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  • March 20th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


It was the most important piece of furniture in our Chicago apartment, otherwise furnished with typical middle-class equipment, some so old that I remembered when an ice wagon delivered blocks of ice for keeping perishables in an ice box to be chilled during Chicago’s steamy summers. But old didn’t mean antique, just old. The radio, a Zenith console model, would be a collectible antique today— but in the nineteen forties it was a magic carpet transporting me to worlds unknown and barely imagined. It was a magic portal to an exotic world of promise.


I lived by and for that radio, a kid plagued by a succession of childhood diseases that, each time I encountered them, sent me to bed for a week or two, safe from school (where I probably picked up the germs to begin with). I don’t know if it is still common practice or not but in those days, at least with measles or mumps or chickenpox (I forget what one or ones) you had to stay in a darkened room for fear sunlight would damage your eyesight. That left you in the gloom with the radio for company, unable even to read a book.


So I spent long days in the company of One Man’s Family, Stella Dallas, Backstage Wife, all part of a multitude of soap operas that spun out endless tales of woe and misery well beyond the scope of a seven-year-old to understand but maybe comforting in the knowledge that no matter how much I longed to claw at the poultry pox that deviled me, those unseen folks on the Zenith were worse off than me.


Zenith radios date to just after the end of World War I and by the nineteen thirties they were preeminent. Our Zenith probably was born in the mid to the late nineteen thirties and probably was produced in Chicago which was a hub for the corporation. Today vintage Zenith radios are highly sought after by collectors and can sell for many thousand dollars—the top-of-the-line model has gone for as much as $50,000.


It was on our Zenith that news came on December 7, 1941, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. In one of the ironies of history, Zenith became a victim of the modern electronic corporate war and was sold to the South Korean LG Corporation in the nineteen nineties and thus now is an Asian corporation rather than a product of the Midwest United States.


Our Zenith had two shortwave bands and sometimes, late at night, when my parents were asleep, I would tune in to one of them and carefully, like a safe cracker feeling for the tumblers on a difficult lock, delicately probe the frequencies hoping to hear a distant, static- garbled voice, speaking in a foreign language.


Imagination kicked in. Was this some frantic sailor far out on the ocean in the midst of a terrible storm, 40 foot waves crashing over the bow of his foundering ship, the vessel plunging precipitously into the huge troughs between waves as he frantically sent out signals begging for help—but only heard by a seven-year-old kid located in the middle of the United States. On the other hand, speaking from the viewpoint of an adult, it probably was some totally bored seaman gossiping with another equally bored ham radio enthusiast who happened to speak the same language, both complaining about how bored they were.


Today’s kid is burgeoned with a stampede of electronic devices that feed him or her with a constant and overwhelming avalanche of entertainment and information— cell phones, big-screen television, computers, IMAX and probably other plug-ins that I, dinosaur that I am, don’t even know about.  But,  today’s kid can’t jumpstart his or her imagination and create from voices on a radio a thrilling story of yesteryear (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!”) Hell, it was food for the ears!


Ah, the Zenith. It was a constant presence through my preadolescent and adolescent years, and then it traveled with us when we moved to Missouri through my teenage years into young adulthood. You didn’t just listen to radio in those days; you participated in it. You had to imagine. No one was bombarding your senses with pictures. When Fibber McGee opened his cluttered closet, as his wife Molly shouted a warning and there was a resounding crash, you imagined the cascade of objects that tumbled out.


Aside from the  chaotic crash of his closet, Fibber, in common with several of the radio shows of my childhood had an eccentric cast of characters with whom he engaged each week. There was Mayor LaTrivia, the mayor of the town in which Fibber and Molly lived (for some reason I don’t remember the name of the town, but indelibly engraved on my memory is their street address— 79 Wistful Vista). Living just down the street was Wallace Wimple, a birdwatcher who was extremely proud of his bird book (pronounced with explosive B’s). Never seen or heard was Myrt, the telephone operator with whom Fibber conducted a one sided dialogue which invariably began with him saying “Operator, give me number Three Two Zero…. Oh, is that you, Myrt? How’s every little thing, Myrt? What say, Myrt?”


After which, Fibber would repeat to Molly what Myrt was saying. Molly had a catchphrase, “Tain’t funny, Magee!” Although it was and the show was the most popular on radio at the time.


This was when you had to go through an operator to make a phone call—no direct dialing in those antediluvian days. Years later, when I was sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger I could direct dial all the towns whose teams I covered except for Laddonia who retained an operator who, like Myrt, I never saw but who invariably answered my dialtone by declaiming “La-Doan-E-Ah!” I was always tempted to say, “oh, is that you Myrt?”


Equally entertaining as Fibber and Molly with their multitude of odd characters, was the parade of oddballs who populated Allen’s Alley. I remember them as if they were neighbors of ours, first in Chicago and then when the radio moved along with us to Missouri in tiny Dalton. I guess the radio didn’t make the last family move which occurred when I was in college. I don’t know if my parents sold it gave it away or simply moved from their home in Macon Missouri a few miles west and left it behind. Whatever the reason it vanished from my life and I miss it.


I miss the familiar Allen’s Alley voices: Titus Moody, the Down Easter from Maine who greeted  Allen with a dry “Howdy, Bub.” Some of the characters today would be politically incorrect— the Irishman Ajax Cassidy who never met a drink he didn’t like, the Jewish  Mrs. Pansy  Nussbaum who would exclaim “you were expectink maybe Weinstein Churchill?” Or Sen. Claghorn, a blustering and unregenerate Confederate Southerner who wouldn’t drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or go to Yankee Stadium.


We didn’t know they were politically incorrect and they actually weren’t that far off from people we knew. They were funny at the time although they wouldn’t be today. It was a more innocent time, before the tumult of the nineteen sixties and the outrages that have dirtied every decade since. We may be better for it as a society, although enduring the Trump Era makes me doubt it. I still wonder about that storm tossed sailor whose  scratchy voice struggled through the speaker of the Zenith—was he in peril or not, and if so was he saved or claimed by the cold depths of the ocean.


These motes of memory stick in the mind’s eye like pieces of grit blown there by the winds of time, little irritants of useless information—the jumble of nuts and bolts that you save because they might come in useful someday but never do. However, life’s lessons sometimes are mixed in among those tattered remnants. For example, long before there was a popular television series called “Cheers” (where everybody knows your name), on the old Zenith there was a program about a bar, possibly at the same address where Cheers would be in the future, and after all these many years I still can tell you exactly how each episode began: a telephone would ring, and a voice would say “Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speaking, Duffy ain’t here.”


There are things I desperately want to remember in case they are needed, but that I cannot. For example I would love to be able to recite my favorite poetry. “Casey at the Bat,” “the Cremation of Sam McGee,” and especially “the Jabberwocky.” And Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address probably would be more impressive to listeners than a recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary tribute to a talking bird, but there it is.


However, there is one tidbit of information I have never forgotten thanks to an obscure movie starring, I believe Ronald Colman (not sure—I’ve forgotten). At one time it was necessary for me to memorize my college student ID number, another time my military service number, and my rifle serial number. All those have been washed out of my mind’s eye by the Visine of forgetfulness. But thanks to Mr. Colman I still can tell you one vital number (well, I won’t because it is supposed to be a vital personal secret, although the Russians probably know it). Mr. Colman was a contestant on a Jeopardy-like radio show and he won consistently week after week, piling up money answering questions that no human being should be required to know until it came to the ultimate grand prize question which was…. What is your Social Security number? Instant funk! It was a life lesson that has stuck with me through the decades.


Ultimately, radio drama gave way to television and the voices that shaped my life became silent overwhelmed by what one critic called “chewing gum for the eyes.” As always, the acerbic Fred Allen summed up television succinctly, “you know television is called the new medium and I discovered why they call it a medium—because nothing is well done.”


Allen also observed, “I don’t like furniture that talks,” although I suppose that also could have applied to the Zenith radio. But, considering the endless list of dopey reality shows available today, Fred Allen hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head when he observed about television, “Television allows people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.”


Walter Winchell dramatically began his evening newscast with a burst of Morse code and the rapidfire words, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” Perhaps he was talking to that storm tossed sailor as well as Mr. and Mrs. America. The sailor is long gone if he ever existed many of the Mr. and Mrs. Americans have joined him in the dust of time.


And so has my beloved Zenith and perhaps it’s fitting to close with the words of Red Skelton, a radio fixture before he emigrated to television where he continued to close his show by saying, “Good night and may God bless.”




























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