A twitter-sprinkle regarding my AGT audition.

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Will Lightning Strike Twice?

Remember four years ago when someone contacted me about appearing in a White Castle ad after seeing the video of me on YouTube playing “Video Killed the Radio Star”? The experience, fully documented here, was quite a trip!

Well, I soon may have another tale to tell.

Back in December, I received another message via YouTube, this time from a field producer for America’s Got Talent asking if I was interested in auditioning. The producer wrote that my act was “amazing”, adding, “it wouldn’t surprise me if someone from our office has already contacted you.”

Uhhh, no. No one ever has.

The prospect of appearing at one of those open cattle calls didn’t particularly appeal to me, but after some emailing back and forth, I learned a few things that made me reconsider. First, this would be an invitation-only private audition, featuring a limited number of acts that they’d seen video of and knew they were interested in having on the show.  Second, they went out of their way to accommodate my needs. For example, the official line is that auditions should be acoustic and if you need more than a minute or two for set up, you should instead bring a DVD of your act that the judges and you will watch together. I wrote the producer to confirm that, since the theremin is a purely electronic instrument and I require 10-15 minutes to set up, I would need to prepare a DVD. She wrote back saying, no, they really wanted to see me play live! They moved my scheduled audition time to right after their lunch break so that I could set up while they were out. Flattering!

One constraint is that your audition lasts only 90 seconds. Since they found me via “Video Killed the Radio Star”, I figured I should stick to that song. But how to present it in context and in such a small amount of time? I worked up the following introduction:

“This is my theremin. It’s the world’s oldest electronic instrument, invented over 90 years ago. It’s unique in that one plays the theremin [a quick oooOOOooo] without  touching. Theremin players tend to fall into one of two camps. They either play classical music [opening phrase of Ode to Joy] or else they play weird experimental music [a quick oooOOOooo with lots of effects added]. I, on the other hand [start the backing track for VKtRS], have made it my mission to play the most inappropriate music on the theremin that I could imagine:  New Wave hits of the late 70s and early 80s. Like this classic, notable as the first song ever heard on MTV.”

At this point, the intro to the song was finished and I went right into my playing. The 90 second mark came right at the end of the first chorus, which I figured would give the judges a good sense of what I was about.

After much practicing of the 90 second routine (as well as the entire song, on the off chance they did not cut me off), at last the day of the audition arrived. They indicated that they would provide an amp, which made transport significantly easier especially since it snowed 3 inches that morning. I gave myself plenty of time to clean off the windows of my RelayRide, navigate the parking lots and shuttle bus of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and find my way to the ballroom. As I was getting off the escalator, a small group of people carrying leftover fries called me by name. It was the AGT field crew for whom I’d be playing and who probably recognized me by all the gear I was lugging! They were very friendly and had me set up immediately. As I unpacked, I looked around and asked where the amp was.

Ruh-Rohh! The sound rental place had canceled on them that morning. They had nothing except a boombox.

After patiently explaining that, no, I couldn’t play anything without some sort of powered speaker, they got on the phone with a convention center crew member who managed to track down a 1/4″ to mini adapter. I would plug into the boombox. Not ideal, but perfectly OK for these circumstances.

Yours Truly with AGT StickerWhile we all waited for Adapter Guy to arrive, they had me wait in the hall outside the ballroom. By now, other potential stars had arrived. They all looked excited and nervous. They also all looked like they were 16 years old — the girls wearing tight mini-skirts adjusting their makeup and the boys wearing designer jeans. I think I was older than most of the stage parents. I smiled as I realized that I was not in competition with any of these people. At least, not yet. If they wanted a wacky theremin player to appear on the show, it didn’t matter how many singing and dancing teenagers they saw. I was in a class by myself.

After another 10-15 minutes, Adapter Guy arrived. I plugged in and it worked — the day was saved! I actually shook Adapter Guy’s hand to thank him, much to his amusement. The AGT crew allowed me a couple of minutes to set my effects and levels and then I went right into it.

So how did it go? It wasn’t the best I’d ever played it, but there were no major flubs. I was satisfied. The guy videotaping the whole thing seemed amused, the field producer seemed somewhat fascinated while the other two women sitting at a long table on either side of the field producer (I don’t know what their jobs were) just stared with impossible-to-read faces the entire time. On the plus side, they did not cut me off after 90 seconds and I played through to the finish (it was a good thing that I practiced the entire song!). In the end, I’m not even sure how much of the decision will be theirs. They will be reviewing all the auditions from the various cities with their higher-ups and contacting the contestants in a couple of weeks. If I’m selected, the next step will be another audition in New York in front of the celebrity judges. That would happen around the end of March or beginning of April. Unfortunately, if I am selected, I won’t be able to tell anyone except for a few friends. The confidentiality rules are pretty strict. I’ll take notes though, and hopefully be able to write about my experience once it’s all over.

After I finished the song, they asked me a few questions about the theremin (how it works, etc.) and that was it. They let me break down and pack my things in the ballroom as they all sat typing into their laptops. The room was deathly quiet, except for the field producer who I caught humming “Video Killed the Radio Star” under her breath. I’m taking that as a good sign.

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CONTACT: Joyce Linehan/Ashmont Media, (617) 282-2510, [email protected]


Photo of Jon at WMBR sometime in the 80’s available for download at http://www.ashmontmedia.com/AMR_bernhardt_photo.html

(Cambridge, Mass. — April 24, 2009) WMBR disc jockey Jon Bernhardt will celebrate his 25th anniversary with the morning Breakfast of Champions radio program on Friday, June 26, from 8 – 10 a.m. To mark this auspicious occasion, he has convinced the bands that have been played the most on his program to perform at a pair of benefit concerts at two Boston area clubs. UK legend Bevis Frond will play in his only U.S. appearance on Sunday, June 21 at TT the Bear’s along with the Condo Fucks and Sleepyhead. Versus reunites to play Church with Rebecca Gates (The Spinanes) and more guests TBA, on Saturday, June 27. Proceeds will benefit WMBR. Tickets for both shows are on sale now.

On his June 26, 2009 anniversary program, Bernhardt plans to count down the 33 songs he’s played the most over his 25 year career. With the painstaking meticulousness of an actuary (see below), Bernhardt spent 18 months typing all 25 years worth of  playlists into a database, so that he could figure out which bands and songs he played the most. Many of those bands will be heard on the June 26 program, and some will probably be as much of a surprise to listeners as they were to Bernhardt himself.

Sunday, June 21, TT the Bear’s, 10 Brookline St., Cambridge

The Bevis Frond — #1 on Bernhardt’s career playlist — makes a rare appearance, having last played the United States in 2002. Matador recording artists the Condo Fucks feature all three members of Bernhardt’s #2 band, Yo La Tengo. Sleepyhead, who released a song that tied for #1 on the list, opens. (18+, $20, advance tickets at ticketweb.com, or at the venue. Call (617) 492-0082 for more information.)

Saturday, June 27, Church, 69 Kilmarnock St., Boston

Versus, who haven’t played in Boston since 2003, and are the #4 band on the list, reunite especially for the occasion. Also appearing is Rebecca Gates, whose band The Spinanes, released the other song tied for #1. More artists TBA. (21+, $15, advance tickets at ticketweb.com, or at the venue. Call (617) 236-7600 for more information.)

Bernhardt began volunteering at the M.I.T. community radio station in September, 1983. His first Breakfast of Champions program was broadcast on Thursday, June 28, 1984, but by the fall of 1986, he had settled into the Friday morning slot of the indie-rock institution, where he remains today. He was named “Best College DJ” by The Boston Phoenix. Throughout his tenure on the Breakfast of Champions, he has been an early champion of many bands that later achieved a modicum of fame and success. During the day, Bernhardt works as an actuary for a major metropolitan insurance company. He’s held various jobs there since graduating college. When he’s not being an actuary or a disc jockey, he can often be found playing theremin, both in the Lothars and as a solo artist. No promises, but if asked nicely, he may do a few numbers at these shows. He lives in Somerville.

WMBR is the MIT campus radio station, broadcast on 88.1 FM between 20 and 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. The station transmits at 720 watts, effective radiated power from the top of the Eastgate Building in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. Programming includes a wide range of music shows, public affairs programs and eclectic audio entertainment.

Playlists for all of Jon Bernhardt’s radio shows, as well as a select number of other WMBR jocks, can be found at http://www.track-blaster.com/wmbr.

WMBR broadcasts at 88.1 FM in Cambridge Massachusetts, and on the Internet at http://wmbr.org.

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Famous in Newfie-land

“The Muse”, the student newspaper of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has selected my live performance of Video Killed the Radio Star as one of their YouTube Picks of the Week! I am anxiously awaiting the onslaught of oh-so-polite remarks that the Canadians will undoubtedly add to the Comments area of the YouTube page.

Thanks to the editor of the picks, “Madam Internet”, and also to Google Alerts!

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The Truth Is Out There…

…if by “The Truth” you mean “An advertisement for White Castle starring yours truly playing the theremin,” and if by “Out There” you mean “on the TV.”

Yep, I got an email the other day from my friend Marc in Chicago that he’d seen the ad while watching a Simpsons rerun on Fox 32! I’ve asked the ad agency if they can get me a schedule of when it will air again; if they respond, I’ll be sure to post it here.

Marc also shared with me his own “True Castle Story“:

“when i first saw the ramones in 1982? at Metro, me and my friend went to see them and on the way home we stopped at a White Castle and we’re eating our sliders and the Ramones actually walked in for some burgers. I must have been 17 , best rock experience with White Castle until you of course ;-)”

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The geek who captured the Castle

That’s the headline for the interview with me that appears in today’s Boston Globe. The print version has two really nice photos, one of which made it to the online version:

Jon Bernhardt (right, performing with the Lothars) plays the theremin for a new White Castle Commercial. (Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe)

I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times over the years. Inevitably the writer always gets something wrong. Either misstating some fact, misquoting me, or putting one of my quotes out of context. This piece is the first I can remember where the writer got it perfectly. She edited down a long and rambling conversation into a fast-paced Q&A, yet managed not only to keep the facts straight, but also to allow my personality to get through.

So, kudos to writer Linda Laban, and also to photographer Wiqan Ang who took some great shots.

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Open Sourced

In the Lothars News email I sent out at the beginning of last week, I mentioned that the Lothars might be heard on the NPR program Open Source. Well, that didn’t happen, but it doesn’t mean we were totally shut out.

During the program, which you can download here, I was quoted (in actuality, they quoted me quoting Herb Deutsch) and then thanked at the end. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. Thereminist Pamelia Kurstin was a guest; she performed live and played beautifully! Also, they posted a brief but very nice interview with me where I talk about the White Castle Saga, how I first became interested in the theremin, and other fascinating insights.

This White Castle thing’s really got legs. Earlier this week, I was interviewed about it by the Boston Globe, who say they’ll be running the story sometime in the near future. Of course, I’ve probably jinxed myself by talking about it now.

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They’re Heeeeeeere….

The folks at White Castle have posted two versions of my ad onto YouTube. Aside from the fact that they’re titled “theramin 1″ and “theramin 2″ (emphasis mine), I think they came out pretty good!

I’m having trouble embedding them into this blog, but here are the links:

theramin 1

theramin 2

[edit 4/27/07: Perhaps due to a nudge from me, they fixed the spelling of the youtube titles]

[edit 6/30/08: The White Castle folks have taken down the videos, but I posted my own copies of them here and here]

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