INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Casey Kasem and the Last Phone Call

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

Like many, I kept track of the latest news surrounding Casey Kasem’s health and the plight of his children from his first marriage to see their bedridden father (I initially addressed this in my October column “The Final Countdown” (www.rafu.com/2013/10/into-the-next-stage-the-final-countdown-for-casey-kasem/).

On April 27, I was one of around 70 people at his birthday vigil in front of Berkeley East Convalescent Hospital in Santa Monica, where I talked to others who’d worked with the disc jockey over the years, and gave my support to Casey’s oldest daughter Kerri, who’d been leading the court battles against his second wife, Jean.

The following week, Kerri and sister Julie went to their father’s room with a lawyer — who apparently was able to talk his way past a guard who kept anyone from seeing Casey — and spent hours with him.

When she found out, Jean and her daughter Liberty took Casey out of the room at 2:30 a.m., reportedly unplugged his feeding tube, and took hospital equipment against the wishes of a doctor and a nurse, who warned that the move could kill him.

Over a five-day period, they drove the 82-year-old to Las Vegas, to Phoenix, and back to Vegas, then flew to Washington state, where they allegedly stayed with a couple Jean’s parents had known back in ’60s Guam — people neither Jean nor Casey had ever met.

After winning conservatorship over her father’s health, Kerri entered the home and took Casey to an ambulance as Liberty screamed and Jean threw raw hamburger meat at her stepdaughter. Casey’s body was so damaged by that point that when doctors infused his body with fluids, they flooded his lungs, almost drowning him.

Over the objections of Jean, a judge agreed with Kerri that the best thing was to just allow her father to die.

When I read that Casey’s former personal assistant Gonzalo Venecia was with the children, on June 12, I sent him a message through Facebook (we’d known each other since he joined “American Top 40” as a production assistant in 1986). He gave me his contact info, and I left a message asking him to call me. Around 8:30 p.m., he did. We talked about the whole fiasco, and he gave me insight into the situation.

I told him how frustrating it was when someone has dementia because you don’t have closure. You don’t get to tell them how much they meant to you or thank them for all they’ve done for you. Gonz said, “Hold on, I’m going to put you on speaker phone … I’ve got it right up to his ear. Go ahead.”

Casey Kasem and Guy Aoki speak out against KKBT-FM’s “House Party” in 1995 outside the Hollywood McDonald’s.

Casey Kasem and Guy Aoki speak out against KKBT-FM’s “House Party” in 1995 outside the Hollywood McDonald’s.

Holy sh*t! Suddenly, I was in that hospital room I read about. I was alone with Casey Kasem. I collected myself and told Casey that everyone had been concerned about his health and I was so sorry he wasn’t doing well. I mentioned the “American Top 40: The ’70s” Facebook page and how every hour someone posted something about a show we’d worked on in the ’80s or in the ’70s. That was because of the great job he’d done.

He inspired so many people, and we’d always talk about him. He would be remembered. I thanked him for all the times he came out to my protests even when it hurt him professionally. I told him what an honor it was to have known him, to have been his friend. And when I realized I’d pretty much said it all, rather than ramble on, I reluctantly said, “…goodbye.”

Gonz revealed that he called me when no one was around in the hospital room so he could do this. He swore me to secrecy until he gave me clearance (he later did). I told him, “Gonz, I will remember this for the rest of my life. God bless you!”

And after I hung up, I stood there crying my eyes out.

Did Casey hear me? Did he understand? My mom says her friend, while in a coma, swore she heard everything people said while she was out. Casey was sedated, which is not as bad as a coma, but then again, he had dementia … So I’ll never know.

A little over two days later on Sunday, Father’s Day, Casey Kasem passed away. Gonz passed on to Casey’s children my offer to speak at Saturday’s secret memorial, as I wanted people to know of the many times he supported the Asian American community. I was excited when Julie Kasem gave the nod the following day, Wednesday morning. Since there were going to be a lot of speakers (eventually, 14 in all, including short messages from his two granddaughters) I was given 3 to 5 minutes.

I knew that wasn’t enough to discuss what I’d had in mind: The time he spoke at NCRR’s 1991 Day of Remembrance, thanking the Japanese American community for fighting so hard to pass the redress bill (because of our victory, there wasn’t talk of interning Arab Americans then, at the start of the first Gulf War); his participation in MANAA’s 1993 press conference and protest of the “yellow peril” film “Rising Sun” starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes; his joining our 1995 demonstration of KKBT’s “House Party” (when the morning team kept imitating Asian Americans in the news with fake Asian accents, thereby perpetuating the notion of Asian Americans as foreigners deserving of ridicule).

I also needed to provide the context for why I began listening to American Top 40 as a 7th-grader in 1975 — during a difficult adolescence, the songs from the past reminded me of more innocent days, but I knew nothing of those records. Listening to his syndicated radio show every week and writing down #40 through #1 was a way to get my bearings. This led me to becoming an expert on pop music.

After learning how to write at AT40, I worked for magazines, became a Los Angeles Times reporter, and wrote Dick Clark’s countdown shows for 17 years (for more, read my past column “Casey Kasem and Me,” www.rafu.com/2010/07/itns_casey-kasem/).

This was necessary in order for the audience to understand the amazing journey I had with Casey throughout the years and his impact on millions of others like me. The first draft was six minutes long. But it was too stale. It read like an article. It needed to sound more conversational. It needed to breathe more.

I rewrote the opening and punched up other sections. It came out to 8:20. Yikes! I cut it down to 8 minutes. That was the best I could do. I checked every paragraph to ensure it wasn’t just about “look how great I am,” but that it related to Casey. They all did. I had to trust my instincts, that the only “long” speech was a boring one. And this one wasn’t. It was funny. It was sad. It was thought-provoking. It was insightful. It was dramatic. It was memorable.

That didn’t stop me from timing all the speeches before me (I was 12th out of 14), and most of them stuck to the five-minute limit. In the words of Scooby Doo — the friend of Shaggy (whom Casey voiced on the cartoon) — “Roh Roh!”

But the crowd — which hadn’t been prone to applause with those before me — clapped in places I hadn’t expected. I had their support. As I stepped down from the podium to return to my seat, Kerri Kasem stood to hug me. Her brother Mike stood as well. OK, I thought, eight minutes or not, it went OK. The emotional reactions I got from people were also reassuring and just beautiful. My social calendar might be busy for the next couple of weeks.

Guy Aoki and Gonzalo Venecia at the June 21 memorial.

Guy Aoki and Gonzalo Venecia at the June 21 memorial.

This is how I ended my speech: “And he was such a humanitarian who cared deeply. I’m upset that the press overlooked the fact that he co-hosted the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon for almost 20 years. I checked Google and it wasn’t on there. So I don’t know.

“A few years ago, Casey was co-hosting the L.A. portion, and it was the final hour. They ran a video package about another child who suffered from MS. It came back to Casey. He was in tears. As he made his final plea, he cried through it: ‘Please! We have to help these poor kids! We have to end this horrible disease! Please! Please call the number at the bottom of your screen and make a contribution!’ [As I said the next line, I began to cry.] This is the kind of man we lost. There’ll never be someone like him again.

“Looking back on it now, it all seems like a fairy tale. The man who was my idol became my co-worker, my colleague, my collaborator — and someone who even called me his ‘good friend?!’ It doesn’t seem possible. And yet it happened. Casey made dreams come true that I couldn’t have imagined.

“I’m one of the fans of ‘American Top 40’ who got lucky. Casey, thank you for inspiring me and millions of others like me with your voice, your style, your enthusiasm, your passion, your genius. Thank you for standing up for so many important causes for so many different people. You left this world a much better place.”

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

 Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Casey Kasem and Don Bustany (co-creators of “American Top 40”) at the 1991 Day of Remembrance with members of NCRR.

Casey Kasem and Don Bustany (co-creators of “American Top 40”) at the 1991 Day of Remembrance with members of NCRR.

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1 Comment

  1. Audrey Hartley on

    Guy: As a former administrator of an Assisted Living community, and as someone who has sat with many of our residents with dementia who were entering the other side, I can promise you this: he heard every word you said. AND, that helped him to bring closure. We know that the last thing a person has is his or her sense of hearing. Your familiar voice and your loving words helped him to cross over knowing that the rest of us who love and admire him will carry on, and will make his legacy that which he so richly deserves. Well done…and “not Rorry
    Raggy!” Now, on with the Countdown…

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