Peter Balcerak, 97, clerk for the B&O for 47 years

January 28, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Peter Balcerak, a retired Baltimore & Ohio Railroad clerk who participated in the first nationwide broadcast of a radio program from a moving train in the early 1930s, died of Alzheimer's disease Friday at College Manor nursing home in Lutherville. The former Northeast Baltimore resident was 97.

A city native who was raised on Essex Street in Fells Point, Mr. Balcerak cut short his public school education to help support his family but later earned his General Educational Development diploma at City College.

His career with the B&O spanned 47 years, starting in 1923 as a freight shipping clerk. He later became chief clerk to C.M. Shriver, superintendent of the railroad's Baltimore division.

In early 1932, Columbia Broadcasting System engineers, in conjunction with B&O officials, selected a 30-mile stretch of track between Washington and Baltimore to test the feasibility of a live radio broadcast from a passenger train.

"They had to consider such things as tunnels, signal bridges and nearby high-tension lines, all of which were sources of possible radio interference," Mr. Balcerak, who worked on the project, wrote in a 1962 article for the Sun Magazine.

"A control station was set up at Laurel. Here the signals from all three pick-up points were listened to continuously, and the best one at any given moment was relayed on to network headquarters in New York by special telephone line," he wrote. "Another short-wave transmitter was in the Laurel office to relay instructions to radio engineers on the train."

A rolling radio studio was installed in the Molly Pitcher, one of the railroad's dining cars, which was also air-conditioned - a rarity then. The car's furniture was temporarily removed and the walls were hung with heavy velour drapes to "reduce the effect of vibration," The Sun reported in a 1932 article.

"The amplifying equipment and short-wave transmitter were set up in the kitchen and pantry of the car. Power to run the equipment came from storage batteries. Two antennae were installed on the roof," wrote Mr. Balcerak.

On the evening of March 27, 1932, a special train carrying the cast of The Ever-Ready Gaieties, which included two singers and Jack Denny and his 12-piece orchestra, departed Washington's Union Station for New York.

"Exactly on the hour, the announcer's voice was heard by those on the train as well as listeners all over the country, saying they were about to hear the first program broadcast from a moving train," Mr. Blacerak wrote. "Along with the music and [a] senator's talk, the sound of wheels and the engine's whistle were broadcast at one point, using a microphone on the outside of the last car."

He recalled telegrams flooding Camden Station from listeners across the nation who had heard the half-hour broadcast.

"The test had proved that not only the human voice but also a wider range of tones produced by an orchestra could be transmitted without loss of quality from a `studio' that was moving over the countryside at a speed of 55 to 65 miles an hour," he wrote.

"It was exciting and a lot of fun because he was also a musician," said a son, Robert S. Balcerak of Indiatlantic, Fla. "He was always quite proud of his involvement with the broadcast."

Mr. Balcerak, who retired in 1970, also played saxophone for nearly 40 years, performing with The Premiers, a local band, during the 1940s and 1950s.

"He played lots of crab feasts, shore parties and weddings," said another son, Eugene P. Balcerak of Monkton.

Mr. Balcerak was a former longtime member of Musicians Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, Local 40-543.

He was married for 59 years to the former Julia Zakrzewski, who died in 1988.

Mr. Balcerak was a communicant of Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church, 3500 Belair Road, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Balcerak is survived by nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

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