Remember the days of sock hops, school dances and DJs spinning “hot wax”?
Fred Plankenhorn did. He was right in the middle of all that, and as a teenager Plankenhorn always wanted to be a disc jockey. When he was a sophomore in high school he approached the venerable Ev Rubendall, dean of Williamsport radio at WRAK, about being a disc jockey at that station.
“Ev told me in a nice way I wasn’t ready for radio and to come back in a couple of years,” Plankenhorn recalled. He then went to WWPA and John Archer told him almost the same thing.
Finally, in September 1957 Plankenhorn and his buddy, Kerby Confer, who were both high school seniors, approached Dave Castlebury, who had just started WMPT, in a half-finished studio on the second floor of South Williamsport Borough Hall. They pitched the idea of a nighttime rock and roll show for Casetlebury’s fledgling station.
Castlebury respectfully listened to the boys’ proposal then asked, “Can you paint,” and they instantly answered, “Yes.” They were hired on the spot.
By Thanksgiving 1957, WMPT, 1450 on the AM dial, was on the air. The boys were originally given a spot from 4 to 5 p.m., just after school called, “Disc Jamboree,” that featured the rock and roll tunes of the day.
Not long after that Plankenhorn and Confer were given a show between 9 p.m. and midnight that was dubbed the “Night Train” show. It had sound effects of train whistles, bells, and chugs and the irrepressible commentary of both Plankenhorn and Confer. They acted as a team. They took turns alternated on-air duty. Whoever was not on the air would pull the records, answer the phone or go out for the all-important food that kept the energetic young men going in their radio duties.
The notoriety of the two “Night Trainers” soon spread quickly among the teenage rock and roll set. Plankenhorn said he and Confer would be walking from class to class at the Williamsport High School and would have students come up to them and hand requests for songs to be played on their show. Plankenhorn said it wasn’t uncommon for them to receive by mail at the station 200 to 300 post cards with musical requests on them.
One amusing anecdote about how Plankenhorn and Confer dealt with a request for a song neither liked comes from an article John Beauge wrote in the “Cherry and White” Senior Issue from 1958. “There was a request that neither Fred nor Kirby thought was any good. They announced over the air that by some accident, the record had been broken. Because of the announcement, everybody called in saying they never heard of the record and couldn’t they find another copy because people wanted to hear it. After the phone had rung for about five minutes, the boys decided they should play it, so they announced that by popular demand they glued the pieces together and here was the record, crack and all.”
The appeal of the “Night Train” show made it fairly easy to gather sponsors for the show. The first sponsor was Milo’s Barbecue, which bought 312 60-second commercial spots for $1 apiece.
The “Night Train” show became a road show when the Plankenhorn-Confer combo began to host sock hops and dances — the most notable being the ones hosted at the First Ward Fire Company in South Williamsport. Plankenhorn remembers the dances were so popular that the fire equipment would have to be moved out of their bays to accommodate all the dancers.
Noting the success at First Ward, officials at Willing Hand Hose Company in Montoursville asked the Night Trainers to come to Montoursville to hold dances there. They became just as successful as the South Side dances. Another major venue was the YMCA’s “Handy Haven.”
“The kids who came to those dances were always well behaved. There was no smoking or alcohol allowed and they were always well chaperoned,” Plankenhorn remembered.
He was paid the unheard of sum of $21 a night for the dances at a time when teenagers like him were lucky to be making minimum wage of about 75 cents to $1 per hour.
Plankenhorn continued his platter spinning and dance-hosting chores even after graduating high school in 1958. His old friend Kerby Confer left for Harrisburg in 1959. Dick Crownhower took over the Montoursville dances and was Plankenhorn’s partner in music for a while until Plankenhorn entered the Army in 1960.
After coming back from the Army in 1964, he resumed his radio duties, highlighted by his “Sunday Showcase” show.
By the late 1960s and early ’70s the kind of music Plankenhorn liked to play was disappearing from the airwaves and was now called “Oldies” music. The management at WLYC approached him in the late ’70s to do an “Oldies” show from 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday. Plankenhorn was able to pre-record his show, using a studio he built in his house. The WLYC show continued into the mid-’80s, and then he did a show for 3WD, 97.7 FM for several years.
He went back to AM in the early 1990s on WWPA doing another Saturday morning show.
In the fall of 1997, Plankenhorn started doing a show for BEAR Country on 99.9 and 92.7 on the FM dial, every Saturday night from 7 to 10 p.m., where he remains to this day.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in radio over the last 46 years,” Plankenhorn said. “Everything is so much more technological now. We used to just have two turntables and a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. Now they have CDs, cart machines and mini-cassettes and a lot of automation.”
He said it means a lot to him to have people come to him and tell him how much they enjoy his show and how it brings back a lot of good memories for them.
For hundreds, perhaps thousands of people across the Susquehanna Valley, Plankenhorn will always be the “Memory Merchant.”