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JAY MACK: THE LONG ROAD BACK

What follows, is an article from the May 1986 edition of DENVER Magazine
There have been questions about Jay Macks' early career and many folks remember there was a story about a car wreck with a station receptionist being injured. Many stories... but few of them accurate.
Now the story is brought forth in Jays' own words.


Between Rock Music And A Hard Life

In 1964, KIMN's hilarious, 25-year-old super-jock was on top of the world. He couldn't believe it would last. It didn't.

By Dennis Taylor


Midnight had come and gone on a warm August night in 1964 and Jack Merker's going-away party was breaking up.

A fellow KIMN Radio disc jockey, 25-year-old Jay Mack, wished good luck to his friend and colleague and wandered from poolside to the parking lot of the Lakewood Country Club. With him was Judy Danknich, 18, a receptionist at the station and a fre-quent companion. Merker planned to catch some sleep, then drive his family to Portland. A promotion to a better-paying position awaited at KYMN Radio, KIMN's sister station.

Mack, on vacation from the job that had made him a legend with Colorado's teen-age radio audience, was headed for some overdue relaxation at a moun-tain retreat.

Things in Jay Mack's life couldn't have been bet-ter. He was healthy, successful beyond his wildest expectations, enormously happy. His popularity as a radio personality had blossomed to astounding dimensions in less than a year. The station had selected him to introduce The Beatles at their KIMN -sponsored Red Rocks Amphitheater concert Aug. 26 - just a week away.

Mack serpentined his 1963 Jaguar aggressively into the foothills behind Golden. Danknich remembers wanting to be dropped off at home, but says Mack was in a playful mood and had other ideas. The disc jockey made advances, she says, and became irritated when she didn't cooperate. He ac-celerated. Moments later their lives had changed forever.

Jack Merker's telephone rang at 4:30 a.m. The grotesque wreckage of a British-green sports car, which had rolled eight times, had been found by the state patrol. A season pass to a drive-in theater chain, bearing Merker's name - a gift from Merker to Mack - was the only identification the driver car-ried. Could Merker come to Lutheran Hospital and identify this person?

"I didn't really need to go down there," Merker says. "I knew immediately who they'd pulled Gut of that Jaguar."

Jay Mack (James MacIsaac) was so near death that hospital officials asked Merker to notify his mother in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Danknich also was in critical condition with massive head injuries. Her parents, Robert and Vera, were told that Judy probably would die and that if she lived, she'd be a vegetable.

Danknich was comatose for 29 days and semi-comatose for another 15. After an extended hospital stay, she began to show signs of recovery. When she was able, she left the hospital to continue rehabilitation at home.

Jay Mack remained on the critical list for several days and was in a coma for more than three weeks. He was hospitalized for a month. Merker stayed in Denver for only a few days after the accident, then went on with his life. As he would recall more than two decades later, "That whole ordeal was one of the most upsetting things..." The symbolism of the accident - Mack was ris-ing fast when his car left the road and hit the moun-tain - borders on the eerie. When he was released from the hospital, the man who owed his fame and fortune to his genius for painting magical images with his voice discovered that he could barely talk.

Jay Mack labored over every sentence. Certain words suddenly were beyond his abilities. His shooting-star career had slammed into that moun-tain and would never be the same.

Twenty two years later, Jay Mack, 46, scratches through specks of gray hair that have eluded his Grecian Formula and scowls at the rear bumper of his 1974 Dodge Dart. "I've got to scrape those things off one of these days," he says, gesturing toward two KIMN Chicken bumper stickers put there years ago by a former owner.

Both Mack and the bumper stickers have seen better days.

Jay Mack harbors a few bad memories about his days at KIMN but he looks back on them fondly: They were the best of his times. In fact, Mack, who left KIMN in 1971 after two failed comeback at-tempts, remains wedded to the dream that eluded him so many years ago.

Today, details like scraping off bumper stickers are marooned on the back burners of his life. Mack's personality seems a curious mix of contradictions: He nurtures a meticulous passion for building tiny model airplanes - for such things, there just isn't enough time, yet, Mack also "cleans" his apartment by hurling items into a large cubical he calls "Fib-ber McGee's Closet." (Ironically, he looks a lot like actor Walter Matthau, who played the slobbish Oscar Madison in the film, The Odd Couple.)

The living room of his southeast Denver apart-ment is furnished with a strange blend of decor: Fancy, expensive-looking chairs flank his dresser, adjacent is his hide-a-bed. "It's terribly uncomfortable," he complains, "but it is good for my posture. When I wake up in the morning, my back hurts too much to bend over, so I stand up straight and tall."

In the few, cherished hours he spends at home, Mack glues together his plastic Sopwith Camels and Japanese Zeros and listens to placid selections from an enormous Glenn Miller collection. More con-tradiction: "I own just one album that could ac-curately be labeled rock-n-roll," says the man who became a rock guru in the 1960s. "It's an old KIMN Classic album - a freebie from the station. I hang onto it because there's a good picture of me from my younger years on the back, and because I keep my money in the jacket."

The man who once shared billing with Pogo Pogue, Hal "Baby" Moore and other jocks at the "Mighty 95" and who helped rear a generation of Denver teen-agers now works six nights a week at an East Hampden Avenue night spot, "The Proof of the Pudding." There, he sits in a glass booth, 8 p.m. to closing time, mixing his big-band favorites with classics from the 1960s and '70s. Some of the patrons remember him from the old days.

"I've never had a job I've enjoyed more than this one," he proclaims, "with the possible exception of the old KIMN."

Mack was drawn to Denver by his affinity for high places. When he worked previously for a top-40 format sta-tion in Seattle, he spent much of his time in the Space Needle, gazing over the city. "I liked being up in the air," he says. "I can't analyze my affec-tion for heights, but I've always had it. Airplanes, mountains.., whatever. One of the reasons I ac-cepted a job at KIMN was that I knew Denver was a mile higher than everything else."

On his first trip to Denver, with belongings stuffed into a gold Impala, Mack, 24, came over the Rocky Mountains at night, approaching the city lights on old U.S. Highway 40. "Seattle is a nice city, but my first impression of Denver was that it was total-ly awesome. "I didn't really know what to make of the radio station. I'd worked previously at stations in Califor-nia and Washington state, but KIMN was, well, dif-ferent from anything I'd ever heard before. I didn't know exactly how I was going to fit in." What was "different" was the mutual love affair between KIMN and its listeners. In every sense, KIMN was Denver's radio station. It provided flashy, on-the-spot coverage of the more spectacular Denver-area news. KIMN news even went international on occasion. When rumors surfaced that Beatle Paul McCartney had died, KIMN immediately dispatched newsman Tony Lamonica to London and, three days later, aired a 30-hour documentary.

KIMN sent its radio personalities to pep rallies and homecoming celebrations at Denver-area high schools; KIMN brought to town big-name rock-n-roll stars for concerts - many of them free. KIMN spearheaded massive charity drives. Most of all, KIMN gave things away - trips around the world, thousands of dollars in cash - whatever the creative staff could conjure up.

"Ken Palmer, who was the station manager, part-owner and creative force behind all of our successes, never did anything halfway," Mack says. "Whatever it was, we did it first-class or not at all." Naturally, imitators of the successful KIMN for-mula were quick to appear. Just as swiftly, the KIMN juggernaut would stomp them into oblivion. "It wasn't enough for Palmer to beat the other guy; he had to completely destroy their morale," re-calls Merker.

When a rival station, KBTR, tried to stimulate in-terest by giving away the use of a new Volvo for a month, Palmer hooted out loud, then bought up every vehicle on a West Colfax Avenue car lot and began giving away one an hour on the air. Merker says, "The night disc jockey at KBTR back then was Dave Diamond, who used to sit and listen to our station while he was on the air; we knew that. When he heard that (car give-away) promotion, he was just devastated. He admitted that to me a few years later when we worked together in San Francisco."

And Jay Mack says, "Pogo and I would be in the station and Ken would call from some bar, three or four martinis along, and say, 'Give away the '59 Chevy.' We'd do it with a promotion we called Name It And Claim It. The 10th caller, or whoever, would name the song we were playing at the time and we'd give him a car - just like that." To simplify, and to add some dry humor to the con-test, the disc jockeys always played the same song for listeners to name: "A Hard Day's Night" by The Beatles.

The flood of phone calls from KIMN~s audience (which, in the early 1960s, was 65 percent of the Denver market in certain ratings periods) regularly blew the telephone circuits through the roof. An offshoot was ihe birth of a strange phenomenon: Teen Line. Teen-agers who bombard-ed the station with contest and request-line calls would, upon getting a busy signal, bark their phone numbers between the rhythmic buzzes. Potential new friends - usually the girls contacted the boys ~ would call up for some serious flirtation. "I never knew about Teen Line when I was working there," Mack says. "But I knew from the ratings and other things that KIMN was a big, big deal in Denver.

From 1958 through 1971, KIMN was far and away the top station in the region. Merker describes his recollection of the KIMN dominance: "We had six stations with an identical format competing with us back then and we were never beaten in any ratings period. As far as I know, that kind of dominance had never happened before anywhere in the coun-try, and I know for a fact that it's never happened since."

Jay Mack had been on the air at KIMN for about three months when he found himself at Elitch Gardens for a KIMN Free Fun Day, for which the station had imported The Four Seasons for a con-cert. "It was all free, so every kid in Denver showed up, he says. "I remember fidgeting as they in-troduced the other disc jockeys, thinking, 'Oh, no, nobody's going to know me, I'm too new here.' Well, they brought me out and the kids went crazy - just berserk. And I said to myself, 'Hmm.. . this is rather strange.'

The primary reason for Jay Mack's enormous ap-peal at KIMN was his unique showmanship, built around an array of taped voices - peculiar little im-aginary friends who supposedly were in the studio with him and with whom he bantered back and forth. (The idea, he says, came from a Los Angeles disc jockey, Don MacKinnon, one of Mack's early role models. And Merker says, "I used voices too, before Jay came, but after I heard his, I decided I'd better find another schtick. He was so damn good that I knew I was going to sound lousy by comparison."

A timid-sounding character with a nasal, Brooklyn accent, whom Mack dubbed Farley, would respond to the disc jockey's patter with lines like, "I can't believe it!" and, "I lost it... Wait a minute, here it is. It was in my pocket all the time!" A character named Niles would react to Mack's suggestions with booming bellowings such as, "No, I won't go home! I'm gonna get drunk and sleep in the park with you." Another voice would suffix a suggestive punch line, "How about Betty Jo Bioloski?" to a variety of Mack straight lines, and subsequently would be scolded by Mack for the innuendo. It was uproarious fun. The voices quickly won the affection of Mack's listeners. Once, Mack announced that he had locked Betty Jo in the "great orange-colored basement" of KIMN's famous Sloans Lake studio. He supposed-ly kept her there for nearly two months, refusing to let her out until listeners had contributed plenty of money to a KIMN fund-raising effort. Women's-rights groups picketed the station.

Mack regularly had cassette tapes plugged into seven or eight machines, giving the listener the im-pression that he was surrounded by crazies at all times and was shepherding his audience through a strange party from 3-7 p.m. daily. And Denver's teen-agers enjoyed nothing more than partying after school with Jay Mack.

Mack's re-collection of the accident is weak. "Neurologically, they say when you have a traumatic experience, your brain blocks out certain things," he explained. "I don't remember a thing about that whole day. "I guess I decided that my car could fly," he says. "And it did-but at some point the forces of gravity overcame my momentum. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital and I couldn't enun-ciate my words. "I don't know whether I got a knock on the head and a slight disruption of the speech center or what, but when I finally returned to work, I found that I could not perform my job."

He tried but the magic was gone. "What earlier had been a really fun thing, an easy thing, like f ail-ing off a log, all of a sudden had become ... I mean, I had to teach myself how to talk all over again. "And I knew the other guys at the station were, you know, 'Poor Jay hasn't got it anymore. . .can't cut it.. . BRAIN DAMAGE!'"

He struggled for a year and then was told by Palmer that he was being reassigned to KYMN in Portland, where he would work for Merker as an off-the-air producer.

"It broke my heart," he recalls. "Don't misunderstand - I learned a great deal - but I was very determined to get back to my status of a Denver radio entity."

Mack's life was empty without the letters and phone calls from listeners, the crazy promotions, the cel,ebrity status, the parties, the opportunities to use his incredible wit and creativity. "I can remember driving through the rain in Portland in 1965 and listening to The Rolling Stones singing 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' on my car radio. That summed up exactly howl felt at the time. And every time I hear that song I think of those days."

KIMN continued to bury its competition in Mack's absence, thanks to a solid lineup of spectacular radio personalities.

Pogo Pogue (whose real name was Morgan White), literally made his name with strange pro-motions and antics. His nickname derived from a stunt announcing his arrival at KIMN: He bounced into town on a pogo stick. He rode roller coasters for hours, pausing only for live interviews on KIMN. His most famous prank was a marathon show inside the display win-dow of the downtown Zales Jewelry store, where he was sealed with dozens of poisonous snakes. Weary from the marathon, Pogue fell over in his chair, was bitten by a water moccasin and almost died from a reaction to the anti-venom serum. (Strangely, when Pogo Pogue became Morgan White at the end of his work day, he was a quiet, introspective family man, deeply devoted to the Mormon faith.)

The screamin' Hal "Baby" Moore once got so car-ried away with his own brand of on-the-air excite-ment that he lost his balance and fell on the floor while hollering into his microphone.

No longer a part of the party, a frustrated Jay Mack quit his job in Portland and went home to his mother in Kalamazoo.

"I spent three months doing nothing but writing my own copy, reading it into a tape recorder and playing it back.., day after day, over and over, un-til I'd reached the point where I felt I would be capable on the air again."

In winter 1965, he returned to Denver and worked at KBTR. Two months later, KIMN, reacting to com-plaints from listeners who missed Mack, rehired him for the noon-to-5 shift. After three lackluster years, Mack jilted KIMN for a better-paying job at WFUN in Miami, where Merker was employed. But he didn't like Miami and called KIMN again. The station reluctantly hired him for a third stint in 1969. The long years of rehabilitation and effort were beginning to pay off. The timing was back in the droll Mack manner. It wasn't as deft as in past years but there were signs. He was regaining not only his style but his popularity.

However, trouble loomed. Two years later Palmer sold the station to a friendly rival, Kent Burkhart, and the handwriting was on the wall. Several of the disc jockeys defected to other stations before they could be fired.

"But the powers that be at the station all said, 'Man, they're not gonna fire you - you're the heavy hitter here ... top dog in the city,' Mack remembers.

The sale of the station was final April 15, 1971. Within days, longtime KIMN newsman and "Air Alert" pilot Don Martin was called at home at 4 am. as he was preparing for work, and canned. Later that day, several other employees filed past Mack, payckecks in hand. "I said 'To hell with this' and went to the Four Winds (a West Colf ax Avenue motel and bar) to get drunk," Mack relates. "At a quarter of 3, 1 called KIMN with a snootful of scotch and asked if I should bother reporting to work. They told me to pick up my check and that was that. I was fired over the telephone."

Ross Reagan, who was sacked with Mack and the others that day, says the mass firings perplexed and stunned their victims - especially Jay Mack.

"We'd been named 'radio station of the year' by one of the national trade magazines, and Jay was our No. 1 personality," Reagan says. "Then one day somebody walks in the door and, for no reason you can possibly figure out, fires almost everybody on the staff. We used to have meetings in my apart-ment after that, during which we spent a lot of time asking each other, 'What happened?'

Times were changing. Competition from other AM stations was fierce, PM radio was on the rise, and KIMN's dominance ended shortly after the Palmer regime. (Palmer later died from cancer in 1984.)

In Denver and in major markets across the country, formats were geared toward more music, less talk. " 'Be a hero in 10 seconds or shut up,' is what they told us," Merker says. The era of the big-time disc jockey was over.

Mack knocked around the major radio market a while longer. He took Parley and Niles to KTLK (where Ross Reagan was program director) and KDEN in Denver, then to KNAK in Salt Lake City and, in April 1974, to WDAF in Kansas City, rejoining Reagan.

Mack, who had been married from 1966 to 1968, tried again in Missouri, but was divorced within a year. "I'd be gone sometimes for two, three days at a time, working on production and living on cof-fee and cigarettes," he says. "When I'd get home, it wasn't, 'Hi honey, how was your day?' What day? What day is it?"

"Jay did well in Kansas City." says Ross Reagan. "He was pretty well accepted there, but he was deal-ing with a series of personal crises during that period," namely the divorce and his mother's death. "I'd have to say that a combination of a number of disappointments and personal tragedies in that short period of time contributed heavily to any negative attitude Jay might've developed toward the radio business."

In 1975. Mack was told by the WDAF station manager that he simply "didn't have it anymore," and was fired. With his ego crushed and disco music driving disc jockeys off the air and into crowded nightclubs to spin their discs, he abandoned his pro-fession. He tried selling cars, but felt he was com-promising his integrity in a "sleazy business." He managed a hotel in a Kansas City ghetto but grew weary of dragging drunks off the premises.

"The last 10 years haven't been fun," he says. "I've been dealing with real people in real-life situa-tions. That's different from working in a glass booth. I learned a lot about human relations, but I didn't care for it at all. I did it for survival. Suddenly, I found 1myseif getting down on the sidewalk with everybody else and groveling for that tidbit Elton John sings about in 'Good-bye Yellow Brick Road.'"

Mack limped to Traverse City, Mich., where his only remaining family, an aunt and a couple of cous-ins, lived. He walked into a "one-horse radio sta-tion with a signal that barely reached beyond the town borders," told his story to the confused owner and was hired. Mack worked for minimum wage as the station's only employee, sweeping up when his shift ended. Finances depleted, he boarded in a broken-down apartment house in winter, and slept on the beaches of a Lake Michigan bay in the summer. "But radio was in my blood," he says, "and I felt like the only way to get back in was to start again at rock-bottom and work my way up. That place was rock-bottom." In February 1984, Jay Mack left behind what he calls "the worst blizzard I've ever seen" and re-turned to Colorado. "Sometimes a 'Why me?' goes through my head," says Jay Mack. "Hey, I was doing OK, right? I never really did anything wrong. I wasn't a bad guy. I had a little too much to drink now and then, maybe, but I didn't go around mugging people in alleys."

After returning to Denver, Mack worked weekends for awhile at a small, Aurora radio sta-tion but resigned last month in order to take a job playing oldies rock Saturday nights on KLSC Radio. The comeback trail still beckons.

Judy Danknich, who will be 40 in June, describes herself as a hap-py person, but admits that she still weeps occasion-ally over the accident. She is permanently disabled. She suffers severe memory problems and, accor-ding to her mother, can't go anywhere alone. "If she tried to walk around the block, she'd get lost," says Vera Oldham, who remarried after the divorce from Robert Danknich. She said the medical ex-penses of Judy's accident bankrupted her former husband. Mack carried no car insurance at the time of the accident.

In Judy Danknich's eyes, Jay Mack isn't a bad guy. She feels no bitterness, but is disappointed that she's had almost no contact with him since the ac-cident. In 1979. Danknich visited Mack at KIMN's 25th anniversary reunion. She says he expressed considerable remorse and she believes he was sincere. Still, she feels there is tension between them and would like to talk it out with Mack. Oldham said she felt "betrayed" by Mack because he told her and Judy at that reunion that he would "make a little restitution but he never has." Then, she wonders if she judges him too harshly. "I know he hasn't had anything since," she says.

Judy Danknich lives in a government-subsidized complex in downtown Denver, paying bills with Social Security checks. She moves slowly, usually with the aid of a cane, and endures what she calls "daily sensations" - pressure within her skull com-mon to brain injury patients. Her rehabilitation suffered a major setback in May 1973 when a car she was riding in collided with another driven by Dr. J. Leonard Swigert, the father of former astronaut Jack Swigert (who later ran for Congress but con-tracted and died from cancer). Dr. Swigert died from injuries received in the accident.

"The second accident compounded. . . quadrupled my problems," she says. Oldham says her daughter had to stay with her until just three years ago. The "cognitive retrain-ing" continues even today and, "She'll never recover," Oldham says. Still, her daughter wasn't expected to live. "She's a walking miracle."

KIMN Radio main-tains a strong sense of pride in its history. "Our sense of heritage is stronger than almost any radio station I can think of," says Steve Keeney, the recently resigned vice president and general manager of the station. "We're doing essentially what we've been doing for the past 30 years, and that's rare." Jay Mack, for whom things are quite different nowadays, says he doesn't think much about KIMN anymore.

"I have this feeling, this philosophy about living in the past, I stole it from Ian Fleming," he says, reaching for a treasury of Fleming writings about Mack's favorite literary character, James Bond. He adjusts his eyeglasses and reads Fleming's words aloud: "James Bond lives his life as best he can, without looking back. To dwell in the past on-ly creates cavities in the soul. Bond loves life. He thrives on the adventures his assignments bring. The worst disease a man can catch is boredom. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make bored. Living in the past is the death-watch beetle in the soul."
DENVER MAGAZINE MAY 1986


Jay Mack passed away on March 2, 2002 in Denver