December 3, 2012

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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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The show evolved over the years, eventually expanding from one to two hours and, by the late 1990s, absorbing two other shows Leboutillier produced -- "Oldies But Goodies" and "Wind Up the Victrola, Toby."

Starting in the 1910s, each show moved incrementally forward by decade, interspersed with back-in-the-day news stories that Leboutillier ripped and read off the microfilms down at the Bangor Public Library.

Better yet was his running, deep-baritone commentary that bookended the songs: "That was dreadful! How did that ever get in there?"

Or, "There's Connie Francis crying her way to the bank again."

Or, "Oh God! How many 'wop wop doo wop wops' can we take?"

"It's comfortable if you like the premise of it," Leboutillier said. "I know musically it's quite a swath because you're not likely to get people who like Steppenwolf that also adored Caruso. But you might hear both in the same program."

A guy named Fred heard both -- and loved every minute of it. He worked as a legal assistant down in Boston and, every Friday afternoon, would drive to the Agawam Diner in Topsfield, Mass., to sit in his car and let Leboutillier transport him Down Memory Lane.

Fred eventually came down with incurable cancer and moved back to Connecticut to spend his final months with his parents. But even then, Leboutillier would mail down a cassette recording of each show "so he could listen to it on ear phones."

"His mother later wrote me," recalled Leboutillier. "She said that meant everything to Fred."

And to so many others.

When the news first broke two weeks ago that Friday's show would be Leboutillier's last -- part of MPBN's migration toward a more talk-oriented format -- his loyal fans went into mourning.

Over-the-air listeners couldn't reach him by email (again, the computer phobia), but his mailbox immediately began filling with cards and letters from all over Maine.

Equally distraught were Internet listeners as far away as California, West Virginia and even Germany -- all devastated by the news that the treasure trove of old songs, and the man who played them so religiously, were about to go silent forever.

"I have no control over it -- I've been doing it for nothing for 10 years," said Leboutillier, whose offer to host the show for free was prompted, in addition to those cussed computers, by a financial crisis that included layoffs.

"They've curried to this crowd that likes to listen to breaking news and this endless discussion," he continued. "I mean, I'd go nuts. I never have liked talking radio. Ever!"

How could he? Unlike all those talking heads, Leboutillier is, was and always will be a music man.

Thus as he went through his Thursday afternoon ritual -- check his master lists for the top hits on Nov. 30 over seven consecutive decades, cobble together this week's play list, go downstairs and retrieve the recordings (each gets a run through MPBN's "$800 record-washing machine" before going on the air) -- Leboutillier worried that his final appearance would be "maudlin affair."

"It's no big woops," he told me less-than-convincingly. "I knew it would eventually come to an end. I mean I'm 71!"

But then something totally unexpected happened.

Just before Leboutillier settled into his studio chair on Friday-- the window covered with a sign that read, "Toby has requested that he be left alone today. Please keep out!" -- MPBN programming director Charles Beck pulled him aside.

Would he be willing, asked Beck, to keep doing the show -- same time, same studio -- and have it go out ... brace yourself, Toby ... online?

(Continued on page 3)

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