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Tucson Salvage 

Day in the life of Frank Luna, career radioman and micro record label owner

click to enlarge Frank Luna working at home.

Brian Smith

Frank Luna working at home.

When Frank Luna returned my call last week I no idea who was on the line. I was waking from deep sleep, and his voice, a percussive, bass-heavy argot, tickled my inner ear.

He said, "Yes! Hello? Is this you? Yes?"

"Hey," I said.

"This is me ... hello" or something like that. Sounded like a Latino Stewie Griffin, but deeper, heavier. It scared the hell out of me, so it had to be a joke.

Later that day I'm standing in Luna's dark, slightly foreboding one-bedroom apartment. It's in a cool '50s complex that's sun-faded into a light melancholy brown. I hear his other voices too, 11 at last count. They're in Spanish (his first language) and English and Spanglish, in the parlance of old Hanna-Barbara or Beetlejuice or pirate, or a kind of old-school radioman freakout, there's even a Katherine Hepburn (hoarse and all) in there, and each is more wicked than the last.

But there's discernible humanity in his rich tone, and when he plays it straight it's a voice I swear I've heard late night in the borderlands, in Sonora or Southern Arizona, buzzing out from dad's dashboard dial, long before AM began to soundtrack its own decline, as if broadcast from some half boarded-up small town. Long before it suffered from a dearth of commanding voices, energy, and late-night edge.

His wonderfully percussive yet soothing syntax sounds like the end of some golden age. A voice slicing through crackles of high-school football scores from distant lights in the rearview, and chatters of UFO sightings, and introductions to blooming Mexican waltzes, and, dear God, The Open Road, where your heart could still break suddenly for the one you'll never ever find.

Listen now and you can hear the sound of America shifting so quickly that none of us has the time to even hear and see and feel what's happening around us. Luna's voice lulls like narcotics when it softens, and it does for a few reasons, not just for affect. I might as well be the last person on earth tuned into it.

His sole companion, a black Chihuahua, stiffens his back and dances around our ankles on the carpet and yaps at his master's commanding and hilarious patois. Luna nods at the dog, and says, "that's Oona, which in Gaelic means 'one with the earth,' or, in Spanish, 'Uno con la Tierra.'"

* * * *

His face puts one at ease by its sheer lack of suspicion, and easily sparked kindliness. Salt-and-pepper hair, gray mustache, a Band-Aid centered perfectly over the dorsum of his nose—it's kind of Fred Flintstone friendly. In his day-hang clothes—old swag T-shirt (Hot 98 radio), baggy shorts, Nike flip-flops—he does comedy and voices that could make any gaggle of third-graders howl, or, really, any group of adult beer-swills howl too, because, when you think about it, no one really gets old anymore. Peter Pan ain't got nothing on Luna.

It's strange that Luna uses a walker though he's still in his mid-50s—a back injury suffered in his early '80s peacetime Air Force stint in Guam (he worked in radio there too)—but one doesn't really notice the walker, because he's so animated—arms flailing, that cartoonish countenance, and that throat.

"I worked with many people who had disabilities," he says. "At KHYT one guy had no arms, he'd flip records with his feet, and it was like he had arms. But we loved radio, broadcasting and music."

His love of older cartoons matches his kid-like passion for anime (especially the Tucson fest Con Nichiwa), and radio, and broadcasting. (He'll rattle off old pop-culture facts, names of old-cartoon voiceover artists he deems heroic, like "Ted Knight from the Mary Tyler Moore Show; I recognized his voice, and Vic Perrin's, who did the scary Outer Limits narration, from Super Friends!")

He lives and breathes this stuff, and because of it he's built recording studios, got radio stations up and running. And it's easy to hear how thousands responded enthusiastically to him over the years.

If you grew up in Tucson in the '80s and '90s you've likely heard Luna's voice, on AM or FM. He's last of a dying breed of radio journeymen, having done time on about every damn radio frequency on the Southern Arizona dial. He was working at KIKX radio the day it went off the air for good in 1981("a sad day for radio"). But later, his "El Chavalo Loco" persona ruled on R&B/hip-hop giant KOHT-FM (Hot 98) where listeners were treated daily to his between-song shenanigans and voices.

He has DJ'd at maybe two dozen places, at all-Spanish talk, all news, rock stations and jazz, new age, country music, hip-hop and R&B, at places like Tucson's Tejano 1600 and KTUC and KNDE, and KKHG "The Hog." There was KAVV in Benson, K101 in Sierra Vista, one or two in Nogales, and so on. He even worked Skyview Traffic. It's remarkable the details of things he hasn't forgotten, nuances of each station, and their owners, indie or corporate, and the exact start and end dates. You could say this guy is a piece of Tucson's soul, so deep runs his broadcasting history.

Then one day in 1999, while working at KXCW and KTZR, he got sick of corporate interference with his on-air work, getting "poked in the ribs" by greedy bean-counters to soften edges. It siphoned all joy from his work, so he switched to the other side of the mic.

Broadcasting is his life's affirmation: on-air he was an entertainer, a music curator, a comedian and impersonator, a newsman. He wraps all of this up into a succinct little phrase, "When you're able to make pictures with sound, the sky's the limit."

Luna's love of radio and audio festered in childhood. At 10 he got the crap "beaten out of him" for overhauling his dad's hi-fi, "an old Packard-Bell with a turntable, AM-FM. But I got it sounding better!"

Onetime he got up the nerve and knocked on the projectionist's door at Tucson's old Rodeo drive-in to complain that the picture quality was scratchy.

"So the guy broke the rules and let me in the booth because I was so inquisitive and young," Luna says. "I saw the blinding carbon arcs on the projector, and he taught me the cue marks and the countdown to change reels."

Luna got his electronics on at Sunnyside Junior High where a teacher sparked his curiosity. "Good teachers were few," Luna says, "but one, Pete Kozachik—brother of Tucson councilman Steve Kozachik—took a real interest." Kozachik went on to become an Oscar-nominated visual effects expert in films.

Teachers at Sunnyside High School referred to Luna as the "high school's golden throat," and he did the morning announcements through the main school public address system, all four years of high school.

By 15 Luna was interning at KOPO radio as "a technician cleaning tape heads." A morning DJ heard his "golden" voice, and the kid was on his way to becoming an on-air personality. (KOPO hired Luna after he finished high school.) He turned his teen fascination into a career.

* * * *

Inside Luna's place there's a stereo and turntable with lots of radio-ready outboard gear—from sonic maximizers to hard drives—where he assembles broadcast quality edits of shows and music. On the wall above it hangs art and framed photos either of, or done by Luna's daughter, Katrina. It's a pedestal of sorts, decorated with green things: hanging leis, a waving Gumby, a lamp that throws green light—green was Katrina's favorite color. The 24-year-old, one of Luna's two children, from his only marriage, which lasted from 1983 to '96, died of an accidental overdose in 2013.

"I wasn't prepared for it. That's when the friends come in. That's when the shrinks come in. That's when family comes in." He pauses, adds, "When it starts to get the better of me now, that's when I bury myself in my work."

He looks down between his hands on the walker, and says, "When you lose a kid, this is where the adult comes in, you have to move. You have to continue. You have to."

Luna was born middle of five. The youngest and oldest of his siblings died well before their years from health-related issues. His own father, a Nogales-born Korean war vet, committed suicide in 1977.

Maybe the mirth and voices and comedy are a series of gestures designed to blur the pains of loss, like Frida Khalo's idea of painting her own reality. Luna tells me he pretty much eschews alcohol, the depressive in it is a killer. Suicide, he says, runs in his family, and in response he's deceptively self-aware. His world is fueled by joy-filled mannerisms and self-created radio voices because it's his way of channeling those he lost.

"I get to live lives for those I loved, those who died before their time."

* * * *

Luna never considered a career outside broadcasting, though his throat would've earned him lucrative voiceover work in Los Angeles. Out of provincial loyalty he stayed in Tucson, though he says if he ever got his voice in one cartoon he'd go to the grave happier. Since 2000 he's been employed at Sahuarita-based KEVT-AM radio (Power Talk 1210), one of four AM stations in Southern Arizona broadcasting at 10,000 watts or more during the day. Luna's lived through numerous format changes there—from Spanish religion to all-talk news.

It's locally owned, "one of the last of the mom and pops," Luna says. "And right now it's like good tenure at a university—I've earned my tenure."

There are caveats: AM-radio station budgets these days are as thin as those in journalism, such that Luna does "the job of eight people. If I were to quit there would be no station."

The station's local on-air lynchpin is boom-voiced old-school Tucson news legend John C. Scott. There's a roundelay of syndicated progressive stars too, including Stephanie Miller. Aside from various station IDs—at KEVT, as well as a few others around the country to which Luna's freelanced his voice—you won't hear him on the airwaves.

This afternoon Luna's busy in his apartment, transferring digital audio files of recently aired Scott shows for airtime because the host is out tending to his wife, who's recovering from surgery. He regales with hilarious yarns from his decades in radio. He reaches into a closet and produces CDs and 8X10 glossies signed to him by Eminem, Will.i.am, and even Wilson Phillips, mementos of a radio career partially rooted in music fandom. Fandom that inspired record collecting since he was nine years old. Now there are thousands organized in his apartment.

Including LP rarities by Hawaiian-born crooner Ernie Menehune, a Tucson legend who ultimately altered Luna's life in ways. Menehune was famous for his big-band-fortified Polynesian revue and lounge act, which raged from the late-'50s through the '70s. Menehune was a huge club and lounge draw in the Western states, played Caesar's Palace, and released seven now-highly collectable albums. He performed up to his 2015 death. He became a bone fide Tucson music legend after performing here for decades and then living here.

Luna was 8 years old when he first met Menehune. It was in 1968 at Tucson's long-storied Spanish Trail club, where the crooner had a residency.

"I was coming out of the pool and made my way into the lounge where my dad was at the bar having a drink," Luna says. "Ernie had just finished his set. Here he is in his Hawaiian shirt and the whole thing ... I was like a bobbysoxer meeting Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra for the first time."

Cut to 2010, and Ernie is about 87 years old and throwing a Hawaiian luau. Luna drove out to Menehune Ranch, the singer's sprawling Hawaiian-themed Tucson spread to purchase tickets directly from the singer. Luna hadn't seen Menehune since that day in 1968. But he never forgot him. Menehune didn't remember Luna the boy but after that ticket-buying day the two became close friends, and later bonded over the fact they each had lost a child.

Menehune discovered he could trust Luna and gave him control of the rare master tapes for his albums. Luna promised Menehune he'd get all of his music reissued. When Menehune died, Luna had already begun the reissue project, painstakingly transferring the master tapes to digital, with help from longtime Tucson studio men Lee Furr and Jim Brady. When the two-track masters were too damaged, where audio restoration would interfere with the integrity of the songs and recordings, Luna had them remixed from the original multi-tracks tapes to sound like the original. Remixing is tricky because it alters history, the sonic context of the time of creation. Luna has taken his time to get it right. The limited-released CD reissues on Luna's own imprint (Luna Recorded Archives) so far sound amazing; warm and analog-y, judiciously mastered, direct from the master reels. "I'm a very big stickler when it comes to sound," Luna says. You can find the discs at Zia Records locations.

The third Menehune album—Showtime: Live at The Spanish Trail Supper Club—will likely be out this summer.

"Getting Ernie's music out is a project of the heart," he says. "There's no money, whatever it earns has gone back into the project. Getting the music heard, and getting new sets of younger ears to pay attention isn't so easy."

Others in radio help, and he singles out KXCI radio—Tucson iconoclast Al Perry in particular—for keeping the spirit of Menehune alive by playing the music. "Before Menehune had died he was tickled his music was back on local airwaves, and now, because of Perry, people are picking up on his music."

* * * *

Luna grew up certain of what he wanted from the world, and in large measure he has attained it. How many can say that about lives they lead? This radio—this broadcasting, fading as it is from the golden age of American pop culture—has defined him, and will continue to support him long into the foreseeable future. "AM radio is dying," he says, "but it will never just die."

Does Luna get lonely?

"I have Oona," he says without blinking, and adds, "When the time comes, I'll find a companion."

He pauses, laughs, and adds, "I'm probably going to be buried in a big transmitter box with my headphones and maybe a bottle of good tequila. And if I was to die tomorrow I would die happy, a simple human being who loved what he did for a living."

Before I leave, Luna cues up on his stereo a 2014 recording that he made of Menehune, a year before he died, recorded here in Luna's little living room. A single mic captured live in one take Menehune gently singing Martin Denny's "Tiny Bubbles." In Menehune's hands, his tender-aged croon, the song is fragile, filled with resplendent sorrow, a love epistle far more melancholic than Don Ho's radio hit from years ago. As it floats on the line, "With a feeling that I'm gonna love you/Till the end of time," Luna's body shudders, and he breaks down, and weeps. And then he apologizes, and says, "It's an honor to be able to keep Ernie's music alive."


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