Barry Hansen began his lifelong passion for music as a kid in Minneapolis, collecting 78s he found at thrift stores. Now, at age 72, the legendary radio DJ known as Dr. Demento can’t even estimate the size of his record collection.
“It’s pretty big,” said Hansen, who will appear at the MarsCon convention in Bloomington this weekend. “It’s way up in the six figures, but I haven’t counted them in years.”
Although that collection ranges from blues, old country and pop music dating to 1900, it also fulfills his penchant for novelty music. As Dr. Demento, Hansen has been championing comedy music since 1970, although that role evolved more by happenstance than design.
“[It] started out as an oldies show,” said Hansen of his show’s origins at Los Angeles station KPPC. “The idea was that it was a freeform station that played all kinds of unusual songs, and they’d bring me on to do a rare oldies show.
“They didn’t use the word ‘oldies.’ It was just, ‘Here’s Dr. Demento,’ and I played oldies from my collection.”
Early on, when he opened the request line, listeners tended to request novelty songs more than anything else.
“I hadn’t really started out to play that kind of music predominantly, [but] I had a lot of it in my collection. So, the more people wanted of that, the more of it I played, and the more I played, the more popular the show got. So, I decided that’s my destiny.”
“The Dr. Demento Show” spawned a national following in syndication and coined a new musical genre, “dementia.” The show renewed the careers of artists like Spike Jones, Stan Freeberg and Alan Sherman, but modern music had a place on Hansen’s turntables, too. He often favored experimental artist Frank Zappa, served as an early vehicle for “Weird Al” Yankovic and They Might Be Giants, and even brought his own fans into the repertoire.
“After I’d been doing the show for two or three years, people began sending me tapes of new funny songs that they had put together and recorded,” he said.
“The Dr. Demento Show” struggled against the onset of radio consolidation and left broadcast radio altogether in 2010. But Hansen continues to produce new shows for DrDemento.com, showcasing classics and fan favorites alongside the next generation of novelty artists.
Although an Angeleno since the 1970s, Hansen regularly returns to Minneapolis, where he visits relatives and is an occasional guest at conventions. This weekend, Hansen returns as a guest at MarsCon, where he’ll sign autographs from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, then join a panel discussion with the makers of the upcoming Dr. Demento documentary film, “Under the Smogberry Trees,” at 4 p.m.
“I’m really happy to be coming back to MarsCon,” Hansen said. “Since my first appearance a few years back , it’s really developed quite a reputation among all the different cons around the country, as one that’s really identified with funny music. So I’m really looking forward to being back.”
With: Guests of honor J.G. Hertzler, author Esther Friesner and planetary scientist Bridget Landry; special guest Dr. Demento and more.
Where: DoubleTree by Hilton, 7800 Normandale Blvd., Bloomington.
Tickets: $25-$65. www.marscon.org.