By Carole Roche
Born on January 12, 1930, William Kalcik entered a world few of us can imagine — a world where a loaf of bread sold for 8¢, milk cost 45¢ a gallon, and a dozen eggs could be purchased for 18¢.
It was also a world where an increasing number of Americans could not afford even these basic necessities. It was the world of the Great Depression.
“In the early years of the Depression, I lived with my parents and six brothers and sisters in a three-room house on the South side of Chicago,” said Kalcik. “The house rented for $6 a month and we had no heat.”
“My father couldn’t find a job so I quit school and sold peanuts at Navy Pier to help out,” he said. “My mother scrubbed floors for 18¢ an hour.”
Kalcik and his siblings also searched thru garbage bins for items of possible re-sale value. “One day my older brother George found an old brown radio in the trash and brought it home,” said Kalcik. It didn’t work at first, but he took it apart and eventually got it to working.”
“My mother let us keep it, and it entertained our family for many years to come,” said Kalcik. “My favorite program was The Lone Ranger.”
Indeed, the radio would become the average American’s most popular form of entertainment during the Depression, and by 1933 over 60 percent of American households had one in their home. There were programs for all ages including Little Orphan Annie, Burns and Allen, and The Bell Telephone Hour.
Yet, it was President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” that gave the average American hope for the future.
“I don’t remember too much about those broadcasts but I do know my mother listened to them on Sunday evenings,” said Kalcik. “Whatever the President said, she always found time to listen, and it seemed to cheer her up.”
The increasing popularity of the radio encouraged Kalcik to learn how to repair the broken discards he found, and, in 1948, he began going door-to-door looking for radios to repair. The Kalcik brothers worked together and ran their repair business from the family home.
“By that time, television was coming onto the scene, and George and I also taught ourselves TV repair,” said Kalcik. Still, it was the early tube radios that most fascinated me.”
“I didn’t know it at the time but it was the beginning of a life-long interest,” he said.
Needing more space for their increasingly successful enterprise, in 1951 the Kalcik brothers opened up a small radio and TV repair shop near the family home. Within a year, they were able to open up a bigger store at 25th Street and Pulaski.
“By then a lot of people were interested in buying televisions, and we would take in their old tube radios as trade-ins,” said Kalcik. “We gave them a discount off the purchase price of a new TV, and, as a result, our business thrived.”
“I wasn’t able to sell all the radios we took in so I just added them to my collection,” said Kalcik. “I now have over 1,100 tube radios along with 15,000 vacuum tubes to repair them with. And I’m still on the lookout,” he said.
The majority of Kalcik’s collection consists of radios manufactured between 1930 and 1955. They range in value from a basic $40 Zenith table model to a $15,000 1938 Scott console. His most unique radio is a 1938 Sparton cobalt blue mirror glass radio.
“The Sparton radio originally sold for $70 in 1938, not a small sum back then,” said Kalcik. “It has five tubes, horizontal blue fins, and a square dial with three tuning knobs. Today it is valued at over $2,000,” he said.
Sparton also manufactured one of the most valuable tube radios on the market today, a 46-inch round mirrored console radio called the Nocturne. Priced at $350 in 1936, in 2004 it sold at a Sotheby’s auction in France for over $58,000.
“Sadly, I don’t have a Nocturne but I am always on the lookout,” he said. “It is truly a classic.”
Kalcik’s favorite radio brand from those early years is the Zenith due in large part to its reliability and ease of repair. Founded in 1918 by New York entrepreneur Eugene McDonald, the name Zenith was coined from the call letters 9Zn of Chicago Lab Radio, the amateur radio station that McDonald purchased in 1921.
“Zenith used the slogan ‘The Quality Goes In Before The Name Goes On,’ and it certainly fit their products,” said Kalcik. “Some of the most collectable tube radios of that era were manufactured by Zenith, including my Zenith console from 1937. It has 12 tubes, magic eye tuning, plus short-wave and ship-to-shore capability.”
“It was quite innovative for The Depression and sold quite well,” he said.
Kalcik’s most valuable radio is a huge 1938 Scott Philharmonic Console which originally sold for $400 and is now valued at over $15,000. Weighing over 250 pounds, it has 31 tubes.
“Scott produced some very high-end radios which were purchased separately from their hand-carved cabinets,” said Kalcik. “Mine has a chrome-plated receiver chassis with a slide rule tuning dial, and I can get stations from all over the world.”
“In my opinion, nothing today can compare to the natural sound quality of the original Scott radios” he said.
For those of more modest means, the Crosley Radio Company offered a quality alternative.
“Crosley called their radio sets the ‘Model T’s’ of radio because of their affordability,” said Kalcik. “I have a 1931 Crosley with a front that looks like an encyclopedia, and it fits neatly onto a bookshelf.”
“You just lean over and turn it on when you’re finished reading,” he said.
Kalcik’s collection also includes a large number of the stylish Cathedral and Tombstone radios that, for many people, are most representative of radio’s Golden Age. With their arched top and intricate façades that resembled European Cathedrals, Philco was the first company to produce the Cathedral radio in the late ‘20s along with the appropriately named Tombstone. Other companies would soon follow.
“The Tombstone and Cathedral cabinets of the ‘30s were much more attractive in appearance than the boxy radios of the ‘20s,” said Kalcik. “They usually had just one knob and fit into any décor.”
“And they were relatively inexpensive,” he said. “I have over 300 of them in my collection.”
By the end of the ‘30s, the radio had established itself as the dominant form of home entertainment in America with such major companies as GE, Zenith, Philco, and Westinghouse all competing for a piece of the radio market.
Yet, change was in the wind.
First seen by the public at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a still developing mass media device called television would broadcast President Franklin Roosevelt’s opening day welcome to over 1,000 fairgoers attending the new RCA Television Exhibit. America was fascinated, yet the new media had a long way to go.
“When television first came on the scene, the entry level TV cost around $600 which was too much for most people back then, ”said Kalcik. “Plus, there were very few stations and, when World War II broke out, TV broadcasting essentially ended.”
“That’s why during the War years, the radio was still the major source of communication and entertainment,” he said.
It was not until the end of the War and the return of good times in 1945 that television was to become a must-have in American homes. With the price of a set now affordable, an early 1946 10-inch RCA Model with a selling price of $326 would ultimately sell over 43,000 units. By the end of 1949, over two million televisions had been sold, and by 1960, over 52 million Americans owned a television.
It was the end of The Golden Age of Radio, but, for many Americans, including William Kalcik, it is a period of time he will always remember.
“During the Depression and War years, the radio provided families with hope,” said Kalcik. “They helped people survive hard times back then, and should not be forgotten.”
NOTE: William Kalcik continues to repair and sell vintage vacuum tube radios, record players, and amps at his workshop near Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. He can be contacted at 608-253-9855. Repair estimates are free.
For those interested in learning more about vintage radios, the online site www.aniqueradios.com gives an overview of vintage radio collecting and provides links to radio collecting clubs.