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In 1970, long after the untimely demise of radio due to the onslaught of television, I began hosting a Saturday afternoon program of vintage radio rebroadcasts called Those Were The Days. The program began on WLTD, a small daytime station in Evanston, Illinois. Five years later it moved to WNIB, Chicago, where it stayed for 25 years. In 2001, after the sale of WNIB, I switched to WDCB, the public radio station at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago.
Aside from the pleasure of planning and broadcasting Those Were The Days, my greatest joy has been meeting a great many of the stars of the Golden Age of Radio – performers and behind-the-scenes people – who actually created and brought to life all the wonderful programs I listened to on the air as a youngster.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to sit across from Jack Benny and talk with him about his radio days. But that happened in 1970 when he came to Chicago for a personal appearance and we met backstage for a short visit. I had been on the radio for less than six months and here I was talking with the biggest radio star of them all!
Many other radio personalities visited the Chicago area over the years, some performing at various theatrical venues in the city and suburbs. Because of my broadcast, I was able to meet and talk with a lot of them: Eve Arden, Kate Smith, Alice Faye, Don Wilson, Don Ameche, Mercedes McCambridge and others. These were the people I had heard on my radio in the Forties! And now I was actually holding a microphone between us and we were speaking of radio.
Encouraged by the response of Those Were The Days listeners to my interviews, I started taking regular trips to the West Coast to record more conversations with the folks who had entertained us so royally during radio’s glory days. On one visit I met Jim Jordan, radio’s Fibber McGee, in his home, where we had a long chat about his career and he told me how the “hall closet” gag was developed! (Jim and I became friends and we even had the opportunity to work together on a nostalgic seven-part 1974 radio series called Fibber McGee and the Good Old Days of Radio.)
On another visit, I actually attended a luncheon meeting of “The Bridge-Is-Up-Club” of former Chicago actors in Southern California. At that one meeting I met Les Tremayne, Bret Morrison and Ed Prentiss – the stars of three of my favorite shows: First Nighter, The Shadow and Captain Midnight.
Later, my wife Ellen, who shares my appreciation for radio and who is so much a part of all this, accompanied me on these trips. She served as navigator as we drove the freeways in Los Angeles, traveling to meet the radio people in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and other places in and out of the San Fernando Valley. She also operated the tape recorder, kept an eye on the stopwatch and gave me a signal if we were running out of tape. She shared my delight as we sat with broadcasters who welcomed us for conversations about their radio careers.
We visited Arch Oboler, who talked about his Lights Out mysteries in his comfortably-cluttered home in Studio City, filled with small and large ceramic likenesses of hippos. We rang the doorbell at the Mandeville Canyon home of Dennis Day, who answered the door himself and led us through his antique-filled house to a cozy den, where he regaled us with stories about Jack Benny.
One warm summer day we drove to Palm Springs to talk with Mary Lee Robb (Marjorie on The Great Gildersleeve) in her beautiful Palm Desert home. It was a double-header trip for us, because that same day I also talked with Phil Harris in his nearby country club hideaway.
Many of the people I spoke with seemed pleased and eager to help me find other radio stars to interview. Les Tremayne generously found many interview subjects for me through his membership in the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters. After talking with Howard Duff on the deck of his Malibu Beach house, he got out his address book and gave me the telephone numbers of Lurene Tuttle (his co-star on Sam Spade) and his Armed Forces Radio pal Elliott Lewis. This enabled me to set up a conversation with Lurene in her West Hollywood apartment and to visit Elliott in his office on the Paramount Pictures lot. On the Paramount Pictures lot! “I’ll leave your name at the gate,” he said. This was a particular thrill for Ellen and me. We drove up to that legendary Paramount gate, told the guard our name and waited for a few seconds while he checked his list. “Yes, Mr. Schaden, Mr. Lewis is expecting you. Just drive straight ahead and park anywhere there’s a space. He’s in the Cecil B. DeMille Building. Go right up.” Wow! What a special day!
Truth be told, every day that included meeting and talking with someone from the Golden Age of Radio was a very special day for me. The “radio folk,” as Jim Jordan called his broadcast colleagues, were friendly and cordial as we chatted about their “good old days.” They were generous with their time and seemed flattered to learn that people were still interested in the work they had done on the air so many years ago.
Often, at the conclusion of our time together, I had a chance to tell these people – whom I admired so much – what their work meant to me and all of their fans and how much we appreciated their contribution to the radio days. Just about every one of them expressed appreciation for that thought and added that those days were the best of times.
It’s been a pleasure to prepare this Speaking of Radio website for you, and I hope you’ll enjoy these unabridged conversations with the stars of the Golden Age of Radio.
– Chuck Schaden