When Frank Luna returned the call last week I no idea who was on the line. That voice, a percussive, bass-heavy thing, woke me from deep sleep.
He said, "Yes! Hello? Is this you? Yes?"
"Hey," I said.
"This is me ... hello.” Sounded like a Latino Stewie Griffin, but deeper, heavier. It scared the hell out of me. 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 sun-faded into 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, each wickeder than the last.
When he plays it straight I swear I know it from late nights 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. Yes, his percussive 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. One chattering of UFO sightings, and introductions to blooming Mexican waltzes, and, dear God, The Open Road, where your heart could still break suddenly for one you’ll never ever find.
Listen now and you can hear the sound of America shifting so quickly none of us has the time to hear and see and feel what's happening. Luna's voice lulls like narcotics when it softens, and it does for several reasons, not just 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 regards the dog. Says, "that's Oona, which in Gaelic means 'one with the earth,' or, in Spanish, 'Uno con la Tierra.'"
* * * *
His countenance puts one at ease. It's Fred Flintstone friendly with salt-and-pepper hair, gray mustache, a Band-Aid centered perfectly over the dorsum of his nose. In day-hang clothes—old swag T (Hot 98 radio), baggy shorts, Nike flip-flops — Luna does comedy with arm flailing and voices to make any gaggle of third-graders howl, or, really, any group of adult beer-swills too.
Though still in his mid-50s, Luna uses a walker. (A back injury suffered in his early '80s Air Force stint in Guam.) One hardly notices because he's so animated. "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 a 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. For example, 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 and got entire radio stations up and running. 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 DJ’d 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. In all he has voiced roughly two dozen radio stations — from all-Spanish talk, all news, rock music, and jazz and new age to country music, hip-hop and R&B. Such places as Tucson's Tejano 1600 and KTUC and KNDE, and KKHG "The Hog." There was KAVV in Benson, K101 in Sierra Vista, and one or two in Nogales. He even worked Skyview Traffic. It's remarkable the details of things he hasn't forgotten, nuances of each station, their indie or corporate owners, 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 tired of greedy bean-counters poking him to soften edges. Corporate interference had sucked all joy from his on-air work, so he switched to the other side of the mic. On-air he was an entertainer, comedian and impersonator, a newsman and music curator. He wraps this job description into a succinct little phrase: "When you're able to make pictures with sound, the sky's the limit."
His fascination for radio and audio festered in childhood. At 10 he got the crap "beaten out of him" for overhauling his old man’s hi-fi, an antiquated Packard-Bell with a turntable and AM-FM. “But,” he adds, “I got it sounding better!" A teacher sparked his electronics curiosity at Sunnyside Junior High. "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. A short time later, at Tucson's old Rodeo drive-in, Luna pounded on the projectionist's door to complain 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." In high school, teachers called him “golden throat." Luna did the morning announcements through the main school PA system, all four years of high school.
By 15 Luna was a KOPO radio intern where he cleaned tape heads. A morning DJ heard his voice, and soon the station made him an on-air personality. Kid fascination becomes career.
* * * *
Inside Luna's living room 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. The wall above it shows art and framed photos of, or done by, Luna's daughter, Katrina. It's a pedestal, decorated with green things: a Gumby, hanging leis, a lamp throwing 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. He changes; banalities, humor gone. His defenses. 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.
"That's when the friends come in. That's when the shrinks come in. That's when family comes in." He pauses. "When it starts to get the better of me now, that's when I bury myself in my work."
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 out pain. Like Frida Khalo's idea of painting her own reality, other options don’t work. Luna eschews alcohol, for example, the depressive in it is a killer. Suicide runs in his family, and in response he's 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. He says as much.
"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. He stayed in Tucson out of provincial loyalty, though admits he'd go to the grave happier if his voice got used in a cartoon. 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. The station is one of the last of the mom and pops. Luna likens the job to a good university tenure. “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."
Power Talk’s local on-air lynchpin is boom-voiced 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 audio files of recently aired Scott shows for airtime because the host is out. He regales with yarns from his decades in radio. He reaches into a closet and produce CDs and 8X10 glossies signed to him by Eminem, Will.i.am, and even Wilson Phillips, mementos of a career rooted partially in fandom. He began record collecting at nine years old, and thousands line walls in his apartment. Including LP rarities by Hawaiian-born crooner Ernie Menehune, a Tucsonan who ultimately altered Luna's life. 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.
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’s 87 years old and hosting an Hawaiian luau. Luna drives 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 doesn’t remember Luna the boy but after that ticket-buying day the two became close friends, bonding over the fact they’d each lost a child.
Menehune trusted Luna enough to give him control of the 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," Luna 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. Who can say that? This radio — this broadcasting, fading as it is from the golden age of American culture — has defined him, and will continue to support him into the foreseeable future. "AM radio is dying," he says, "but it will never just die."
Does Luna get lonely?
Without blinking, he says, "I have Oona.”
"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, in his 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. Says, "It's an honor to be able to keep Ernie's music alive."