Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Mary Tyler Moore and Rich Conaty

Sometimes you don’t understand what a person meant to you until he or she is gone.

That happened to me twice over the last couple of weeks. The first occasion was when I learned that Mary Tyler Moore had passed away. The second time it was Rich Conaty, a DJ on WFUV, Fordham University’s noncommercial radio station.

Both of them impacted my life at different times but in altogether pleasant ways.

Let’s start with Ms. Moore, who I associate with the flu. And I say that in the nicest way.

I feel I got to know her when she played housewife Laura Petrie on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” I’d watch it on morning reruns on the occasions when I was home sick from school, knowing that hours of uninterrupted TV viewing lay ahead.

The weekday morning lineup back in the mid-Sixties included Leave It To Beaver, Candid Camera, The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy of Mayberry, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

And those were just the sitcoms. It was an embarrassment of riches. There were also a half dozen game shows to choose from. Among them The Price is Right, Concentration, Jeopardy, and Truth or Consequences.

But of all of them I think The Dick Van Dyke Show was the most sophisticated, the one whose sensibility served as a model for the way you’d want to grow up and the kind of world you’d want to live in.

Humor was its guiding ethos. For example, in the dysfunctional relationship between Rob Petrie, Mr. Van Dyke’s character as a TV writer, and Alan Brady, the preening star who employed him. Carl Reiner, who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” played Alan Brady.

But the stresses of an overbearing boss were soothed by Rob and Laura’s affectionate marriage. And its undercurrent of love and romance despite Dick Van Dyke’s klutzy pratfalls. Nobody – not even a twelve-year-old running a fever – could fail to notice that Mary Tyler Moore was a really good-looking mom. And one with impeccable comic timing.

I came to appreciate Rich Conaty in more recent years. His show, “The Big Broadcast,” where he played music from the 1920s and 1930’s, ran on WFUV Sunday nights from 8 pm until midnight.

We’d be returning to the city from upstate with our children around that time of the evening. Usually somewhere along the West Side Highway when he lowered the needle on his theme song, Fats Waller’s “You Meet the Nicest People In Your Dreams.”

The four of us would sing along at the top of our lungs, though I’m not going to insult your eardrums by doing so now: “I’ve looked the universe over,” the song went, “from wacky Nagasaki to Dover, and now that we have met how sweet it seems. I love you more the more I know you. Which only goes to show you. You meet the nicest people in your dreams.”

I never met Rich, who was originally from Astoria but lived in Hudson, NY. But I understand he was hard to miss behind the wheel of his beloved 1950 Nash Ambassador.

I did, however, contact him once to ask whether he had any information about, “I’m Not Too Sure of My L’Amour” a 78 — that’s rpms — from the 1940’s by Ray McKinley and his Orchestra.

I discovered it in a stack of records that probably belonged to either my parents or grandparents. I was impressed with its randy humor.

If you’ll indulge me again, I’d like to share just one of its stanzas: “My brother John is my twin. So I asked my girlfriend with a grin. How can you tell which one you’re kissing. Brother John or I? And she said, “Baby, I don’t even try.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Conaty knew nothing of the song or Ray McKinley, perhaps because it was outside of his time frame.

But in his area of expertise his knowledge seemed total. And the way he offered the dates of long dead songwriters, singers and bandleaders before he played their music, sounded like an incantation.

When he died of cancer at the age of 63, he’d hosted over 2,200 shows starting when he was a freshman at Fordham in 1973.

After providing just enough background, he’d cue the song, the voices of  Bing Crosby, Al Jolsen or Cab Calloway, sending us back in time.

I particularly appreciated it when we pulled up to the stop light at 96th Street and Broadway, the music filling our car providing the perfect soundtrack to the crowds of pedestrians crossing the street. It was the kindest way to slip back into the city after a weekend in the country.

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