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Casey Kasem: The Voice of Nostalgia

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There aren’t too many times that I actually feel nostalgic. Any time I write about an old movie or an old television show, I’m certainly trading in nostalgia, but that’s a little different than feeling nostalgic. When I watch an old movie, it’s because I still like that movie, not some ill-fated attempt to recapture some sort of sliver of my childhood.

The truth is: I like being an adult. I like being able to buy things. I didn’t particularly enjoy being an only child, so, today, I like that I get to be around other human beings my age. I like living in New York City better than living in Missouri. My point is, there’s really not much that makes me feel true nostalgia … well, except the voice of Casey Kasem. And this is something I’ve only recently discovered.

In ‘Ping Pong Summer’ (a movie that you most likely didn’t see, but is currently on VOD), the film opens in 1985 with a scene of a family on their way to spend the summer in Ocean City, Maryland. On the car radio is ‘American Top 40,’ hosted by Casey Kasem. It’s strange the kind of scenes that can have an emotional effect, but, boy, this particular scene hit me – reminding me of all the weekends riding in the backseat of my parents’ Chrysler Cordoba, on the way to a mid-Missouri tourist destination called Lake of the Ozarks. Maybe I just didn’t remember how much time I spent my childhood in the backseat of a car, but Casey Kasem really was the voice of my childhood.

It happened again a few weeks ago. On the way back from a New York to South Carolina and back road trip for a wedding, there was Casey Kasem’s voice on our radio as we entered the Washington D.C. area. Now, this was about a week before all of the “Casey Kasem is missing” stories flooded the Internet, and, for a few moments, I was actually wondering if this was a current countdown. He sounds GREAT, I thought, at least right up until he introduced Laura Branigan’s “new” hit, ‘Solitaire.’ (I found out later that Kasem had been hosting a radio show as recently as 2009.)

I had no idea that radio stations were re-airing old ‘American Top 40,’ but it was a fascinating listen, at least it was for 30 minutes before the signal became too weak. It really was like driving through a time warp of some kind. And, again, all of those memories flooded back in an emotional way I wasn’t really expecting.

Kasem was born Kemel Amin Kasem in 1932. His parents were Lebanese immigrants (Kasem once refused to voice an episode of ‘The Transformers’ because of a particular episode’s depiction of Middle-Eastern culture). He began his career as a disc jockey during the Korean War, and then dabbled in acting during the 1960s. (Starring as a character named “knife” in a movie called ‘Wild Wheels’ didn’t exactly propel Kasem to the Hollywood elite.)

Kasem’s acting talents are mostly remembered for his voice work in animated series – most notably as Shaggy in the ‘Scooby-Doo’ cartoons, Robin in the ‘Super Friends’ series, and as Mark in the American version of ‘Gatchaman,’ ‘Battle of the Planets.’

Lately, I’ve found myself listening to old episodes of ‘American Top 40’ on YouTube. (Though, yes, every time I do this it’s tempting to listen to some of those still-hilarious outtakes.) This is for completely nostalgic reasons. I can’t even pretend it’s for the music since, for song rights reasons, the music is relegated to short snippets at best. I just kind of want to hear Kasem’s voice again because there’s just something comforting about it that’s hard to put into words. Listening now is a peek inside a true time capsule.

(Another interesting aspect is just how many hit songs there are that aren’t even replayed on ’80s themed radio stations or satellite radio stations today. I mean, when’s the last time you heard Eddie Grant’s ‘Romancing the Stone’ or Rockwell’s ‘Obscene Phone Caller’?) And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t be listening to these now if I hadn’t heard his voice again in ‘Ping Pong Summer’ and on the drive back from South Carolina. I didn’t even realize that I missed his voice.

I’ve done my best to ignore all of the recent stories that will undoubtedly close out his life. Which is a shame, because there will be people who only know Kasem because of this recent circus as opposed to the voice that was a big part of some of our lives, even if we don’t fully realize that quite yet.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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