- Historic Sites
“program Coming In Fine. Please Play ‘japanese Sandman.’ ”
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Gladys King was the most beautiful woman on earth within tricycling distance of Callowhill Street. She was born in 1902 and was now fourteen years old, which would make it five years old for me.
All Gladys King had to do with radio was that her older brother’s wireless set on their third floor was what the fellows said they wanted to look at, whereas they actually wanted to look at Gladys King. It was my first encounter with radio, and a beautiful memory it is. I did climb to the attic once, and sure enough, there was Gladys King’s brother wearing earphones. He said he was listening to the war in Europe, so I tiptoed downstairs. That is about where my memory of wireless in igiO fades, except that I believe Gladys King, who looked like a Follies girl, later married and began going to Lake Chautauqua summers.
It was about four years before radio really began. The “First Radio Station Broadcast in the U.S.” was held on the evening of November 2, 1920, over the facilities of KDKA on a roof of the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh. The occasion was Election Night, and the news Ixing reported was the Harding-Cox returns. Appropriately, Warren G. Harding and commercial broadcasting were both launched that fateful night, and there are today a lew stragglers in the march of time who think Harding’s life should have been spared and broadcasting’s taken. But though I lived only a few blocks from Mr. Frank Conrad’s garage, where KDKA had had its origins (in an amateur station with the call letters 8XK), I missed the sjreat triumph.
Wireless and I had no contact to speak of until 1921, when all hell broke loose. I was in the choir at the time the first church service was “radiocast.” The first time I ever saw a microphone I saw a do/en microphones, each suspended like a bird cage from a kind of bridge lamp.
Into these black cylinders we poured our shrill song. Into these the Reverend Dr. E. J. van Etten poured his gospels, epistles, collects, and sermon. Nobody much except the station’s engineers could have been listening, since almost the only sets were in stores and they were closed on Sundays; nevertheless, that morning the great performance revolution began.
No more did the visible audience matter. Nothing mattered but that tiny, black tin can (and its descendant, the TV camera) inside of which were crowded dozens (and later millions) of people to hear (and later to sec) the performances of preacher, comedian, athlete, or pitchman. Present laughter was now nothing compared with absent laughter. There might be four hundred live people in the congregation and only four listeners “out there,” hut things had changed. People you could see might still have to be indulged, but it was the people you couldn’t see—the ones you reached out there—who really counted. Reality now referred to something a step away from the original: something you could neither sec nor count nor thank. Whoever still went to the trouble of going out in the snow or rain, of walking fixe blocks to the trolley-car stop and riding through the night to watch you and applaud you and pump your hand afterward, and go out and wait for the midnight trolley home—forget him. The only people worth your trouble became the stay-at-homes, the lazy good-for-nothings who would not be caught dead in the rain when they could sit around in their socks, take off their stiff collars, and “tune in.” Thus, the age of the slob began in 1921, which is the year “live” audiences in theatres, churches, concert halls, and ball games turned into old-fashioned, fussy, die-hard squares, the kind of people who still studied Latin and opened their windows for fresh air at night.
Bearing in mind that I had thus performed on the radio before I had ever heard one—that I had seen a microphone before I had put on earphones—you will recognize my excitement when my father, a theatre musician, came home and announced that he had been hired to direct an orchestra over KDKA. My own thrill came from two facts: first, that now my father would have to get up in the morning like other fathers (he had always played till midnight and slept until noon), and second, that we would have to own a radio set.
But first he and my grandfather as tcnants-in-common bought a used Dodge touring car so Papa could drive to East Pittsburgh—five miles out of town and the site of KDKA’s studio. Grandpa got up his half of the money but never did learn to drive, so the only way he could enjoy his rightful share of the auto was to go to East Pittsburgh as Papa s passenger, which he didn ( like doing since East Pittsburgh was nothing but the huge Westinghouse plant, which, as Grandpa used to say, was not exactly a sight for sore eyes. Papa had the car greased, oiled, fueled, and washed. Hc put up the side curtains in case of rain, and we all came out front to wave good-bye as he roared down the hill toward East Pittsburgh.