V27-4 Radio Broadcasting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel Part 1: WEBH-AM

Vol. XXVII No. 4 - WINTER 2016

By Marsha Holland

Most people remember the Edgewater Beach Hotel as a luxurious resort and a glamorous place of entertainment. Less well known is the role the hotel played in the early history of Chicago commercial radio broadcasting.

The hotel’s venture into radio broadcasting was a product of the innovative marketing ideas of William M. Dewey, the general manager and co-owner until his retirement in 1952. In the 1920s, Dewey’s promotions of the hotel as an upscale venue included bus, amphibious airplane and water taxi service to downtown Chicago, and a Lake Michigan power boat race. In 1923 Dewey broadened his marketing to include an in-house radio station and, after 1929, the live broadcasting on network radio of the dance music played by orchestras appearing at the hotel’s Marine Dining Room and on the Beach Walk.

The story of how radio came to the Edgewater Beach Hotel begins during WWI, when two young men – Ralph H. G. Mathews of Chicago and Karl E. Hassel of Pennsylvania – who worked together as radio instructors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s radio school. They already were acquainted with one another long distance through the “ham” or amateur radio stations they both operated. Mathews built his first ham station when he was 11 years old, and built his first radio transmitter while attending Chicago’s Lane Technical High School. Before the war, Hassel had been in charge of the radio station operated by the University of Pittsburgh, while he was a student there.

After leaving naval service in late 1918, they moved into the building at 1316 West Carmen, where Mathews’ parents lived, and started hand-building radio receiver sets for mail order sale, reportedly using the Mathews’ kitchen table for their manufacturing. In early 1919 they incorporated as Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL), and Mathews’ father, a sales representative for a printing equipment manufacturer, loaned them $200 to print their first catalog and to find a more suitable home for their expanding business.

That was not all they accomplished in 1919. They also obtained a license and set up a ham station with the call letters 9ZN, and were hired by the Chicago Tribune to construct and install a long-wave radio receiver, which permitted the newspaper to print the details of the Treaty of Versailles negotiations well ahead of their competitors relying on overburdened telephone communication. Finally, the young entrepreneurs received permission from William M. Dewey to construct a small building at the vacant northern end of the Edgewater Beach Hotel property to house their radio station and manufacturing. This 14’ by 18’ “radio shack” was flanked by two repurposed wind mill towers serving as antennas.

We do not know how Dewey came to know Mathews and Hassel, but it is likely that it was the two entrepreneurs who took the initiative in approaching Dewey. The Bryn Mawr site – located just south of Bryn Mawr and about 30’ west of the Lake Michigan shoreline – was both close to where they were living and far enough from other tall structures to minimize signal interference. CRL’s mail order business grew so quickly that in 1920 manufacturing was moved to a 3,000 square foot plant at 6433 North Ravenswood, and the workforce expanded to six people. Eugene F. McDonald, a successful broker of truck and auto fleet financing, became aware of CRL in 1921 when he bought one of the company’s receivers for home use. Seeing the market potential of the company, he convinced Mathews and Hassel to let him join them as the third partner, bringing much needed capital to the company.

In August, 1922, CRL obtained a license for a commercial radio station with the call letters WJAZ, making it among the first few Chicago stations to begin on-air programming (the first was the WKY owned by Westinghouse and Commonwealth Edison, which was licensed in November, 1921). In June, 1923, the partners set up Zenith Corporation (a play on Mathews’ ham call letters) to market and sell the radio equipment manufactured by CRL.

By 1923 it had become obvious that commercial radio stations offered tremendous marketing opportunities to hotels, department stores, newspapers and other businesses identified with their ownership. Based on radio tie-ins he saw on the east coast, William Dewey decided to bring WJAZ into the hotel itself. He constructed, on the lobby level of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a state-of-the-art broadcasting studio for WJAZ, thereby becoming a part owner of the station. Promoted as the Crystal Studio, it overlooked the lake at the end of the northeast wing of the Greek cross shaped building. The soundproof triple-paned windows on all sides permitted hotel guests to watch the broadcasting in progress, and orchestra leaders on the Marine Dining Room bandstand to see visual cues from the announcer and broadcasting engineer on duty at the control panel.

In 1923-1924 the station’s on-air time was 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Sundays. Monday was an agreed upon “silent” day when Chicago stations did not broadcast, in order to allow radio owners to explore long distance options ordinarily blocked out by local broadcasts. The programming was primarily small groups of musicians, vocalists and actors, reading literature and performing live in the velvet draped recording booth, intermixed with performances by the orchestras playing in the adjoining Marine Dining Room. The chief announcer and engineer in this period was Ohio-born LeRoy M. Clausing, another veteran of the U.S. Navy’s radio school at Great Lakes.

A highlight of this period was participation of WJAZ in providing radio communication with the National Geographic-sponsored North Pole expedition led by explorer Donald B. MacMillan on the ship Bowdoin, which garnered international publicity for the station and the hotel. Every Wednesday night from midnight to 2:00 a.m. WJAZ broadcast announcer-read messages from the Bowdoin crew’s families and friends, followed by a summary of world news and music from the Marine Dining Room. The New York Times reported the reception was so good that the ship’s crew could hear “the clink of glass and silverware and the murmured conversation of diners” in the hotel dining room.

The partnership of Zenith and the hotel ended in May, 1924, because Zenith decided to relocate WJAZ to northwest suburban Northbrook in search of less signal interference and the ability to operate at a higher level of power. Just before termination of the partnership, the Chicago Tribune-owned WGN leased the Crystal Studio from WJAZ while awaiting completion of its own new facilities at the top of the Drake Hotel. The inaugural WGN broadcast was a highly publicized overnight experiment, beginning at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening, March 29. It featured speeches by dignitaries, vocal and instrumental classical music, excerpts from plays and vaudeville acts on stage in Chicago and, from about dawn to 8:00 a.m., a period of special programming for listeners in Australia and New Zealand, who could receive the WGN signal at that hour because of minimal interference. Interspersed throughout was music from the Oriole Orchestra led by Dan Russo and Ted Fiorito, who were then appearing at the hotel.

The call letters became WEBH in June, 1924, when William Dewey took over sole ownership of the station’s frequency and the Crystal Studio. Dewey hired as station manager Robert Boniel, a Louisiana native who had been involved in marketing in New York City before he came to Chicago to work as announcer and head of publicity for KYW. With Boniel came a new slogan – “The Voice of Middle West” – and a flurry of illustrated brochures and radio magazine articles promoting the station and its regular on-air personalities. Some of the long-term regulars were Kay Ronayne, soprano; Fred W. Agar, tenor; the Langdon Brothers Hawaiian guitar duo, and Maria Kelly, “reader,” a young actress who read poetry and other spoken word features.

WEBH never had the resources to do the wide range of musical, cultural and sports programming that characterized KYW and WGN, and government-mandated frequency sharing meant that the station not be on the air continuously all day. However, Boniel did succeed in upgrading the station’s offerings. He inaugurated the station’s first “ringing in the New Year” celebration in December, 1924. He installed the hook-ups that enabled the station to carry dance band broadcasts from the Aragon Ballroom, and live music and variety acts from the Balaban & Katz-owned Riviera and Uptown Theaters. Toward the end of his tenure, Boniel brought in children’s programs and syndicated programs for homemakers like the popular Prudence Penney show.

Boniel’s greatest achievement, mentioned prominently in his 1945 obituary, was that he gave Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll their first regular program in radio. Gosden and Correll were already successful as touring variety performers. While based in Chicago, they decided to see if they could break into radio as a way of promoting their stage careers. They auditioned for Boniel, who found them promising, and gave them time on Wednesdays and Fridays through the spring and summer of 1925 for an evening program of piano and ukulele music combined with comic patter, which was billed as “Gosden and Correll, the Life of the Party.” Boniel was not able to pay them a salary, but he could give them free dinner at the hotel restaurants. In search of regular incomes, they moved in 1926 to WGN, where their program “Sam ‘n Henry” was among the first in radio to use a continuing story line with a regular cast of comic characters (the two did all the voices). They based the format of their series on “The Gumps” comic strip, but their characters were drawn from the southern dialect of African American friends Correll had known growing up in Richmond, Virginia. WGN refused to nationally syndicate their program using recorded disks, so in 1928 they moved to WMAQ, which was part of the NBC network. Since WGN owned the “Sam ‘n Henry” name, they became “Amos ‘n Andy,” considered to have been the most popular radio program of the 1930s and 1940s.

Another figure in Chicago radio to get his start at WEBH was Paul Fogarty, who was hired by Dewey in 1927 to handle special events for the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Dewey moved Fogarty into radio work when he saw his talent for emceeing. Fogarty was an announcer at WEBH and also a writer of popular verse and song lyrics. His best known song is “Betty Co-Ed” which he wrote with Phil Spitalny. His other songwriting collaborators included Ted Fiorito, Guy Lombardo, Jule Styne, and Rudy Vallee. In 1932 he went to WGN, where he created series, wrote scripts, acted, and did sports commentary. Fogarty made a transition to WGN television in the 1940s with a popular morning exercise program titled “Your Figure, Ladies,” which spawned numerous fitness books. He lived at the Edgewater Beach Hotel until he married in the mid 1940s.

In the late 1920s the Federal government continued to experiment with frequency and hours of operation assignments in order to make room for the flood of new stations receiving licenses, creating instability for station owners. The policies of the new Federal Radio Commission, supported by major players in the industry, were based on the idea that the best way to serve the public interest with diverse high quality programming was to use government regulation to achieve fewer but more powerful stations – essentially, that radio should be almost a regulated natural monopoly similar to electric utilities, which facilitated the emergence of national network ownership begun in the 1926 by RCA-owned NBC.

There was also much discussion of the issue of how to finance radio broadcasting. Up to that point the owners of radio stations considered broadcasting to be a source of advertising and prestige, which made it a cost related to their regular businesses. However, radio station operation expenses were increasing rapidly due to the need to install more sophisticated equipment, to pay royalties to music publishers, and to pay wages to performers, many of whom had been working for free for radio exposure. By 1930 there was a general acceptance that the cost of radio broadcasting in the United States would be financed by private station owners selling time to commercial sponsors rather than publically owned as it was in some parts of Europe.

When in 1928 WEBH was forced into still another frequency time share situation, this time with the powerful KWY, Dewey accepted the KWY offer of a buyout. The hotel closed the station in November, 1928. The Crystal studio was dismantled and the equipment was sold to the Holt-Rowe Novelty Company of Fairmont, West Virginia, which used it to open a new station serving the northeastern part of the state.

Editors note: In our next newsletter there will be a second article dealing with broadcasting from the hotel after 1928, including the return to the hotel of an in house radio station on the FM band in 1958. Major sources for these two articles will be posted to our website.