BROADCASTING IN CHICAGO AND ITS AMAZING GROWTH
Radio Comes Into Its Own
BY CHARLES J. GILCHREST
Radio Editor, The Chicago Daily News
IT was the eve of Armistice Day, 1921. Confusion reigned backstage of the Auditorium Theater—the usual hectic scene of last-minute preparation, for tomorrow the Chicago Grand Opera Company would open its season. In the wings, a stage carpenter was hammering a weakened set. Nearby, a marimba sounded its musical note. And radio—wireless, as it was called then—was born in Chicago.
Those hammer blows and that marimba note were the first sounds to go out on the ether waves from the prairie metropolis. The following night, wireless made its official debut with the broadcasting of the opera performance. Few in the audience noticed the microphone suspended from the ceiling, and those who did failed to comprehend its significance; nor would they have known what to call it, for the word had just been coined.
Wireless came to Chicago unheralded and unsung. That first broadcast was heard by an invisible audience numbering only a few hundred amateurs and engineers who had been following the preliminary tests. They “listened in” on erratic little crystal sets with headphones glued to their ears. Some of it they got, and some of it they missed, for radio was still in its experimental stage.
It was George Foster who persuaded the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company to bring wireless to Chicago. Westinghouse was the builder and owner of the pioneer station KDKA, established in Pittsburgh in 1920. The Chicago station was given the call letters KYW, which it still uses.
At the suggestion of Mr. Foster, the microphone—it was not yet known as a “Mike”—had been installed in the opera house. An executive of the Commonwealth Edison Company, he had become enthused with the new thing, called by some a toy.
The opera management gave its consent with some misgivings. Wireless? How amusing! But it could do no harm to humor him. Mary Garden spoke into the microphone that night, and her voice, picked up by the little crystal sets, was heard by a handful of radio fans, who also heard more or less distinctly Edith Mason in “Madame Butterfly.”
When wireless was very young this was its home, the studio on the sixteenth floor of the Edison Building, installed just a month after studio broadcasting had become a fact in Chicago. Note the embryo microphone, which, on occasion when records were to be played could be pushed up against the horn of the phonograph.
Newspaper editors had been asked to listen in, and receiving equipment had been furnished for their use. When the performance was over, wireless enthusiasts rushed to the local rooms. “What did you think of it?” they asked. “Of what?” returned the editors. “Of the broadcast—the wirelessing of the opera.” “Oh. that! We forgot all about it. Didn’t hear it.” First page stories describing the experiment appeared, however, the following morning.
The end of the opera season was in sight. Broadcasting had started, and was becoming popular. How could it be continued? Then the radio studio was conceived. On the eighteenth floor of the Edison Building a single room was fitted up. Its walls were hung with burlap. A plain carpet deadened the floor. Here the first studio broadcast took place on January 23, 1922.
The program was given by Richard Czerwonky, violinist, and Frances Ingram, contralto, with Sally Menkes at the piano. KYW launched a daily studio broadcast from 8 to 9 o’clock in the evening, the artists volunteering their services. The sponsored program and the salaried radio star were undreamed of. But radio had been weaned away from opera, and had moved into its own studio.
As the broadcasting idea grew in popularity, other stations sprang up, and the industry developed its own terminology. The radio announcer became an important person, even as he is today. At the same time, the crystal set, with its headphones was emerging into an elaborate multi-dialed affair which only an engineer—probably two engineers—could operate successfully. But the fact remained that wireless’ noises were getting on the air with a fair degree of certainty and were being picked up by the ever increasing multitudes.
The chain idea came into being January 4, 1923, when telephone lines connected WEAF in New York and WNAC in Boston—and another milestone was passed. The infant had learned to walk, to get from one station to another. Of course, he didn’t walk very well yet. He couldn’t go very far, sometimes he’d fall down, and fans would hear nothing at all. He staggered at times, stumbled. But nevertheless he was walking in his own queer, ambling, infantile fashion.
As time progressed he walked better, farther, and with greater and greater assurance. In fact he walked all the way from New York to Chicago in April, 1927. It was then that Frank Mullen opened an office here for the National Broadcasting Company, the first network office in Chicago. He had a staff of three people. Today Vice-president Niles Trammell heads a staif of 800 NBC workers in Chicago.
Studio A of the National Broadcasting Company in the Merchandise Mart—the world’s largest broadcasting studio in the world’s largest building. The piano is a nine-foot concert grand, the largest model made. The steps of the two-level stage are visible in tlie background
And the boy grew older. Now he lives not in the dinky little room of the Edison building but in such sumptuous suites as Studio A of the National Broadcasting company’s quarters in the Merchandise Mart. He can point proudly to his home, pick out Studio A and say “It’s the largest broadcasting studio in the world.” It floats on springs, being a room within a room in the special two-story penthouse NBC occupies on the top of the world’s largest building.
Think of that little original studio—then of Studio A. “A” is large enough to accomodate 500 visitors and at the same time full size orchestras and casts of radio actors such as WMAQ and WENR use for some of their more elaborate sponsored shows. It’s two-level stage is much larger than is ordinarily found in theaters. It is attractively dressed up in two-shade green walls with moveable panels instead of the old burlap drapes for acoustic purposes. Special sunlight lamps illuminate it. The stage is backed by a huge bronze grill. At the other end is a projection booth, as yet unused, but there, ready and waiting for television when the child acquires its sight
Floor plan of the 19th Floor at the Merchandise Mart created by the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White
Studio A was the largest of the six original NBC studios in the Merchandise Mart. In fact, at the time the Mart facilities opened, it was billed as the “world’s largest”.
This honor was short lived. With the opening of NBC’s Radio City facility on November 11th, 1933, Chicago’s studio A was immediately dwarfed by New York’s studio 8H (132 x 78 x 30) and somewhat edged out by Radio City’s studio 8G (89 x 50 x 19), studio 3A (80 x 50 x 18) and studio 3B (the twin of 3A in terms of dimensions). But studio A’s additional height gave it a total volume greater than that of 8G, 3A and 3B. This assured studio A an acoustical advantage for some musical broadcasts. (That Radio City’s studio 8H was an acoustical disaster is generally acknowledged—and well documented by the NBC Symhony recordings made within its confines.)
Studio A was the home of the most elaborate productions, including “Fibber McGee and Molly”, “The First Nighter” and the “Carnation Contented Hour”. It could, of course, accomodate a large studio audience.
Studio A was converted to a television studio in 1949. This process included stripping the walls bare and slathering them with asbestos held in place by chicken wire, a construction detail that, of course, had consequences many years later.
Studio A’s conversion to television also included the demolition of the “Green Room” (designated “G” on the floor plan), and its replacement with a large door to facilitate the movement of scenery into the studio and the wheeling of cameras from studio A to studio B (which, during the television age, shared a control room with studio A). A sink was placed in this passageway. More than one NBC stagehand has told me that Dave Garroway was wont to defecate in this sink.
Studio D (Left) was the home of Don McNeill’s “Breakfast Club.”
Studio E (Right) shows Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink performing with an orchestra under the direction of Charles Previn. Madame Schumann-Heink is remembered for a number of reasons: the longevity of her career; the fact that two of her sons fought on different sides during World I; and the fact that, in magazine advertisements, she endorsed Luck Strike cigarettes.
“Lights Out” – Arch Oboler’s “Murder Castle”
Originally aired on February 16, 1938 in the NBC Studios in Chicago, this episode is based on the true story of serial killer H. H. Holmes and his “murder castle.” This episode was performed a second time on August 3, 1943 by CBS. All available recordings of this show are the same, and it’s likely that this recording is the 1943 one.
Chicago Tribune’s Radio Schedule for February 16, 1938