If you listened to public radio in New England in the 1970s and 80s, even into the 1990s, chances are you remember the name Robert J. Lurtsema. Lurtsema hosted and produced a very popular 5-hour morning drive classical music program, Morning Pro Musica, for nearly 29 years. The radio show emanated from WGBH, a 100,000 watt FM public radio station in Boston. For a time, his show was also simulcast on WGBH-TV.
Lurtsema wasn’t just a well-known Boston area radio personality. Morning Pro Musica was carried by numerous public radio stations throughout New England, and for a time, over many NPR affiliate stations throughout the US via satellite. At its height, the program had a half million listeners. The Christian Science Monitor called Lurtsema “the world’s greatest alarm clock”.
Even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably heard Lurtsema’s distinctive voice. He voiced the opening to Public Television’s Mystery! (Produced by WGBH-TV), narrated many public TV documentaries, narrated an episode of the PBS TV series Nova, and can be heard on several records.
I only knew Lurtsema as the host of Morning Pro Musica, but he had a profound influence on me as an undergraduate studying radio at Emerson College. My voice wasn’t anything like his but I adopted his speaking style. To say it was laid back would be an understatement. Thus, I earned a reputation at my college’s non-commercial radio station for being incredibly boring on the air. I wanted to work in public radio so it didn’t concern me that I wasn’t as exciting as Howard Stern. Unfortunately, I was never able to break into public radio, though I did score interviews with the two biggest public radio stations in Boston; WGBH and WBUR. WGBH actually called me to do some fill-in announcing but I was recuperating from eye surgery at the time and was reluctantly forced to decline. They never called again. Like a single beautiful woman, you only get one chance with public radio. I ended up working in commercial radio so I was forced to develop a personality. But I digress.
Getting To Know You
As I got to know Lurtsema better through my research, it turns out he lived quite a life. He served in the US Navy for 5 years and held all manner of jobs before finding his calling as a classical music radio host. He was awarded a lifetime scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music. My research also revealed he was passionate about environmental causes, nuclear disarmament, medical research, and civil rights. He sat on dozens of boards for music organizations throughout New England and was the artistic director for 5 years for the “Brown Bags for Kids” series at Worcester’s Mechanics Hall. He narrated two children’s records…The Story of Babar and Peter and The Wolf. He performed live narrations with orchestras. He authored 2 books, was a sculptor, painter, photographer, and composer (his bassoon quartet composition was adapted as the theme music for the PBS-TV program “Julia Child and Company”).
During his radio years he became an unofficial US ambassador as it were, having received formal invitations from the governments of France, Germany, Scotland, Greece, Canada, Israel, Finland, and the Netherlands. The latter country hosted him as one of 40 distinguished guests of Dutch heritage (the Dutch spelling of his last name is Luurtsema).
Back in late 80s, I had my clock radio set to wake to Morning Pro Musica even though I wasn’t a classical music buff. “Start your day with Robert J”, as the slogan went. Lurtsema began every show with a recording of bird songs…a recording he made himself. The bird songs would play without interruption, often for as long as 5 minutes, and then slowly mix with his opening classical piece. What a wonderful way to wake up! He had a calming voice which the New York Times likened to “warm fudge”. His pauses were so long you could drive a Mack truck through them. He was a welcomed alternative to screaming morning DJs in hysterics over nothing, playing music that was equally meaningless. In a promo for Morning Pro Musica, one listener described Lurtsema’s program as “sanity in a world soon to become insane. It’s an opportunity to take that last deep breath before you get on the fast track.”
Have A Taste
On the flip side of the record so to speak, not everyone held Lurtsema in such high esteem. Many were annoyed by his notoriously infinite pauses. Some considered Lurtsema narcissistic. Classical snobs didn’t like the selections he played or the way he framed them. Still others felt Lurtsema was just plain boring. He was an acquired taste, but for myself and hundreds of thousands of other listeners, it was a taste that lingered pleasantly on the palette.
The music Lurtsema played (he spent hours meticulously planning each program months in advance) and his on-air personality (or lack thereof) wasn’t all he was known for. He also insisted on writing and reporting his own newscasts during his show, something none of the other music hosts could get away with. He always opened his news segments with, “Here’s a look at some of the items in the news as edited and reported by your ‘Morning Pro Musica’ host.” The morning after the 1980 presidential election in which Ronald Regan defeated Jimmy Carter, Lurtsema announced, “there is no news worth reporting this morning”, and proceeded with his show. WGBH tried to replace his news with live hourly NPR news reports from Washington, D.C. and California. According to one telling of the story, Lurtsema threatened to quit and the radio station backed down, while another story said listener protests were so overwhelming that the station was forced to restore Lurtsema’s own newscasts.
Live From Tanglewood
From 1995 onward, during the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s opening weekends of their summer seasons, Lurtsema broadcasted live from Tanglewood, a music venue in Lenox, MA, and the home of the BSO since 1937. During this period, Morning Pro Musica featured live performances and interviews with John Williams, Seiji Ozawa, and Arlo Guthrie just to name a few. Other notable guests on his program included Aaron Copland, Isaac Stern, John Cage, and Itzhak Perlman. In the radio industry, or at least in the public radio realm, Morning Pro Musica became the gold standard for classical music programs.
Tell Me A Story
Lurtsema hosted special Christmas editions of his morning show featuring Christmas stories he narrated himself. Over the years, his listeners wrote in asking for copies of his moving readings. In 1981, he answered their requests with his first and only solo record…Robert J. Lurtsema Christmas Stories, which celebrates its 42nd anniversary this year.
In case you couldn’t tell, the cherubic faced man in the Santa Claus suit on the cover of Christmas Stories is indeed Mr. Lurtsema. The image, with his obscured smile, gives us a glimpse into his playful side. According to Wikipedia, “Lurtsema displayed a subtle sense of humor. On April Fool’s Day 1982, he stood in for the singing birds with his own deadpan chirping, and on April Fools’ Day 1992, the birds were replaced by howling wolves. Aware of his reputation for long pauses, on another April Fools’ Day, Lurtsema presented selections of his ‘best pauses.’ One morning, he devoted his full five hours to playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ in all of the variations that he could find.”
Lurtsema vs. Shatner
Like Morning Pro Musica and Lurtsema himself, Christmas Stories is unusual and at the same time remarkable. Besides the fact that it was put out by a radio announcer, this Christmas album doesn’t include a single Christmas song and Lurtsema doesn’t sing any songs, which would’ve proved interesting in itself. I envision him doing a spoken holiday song a la William Shatner. If you’re looking for sing-a-long with Robert, this isn’t it. Rather, it’s a showcase for Lurtsema’s voice and unique delivery, both of which were well suited for the subject matter.
Perfect 5 Star Rating
Robert J. Lurtsema Christmas Stories enjoys a rare 5 out 5-star rating on Amazon. Some of the comments from the reviews include, “an amazing set of Christmas stories (and history) told by one of the best voices of our time. A must have for the holidays and Christmas Eve. I am not religious and I find these moving and in the true spirit of the season.” Another person wrote, “this collection of Christmas stories is carefully chosen and beautifully delivered. The recording quality is exceptional. A wonderful album!” Still another opined, “for beauty of language and soul of reading, this is a great addition to any library of Christmas recordings. Highly recommended!”
Despite such high praise, Christmas Stories didn’t exactly go platinum. I have a memory of seeing multiple copies of this record embarrassingly collecting dust in discount record bins. Its appeal would’ve been very limited. Lurtsema was popular, but he wasn’t Frank Sinatra. Besides, the album was distributed by a very small record label, Philo Records, which catered to folk, jazz, and world music, and operated out of a converted barn in Vermont.
CD Or Not CD, That Is the Question
In spite of or perhaps because of its limited appeal, there’s decent inventory of Christmas Stories on the used record market such as eBay and for reasonable prices. Alas, the coveted CD is more expensive and much harder to come by, which is odd since it was distributed by Rounder Records which had much wider distribution. I ended up finding one on Amazon of all places! The Amazon listing shows “CD-R”. To me, that meant the seller was selling copies, which is against US Copyright law. I went ahead and purchased one anyway and was extremely surprised to receive an original CD, not a copy, and it even included the original Rounder Records mail-in postcard. As of this writing, the listing is still on Amazon but there are no more CDs available. I contacted the seller about this and they apologized and said their inventory constantly changes.
If you’re not into physical media as I am, Amazon sells the MP3 download of the album for under $10. If you’re entertaining the idea of buying Christmas Stories, I’d suggest getting the digital download, CD, cassette tape, or a sealed or mint copy of the vinyl record so the crackles and pops don’t compete with the star of the show. I’ve included links at the end of my article. Unfortunately, there are no liner notes by Lurtsema or any background information about his readings, and the CD doesn’t include any bonus tracks.
The Bird Is the Word
Earlier I mentioned recordings of happy chirping birds that Lurtsema used to open each show with. If you’ll allow one of my trademark digressions, WGBH radio released a record and cassette of those recordings in 1984, entitled Dawn Chorus: The Birds of Morning Pro Musica, which can also be sourced on used music sites. Lurtsema isn’t heard on this recording, just his birds.
Lurtsema On Record
There are other Lurtsema related records you might find of interest, such as the Paul Winter Consort’s The Man Who Planted Trees from 1995, beautifully narrated by Lurtsema, and Voices of The Loon from 1980.
There are 2 additional Christmas titles I’ll briefly bring to your attention if you’ll indulge me, though they’re not Lurtsema records per se. Wassail! Wassail! from 1995 features a mix of early American Christmas music and narration. Of the 21 tracks, 4 are narrated by Lurtsema, including a powerful reading of The Angels and The Shepherds. Though long out of print, this CD is available on used record sites.
I donned my detective’s fedora and after some extensive digging, discovered The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of The Winter Solstice. It includes just 1 reading by Lurtsema which is why it flew under my radar. The track I speak of, The Shortest Day, is a poem written by Susan Cooper. It times out at less than 90 seconds, but it’s 90 seconds of full throttle Lurtsema. You can easily find this CD used, and possibly the original gatefold vinyl album as well, but amazingly, I found this 43-year-old title being sold new on CD by none other than The Christmas Revels themselves (link at the end of this article).
Since I was already wearing my detective’s fedora, I decided to track down David Lurtsema, Robert Lurtsema’s only brother. I’ve become quite the detective since I started my own blog and after some searching on the Internet and a few phone calls, I was able to connect with him. David’s 81 and still working, yet he managed to carve out some time for a late night (very late night!) phone conversation.
Peter: What did you think of Robert’s radio program, Morning Pro Musica?
David: “Um, I really didn’t hear that much of on the air for him. As far as radio is concerned, I went to his studio a couple times, but that was about it. And listening to his program…not very much because I [couldn’t] get it [where I lived].”
Peter: Can you give me one interesting or humorous story about your brother?
David: “When he passed away, they had a big celebration of life at [an] Episcopalian church somewhere in Boston; a big church. [Editor’s note: It was Emmanual Episcopal Church in Boston]. There were like 5,000 people there and they asked me to get up and speak. What the hell am I going to say? So, I figured I’d say what he said and I told a story that he had told me that’s true as far as I know. My brother was in demolitions in the Navy. The captain called him in and said, ‘Robert, you’ve been recommended for E4’, because he was an enlisted man. He was a 3rd class petty officer for three times and [he never took the test]. [The captain said,] ‘I want you to promise me you’ll take the test and you’ll study hard.’ Well, if he took the test and passed it, he knew that he would be extended because doing demolition work, they needed these guys. He said, ‘Okay, captain, I’ll take the test and I’ll study hard.’ So, he did and the captain called him in again and he said, ‘Robert, you’re the only man in the history of the Navy to get 100%…Wrong!’ I got up in front of 5,000 people to tell that story. It got a couple of laughs.”
Peter: I was in Rhode Island visiting relatives a couple of months ago and I went to visit Robert’s grave in Canton, MA, where his ashes are interred.
David: “I’m so glad you’re telling me. I know where it is now. Great. That’s where he was supposed to go but I never got the word what happened with that. All I got with the word was, was that Betsy [Robert’s girlfriend] was bitch moaning and complaining that he didn’t have some great, ah, thing built for him, and I think the thing about the family was, well [chuckling], why don’t you take some of the money and give it to him yourself?”
Peter: Since I’m writing about Robert’s “Christmas Stories” record, what was Christmas like as a child in the Lurtesma household?
David: “Well, I don’t have a lot of recollection of it because there was 10 years between us. So, in other words, when [Robert] was old enough to go in the navy, I was what, 6, 8 [years old], somewhere in there. So, I remember how the Christmas’ were for me but to remember him there, it wasn’t very often
Peter: But did you decorate and have a tree?
David: “We did. We decorated to the hilt. The tree [had] many lights and many ornaments. A lot of presents.”
Peter: Any other stories you’d like to mention about your brother?
David: “Another thing you may not know about him, as long as I’ve got it in my head…I don’t talk to anybody about this much, so I’ve got to bring it out of the memory. He was a child prodigy. His IQ was up like 160 or something. Off the charts. He graduated high school with 2 double promotions…he had 2 [college] degrees in 4 years…a degree in public relations and communications and, ah, I can’t remember what the other one was. It’s been too long now.
“He did children’s stories in Phoenix with a collaboration with some people there. He did, ah, what else? I can’t think right now.”
Peter: He wrote a couple of books.
David: “Yes. He wrote a book on music. I have the book. It’s basically written for musicians because most people wouldn’t be able to comprehend what was in there.”
Peter: I only knew Robert as a listener of his show. What was he like as a person?
David: “When I got out of the Navy, I lived with him for a month or so. We both loved a lot of the same things but his lifestyle was more erratic than…erratic is probably the wrong word. I should say looser than I wanted to live. He liked to go to nudist colonies. That’s fine, but too much of anything is not good.
“I remember his apartment in, ah, oh, I can’t remember the name of the town.”
David: “Yes. Thank you. He had an apartment in Cambridge. His bed was suspended by 4 cables coming out of the 4 corners of the ceiling and the cables were attached to springs to hold the thing together and the mattress on top of that. So, the bed was suspended off the floor. That was quite the thing. He was very innovative.
“I went to a psychic a few years after he died [to get] in touch with him. We had a lot of conversations back and forth and it was all taped…and the psychic is getting a kick out of his personality because he [had] a very unusual sense of humor. She caught that right away as soon as she started talking. She’d never met him. It was very revealing. The things I wanted to say to him about how I wished we had spent more time together and how he regretted not doing it because he didn’t really know who I was until later. A lot of good things happened from that. I was so glad that I had done it.”
In terms of Lurtsema’s gifted story telling on Christmas Stories, his brother says that stemmed from their father. “My father was a storyteller. He was a carpenter. He would come home in the evening and have dinner with us; my two sisters, my brother and I, and he would always tell stories about the day. He would talk about Mrs. McGillicuddy or Mrs. Schwartz, or whatever, with an accent that was theirs so you knew what nationality they were. It was kind of play acting but it was very entertaining for us. And of course, all that rubs off on everybody.”
“As far as his storytelling and so on”, David continued, “I have those records you’re talking about. There’s The Man Who Planted Trees. If you haven’t heard that it’s excellent. And Christmas Stories and so on. I went to a lot of performances when I was…in Boston…one where [Robert] was doing imitations, voice overs, I guess it was for Peter and what was it…”
Peter: “Peter and The Wolf”.
David: “’Peter and The Wolf’. Thank you. It’s late here. Later for you though.”
David said something at one point in our conversation that I wanted to end with because it had an important message for all of us: “He was somebody I loved greatly and admired, but we just didn’t spend enough time together and we were both very sorry about that.”
As with his radio program, Robert J. Lurtsema Christmas Stories is a refreshing break from the usual onslaught of holiday chestnuts we subject ourselves to on an annual basis. It requires one to slow down or even to stop and contemplate the reason for the season. Anyone could’ve recorded these stories, but not in Lurtsema’s inimitable way. As much as I enjoy listening to this wonderful album, I can’t help but feel sad knowing there will never be another show like his or another host like him. If he were still alive today, he’d be 92, and if his health allowed, I’m certain he’d still be playing those singing birds every morning. Two-plus decades after his passing, I still miss waking to his voice. He truly was the world’s greatest alarm clock. I don’t know what the voice of God sounds like, but I can only hope it sounds a lot like Robert Lurtsema’s, prolonged pauses and all.
My eternal thanks to David Lurtsema for sharing his memories, memorabilia, and photographs.
Trivia: Robert Lurtsema was originally hired to host ‘Morning Pro Musica’ only on weekends. Not long after, he was promoted to the coveted weekday morning drive slot when the seat became available, yet he still continued to do his weekend shows, working 7 days a week for the next 22 years. In 1993, ‘Morning Pro Musica’ went back to weekends only, which Lurtsema hosted until his death. On June 12, 2000, at age 68, he died from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a rare illness of the respiratory system.
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