island early Saturday morning, returning to the city when the show is over.

Clay leaves NBC and takes a job as production assistant for Barry-Enright, who have several game shows on the air including the primetime NBC quiz show Twenty-One.  When it is revealed that the shows are "fixed" - contestants are secretly being given the answers to the questions - a scandal erupts, the production company folds, and Clay finds himself without a full-time job.  He takes on a series of menial jobs to support himself.

In 1959, WJAR-TV celebrates its 10th anniversary and asks Clay to host their three-hour "block party" telecast.  A music promoter learns that New York station WNTA-TV (Channel 13) is looking for a replacement host for its popular Rate the Records show due to Hy Lit's departure and arranges for Clay to meet with the show's producers.  Clay is awarded the job on the spot.

Feeling that the young man's name is not optimal - because his first name, Al, might get him confused with the popular Alan Freed, and his surname, Rucker, could potentially lend itself to crude puns and jokes - the producers order him to change his name, and to do it soon because his debut is only a few weeks away.  Al Rucker, Sr. has a cousin, Edna, who is married to an encyclopedia salesman executive named Clay Cole; the junior Rucker appropriates the name as his own (subsequently asking permission to do so).  From that point on, the former Al Rucker, Jr. is known both professionally and personally as Clay Cole.  Two years are shaved off of Clay's age for his official bio, and, with a new look and a new time slot, Rate the Records premieres with "19-year-old" Clay Cole as host on September 14, 1959.

Clay Cole - Hit Parader Jan 1960 cover

Clay Cole - Hit Parader Jan 1960 1st pg

Clay Cole - Hit Parader Jan 1960 2nd pg

Rate the Records is a rigidly structured show, and within weeks Clay has persuaded the station brass to let him re-create the program in a much looser format.  The Record Wagon is born, and the show presents some of the biggest musical acts of the day as well as newcomers enjoying their first exposure to a national audience.  The show is so successful that Channel 13 rewards Clay by giving him a one-hour Saturday night time slot and a new program is born: The Clay Cole Show.

In January of 1960, Clay hosts an all-star show at the Commack Arena on Long Island, New York, his first stage appearance under his new moniker.

1960 - 1963

Nineteen-sixty is the first full year that the Clay Cole Show is on the air, and Clay's life is now a whirlwind of activity.  His popular show is attracting all of the biggest names in the business, many of whom become lifelong friends.  Dress on the show, for the host and guests, is formal; tuxes for the men, evening wear for the women.  Clay is invited to be a presenter on the second annual Grammy Awards.
In the spring of 1960, The Clay Cole Summer Show begins broadcasting live from the band shell at Palisades Amusement Park, six nights a week.  That summer, Clay records the novelty song "Here, There, Everywhere" at Regent Sound Studios; this will be the first of several Clay Cole recordings over the next few years.  Clay debuts the song on the show's August 20th broadcast, with "Cousin Brucie" Morrow introducing the segment.
In addition to the six-night-a-week TV show broadcasts, Clay is also brought aboard as the emcee for the Miss American Teenager pageant every Sunday, which means the young TV personality is now working seven days per week.  On top of all this, during a four-week period Clay appears in a summer production of Flower Drum Song at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, Long Island.
Two 14-year-old girls, Marcia Habib and Norma Lindenberg, form a fan club for Clay called "The Claymates."  Marcia is the club's first and only president, and she and Clay become lifelong pals.
In the fall of 1960, Channel 13, which by now has moved its studios from Times Square in Manhattan to Newark, New Jersey, adds two new shows for Clay to host: A half-hour game show, Teen Quiz, which airs Monday through Friday after school, and an amateur talent show, Talent Teens, on Sunday afternoons.  The Clay Cole Show continues its hour-long, Saturday night run.  Clay hosts three mid-week shows in the Catskill Mountains, appearing at the Concord Hotel with Linda Scott and Dion - the first rock 'n' roll show to ever play the "Jewish Alps."  In October, Clay hosts the show at the Apollo Theatre, with Fats Domino headlining; this will mark the first of three week-long engagements at the legendary Harlem venue.
The year ends on a high note, with Clay hosting the Christmas show at the Brooklyn Paramount.  The Clay Cole Christmas Show, which runs for ten days and features more than a dozen big-name musical acts, breaks all box office records.

Clay Cole Christmas Show

The following year, 1961, is a mixture of good and not-so-good.  Clay is cast as himself in the movie Twist Around the Clock, which also features Dion, The Marcels, Chubby Checker, and 16-year-old Vicki Spencer.  The movie capitalizes on the "twist" craze that had started right on Clay's own show the year before, when Chubby Checker performed it for the first time.  Clay records the title song and performs both it and his previously recorded "Here, There, Everywhere" in the movie, along with other tunes.  The Clay Cole Show is as popular as it's ever been when Clay is blindsided by the news that the station, WNTA-TV, has been sold and his program is no more.  (Channel 13 transitions to a non-commercial, educational TV format and will ultimately be known as WNET-TV.)
Now without the firm anchor of a regular television series, Clay is replaced as the host for the forthcoming Easter show at the Brooklyn Paramount, demoted to guest-star billing along with his replacement, the popular Murray (the K) Kaufman.  Later in the year, the promoter, Sid Bernstein, offers Clay a spot in an all-star holiday show in Chicago, but the five-day show doesn't even come close to duplicating Clay's previous record-breaking Christmas spectacular at the Paramount.
In the spring of 1962, Clay is booked for six weeks at Jack Silverman's International on Broadway, along with several rock 'n' roll artists.  After Clay's stint is over, the club's production singer resigns and Clay takes over singing the production numbers with the dancing girls.  In the meantime, he is looking to find a vehicle of his own.
Taking advantage of the popularity of Clay's film and records, a stage revue called Clay Cole's Twist-a-rama (a name Clay isn't crazy about) is put together, and Clay begins touring the nightclub circuit with The Capris and a new, teenaged female trio called The Ronettes.  When The Ronettes start making records and appearing with Murray the K as his dancing girls, they are replaced in the Twist-a-rama revue by The Delicates, a pair of teenaged girls named Denise Ferri and Peggy Santiglia.
Clay isn't having any luck getting back on television, and after the Twist-a-rama revue is dissolved, Clay takes a job as a night-shift coffee-house clerk.  He also works part-time for Billboard magazine, compiling record sales figures.  Eventually, Clay returns to The Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, performing in Bye, Bye Birdie.
During 1963, Clay works a stint as the overnight deejay Saturdays and Sundays on WINS radio.  That same year, he is offered three summertime specials on WOR-TV, Channel 9, to be broadcast live from Freedomland in the Bronx.  With his appearances on The Teenage Fair, Clay Cole is back in action - and back on television.

Next page: Clay Cole - Timeline (Page 2)

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