I’d Rather Have A Bottle (of Diet Pepsi) In Front of Me…

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Those of a certain age remember Dr. Demento. Those who aren’t of a certain age should discover Dr. Demento.

Dr. Demento was what might be called a “free range” DJ in the waning days of AM music. He didn’t fit in any acceptable genre. He played novelty songs no one else would play. In doing so, he popularized Elmo and Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and would help launch the career of Weird Al Yankovic.

It wasn’t all about the music. Dr. Demento’s shows featured oddball skits and comedy routines. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was likened to an audio version of Saturday Night Live. (Those of a certain age know that was Saturday Night Live when it used to be good. Those who aren’t of a certain age should discover that, too.)

Dr. Demento used to play a song called “Existential Blues.” It’s a hard song to listen to and contains more references to The Wizard of Oz this side of the dark side of the moon*. Towards its end came the lyric “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

A year after “Existential Blues” was released, Dr. Rock (Randy Hanzlick, M.D.) released a song with that very title. Dr. Demento played “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” on his show many times. He also listed it as #8 among the worst named songs ever recorded.

You have to know these things when you’re a DJ.*

I just spent the past several days (and nights) sleeping in Ward 10 of the men’s wing of a nearly 150-year-old gothic monstrosity once called the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. OK, technically it’s of a Romanesque Revival architectural style and its name was eventually changed to the Buffalo State Hospital.

Still, it was what it was.

And I was there (along with Betsy) for the 43rd Annual Conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. And, besides me, two other former radio DJs.

Truth be told, the last time the place looked like a hospital was in 1983, ten years after the last patient left. Hollywood dressed up Ward 10 to look like a 1950s maternity ward for the movie The Natural. In that scene, a convalescing Robert Redford was visited by no less than Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall, and Glenn Close.

They were all there.

On the exact floor I stayed on. Only down at the other end of the cavernous hall in the old dining room (which has since been converted into two hotel rooms).

Oh, did I forget to mention that last part. This place is now called the “Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center.” You can check in any time you want (but you can always check out*).

The conference was fantabulastic. Two years ago, my mother graciously volunteered to help at the registration desk. She willingly did this. I was honored. I was similarly honored when my father decided to stay after dropping my mother off. So many of the attendees delighted in talking to my parents, who reciprocated in kind. Of course, the question of the conference was why my parents agreed to adopt someone so close to their age.

Side note: Today, June 27 (the date of publication of this column) is my father’s birthday. It’s really hard to give someone a truly special gift after so many gifts have been given. The kindness and genuine interest shown by the attendees is one of those priceless gifts a son can only dream of giving his parents. My mother got to talk about her writing. She got to stand up in front of the whole crowd and act like a TED speaker. My father got to tell the audience about his 35 Plymouth.

They even got a special award at the closing night dinner – the “Queen Mother” and “Prince Phillip” Awards. Heck, I have to admit, I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence. I really didn’t do anything to give this gift. All my NSNC friends did. Sigh, it’s good to be the President.*

The highlight of the stay was the not-so-spooky tour of the abandoned part of the complex. Only about a third of the place has been renovated. The rest has been “secured” to slow (not stop) further deterioration. In fact, we weren’t allowed to go into some wings they used to allow visitors to tour on account of the increased danger.

How dangerous is it? We had to sign a waiver. But this was a beast whose belly we could not be kept from.*

We strolled past along the chain link fence separating renovated civilization of today from the abandoned frozen past. On our approach we transitioned from elegant garden flowers to untamed wildflowers. Untamed but friendly. The Queen Anne’s Lace and daisies signaled a return to my own past on Abbott Parkway. I plucked a few daisy petals for old time’s sake. I thought there might have been some buttercups, too.

We walked up the rickety wooden slats of a makeshift staircase. Though the door had a foreboding “Do Not Enter” sign on it, we remained determined. The building may have been abandoned, but not our hope.* Once past the threshold we donned our hard hats and moved on.

Here’s what the inside looked like in a nutshell. Remember those post-apocalyptic movies you no doubt seen? That was the building’s interior.

Years of neglect (and lack of environmental controls) has caused the plaster to fall in chunks from the ceiling and the walls. The halls we walked through and some of the rooms we peered into were neatly swept, but other areas remain in their au naturel state.

There was a room of school desks. They were thick with dust. Large pieces of fallen plaster had found their final resting places on them and the floor. It was like the people just decided to leave one day. Everything remained as it was.

Vandals, too, left their mark. In the 1970s when the building, then no longer secure, hosted a different species of visitors. These fiends sought to strip away anything of value: fixtures, copper, memories… Some desired to consecrate the place in fire. A bit of a challenge given the mostly concrete and iron construction. It was built to be fire resistant. And was. Though a couple rooms showcased the charred remains of the attempt.

The facility itself practiced a rather conservative form of therapy. As we reached the end of the tour, the docent explained this. Drs. Walter Freeman and James W. Watts performed the first frontal lobotomy procedure in 1936. Though controversial, they reported positive results. During the 1950s, hospitals performed more than 15,000 frontal lobotomies. This included only 15 patients from this facility.

As the small crowd paused to reflect those somber facts, I gently raised my hand to ask this question:

“Where they ever given the option to have a bottle in front of them?”

I’m pretty sure only one person got it.

* Do you get it? Each asterisk contains a pop culture or literary reference. How many can you name?

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