Some folks like to display lawn art. In some neighborhoods, they prefer garden gnomes; in others, it's Bambi and his pals, standing stock-still in the frontyard, waiting for a hunter to pass. On the Hill and in South St. Louis, it's Mary-on-the-half-shell. Some people have an urge to exhibit their own peculiar tastes, it's true. Given this penchant for exhibition, is it really all that strange that a citizen would choose to display his musical tastes for all the neighbors to hear? The answer is yes, except, of course, if that broadcast emanates from the eccentric streets of Dogtown.
When you first hear the music, near the corner of Tamm and Berthold avenues, you think, "Oh, someone's playing albums with the window open." When you pass by the corner again, maybe a month later, the music is still playing, some wistful familiar song. This time the modulated voice of a radio professional breaks in, announcing, "That was 'Summer Wind' by Frank Sinatra." Frequent the corner with any regularity, and you'll soon discover the source of the music. It comes from a speaker positioned above the front door of a modest yet colorful home on Tamm. Finally it dawns: The music is always playing; someone wants the neighbors and passersby to hear this radio station.'
Persistent knocking around noon on a weekday brings a shirtless Leroy Huddleston to the door. "I was in a poker game until 4 this morning," he says in a half-awake voice. "I'm old enough now, I figure I can do whatever I like." Sizing him up -- long, scraggly gray hair, combed back; confident if not cocky bearing; nice tan -- you get the feeling he has been doing whatever he likes for most of his 81 years.
Don't call him Leroy, by the way. Lynn works just fine. A house painter in semiretirement, Lynn gets up late most days. He goes to bed late, too, and when he finally hits the hay, he turns off the music. When he arises, he turns it back on. Oh, it's not loud, maybe 4 or 5 on volume dial. In fact, one can hardly hear it three doors away. It is essentially background music for the immediate vicinity.
It started, says Lynn, "back in the last part of the old hippie days. One day I was out in the yard, and I thought I might want to hear some music, so I brought out the speaker, and it just seemed like a nice touch to keep it on all the time."
The "old hippie days," incidentally, ended for Lynn a little later than for most of us -- more like the late '80s. In a neighborhood known for characters, Lynn stands out. His eclecticism extends beyond the front porch to the mellow-yellow Pontiac Landau parked curbside. Tied to the aerial like a surrender flag is a white bandana. A bevy of troll dolls gaze out the rear window, and a nearby decal reads: "I'm not old, I'm a recycled teenager."
He bought this house in 1956, and once it held a family. But the wife left him, and the children grew up and moved away. Now he lives with two cats, Bo and Gum Ball. Out on the porch, a stack of window frames await a fresh coat of paint. A cache of yellowed, flaking newspapers from 1938, something he found while painting an apartment, sits in a box near the door. All around the porch, a flush of real and fake flowers treats the eye. On the lawn, at the base of the porch steps, a 3-foot-long blacksnake slithers along. Wait! That's a fake, too. Lynn has it there, he says, "to freak people out."
He gets back on the music: "It's something to keep me busy, and music touches almost everyone. People walk down the street, they hear some nice music, it might make their day better."
He claims nobody has ever asked him to turn it down or turn it off. Just the opposite: "I get cards and letters in my mailbox, 'Thanks for the music.' In summer, people come sit on my wall and listen."
What they are listening to is WRTH, 1430 on the AM dial and a station whose content the ratings services classify as "adult standards." Or, as morning host Ron "Johnny Rabbitt" Elz specifies, "pop hits from the '60s forward. We play Elvis, but not the real hard Elvis songs," Elz says. "We'll play 'The Long and Winding Road' but not 'Hey, Jude.' There's some Billy Joel and Carly Simon, but most of it is more like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Rat Pack stuff. We occasionally drop in some big bands like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman -- that's like a spice in the format."
It might seem incongruous that a man who pines for the old hippie days and who has a collection of '60s and '70s psychedelic music, including Bubble Puppy on both eight-track and vinyl, would broadcast easy-listenin' to the discreet denizens of Dogtown. He has his reasons, however.
"It stays on that station," says Lynn, talking over Herb Alpert's up-tempo "A Taste of Honey," which pours from the old speaker above the door, "this way I know that when I'm gone no one's going to hear no preaching or politicking. It's nothing but straight music."
Over at WRTH, they're pleased as punch. "He's our advertising director, of course," Elz quips when informed of Lynn's musical selection. "And the station doesn't have any billboards, so it's our biggest form of outdoor advertising -- honestly." He adds, "Maybe that's why we're so popular in Dogtown, because the ratings are broken down by ZIP code, and in that area our ratings have always been high. Could this have anything to do with it? You never know -- it may be a form of subliminal suggestion."
But the effect of persistent airplay is not so subliminal when it comes to the neighbors within earshot. Some like it, some don't. Everyone has an opinion, though few want their names attached to those opinions. Lynn is, after all, a neighbor. Understandably, they don't want to create unrest.
'Why are you picking on Leroy?" a woman across the street demands. "We have no problem with his music or him. He's a very nice man."
"It's ridiculous," spouts another neighbor, who speaks on the promise of anonymity. "That constant music, the carols at Christmas time, chipmunk songs. He plays it on into the night. If I didn't have my air conditioner on, it would drive me crazy. But don't get me wrong -- I like him. He keeps his property up."
"I think it's neat," says around-the-corner neighbor Chris Salinas, who walks his dogs past Lynn's place. Salinas pauses. "But then, I don't live next door to him, so I don't know."