This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Early Radio Orchestras

31 August 2013

Huddled around the microphone, the 10 musicians of the WJBC Studio Orchestra look ready for the signal from the sound engineer to begin their show. The small orchestra's instrumentation includes a concertina, two saxophones, drums, piano, banjo, violin, trumpet, trombone and a sousaphone. This postcard dates from 1928 and the band sits under a velvet canopy in the studio of radio station WJBC in LaSalle, Illinois, southwest of Chicago. The floor lamps and rug probably came from the station's owner, Wayne Hummer.

In May 1925, the Hummer Furniture Company in LaSalle secured a commercial radio station license to broadcast as WJBC at 100 watts. The new medium of radio was only a few years old, and communities across the US were facing "the chicken or the egg" dilemma. Why would people buy a radio unless there was a decent radio station to listen to? And why would anyone make an expensive investment  in building a radio transmitter unless there were customers listening?

In LaSalle, a young man named Lee Stremlau had opened a radio and victrola shop. Though only just out of high school, he convinced Mr. Hummer that there was a profit to be made in this new technology. The Federal Communication Commission assigned call letters in alphabetic order by the application date, but Stremlau thought the station's initials would be more memorable in the slogan "Where Jazz Becomes Classic".

Kaskaskia Hotel, LaSalle, IL
source: Wikipedia

The first programs were produced in the Hummer furniture store until 1928 when the studio was moved to LaSalle's Kaskaskia Hotel. The early radio sets had a terrible problem with controlling the dynamics of music and voices, either too loud or too variable. The audio fidelity on the AM frequency band was also very limited, so musicians were often placed in rooms designed to reduce the reverberation and extraneous noise. I suspect the floor lamps next to the WJBC band are there because velvet curtains were completely drawn all around the musicians when they played.

In 1934 the station was moved to Normal, IL and later changed ownership to become part of the NBC and then ABC radio networks.

This postcard from 1925 shows another early radio orchestra, also with 10 musicians: two violins, flute, clarinet, double bass, cello, organ, and two musicians whose instruments are hidden. The conductor is Joseph Knecht, music director of the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra, which was also the orchestra for WEAF in New York City. The station was owned by AT&T Western Electric, one of the major manufacturers of radio equipment, and it began broadcasting on March 2, 1922 as the first radio station in New York City. The call letters have since changed and today it is known as WNBC.

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel circa 1915
Source: Wikipedia

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was a bit larger than LaSalle's Kaskaskia Hotel. It is actually the amalgamation of two hotels built by competing Astor family cousins in 1893 and 1897. When they finally settled their dispute, it merged into what was once the largest hotel in the world. Today the hotel still operates, but on a different site. This building on Fifth Avenue was demolished in 1929 for construction of the Empire State Building.

The postcard was a method radio stations used to map out their radio signal. Listeners were encouraged to write to their favorite programs and in return they received a postcard. Using the addresses the station could track the strength of their signal. In this case, Mr. Allen J. Hoost lived in Brooklyn and probably got excellent reception.

The Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra began as the resident ensemble for the hotel in the 1890s, providing music for social occasions, dances, and dining. Joseph Knecht was the orchestra's leader in 1910, and conducted a regular orchestra of 35 players, mostly Italian and Jewish musicians, which was expanded to 50 for Sunday concerts. They accompanied many famous soloists and made several recordings for Edison records. The first radio broadcasts of the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra were in 1923, and Knecht's association with the group seems to have stopped in 1925. He died in 1931.

The orchestra continued to play music for WEAF under various other conductors and after the hotel was moved to Park Avenue in 1931.

By the wonderful technology of our time, YouTube, we can listen to these same Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra musicians in a recording made in 1925 under Joseph Knecht. The song is entitled: I wonder where we've met before?



The invention of radio created a new way of listening to music. Now music could be heard for free, heard in family living rooms, heard in places hundreds of miles from the performers. Radio would make profound changes in the culture and business of music. As the early commercial broadcasters experimented to attract the attention of the public, classical music had new competition from blues, jazz, country and other kinds of popular music.  Show business would never be the same.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more vintage photos and bracing stories


Since the fellow sitting in the center of that Sepia Saturday trio is the bandleader Stan Kenton, here is a short bio film of Stan Kenton and his Orchestra from 1946. Notice how the music is very modern compared to the Joseph Knecht's Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra of twenty years earlier, but the purpose is the same - let's get everyone's toes tapping.



Alex Daw said...

Well my toes were tapping. Just check out the Waldorf Astoria...I had no idea. That last video is extraordinary...every body well...stiff. And the drum kit decoration in the last set is a scream. Thanks for this. As always, a fascinating insight into this week's meme.

Alan Burnett said...

A wonderful trip through early radio history with a soundtrack to match. Words, images, music - all perfect.

Deb Gould said...

Loved this! But...what is that thing on the far right in the first photo? Looks like a megaphone or something...

Mike Brubaker said...

That's a good question, Deb. I believe it is a simple cardboard megaphone used by some of the musicians to focus the sound of their instrument towards the one microphone. It might also be used by a singer for the same reason.

fbprod1 said...

A wonderful site. Do you know which Montgomery Alabama radio stations, if any, would have played jazz and other "race music" in the 1930's?

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks for the comment, fbprod1, but I don't have an answer to your question.

Here are two excellent web resources on early radio history which I used and they might have information on Alabama radio stations.

Gail Perlee said...

What a marvelous entry! Loved the videos. With the 1920's music I could just visualize flappers in their fringy short dresses jitterbugging their way across the floor & maybe doing the 'black bottom'! And then the more sophisticated swing jazz with Stan Kenton! My Mom sang with an orchestra in San Francisco in the late 30's & after she married, she sang her repertoire all around the house so I'm very familiar with the music of the 30's & 40's.

Postcardy said...

That's the first time I heard of radio stations using postcards to map out their radio signal. I haven't come across any postcards like that either.

Little Nell said...

I enjoyed the music (I love the radio and big bands). The Stan Kenton one made me think of my parents who loved to dance to this sort of music.

anyjazz said...

Kenton! I thought I recognized him. One of my all time favorites. I saw him in concert twice and once at a dance. In fact I listened to the live recording of "Amazonia" from the limited album just yesterday. Fine post! THAT took me back.

Kristin said...

I kind of expected you would have something about Stan Kenton. I think I prefer the 1920 musical selection though.

Karen S. said...

Indeed an excellent post again. Your videos equally entertaining, what an era it was. I especially liked your opening photo, they sure were all jazzed up in their dress as well, very nice looking bunch they were.


My mom watched TV in the livingroom while my father listened to radio in the kitchen. I've always preferred TV over radio, but I remember listening with him to the broadcasts from the Met, whether it was classical music or the opera.

You've answered a question I didn't know I had: I remember seeing those orchestras with curtains around them, and generally thought it looked pretty even if a tad overdone. But I now know why!!!
Never thought there was a reason for those, the acoustic.
Thank you for answering the unasked question!!

Wendy said...

I admire Stremlau's vision and marketing prowess. And what a clever trick the postcard self-check was -- rather like a forerunner of "Can you hear me now?"

tony said...

A Lovely History .Thank You.It's easy to Imagine Radio being "ready-formed" & not realise the work that had to go into get it established...'though I cant help feeling sorry for the other hotel guests trying to sleep!:)


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