|The first words
ever broadcast in Chicago were, "My God, but it's dark in here!"
They were spoken by Mary Garden, world-class soprano and director of the Chicago
Grand Opera Association. They were uttered sixty-two years ago tonight on radio
station KYW, licensed to the Westinghouse Manufacturing and Electric Company.
Ms. Garden said what she said because she couldn't see: the area where she was
standing was lit by a single bare light bulb.
Ms. Garden and members of her company had been asked to participate in a test
of KYW's transmitter, recently installed on the roof of the Commonwealth Edison
Building at 72 West Adams.
A telephone line had been strung from the transmitter to a tent on the stage of
the Auditorium Theater where rehearsals were in progress for the approaching opening
night of the opera season (the tent had been pitched to deaden the echoes of the
empty theater). Inside, a group of musicians and Ms. Garden had gathered around
what they'd been told was a "microphone."
Ms. Garden had been asked to introduce the musicians, directing her voice into
the microphone as she did so. Ms. Garden, following her initial stumbling, did
as requested. Then Maestro Giorgio Polacco led the musicians through some orchestral
selections from "Madama Butterfly." And soprano Edith Mason sang an
aria or two.
Thus broadcasting in Chicago was born. Sixty-two years before there was Don, Roma
and Jim Shorts on the radio in Chicago there was opera. And nothing but opera.
For when the season began on Monday, November 14th, KYW broadcast each and every
performance. And nothing else.
The opera broadcasts were a collaboration between Westinghouse, which wanted to
sell radio receivers, and Commonwealth Edison, which wanted to increase power
consumption. Westinghouse provided the transmitter. Edison provided its roof (and
later a room on the sixteenth floor for a studio).
To program nothing but opera today would be broadcast suicide. But in 1921 the
effect was just the opposite. For there were wondrous things to be heard from
the Auditorium stage. Like the dull thud of soprano Marguerite D'Alvarez falling
flat on her face as she climbed a staircase in Act I of "Samson and Delilah."
Or Serge Prokofiev conducting the world premier of his "The Love of Three
At the beginning of the 1921 opera season there were an estimated 1,300 radio
receivers in the Chicago area. When the season ended ten weeks later, there were
20,000. Opera broadcasts sold them all. By mid-January of 1922, as KYW moved on
to broader fare, Chicago was stricken by a broadcast craze.
As someone who is still caught up in this mania, I want to use this anniversary
as an excuse to twiddle the dial to demonstrate that the wackiness that often
characterizes broadcasting today was evident from the beginning.
Walter Wilson,. known on the air as "Uncle Bob", was probably the beloved
personalities of KYW's early days. From 6:35 to 7:00 each evening, "Uncle
Bob" would read bedtime stories and sing children's songs. During the Christmas
season, he would present Santa Claus live. Throughout the year he would exhort
his young listeners to stray no further than the curb when they played outdoors.
"Uncle Bob" had a tremendous following among moppets who, today, would
be begging their parents for the privilege of staying up until 9:30 to watch "Beavis
One day "Uncle Bob" found on his desk a letter from the mother of a
young listener. "Little Mary passed on this afternoon," the mother wrote.
"Her last request was, 'Tell Uncle Bob to sing "Dream Daddy" so
I can hear it up in heaven.' " "Uncle Bob" did his best to comply
with the request on that evening's broadcast. But early on, the tears began to
flow down his chubby cheeks. And well before he reached the final chorus, he lost
it altogether. "Uncle Bob" apologized to his audience and signed off
Twenty-nine year-old Harry M. Snodgrass was the most popular radio performer of
1924 (according to a magazine poll) even though he was behind bars, serving a
term for attempted armed robbery.
Snodgrass's big break in broadcasting came shortly after he botched a holdup in
Saint Louis and was sentenced to a three year stretch at the Missouri State Prison
in Jefferson City. When Snodgrass told prison officials he played piano, they
assigned him to the prison band.
The ensemble included twenty-eight thugs convicted of crimes ranging from embezzlement
to burglary to murder. They were variously serving terms that ranged from two
years to life.
It was Snodgrass's good fortune that the prison band appeared regularly on WOS,
a station licensed to the Missouri State Marketing Bureau. Every Monday night,
guards would escort the members of the band from stir to WOS's studio located
beneath the dome of the Missouri State Capitol. The band would tootle for an hour
or so, much to the delight of listeners throughout North America.
WOS claimed an audience in all forty-eight states and as far afield as Hawaii,
Alaska, Cuba, Mexico and Newfoundland. The prison band was its most listened-to
feature. Telegrams would begin to pour in as soon as the band started playing,
bearing messages like "Take the band out of jail! They ought to be in heaven"
or "Buy the boys a box of cigars and send me the bill."
Snodgrass soon became the group's star performer. He was short of stature and
sallow of complexion ("He doesn't look like a piano player," observed
one journalist). But in the words of WOS announcer J. M. Witten who introduced
him, Snodgrass was the "King of the Ivories."
Listeners loved Snodgrass. Especially the ladies. In addition to letters and telegrams,
they sent him cigarettes, cookies, marriage offers---and large amounts of cash.
Snodgrass accepted the smokes, the goodies and the currency. But he turned down
the proposals, for he was a married man with an eight-year old son.
In time, Warden Sam Hill judged that radio had rehabilitated Harry Snodgrass.
He cut Snodgrass's three year sentence in half.
Snodgrass broadcast for the last time on WOS on January 14th, 1925. So many people
wanted to witness his farewell appearance that WOS set up its microphone in the
chamber normally occupied by the Missouri State General Assembly. The crowd numbered
more than a thousand, including a number of Missouri state representatives who
no doubt marveled that a small-time crook's fame had come to exceeded their own.
Standing before the WOS microphone, Snodgrass thanked prison officials for making
his stay comfortable and the folks in radio land for making it profitable. He
promised to go straight and to avoid the "white lightening" which, he
confessed, had played a role in his earlier downfall. His performance generated
Harry Snodgrass was sprung two days later. Warden Hill presented him with $3,587.33
in cash remitted by his many fans. Announcer J. M. Witten appeared and told the
press he had quit his job as announcer at WOS so that he might accompany Snodgrass
on a vaudeville tour.
I have been unable to document the further career of Harry Snodgrass. But I can
find no better example of the redemptive powers of broadcasting.
Now imagine that it's an early spring night in 1929 and that you're an observer
in the Drake Hotel studio of WGN. Thirty-five musicians have just reached the
midpoint of a peppy fox-trot of the day.
Suddenly, a secretary runs into the studio and hands a note to announcer Quin
Ryan. Ryan scans the note, then quickly draws the index of his right hand across
his throat. Band leader Harold Stokes silences his accordion in mid-arpeggio and
signals the musicians to cease playing.
Ryan approaches the mike, hammers a brass gong and announces, "Attention
all squads! Drug Store held up at East 57th Street. Watch for three men in Buick!"
What you've just witnessed is an attempt by WGN and its Tribune parent to fight
the rising tide of crime in ChicagoÑand to gain some promotional mileage
in the bargain. Here's how it was supposed to work:
In the immediate wake of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, the Tribune, at its
own expense, installed radio receivers in all forty of the light-blue touring
cars driven by members of the Detective Squad.
The detectives were instructed to listen to WGN---and only WGN---throughout their
shifts. When word of a crime, either in progress or recently completed, reached
police headquarters, a dispatcher was instructed to telephone WGN and pass along
whatever details were available to the announcer on duty. The announcer, in turn,
would broadcast the information in the form of a bulletin, interrupting whatever
program was in progress. The nearest squad car would hear the bulletin and rush
to the crime scene---assuming its occupants were awake, listening to WGN and not
bound by prior and conflicting arrangement with the perpetrators.
WGN and the Tribune boasted that this experiment was a "success beyond expectation."
And it clearly had significant entertainment potential ("Listen for the gong!"
the WGN audience was advised.)
But reality did not keep pace with hype. While it's easy to imagine roving detectives
listening attentively to WGN's prime-time offerings (which in early 1929 included
musical variety shows and a weekly crime drama), it's much more difficult to envision
them coping with WGN's daytime fare.
Try to picture a carload of hard-boiled dicks tooling around town listening to
the "Mirro Cooking Class", the "Women's Club" broadcast, or
the "Schulz Piano Lesson."
The triumphs of this 911 forerunner were few. The most extensively documented
occurred on April 15th, 1929. During the final moments of the noon-time "Children's
Story", the gong sounded. The announcer instructed a squad to high-tail it
to 97th and Ewing where a band of gypsies had just robbed a filling station. One
carload of detectives was actually listening. Within three minutes they encountered
the gypsies at 67th and Cottage Grove. They nabbed them following a block-long
No great investigative skill was involved in tracking down the culprits. The gypsies---perhaps
because of ethnic pride, perhaps because of supreme stupidity---had dressed themselves
in a manner more appropriate to the finale of a Victor Herbert operetta than a
two-bit heist. Anybody could have found them. But the Tribune nevertheless dispatched
a photog to police headquarters to get a shot for the next day's paper of the
arresting officers, the perpetrators---and the radio (temporarily removed from
the squad car) that made the pinch possible.
This noble experiment in scientific law enforcement was abandoned a few weeks
later. WGN listeners were apparently finding the police flashes so intriguing
that large crowds of gawkers were gathering at the designated crime scenes---often
as not before the radio-dispatched detectives arrived.
Let's return to KYW's opera broadcasts of 1921. I wish I'd been around on the
night of December 28th to listen to Mary Garden as "Salome" (it was
her favorite role).
The performance caused an immediate scandal. Richard Strauss's score got high
marks. But Oscar Wilde's libretto---which included homicide, suicide, strong hints
of incest and a bloody, necrophilic climax (not to mention the "Dance of
the Seven Veils")---was too much for most to take.
Tribune critic Edward Moore, who admitted he'd been left squirming by the performance,
asked his readers to consider whether "sex abnormality" was an appropriate
theme for art.
Sixty-two years later we can easily answer, "Of course!" For we know
that libidinous aberrations are not only a commonplace staple of art, but of broadcasting
But Chicagoans in 1921 were not ready to buy into the premise that murder and
dismemberment are the ultimate expressions of love.
Following an immediate outcry, the opera board canceled a subsequent performance
of "Salome" and scheduled a reprise of "Pelleas and Melisande"
in its place.
This generated a new, equally juicy scandal. For Mary Garden judged that conductor
Giorgio Polacco botched the performance. She called him to her apartment, told
him he was a "rotten conductor" and then tried to punch him out. Maestro
Polacco countered by throwing the score for the next performance at Ms. Garden's
feet. "Lead your own orchestra," he screamed. "You won't sing with
The opera season thus concluded in disarray. And with a deficit of $800,000. Grand
opera had become soap opera. But, thanks to KYW's broadcasts, it had sold Chicago,
and much of the nation, on a new communications medium.
KYW, for better or worse, is long gone from Chicago. In 1934, its license was
transferred to Philadelphia. And in Philadelphia, KYW remains. It's still owned
by Westinghouse. After dark tonight, consider tuning it in (it's at 1060 on your
dial). Not because you have any great interest the current events of Philadelphia
and the Delaware Valley (KYW, like its sister station WMAQ, follows an all-news
format). But because it might be an appropriate way to pay birthday homage to
the pioneers who blazed part of the trail down which we presently grope.