FAITHFUL listeners are saying kaddish at the grave site of Sam Moss' radio program. Dead at 30-something, hardening of the ratings. You hear the mourners gathered at Miller's Deli at the Greenspring Shopping Center, and at Field's Pharmacy in Pikesville, and the laments echo along the aisles at the Giant on Old Court Road.
"Did you hear?" the survivors ask. "Did you hear?"
But there's nothing left to hear. Moss' radio program, an hour of Jewish humor and song and history, has been silenced after more than three decades as a staple of local radio.
One Wednesday in June, when he showed up for his regular taping of the weekly Sunday spot, he found a slip of paper in his mailbox at WCBM: "Next week will be your last show."
That was it. A few weeks later, station execs handed him a nice plaque. And, like that, came an end to one of those sweet, offbeat, idiosyncratic bleeps that momentarily take AM radio out of its numbing daily routine of two-way talk show anger and angst and bared fangs. With Sam Moss, all that's lost is the joy.
When he sat behind his microphone, he turned the sound of kibitzing into an art form. In his voice came reverberations of Borscht Belt merriment, of the joke poking fun at the face in the mirror, and of transplanted Eastern European accents that are fading with the years.
Moss' father came from Lithuania and his mother from Russia. "My mother," he remembers, "never said a word of English that anybody could understand. She'd tell me, 'Go to the store and pick up some important sardines.' For her, 'important' meant 'imported.'"
But that gentle wordplay, and those vanishing dialects, became part of Moss' twinkly radio persona.
"Comedy and pride," he was saying the other day. He has a full head of white hair and a wistful smile. "It was the Jewish hour, but it wasn't about religion or God, or what time to pray on Friday night. It was about comedy and pride. Right, Rose?"
In a sunlit Northwest Baltimore County kitchen, Rose Moss nods her head reassuringly. "Pride was the important element," she says. They have been married for 62 years and raised three children. They grew up across the street from each other, at Montford and Fairmount near Patterson Park, and attended the old P.S. 27 together. After all this time, they can finish each other's sentences. In fact, Rose knows Sam's voice so well that for the last three decades, she wrote the Memory Lane segment of the show.
And, as they say in the Yiddish patois: Such a show!
It's not that the jokes were hysterical. Some were retreads swiped by Milton Berle from Henny Youngman and, in the same noble tradition, thereupon swiped by Moss. And the music was up to date. But the date was Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor.
But that was the point. It was an hour for listeners to wrap themselves in old ethnic comforts, in good-natured pokes in one's own ribs. It was the sound of the familiar.
"If Rose doesn't like a joke, I take it out of the show," Moss declares. "Always."
"Not always," Rose says.
"All right, not always," Sam says, capitulating quickly. "If I take 'em all out, I'll have nothing left."
He speaks in the present tense, as though the show were still running. He is 85 years old, and cannot believe he is unemployed. He says he would love to bring the show back, somewhere along the radio dial.
"My life," he says, "is built on laughter, ever since I was a boy. You pick up a story here, a story there. And, always, with love and pride."
For 41 years, he owned a small remodeling company. He was so full of jokes that one of his customers -- Jack Luskin, owner of the appliance chain -- told him he should have his own show. Moss told him he was crazy. Luskin told him he'd back him. Thus, a 30-year legend took shape across four local radio stations, three of which (WAYE, WITH and WFBR) now live only in memory.
He spent about 20 years at WCBM. Most of that time, the show ran on Sunday mornings. The last couple of years, at 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoons. Therein came the problem.
"Who's going to listen at 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?" Moss says with a laugh. "I wouldn't listen myself. At 3 o'clock on a Sunday, I'm listening to a ballgame on the radio."
With dwindling ratings, loyal longtime sponsors reluctantly pulled out.
"So that's how it goes," Moss says. He stands in a corner of his basement now, in a little area of books and record albums and tapes that contributed so much to his program.
"Three, four, five nights a week I'd be down here preparing for the show," he says.
"You'll have more time now to relax," Rose says.
"Relax," Sam says softly. He says it as though the thought never occurred to him. He sounds like a man who's been stopped in the middle of some terrific joke and can't wait to find a crowd somewhere to deliver his punch line.