It All Began with an Oath and an Opera:

Behind the Scenes at Chicago's First Broadcast

Curator's note: The following is a slightly modified version of an article written by the curator that appeared in the November 8th, 1993 edition of the 'Tempo' section of the Chicago Tribune on the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of Chicago's first broadcast. It deals with KYW, Chicago's pioneer broadcast station and some of the silliness---in Chicago and elsewhere---that accompanied the 'Radio Craze' of the early 1920's. (More on KYW's Chicago days will follow).

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 Oranges."

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 and Butt-head."

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 early.

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 3,700 telegrams.

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 chase.

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 as well.

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 mine!"

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.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
Audio and video downloads
About the Curator

Comments or suggestions? click here to send them to Rich Samuels

Created by Rich Samuels (e-mail to