My Radio Days – 1930s-40s


By the time I was born in 1932, radio was available, but not to people like my family who had no money for frivolous things, sometimes barely enough for necessities like food.  My father was always fascinated with radio and by the time we had moved to a one room flat in 1935 and he had a job with the WPA, making enough to feed his family, he started building crystal sets.  As he progressed in the WPA, going from the lowliest laborer to time-keeper, we came up in the world and moved to a two-room flat and had a pretty nice radio.  I can remember one playing while we sat at the kitchen table in the morning.  I liked the jingle that four young guys sang (lyrics the way I remember them):

    Shine your shoes and you’ll wear a smile
    Shine your shoes and you’ll be in style
    The sun shines east and the sun shines west
    But Griffin polish shines the best.
    Some folks are not particular
    How they look around their feet,
    But if they wore shoes upon their heads,
    They’d make sure their shoes looked neat.
    So, keep your shoes shining all the time,
    All the time, it’s the time to shine
    When you hear this familiar chime (ding, dong, ding)
    It’s time to shine.

Forty years later, I found out it was the young Williams brothers singing the jingle, including the youngest, Andy Williams, who would become one of my favorite singers in the 1960s.

We listened to the Farm Hour, with reports on grain futures and cattle sales, along with weather reports.  The broadcast came from a model-farm type operation and they always talked to the farmer about what he was going to do that day on the farm and sometimes to his wife about her cooking and housekeeping tips.

My parents - 1940
My parents – 1940

Mother kept the radio on all day while she did her housework, favoring the country music of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, Cowboy Copas, and Mac Wiseman, learning songs that she later sang to us.  The sadder the ballad, the better, as far as Mother was concerned.  She never complained, never cried, always had a pleasant smile on her face, but she loved the most doleful, tragic ballads where people died and roses twined around their tombstones.

Mother - 1945
Mother – 1945

My father liked sports broadcasts – baseball, football and the boxing matches.  I can still hear the tinny sound of the announcer from Madison Square Gardens in New York, announcing the name of Joe Louis and his unlucky opponent.  We all listened to the news broadcasts and shows like Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Lux Radio Theater.

Lillian and Shirley - 1940
Lillian and Shirley – 1940

Just before World War II, we could afford to move to a four-room apartment and my father managed to get a wonderful radio that had a green eye that vibrated and pulsed with each sound coming out of it.  The radio was glorious and my little sister and I loved to watch the magic eye do its gyrations.  It was on this radio that we heard the news on a wintry Sunday that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we were now in the middle of World War II.  Throughout the war and for several years afterwards, the radio continued to be the major form of information and entertainment in American homes.  Our family gathered in the living room around the radio, everybody doing something besides just listening – my parents reading, my sister and I lying on the floor with puzzles or coloring books or paper dolls.

On Saturday nights, we usually listened to a barn dance show, probably the precursor of Grand Ole Opry, and heard someone “calling Rattler from the barn – Huyh, Rattler, Huyh, Huyh” and some guy saying, “I’m going back to the wagon, folks – these shoes is killing me”.

Shirley and Lillian - 1943
Shirley and Lillian – 1943

I can remember sitting in the kitchen with the radio playing Fred Allen while we ate a supper of leftovers from a big Sunday dinner – fried chicken, potato pancakes made from the mashed potatoes, the remaining meringue-covered chocolate or coconut cream pie.

Of course, we loved The Shadow –  “Who knows what evil lurks in the thoughts of man — The Shadow knows!”; Bull Drummond; Your Hit Parade and the latest song by Frank Sinatra (a young, skinny kid at that time);  The Lone Ranger and Tonto; Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong and so many others.  We always wound up each New Year’s Eve listening to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.

Radio was so important to us until one day in 1946 when figures appeared on a tiny screen in my father’s workshop as he built our first television set and radio was never a very big deal again.

Summer on East Court Street in the 1940s

Shirley and Lillian - in our WAC uniforms
Shirley and Lillian – in our WAC uniforms

Summer on East Court Street (downtown Cincinnati) in the early 1940’s was hot and devoid of trees and shade, but my little sister and I were happy there and grateful to have a nice big third-floor apartment next door to my favorite aunt, Mabel, and her kids.  We didn’t have a yard to play in – rather  a big flat-top roof with plenty of space, provided you didn’t get too near the edge.  To visit my aunt, we would climb out of our kitchen window onto the roof, walk a few feet to the portion that connected with my aunt’s apartment, jump down and go in her kitchen window.  It was very convenient and much faster and safer than going down three flights of stairs and onto a busy city street.

Aunt Mabel and cousin Buddy.  Vine Street going into Over-the-Rhine in the distance
Aunt Mabel and cousin Buddy. Vine Street going into Over-the-Rhine in the distance
Aunt Mabel and cousin Carol on the roof.  Central Parkway is in right hand background.
Aunt Mabel and cousin Carol on the roof. Central Parkway is in right hand background.

One summer my sister and I had a large wooden box on the roof and Mother let us plant radish seeds.  We were fascinated, especially when we got an invasion of caterpillars and we spent one entire day watching, picking up, putting down furry black and yellow caterpillars.  That night we both dreamed we had fuzzy critters crawling all over us and I don’t recall ever bothering with the “container” garden again.

There was no swimming pool nearby, but sometimes Mother let us go out in a summer shower and splash around in the puddles on the city pavement.  My mother dreamed of the day we would be able to move from the inner city.  She was a small town girl and told us endless stories of how she ran all around  Morrow (Ohio) when she was a child, how she played in the cemetery, knew everybody in town, went wherever she wanted while her widowed mother worked in a munitions factory during the day.  She used to draw pictures for us of the house we would have some day with trees, grass and a picket fence running all around the house and “kids running around the picket fence”, but it was during World War II and housing was scarce.  (We did move to a little brick house with a picket fence and a rose trellis in 1943).

One year, a daughter of my father’s  boss at Dayton Acme invited us to go swimming at a pool at Guilford School near Lytle Park in another part of downtown Cincinnati.  Mother made us red and while polka-dot swim suits and we were so excited, although after I got there I really didn’t care for the confusion and noise of a very public pool.  I preferred splashing around in the puddles on the sidewalk in front of 20 East Court Street during summer showers.

Sister Shirley, cousin Dixie, Lillian in front of Scotti's Restaurant on East Court St.
Sister Shirley, cousin Dixie, Lillian in front of Scotti’s Restaurant on East Court St.