Before television there was radio

Baltimore Glimpses

January 26, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

WON'T you tr-y-y-y Wheaties,

Jack Armstrong never tires of it and neither will you.

Radio station WITH will soon abandon its present big-band, golden oldies format in favor of what is loosely called children's programming.

Sad as it is to learn of the disappearance from local airwaves of this rich and nostalgic musical fare, if the new format manages to engage children in the imaginative experience ("theater of the mind") of radio at its best, something good may yet result. And old-timers will remember their childhood days around the radio afternoons and Saturday mornings.

The programming changed with the decades, Jack Armstrong giving way to the Green Hornet and so on. In the 1930s, no fewer than four Baltimore stations (there was no FM) carried children's programming after 3 p.m. weekdays: WCAO (600), WCBM (680), WBAL (1090) and WFBR (1300). The programs were serialized dramas written for, about and (in some cases) acted out by children, in 15-minute segments.

Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys,

Show them how we stand . . .

Remember Jack Armstrong, the a-l-l-l-l American boy? On WCAO at 5:30, Jack had it all. He was the most popular guy in Hudson High. He had good looks, he was a star athlete, he got good grades, and he loved his flag and his country. His life was a model for all of America's children.

And if they sent in their Wheaties box tops, they could get Jack's secret whistle, along with his secret whistle code.

Who's that little chatter box?

The one with pretty auburn locks?

Who [sic] do you see?

It's Little Orphan Annie.

Remember Little Orphan Annie, foster daughter of Daddy Warbucks (WBAL, 5:30 p.m.)? This red-haired child had the wisdom of an aged adult, and she dispensed it often. As still today in the comics, she was accompanied by her dog Sandy ("Arf! Arf!"), helping those whom life had dealt a bad hand. Ovaltine was her sponsor, and if you sent in enough Ovaltine labels, you could get an Annie cup, or ring, or bracelet.

Wilma, check your equipment.

You mean my Spectrometer and Super Radiating Prontonoformer?

Remember "Buck Rogers In the 25th Century" (WCAO, 6 p.m.)? Life for Buck and the very lovely Wilma Deering was a relentless chase through space after the villain Killer Kane. Kids (or, rather, their parents) could buy Buck Rogers pistols, books and rocket ships at toy stores. (Never let it be said that Nintendo's merchandising is a new concept.)

Every Saturday morning on these same radio stations during these same years, the "kiddie clubs" broadcast talent shows live from the stages of the Hippodrome, Century and Keith's in downtown Baltimore. The masters of ceremony were always called "Uncle" something -- Uncle Jack, Uncle George.

The kids, from about ages 6 to 12, would sing or dance or play an instrument -- and the performance would reach the other kids out there in pre-television radioland. Reading this Glimpses, many a would-be star or starlet must be recalling his or her brilliant moment tap dancing to "Bye Bye Blues" or one of the other hits of the day. (Some of them actually did go on to show business careers -- the Baron twins, "Pepper" Asner, Mary Small, Gladys Beck, Sammy Ross.)

Generations of Baltimoreans are richer by far because as children they were able to tune in on their radios and indulge their imaginations listening to the life and times of Jack Armstrong, Little Orphan Annie and Buck Rogers.

As a Tibetan monk said to Jack Armstrong in 1939:

Tell the boys and girls of the United States that the world is theirs. Will you tell them that, Jack Armstrong?

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