THOSE WERE THE DATES
The article below originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Nostalgia Digest, in connection with that issue's cover story about the 50th anniversary of Those Were the Days. At the time that issue was published, we were making big plans for a special live event to commemorate our show's Golden Anniversary. Then COVID-19 came along and it became necessary to postpone our celebration; however, there are plans afoot to celebrate our anniversary at some point in 2021. We'll have details on a future broadcast of Those Were the Days. In the meantime, here are some moments that were pivotal to our show's first 50 years. -- Steve Darnall, publisher
For fifty years, Those Were the Days has celebrated the history of radio — but, as you might imagine, during that time, the show has acquired a little history of its own. A list of memorable moments and guests from five decades on the air could fill a book (indeed, it does — see Chuck Schaden’s 2019 memoir, Chuck Schaden’s Radio Days), but here are ten dates that turned out to be especially important in Those Were the Days’ march toward the half-century mark:
May 2, 1970: Those Were the Days signs on for the first time
It all began at WNMP (later WLTD)/Evanston, the proverbial 1,000-watt daytime-only station, when Chuck Schaden signed on at 1 pm with the Ray Conniff/Mantovani mash-up of “Those Were the Days” that’s been our theme for fifty years. The structure of that first TWTD was not what it became — it ran for only three hours and was interrupted five times for sports and news reports — but before it was over, listeners got to hear The Happiness Boys, Ma Perkins, The Thin Man, a Bob Hope Show minus Bob Hope (but with some big-name substitutes)… and the boundless enthusiasm of Chuck Schaden. Over the years, that enthusiasm would prove as important to the show as any vintage recording.
June 16, 1970: The first interviews
As thrilling as it was to go on the air and play Golden Age radio shows, Chuck recalled in 2000, he knew early on that he “wanted to know more about it. I wanted to tell you more about it” — and that meant getting the stories from the people who were there. One big step toward that goal began at Sage’s East in Chicago, where Chuck attended a reception dedicated to honoring Chicago broadcasting pioneers. Before the day was done, he had recorded brief but fascinating conversations with Shirley Bell Cole (radio’s Orphan Annie), and former cast members from Curtain Time, Captain Midnight, Calling All Detectives, Let’s Pretend and Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy. Since then, our show and its hosts have shared career-spanning conversations with more than 250 guests from radio and television, including Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Eve Arden, Edgar Bergen, Jim Jordan, Norman Corwin, Arch Oboler, both Great Gildersleeves, Marsha Hunt, Bob Elliott, Dick Van Patten, Hugh Downs, Carl Reiner, Harry Shearer, Betty Lynn... and most recently, actor/singer/dancer Ben Vereen, whose conversation with Steve Darnall was heard earlier this year on the March 28 broadcast of TWTD. (Chuck Schaden’s conversations have all been preserved at speakingofradio.com.)
September 6, 1975: Those Were the Days moves to WNIB
By 1975, WLTD had new ownership and new management who had, in the words of one columnist, “succeeded in smothering every ounce of creativity.” In that environment, Chuck Schaden had decided there was “no future” for his show unless he found a new home. Thankfully, he met up with Bill and Sonia Florian, owners of classical music station WNIB. After a six-week hiatus, TWTD debuted at its new home, where the show now enjoyed a solid four-hour weekly block of time (with no interruptions for news or sports), a stronger signal, and a larger audience than ever. It was a relationship that lasted for a remarkable 25 years.
February 3, 1979: TWTD’s first Jack Benny Month
How could one possibly celebrate the career of the man who was one of radio’s most popular, most enduring, most beloved comedians? Well, you start with four weeks — and clearly go from there. Although TWTD has since devoted multiple weeks to such talents as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Vincent Price and James Stewart, the annual month-long salutes to Jack Benny (during his birth month of February) remain among the most highly anticipated shows of the year.
September 26, 1987: Ken Alexander named “permanent guest host”
Ken and Chuck Schaden had met at WAIT/Chicago in the 1970s, where Ken was a staff announcer and Chuck was producing a series involving excerpts from classic radio shows. When Chuck returned to WAIT in the 1980s with a nightly show, Ken surprised him one day with a recording he’d made “just for fun.” It turned out to be a commercial for Chuck’s Metro Golden Memories store, featuring Ken’s stellar impersonations of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. At Chuck’s urging, Ken became the one-man “Mighty Metro Art Players” and used his vocal dexterity to record a series of entertaining spots for the MGM shop.
More than thirty years after the fact, people might have forgotten that Ken’s appointment as “permanent guest host” was a nod to The Tonight Show, who had recently made a similar announcement concerning comedian Joan Rivers. (Ken, ever the grammarian, still insists it doesn’t make sense to call someone both a guest and a host.) Since then, Ken’s involvement in TWTD has expanded to include our annual Hallowe’en shows (where he still provides nearly all of the voices for our “guests”), writing scripts for special Those Were the Days events (including a salute to Jack Benny’s Centennial and a “final episode” of One Man’s Family), writing jingles for WDCB’s pledge drives and “Yesterday’s Newspaper,” where he shares a newspaper from a date that coincides with the date of a Golden Age radio show. In turn, when we’ve hosted special events to honor Ken’s contributions, the listeners have turned out in full force, which suggests their affection for him runs as deep as ours.
December 7, 1991: Those Were the Days goes to war!
As the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor fell on a Saturday, it made sense that Chuck Schaden would assemble a special program to commemorate this “Day of Infamy.” In fact, that Saturday marked the start of a four-year series-within-a-series that presented (when possible) radio as it was heard week-by-week during World War II. Between 1991-1995, listeners heard presidential speeches, news reports, War Bond rallies, entertainment shows with wartime messages and much more, from Pearl Harbor to D-Day to V-J Day. It was a look at American history that textbooks could never provide and remains one of the most ambitious and well-received periods in TWTD history. [It was also the inspiration for TWTD's 75th anniversary look at radio and World War II, which took place between December 2016 and August 2020.]
November 7, 1993: Chuck Schaden is inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame
Five years after the National Radio Hall of Fame was founded, it was announced that the 1993 inductees would include a “Member’s Choice,” an inductee selected by the membership of the Radio Hall of Fame and the Museum of Broadcast Communications. The first selection: Chuck Schaden. As MBC president Bruce Dumont declared, Chuck “has done more than anyone in broadcasting to save and share the memories of radio’s magic moments.” As Chuck put it, he’s the only fan in the Radio Hall of Fame — and his 1993 induction gave him and his efforts their biggest spotlight yet.
February 17, 2001: Those Were the Days moves to WDCB
By the late 1990s, commercial radio was a shadow of its former self; broadcasting had been replaced by narrowcasting and a wave of deregulation and consolidation meant that more stations were falling into the hands of fewer owners. One of these stations was WNIB, which Bill and Sonia Florian agreed to sell in 2000 for a reported $165 million. Faced with losing the longtime radio home of Those Were the Days, Chuck Schaden contemplated simply ending the show, but changed his mind after hearing from listeners, who were “not only urging me to find a new home for TWTD, but expecting me to find another venue and expressing confidence that I most certainly would find another place to do my program.”
It wasn’t going to be easy: The options for commercial radio were discouragingly limited, and Chuck wasn’t sure he wanted to abandon terrestrial radio in favor of an internet-only show. Thankfully, a few weeks before the sale of WNIB was complete, Chuck met with the management of WDCB, the College of Du Page public radio station with a reputation for eclectic quality programming. A deal was made and nearly twenty years later, we’re still pleased to be a part of this remarkable and interesting station.
July 4, 2009: A new host
On a cold December evening in 2008, Chuck Schaden confided in Steve Darnall (who had taken over as publisher of Chuck’s Nostalgia Digest in 2005) that he was planning to retire from broadcasting and bring Those Were the Days to a close. Momentarily stunned, Steve blurted out, “Well, then, I guess I’ll have to start my own show.” Both men admit the remark took them by surprise, but it reinforced how important the show was to its listeners. The possibility of a “replacement” show was discussed before Chuck generously suggested that if Steve was going to host a show like Those Were the Days, perhaps he should just host Those Were the Days. So it was that on a rainy Independence Day, Steve became the show’s second host/producer. Thankfully, the vintage shows were still around to do most of the work.
May 2, 2020: Those Were the Days celebrates 50 years on the air
After five decades, three stations, two hosts, countless sponsors and underwriters and nearly 2,600 shows, here we are. In 2020, Those Were the Days has not only been on the air longer than nearly every Golden Age radio show (mind you, we’re still well behind Unshackled and Grand Ole Opry), it’s been on the air longer than the entire Golden Age of Radio. Yet in some ways, it feels as though we’re just getting started.
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