Monday is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, with each Monday featuring a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of legends related to radio and the people “behind the microphone,” so to speak, and whether they are true or false.
RADIO LEGEND: David Sarnoff stayed on the telegraph for three days straight getting the first details of the Titanic sinking.
STATUS: Mostly False
As horrific of a tragedy the sinking of the Titanic was, it turned out to be a major boom for the future of radio.
At the time of the Titanic sinking, wireless communication was only just beginning to become a major tool, particularly for naval vessels, who could use telegraphs to communicate with people at great distances.
That any of the passengers of the Titanic survived the sinking was due entirely to the fact that the ocean liner Carpathia picked up the wireless transmissions of the Titanic’s two Wireless Operators (who continued transmitting until they literally could not do it any longer).
This, coupled with the fact that the ship closest to the Titanic, the Californian, did not stop to help because their Wireless Operators were asleep and their wireless station shut down, was a major success, of sorts, for the American division of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
It proved the impressive utility of wireless communication, and it did so in a massive news story with the whole world paying attention.
While surely the radio industry would have eventually started ANYways, this definitely gave it a jump start.
One person that this ALSO gave a jump start to was a young Marconi Wireless worker named David Sarnoff.
According to the American Jewish Historical Society:
In America, twenty-one year old David Sarnoff stayed at his wireless telegraph listening post atop the Wanamaker department store in New York for seventy-two uninterrupted hours, relaying to newspapers and frantic family members news of the sinking. His diligence made his career – and assured the future of radio communication.
They then quote Sarnoff himself as saying:
I felt my responsibility keenly, and weary though I was, could not have slept. … Much of the time, I sat there with nothing coming in. It seemed that the whole anxious world was attached by my earphones during the seventy-two hours I crouched tensely in the station. I sat for hours — listening. Now we began to get the names of some of those who were known to have gone down. This was worse than the other list had been — heartbreaking in its finality, a death-knell to hope. I passed the information on to a sorrowing world, and when messages ceased to come in, fell down like a log at my place and slept the clock around.
Do note that this version of the story is already changed from the ORIGINAL version of the story, which was that Sarnoff was the FIRST person to get wireless transmissions regarding the Titanic. This one we know is plainly false, as A. The Wanamaker store was closed on Sunday nights when the transmissions were taking place and B. A Newfoundland wireless station was the first place to receive transmissions regarding the Titanic. In fact, they received transmissions FROM the Titanic (via a relay from another ship).
That one is so plainly false that it has mostly been ignored in favor of the “Sarnoff tirelessly stayed there for three days as the lone connection to the story and he became known across the world for his heroism” tale.
As to THAT tale…
Well, first off, telegraph operators Jack Binns and J.H. Hughes were also there.
Secondly, by 1912, Sarnoff actually was a manager of the telegraph operators.
Thirdly, only one newspaper account of the tragedy even MENTIONED Sarnoff and Wanamaker (a New York Times article), and that account just mentioned that Hughes was unable to establish direct communication. Nothing about Sarnoff and nothing about the supposed great role that Wanamaker played in the tragedy.
In fact, there are records that contradict later claims of Sarnoff that the President shut down other wireless stations to allow Wanamaker station to concentrate on getting the news. Said records show that while yes, stations WERE shut down for said reason, Wanamaker was actually one of the stations that WAS shut down (temporarily, but still)!
Looking at all the evidence, it is likely that yes, Sarnoff was at Wanamaker as soon as he heard the news of the Titanic sinking, and yes, he likely stayed at the station for days, as, well, why wouldn’t he? This was a major news story, so if you could be involved (especially if you were a guy as ambitious as Sarnoff) – why wouldn’t you?
But it seems more likely, from the fact that he was a manager at the time and that the only news article we have of the time mentioning him mentions HUGHES at the wireless, that Sarnoff spent those three days mostly in a managerial capacity.
This is not a shot at Sarnoff. He was dedicated to his job, and he was soon rewarded with a promotion by Marconi. But the only accounts we have of Sarnoff’s heroics on the day come from Sarnoff himself.
Soon after the Titanic tragedy, wireless communication on ships were made to be 24/7, which was a major boon for Marconi and other wireless companies. Eventually, commercial radio became a reality in America, and David Sarnoff was a major part of it. At the newly formed Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Sarnoff was soon hired on and he rose in the ranks until he became a major executive at the corporation and helped to launch RCA’s first radio network, National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
In 1930, Sarnoff became President of RCA.
Over the next few decades, Sarnoff was a major pioneer in various forms of media, helping to push for the development of the television industry, most primarily.
Sarnoff would become so famous and so successful that his recollections of his days at the telegraph bringing in news of the Titanic were deemed unassailable. And in fact, by the time he died in 1971, no one had actually questioned his story. Magazine and newspapers did stories on his early days, never noting that all of them were using the same source as the basis for their pieces – that source? Sarnoff himself.
David Sarnoff was a great pioneer in the field of media, but he was also a great self-promoter, and he did a wonderful job creating a myth that still exists today.
Thanks to Evan I. Schwartz’s The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television for a lot of great research regarding Sarnoff’s role in the events of the day.
RADIO LEGEND: Pat Weaver came up with the trademark description of The NBC Monitor on the fly when being pestered by reporters.
STATUS: Apparently True
The NBC Monitor was a radio program that basically saved NBC Radio in a time when radio was deemed on its way out with the advent of television.
The show almost defied definition, as NBC (Radio and TV) President Pat Weaver came up with the idea of developing a weekend program that would put together the best minds available to NBC and producing quick bits of news and infotainment that would last the whole weekend. It would work so that no matter when you turned to the program, you would be able to get SOMEthing interesting to listen to.
It was seen as a bizarre gambit by Weaver at a time when radio stations were locked into general 30 minute or 60 minute shows, but it definitely paid off.
Basically, it is the same principle Weaver used on television for NBC’s Today Show (which still goes on today). You just use up blocks of time with interesting people and viewers will tune in. Soon, basically every radio station affiliate across the country were “on the Monitor Beacon.”
The show was introduced with an otherworldly sound called the Monitor Beacon (it would also be used to transition out of station breaks).
In any event, as you might imagine, it was difficult for Pat Weaver to describe a show that would have, say, X minutes of an old-time radio show then X minutes of visiting a Celebrity Chef then X minutes of straight news then X minutes of Bob and Ray doing a comedy routine then the weather (done in a breathy, sexy voice by “Miss Monitor,” played by actress Tedi Thurman) then X amount of minutes of live jazz.
So when he first described the show to affiliates on Friday, April 1, 1955, the affiliates must have felt that this was some sort of April Fool’s joke by Weaver! While they did not fully grasp the concept all that well, Weaver had an even tougher time when he debuted the concept to reporters in a press conference a few days later.
It is there that Weaver actually came up with the phrase that would forever be connected to the Monitor – and he did it on the fly!
We went through all of the vignettes and the personalities and the philosophy of extension and personal magnetism, all the different little pieces we were putting together in this little mosaic, and finally one of the chaps from the press got up and in what I considered to be a somewhat surly way and said, “Look, can’t you just tell us what this program is in two words?” And I looked at him and I said, “Yes, it’s a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria,” which of course broke up the group.
It might have amused the reporters, but it also caught on.
A bunch of the papers repeated that phrase in their articles the next day, and soon it would be the phrase that would follow the Monitor along, and it certainly does describe the Monitor!!
By the 1970s, though, even as the Monitor tried to bring in big-name younger personalities, such as Don Imus, radio stations were going more and more into two areas that basically crippled the concept of the Monitor…
1. Stations wanted to be identified by ONE thing – whether it be talk radio or music, whichever, they wanted to be the station that was X and Monitor, of course, was ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
2. Stations wanted local disc jockeys who could gather a cult following of their own (with the hope, of course, of then syndicating said disc jockey themSELVES).
This made the Monitor a bit obsolete, and by the time in folded (after already cutting back its air time dramatically), it was still in over 100 markets, but basically none of the major ones.
Still, it was a wonderful ride while it lasted, and it certainly was a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria!
Thanks to Dennis Hart’s awesome Monitor (Take 2): The revised, expanded inside story of network radio’s greatest program for the Weaver quote.
RADIO LEGEND: Life of Riley was originally a Groucho Marx vehicle!
STATUS: Basically True
While it may be true for movies, as well, the media of Radio and Television seem to be places where the following statement is particularly true – strong performances (or, in the alternative, strong personalities) can often make the difference between a show being a classic and a show being forgotten.
A great example of this phenomenon is the classic early situation comedy from 1941 (and likely THE original situation comedy, at least in how we think of the term today), Life of Riley.
The show is basically a generic sitcom, with its sole distinguihsing plot characteristic being that it is about lower middle-class people in New York City, specifically a wing riveter at an Aircraft plant named Chester A. Riley.
The title “Life of Riley” is play on the phrase “Living the life of Riley,” which means living an expensive lifestyle (this, of course, was meant as an ironic title).
While the only distinguishable plot characteristic was the setting of the sitcom, the one thing that REALLY set it apart was its star, veteran movie character actor, William Bendix.
In the able hands (and voice) of Bendix, Riley was kept from turning into an insufferable lout, which the character easily could have turned into. Riley did not have the depth of, say, a Ralph Kramden or an Archie Bunker, but Bendix still kept him grounded in life enough that listeners could root for the guy. The addition of John Brown’s gravedigger character Digby O’Dell, really sold the show, making it a permanent hit. It was even one of the rare radio hits that continued as a major hit on television (the first version of the television show had Riley played by none other than the future Ralph Cramden himself, Jackie Gleason) with Bendix playing the character on television until his death in 1964.
Here’s an ad for the show from one of their first sponsor, the American Meat Institute…
Amazingly enough, though, the Life of Riley almost never existed, because it was based on a failed pilot that originally starred Groucho Marx!
The idea of lower middle class situation comedy was first developed by Irving Brecher to star Groucho Marx as the head of the family. It was titled The Flotsam Family. Marx played against type a bit by playing the role completely straight, as a real actor. That displeased the potential sponsor for the series, who just could not buy Marx as the character. So the pilot episode was all that was made.
After seeing Bendix in a film, though, Brecher came up with the idea of revamping the show to be about a Bendix-esque character, and, the rest is history.
It was basically the opposite of Bendix’s Riley’s most famous catchphrase (which lives on today in the pages of the Fantastic Four via Ben Grimm, the Thing), “What a revoltin’ development dis is!”
Commenter Flo mentions that a co-biography of Irving Brecher just came out (sadly, Mr. Brecher passed away before its release) called The Wicked Wit of the West: The last great Golden-Age screenwriter shares the hilarity and heartaches of working with Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny and many more. Hank Rosenfeld wrote it with Brecher.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments, particularly other themes for future grab bag Mondays! My e-mail address is email@example.com