Book spotlights St. Louis radio, TV legends

Let’s face it. Any book with Harry Caray on the cover “behind the mike” is going to attract attention in St. Louis – and maybe north of the Gateway Arch, too. And any book about the history of local broadcasting compiled by Frank Absher, known for developing Media Archives, is going to be well worth a look.

Absher has put together an excellent collection of illuminating photos and supplementary material for the “Images of America” series, his second about broadcasting for Arcadia, specializing in visual works, focusing on local history.

The book begins by hitting all the highlights of St. Louis broadcast history in a brief, two-page introduction, followed by seven chapters. At 128 pages, it is compact. It starts with the experimental 1920s and wireless operators, with equipment on the grounds of St. Louis Country Club. It progresses through studio shots and portraits of investors, inventors, innovators and promoters; Virginia “Val” Jones, KSD’s first program director; and Thomas Patrick Convey, the first station manager of KMOX.

The second chapter, titled “Radio Comes Alive,” begins with KXOK, KWK, KFUO and St. Louis University’s WEW. Pulitzer’s KSD includes a youthful Russ David, a prelude to television entering the picture. A more mature David appears with Frank Eschen and highlights of the longest-running local radio drama. Every once in awhile, programs or people of national acclaim appear, such as songbird Kate Smith (p. 43) or funny man Spike Jones (p. 55). Diverse sources include brochures and booklets with black performers: Spider Burks (pp. 50-51), jazz great Count Basie (pp. 80-81) and the man called “hardest working” in show business, James Brown, appearing for KATZ (Bernie Hayes is next to him, p. 86), a delight for radio-crazed kids. Vintage readers will remember “Johnny Rabbitt,” Lou “Father” Thimes, Rex Davis, Jack Carney, John McCormack – “the man who walks and talks at midnight” – and also “The Katz Man,” who confounded high school principals with “on-air,” call-in antics.

Having watched too much TV, Baby Boomer readers will recognize homemaker-turned-TV-entertainer Charlotte Peters with trusty sidekicks Stan Kann and John Roedel, and weather fixture Howard “That’s all from here” DeMere. The book’s fifth chapter enters the 1960s with a photo of Forest Park Highlands with Harry “Texas Bruce” Gibbs “In Person” and “Live Telecasts,” and a ticket from KPLR-TVs “Wrestling at the Chase.” Close to the end of the book, we get an entire chapter from the time when kids were TV kings, with fan favorites such as: “Cookie and the Captain” with Dave Allen and Jim Bolen; versatile Harry Fender – a.k.a. “Captain 11”; and Clif St. James as “Corky the Clown,” who served in news and weather.

Photos of many of the folks Baby Boomers first heard or saw creating “media magic” perhaps so much, in some cases, that they thought they knew them: Jack Buck and other talented Buck family members, Joe and Christine; “Newsbeats’” John Auble and Dick Ford; and managers such as Jeff Rainford and Robert Hyland, to whom much attention was paid in Absher’s previous book.

From TV news, Fred Porterfield, Spencer Allen, Max Roby and Julius Hunter are there – and because of St. Louis’ ongoing sports fascination, so, too are Dizzy Dean, “Easy” Ed MaCauley, Jay Randolph, Mike Shannon and Dan Dierdorf.

Talents from KWMU include the late Greg Freeman and Joe Pollack, and others thankfully still with us, reflecting on the varied news career of Don Marsh. The book concludes with shots of KETC-TV regulars: Patrick Murphy, Anne-Marie Berger and Jim Kirchherr, as well as the “Donnybrook” founders.

Since this book essentially is a photo collection, no one ever would mistake it for a scholarly tome. While it could have been enhanced by an index to enable readers to track down contributors, over time, it is consistent with other books in this series. This one, alongside efforts to maintain media, which Absher also leads, offers insight into broadcasting’s evolution. In the parlance of its most likely readers, it’s “a trip” – a fascinating walk down memory lane, well conceived and well executed. It will be a welcome addition for anyone with a love of local broadcasting. If you happened to have “lived it,” it’s even better.


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