The Crosley Parlor Radio
The 1939 Crosley Prestotune 12 Parlor Radio (in Ed’s Office, 2011)
In 1939, shortly after my grandfather Felix died, we moved into the house he built on Temple Street in Fitchburg. It was a handsome, eight room cape, in a neat and tidy neighborhood. It came with a shady porch in both front and back, and a large yard for kids to play in.
To commemorate the event, my father bought a parlor radio: a 1939 Crosley Prestotune 12, a floor radio with push button station selector, It had AM radio, Short Wave, and Police Scanner capabilities. It had an illuminated dial, powerful speakers, and was housed in a handsome maple cabinet. He paid over $300.00 for it at the time, which is what you’d pay, in today’s dollars, for a home entertainment center. And, of course, that’s exactly what the Crosley was at the time.
It was extremely reliable. I remember we just had to cover that illuminated dial with newspapers during air raid drills in World War II.
I grew up in front of that radio. It sat in the parlor, across from the Baldwin upright piano, and seemed to be on all day. My mother would listen to music, news, and soap operas during the morning and afternoon while she did her housework. I learned all about the travails of “One Man’s Family,” the wisdom of “Ma Perkins,” and “The Romances of Helen Trent: (because)..a woman is 35, or older, need not mean that romance in life is over…” My grandmother was convinced all the stories were true. My mother followed Helen’s virtuous adventures closely. I wondered why a woman of 35 would think about romance anyway. She was old enough to be my mother.
I took over in the early evening when the kids’ shows were on and faithfully followed the likes of Buck Rogers, Superman, and Tom Mix. They were often in serial format, so I dared not miss today’s installment, or I’d be lost trying to pick it all up tomorrow.
When my father came home from work, and over the dinner hour, the Crosley chattered softly in the background with both local and national news. Sports and weather were blessedly brief: Today’s scores and tomorrow’s weather.
In the evening we listened to comedies like Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Bob Burns (“The Arkansas Traveler”), and the joke telling show, “Can You Top This?” Musicals were also important in our household, and in addition to Bing Crosby and other popular singers, we listened to my father’s two favorite shows: “The Voice of Firestone,” (he really enjoyed tenors), and “Paul LaValle’s Band of America.” The latter featured a brass band of 48 pieces (“Forty-Eight Stars – Forty-Eight States!”) playing Sousa marches. My father turned it up so loud, my mother would have to close the windows and doors of a summer’s night in deference to the neighbors.
On Sundays, I never missed “The House of Mystery,” and ‘The Shadow.” The latter was my favorite and I pretended that it didn’t terrify me so my father would leave it on.
The Crosley seemed indestructible. It carried us through World War II with front line reports from Edward R. Murrow and once, on a Sunday afternoon with short wave, we heard Winston Churchill speaking live to the English people. My Uncle George, a combat veteran of World War I, said: “Imagine that. We’re hearing Churchill as he speaks from England. Back in my war, the Lord Himself could have spoken from Jerusalem and we wouldn’t have heard about it for a month.”
After World War II, we were all into phonograph records: First came the brittle and easily breakable acetate 78 rpms (revolutions per minute); then the smaller, plastic 45 rpms, and finally the larger vinyl 33 1/3 rpm albums. All we needed was a phonograph. My father solved that problem too. He put an input jack on the backside of the big Crosley, and bought a three-speed phonograph that we could play through the radio. It was awesome. No tinny little phonograph here. When you played a record through the Crosley, you could take the roof off. My friends came over to listen afternoons after school. My mother could handle that okay; but we didn’t do it too often when my father was home. He could take just so much of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Phil Harris patter songs, and Frank Sinatra’s crooning to the bobby-soxers who adored him. Thank Heaven this was long before we got caught up in Rock & Roll.
In 1949, we bought a television set. It was an RCA cabinet piece with radio, phonograph, and a huge 12 ½ inch black & while screen. We all clustered around the new TV, and almost ignored the Crosley. There was one exception: A baseball game. Everybody’s father did the same thing: Turned the black & white TV on to watch the game, but listened to the sound track on the radio. There was no TV sports color talk back then, you just got minimal coverage, and a stark and fuzzy picture; but the trained radio announcers gave you chapter and verse on everything that was happening.
The TV was only broadcast a few hours each day, but that was okay. In between times we sometimes watched the test patterns that the stations continually broadcast to allow tuning and adjustment before the shows came on. Admittedly, test patterns weren’t very exciting, but they were pictures coming from miles away, and that was enough to command our attention.
The TV took up a lot of space, and the Crosley eventually had to give way to the new technology. Dad let me move the Crosley parlor radio, and attached phonograph, into my bedroom. I thought that was great. I’d close the door and play all the old records the family had been collecting over the years, plus some new ones of my own. Radio was dead, critics claimed. There was an Irving Berlin love song about being home alone with “…just me and my radio.” Some performers updated that to “…just me and my video.” Traitors!
And so, the Crosley sat in the corner of my room through the end of grammar school, all of high school, and I played it on weekends when I came home from college. Then, in 1959, I graduated, got an Army commission, married Judy, and moved away from Temple Street, leaving that life, and the Crosley behind.
Now, we shoot ahead to 1992. My parents were gone by now, and we were breaking up the family home. My brother George was in charge. He asked if I wanted that old Crosley radio that was still in the same corner of my bedroom. I said yes. I had no place to put it, but I could make room in the basement of my home. First, I took it to an elderly gentleman who used to repair such radios for a living. I asked him to go over it for me. He did. He said, “That radio is a beauty. Nothing wrong with it except for a couple of dead vacuum tubes. Replace those, and it’s good as new.” “And where does one find vacuum tubes in 1992?” I asked.
“I got a few in the backroom,” he said.
And so, the Crosley came alive once again, sounding as good and as loud as ever. I moved it into my home office, which has gone through several iterations since then, but I still listen to the news stations on it (not much music on AM anymore), and occasionally a short wave radio show from London or some other exotic locale. It brings back a hundred memories of days past.
Sometimes I even plug in a CD/MP3 player into the radio jack, and play the old time radio shows I buy on-line and at flea markets. Last week, the old Crosley once again played “The Voice of Firestone,” “Paul LaValle’s Band of America,” (both loudly) and, of course, “The Shadow.” (Still scary).
The Crosley seems happy. Maybe it thinks it is 1939 once again.