The Little Detrola Radio That Brought Magic Into My Home

Photo of the broadcast control desk at WJAZ in 1922, consisting of 15 dials, five gauges and other equipment
Detrola CM 429 wooden table tube radio (1941)

I remember the Detrola table model radio being on the end of the kitchen counter close to the window. Part of the morning ritual was turning it on to hear the mellow voice of Clint Buehlman giving the weather and traffic reports. If I was real lucky he would be giving the school closings, and maybe, just maybe, he would be closing mine.

The radio was magic. I didn't know how it worked. I could figure out the gas stove. Just a pipe to the burner, light a match and one could boil water. I crawled behind the refrigerator one day, only to find a mechanical hutch for dust bunnies. One couldn't get excited about a stove or fridge.

What made the radio work? I peeked in the back, being careful not to get a shock. The five tubes glowed with a reddish-orange light. I saw the dial light. I could see the dial cord move when I turned the tuning knob. Oh, it has some wires, and a metal chassis, but unlike my bike or scooter, I couldn't see what made it work.

On Sunday evenings my parents would take it into the living room, place it on a chair and we would listen to our special programs. "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." Wow! The same guy who was talking to us was broadcasting to the ships far out at sea! Yes, we enjoyed the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and all the usual favorites, while we waited for television to be improved. Maybe next year my dad would buy a TV but for now the radio would do.

Even after the TV came, the radio was still part of the morning routine. With the advent of top 40 stations of the 1950s and early '60s, the old wooden radio seemed out of place. Old programs should come out of it, not the "latest and greatest hits," but still the radio did its yeoman's duty.

Through the years, with technical study, I found out how it worked. I was able to keep it in repair by replacing tubes, the line cord and dial cord. It is a simple radio.

A few years ago, I was able to purchase a "state of the art" radio. It is completely solid state, microprocessor-controlled and has 32 memories. It took me a few hours just to learn how to operate it. It covers the broadcast band and the entire high frequency region. It can do all modes: AM, FM, Sideband and Radioteletype, as well as being controlled by a computer.

It does this with cold efficiency, and I do mean cold. It has no tubes. No heat from tubes. It has no memories of school day mornings and Sunday evening programs.

The Old Wooden Radio is mine now, and with it I can tune in to the warmth of bygone years. I still peek into the back of it, because real radios glow in the dark.

Martin Braun in Illustrated Press, November 1990

Radio Singer Frank Parker's Secret of Success: 'Be Ready'

Photo of Frank Parker, a singer on the Jack Benny radio show in the 1930s
Singer Frank Parker, an early Jack Benny regular

Frank Parker already is an outstanding tenor, and under the tutelage of that master jester Jack Benny, he is garnering laurels as a comedian. Now they would make of him an oracle -- and Parker doesn't want any part of that. Even if he's the current matinee idol of the air, Parker is so level-headed that he has no idea that his achievements have equipped him to advise those whom fortune has spurned.

What's more, he doesn't think people should ask advice. His formula for getting ahead is so simple that he feels it should be axiomatic. His sole suggestion to aspirants in any field is merely this: Be ready.

The theory that you can lurk in corners awaiting opportunity and then catch it by putting on its tail the salt of somebody else's experience is first-degree delusion so far as Parker is concerned.

And in spite of his empathic feeling in the matter, the anxious have made a beaten path to his door. Every delivery brings Parker volumes of mail seeking his secret of success, and even his safely guarded telephone offers little protection against his harassers.

"I'm too busy making good myself to be able to advise the other fellow," Parker declares. "Right now anybody with a little talent has an even chance with me, so who am I to don the prophet's toga and spread advice about something I'm not any too sure of myself?"

Parker of course is quoted literally on the foregoing. He is too modest really -- too much of a gentleman bred -- to tell the straight of the point he was discussing. And the truth is that Parker probably spends more of his free time helping others to get started than any of the stars.

A question he really would like to have answered is, whatever gave anybody the idea that he had set himself up as a seer? Not that he wouldn't willingly give another person a hand up, but he feels that he just doesn't qualify.

"That simple injunction, be ready," he says, "should cover every bid made by opportunity. But it's surprising how many persons chase ambition and hope, only to find themselves unprepared when they catch up with them. Ability is like water in that it seeks its own level, and you could squelch talent no more than you could the current of a stream -- if its possessor is on their toes when the moment of opportunity comes."

Doubtless the many who have sought out Parker for his advice have been attracted to him because of his cordial friendliness and his own swift ascent to the top. But he still cannot reason out how the idea seems to have become so prevalent so suddenly.

What Parker fails to take into account is the natural weakness of the thwarted in believing that there is some predetermined formula for success, some mystic cabalistic sign that serves as a passport to the gates of achievement. Probably he rejects that theory because success was not his without the vigilance which he prescribes.

Most persons' greatest fault is their impatience. "I don't like to say it to you," wrote one pest, "but I'm a better singer than you are right now, and if you weren't afraid of the truth you would give me a chance at least."

To the mild-mannered Parker, this had all of the characteristics of a challenge, so he contacted the writer and told him that he was to replace Parker on one of his programs, and that he should be sure to be at a certain NBC studio at a given time.

At the prescribed time Parker awaited the opportunist, but the rehearsal had progressed nearly 20 minutes before there was a timid knock at the door. Opened, it revealed a slender young man whose knees beat a tattoo.

"I'm -- looking for Fr-Frank Parker," he stammered.

Parker came forward and genially greeted the frightened lad.

"Come in," he said, "we're waiting for you."

The boy's bravado deserted him entirely at that unexpected warm welcome and he admitted to Parker that he had talked out of turn. He was afraid, he said, that he would be a complete bust if he attempted to fill Parker's shoes -- and from that spineless admission Parker knew it was all too true.

"He just wasn't ready," pointed out the tenor triumphantly -- not triumphant because an aspirant had failed, but because the experience bore out his contention that those who are caught unprepared for opportunity may just as well go back home and whip themselves into shape to grasp it on its next round.

Lest readers think that Parker gives that sort of advice without benefit of personal experience with its fullest value, he cites his own case. This resonant-voiced singer began his professional career not as a vocalist, but as a dancer. And he was eager for success in his field. Singing, so far as it concerned him, was purely a matter of pleasing himself. He had no notion that anyone even had heard him as he went caroling to himself.

But the director of a show in which Parker was working sensed a splendid quality in the boy's voice and urged him to accept a role which included singing. Here was Parker's opportunity to test his simple platitude -- his brief formula for success. He was ready.

He accepted the part as blithely as though he had been Dennis King -- "and then," he says, "I made it my business to learn how to sing. Up to that time I had never had a lesson. And just like the lad to whom I later offered the big chance, someone asked me to fill in one night on the radio. But I didn't say I would come back and try later. I just got up there in my supreme faith and complete ignorance of technique ... and when I came to after it as all over, somebody was poking a contract into my hand to sign."

Parker adds that he didn't get by very long on what vocal talent he possessed at the time, but he had at least stuck his foot in the door, and by dint of endless study and practice, he eventually was able to get his whole self through the portals.

"Perhaps," he says, "when I have reached a point where I think the scorers can mark 'Success' behind my name, I will be more eager to give advice, but at present I think I am fair from qualified to advice anyone else -- and besides, who wants to be a Beatrice Fairfax?"

Harry Steele in Radio Guide, May 11, 1935

Lum and Abner Performed at 1935 Indiana State Fair

Chester Lauck and Norris Goff at the Indiana State Fair in 1935, where they performed as Lum and Abner. The photo shows Lauch, Goff, their friend Jerry Hausner and others standing in a cafeteria line choosing plates of food.
Chester Lauck and Norris Goff at the 1935 Indiana State Fair

Saturday August 31, 1935, was the beginning of the Indiana State Fair, and was also quite a gala night for two boys from Mena, Arkansas. The Indianapolis Star and the State Board of Agriculture sponsored an amateur contest, to be held in the coliseum of the fairgrounds. And out of the world of headline radio stars, Lum and Abner were the unanimous choice to act as masters of ceremony. There they were, keeping the audience laughing and applauding from beginning to end.

Lum said he felt just like Major Bowes; and Major Bowes, with all his experience, couldn't have carried an amateur contest off with more poise or ease, or have conducted a more successful one. They had all of the "hand-slapping" (as the Pine Ridge two express it) that a most exacting favorite could have desired, from the time they were drawn up to the stage in a little covered wagon pulled by two big black oxen. They were then Lum and Abner in all their regalia. At the last of the show, they finally came out on the stage as Chester Lauck and Norris Goff, two nice-looking young fellows from Arkansas.

All during the show, Abner was trying to enter the contest and sing "Just a Bird in a Gilded Cage". Lum would keep stopping him. He would leave the mic, but would each time come back in a new and funnier disguise. Once he was a little old lady in a big red plaid dress and sunbonnet. The audience cheered wildly as he sang almost through "Gilded Cage" before Lum got a chance to take off the poke bonnet and prove to himself that it was really Abner.

Next, he came back as an admiral of the Navy, with a Jimmy Durante nose, funny blue uniform, big plumed hat -- saber and all. He kept Lum and his distance with drawn sword until he sang most of his song again.

The winner of the amateur contest was to be the one who received the most applause. Abner the songbird got that, but since he wasn't a contestant, the cheering had to signify a very successful master of ceremonies.

It is a wonder the boys do not get writer's cramp from doing so much autographing. The show was to have been over at 10, but it was 12 before we left. Chet and Tuffy both said they were awfully tired, but they looked extremely happy too. One of our papers here has this to say of them:

"In the space of four short years, Lum and Abner have emerged from the practical obscurity of a small Arkansas town to join the ranks of the highest-salaried stars in the radio world today. They are rated one of the best backwoods philosophy bets on the air. Not bad for the Mena lads, not bad at all; and they are also putting that small Arkansas town on the map."

From The Mena Star, September 4, 1935

Actor Paul Douglas Got His Big Break By Being Fired

Paul Douglas and Janet Leigh in the 1951 baseball movie Angels in the Outfield. In a hotel room, Janet is wearing a coat and smart hat and has turned away from Paul with a pensive look on her face. Paul wears slacks and a white dress shirt and has his hands at his sides, looking past Janet.
Paul Douglas and Janet Leigh in Angels in the Outfield (1951)

The nicest Christmas present Paul Douglas ever received was a neat little typewritten notice informing him that two weeks from date his services would no longer be required.

For he walked right out of radio station WCAU in Philadelphia, where Santa Claus brought him the odd gift, into the offices of the Columbia Broadcasting System, and there, in the short space of a year, won his way into the front rank of big league radio.

For the average individual, being fired at any time would be pretty tough, but being fired on Christmas would be a catastrophe. But catastrophes are never catastrophes for Paul Douglas. He's had plenty of them in his brief career -- more perhaps at the age of 26 than fall to the lot of the average mortal in a normal lifetime -- but he's always been able to laugh them off.

Years earlier he had scraped up carfare to Philadelphia and wandered into the studio of WCAU. He'd never had any radio experience, but he did get an audition, and landed a job on the announcing staff of the Quaker City station then and there.

In no time at all, he was WCAU's star announcer, attested to by the fact that when a new $5 million slaughterhouse was opened in Philadelphia, and WCAU was entrusted with the job of broadcasting the two-hour dedication ceremonies, Douglas was given the assignment.

If you have never dedicated a slaughterhouse, you have no idea what a tough job it is to keep things zipping along for two hours. But just when it began to appear that the final hour of the dedication would develop into one hour of silence in respect to the ill-fated cattle, the mayor of Philadelphia hove in sight.

Douglas seized upon His Honor eagerly, and explained that the going was getting pretty rough, and the mayor responded with a one-hour address of the general subject of Forward Strides in City Dressed Meats which saved the day.

Under Douglas' direction, WCAU instituted the first sports period over the radio in Philadelphia. It soon won a tremendous following, and Douglas became widely known to sports fans. His inability to take seriously any of the current luminaries of the world of sports gave his daily column a spriteliness that won the young radio sports editor wide acclaim.

One night, when the sports world happened to be in the doldrums, and there wasn't much of anything to spend 10 minutes in saying, Douglas hit on the idea of presenting the entire period in satiric verse. So many requests were received for copies of the broadcast that it was necessary to have it mimeographed to satisfy the demand. Thereafter, when things were dull, he followed that practice, and WCAU's sports listeners came eventually to prefer dull days to busy ones.

There are times, Douglas says, when he wishes faintly he were back at WCAU instead of being one of the Columbia network's aces, just so he might be conducting that sports period again.

And in his specialty, sports, Douglas pulled a radio boner that made history -- and no one except Douglas himself ever noticed it.

Handling the broadcast of the Penn State-Notre Dame football game in Philadelphia, Douglas obtained a copy of the starting lineups from both coaches. However, Knute Rockne made a last-minute change in his plans and sent in a second string backfield to start the game, in place of the famous quartet of Brill-Savoldi-Schwartz-Carideo.

Douglas didn't hear about that, and for eight minutes of thrilling play, he proceeded blissfully ignorant to credit various members of the star backfield with one touchdown after another. It wasn't until Rockne sent in the regular backs, and the change was announced, that Douglas became aware of his error. But he went right on as if nothing had happened, and the station never received a single letter calling attention to the miscue.

Stanley Yates in Radio Guide, Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 1933

William Beebe Broadcast Live on NBC 2,640 Feet Under the Sea

Photo of William Beebe in the Bathysphere underwater exploration vessel he used on an effort to broadcast to NBC networks in 1932 from 2,640 feet below the ocean surface
William Beebe in the Bathysphere in 1932

Radio has started countless thrills coursing through space but few, if any, have caught hold of the world's imagination in the same way that the broadcast of William Beebe, scientist and student of ocean life, will do when he talks to the anxious world from the ocean bottom on Sunday Sept. 11 over the NBC networks.

Hundreds of thousands of radio fans will travel in imagination with Beebe when he enters his frail bell-shaped craft and is lowered -- gently -- slowly until he signals that he is within one mile of the ocean bottom. No one has ever done that before. Maybe Beebe, great scientist that he is, won't succeed.

Should the smallest plan miscarry, Beebe will never more be heard from. Every possible precaution has been taken. Oxygen tanks, delicate instruments, air-tight compartments have been provided. But who is there to know what sort of dangers this one human being floating 2,640 feet below the surface of the sea may encounter? No human has even before succeeded in penetrating to such depths. Suppose a long-armed octopus should twine its deadly coils about the slender line that connects Beebe's craft with the S.S. Ready up on the surface. Suppose the pressure should prove greater than was anticipated and the ball cracks. Suppose water begins seeping in -- one drop and Beebe would be lost to the world. There are many things that could happen to make success an illusion.

Beebe will broadcast from the ocean depths. If you are listening in on your radio and the broadcast stops suddenly, it may mean that you are an actual earwitness to a world tragedy. One of the million unforeseen possibilities for failure may at that moment have befallen one of our most noted scientists.

Encased in a steel ball, especially reinforced to withstand the tremendous pressure of the water and suspended by a chain from the S.S. Ready, Beebe will slowly be lowered to a depth of 2,640 feet beneath the ocean's surface. His strange craft will be equipped with oxygen tanks and lighted by electric torches. A powerful headlight will search out the fishes and exotic life that inhabit the eternally darkened underworld.

The floor of the ocean, at its depth near Nonsuch, 10 miles off the coast of Bermuda, where Beebe will do his work, is dark beyond description, the scientist says.

There is not the slightest ray of light anywhere beneath a few hundred feet of the surface and no vegetable life exists at all in the stygian depths. The fishes are entirely carnivorous and the law of eat or be eaten has full play. Should anything happen to Beebe's bell-like craft he would not have the least chance of rescue. The frigid water would kill a human being practically instantaneously and the marine life devour a man in a matter of minutes.

The bell in which Beebe will be temporarily sealed is only large enough comfortably to accommodate the scientist, but an NBC microphone at his elbow will make the entire radio world his companion. Ford Bond, NBC announcer from the deck of the S.S. Ready, will describe the preparations for Beebe's descent at 11 a.m., and the scientist himself will be heard just before he is locked in his cell. He will also speak after being sealed in the steel sphere.

As Beebe disappears beneath the waves, the broadcast will be discontinued until 2 p.m. when the ball will have descended to the expected half-mile depth. Beebe's furthest descent to date beneath the surface has been 1,426 feet, or a quarter of a mile.

Combined NBC networks will carry a complete account of the trip, and Beebe himself will describe his sensations as he sits in the pendulum-like shell 2,640 feet under water. The scientist will peer through a window of heavy quartz class, and by the aid of his searchlight describe what he sees. The broadcast will end at 2:30 p.m.

Louise Boyd in Radio Guide, Sept. 11-17, 1932

How Ed Wynn Spent His $5,000-a-Week Radio Salary

Photo of radio comedian Ed Wynn alongside a shadow that looks like his The Fire Chief character
Radio comedian Ed Wynn, star of The Fire Chief

It certainly looks easy. All you have to do is walk into a studio, tell a few jokes, or sing a few songs, and walk out with five thousand dollars. Think of it: $5,000 for a half hour's work. Pretty soft!

But is it? Is this business of being a radio star as easy as it looks? Is that whopping big weekly fee just so much pure gravy -- or does it take a lot of time and money to get up to the table, and is a lot of the gravy spilled on the way back?

Well, let's find out. The thing to do is to take some top-ranking stars in radio and see what it costs to stay on top. Probably we're due for some surprises. There aren't many stars in that charmed circle who receive $5,000 per broadcast -- which is just about the highest regular salary in radio -- but, anyway, we'll scramble up to the top and take a look around.

How would you like to take over Ed Wynn's expense account, for instance? The good old Fire Chief is generally credited with being the star who established $5,000 a week as a salary for top attractions, and he is also credited with being the man who started the present overwhelming vogue of comedians on the air.

Wynn maintains on his personal payroll a full-time business manager, a full-time secretary and physical trainer, and a secretarial force of three persons. These are high caliber people on Wynn's personal staff, and their combined salaries total just about $550 per week.

Wynn writes his own scripts, with the help of some highly expert research assistants, who maintain his reference library and dig up facts and humorous situations for him to make quips about. This costs him $250 per week and, even so, the figure is far below that paid by other comedians who must buy their scripts from outside sources.

Once you start whittling down a salary in $550 and $250 weekly chunks, you begin to see where the money goes! Here comes another $200 weekly item -- the cost of answering fan letters and sending out photographs. A fully equipped rehearsal studio for rehearsing and trying out program ideas costs $100 per week; insurance, replacement and maintenance of costumes costs $100; and telephone, telegraph and taxi bills (radio time waits for no man) take up another $100 per week. A star, to keep his position, must do a certain amount of obligatory entertaining (on a star's scale) and at even the most informal restaurant meal or club evening he must always be ready to grab the check. These items, frequently irksome but always necessary, some times run as high as $150 in a week.

Once the decks are supposedly cleared, then comes the worst blow of all, the nightmare that haunts the sleep of every star in radio -- the income tax. The bigger the salary, the higher the tax, and a good estimate of what Wynn must pay for his federal, state and local taxes would be $1,500 per week. If you are following the arithmetic of these computations, you will find that at this point approximately $3,000 of the $5,000 is already gone!

That much is gone before you even start on Wynn's personal expenses, his rent, his food, his clothing, money for his family and the maintenance of his son in college, and his constant and heavy contributions to charity, about which he says nothing.

Wynn IS one of the grandest and best loved characters in radio; and, far from rolling In wealth, as his salary might indicate, it is not likely that much more than a small part of his earnings actually filter down to him for his own use.

Well! After going through a set of figures like those we begin to realize that even top salaries in radio can melt away as fast as snow in April. It is the ancient story of the amusement world -- the star of today is the bit player of tomorrow -- and radio stars differ from the stars of the theater or the movies only in that, generally speaking, radio stars are a little more like homefolk, a little more friendly and neighborly, and a little more likely to try to put some money aside to take care of them in their old age.

One heavy item of expense that most people don't think of is Wynn happens to be a lucky one. He acts as his own agent; but the stars who are booked through the artists' service of the National Broadcasting Company or the Columbia Broadcasting System must pay 10 percent of their weekly salaries as commissions. This is the lega1 figure, and if a star is booked through one of the numerous independent booking offices, the weekly commission, possibly arranged as a legal partnership agreement, sometimes may go much higher.

All you have to do is to compute 10 percent of $5,000 and you see that a slice of $500 comes off the salary before any other expense even starts.

Guy Johnson in Tower Radio, March 1934

Les Tremayne Got an Offer to Star in Movies 46 Years Too Late

First Nighter star Les Tremayne sitting for a publicity photo
Les Tremayne, star of The First Nighter radio show

Although I had been playing various roles on Grand Hotel since 1933 and The First Nighter since 1934, my first audition to replace Don Ameche in both Grand Hotel and The First Nighter was on August 21, 1935. I was accepted as the lead on Grand Hotel and played it for a couple of years. This meant that I was already working for the same sponsor, the Campana Corp. But since The First Nighter was their bigger show of the two (and one of the biggest and most popular dramatic shows on the air at that or any other time), they wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing, I guess, by scouring the country from New York to Hollywood and points in between, as well as overseas -- something unheard of in those days!.

I sweated it for quite a while and then finally went to Tom Wallace, the head of the agency, and Emo Oswalt, the president of Campana, and asked why I wasn't even being considered. I had already replaced Ameche in all those other shows, which I was still doing, and was at that very moment playing the lead in their other half-hour drama on Sunday afternoons, Grand Hotel.

It surprised them, I guess, because they said that was a good idea. I assume they hadn't given me another thought after the original audition which won me Grand Hotel. I also believe they were looking for some sort of movie name.

Anyway, call it intuition or what you will, it seemed I really had the drop on everybody because I knew and had worked with Ameche, knew his voice and his delivery and I also knew why Campana couldn't find a new leading man. They wanted Don Ameche! I knew that if you didn't or couldn't sound like Ameche, your chances would be pretty slim. He and they had been eminently successful together.

When they told me to come in and audition, the first thing I did was call one of the sweetest girls in the business and a friend of all the Chicago actors, long lean Betty Mitchell at RCA in the merchandise mart, and asked her to get out one or two of Ameche's old Betty and Bob records for me to listen to, which I did.

I timed it so that immediately after listening to them to refresh my memory, I went on up to NBC in the same building and went into the studio where they were waiting for me. I was given a one-page soliloquy from a former First Nighter script which I read for them a la Don Ameche -- or a reasonable facsimile of same.

I knew this was the only thing that would make any impression on them and it worked! They fell on the floor, so to speak, and the rest is history.

For me, The First Nighter program was the greatest "I.D. point" of my career. Even today, 41 years after leaving it (and indeed, that was a wrench), the First Nighter is the first vehicle people I meet mention in connection with me. I've been in radio for 54 years, TV since 1939, theatre since 1920, motion pictures since 1916 (I started at age 3 in London with my mother). I've spent 68 years in show business, with three plays on Broadway (one of them, Detective Story, a hit that ran for 18 months). I've made at least 35 motion pictures and worked my tail off in practically all of the live television shows of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. And most of it could have been for naught if it hadn't been for The First Nighter.

The program was neck-and-neck in the polls, year after year, with various top shows, loaded with movie names and at 10 times the budget. Buddy (Barbara Luddy) and I were voted number one actor and actress many times in the same polls. In the 1940s I was voted one of the three most famous voices in Amrica, along with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bing Crosby. All because I had a place to show my wares. How lucky can you get?

In September 1943, I was out in Hollywood working with Bob Crosby and the BobCats on our Sunday afternoon half-hour show. Campana inquired as to whether I would be interested in returning to The First Nighter. Sadly enough my answer was no. I felt I needed New York and Hollywood to round out my career.

Another interesting comment about what life deals out to you: In 1982, I discovered that 20th Century Fox had written to me in care of the ad agency that handled The First Nighter to ascertain whether they could negotiate a contract with me. That was 1936, right after I had taken over the First Nighter lead role. The letter never reached me. Campana had been burned once before with Ameche and 20th Century.

I learned of Campana's negation of any discussion with me about signing with 20th 46 years too late! The irony is that they had no right to do what they did. I was not under any sort of exclusivity with Campana. The company simply overlooked informing me of 20th's feeler. But by now, the statute of limitations has run out and the people who were involved are either retired or dead, along with the kind of dramatic radio I've been talking about.

Les Tremayne in Sperdvac Radio Magazine No. 5, 1984