Saturday Evening Post Time Capsule: October 1938 – Aliens and Fascists

See all Time Capsule videos.

One of the illustrations by Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the original publication of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1906)(Public Domain Review)

Cancelling Satellite Radio: Siriusly Painful

Attempting to get out of a relationship with a subscription service these days often requires chatting with a robot designed to thwart your intentions either by talking you out of quitting or by upselling you to a more premium product. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a chat that took up the better part of an hour with the maddeningly polite “Jointy” at SiriusXM.

Jointy: Hi, my name is Jointy. Thank you for contacting SiriusXM. I hope you’re healthy & fine.

You: I want to cancel please.

Jointy: That’s unfortunate to hear that you are considering cancellation. May I know the reason of cancellation to serve you better?

You: I’m not ‘considering’ canceling. I am cancelling. My car lease is ending.


Jointy: May I know when exactly the lease is ending?

You: I’d rather not say. Let’s make this easy and skip all the questions.

Jointy: Do you have any vehicle active with Trial?

You: I don’t know what you mean by Trial.

Jointy: Let me check the Account. Do you have any plan to buy vehicle in near future?

You: No.


Jointy: If you have any plan in near future then I have some exciting offers for you.

You: I just want to cancel please.

Jointy: Should I process the cancellation of subscription now or on the next renewal date?

You: Now.


Jointy: Okay.


You: Are we done?

Jointy: I’m working on it. While proceeding to cancellation, I see your Account is eligible for the Essential Streaming so that you can listen online on your mobile, computer, Alexa, Google device, tablet, etc as Streaming is independent of the Radio. So let me cancel the Radio and activate Essential Streaming.

You: Sure, if there’s no fee.

Jointy: No problem.


You: This is taking a long time. I have dinner plans. Are we done?

Jointy: I’m processing the cancellation.


You: Do I need to standby? Or can I disconnect?


Jointy: Today I cancelled your service. You have a remaining credit of $9.02 which may be used for other transactions today, or in the future. Any remaining balance may be refunded to you upon request.

You: I’d like to ask that it be refunded.

Jointy: A confirmation of this transaction will be sent to the email address on file, for your account within 5 days. I will be happy to process refund for you.

You: Thank you!

Featured image: Ico Maker / Shutterstock

Pump Up the Volume Still Reverberates 30 Years Later

Generation X readily acknowledges the films of John Hughes as bedrock cultural experiences of their ’80s and ’90s youth. At the same time, a number of other films would represent a darker undercurrent of that generation’s experiences, far away from fictional Shermer, Illinois, including Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989), and Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980). Put off by parts of his Times Square experience, Moyle resolved not to direct again, but ten years later, he was back behind the camera for a film he’d written about alienation, depression, the burden of expectation, the exploitation of kids by school officials, and a primordial version of today’s internet culture. That film was Pump Up the Volume, a film both uniquely of its time while being many steps ahead of it.

A young Christian Slater
Christian Slater in 1991. (Bart Sherkow / Shutterstock)

Moyle first drew notice for 1980’s Times Square, a film that he co-wrote the story for and directed. The movie was produced by Robert Stigwood, famous for managing The Bee Gees and Cream, producing for the stage with shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and producing films like Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Aware of the punk and new wave scenes that had already coalesced in New York City, Stigwood saw an occasion to produce another huge double-album soundtrack. Moyle just wanted to tell his story about two young women finding solace in each other and music. Frustrated to the point of quitting over Stigwood’s demand for more musical sequences, Moyle quit the movie before it was done. Stigwood got his musical scenes, but also cut some of the more emphatic lesbian overtones of the relationship between the two main characters. The resulting soundtrack turned out to be a tremendous artifact of its time, featuring acts like The Ramones, Roxy Music, The Cure, XTC, Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, and Joe Jackson. The film has since developed a cult reputation, but the overall situation and its failure drove Moyle from movies for a decade.

When he returned, it was with a script that he had originally started as a novel. The story concerned a pirate radio personality who was connecting with a teen audience by being real and foul-mouthed while playing music that related to an outsider sensibility. SC Entertainment out of Toronto decided to develop the movie, and they managed to talk Moyle into directing again. Still reluctant, Moyle said he’d walk if he couldn’t get the right lead; that turned out to be Christian Slater, who displayed some of the qualities that Moyle was looking for with his turn in Heathers.

The trailer for Pump Up the Volume (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

Released in August 1990, Pump Up the Volume is definitely of its time. It exists in a space just prior to the advent of the World Wide Web. While pay services like Prodigy and CompuServe were in use, there were still wide portions of the U.S. that hadn’t even heard of email. Comically large “Zack Morris” mobile phones existed, but weren’t remotely in the kind of widespread use that would follow later in the ’90s. That’s part of what makes the pirate radio station concept so appealing; teens really did listen to the radio in the ’80s, and that, along with both mainstream and underground music magazines, was one of the ways that kids (especially those in outsider social groups) learned both about new music and social issues. Ads in magazines like Maximumrocknroll and other avenues enabled a healthy tape trading culture, wherein teens would mail each other music or videotapes of concerts and club shows to facilitate the spread of bands they liked.

And that’s reflected in the broadest theme of the film: communication. Mark Hunter (Slater), a smart new student whose father works for the school district, is a loner and has trouble connecting, so he creates his shock-jock persona, alternately called “Happy Harry Hard-On” or “Hard Harry” and begins talking about everything that’s bothering him personally and socially behind the anonymity of radio and a voice modulator. For Mark, it’s initially about the release, but then he begins to realize that people are actually listening.

This taps into and opens up a wide range of problems as seen through a variety of other teen characters. One character struggles with the weight of academic expectations that’s been put upon her, and begins buckling under that pressure. Another finds himself expelled for suspicious reasons and protests to get back into the school. When Mark calls a listener, he winds up trying to talk him down from committing suicide, but fails. This activates the parents of the community, but they still miss the point that they aren’t connecting with their own children. What’s worse, people in the school administration have actually conspired to kick out kids that are struggling on standardized tests in order to make the school look better (and to keep receiving funding). These were real issues. They’re still real issues.

You can read Mark’s radio show, the affinity that kids have for it, and the broken communication between generations as a fairly savvy forerunner of internet culture. You can substitute “amateur radio” for “YouTube” or “TikTok” or “Snapchat” and still tell elements of the same story. That’s one of the reasons that film was strikingly different and remains resonant, because as good as John Hughes was at presenting outsiders, this hits in a more cutting way.

On The Sam Roberts Show, Christian Slater said he wants to be remembered for Pump Up the Volume. (Uploaded to YouTube by notsam)

Moyle also managed to be ahead of the curve with his soundtrack, just like he was with Times Square. In the keynote address that he gave at South By Southwest (SXSW) in 2013, Dave Grohl hilariously recalled how absurd it seemed in 1990 that Nirvana and alternative music might break through to the mainstream, going as far as to read the Billboard Top Ten songs of that year. And yet, that’s the kind of music that fills Mark’s show and the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. Moyle and company understood that outsiders connect to outsider music, and thus the film was populated with songs by The Pixies, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Concrete Blonde, Cowboy Junkies, and more. Ironically, a number of those bands would begin experiencing broader awareness that year, and some, like Soundgarden, would burst into actual stardom during the following year’s alternative explosion. Concrete Blonde’s contribution was a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows;” in the film, Mark uses Cohen’s version to open his radio shows until the climactic scene when he uses the cover. The album peaked at #50 on the Top 200.

Ultimately, the film was not a huge success in theatres. Like a number of movies of the time, it found a second life on video. Moyle stayed in film this time, and would go on to make another music-centered and much-loved cult classic in 1995, Empire Records. The thing that remains important about Pump Up the Volume is that it tried to be about something, and it succeeded. It shows that teens have a much deeper life of complexity and problems than parents and authority figures give them credit for, and that simple and non-judgmental communication, no matter how loud, might be the best first step to alleviate those issues.

Featured image: The DVD and film soundtrack of Pump Up the Volume (Photo by Troy Brownfield. Film & DVD ©New Line Home Entertainment/Warner Bros.; CD & Soundtrack ©MCA Records/Universal Music Group; writer’s nearly indestructible Guitar Amplifier ©Charvel).

Hallmark’s Formula for a Very Sappy Christmas

In the new Hallmark movie Holiday Date, Brooke has been dumped just before Christmas by her sleek, professional beau — he’s “going to be really busy with this project” — and her English-accented boss poo-poos her classic clothing designs in favor of more “cutting edge” fashion. Joel is an actor up for a big role playing a small-town hero, and their friends think it’s a good idea for Brooke to take him back to her hometown, Whispering Pines, for the holidays to pose as her boyfriend. “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Brooke says as they cruise across the wintry landscape in a baby blue Mini Cooper. He lets out a fake boyfriend chuckle: “I know, it’s crazy, isn’t it?”

It’s not that crazy, though.

At least, not in the Hallmark cinematic universe. The phony boyfriend or girlfriend plot device also appears in Holiday Engagement, The Mistletoe Promise, Hitched for the Holidays, A December Bride, Snow Bride, and A Christmas for the Books, to name a few.

By now, Hallmark is a well-known holiday movie machine. This year is the 10th anniversary of Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a two-month-long nonstop marathon of garland-wrapped, hot cocoa-fueled, gentle holiday romance. The greeting card company — through their subsidiary Crown Media — has effectively cornered the market on Christmas cable programming for younger and middle-aged women, and this year they’ve released 40 new Christmas-themed made-for-TV movies between their networks Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.

This past summer, I visited my parents, strolling into my childhood home and beholding — on their new flat screen TV — a cheesy Christmas movie. In July! I accosted my mother, wondering how she could live with herself watching Hallmark Christmas movies during tomato season. But they were running a special marathon, “Christmas in July,” and she wasn’t alone in cozying up to holiday movies with the air conditioner running. What could possibly be the appeal of these movies? I thought to myself as we sat through the third one in a row.

“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” was never more applicable than to the Hallmark oeuvre. (2014’s A Cookie Cutter Christmas displayed an eerily self-aware title.) Any fan of the franchise is well aware of the formula: a man and woman meet under awkward circumstances, stumble slowly toward romance, and finally share a brisk kiss under the glow of a thousand Christmas lights. There are recurring themes, like the virtues of slower, small-town life over the cold, hectic city, or the importance of listening to your heart and following where it leads (incidentally, it leads an inordinate segment of Hallmark characters to stake out their lives in pastry bakeries and tree farms). The most important virtue, however, is the love of Christmas and belief in its fateful magic.

The company has fashioned its own film genre out of wealthy suburban culture and happy endings, but it didn’t always used to be that way.

In fact, the last decade or so of Hallmark’s television programming is a departure from their media legacy. Since the dawn of broadcasting, the company has been known for culturally significant, acclaimed drama. Their pivot to feel-good seasonal romance says as much about the Hallmark brand as it does about us, the viewers, and what we hope to gain from watching them.

In the 1930s and ’40s, after a few decades of success selling greeting cards and wrapping paper, the Hall brothers of Hallmark decided to get into the radio game. They began by sponsoring shows like Tony’s Scrapbook, a folksy poetry program that a 1932 Time magazine review claimed was “regarded by a shuddering minority as the most offensive broadcaster on the air” for the host’s sentimental, rustic demeanor. Hallmark also sponsored Meet Your Navy and Radio Reader’s Digest as the company navigated national growth.

Then, in 1948, Hallmark went off on its own with Hallmark Playhouse, a radio drama program to replace their partnership with Reader’s Digest. Hallmark Playhouse was to be a new kind of show, one that delved into the annals of literature to find worthy, sometimes obscure authors and titles for dramatic readings, with author James Hilton, and later Lionel Barrymore, as the host. Hallmark Playhouse broadcast readings of Edna Ferber, Carl Sandburg, and Ring Lardner with stars like Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, and Gregory Peck lending their voices. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and Rose Wilder Lane’s Free Land (both found in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post) were also dramatized on Hallmark’s acclaimed anthology show.

On December 22, 1949, “The Story of Silent Night” aired, dramatizing the origin of the Christmas song, with a children’s choir, sound effects, and original music by Lyn Murray. Media scholar John V. Pavlik wrote about how the episode underscored “the extraordinary resources, intellectual capital, and pure talent that went into creating a program such as the Hallmark Playhouse, a program that consistently produced the highest levels of production quality and value.”

Two years later, in August 1951, founder J.C. Hall excitedly announced to the company that Hallmark would “try our hand at television.” Corporate sponsorships of television dramas were common. In Texaco Star Theater, Milton Berle was hosting an unpredictable hour of comedy and music, and Goodyear (or Philco) Television Playhouse brought original drama to the screen from up-and-coming writers and actors. The first Hallmark Television Playhouse broadcast was on NBC on Christmas Eve, 1951, and it was unlike anything seen on American television before. Amahl and the Night Visitors was a live opera, composed for television by Pulitzer winner Gian Carlo Menotti, telling the story of the three wise men from the point of view of a young peasant boy.

Hallmark Television Playhouse (and later Hallmark Hall of Fame) aired weekly for several years, before scaling back to monthly, then seasonal, episodes. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the series became a unique television event, bringing classic stories and big actors to the small screen. Maurice Evans played Richard II, Judith Anderson played Lady Macbeth, and Christopher Plummer and Julie Harris starred in A Doll’s House. Hallmark claims that more people tuned in for the 1953 broadcast of Hamlet than had cumulatively seen the play performed on stage in 350 years.

Although many programs from the “Golden Age of Television” disappeared, Hallmark Hall of Fame held strong. The format and content changed, but the series continued to present classic stories and problem dramas on primetime TV with big-name actors. In 1986, James Garner and James Woods starred in Promise, a drama depicting the arduous task of caring for a sibling suffering from schizophrenia. Far from saccharine, Promise holds up as a sensitive portrayal of the toll of mental illness on relationships. The film got a DVD release, but you won’t find it, or virtually any other Hall of Fame movies, on any streaming service.

In a 2009 CBS story on the enduring legacy of Hallmark Hall of Fame, Ron Simon, of the Paley Center, said “Hallmark has been around almost the entire history of American broadcasting, it’s one of the few institutions that sort of remain unchanged from postwar America into 21st-century America.” The Hall of Fame series has won 81 Emmys, the most recent of which was 2009’s The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.

Their ratings began to falter however, and in 2011, CBS dropped the program. Hall of Fame found little success at ABC, and, eventually, Hallmark moved the franchise over to their own cable channel, where they’d already been experimenting with a new strategy for made-for-TV movies that didn’t require period costumes, classic scripts, or much dramatic conflict at all.

The most recent Hallmark Hall of Fame release is called A Christmas Love Story. Starring Kristin Chenoweth and Scott Wolf, the story follows an ex-Broadway star who finds love, and inspiration for a new song, while teaching a children’s choir in New York City. Aside from some long-lost-parent drama, the film is nearly indistinguishable from Hallmark’s other holiday fare, with all of the same Christmas glitz and cloying courtship as A Shoe Addict’s Christmas or Two Turtle Doves.

Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president of programming for Crown Media, recently told Parade magazine that “People need to feel good and they need comfort, so, it’s an honor to bring that to people.”

Even though we’re familiar with all of the actors, we can predict the plot, and we might even recognize that gazebo in the final scene that’s lit up like an oversized tanning bed, we keep watching, year after year. And Hallmark knows it. They hope to capture the hearts of 100 million viewers this year over last year’s 85 million.

Hallmark has expanded its holiday offerings, and last year they released the Hallmark Movie Checklist App to help viewers keep track of the listings. This year, Hallmark sponsored the first Christmas Con in Edison, New Jersey, where fans could meet some of their favorite Hallmark stars and bask in some curated Christmas cheer.

Online, Facebook groups, numbering in the tens of thousands, are filled with Hallmark fans — mostly women — posting about their favorite movies. Many of their interactions muse on the movies’ similarities or the attractiveness of male leads. Others share photos of their decorated Christmas trees or a serendipitous snowfall right before the holidays.

I talked to Jennifer, 36, from Durham, North Carolina who moderates a subreddit group dedicated to Hallmark Movie fans. “I used to like watching Lifetime movies,” she says, “but they started to get a little too ridiculous and dramatic, so I had to walk away. I started watching Hallmark Hall of Fame movies at night when I couldn’t sleep, and they just made me feel at home, no matter how depressed or sad I was.”

Jennifer was orphaned at a young age, so she says she enjoys watching a family in a Hallmark movie having a nice holiday. Also, her 12-year-old son is autistic, and she says the movies inspire her to make Christmas special for him by doing things like baking cookies and decorating a tree. “I just love how sappy Hallmark movies are,” she says. “Everything is always alright at the end, which is just the opposite of real life.”

For Hallmark, the promise of comfort might be increasingly more difficult to keep.

Hallmark has faced criticism about the lack of diversity in their casting, and, just recently, they came under fire for taking down ads that featured two women kissing (Hallmark has since reinstated the ads and apologized). In the most current incarnation of Hallmark’s made-for-TV world, divisive politics don’t exist, along with poverty, mental illness, or war. The worst fate a Hallmark character could succumb to is working late on Christmas. Hallmark’s preoccupation with manicured small towns and contrived joy begs the question of whether they’re selling nostalgia or fantasy.

In Holiday Date, when Brooke’s pretentious European boss tells her she should design edgier clothing, the winsome blonde snaps back: “You know, the history of fashion shouldn’t be ignored. There’s a lot to be learned from the past and how it shapes who we are.”

“Of course that’s true! But you’re only inventing a past that comforts you!” I shouted at the television. And my mom told me to shut up and enjoy the movie.

Featured image: Shutterstock

War of the Worlds: The Greatest Halloween Prank in American History

Orson Welles remains one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. He was also the primary driver behind one of the greatest panics ever caused by a radio broadcast. On October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio program aired its adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Presented in an innovative news-broadcast style, the segment inadvertently created mass hysteria.

Orson Wells
Read “The Genius Who Launched the Martian Invasion” by Jeff Nilsson

The Saturday Evening Post’s archivist Jeff Nilsson has written about Welles’ great stunt on two previous occasions. In “The Genius Who Launched the Martian Invasion,” we get a look at the education and formation of Welles as a person and a personality. And “Are We Ready for Another Martian Invasion?” examines the wider panic caused by the production and asks why the American public seemed so susceptible to fear of an alien incursion.

Read “Are We Ready for Another Martian Invasion?” by Jeff Nilsson

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that panic gripped the populace that October night when Welles and his accomplices delivered a fake news broadcast that convinced people that Martians had in fact landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. According to the book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic: with the Complete Script of the Famous Orson Welles Broadcast by Hadley Cantril, Hazel Gaudet, and Herta Herzog, approximately 1.7 million of the six million listeners that evening actually believed that an invasion was underway. The broadcast achieved the effect by employing a straight-faced style; they would present plot elements as breaking news, then shift away from moments of high-tension reporting into intentionally uncomfortable long stretches of music.

The complete War of the Worlds broadcast, remastered in 2011.

By the end of the hour-long show, police had arrived at the CBS Studios in New York to try to shut the program down. Welles would add a second disclaimer (one had aired at the beginning of the program) that the broadcast was a radio drama, but the effect had been achieved. Multiple contemporary accounts indicate that there was less “panic in the streets” that subsequent reporting made it out to be; nevertheless, Welles issued a public apology on October 31st. More than 12,000 newspaper and magazine articles were written about the event in its immediate wake.

Orson Welles and H.G. Wells had a discussion on KTSA in 1940.

Two years later, Welles and Wells would meet and speak on KTSA in San Antonio. They discussed the effectiveness of the program, and Orson Welles lamented that none other than Adolph Hitler had used the broadcast of an example of manipulating the public. H.G. Wells, for his part, noted that false invasion reports were not as easy to swallow in Europe with the looming specter of the Axis. On the brighter side, Wells asked Welles about the then-new film he was making. Welles gave him the name and even spelled it for him. It was a piece called Citizen Kane, clearly demonstrating that Orson Welles had many more tricks up his sleeves.

Orson Wells with reporters
Orson Welles meets with reporters the day after the War of the Worlds broadcast. (Wikimedia Commons)

The War of the Worlds broadcast is still considered by many to be one of the greatest pranks ever pulled. Welles happily related the story throughout his life to build on his showbiz legend. Even in the immediate aftermath, as Welles took the microphone at the end of the broadcast to reassure the public that what they’d just heard was, in fact, a drama, he still had a wicked turn of humor, saying, “We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it and that both institutions are still open for business.” He ended with, most appropriately, “That was no Martian; it’s Halloween.”


Featured image:

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Recording Industry

The telegraph was considered a miracle when it was introduced in the 1840s. Not just a scientific breakthrough or a clever invention, but a true act of God. Even its inventor, Samuel Morse, identified it as something “God hath wrought.” The telephone, arriving 40 years later, was also astonishing, but there was less talk then about miracles in 1887. And when Thomas Edison demonstrated his talking machine later the same year, the sense of wonder was giving way to a sense of practicality.

In the century that followed, Americans eagerly embraced the steady stream of new inventions, but rarely were they content to used them as originally intended. The phonograph is a good example.

Like television, the record player was meant for serious business. TV was intended to be an educational tool and the phonograph was invented to take dictation. In fact, it captured the human voice remarkably well. It was far less efficient for capturing music. But it was music the public wanted, not dictation. Entrepreneurs soon set up the first nickelodeons in major cities, where Americans could pay to hear recordings through stethoscope-like headphones. What they listened to most often was not speeches, or vaudeville routines, but music — square dances, hymns, banjo virtuousos, and brass bands.

Suddenly Edison had several competitors who were eager to satisfy America’s musical hunger. They recorded all types of music, and sold it for less than Edison. They even dropped the price of record players into a range that middle-income Americans could afford. Record sales kept climbing until 1921, when they reached an annual total of 100 million records.

Then came radio. To insiders in the recording industry, it looked like certain doom. Record sales were already dropping. Who, they reasoned, would be foolish enough to buy music when he could hear it for free? Yet, the end was not quite nigh. As the Post observed:

By the late 1920’s, when all else flourished, the phonograph industry was given up for dead. Actually, it continued to sell records in the millions, if fewer and fewer machines. The low mark, reached in 1933, was equal to what had seemed a booming business in 1907. [“Comeback,” Jan. 28, 1939]

By 1939, it continued, the record companies were surprisingly spry and cheerful for being dead.

Last year, about 35,000,000 records were sold, equal to 1912, and all makers were far behind their orders. The three best-selling Christmas gifts nationally in December were records, motion-picture cameras and projectors, and electric razors, in that order. The fourth quarter’s business more than doubled the fourth quarter of 1937. The sales curve rose from 1933 through 1938 identically with the rising curve 1907-12.

Part of the reason for the resurgence was the arrival of portable phonographs and combination radio-phonograph. Another reason, though, was the phonograph’s arch enemy.

On the one hand, the radio created a wider appreciation of the best music. On the other, it roused a rebellion with its overlong and blatant commercials.

The Post also observed that Americans had created an additional market within the recording industry.  Even as early as the 1930s, there was a booming business in record collecting. Not content to own a few records, collectors were hunting down and buying up obscure labels and forgotten artists. They were also sampling genres they’d never heard before — particularly classical music.

A primitive recording studio around the turn of the 20th century.
The negative of this very early and unidentified recording scene was found in the Edison laboratories. The long horn piped the sound to a wax-grooving machine on the balcony.

Neither Alexander Graham Bell nor Thomas A. Edison could foresee the fifty different kinds of record collectors who are the most picturesque proof of the way Americans have recently taken to the music that goes round and round on a platter. [“Meet the Platterbug,” May 27, 1939]

Any kind of collector is usually a mystery to the outsider, to whom the accumulation of stamps, ivory elephants, old dental tools or hourglasses necessarily pointless. The possessor of a fine lot of antique dueling pistols, for instance, can only purr over them — firing them off would be too risky. Although usually literate, the august bibliophile seldom reads his folio Shakespeare, and, unless books are to be read, what were they for? But the record collector does make a good deal of sense to the uninitiated because, with a few screwball exceptions, he actually plays as well as loves his crowds. Each playing wears an irreplaceable disk down a little father. But he puts it on the turntable anyway, because it isn’t he record as such that he wants; it’s the music on it.

It is more difficult to understand why record collecting should be largely a man’s activity. Women led in supporting music in America. Yet only three or four women are at all conspicuous in any department of the record mania. Perhaps that is because the collector’s favorite spot for his record racks is in clothes closets—and no woman could bring herself to spoil good closet space for any purpose whatever. In any case, this is undeniably a stag affair. High-hat record shops report that most of their sales are classical and, of classical disks sold, men buy 90 per cent.

From the business point of view, all this is just another symptom of the way records have boomed since the bottom of the depression. A hundred million discs were sold at the glorious high point in 1921, when popular radio was still little more than a gleam in the engineer’s eye. By 1933, after radio had gradually relegated the phonograph to cobweb gathering in the cellar, only 10,000,000 sold — a 90 per cent drop. Record and phonograph makers were bitterly asking themselves why they were staying in business. Now and again the sheriff raised the same question. But then the cure of record sales suddenly jerked skyward, doing 35,000,000 last year, well on the way to 55,000,000 this year. Still groggy with delight, the platter industry is going giddily to town, riding a huge wave of phonograph-consciousness of which collectors are the seething foam on top.

The paradoxical theory that radio produced this unexpected boom is pretty plausible. While smothering the phonograph with fresh, free entertainment, radio was also educating its public into listening to music, classical stuff as well as popular, and liking it more and more. A public that really like something presently begins to want what it wants when it wants it, and there the phonograph has the bulge.

Radio musical fare is necessarily table-d’hote, confining the listener to what program departments see fit to give him. To get his music a la carte, to hear Wagner or Bob Crosby or a ‘mother-o’-mine’ tenor when the mood is on him, the new music fan turned to records. Simultaneously, radio was encouraging him to do so by developing techniques that accomplished great improvements on both disks and phonographs— things like electrical recording and devices for playing records through the sensitive amplifying radio mechanism. Resulting combination radio-phonographs sold more than 200,000 last year at high prices, and those detachable turntables that make a phonograph out of any radio have swept the country.

Others trying to account for the record boom, point to the huge recent increase in nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in taverns and dog wagons, each steadily wearing out disks day and night, with the proprietor making a profit from the nickels and the record companies falling over themselves to supply up-to-the-minute replacements.

Others lay a lot of it to the swing-jitterbug craze… As new and frantic dances replaced the old bored attitude on the dance floor and reintroduced the vibrating chandelier to American life, the phonograph became the same necessity it was back in the days of the toddle and the camel walk. If you wanna cut a rug, you wanna cut a rug, and the radio gives out the appropriate swing only after midnight.

Radio, like the recording industry, has been slated for extinction several times, yet it, too, has missed every appointment. In the 1950s, television was going to kill radio, as well as motion pictures. The VCR, and then the DVD, was going to kill television. And now, the internet has come along, and it’s going to kill radio, television, newspapers, books, conversation, and all social life. It’s also going to finish off the recording industry. Again.

Download this article as a PDF Read “Meet the Platterbug”, originally published May 27, 1939.