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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Turn Your Radio On!

12 June 2021


It was a wonder of modern technology.
Somehow electric currents were tamed
to vibrate invisible air waves and carry
the sounds of the human voice
and musical instruments
great distances.

The first stations that broadcast the ethereal sounds of radio
required complicated and expensive equipment.
But the consumer devices receiving the signal
were relatively cheap to produce,
simple to operate,
and capable of picking up
hundreds of different stations. 

And all for free!


But there was a problem in the early years.
Producing content for this new medium was easy.
But getting the public to listen was hard.
Reports on news, sports, or politics,
didn't immediately attract much notice.
Newspapers were far better at informing people
about stories of the day.
But music?
That was different.
The real hook for capturing the ears of the masses
was for radio stations to offer music of every different variety,
some traditional, some new, and some just wacky.
Today I showcase postcards of three bands
from the early years of radio broadcasting.



My first radio band is a photo postcard of the Arizona Kid and his Cow Girls. This group of 10½ performers are arranged in close formation with everyone's name labeled. Two men sit on the floor, Popeye on the left, holding for some unknown reason a balloon and an egg beater, and Sheriff on the right with Cactus Sam, a ventriloquist's dummy and presumably the more talkative one. (How much skill did a ventriloquist really need to be on radio?) The other 8 musicians are all women except for the Arizona Kid. All are wearing cowboy hats except for two young ladies in the center, Chuckles and Winnie, who may be dancers to judge by their shoes and short skirts. Besides the Arizona Kid at the back holding a banjo, there is Sunset on string bass, Texas Jean on guitar, Moonbeam on trap set, Utah Ginny on accordion, and Montana Patsy on second guitar.

In the very center is a large microphone with the initials WXYZ, which was a station in Detroit. It started as WGHP in 1923, using the initials of its first owner, George Harrison Phelps, who owned an adverting agency. In 1927 it became one of the charter stations in the CBS Radio Network. Three years later it changed ownership and became WXYZ using a clever slogan that called itself "The Last Word in Radio". In 1934 it switched to the Mutual Broadcasting System and then later became part of the NBC Blue network.

On the postcard of the the Arizona Kid and his Cow Girls, the photographer kindly added a location, Reading, Pennsylvania, and a year, 1941. I could not find many details about the band but they seemed mostly active in the eastern Pennsylvania area from 1940 to 1942. The photo may have been taken during an appearance in Detroit but I was unable to find their name associated with WXYZ. The band was billed in June 1941 at Fairyland Farms, an amusement park near Allentown, PA. This venue is not unlike one used by another western band that I wrote about in March 2017, The Gang at the Sleepy Hollow Ranch. "The Arizona Kid" was the title of two popular Hollywood movies.  The first film was made in 1930 and starred Warner Baxter as The Arizona Kid, based on the short stories of The Cisco Kid by O. Henry. The co-star was Carole Lombard in one of her first roles. 

In 1939 Republic Pictures released "The Arizona Kid" with Roy Rodgers in the title role as a Confederate officer in Missouri during the American Civil War. George "Gabby" Hayes played his loyal sidekick. By this time Roy Rodgers had earned his movie nickname the "King of the Cowboys", but he actually got his start in 1931 as a singer in western bands which played on radio.
Allentown Morning Call
21 June 1941

* * *


My second radio band is something more exotic, the Spanish Gypsy Orchestra. This postcard shows eleven musicians and two dancers dressed in supposedly "gypsy" costumes that follow a stereotype used in opera and cinema productions. The only instruments usually associated with this kind of European folk music are the two violinists on the right. But I think it fair to say that the banjo, trumpets, saxophones and sousaphone are not typical of the "gypsy" genre. The man and woman in the center are posed in a classic tango stance.

The silent film star Rudolf Valentino (1895–1926) played a number of roles that helped popularize gypsy costumes and the tango music form in the 1920s. This group's outfits resemble a photo that I featured way back in September 2010 entitled The Gypsy Barons of Detroit. They were also a radio band which used trumpets, saxophones, and tuba.

Despite their name, the Spanish Gypsy Orchestra was photographed by Bailey Studios of Philadelphia, as noted on the back. There is no date but the group's picture was likely taken in the 1920s. In February 1920 their name appeared in an advertisement for new releases on the Columbia Record label with Night of Love. In the era before radio this was way most new music was promoted. As the world returned to normal after the Great War, 78rpm disk records became the newest craze. Many of the early recording artists gave concert tours to promote their label's records. A gramophone machine and records were not too expensive, but the only way a music lover could get variety was to buy more records. 
Allentown Morning Call
27 February 1920

Philadelphia Inquirer
12 June 1925

In June 1925 the Spanish Gypsy Orchestra played a twenty minute set on radio station WLIT out of Philadelphia. They were scheduled in between a spelling bee championship and Rufus and Rastus, "Dark Clouds with a Silver Lining". WLIT, broadcasting on 395 meters, was one of the first successful radio brands, and took its name from Philadelphia's Lit Brothers department store. In 1935 It merged with another department store's radio station and became WFIL. Since my postcard of the group was taken in Philadelphia, I suspect it dates from around 1925. In the Philadelphia Inquirer's program listing the orchestra's leader was J. M. Villa, whom I believe is the violinist standing right, and there was a baritone, P. Chavarria, that I think is the man standing at back left. 

Burlington VT Free Press
13 January 1927

 A few years later in 1927 the Spanish Gypsy Orchestra was listed with another leading station, WPG from Atlantic City, New Jersey. The variety of musical artists, bands, and orchestra is amazing, especially considering that this list was published in a Burlington, Vermont newspaper.  Signal strength was very important for a station to reach their audience. Many stations produced promotional postcards of their bands as a way to measure the effective distance of their broadcast market.

 * * *


My last postcard offers a band dressed in what must be one of the silliest costumes ever seen on radio. They are the WNAC Polar Bears, ten musicians dressed in white faux-fur jump suits. The costumes may be intended to imitate Eskimo clothing rather than actual polar bears as hoods are attached to their collars, I think. In any case they don't look very happy about it as they glare at their leader. His costume is definitely trying, though unsuccessful, to imitate a bear. Notice his fur gloves, shoes, and the floor rug. The band features another banjo, several saxophones including three sopranos, (a great deterrent for keeping away real polar bears!) and a string bass and cello. 

WNAC made its first broadcast from Boston, Massachusetts on 31 July 1922. The station was founded by a Boston businessman, John Shepard III, whose father, John Shepard Jr., owned a chain of department stores throughout New England. Shepard financed his son's radio venture as a way to promote his stores. In 1927 the station started a subsidiary station, WASN (Air Shopping News), marketing it for women as a home shopping network with reports from the Shepard chain stores. WASN was only on-the-air for about a year before technical difficulties closed it down. However one of its innovative ideas was to hire an all-women staff, and after it shut down several of the women continued with WASN. 
This postcard was sent on April 27, 1928 to Miss Beatrice Bergman of Brockton, Mass. The writer adds "Sincerely, Jane Day" in the lower corner. This is the name of the woman pictured in the vignette on the front of the card. She was first engaged as a reporter for WASN and then became a popular personality for WNAC.

A radio schedule for the Shepard Stores Broadcast, published by the Boston Globe in November 1927, puts The WNAC Polar Bears on at 9:30 AM. They played music just after WBIS record selections and shopping news at 8 AM and just before the WNAS Women's Club; Bible reading; vocal solos; and astrologist at 10:30. 

Boston Globe
29 November 1927

To get a better idea of what these bands sounded like, here is a YouTube video of a record produced in 1928 by the Shepard Department Store. It is the WNAC's house band, The Polar Bears, playing the station's official WNAC March. It was very common for businesses of this era to have their own theme song or march that was performed live on the radio every day whenever the sponsor's show came on. 

On the same page of the Boston Globe that had the November 1927 radio list, there was a photo of another WNAC band. They were called the "I-Car-De Chefs" and played every Tuesday evening at 7:20 PM. The costumes for the eleven musicians in this band were cook's or chef's white kitchen uniforms with white pillbox hats. There is a chef cellist in the front row that I bet is the same sad polar bear cellist in my postcard. Seeing these bands gives me no reason to ever complain about my orchestra's uniform of black tie and tux. 

Boston Globe
29 November 1927



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link to get better reception.


Molly of Molly’s Canopy said...

Love this post! I’m amazed that the radio stations actually advertised each of the tiny time slots in which these bands played. The photos are just great. Kudos to the first band for naming each of its members — even if only by their band name. As for the last band, at first I thought they might be the Astronauts Band or the Asbestos Removal Orchestra — but the Polar Bears? Well, you have to had it to them for trying. This post also gives insight into early radio, which paved the way for the record-driven radio that came later. Even in this age of television and streaming, I am still a regular radio listener, though more jazz now than top 40.

La Nightingail said...

Re: the Polar Bears and their WNAC March, John Philip Souza it ain't, but oh well. :) As to their silly costumes, perhaps they were in Boston and perhaps the picture was taken in winter and the station wasn't heated well? The picture of the Gypsy Orchestra looks like they had a lot of fun! As for the Arizona Kid and his Cow Girls - as ever, cheesecake sells. And if the I-Car-De Chefs changed their name slightly to The Cardio Chefs, they'd probably be rather popular today! :)

Kathy said...

The polar bear costumes leave me speechless! A bunch of grumpy bears, for sure.

Barbara Rogers said...

Considering that radio was received audibly by most people, it's cool to see photos/ and post cards of bands that were on radio shows...thus adding the visual element. I do feel sorry for the polar bears, unless the stage was air conditioned!

Wendy said...

Many years ago I used to be confused when old movies included a radio program featuring an orchestra and an audience. It made no sense to me. But at least Hollywood always depicted the orchestra in dinner jackets and bow ties, nothing ridiculous like a polar bear suit. Like Molly, I thought they were astronauts too! What an eye-opener to learn that the early developers of radio had to experiment with what would attract listeners.


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