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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WHO, What, & Where

30 November 2012

Who polka players?   Wait ... what?  Shouldn't that be, "who are polka players?"
Oh ... W_H_O Polka Players. Why didn't you say so. You meant the WHO Polka Players, of course, with Bill and Irma on clarinets, Smitty on trumpet, Bruce and Hymie on saxophones, Al on sousaphone, Loyd on drums, and Bob your WHO radio host. Where you ask? Well they're broadcasting from high atop the Liberty building in Des Moines, Iowa. When? 1950. It's says so right on the front.

Regional radio bands were once a common part of American life. Every kind of entertainment show that we now watch on television, from sit-coms to game shows, was invented first for a listening radio audience. The major cities, like New York, Chicago, or Detroit could afford to produce the full orchestra or big band concerts since they were then relayed throughout a radio network. But smaller stations also employed musicians like the WHO Polka Players to perform in combos for their local programs. The WHO radio station made its first broadcast in 1924 and was owned by Banker's Life which occupied the main floors of the Liberty Building in Des Moines. Later in the 1930s the station was acquired by B. J. Palmer of Davenport, IA, the son of the founder of chiropractic therapy.

If you heard something you liked on the radio, you would send in a request and the station would mail you a postcard of your favorite group. That's what Cletus Purdum of Montezuma, Iowa did in March of 1950. At 50,000 watts, WHO's AM signal could be picked up over a large area of the Midwest. Montezuma, with a population around 1460 in 1950, is 70 miles east of Des Moines

Cletus may have preferred the Polka Players. Perhaps he had a secret crush on Irma? But he probably got more toe tapping dances from the WHO Buckaroos, with Slim on fiddle, Si on clarinet, Bill on trumpet, Jack G. on drums, Red on bass, Cece on accordion, and Jack L. on electric guitar. With their black stetson hats and sharp suits, they must have kept the WHO studio jumping.

In 1949, the Cedar Rapids Gazette carried a regular Radiolog with the schedule for the 4 stations then available,

   KCRG - Mutual Broadcasting System
   WMT - CBS
   WHO 1040 - NBC. 

During the week you could enjoy your second cup of coffee in the morning at 9:45 with the Polka Players, and that extra muffin with the Buckaroos at 11:30. You could catch them again for another 15 minute set at 4:00 in the afternoon, with just the perfect rhythm to get your tractor hopping along the corn rows.

Ronald Reagan, WHO Radio Announcer,
Des Moines Iowa, 1934-37
Source: Wikimedia

Though he was long gone by the time the Buckaroos and the Polka Players were regulars at the station, future President Ronald Reagan was in front of the WHO microphone as a sportscaster from 1932 to 1937.

According to the WHO radio history, the station's theme song in the 40's and 50s was the Jerome Kern song Who? from his 1925 Broadway musical Sunny.  Here's a German version by Jack Hylton und sein Orchester that probably resembles the snappy arrangement that the gang at WHO played everyday.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone else is a long way from foxtrots. 


Postcardy said...

There must have been a lot more opportunities for musicians back then.

Peter said...

It's almost a pity that The Who originated in England some 20 years later. Was that Jack singing on the sound track? If so, then he had a nice smoky, scratchy voice. On the record it says "valid only in Germany". What was valid only there, do you know?

Wendy said...

Your opening paragraph made me think we were in for a musical rendition of "Who's on first." I'm familiar with radio orchestras only because of some old Shirley Temple movies. Imagine - sitting at home listening to tap dancers on the radio. Couldn't do that with hip hop.

Bob Scotney said...

Even I recognised the jack Hylton tune.

Little Nell said...

Oh yes Mike, I recognised it too. It had me fox-trotting around the room! I love that each member of the band is identfied and the names are so characteristic too. I like the idea that the listener's day revolved around catching their favourite band at certain intervals.

North County Film Club said...

I love that era of music. What a great tune "who" is.
It's just really happy music.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Mike, and a great song :-)

Kristin said...

I listen to old time radio during the day and often think that I should have taken up the organ during those interludes between shows. The Who sounds much better.

Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

Mike; how times have changed! When I grew up in Switzerland, Radio Beromünster had their own symphony orchestra. Sundays used to be reserved for Swiss folk music and also Wunschkonzert. The bands you featured must have been very popular.

Bruno Laliberté said...

Ah!! What a perfect conclusion to this post. I'm enjoying this, much to my surprise, I'll admit. Something cheerful on this Monday morning.

Have a good week!!

Alan Burnett said...

As fascinating as usual. And the Jack Hylton will be the same bandleader as the Jack Hylton who was born in Bolton, Lancashire, just over the tops from here. Why his orchestra should have been given a Germanic name on that record label I can't imagine.


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