Editor’s Note: Eshrink (my dad) was motivated to chronicle his childhood memories by his son Peter (my brother), who is a history buff. My brother and I both think there is immense value to have an account of everyday life during The Great Depression and WWII: the decades when the people who have been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” grew up. In Part 2, Eshrink recounted conversations between his dad and friends that he overheard while the men met to help each other find work during the Depression. He also told us about his near death experience when he fell into the Licking River as a little boy. In this post (Part 3) Eshrink tells us about his other near-death experience and gives us a glimpse into the entertainment world of the 1930s.
The Way It Was: Part 3
In addition to the near drowning experience, I had another close call as a child. While not as dramatic, this event was equally frightening for those who witnessed it. I had accompanied my Grandfather to Reilly’s store in the village which was a short walk from my grandparent’s farmhouse. Mr. Reilly had given me something of which I was very proud, I think it may have been a banana (which was considered a luxurious item in those days). Grandad was always careful to walk facing approaching traffic due to his hearing problems, which proved to be a problem in this case since we were walking on the side of the road that was opposite from the house. The entire family was sitting on the porch and I was eager to show them my new-found treasure. I managed to break away from my grandfather’s hand and started across the road just in time to collide head on to the front fender of an oncoming car and was just seconds away from being run over. The next thing I saw was Dr. Wells standing over me as I lay on the couch in the parlor (a room that was ordinarily reserved for important events) announcing that I would be just fine while expressing concern about my Grandfather who still hadn’t recovered from fainting.
All the recent discoveries about the long-term effects of concussion leave me wondering if that brain rattling experience may explain a lot about me. Perhaps it can be an excuse for the previous paragraphs of autobiographical meanderings when this paper was to be about historical events. But perhaps you can take comfort in knowing that narcissism is not exclusive to our nation’s capital. In any event, I will take pains to avoid further digression and proceed with the topics Peter suggested. While my close call with the fender of the car wasn’t newsworthy enough to make the radio, I will attempt to explain the importance of that media (and others) as I remember it as a young boy.
How Radio Changed Our Lives
In previous blogs, I have written about journalism. The rise of radio in my day challenged newspapers in the business of reporting the news much as has TV, and more currently the internet, does today. Nightly radio newscasters became famous and the networks competed for listeners. Since FM came along much later, we only had AM radio with sporadic reception that was affected by atmospheric conditions. During thunderstorms, static made listening impossible. At times, one could listen to a station hundreds of miles away. Other times we would have trouble tuning to a station across town. Some stations were licensed to give a stronger signal strength than others. I recall listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, which was the first commercial station to be licensed. Radio was still in its infancy during my childhood, but rapidly became an essential part of our lives.
Entertainment| Soap Operas + After-School Programming
The standard status symbol of the 1930s was a Zenith or Fairbanks-Morse radio. There were many styles of table models, and very large console models for the affluent or ostentatious. There was something for everyone.
As previously mentioned, we had both local and international news. For kids, there were after school programs like The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Terry and the Pirates, The Shadow, and The Thin Man to name a few. For women, there were daytime soap operas which were serialized so that viewers could look forward to listening to the exploits of their heroines daily. Even those moms committed to 24-hour service to their families planned their daily activities around the schedule of their favorite soap opera, and friends knew not to call during that time frame. Among the more popular ones were The Guiding Light, Ma Perkins, and General Hospital. If you were listening to a baseball game at one of those times you were best advised to leave the premises.
Sports fans were able to hear play-by-play descriptions of their favorite teams and players. A new profession called sportscasting emerged as people talented in describing the action became as famous as the players. Ronald Reagan was one who got his start in show business calling baseball games. At a time when things looked bad, many looked for a hero to follow. This was the time of Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis for whom some records still stand. Everyone loved “the Babe.” Sadly, support for the Brown Bomber (Joe Louis), the guy who was heavyweight champion for 12 years, winning 66 of 69 fights 52 by knock outs was lacking. I am saddened to confess that even as a child I was one of those bigots who wished for a “great white hope” to defeat him. Championship fights were promoted vigorously and supplanted normal programming. All ears would be immersed in the action, and we could almost feel every blow. Radio forced us to use our imagination to picture the action in much the same manner as books do. Indeed, I believe there is some truth to the idea that television has helped to “dumb down” us viewers.
Fireside Chats from the White House
Radio had been ignored as a political tool, but Roosevelt was to change that. Soon after taking office he initiated a series of broadcasts which would come to be called fireside chats. The first one, delivered only a couple of months following his election, was designed to reassure the country and outline his plans to deal with the country’s financial crisis His informal style of speaking was well received, even by republicans, and subsequent broadcasts would be carried on all of the networks throughout his presidency. They were particularly useful in maintaining morale during the dark days of the horrible war soon to come. Somehow, we were among the 40 percent of families to have a radio. Consequently; we usually had as many interlopers show up for the fireside chats as we did for the Joe Louis fights. As for me, I recall being angry that all this furor kept me from listening to my favorite show: Gangbusters.
Movie Theatres: The Great Escape
Radio was marvelous until movies came along to completely capture hearts. Talkies were fairly new to the scene in the 30s, but they soon became our ultimate divorce from reality. Movie stars became the rich and famous at a time when poverty was the norm. It has been said that the enormous appeal of movies may have been related to their ability to allow us to remove ourselves from the misery and hopelessness that we witnessed continuously during those days when hope was in short supply. The venue itself, sitting in a darkened theater, allowed us to totally immerse ourselves almost as if we were living the story we watched. I suppose that might be why television never supplanted movies as many predicted during the early days of TV.
In a previous blog, I mentioned that when I was a kid there were five movie theaters in our town where less than 30,000 souls resided. One of the theaters was ornately decorated with frescoes and thick carpet. It even had a pipe organ which during sing-a-longs would miraculously arise from the orchestra pit. During intermission, the audience was encouraged to sing and follow the “bouncing ball” as it followed the lyrics that were projected on the screen. They employed a fulltime organist in addition to a projectionist, ticket takers, and ushers. Movies were shown continually, and one could be seated at any time and stay as long as he wanted (a boon to those homeless folks who could scare up a quarter and manage to look a bit tidy). It was common to arrive in the middle of a movie and stay to watch the part missed. Summer attendance at the movies was bolstered by the presence of air conditioning since it was the only place in town where it could be found.
The format of those movies was different, but predictable. Following the previews there was a newsreel where the audience could actually witness what they had been reading about in their local papers. This was always followed by a cartoon. One of our theaters specialized in western movies. They had taken a page from the soap opera writers, and added a short serial movie to the main feature which would end with the hero in crisis followed by a caption to return next week to see the conclusion. Of course, the next week’s episode would end in another crisis, and kids would immediately start planning how they could find a dime for the next episode.
My First Movie
The first movie I saw was “Mutiny on the Bounty.” It was by far the most amazing experience of my young life and I still have vivid memories of that marvelous day. I recently looked up the date of the
movie’s release and found that I was only five years old. It was made even more spectacular by the fact that my Uncle Don took me (my mother’s younger brother). We even stopped at a downtown soda fountain where I had a cherry flavored fountain coke. Uncle Don was my hero. He was Mr. everything, an excellent student and outstanding athlete. I marveled at how he threw 100-pound sacks of feed around as if they were bags of feathers. He was very soft spoken and modest, which was the Van Horn family’s style. For example, when he graduated from high school as valedictorian and with multiple medals for his athletic accomplishments, his Mother was asked why she didn’t seem more proud of him. She replied that she was proud, but she didn’t like to see people “going around bragging.”
A night at the movies was a fairly cheap date. Tickets were 25 cents and with a buck a guy could have enough left to have chocolates sundaes at the nearest soda fountain. The problem was that many young men only made a dollar a day. According to Wikipedia there was a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour in the 1930s; however, I am sure most employers paid little attention to that.
Throughout those darkest days Dad would take any work available and he was not shy about professing to be an expert at whatever chore was available. He billed himself as an expert wallpaper hanger in spite of never having done it before. I recall sitting on the floor watching as Mom pasted and he struggled to get the paper in place. In 1936, FDR provided another opportunity by establishing the Rural Electrification Administration with a goal of providing electric service throughout the country. Over 90% of rural residents were without electricity and their use of kerosene for light and heat made Rockefeller one of the richest men in the world long before gasoline was the predominant petroleum product. The REA as it was called soon began stretching wires to the far reaches of the US, and true to form Dad declared himself master electrician and was soon busy wiring houses.
The year 1936 stands out to me. Maybe because it was my first year in school. I also remember our neighbor across the street bought a brand new shiny black Chevrolet. I don’t recall what he did for a living, but I do recall his position was rare enough that it produced envy throughout the neighborhood. Another major event that year, which would be unthinkable now, was when my Dad confronted that neighbor about an alleged affair. My Father was never reticent about expressing his feelings, even though many would suggest he mind his own business. The other big event of 1936 was the Olympic Games. Specifically, the performance of Jesse Owens. His ability to put Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy to shame was wildly applauded even though “he were a nigger” (sorry to offend, but that is the way it was in those days). Later, I would watch multiple news reel accounts of Jesse Owens at the Olympics. My hero Uncle Don would tell the story of how he was congratulated by some black guy when he won the 440 in the State High School track competition. When he asked someone who that guy was, he was told it was Jesse Owens.