V28-1 Radio Broadcasting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel after 1928 - Part 2

Vol. XXVIII No. 1 - WINTER 2017

By Marsha Holland

The 1920s involvement of the Edgewater Beach Hotel in early AM radio broadcasting was described in the previous issue of the Scrapbook. In this issue we continue the story with a focus on the hotel’s presence on the radio in formats devoted almost exclusively to music programming.

The closing of the hotel’s in-house radio station WEBH did not mean that the Edgewater Beach Hotel was absent from the airwaves. In 1929 the NBC network approached William M. Dewey with an offer. In exchange for an exclusive five-year contract, NBC would wire the hotel to enable nationwide broadcasting of the hotel’s live entertainment for transmission through NBC’s new Merchandise Mart studios, which had been built to be on a par with those in New York City. For the next two and a half decades, even after the NBC contract had ended, live network broadcasts of dance bands and other popular music from the hotel’s Marine Dining were weekly radio events. In the 1930s and 1940s almost every major band performing at the Marine Dining Room was also featured in a radio broadcasts. After 1935, the hotel’s orchestras were heard most frequently on the CBS network, but sometimes also on the Mutual network.

The arrangement had advantages for everyone involved. Networks were willing to underwrite the costs of the wiring in order to be able to broadcast live music from well known hotels, nightclubs and theaters. Program sponsors derived benefit from association with these glamorous entertainment venues, and local radio stations incurred only the cost of sending out an announcer and engineer, usually by taxi, to handle the broadcasts. For the Edgewater Beach Hotel, access to national radio network broadcasting made it easier to book prominent band leaders.

Until the mid-1950s, when this kind of radio programming went out of style, bands performing at the Edgewater Beach Hotel could be heard in the living rooms across the country at some point during the week. In the 1930s and 1940s, very well known music groups could be on the radio multiple times during a week in both their own sponsored radio programs, usually broadcast from a station’s own studio, and from the bandstands of major hotels and nightclubs, where the audience reaction was valued as creating a more lively kind of radio entertainment.

We can document the names of orchestras broadcasting from the hotel from publicity announcements and radio program schedules in the Chicago Tribune and industry publications like Variety. The names range from the very well known Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Dorsey, Wayne King, Vaughn Monroe, Horace Heidt and Xavier Cugat to bands whose popularity is now known mostly to period band music aficionados – groups like those of Freddy Martin, Mark Fisher, Harry Sosnick, Phil Spitalny, Orrin Tucker, Russ Morgan and Herbie Kaye. Tony Bennett and Patty Page appeared at the hotel in the 1950s but there is no indication that they performed on the radio from the hotel.

Under the NBC contract, among the first participants in these so-called “remote” broadcasts was the dance band led by Ted Fiorito. Fiorito had been co-leader with Dan Russo of what in the mid-1920s was called the Oriole Orchestra, known for its refined “sweet jazz” dance music, which was closely identified with the hotel because Dewey had hired the newly formed group to perform almost continuously between 1922 and 1926 (teenager Benny Goodman was one of their fill-in musicians). When Dan Russo left to go out on his own, Fiorito renamed the group the Edgewater Beach Hotel Orchestra, and in 1929 his performances from the hotel’s Beach Walk outdoor bandstand were broadcast on NBC.

When the engagement was over, Fiorito left for California, where he wrote music for and appeared in several movies as well as becoming well known on radio. When Fiorito returned to the Edgewater Beach Hotel in triumph in 1935, Dewey was proud to publicize the high price of the bandleader’s services now that his protégé was successful in Hollywood.

Out of all these popular bands, probably the biggest payoff in terms of reputation from the hotel’s NBC affiliation was the booking of the enormously popular Paul Whiteman, who settled in for an unusually long stay from May 16, 1931 to January 1, 1932. During this time Whiteman lived on the 17th floor of the Edgewater Beach Apartments, while his colleague the composer and arranger Ferde Grofé lived nearby at the Admiral Hotel.

Initially booked for only the summer season, the “King of Jazz” was willing to remain until the end of the year in order to have steady income to support the expenses of his 90-person orchestra. Whiteman’s responsibilities included leading his band for their two nightly appearances on the bandstands of the Marine Dining Room or the Beach Walk, plus a two-hour Saturday afternoon tea dance and a Sunday afternoon concert (no dancing on Sunday). All but the tea dance and some of the Friday evening “college nights” were broadcast by NBC. At the same time he did other weekly studio-based broadcasts for NBC out of the Merchandise Mart and acted as NBC’s part-time Chicago music director. Somehow he was able to fit in collaboration with Ferde Grofé on arranging and giving the first public performance of the Grand Canyon Suite, which premiered at the Studebaker Theater on November 22, 1931.

The grand finale of Whiteman’s stay at the hotel, before he left on a national tour of one-night stands, was a New Year’s Eve broadcast from the Marine Dining room, followed by a 2:00 p.m. New Year’s Day concert from the Merchandise Mart that linked vocalists in New York and Los Angeles singing along with his orchestra, the first such long distance collaboration over radio. He then finished his day with a broadcast over NBC between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. and headed to St. Louis.

In the late 1940s radio as a medium began to lose live music performance and variety acts to television. At the same time radio stations were converting to recorded music and from the AM to the FM band, because the latter provided greater sound fidelity. Documentation for this later period in the history of the WEBH call sign is much more limited in comparison to the wealth of material for the 1920s. We are fortunate to have oral histories from Ken Alexander, Russ Butler and the late John Schlimmer, that provide a flavor of what the FM version of WEBH station was like.

In 1958, Buddy Black, a WGN radio disk jockey and TV performer, in partnership with his brothers-in-law Sol Bolnick and Paul Wasserman, obtained a license for a new FM station and reached an agreement with the Hotel Corporation of America, which acquired the Edgewater Beach Hotel in 1954, to occupy space in the hotel, and to use the old WEBH call letters, which HCA presumably owned.

When WEBH-FM came on the air in April, 1958, it operated on the 93.9 frequency and had a power of 35,000 watts, with a reported reception range of about 75 miles. The format was “easy listening” recorded music with middle-of-the-road jazz on weekday evenings and a block of time for classical music on Sundays. Except for Sunday morning sermons, the station’s schedule was not published, and the music played was selected by individual announcers on the spot.

A feature designed to set the station apart from other similar stations was that the announcers read the news they composed off the wire service teletype machine against a background of soft instrumental music. “It made the bad news items sound better, I guess,” remembered evening announcer Russ Butler.

The hotel owners constructed a small ground floor level broadcast studio in an area that station manager John Schlimmer described as being carved out of a storage closet and part of the barber shop. The transmission equipment was on the hotel’s top floor. While less glamorous than the 1920s lobby-level Crystal Studio overlooking the lake, this studio had the useful feature of a soundproofed glass window overlooking the front revolving door, permitting station announcers a good of view of guests entering the hotel.

Russ Butler: “I was a student in the late 1950s at Northwestern’s School of Speech. I found time in my class schedule on the Evanston campus to find some work in the Chicago radio market that would help my future employment opportunities, encouraged by my student adviser… My WEBH employment was the result of an appointment with Buddy Black at the hotel studios when he was looking for on-air talent. I had an [unpaid] evening shift from 6:00 p.m. to midnight playing recorded music (approved by Buddy) of jazz, American songbook artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Mel Torme, et. al., while all alone in the “bubble studio” with a large window in the small studio wall. The format was pretty much uninterrupted music segues with limited announcer talk. Visitors to the [second floor] hotel lobby opposite the [upstairs] dining room could stop by to see a live broadcast in progress; a small speaker was installed under the window to hear the broadcast. A window curtain was available for privacy if needed. Some people occasionally knocked on the glass to get attention with a smile and I just waved back at them with a smile and they left.”

Ken Alexander, also unpaid until his hours were increased to eight hours, worked the Sunday shift: “The station was a ‘combo’ operation; that is, the announcer ran his own board. He was a combination announcer and engineer. In fact, the announcer on duty was often the only person on the premises. There were few commercials. The music was not programmed in advance, but was chosen by the announcer, who made up the program as he went along.

The record library consisted of a couple of shelves of LPs on the back wall of the studio. I used to take my [classical] records from home to play on the air; they were in better condition than the station’s albums, and I had some LPs that the station didn’t have.”

Station manager John Schlimmer, an Edgewater native (his family lived at 5449 N. Glenwood), in a 1989 interview with Adam Langer, described Buddy Black’s style of broadcasting: “Buddy Black wasn’t a trained reporter. He was an emcee, a disc jockey and a sleight-of-hand artist [magician]. He’d see Milton Berle coming through the front door and he’d run out and say. ‘Hey, Uncle Miltie, come on in.’ And we’d be right in the middle of a record and he’d stop and say. ‘It’s time for an interview with Milton Berle.’ You’d never know what to expect next.” Many of these celebrity interviews were with actors appearing summers at the Edgewater Beach Playhouse, and entertainers performing in the main ballroom.

In 1960, WEBH-FM for a short time was the Chicago outlet for the Mutual Broadcasting System’s coverage of the Democratic Party convention taking place in Los Angeles. Soon after that, Buddy Black sold blocks of weekday time to German-language programmers.

Schlimmer remembered “FM was hardly into its own then. It was really pushing for listeners. It was worth peanuts – $35,000.” Yet the radio station went to 24-hour operation in 1966, and survived the hotel’s bankruptcy and sudden closure in December, 1967. WEBH-FM continued to broadcast from the hotel until April, 1968, and then Buddy Black relocated it to the downtown Pick-Congress Hotel, where it was still operating in November, 1969, when Black and his partners sold the station for $325,000 to James H. Rich of Rich Communications Corp. Rich used WWEL (for the easy listening format) for his new station and the WEBH-FM call name disappeared from the airwaves for the second and last time.

The memories of WEBH-FM come from three people who worked there.

Russ Butler has shared reminiscences of the station on-line and in personal e-mails, while Adam Langer, in his 1989 Chicago Reader articles on the Edgewater Beach Hotel, interviewed the late John Schlimmer and Ken Alexander. Ken also shared memories online and on the phone.

Chicago native Ken Alexander was working for the locally famous hi-fi store Musicraft when he got his start in radio as an unpaid part-time announcer/engineer at WEBH-FM, which led to a paid position with the station as his weekend hours expanded. His on-air exposure at WEBH-FM led to a long association with Chicago stations WAIT (popular music) and WNIB (classical music).

Russ Butler, like Mathews and Hassel, built and operated his own ham radio station as a teenager. While in high school, he interned at Boston’s public radio station WGBH. While attending Northwestern’s School of Speech, he worked at several Chicago radio stations for free to expand his resume. His subsequent career involved public and commercial radio all over the U.S. and in Canada.

The version of this article on the Edgewater History Society website will provide information on the major sources for this article, the majority of which are websites created and maintained by dedicated amateur radio historians. Their willingness to devoting hours of time to transcribing and uploading a wealth of accessible primary source documents far outstrips the offerings of established media institutions.