When he was a kid, not yet in his teens, Frank Luber would sneak into a small auditorium at St. Joseph's Monastery in Irvington, point a spotlight toward the center of the stage and stand in its glow. Then, before an empty hall, he'd belt out a song into the microphone.
"I guess there was something of the ham in me," Luber said with a chuckle as he recalled those times. "I just liked the feel of it -- showbiz, the stage."
Luber, whose first real gig in front of a microphone, not long afterward, involved calling bingo numbers, is celebrating 50 years of broadcasting in Maryland, where his sonorous voice has become a perennial presence on both radio and television. Luber, 68, who for 14 years has been half of The Sean and Frank Show, a morning talk radio program on WCBM, will be roasted tonight at a gathering in Pikesville.
Sean Casey, the other half of the morning duo and the master of ceremonies for tonight's festivities, said Luber is "an incredible prankster." Luber is fond of leaving fake phone messages for his colleagues from "politicians" and other ostensibly high-profile people, Casey said, or clipping the heads of co-workers from photographs and pasting them onto a newspaper page featuring, for instance, the world's "worst dictators." He also used to order useless merchandise -- ceramic dogs, velvet Elvis portraits -- and have them delivered, cash on delivery, to Casey.
Perhaps the most common theme to emerge from interviews with Casey and Luber's other friends is Luber's apparent aversion to picking up a check, a condition so ingrained that they named him president of the International Brotherhood of Freeloaders. This topic is sure to be part of the roast.
"He's never paid for a meal in his life," said Chuck Whitaker, a former traffic reporter for radio station WFBR in Baltimore who met Luber in 1969 and who described himself as the sergeant-at-arms of the freeloaders' group. "He's notorious for going to the men's room, saying, 'I'll come right back,' and disappearing. Where was the men's room, Frank? Cleveland?"
Whitaker, who moved to Tampa, Fla., in 1997, said yesterday after arriving in Baltimore for the roast that he brought with him a photograph of Luber on a Caribbean cruise a few years ago. It shows a man in a pirate suit holding a gun to Luber's head.
"It's the only proof I have that Frank ever paid a check," Whitaker said, stifling a laugh.
Despite his affection for practical jokes, Luber is relatively low-key on the air; the more reflective, somber antidote to Casey's more bombastic style. Last week, the morning after the midterm election, when the extent of the Republican losses had become clear, Luber sought to rationalize the results.
"Didn't Abe Lincoln lose an election, too, before he became president?" he asked.
Picking up on the notion of antiquity, Casey reminded listeners about Luber's 50 years in broadcasting. His career includes 20 years as a reporter on WJZ-TV. "This guy really was good buddies with Marconi," Casey said, referring to the Italian physicist whose invention of wireless telegraphy in the late 1800s helped establish radio as a broadcast medium.
Casey then glanced at Luber, sitting across from him in their studio. "You said you were in Pompeii," Casey said. "Was that when the volcano went off?"
Such barbs are likely to be standard fare tonight at the roast, and Luber is self-deprecating enough to laugh them off. In an interview after the show last week, Luber said he hadn't given much thought to the half-century he has spent behind a microphone. "I had to do the math," he said. "You're proud of it, but at the same time, you think, life is passing me by."
He has plenty of memories, though, from being enthralled as a child by vivid radio serials like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger to getting his first job, in 1956, as a $40-a-week disc jockey known as Cactus Cob playing "gutbucket, twangy" country music on WSAL in Annapolis. Two years later, he joined WFMM, a classical music station in Baltimore, a move he described as going "from one extreme to the other."
Luber spent eight years at WCAO in the 1960s, first as a Top 40 DJ and then as news director and reporter. Only a month after he started there, an admittedly green Luber conducted a phone interview with John F. Kennedy, who was running in the Maryland presidential primary.
"I was nervous," said Luber, who has the acetate tape of the interview. "You could hear my voice getting high -- it was breaking a bit."
He covered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 and interviewed several people who attended, including Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X and Marlon Brando, who carried a cattle prod and, to illustrate how such tools were used against blacks in the South, pressed it briefly against Luber's hand.
A year later, in September 1964, Luber interviewed the Beatles when they gave a pair of concerts in Baltimore and decided that George Harrison and Ringo Starr "seemed to be the nicest ones."
"I thought they were just a passing phenomenon," Luber said, remembering the pandemonium the Beatles caused. "I never realized how great their music was when they first came in. I didn't even like it that much."
He thought for a moment, and added, "You never know when you're witnessing history."
Born: Jan. 6, 1938
Education: St. Joseph's Monastery in Irvington and the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington
Residence: Baltimore and Worcester County
Family: Wife, Susan; five daughters and 10 grandchildren