Within minutes of taking the stage at Rockland Community College, Dennis Elsas is holding up a transistor radio.
The simple gesture triggers a tangible ripple of nostalgia through those gathered in the Suffern campus theater.
We’ve left this chilly October night to return to earlier days, ones when these handheld radios and the sounds that came out of them meant the world.
It’s an association mirrored by the very presence of Elsas, since the longtime Rye resident’s voice has been a metro-area staple for some four decades.
“I always say I grew up listening to me, too,” Elsas says with a laugh at one point.
On this night, he’s presenting “Rock ’N’ Roll Never Forgets” as one of The Historical Society of Rockland County’s golden anniversary events.
It’s a multimedia show that takes us through his storied career, offering a behind-the-scenes peek into the music and musicians of our time.
“It’s also a bit of a love letter to radio,” Elsas will later share.
And indeed, the show kicks off exploring the radio landscape that dotted Elsas’ Queens childhood, when he would listen to New York’s great AM rock personalities — think Murray “the K” Kaufman, Bob Lewis, Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and Scott Muni. We follow along as he attends Queens College and joins the campus station, his first taste of what would become his lifelong profession.
“Growing up I didn’t think I ever imagined I would do this,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody in the media. I didn’t even know there was ‘a media.’”
He did know, though, that opportunity was there.
“It’s the 1960s. The whole world is about to change.”
In the era of the World’s Fair and Woodstock, we hear about how the Federal Communications Commission would transform the “face” of radio, with new regulations paving the way for the explosion of FM music programming.
Elsas, back from post-college travel in Europe, would get his start at WVOX in New Rochelle, introducing some of that new music with a show called “Something Else Again.”
A BIG STEP
It all leads up to a pivotal step, with Elsas hired by Muni (then program director) himself in the summer of 1971 to join WNEW-102.7 FM. Within six months, Elsas would become not only music director but also a pioneer of the progressive FM radio revolution. In his role, Elsas would be involved in selecting what music would be on the air, introducing listeners to new sounds, new artists and even, new ways of thinking.
“It was a treat to work there, and I worked with an amazing bunch of men and women,” he says.
His 25-plus years with the station are highlighted by one particular afternoon, Sept. 28, 1974, when John Lennon paid an on-air visit. Elsas had met the former Beatle when he was finishing up his “Walls and Bridges” album at The Record Plant earlier that summer and casually invited him to the station.
“I just threw it out there,” Elsas says.
When Elsas found out Lennon was coming, he told listeners all day to stay tuned for a big surprise. The surprise was Lennon spending two hours talking music, The Beatles and even playing DJ, to the delight of all.
It was not just another day at the office, as Elsas recalls.
“I’m now this young kid who’s pinching himself when John Lennon walks in.”
That interview would later be featured in numerous outlets, most notably in “The Beatles Anthology,” and remains in the permanent collection of The Paley Center For Media, formerly The Museum of Television and Radio.
Two months later, Elsas would welcome Elton John to the same studio, the day after the star’s concert at Madison Square Garden, during which Lennon was a surprise guest.
It’s clear that no matter the interview, Elsas’ easygoing manner creates an instant rapport with his subject. He might be exploring the story behind an album-cover shoot with Graham Nash or bonding with John Mellencamp over a shared love of a 45 (Remember those?) of “The Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters. He even has the audience hooting as we watch Elsas ask Jerry Garcia — during a “PM Magazine” television interview in 1984 — “Does one need drugs to truly enjoy the Grateful Dead experience?” (Garcia’s reply, in part: “No. That’s not what it’s all about.”).
It’s now some five years since Elsas debuted this multimedia show.
“The very nice people at the Rye Arts Center were doing an exhibition,” about rock photography, he says. “They said ‘Could you do a presentation at some point, sort of to kick off this exhibit?’ and I said ‘Sure.’”
At that point, Elsas had already built up his website, a treasure trove of interviews and more, so he had the material at hand to collaborate on the project that continues to evolve.
To date, he’s presented the show to Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey audiences and looks forward to future bookings.
In the meantime, fans can tune in weekday afternoons to hear Elsas on WFUV-90.7 FM, the noncommercial public media service of Fordham University that he joined in 2000. There, he has continued his legacy, interviewing artists who include Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Ringo Starr and Nash. Elsas is also heard on the Classic Radio channel of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, which he balances with the demands of being a leading voiceover artist who’s the “Voice of Rock History” at the Museum at Bethel Woods. He’s also been an announcer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcasts and for VH1’s “Concert of the Century” at the White House.
Elsas, who shares his life with wife, Nancy, and dotes on four grandchildren, will further lend his voice this month as special guest host of the Neuberger Museum of Art’s Nov. 7 “Benefête.”
For Elsas, it all comes down to connecting with the listener — a relationship he plans to continue for the long term.
“I like to believe what I love about radio and I think you love about radio is the one-to-one. … We spend a lot of time with each other, one way or another.”
And that makes for some special memories for all.
For more, visit denniselsas.com.