December 3, 2012

Bill Nemitz: 'Down Memory Lane': The gift that keeps on giving

His career was only a few hours from over.

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MPBN program director Charles Beck, left, enjoys a moment with Toby Leboutillier, holding a microphone, after Friday’s airing of “Down Memory Lane.”

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Toby Leboutillier celebrates with cake after learning the show will go on.

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Toby Leboutillier, 71, arrived at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's studio in Bangor early Friday afternoon, his canvas bag stuffed with oldies but goodies, fully expecting this would be his last day in front of the microphone that reaches from Kittery to Fort Kent and beyond.

"Down Memory Lane," the one-of-a-kind, weekly smorgasbord of music that stretches back a full century and then dutifully marches, decade by decade, all the way to the 1970s, was about to become, well, history -- replaced by the non-stop talk of the nationally syndicated "Diane Rehm Show."

"I'm not making a big deal out of it," Leboutillier had promised me during an hour-plus telephone chat the day before. "We'll just say, 'It was wonderful and goodbye.' "

Ah, but it was a big deal. In fact, for those of us who for years have welcomed in the weekend with Leboutillier's eclectic, two-hour play lists interspersed with his desert-dry humor, it was the end of an era.

Thirty-three years after his first show, a decade after he stopped accepting a paycheck in part because MPBN had the gall to go from paper time sheets to computerized payroll forms, this quirky slice of Maine life was about to vanish into thin air.

"I'm a complete Luddite," confessed Leboutillier. "I don't have a computer. I don't do the Internet. I don't have a cellphone. All I have is my old reel-to-reel tape recorder, cassette players -- I do have CD's -- record players, and that's it."

And, of course, his records. Thousands of them, meticulously cataloged and arranged by artist in his basement in Brewer -- from Ada Jones and Billy Murray in the 1910s, to Aileen Stanley in the '20s, to Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore in the '40s, to Doris Day and Perry Como in the '50s, to Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys in the '60s -- each waiting week after week, month after month, for Leboutillier to pluck them from their shelf, schlep them over the MPBN's sound booth and, for a few short, occasionally scratchy minutes, resurrect their past glory.

He got his start in broadcasting after coming home to Mount Desert Island from an Army post in Germany in the mid 1960s.

After a few years with commercial television and radio, Leboutillier jumped at a chance to work for what was then the Maine Educational Broadcast Network at the University of Maine in Orono, where he'd earlier earned a degree in physics.

It was a different, less structured time: Back when Leboutillier babysat the live weekly broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s, he'd liven up the 20-minute intermissions by dubbing sound effects over the dull roar of the symphony audience.

"One time we did the sound of a monkey," he chortled. "Or we'd cue up smashing glass. We even had the sound of a helicopter going over it one day."

But behind the hijinks was a man who loved his music -- old, new and anywhere in between. A man who, upon discovering the directories of hit records compiled by the legendary music chronicler Joel Whitburn, set about collecting every record on every list going back all the way to the early 20th century.

"The Top 100 Billboard book (from 1955-72) has over 11,000 records in it," noted Leboutillier. "And I found every one except two."

He did it by scouring the attics and storage rooms of old Maine radio stations from Waterville to Presque Isle, by driving hundreds of miles to antique record shows and, after he launched "Down Memory Lane" in 1979, by gratefully accepting the countless donations of old recordings from faithful listeners all over Maine.

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