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Frank Wappat    Article posted on 24th April 2000

'Old dog' Frank just loves life

This article appeared in The Journal on Sat 22nd January 2000.
All text is copyright The Journal 2000.
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22nd January 2000

Veteran broadcaster Frank Wappat is about to celebrate 35 years on the airwaves. Last year it looked as if he wouldn't make it as doctors gave him just days to live.
He spoke to Chief Feature Writer - and former radio colleague -
Dick Godfrey.

Then and Now: Frank as a child (left) and in his home studio with wife Susan.

As he climbed the stairs of his home in Weardale, Frank Wappat knew that something was wrong. "My hand wasn't gripping the banister as it ought to have been," he recalls. "I thought, oh God, this is a heart attack or a stroke or something."
He'd had a bit of a headache and told his wife Susan that he would go and lie down for a while before the pair left to spend the day in Newcastle. "I didn't feel really unwell, but I thought I'd go and have a bit of a rest."
At the top of the stairs, he couldn't grasp the handle on the bedroom door. He shouted to his wife. She helped him into bed and called the doctor He summoned an ambulance and Frank was taken to hospital in Bishop Auckland.
"I've had a stroke haven't I?" Frank asked when he came round and realised where he was and what had happened. His world was instantly confused. "The frightening thing is that you hallucinate when you've had a stroke. The real world becomes mixed up.

"I remember seeing all these tubes - in my nose and in my arm - and I said, 'Get these out. I've got work to do. I've got a show to do at the Odeon'." The stroke was in March. The date at the Odeon wasn't until June.
At six o'clock the following morning, the hospital rang Susan Wappat to say that Frank's condition was deteriorating and that she should go to the hospital urgently. She went to his bedside with his son by his first marriage, Paul. They expected the worse.
Susan recalls the nightmare of the call and what she found at hospital. As she stood in tears by her husband's bed, the doctor outlined Frank's condition. "The next 24 hours are critical," he said gently. "But you can see the condition he's in. You wouldn't want him to suffer would you? If it means the difference between him waking up and being paralysed or..." The statement hung in the air, but the implication was clear "I'd rather he just passed away," she told the doctor. "That's how we all felt, really," she says. The memory is still painful.

On song: Frank and Renato, the Newcastle based half of Renee and Renato.

The word spread. I still have the obituary I wrote when I learned that Frank was unlikely to survive. It was a chilling experience. I had worked with Frank in the early years of BBC Radio Newcastle when he was beginning to emerge as a quite extraordinary broadcaster. His speciality was music of the Thirties and Forties and his own brand of religion. It was an odd combination. With the music, his knowledge was extraordinary. It still is. Ask Frank about a recording from the Thirties and he will give you the line up of the band and the date of the recording session.
His religion has its origins in rebellion. It stems from a dissatisfaction with the "orthodox" Christianity of his youth. At home in Hebburn, the young Frank Wappat became a Methodist lay preacher, but eventually ran foul of the church's authorities who did not like his free-wheeling, religion- is-meant-to-be-enjoyable approach.
He didn't get on much better with the establishment in the Church of England to whom he next turned, becoming a licensed preacher He developed a profound dislike of "religion" which led him to establish his own alternative congregation.

Country life: Frank and Susan at their home in Weardale

Worshippers flocked first to his Mission in Byker and then to the redundant C of E church lie occupied for some years in North Shields. Frank Wappat once displayed a poster showing what he had on offer "Weddings, funerals, christenings performed on request…singing, dancing…"
Both aspects of Frank's life took to the airwaves. His "Thirties Club" and "Gospel Hour" programmes attracted large audiences much to the surprise of successive station managers at Radio Newcastle.

Each boss started by feeling they'd rather like to do without what they regarded as somewhat dated material, but changed their minds when, time after time, the audience research figures showed the scale of Frank Wappat's appeal. My first encounter with him wasn't very auspicious. I was one of the sceptics. As producer of the breakfast show, I dropped an item from Frank in which he had played a dedication to someone who had recently died. It was not, I suggested, quite the right time of day for such things. Frank reluctantly, agreed. I worked with him in the studio and at live shows where he had an undeniable magnetism. I have seen him hold a Newcastle City Hall audience in the palm of his hand. It wasn't my scene, but like others in radio, I couldn't deny the evidence of audience reaction and listening figures. We lost regular touch after I left the BBC 20 years ago. I had a motorcycle crash and; like Frank last year, was seriously ill. Both of us took strength from the letters sent by listeners. I had a hundred or so. Frank had over a thousand. "It really makes you want to get well, doesn't it?" Frank smiles. "If all these people want you to carry on living, you feel as if you have a responsibility to stay alive."
The next information that got through to him was discouraging.

A senior member of the hospital staff said he should prepare to be in hospital for about six months.
"I'm going home this week," insisted Frank. The woman laughed indulgently: Eight days after he was taken to hospital, Frank was deemed well enough to go home.

Pals: Frank with Irish tenor Cavan O'Connor whose recordings he played.

He took a couple of weeks off but then went back into the studio he has built in his house to record his shows. He still does a weekly programme of what most of us would describe as gospel music for Radio Newcastle. "Gospel makes it sounds religious and it's not really religious; it's inspirational," he explains carefully. "Being a monotheist, I'm interested in all religions."

His major broadcasting commitment is Stars On 78. It focuses largely on the music Frank is a recognised international expert on and which he has done much to preserve; the. records of earlier generations when star singers were called crooners and bands were big and brassy. This was how Frank began his broadcasting career in February, 1964 - the year The Beatles took America by storm - as a pirate DJ on Radio 390 on an old fort in the middle of the Thames estuary.

Last year, Stars on 78 - now networked to an impressive total of 10 BBC local radio stations from Nottingham upwards - won a Sony Award, the Oscars of the British broadcasting industry. "It's become a cult programme which it deserves to be," Frank says with no attempt at false modesty.

"It's got nothing to do with taste in music. It's about preserving art forms. I've got everything including German propaganda records during the war when they took our tunes and re-wrote the lyrics. Instead of being insulting, they are hilariously funny. We also have jazz, swing and blues, anything of quality."

Weardale has been Frank's home since the summer of 1998. He was attracted there by an interest in genealogy. He has traced his family's roots to the 15th Century and found that they originated in the area. His researches have also allowed him to make contact with Wappats across the world. He produces some snaps to prove the point. Here are Wappats from Germany, Wappats from Australia and even beaming members of the clan in Hawaii.
In one of his incarnations as an entertainer, Frank was a member of an Hawaiian string band. There is a story that the band once played at the graveside of a man he bad just buried in his capacity as a preacher.
Frank has long been reluctant to divulge his age. But an old story about him from 1968 describes him as a "young looking 38." Another from 1980 gives him the same age. He likes being 38. He thinks he'll stay there. "I've had a brilliant and fun life," he says. "I appear to have given pleasure to a lot of people in the process. I think that's what pulled me through last year. There's a lot of life in the old dog yet."

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John William Pearson Wappatt Article posted on 24th April 2000

As sick as a parrot

This article appeared in The Gazette on Wed 10th September 1997.

It was within
Frank Wappat's
World of Music


All text is copyright The Gazette 1997.

John William Pearson Wappat was born in 1866 in Middlesbrough. When he was 21, he left England to seek fame and fortune in America. He found neither and in 1892 he was fined 11 dollars for selling parrots without a licence in Chicago! He had caught the wild parrots on a trip to South America and thought he might make a good living selling them to Americans who had never seen one. He was unaware that licences were required to sell them.
Disillusioned, he decided to go to New Orleans.

One good thing about John was that he kept a detailed diary and his stay in New Orleans gives the only graphic first-hand account of the birth of jazz I have seen!
"Bands play everywhere, mainly in the streets and street corners, as well as cafes. The music is like a type of rhythmic march music and I saw and heard a machine that talks and actually plays music and sings (circa 1890, this would be an American Edison Cylinder recording player)."

On January 18, 1889 he had noted "Assets in Limon, Costa Rica $47 plus Valise, Pistol and Gun".
Nine months later, he wrote on 14th October, 1889 "Assets in Limon, Costa Rica, now $650 plus the hardware". He certainly knew how to make money and Limon, Costa Rica appeared to be his base.

In 1894, he notes his arrival in Mexico, where he acquired a derelict gold mine and two small silver mines, which are still there today and the silver mines still produce.

In Mexico he appeared as Juan (Mexican for John) Pearson Williams, a curious re-arrangement of his Christian names and omitting his surname Wappat.

His last passport, which I have seen was signed J W P Wappatt. His descendants to this day are called Williams.

In 1894, he notes his arrival in Mexico, where he acquired a derelict gold mine and two small silver mines, which are still there today and the silver mines still produce.

My help was sought because his diary was in English and the pencil writing so small that it needed a very strong magnifying glass in order to try and decipher it.

Article by Frank Wappat 1997.

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