Remember when we raved about radio?
A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
We panicked when a comic quipped, “Wanna buy a duck?,” the gals swooned for Vallee, and a twelve-tube set made you a big shot. Here are the stars and shows that made history when brother couldn’t spare a dime
In the Depression Thirties, when there was little to laugh about the comedians on radio convulsed a continent and made the radio in the parlor the centre of every family’s life
... With gimmicks, music and dialogue they hammered at the funny bone of millions and set the stage for TV’s big variety programs, some of which they stayed to star on
One Monday evening last winter close to sixty million people in North America glued their eyes to their TV screens to watch a ninety-minute repeat performance of Peter Pan. It was the biggest entertainment phenomenon since—well, since radio.
Not that radio ever scared up that big an audience for a sponsored program, but in its heyday, between twenty and twenty-five years ago, listening to radio was just as compulsive as watching TV today. Perhaps the only good thing spawned up by the Depression was the free entertainment radio afforded a generation that was broke. A song titled Brother, Can You Sparc A Dime led the 1932 hit parade (a dime bought a hamburg and coffee that year). Some of the early programs may have been corny by today's sophisticated standards but they kept us from cutting paper dolls out of relief vouchers.
The radio set in a corner of the parlor became the centre of family life in a way not remotely approached by today’s television set. The early post-crystal radios came in sizes from mediumlarge to giant, with console models the size of a deep freezer and mantel radios whose gothic lines encompassed as much fretwork as an Edwardian tie-rack. The number of tubes in your set decided your social position, but whether you listened to a twelve-tube superheterodyne or a four-tube mailorder bargain, the entertainment was the same. The farm family in the Peace River, the city dweller in Montreal, and the children of a Cape Breton fisherman were part of the same audience as the millionaire New Yorker in Beekman Place.
The Canadian radio listener in those days relied, as does his TV counterpart today, on the American networks for much of his entertainment. This was even more marked than now, for Canada did not yet have a radio network of its own. The big names of radio, as the big names of TV today, broadcast from New York. Chicago and Hollywood.
Joe Penner. Ben Bernie and Kate Smith became household names, and the opinions of news analysts H. V. Kaltenborn and Lowell Thomas were considered almost divine truth. 'T’se regusted!.” "Voss you derc, Sharlie?" and "Wanna buy a duck?” suddenly became legitimate English phrases. “Who do you think you are. the Voice of Experience?” was an argument clincher in drawing rooms and lunch counters. A million would-be crooners “boo-boo-booed” like Bing Crosby, while countless delivery boys w'histled through their teeth in imitation of Elmo Tanner whistling Heartaches with Ted Weems' orchestra.
From New York and Chicago (and later Hollywood) radio entertainment enmeshed most of the people of this continent, and last night's programs became this morning’s conversation piece in general store, shipping floor and garage. Television's $64,000 Question is today's Wednesday-morning topic, but do you remember the excitement following Madame Queen’s breach-of-promise suit against Andy Brown, the real-life death of Marge of the Mvrt and Marge show, or the pretended insults that Jack Benny and Fred Allen threw' at each other?
Ed Wynn, “The Perfect Fool,” once announced that cardboard (ire helmets could be picked up free at the nearest Texaco gas station, and three million people from Prince Rupert to Princeton, N.J., dropped their jig-saw puzzles and rushed out and got one, Ireene Wicker, Kellogg’s “Singing Lady,” offered small books in exchange for her sponsor's package tops, and package tops poured in at the rate of fourteen thousand a day. Major Edward Bowes, a bigger personality in his day than Arthur Godfrey, Hal March and Sonny Fox rolled into one, appealed from his famous amateur program for blood donors to save the life of twelve-year-old Stanley Walker, at New' York City Hospital. More than six hundred donors stormed the place, causing traffic jams.
To a generation of stay-at-homes these were radio’s top personalities—singing and talking. Though some are still at the top many dropped out of hearing with the coming of TV.
Radio in the Twenties had offered entertainment almost as an afterthought, but with the beginning of the Depression in October 1929 it began to cater to an audience that was suddenly lost to the theatre, night clubs and movies.
. . . It was an era when song writers and singers filled the air with some of the loveliest songs and ballads ever written as well as such musical monstrosities as Flat Foot Floogee.
This new audience of stay-at-homes, and the subsequent folding of many vaudeville circuits, brought troops of ex-vaudevillians to the radio stations to pick up eating money. Among the first of the variety acts to hit the networks was the man-and-wife team of Frank Crumit and Julia Sanderson, who appeared first in October 1929 on the CBS network, sponsored by Blackstone Cigars. Wendell Hall, “The Red-Headed Music Maker,” who had written a thrce-million-sale record, It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, in the early Twenties, found himself famous all over again. These and many other fugitives from the footlights joined with Moran and Mack, The Two Black Crows, Potash and Perlmutter and other personalities of the Twenties as radio blossomed out.
In 1930, according to surveys, seventy-four percent of set owners used their sets on an average week day. Music hall, minstrelsy and homey comedy were still the main fare.
Radio frenzy became as endemic as tooth decay. Every city and town in the country broke out in a rash of Radio cafés. Radio theatres. Radio hotels and Radio barbershops. The word television has yet to be widely used for commercial establishments, hut Winnipeg still has a firm of Radio Shoe Rebuilders, Montreal a Radio Tankers, and Toronto a Radio Inn.
A strange development began in 1929 and 1930. Long-hair music, until then the preserve of the plutocrat and the highbrow, could be heard by millions who hadn't known the difference between a fugue and a fudge sundae. By the middle of 1930 program sponsors began to sign up divas by the dozen. Metropolitan opera stars such as Grace Moore, Lawrence Tibbett, Lily Pons and Rosa Ponsellc became almost as well known in most households as the bailiff. When Jessica Dragonette had a financial hassle with her sponsor, Palmolive Soap, her fan clubs not only boycotted Palmolive products but also refused to tune in the stations she had appeared on.
The big networks waved contracts at symphony conductors everywhere. NBC and Cadillac captured Arturo Toscanini, while the same network and Packard sponsored Dr. Walter Damrosch. CBS countered with a pitch to the medium long-hairs, signing up Howard Barlow and his Musical Album. Bruno Walter, and Nat Shilkret and Music That Satisfies. But no one. before or after, w'as quite so familiar or ubiquitous as Rudy Vallee.
Radio and Vallee hit their stride together. This curly-haired young man with the down-east accent and the downcast eyelids out-Liberaced his modern counterpart with the ladies and did it minus a candelabra. Vallee was the first of the crooners, a term coined by some forgotten critic to separate this type of singer from the chesty vocalists who could throw their voices through a proscenium arch. His greeting of “Heigh-ho, everybody!” came with Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees band from New York's Heigh-Ho Club. His theme song. My Time Is Your Time, was heard first on the NBC network on Oct. 24, 1929, sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast and Royal Gelatin. At first Vallee presented one ex-vaudeville or musical-comedy guest per program, but he later set the pattern for the radio variety show by increasing the size of his band, adding a comedy team, a singing group, and finally a dramatic sketch. Among the dozens of future stars he introduced were Eddie Cantor, Kate Smith, Joe Penner, Frances Langford, Milton Merle, Jimmy Durante, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
On Sept. 27, 1931, the Lady Esther Serenade presented Wayne King, 'Ilie Waltz. King.” for matronly ladies who had still not given up hope. This started another trend. Popular television orchestras can be counted on Lord Nelson’s fingertips, but in radio by 1937 there were 106 regular dance bands. How many still remember Enrié Madriguera and his theme song. Adios? Or Emil Coleman on the Eno Penthouse Party? Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians are one of the few bapds to bridge the years from early radio to early television; their nostalgic appeal stems from the fact that their style is the same as when Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot.
Before the advent of radio, songs lived on for months or years, but radio showed a prodigious appetite for new ballads. Isham Jones, a retired songsmith, now lives on his royalties in Pacific Palisades, Calif., humming his hit tunes, Swingin’ Down the Lane and I'll See You In My Dreams.
The early days of radio belonged to the song writers. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Billy Rose, Ray Noble, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and Noel Coward filled the air with some of the loveliest songs ever written. fkit there were also such musical monstrosities as Three Little Fishies, A-Tisket A-Tasket, and Flat Foot Floogee (with the Hoy Hoy). The early Thirties, when crooning was the rage, saw a revolution in male vocalists; no longer were the Macushla tenors top dogs. Art Jarrett, “America’s Song Stylist”; Arthur Tracy, “The Street Singer”; Lanny Ross, and a Chapleau, Ont., boy called Donald Novis, who performed for The Colgate House Party, were among the tenors tweetling to their twilight at the time. And swirling around at the edge of the high-priced programs were Singin’ Sam “The Barbasol Man” and Edward McHugh “Your Gospel Singer.”
The popular taste had swung to hairon-the-chest baritone crooners by 1932. and one of the earliest and best was an Italian boy called Russ Columbo, the prototype of Perry Como. Columbo met a tragic death while cleaning a gun in his apartment, and was mourned almost like Valentino by a feminine generation whose hearts had fluttered when he intoned I’m Just A Prisoner of Love.
In 1930 an alumnus of the Paul Whiteman orchestra, Harry Lillis Crosby by name, became the earliest threat to Rudy Vallee. While Vallee used a megaphone to project his voice, Crosby used a wart in his windpipe to add a musical skip to his baritone, first for Cremo Cigars and later for Chesterfield, Woodbury, Kraft and other sponsors. Within a decade Bing Crosby had moved up from the guy tapping the cymbal in the Whiteman “Rhythm Boys” to probably the bestknown vocalist since Caruso.
“Housewives across the land left the breakfast dishes as they listened to John's Other Wife"
In addition to Crosby, Whiteman, who is still around, introduced through his band enough future orchestra leaders, instrumentalists and vocalists to form a symphony orchestra and choir. Among them were singer Morton Downey and instrumentalists Jack Teagarden and Eddie Condon.
And then there was Crosby’s female counterpart in radio popularity, Kate Smith, a fat girl with a warm smiling voice, who took North America to her ample bosom from May 1931 on, when she began to sing for A & P. She and her manager Fed Collins held all the shares in the $3()(),()()() firm of Kated. Inc., her corporate entity. In 1936 her sponsors demanded a more elaborate show, and her original fifteen minutes was increased to one hour. Once, in the depths of the Depression, Kate plugged A & P coffee on an evening show and raised its sales twenty-five percent to four million pounds a week.
Among the popular radio dance bands of the Empress Eugenie-hat period were Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra —named after Toronto’s postcard castle —and Ben Bernie, “f lic Old Maestro and all the Lads,” who gave their all for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Bernie. who had graduated from Coney Island’s singing waiters to lead his band in the Hotel Sherman in Chicago, kept up a crowd-pleasing feud with Walter Winchell for years on the air. Many other dance orchestras reached the top of the radio heap, but it was left to an ever-youthful undergraduate by the name of Fred Waring to show the way to real wealth.
Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians came into the limelight in the days of the “college” orchestra, when any five musicians who could afford identical neckties and/or scarlet mess jackets named their band after the school the trapdrummer had flunked out of.-In 1919 Waring formed the Waring Pep Orchestra, and this group made its radio debut in 1921 over WWJ Detroit.
On Feb. 8, 1933, the orchestra, now called Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. appeared on the CBS network sponsored by Old Gold Cigarettes. Before long, Waring was receiving $13,500 a week from a new sponsor, Ford; even when times were at their worst his band made a million dollars a year. Waring changed the pace of his program with vocal groups and a glee club. Last spring the Pennsylvanians appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV show, where Fred introduced his grown-up vocalist son. A little elderly today for a collegian, Waring must have proved his point by now to the University of Pennsylvania, which failed to give him a place on its glee club nearly forty years ago.
Music was destined to hold its preeminent position on radio, even up to the present day, but by 1930 music and talk were no longer the only sounds heard. Now there were gunshots, the sounds of waves and thunder, and doors that creaked. Radio drama was born.
One of the earliest dramatized shows on the air was the La Palina Smoker sponsored by the Congress Cigar Company on CBS. Cigarette competition had driven La Palina cigar sales down from 600,000 a day to 400,000. After twentysix weeks of the program, sales reached one million cigars a day.
In 1931. whodunits were added to radio listening, and that year saw the debuts of the Eno Crime Club. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Fu Manchu, Paris Mysteries. The Shadow, and Charlie Chan. 'I hen came the soap operas, and housewives from Bay Bulls to Rivers Inlet let the egg yolk cake on the breakfast dishes as they listened to such serials as Clara, Lu and ’Em, David Harum, John’s Other Wife, Stella Dallas, Just Plain Bill, and Big Sister. They wrote millions of letters to characters in those soap operas (they were tagged with the name in 1936). One production team alone received seventyfive million letters a year.
Sponsors discovered that adding tears to the dishwater also sold more soap. These daytime cliff hangers used up a budget of forty million dollars a year. Procter and Gamble had as many as seven serials running at once. By the midThirties the average station devoted five hours a day to women’s serials.
During 1932-33 daytime listening reached new highs as the networks discovered children, and the children’s power over their parents. The kids joined radio clubs in hordes, chewed their gum faithfully while listening to Wriglcy’s Lone Wolf Tribe and booed the bad guys and most other adults on Cowboy Tom. Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, and Skippy. These serials proved to be too heady a brew for their time, and a reform movement wiped out most of them the following year.
The evening drama shows were always several notches above the daytime serials. Big Town starred Edward G. Robinson and Dr. Christian featured the late Jean Hersholt. Phil Cook, radio’s “Man With A Thousand Voices,” played thirteen characters over the air in The Quaker Man. He fell into his multi-voice role one night when his partner failed to show up, and he took the other’s role as well as his own.
On Oct. 14, 1934, Lux Radio Theatre, one of the best of the dramatic shows, hit the air from New York. At first the program featured movie stars who happened to be in New York, but in 1936 it was placed under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille and from then on originated from Hollywood. The show’s slogan was “More Stars Than The Milky Way.” and over the years it featured almost every notable in films. Such stars as Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich received five thousand dollars a performance. (Last winter NBC was reported to have offered Danny Kaye $250,000 to play in six TV spectaculars, which works out to more than $40,000 a show.)
Columbia Workshop, which was to become radio’s best dramatic series, began in 1936. Among its writers were William Saroyan, Lord Dunsany and Archibald MacLeish, while the two best radio dramatists in the business, Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler, were regular contributors.
While serious radio dramas were constantly improving, the most popular dramatic shows were still the familysituation comedies. As far back as 1925 a man-and-wife vaudeville team, Marian and Jim Jordan, went on the air in Chicago with a series of skits called The Smith Family, presenting the life of an average married couple. That show, ironically. never caught on, but by the Thirties the Jordans, in another program of similar type, had become the best-loved couple on the air. My 1941, running against “Amos 'n’ Andy” on another network, their show had become the most widely heard in America. It was Fibber McGee and Molly. Another family-situation show, originally based on John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, was One Man's Family, which was aired first in April 19.32 on KGO San Francisco. My May 1933 it was on a coast-to-coast network.
In 1927 a young woman named Gertrude Merg talked a radio-station manager into giving a script she had written a one-performance tryout. This tryout stretched into nearly thirty years of The Goldbergs, now on TV and showing no signs of ending. In 1929 a Kansas City show-business columnist named Goodman Ace devised a radio show with his wife Jane, and called it Easy Aces. Taking advantage of the contract-bridge craze then sweeping America, the Aces wrote their comedy around a man-and-wife bridge partnership. One of their early shows had to be halted as the laughter of the studio audience drowned out their dialogue. Easy Aces made the Aces a fortune, and did almost as much as Eli Culbertson to popularize bridge.
There were many programs that appealed to segments of population but only those who were hard of hearing ever disliked Amos ’n’ Andy. No radio or television program has ever come within a million kilocycles of catching up to this audience pleaser. Charles Correll (Andy) and Freeman Gosden (Amos) appeared on radio first as an unpaid singing team on WEBH Chicago. In January 1925 they formed the radio blackface team of Sam 'n’ Henry and three years later became Amos 'n' Andy. During the years they broadcast six evenings a week. Gosden and Correll missed only two broadcasts, while traveling to Hollywood to make a movie in 1932. It was as if two evenings had dropped out of the lives of most Americans.
The program was the first to make transcriptions of each show, which prevented illness from keeping it off the air. However, when one of the duo was sick, the program went on anyway, the show being written “around” the characters portrayed by the one who was absent.
Between them Gosden and Correll, two white men. not only spoke the parts of Amos and Andy, but also, between 1928 and 1940, played a total of 156 supporting voices. Gosden played Brother Crawford. Kingfish Stevens, Lightnin’. and Prince Ali Bendo, as well as Amos. Correll played Henry Van Porter and The Landlord, besides Andy and a host of other characters. Those who failed to hear Amos ’n’ Andy in their heyday cannot realize what a phenomenon they were. Thousands of sympathetic listeners sent presents, including a refrigerator and a mink coat, to the imaginary Madame Queen when she was thrown over by Andy Brown. The program created the largest steady listening audience in radio history. “Check 'n' double check” was incorporated into the language, and millions of quite rational fans waited in anxious suspense when Ruby Taylor lay dying. Madame Queen’s suit against Andy became a national topic, as did Amos’ trial for murder. “Dat ol’ battle-axe” was transferred mentally from the Kingfish’s mother-in-law to thousands of real-life mothers-in-law, while they perhaps, taking a good look at their sons-in-law, were muttering, “Fse regusted!”
Among the hard-to-classify programs of the Thirties was Robert Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which should have waited for television but didn't. Instead, the listener had to depend on his hearing, and his faith, to tell whether or not Zaro Agha, whom Ripley claimed was 156 years old, really was, or that a shrunken head, which he could neither see, feel nor hear, was not just a dried apple with a toupee.
A long-time medicine named man Marion Sayle Taylor, formerly a “sociological educator” on the Chautauqua and Lyceum vaudeville circuits, began broadcasting in 1922. In 1928 he adopted the title “The Voice of Experience,” and by the early Thirties he was receiving more than 75,000 letters a month from people in trouble, from neurotics and from frustrated housewives. He also sold more than a million do-it-yourself emotionalhealing books, and eight million “sociological” pamphlets.
Mass followings were also won by a number of newscasters and analysts who larded their reports w'ith strong personal opinions. Boake Carter, the only top American commentator with a British accent, used to snarl at everything from the U. S. army to the rights of labor. Organized labor began picketing stations airing his newscasts and boycotting his sponsor, Philco. Philco dropped him, and he had to promise his new' sponsor, General Foods, not to comment on labor at all.
Edw'in C. Hill was voted the most popular new's commentator for three years running by U. S. and Canadian radio editors in the Thirties. Lowell Thomas, who once received 288,000 telegrams from listeners after a newscast, won the w'ordage race from his eyepatched rival, the late Floyd Gibbons, with two hundred more words per fifteenminute broadcast.
The years 1934-36 were the years of radio’s big money, and on Sept. 18, 1935, Variety headlined RADIO’S STRONG FORECAST, All Indications Point To Coin. The three major U. S. networks, NBC, CBS and Mutual, grossed $85,000,000 among them that year.
.lell-O made his reputation
Between 1930 and 1936 radio announcers became personalities. Billy Hay, the Amos ’n’ Andy announcer, was soon almost as well known as his program characters, and Jimmy Wallington became a straight man for Eddie Cantor. Maurice Chevalier, Géorgie Jessel, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Georgie Price. The sports announcers, Graham McNamee on NBC and Ted Husing on CBS. became synonymous w'ith sports broadcasting. Milton Cross came to be looked up to as an opera expert from announcing the Metropolitan Opera programs, and he is one, and still announces operas. Another famous name was Don Wilson, who made his reputation on the Jack Benny show for Jell-O, and who is still fielding jokes on TV about his weight.
The big comedy-variety hours that Rudy Vallee had first introduced became the milestones in the listeners' week. Eddie Cantor, who had been given his break by Vallee, helped Burns and Allen, Teddy Bergman and George Givot on his shows. Cantor reached a radio audience of millions, and was sponsored in turn by Texaco, Chase and Sanborn and Pebeco. Jack Benny, who has outlasted most of his comedian competitors, was sponsored by Canada Dry, then a relatively unknown ginger ale. Benny’s wife, Mary Livingstone, played on the show then, as she does today, along with Benny’s valet Rochester and Sam Hearn who played Schlepperman.
Jack Pearl, as Baron Munchausen, w'as an early radio favorite. His "Voss you dere, Sharlie?” became an international catch phrase. Two other clowns were Ed Wynn and Joe Penner. Penner’s "Wanna buy a duck?” soon grated as much as Munchausen’s question, usually from being repeated by every cretin who had been allowed within hearing distance of a radio set.
Fred Allen, who died last winter, came to radio from vaudeville and introduced his own brand of dry humor. His program changed almost as often as his sponsors, Linit, Ipana and Sal Hepatica. Town Hall Tonight consisted of his "newsreel” that "sees all, shows nothing,” a half-hour amateur show' and a dramatic sketch featuring his wife Portland Holla, and the zaniest crew of characters outside of a padded cell.
Another comedian, of the bumpkin school, was Bob Burns. "The Arkansas Traveler.” who appeared first on the Vallee show and later with Bing Crosby. Burns is probably the only comedian in history to have a weapon named after one of his props: the "bazooka." The original instrument, on which he produced music of a sort, was constructed from a piece of pipe, baling wire, and what appeared in pictures to be a plumber’s plunger. Burns’ humor w-as a combination of shaggy dog and cracker barrel. He would say. "And when the dynamite that pig of ours ate blew up, it wrecked two barns, tore a fifty-foot hole in the ground, and broke every pane of glass for six miles round. 1 tell you, for a couple of days that was a mighty sick pig."
The musical revue and the comedyvariety show had pushed the shorter cheaper programs aside by 1935. In February of that year there were nineteen musical revues and six major comedy shows on the air every week. Besides such favorites as Allen, Benny and Cantor. there were the musical-dramatic shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, w ith Helen Jepson and Lanny Ross, and captained by Charles Winniger. Although Showboat had been chugging along the radio bayous for years, by 1933 it had climbed to third on the popularity polls, after Benny and Cantor.
The age of the radio-TV quiz was launched in the mid-Twenties with Ask Me Another over WTIC Hartford. Conn., but only came into its full flowering on the networks in the mid-Thirties. The big secret of the quiz was that it allowed the listener to share in the show, at least vicariously. Among the early quiz shows were Professor Quiz and Take It Or Leave It. Dr. I.Q., on his program, shouted up to the balcony, “Give the little lady a big box of Snickers!” The quiz shows also added their phrases to the radio listener’s language, including “You’ll be so-o-o-orry!” and “That’s the sixty-fourdollar question.”
On Dec. 18, 1934, Variety, the showbusiness paper, headlined "AIR ADOPTS AMATEUR NIC»HT — Bowes Big Success, Others Copy.” The Bowes referred to was Major Edward Bowes, a pompous impressario with watery eyes and dewlaps. Bowes, who also led a Sundaymorning show called The Capitol Family after the Capitol Theatre of which he was manager, had begun his amateur show over WHN. a comparatively small New York station, taking it to the NBC network in April 1934.
By 1936 the Major Bowes Amateur Hour had acquired Chrysler as a sponsor and moved to CBS. It caught public fancy as no other program since Amos ’n’ Andy. Though unrated in the popularity polls for March 1935, it led them by March 1936. Edward Bowes had become the highest-paid person in show business in 1935, with an income of a million dollars a year. His son-in-law, Ted Mack, still carries on a semblance of the program as “The Original Amateur Hour.”
Bowes (he had picked up the military title bossing a New Jersey supply depot in World War One) received more groveling sycophancy than anyone in the history of show business except Louella Parsons. While he was raking in a fortune, the amateurs enticed to New York by his show were sleeping in doorways and begging in the streets. Those who made the show, and were prewarned they were to "get the gong,” received ten dollars, and the other contestants a five-dollar bill. But all “had a good dinner given to them after the show.”
Those chosen as members of the Major Bowes Traveling Units were little better off, and news that “Major Bowes Amateur Unit No. 6 is stranded in Sauk Center, Minnesota” became a joke—and a disgrace. A very few of the amateurs went on to fame and fortune—the only one that comes to mind is Frank Sinatra. Bowes used to say, in a voice that dripped with unction and insincerity, “The wheel of fortune spins. 'Round and 'round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows!”
If radio disillusioned a few dozen ambitious amateurs, it was on the other hand a real boon to thousands of shut-ins to whom it brought entertainment and religious consolation. Many churches were, in fact, quick to make use of radio—and to defend themselves against radio's adverse effect on churchgoing. One Philadelphia church in 1936 moved its Sunday evening service ahead to six o’clock to accommodate those who wanted to get home to hear Eddie Cantor. The stay-at-home public was given radio sermons by such eminent preachers as Dr. S. Parkes Cadman, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Judge Rutherford, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and evangelist Billy Sunday, who before his death in 1935 broadcast from the Bowery Mission.
The clergyman with the biggest radio audience of all. however, was Father Charles E. Coughlin of Royal Oak, Mich., who wrote in his newspaper Social Justice that democracy was "a mockery that mouths the word and obstructs every effort on the part of an honest people to establish a government for the welfare of the people.” He once cried over the air, “The only source of truth is Father Coughlin!”
Millions of people who were Father Coughlin's enemies never missed tuning him in, and his “League of the Shrine of the Little Flower” numbered sixteen million followers. When he joined forces with Senator Huey Long of Louisiana in the summer of 1935, thousands of Long’s "Share the Wealth” clubs sprang up overnight, with a combined membership of more than twenty million. The radio networks recognized Fong as a phenomenal showman, and gave him air time without charge. He used to open his programs in his cawn-pone drawl saying, “Hello, folks, this is Huey L.ong speaking. I want you to do me a favor: go to the telephone and call up five of your friends and tell ’em Huey l.ong is on the air . .
The only radio speaker who could outdraw Long or Father Coughlin was their avowed enemy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR’s Fireside Talks, from the first one he made in the spring of 1933, calmed a bewildered and panicstricken people, and countered the Longs and Coughlins.
By 1936 radio had settled down to a period of expansion as this continent climbed up from the economic depths that had done so much to spawn this entertaining phenomenon. Radio has not finished climbing yet. In spite of TV there are more radio sets being sold than ever before. The gross revenue of the big American networks has almost doubled since 1937, to $137,658,000.
To those who remember radio when it was great entertainment, its big years were the early ones, between 1930 and 1936. When we look back on it nostalgically we think of some of the old favorites who are gone for good, Joe Penner, Chic Sale, Little Jack Little, Fred Allen, Will Rogers or Major Bowes. At one time we seemed to know them better than we knew the people down the street.
And as George Gobel (who was never a radio star) says over our TV on Saturday nights, “You can’t hardly get them kind no more.” ★