REVISITING THE PARK | Old-time radio was all the rage
Tuesday, May 31, 2011 1:20 PM
It was tough growing up in the ‘40s, with the war going on — the news was always bleak. We who attended J. J. McGilvra used to hang on anything non-war-related.
Movies were a good escape, but they were few and far between because resources were stretched thin: Actors were put in uniform, and materials for movie-making were used in the war effort.
The radio was the next best thing.
The drama of radio
Every Saturday morning at 8 a.m., the “Buster Brown Show” began with its theme song: “If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise,” from the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” The show filled the air with humor, mystery and excitement.
Eventually, more shows hit the airwaves, entertaining the young set. Capt. Midnight, the Green Hornet and Jack Armstrong were the main characters.
The signet ring that decoded radio messages mesmerized us into another world.
The “Inner Sanctum” was an entertainment program for senior citizens, as was “The Shadow” which opened with a creaking-door noise followed by, “The Shadow knows….”
During World War II, radio broadcasters like Lowell Thomas Jr. had great delivery. His was a monotone voice conveying the awful war reality. Sam Hayes had a much lighter-toned report that began early in the morning, setting a better mood for the day.
On early Sunday evenings, the highlight was Cecil B. DeMille’s narrated movies, which began with dramatic music, Cecil’s introduction, followed by various actors performing.
If parents would allow it, some would stay up late Sunday and listen to Jack, Doc and Reggie’s, “I Love a Mystery.”
Taking the radio along
Radios were being built into cars in 1930, but there was a lot of interference.
By the late ‘40s, full AM radio played, but some areas were still weak. If a big fight or sporting event was playing while we drove, one would need to slam in reverse and pull to the shoulder so as to not miss anything.
Some may remember listening to an instrumental in their first car while sipping cold beer acquired from the parents’ fridge. This would set the mood for those evenings watching biology studies (submarine races or make-out sessions) in the woods known today as Canterbury.
DJs spun the vinyl in the early ‘50s. Bill Apple sat in a glass booth on Fourth Avenue South, doing the late-night shift called “Apple Jam.” He lived in Leschi and was seen in Madison Park often. We used to stop by to send dedications to friends.
One night, he handed me the mike; I read from a long list of names, adding quips.
After handing him back the mike, he said, “You should try your hand at radio.” Instead, I chose ironwork, where most of the time I worried about the seven-plus stories of air between me and the ground. But I was happy to be making big bucks for the first time.
Other popular DJs were Bob Hardwick and Jack Morton, who would occasionally invite a lucky listener for lunch in a mink-lined booth. Morton attended J.J. McGilvra a few years before me.
The two of them started a radio skit on KVI-AM called, “Backstage Della,” a five-minute daily show that was a takeoff on the ‘30s “Stella Dallas” radio show. Most of Seattle listened to this barely legal-for-airways humor.
Empire Smith and Charlie Brown of KJR had a weekly “Who Done It” game, with prizes like weekend trips or dinners for two.
Hi-fi popped into the picture, and FM was introduced. Vinyl began to sell in hi-fi, and people bought one-speaker radios. I bought one with all the tone/volume/balance buttons, but it only looked professional — it was still just one big speaker.
To hear vinyl in a car was something unheard of until Chevrolet introduced a 45rpm player built into the back seat. It had an auto-changer, but it turned out not to be ready for prime time as they found the 45s melted if they were left in the elements.
Some AM and FM stations joined forces causing the popularity of DJs to give way to belts running pre-recorded radio broadcasts.
But then stereo happened. It was exciting to sit between two speakers, with ears cupped, hearing two separate channels.
I bought my first real stereo around 1962. A house full of friends enjoyed listening to favorite records from Les Paul and Mary Ford. The better the song, the better the cocktail; as the cocktail improved, so did the volume.
Forgiving neighbors could attest as, on the morning after one such evening, I asked sheepishly if they heard the music. The husband answered, “Yes, as a matter of fact, we lay awake enjoying it.”
Eight-track, reel-to-reel, 8mm tapes, CDs, DVDs, iTunes and now 3D audio — what’s next? It’s too expensive to keep up, so I will be content with last year’s technology for now.
RICHARD CARL LEHMAN is a longtime Madison Park resident.