Hollywood, USA

The National Broadcasting Company originally used the phrase Radio City to describe their studios at Rockefeller Center in New York City.  When NBC opened their new Hollywood studios at Sunset and Vine in 1938, they placed the words  Radio City prominently on the front of their new building.  However, the area between Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard on Vine Street became known as Radio City for tourists and locals alike who visited the many radio studios and radio themed cocktail lounges and businesses in the area.

For a generation in the 1940′s and 1950′s, Hollywood was Radio City.

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Once, radio was king.

That was long ago and almost unknown to those who don’t remember it first hand. Radio was the first medium that brought live entertainment into the homes of Americans across the country.  Families rushed home from work to listen to their favorite shows broadcast into their living rooms and parlors.  Movie stars, that they watched on the silver screen in neighborhood theaters, were now invited into their homes.

In the early days, when boys built crystal sets to hear the crackling sounds of far away broadcasts, audiences were less sophisticated.  They could believe that Martian invaders were actually attacking earth, because Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air told them so.

When audiences discovered that radio shows were created in studios with sound effect men, technicians, writers, announcers, bandleaders and the stars,  script in  hand, speaking into microphones, their imagination was not diminished.  Alan Ladd could hop a plane, fly around the world, apprehend criminals and return to police headquarters in time to save the life of an innocent girl, all in the space of half an hour, without  leaving the studio. The magic that was radio was never lost on audiences.

But where were these factories of fabrication and fantasy, where Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson and many more assembled to entertain America in the 1930′s and he 1940′s?

Why, Hollywood, USA, of course.

Chapter 1 ~ Hollywood and Radio

1938

By the late 1930′s,  Hollywood California was famous around the world as the movie capitol.  It was also home to all the major radio studios  that broadcast coast to coast some of the great personalities of the day, including Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Amos and Andy  and Bob Hope.  The area around Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street was coming of age. There was still room to build and the  entertainment industry did just that.

The National Broadcasting Company, after moving from New York to San Francisco, opened it’s new Moderne studios at the intersection of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, California.

A block away, the Columbia Broadcasting System opened it’s new modern studios at Columbia Square.  Across the street, on December 26, Earl Carroll opened his premier nightclub and restaurant, with the glamorous neon sign proclaiming, “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world.”

The Hollywood Palladium opened two years later between NBC and CBS, with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, featuring band singer Frank Sinatra. Across Vine Street, on the northwest corner of Sunset and Vine, sat Music City and Capitol Records, operated by bothers Glenn and Clyde Wallich.

The American Broadcasting Corporation set up shop a few doors north on Vine Street.  Up the street was the Radio Room, Club Morocco, Mike Lyman’s and the famous Tom Breneman’s Breakfast in Hollywood restaurant. Even further up Vine, just before Hollywood Boulevard, Clara Bow operated her restaurant, the It Café.  Across the street,  south of the Boulevard, was the world famous Vine Street Brown Derby, more restaurants and bars, and at Selma Avenue, the RCA building. Further south, at the end of the block, at the intersection of Vine Street and Sunset Boulevard stood the radio flagship studio, NBC Radio City.

It was a glorious year, 1938, for Hollywood and for radio. And, while NBC called their new studios Radio City, the entire area became famous across America and around the world.

Chapter 5 ~ The Black Dahlia

Jack Carson & Elizabeth Short

Live radio programs drew audiences from all over the country to see their favorite stars in person.  Among those who queued up to see the shows was a pretty, 22 year year old girl from Medford, Massachusetts, who arrived in Hollywood in July of 1946.  Elizabeth Short, who never seemed to settle long at any one address,  moved from hotel to hotel and stayed with friends at their homes.  For awhile, she lived at the home of Mark Hansen on Carlos Avenue in Hollywood. Hansen owned the Marcal Theatre and the Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. He lived behind the theater in his house.

Elizabeth didn’t own a car, but it was a short walk to Gower Street at the end of the block and another few blocks to Sunset Boulevard and the CBS studios.  Brittingham’s Radio Center Restaurant was located close by in Columbia Square and was a popular hangout for Elizabeth and her friends and the radio crowd.

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In 1946, in Chicago, a gruesome murder was discovered when the body parts of a little girl were found in sewers around the mean streets of the Windy City.  The death of little Suzanne Degnan, a six year old girl from a good home in Chicago, startled the city and brought about the arrest of William Heirens, a 17 year old University of Chicago student, for murder.

Elizabeth Short was obsessed with the murder of Suzanne that summer. On her way to the west coast, she spent ten days in Chicago in July, 1946 and talked incessantly about the child’s death.

The Los Angeles Examiner reported that Freddie Woods, a 23 year old man who claimed to be friends with Elizabeth, revealed that she was fascinated with the brutal slaying of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan.  Woods said he met her in Chicago during her brief stay. According to the newspaper article, she told him that she was a Massachusetts reporter covering the Heirens story. He was quoted as saying, “Elizabeth Short was one of the prettiest girls I ever met.” “But she was terribly preoccupied with the details of the Degnan murder.”

Jack Egger remembered the day when Elizabeth, accompanied by an unidentified man, came to see a Jack Carson radio program at CBS.  He remembered being sick in bed on New Years Eve, and seeing her soon afterwards. He narrowed the dates down to January 2 or January 8, 1947.

Eggers was employed as head usher by the Columbia Broadcasting Network in Hollywood from 1941 until June, 1948, with time off for military service beginning in June, 1945.  He remembered Elizabeth as a frequent guest in the radio audiences. He said he saw her at least 20 times, usually alone, but once with a man who showed a Chicago Police Badge and was given the courtesy of early seating at the Jack Carson show shortly after New Years day, 1947. Egger remembered the occasion, because, he had never seen her with anyone before.

Six months after the murder and dismemberment of Suzanne Degnan, Elizabeth Short’s naked body was found in a lot on a side street in Los Angeles, brutally tortured and severed in half at the waist. Her killer was never found and her murder remains unsolved.

William Heirnes, confessed to the Degnan murder and two others in 1946 and died in custody in 2012.

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By the end of 1947 there were 1,962 radio stations on the air in the United States.  1947 would be the last year that radio reigned supreme over the airwaves. Television, the new medium, was already finding it’s way into American homes and would change the entertainment habits almost overnight in a few short years.

Chapter 6 ~ The Neighborhood

Hollywood, USA

The area surround Vine Street, between Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard in the late 1930′s and through the early 1960′s was home to radio performers and visitors came from all over the country to sit in the studios and watch live radio programs and see Hollywood landmarks.

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Vine Street was home to famous restaurants and cocktail bars, from the Brown Derby to Clara Bow’s It Cafe.  Tom Breneman, mayor of Encino, was host to Breakfast in Hollywood, a daily program broadcast from his restaurant. There was the Conga Room, Al Levy’s Tavern, Club Morocco, the Tropics.  Near Hollywood and Vine were the Pantages Theatre and the El Capitan, home to Ken Murray’s Black Outs.

It was a time and a place where radio touched everyone.  If you weren’t sitting at home listening to your favorite programs, you might be walking down Vine Street, passing the stars you just heard on the  air.  Night spots broadcast live performances while diners sat at tables and in booths.  Tourists might stop in the Radio Room or De Vine at the Greyhound bus depot where writers  huddled around cocktails planning next week’s program.  Tom Breneman had a line outside his Breakfast in Hollywood restaurant on Vine, where every day tourists dropped in for a meal and entertainment.  Brittingham’s in Columbia Square was a favorite of industry professionals and the general public.

If you were an out of town visitor and looking for a place to stay, there was always the Radio Motel on Sunset.  It was virtually impossible not to be touched by radio in Hollywood in the 1940′s and early 1950′s.  Ralph Edwards of Truth or Consequences and later This is your life, enjoyed an extended lunch at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard almost daily, sitting in his own booth where a telephone was installed for his personal use.

When television changed things forever, radio gradually took a back seat and studios converted to the new medium.  Radio City slowly became Television City and then branched out to other areas, leaving Hollywood and the nightlife to find a new incarnation. Radio turned to rock roll and restaurants and nightclubs closed or changed to meet a new era.

 

Chapter 7 ~ Wallich’s Music City

21 Listening Booths

Glenn Wallich was a great innovator in the record industry.  He founded Wallich’s Music City at Sunset and Vine in 1940.  Two years later, he opened Capitol Records in the same building.  Music City operated at the same location for over 40 years and became renowned for offering the most complete sellection of new records in the country. Glenn and his brother Clyde, were instrumental in providing personal service and a new concept in record merchandising. The entire sales floor was stocked with demonstration records that patrons could take into  private listening booths and sample before purchasing. After selecting a record, the customer would take the demo record to a sales clerk and exhange it for a new, unplayed copy. All long play records were sold in shrink wrap, another innovation of Music City.  Wallich’s sold records at list price, although discount shops would pop up in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The store would stay open until the 1980′s, until the neighborhood and tastes began to change.  With the opening of Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, where “serve your self” was king, Wallich’s fell to new marketing strategies.  In it’s day,  Music City was the mecca for music lovers and celebrities.  The store welcomed customers in the morning and stayed open until 2:00 am. Those who remember the 1950′s and 1960′s will recall the famous radio jingle, “It’s Music City, Sunset and Vine,” introduced by singers such as Bing Crosby and  Perry Como and many more. Through the years, local radio personalities, from Jack Bailey, Dick Whitinghill, Wink Marindale, Gary Owens, B. Mitchell Reed and others roamed through the record store, sometimes broadcasting from a makeshift studio behind the store windows on Vine.

Over the years, Wallich’s added new merchandise, selling televisions, stereo components, musical instruments and concert tickets.  Teenagers lined up for their turn to play records at one of the 21 listening booths, selecting the latest hits from the KFWB  top 40 list, while adults might play the latest Sinatra recordings. Movie stars were seen thumbing through the bins for records  found only at Music City.  Burt Lancaster often spent an afternoon searching through the opera section, while Herb Alpert would ask clerks to check the sales on his latest Tijuana Brass  album.  Johnny Mathis would drop by after midnight and hang out with the clerks.  Comedian Red Skelton spent an hour behind the singles record counter one Saturday afternoon buzzing customers through the turnstiles to the listening booths. Rock Hudson would come by late at night when the store was quiet and Christmas shop. The Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Mamas and Papas all shopped at Wallich’s.  Johnny Rivers, while playing to sold-out crowds at the Whiskey a Go Go, would shop at Music City during the afternoon.

Wallich’s was more than a record store. It was a place to meet friends, listen to records and hang out.  Managers Darryl Stabile and Hugh McCurley insured that every customer that walked into the store was approached and offered assistance.  Music City was a time and place that passed through the lives of many, relegated now to memory.

Chapter 8 ~ Tempus Fugit

Radio City Today

By the late 1960′s, when the cultural revolution was changing the way we lived, the area known as radio city was slipping away. The pale green Streamline Moderne masterpiece that was NBC studios had been razed and replaced by and an uninspired box that was Great Western Savings. NBC Radio City at Sunset and Vine had lasted a mere quarter of a century.

Time passed and monuments to radio’s glory days began to disappear.  By the dawn of the 21st Century, Wallich’s Music City was torn down and replaced with a strip mall of undisguised ugliness.  CBS at Columbia Square was boarded up and shuttered to the public.  Earl Carroll’s gorgeous nightclub went through many changes over time. After Carroll died in an airplane crash in 1948, the nightclub was sold and turned into Frank Sennis’ Moulin Rouge, the new home to the television show, Queen for a Day in the early 1950′s.  Later, the building became the Aquarius Theatre, showcasing the 1960′s musical, Hair. In later incarnations, the building was transformed into Kaleidoscope and later Nickelodeon.

The neighborhood had changed dramatically.  The northwest corner of Sunset and Vine, after the death of the strip mall, became home to another ugly conglomeration of shops, restaurants and low income housing.  Border’s book store stands on the site of the old Wallich’s Music City. Tom Breneman’s restaurant, which later became ABC studios, was torn down and is now a Bed and Bath.

Across the street, the Brown Derby suffered a ravishing fire, was razed and became a parking lot. Today, the site hosts a  new hotel with a Trader Joe’s market on the corner at Selma Avenue.  Hatton’s restaurant changed hands, becoming the Vine Street Bar and Grill and later the Lucky Seven, and finally Daddy’s, before being torn down altogether.  The RCA building on Vine Street was razed years ago and the studios moved to a new building east of Wallich’s Music City on Sunset Boulevard.

The Tropics restaurant disappeared decades ago. Alexander’s Stationeers moved to Cahuenga and later closed. Sy Devore’s, a favorite haberdashery of Steve Allen and many other celebrities, quietly closed it’s doors and faded into Hollywood history.  The Radio Room, the Firefly, The Office, all bars that catered to radio personalities and audiences, are long gone.  The Spotlight, another bar just north of  Music City, moved to its current location on Cahuenga in 1963.

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In August, 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported:

“Microphones at the last radio station in Hollywood will go dead as announcers and newscasters complete their final on-air shift at the historic Columbia Square broadcast center.

“The relocation of Los Angeles’  first radio station, KNX-AM (1070), to new studios in Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile area will end an 85-year tradition of radio broadcasting in the place that bills itself as the world’s center of entertainment.

“Over the years, Hollywood has been home to 68 radio stations and nine television stations. In the last few years, five television stations have left.”

The facade of the venerable Palladium was restyled in the 1950′s and became home to the Lawrence Welk television show for years.  It was restored to it’s original look recently and now stands as one of  the last monuments to radio’s golden era. Today, it looks just as it did when Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra opened the theater dance hall on October 31, 1940.

Times change, and with time, institutions and landmarks are turned back to dust, to be remembered in old newspaper clippings, fading photographs and memories.

Tempus fugit.

Goodbye Radio City Hollywood

In 2005, the final radio program from Radio City was made by newscasters and announcers at KNX (1070).  The studios in Columbia Square on Sunset Bouleveard were closed and the operation moved to Wilshire Boulevard.

Once, there were 68 radio stations in Hollywood.  KNX was the first and the last  in Hollywood. After 85 years of broadcasting in the grand tradition, Hollywood was finished with radio.