Saturday, January 24, 2009


This is one of the three cats who live here. They are the benevolent king, the beautiful princess and the evil queen. You should not need to guess which one this is. He/She/It began as Famous Amos. We already had Andy, so when this one showed up we thought it appropriate to name it Amos. When it became apparent that Amos is a girl, she became Amy. I know of no old time radio show about Amy 'n' Andy but we do the best we can with what we have to work with.
Way back in the olden days of the '70s, when I was into ham radio, I checked into the 40 meter band every Sunday morning for the ORCATS meeting. That wasn't about felines, it stood for Old Radio Collectors and Traders Society. They traded reel to reel tapes with fellow members all over the country. One of the founders, whose signal got to me loud and clear from a Chicago suburb, is Ken Piletic, W9ZMR. He and the group are still going strong, now using Mp3 technology.
I thought of Ken and that group when I heard from Jon, who sells OTR shows on CD. He calls his firm OTRCat. That apprently stands for Old Time Radio Catalog. He does have a feline in his logo. Anybody who likes cats can't be all bad so I will give him a plug here. He does offer free samples for us to listen to. That appeals to my basically cheap nature. It was from his page that I got the Helen Trent episode I wrote about back in August. He also has some of the sermons of the big noise from the Little Flower if you're curious about what Father Coughlin sounded like. So take a look at what he has to offer.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hear it or Read it?

A local friend who has heard me do public speaking commented that as he read the previous post, he imagined hearing me say it. Very interesting. How many of us are strongly spoken word oriented? I certainly am. I would rather hear it than read it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Other Little Flower...Michigan Meanderings

There is something wrong with my brain. It's ATD, Associative Thinking Disorder. It has not yet appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the big book that my shrink refers to as she decides whether I'm nutty or normal. I heard about the book on NPR's On The Media. My disorder will no doubt show up in their next arbitrary revision of what's crazy and what's not. When you have ATD, everything that happens reminds you of something else, usually something that happened long ago and far away. If you are a blogger, you spend all day writing about things that utterly fascinate you but which nobody else cares about. Harry Heuser, co-founder of our International ATD support group, posted an article about New York City's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, The Little Flower, in his December 7 Broadcastellan post. It reminded me of something that happened long ago in the Southeast part of Michigan. That's where what's left of Detroit is. I grew up in what was then the rural village of Warren, about fifteen miles Northeast of Detroit.
That's my high school on the middle left and I did go to the little old country schoolhouse on the upper right for one year. The other photos are a blacksmith shop. a general store and the town's crossroads. There's a Lucky Strike Billboard on the building at Chicago and Mound Roads. Get a load of that two story skyscraper. When I lived there, Warren was a lot like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. I can relate to his stories on a very personal level. Warren was perhaps even more provincial than Keillor's mythical Minnesota town. The German Catholics in Lake Wobegon can attend Our Lady Of Perpetual Responsibility Parish. In Warren, our two churches were both Protestant. Keillor's insightful treatment of the part the churches played in small town pre-war mid-American family life is mighty funny stuff for those of us who have been there. His Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra is a masterpiece of religious and musical satire. I know satire is a dangerous form of humor. There are those who don't get it, don't like it and don't think it's funny. But that's a subject for another post.
Lake Wobegon has a mayor. Warren had a village president. We were so far from civilization that those fifteen miles from the Motor City might as well have been fifteen hundred. When a friend and I journeyed to the big city in the late '40s to watch Joe Gentile and Ralph Binge do their zany morning radio show on WJBK, they made jokes about us taking the stage coach from Warren. That was some of the funniest stuff ever to come out of Detroit Radio and it continues to puzzle me that apparently none it has been preserved on recordings.
My family made an annual shopping trip to Royal Oak, a few miles West. When we got near 12 Mile Road and Woodward and spotted a magnificent Catholic Church, my father always reminded us that it was the Shrine of the Little Flower, the home of Father Coughlin, the radio priest loved or hated by millions of listeners around the country. Incidentally, it's pronounced "Coglin" with a short "O." We might have choked on what he said, but there is no "cough" in his name.
What an edifice, unlike anything we country bumpkin Methodists had ever experienced. Built of limestone and granite in a radical octagonal shape, its most imposing feature is a magnificent tower with a 28 foot high carved sculpture of Christ on the cross and a carving of St. Therese of Lisieux on the adjoining wall. St. Therese was a young Carmelite nun, known as the Little Flower. She died in her twenties and was canonized twenty-five years later in 1925. It is to her that the church is dedicated.
I don't think my parents listened to Father Coughlin with any regularity and I don't recall any family talk about what he stood for. It was not until many years after those trips to "The Oak," which is what my family and relatives called Royal Oak, that I understood the historical significance of what I had seen.
A year or so ago I did a talk about great radio preachers of the early 20th century, prominently featuring Father Coughlin. I dug out my notes, but decided to use little of that material here. The increasing anti-semitism and politcal diatribes that finally got him taken off the air and forced him to retire from the Shrine under threat of being defrocked have been exhausitvely analyzed and interpreted by historians and researchers far better qualified than I. His support and then attacks on FDR produced some monumental rhetoric. He said of the Democrat platform "It shatters this brittle structure of glass promises into a thousand slivers of worthless political debris." Yet after FDR's big win in 1936, he said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the day, despite all opposition to the contrary, that you remain steadfast behind the one man who can save this civilization of ours. It is either Roosevelt or ruin." By 1940 he was caling FDR the "world's chief war-monger." I doubt that any of the present day commentators who are ideologically compared to Father Coughlin could hold a candle to him when it comes to turning a phrase. There was also his support of Hitler and Mussolini and the alleged but unproven financial support that he received from the Nazis. His association with Henry Ford's blatantly anti-Jewish publication is especially interesting. There is a song about Father Coughlin in a jazz opera, .Murder at the Rouge Plant. It tell the riveting story of the blody unionization of the Ford Plant at River Rouge. It's all there on the internet for anyone who is interested.
There's a standard joke about the wierd uncle in most families. I really had one, the only factory worker in a clan of mostly farm folk. He worked at the Ford Plant. I was very young, but I still remember the otherwise bucolic holiday gatherings that got pretty lively when he got going with his passionate rants about politics, labor unions, strikes and all those things that were such hot issues in the '30s.
I don't recall if he had anything to say about Father Coughlin but he probably did.
My special interest in Father Coughlin is his masterful use of the new radio medium to achieve great power and influence. His broadcasts on WJR began in 1925 or 1926, depending upon which report you read. At the height of his popularity, about the time of FDR's first term, he was called the second most important politlcal figure in the country, second only to the president. His radio audience was estimated at 30 to 40 million listeners. That's an astounding figure, representing a third of the nation's population. He had a room full of secretaries anwering many thousand of letters, many of them stuffed with contributions that he used to build the church. Wikidpedia, which I don't always believe, says he got up to 80,000 letters each week. Given his popularity and power, it might have been close to that. When he got too hot for the network to handle and they cancelled his program, he formed his own radio network and bounced back, bigger than ever. Paid religious programs were a good source of income for smaller, independent stations. They would take your money and put you on the air with a disclaimer and they didn't care what you said. The networks carried the great liberal preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Ralph W. Sockman, while the independents were glad to accomodate the conservatives who paid for the air time with contributions from little old ladies who put their hands on the radio for healing and cleaned out their life savings to keep their favorite preacher on the air. That, too, is a subject for another post, a most fascinating part of early broadcasting history. If Father Coughlin were around today, he might be on shortwave radio. That is where the real crazies hang out, getting away with things they could never say on regular domestic radio. Shortwave radio is a well kept secret that has lots of loyal listeners. There are at least 20 shortwave stations in this country, blanketing the world with often exteme ideologies. The news agency Reuters has just published a surprising article about the romance of shortwave radio. But that is yet one more thing for me to blog about if I live long enough to get it all done.
Almost every Coughlin biographer has used a glowing tribute to his radio presence, attributed to Wallace Stegner: "Father Coughlin had a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it on the radio dial almost automatically returned to hear it again." Stegner was a Pulitzer Winner, apparently best known for his novels about the American West. I have had no success in trying to learn how he became interested in Father Coughlin, in what context he wrote that, or where it appeared. I'll be most grateful if someone out there can solve that puzzle.
Other writers have suggested that Coughlin might have exaggerated, for dramatic effect, whatever natural Irish brogue he possessed.It is said that he understood what the microphone could do for him. He would back away from it for a reverberant sound as if addressing an audience in a big hall, moving in close when it was time to be intimate.
One of the most interesting books dealing with the Father Coughlin years is Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, Father of Hate Radio. It was written in 1996 by Donald Warren, a professor at Oakland University, not far from Royal Oak. The transcript of an interview with Warren is here. He interviewed more than one hudred persons who had known Father Coughlin, which makes me inclined to go along with his work where it differs from what others have written. One difference is his take on the story that the wooden building, erected at the Royal Oak site before the present church was built, was destroyed by fire from a burning cross put on the lawn by the Ku Klux Klan. Warren's interviews yielded no substantiation for that one, treated as fact by virtually every other writer. Warren also found that, while Father Coughlin might have done some of his WJR radio talks by telephone line from his tower office, most were done at the WJR studios in the Fisher Building in Downtown Detroit. He says the priest was "always on," "tremendously theatrical," whether at mass, on the air, or at dinner.
Donald Warren tells a great story about being kicked out of the New York City office of CBS Chief Executive Officer William Paley when he asked Paley about Father Coughlin. That was in the mid '80s, making it five or six years after Coughlin's death and half a century after his time on CBS. Even after all that time,the memory of the trouble he had caused the network was still a matter not to be talked about.
According to Warren and other writers whose work appeared ten or fifteen years ago, the Royal Oak Church had fallen into disrepair. That has apparently changed. The website shows the Shrine of the Little Flower in fine shape in every way, restored to its original magnificence. It appears to be a thriving operation with a school building project in the works, descrbed as a "welcoming community respectful of tradition and open to the future." The history link does credit Father Coughlin as the founder of the parish but there is no mention of the controversy that surrounded his years there or how he raised the money that built it. I don't know what the present day parishoners think about him if they think of him at all. I suppose some might refuse to talk about Father Coughlin, as William Paley did.
Father Coughlin still has passionate followers who have their own website, praising him and dedicated to disseminating the truth that they believe he told.
Having written all this about Father Coughlin as one of the most powerful radio preachers of the past century, I must now say he was not the most flamboyant. That position belongs to a Protestant radio evangelist of that era whose ministry was bizarre beyond anything that a fiction writer could dream up. Stay tuned to Canary Feathers for that story.
I have worked on this post for more than a month. I must call it quits and say it's finished, lest my head explode from a massive attack of ATD. Exploring the decade of the '30s will do that to you. A most wonderful and terrible time, some of which we will all be reliving along with our new president.
This all began as a scholarly treatise about Father Coughlin but it soon took on a life of its own, as if to remind me that scholarly treatises are way out of my league. So I just let it meander off to wherever it wanted to go, becoming a disjointed mish-mash that would drive an editor to distraction. But that's the joy of blogging. No editors.
I wonder if I should show this to my shrink. Not a good idea. She might tell me I have not only have ATD, but OCB. Obsessive Compulsive Blogging. Is there a support group for that?

It's not likely that I will return to Warren or Royal Oak in this lifetime. Unlike Keillor's Lake Wobegon, the "Town that time forgot," Warren is now a big city, Michigan's third largest. My grandfather's Chicago Road Farm is long gone. It is now the site of one those modern churches that replaced the hundred year old white frame church that I grew up in.
I would probably have trouble finding the house where I was born. On the other hand, maybe I should take a drive down there, get on 12 Mile Road and head West. As I got near Woodward Avenue and spied that great tower, I might hear my father's voice: "There's Father Coughlin's Church, the Shrine of the Little

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Shep, Lois Nettleton, George Ade

Jean Shepherd's third wife, Lois Nettleton, was right. She said Shep was a genius. His treatment of FDR's favorite Humorist, George Ade, laced with his own insights into humor writing, is brilliant. It's currently avaialble for listening on Max Schmid's site. Don't miss it. It is something very special.