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Big Band Remotes Highlighted Radio's Golden Days

In the early days of radio, the nights were filled with music, but not just any music. In fact, there were very few records being played.

Those nighttime AM radio signals that skipped across the ether to far points unknown usually carried the live sounds of big bands performing in hotels, and St. Louis radio was no exception.

The first live band broadcast in the country was probably on Detroit’s WWJ September 14, 1920. Most scholars credit Vincent Lopez with being the first band leader to be heard regularly on radio, tracing his first broadcast back to November 27, 1921 on WJZ in New York. This was before St. Louis had regular local stations. He would later be heard on KSD via the NBC radio network.

By the time KSD signed on here, its featured musical group was the orchestra from the Statler Hotel. An article in Greater St. Louis magazine in March of 1923 noted, “High class concerts by bands and orchestras…are a frequent source of delight to this station’s great and far-flung audience.” Remote broadcasts in the late ‘20s originated from the Hotel Jefferson and Hotel St. Regis. Later, in the 1930s, the station would broadcast live remotes of the bands playing at the Meadowbrook Country Club in suburban Overland, often feeding these shows to the NBC Network.

That era, in St. Louis and around the country, was fraught with the economic turbulence of the Great Depression. Few people had what is known today as discretionary income, and the radio provided a cost-free diversion from life’s problems. It also provided free entertainment and escapism. Ironically, in a time of economic depression, radio experienced tremendous growth.

Talk with people who lived in that time and they’ll tell you about the importance of radio in their lives. They’ll also remember the late night big band remotes, and those who lived outside the nation’s cities would listen and dream of a day when they could witness those broadcasts firsthand. By 1934, writes Jim Cox in his book “Music Radio,” surveys showed dance music to be the most popular entertainment form on the radio.

Russ David Orchestra with announcer Sterling Harkins
Russ David Orchestra with announcer Sterling Harkins

A quick survey of St. Louis radio station listings in 1932 and 1933 shows numerous nightly big band remotes: KWK - Irving Rose’s Hotel Jefferson Orchestra, Harry Lange’s & Ted Jansen’s orchestras at Forest Park Highlands, Irving Rose & Joseph Reichman performing on the Statler roof in summer; Joe Reichman and the Hotel Chase Orchestra, Ray DeVinney’s Orchestra at Diane’s Club; KMOX - Al Lyons at Meadowbrook, Charlie Booth’s Varsity Club Orchestra from the Skyway Inn, Bobby Meeker’s Hotel Jefferson Orchestra, Joe Reichman’s Orchestra from the Hotel Coronado, Charlie Booth’s Castle Ballroom Orchestra, Ivan Epinoff’s Orchestra from the Coronado Hotel; WIL - Bill Bailey at the Canton Tea Garden, Al Roth at Majestic Gardens, and Jackson-Marable’s Syncopators at Sauter’s Park.

Of course, these broadcast did more than fill air time. They provided advertising for the venues, all of which were competing for the few discretionary dollars the listeners had. The promotion extended to predictable gimmicks like this one described in Radio & Entertainment August 13, 1932:

“It is rumored that Sauter’s Park, whose music is broadcast nightly over WIL will open a second dance floor. Two bands are presented simultaneously every Saturday and Sunday evenings and now they will open a dance floor for old time dances only. The band will feature waltzes, two steps and square dances.”

Big band remotes were standard broadcast fare through the ‘40s and into the early ‘50s, featuring nationally known groups and territory bands. Buddy Moreno, who settled in St. Louis in the ‘50s, made a name for himself on national broadcasts as he and his band headlined network shows from venues in New York, Chicago, and even the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Harold Koplar hired him and his band in the late ‘50s as the hotel’s band.

In the golden age of radio, the live big band remotes did what radio did best. Couples would turn on the radio and dance in their parlors, experiencing a momentary escape from reality through radio’s theater of the mind.

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 3/06)