Throughout most of the Golden Age of Radio era, the major networks occasionally produced a major flagship sustaining program of one type or another. The practice served several ends:
It gave the respective network a high production value feature to tout its respective technical and artistic capabilities.
It gave the network a platform upon which to significantly promote other featured programming in its line-up.
It gave the network an opportunity to introduce its newest talents of the era.
It demonstrated the networks’ capabilities to potential future sponsors and their ad agencies.
It served as a major buoy to network affiliate stations to reinforce their confidence that they were part of a truly well-financed, high-quality network; and perhaps coax other potential affiliates into the fold in the process.
These productions tended to be all hands on deck, no expense spared showcases of the very best that the respective network represented at the time. CBS’ Columbia Workshop debuted in 1936 with its initial cycle of cutting-edge ‘experimental Radio’ productions. NBC for its part premiered its The Magic Key of RCA in 1935. NBC’s The Magic Key was part of a concerted, three-year Radio Corporation of America (RCA) campaign promoting its line of ‘smart’ electronics and technologies of the era. RCA characterized the various technological advances in its new recorders and players as ‘Magic’ components, such as:
Magic Eye [for precision receiver tuning]
Magic Brain [for precise noise and static filtering]
Magic Voice [for clearer sound reproduction]
Metal Tubes [for longer lasting performance and noise shielding]
Magic Tone Cell with its Jewel-Lite Scanner [balanced tone head and diamond-tipped styli for less damage to record grooves]
Flexible Tone Bridge [for more precise tracking in record grooves]
RCA’s ‘Magic’ promotion continued to roll out new ‘Magic’ technologies between 1935 and 1939. Between 1937 and 1939 RCA began including a monthly four to eight-page newsletter insert in LIFE Magazine titled LISTEN. The multi-page monthly inserts comprised at least seventeen issues during the multi-year campaign.
RCA had recently completed the construction of its remarkable Radio City Complex at Rockefeller Center in 1932. Radio City Music Hall was opened to the public on December 27, 1932, with an extraordinary stage show featuring Ray Bolger and Martha Graham. The opening was meant to be a return to “high-class variety entertainment”. ‘Variety’ was apparently not the best use of the stunning new venue. The premiere program was very long and individual variety acts were lost in the cavernous hall. Acting quickly, on January 11, 1933, the Radio City Music Hall converted to the then familiar format of a feature film with a spectacular stage show which ‘Roxy’ Rothafel had perfected at the Roxy Theatre. The first film was shown on the giant screen was Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck. This was the formula they needed, and Radio City’s Music Hall soon became the premiere showcase for films from the RKO-Radio Studio.
If you get the impression that RCA and NBC had much to tout throughout the early to mid-1930s, you’re getting past the tip of the iceberg. The period between 1932 and 1939 was both RCA and NBC’s single most explosive period of network growth and technological success. 1936 especially, was NBC’s Tenth Anniversary in Broadcasting.
RCA and NBC debut The Magic Key of RCA
The Magic Key of RCA premiered on September 29th, 1935, as the crown jewel in NBC’s Fall 1935 Season. The series debuted with an introduction to The Magic Key of RCA, highlighted by:
A Short-wave address by David Sarnoff, President of the Radio Corporation of America-from the steamship Majestic, 975 miles out at sea in the Atlantic Ocean.
Walt Disney from Hollywood
Maria Jeritza and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra–from Vienna
Amos ‘n’ Andy from New York
A Six-second Trip Around the World by Radio
This pattern was extended throughout the run of The Magic Key, incorporating remotes and short-wave international broadcasts employing NBC’s worldwide resources. NBC’s Music Director, Dr. Frank Black, directed the NBC Symphony Orchestra in two or three stirring symphonic pieces during each hour-long production.
Dr. Frank Black, NBC Music Director at the podium of the NBC Symphony Orchestra
As a technical demonstration if nothing else, The Magic Key of RCA was about as cutting-edge as RCA’s broadcast technology of the era could provide. NBC had a long-standing proscription against employing pre-recorded recordings in live productions. That proscription exended well into the 1950s. This simply underscores the fact that all of the various remote and short-wave portions of The Magic Key were as live or real time as the RCA technology of the era could permit. And indeed by 1936, NBC’s network successfully handled 698 international pickups from 51 countries. NBC had also inaugurated regular Radio programming exchanges between the U.S. and Latin America by 1936.
September 1937 LISTEN magazine illustration depicts how NBC transmitted live broadcasts of the Salzburg Festival from Salzburg to Geneva through the ionosphere to RCA’s Riverhead, Long Island receiving antennae.
The program’s name, ‘The Magic Key of RCA’ referred to RCA’s record of Radio and Television technologies that RCA termed “The Magic Keys to the Future.” The ‘Magic Key’ term also fell in nicely with RCA’s five-year promotion of its ‘Magic’ electronic components of the era.
From the April 3rd, 1938 edition of the Oakland Tribune:
Space Is No Object in Case of Radio
Program That Has Its Points
of Pickup Scattered Over Surface
of Earth Wherever Celebrated
Participants Happen to Be Located
At Time of Sunday Broadcast
KEY TO A THOUSAND CITIES
By JACK BURROUGHS
IT STARTED on board the Majestic while that liner was at sea.
The men who launched the great liner had no idea that they would have an indirect hand later on in the launching of one of radio’s major broadcasts, but on one of the vessel’s trans-Atlantic voyages that was exactly what did happen.
This is how It came about:
On Sunday, September 20, 1035, David Sarnoff, a passenger aboard the Majestic opened a new series of radio broadcasts called “The Magic Key.”
This coast-to-coast NBC-KGO program inaugurated back in 1935 with a land and sea broadcast has had the airlanes steadily.
The inaugural program brought an imposing list of celebrities to the dialers.
The group included Marie Jeritza and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, heard from Vienna; Walt Disney, from Hollywood; Amos ‘n’ Andy, from Chicago; Paul Whiteman and his orchestra; Conductors Walter Damrosch and Frank Black with the NBC Orchestra and John B. Kennedy, NBC commentator, speaking from New York.
During its tenure of the air lanes, the Magic Key program has continued to present, week after week, the most celebrated opera, symphony, and concert artists, and the outstanding entertainers of radio, stage, and screen.
The program has been the Open Sesame to a world of entertainment, the veritable key to a thousand cities.
It is international in its scope, with portions of each 60-minute program cut in from various pickup points throughout the world.
On one occasion were pickups from a dozen widely separated points on the Earth’s surface. These broadcasts originated at the following spots: New York, Hollywood, Honolulu, Buenos Aires, Tokio. Manila, Bangkok, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and Basle.
MONOPOLY can never be linked with the name of the Magic Key program. Sameness cannot be laid at the door of a series that includes operatic and concert stars like Giovannia Martinelli, Helen Jepson, Rosa Ponselle, Tito Schipa, Rose Bampton, John McCormack, Marjorie Lawrence, Helen Traubel and Gladys Swarthout, conductors and instrumental artists like Mischa Mischakoff, Efrem Zimbalist, Leopold Stokowski, Jose Iturbi, Eugene Ormandy and Charles O’Connell, and such varied attractions as the Scale Street Ramblers, noted swingsters, pickups from the Winter quarters of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, scenes from Broadway stage productions and spot news broadcasts from various parts of the world.
Distance seems no bar to these presentations. In his endeavor to put top-flight talent on the air the Magic Key has not merely brought the artists to the microphone but has taken the microphone to the artists no matter in what part of the world they happened to be at the time.
Remote control broadcasts have been offered the listeners from points that are in many cases far removed from broadcasting facilities. In ordinary radio parlance “remote control” may refer to a point of origin only a few blocks away from the broadcasting station. But a remote control pickup on a Magic Key program may mean anything from La Scala to a London Music Hall, from the Hospice of St. Bernard in the Swiss Alps to an expedition in a South American jungle. In these remote control broadcasts, the radio engineers play a highly important role.
In addition to the celebrated guests heard on this series, there are several famous “regulars” who are heard on these broadcasts each week.
This list of regular participants includes: Frank Black, NBC general music director; Milton J. Cross and Ben Grauer, and Linton Wells, roving correspondent whose assignments carry him far and wide.
Black conducts the Magic Key Orchestra of 65 pieces in classical selections on these broadcasts, except when his orchestra is replaced by some outstanding musical group like the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Philadelphia Orchestra.
FRANK JEREMIAH BLACK, conductor of the Magic Key Orchestra whose many compositions include the famous fragment that introduces the weekly Magic program and serves also as a signoff melody, is a native of Philadelphia.
He cannot tell you when he first felt a desire to play the piano, but he rather suspects that he was born with the inclination to climb up on a piano bench and run his fingers over the keyboard. Although the hours he has spent at the keyboard, if laid end on end, would fill several calendars, Black’s activities are by no means restricted to the field of music. His outside interests range from baseball to color photography. He has somehow found time to establish an enviable reputation as a writer, one of his tours de force along this line being a series of articles along musical lines for one of the outstanding National magazines.
Black’s prodigious labors in the musical field, are made possible through adherence to a strict routine. For years he has subjected himself to severe discipline in this respect.
Regardless of what hour he retired the night before, he always gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning. By 7 a. m., he is in his office at Radio City. This gives him from two and a half to three hours time to work on arrangements, as his regular duties do not begin until 9:30 or 10 a. m.
From 10 a. m., through the remainder of the day he is kept busy furnishing the answers to countless questions and ironing out the numberless problems that fall to a musical director’s lot.
One of the words that he took out of his working vocabulary a long time ago is that notorious thief of time, procrastination.” He keeps his business correspondence not only up to date but practically up to the minute. No unanswered letters ever find a resting place on top of his desk. He attends to all his manifold duties with neatness and dispatch.
Like many another successful musician, Black started out to be something else. The study of chemistry kept him busy when he attended college at Haverford and afterward when he went to the University of Pennsylvania.
ONE of our Radio City correspondents who specializes in nosing out interesting facts concerning radio celebrities, provided us with the following slant on Black’s career and character:
“When Frank Black went to Harrisburg, Pa., to get a job as chemist after he left college, he took time to play for a hotel man there.
“He got a job playing in the hotel and he’s been in music ever since. He took time to write songs for a lot of vaudeville acts in Philadelphia and he took time to make thousands of piano rolls for player pianos there in his own factory as a youth. He took time to lead the pit orchestras for a number of famous musical comedies of an earlier day and he arranged the tunes of these shows by men like George Gershwin. He took time to become musical director for a phonograph company where he directed for such singers as John Charles Thomas. And he took time to make the first arrangements of classical numbers you heard in the movie theaters, such numbers as ‘Carmen Capers,’ ‘Wagneria,’ ‘Lilting Lucia,’ and others.
“He works easily . . . Nobody has ever seen Frank Black the least bit ruffled. He has piled up a tidy fortune and could retire tomorrow if he wanted to. But he won’t. He likes to work too well.”
Radiotron was the Radio Tube arm of R.C.A
IN POINT of service the veteran announcer Milton J. Cross is the oldest announcer with the National Broadcasting Company. In 1929 he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal for good radio diction.
He made his radio debut back in 1922 through WJZ. He has a good tenor voice and in the early part of his radio career he alternated announcing with singing. Cross received his musical training at the Damrosch School of Musical Art in New York. He is a native of New York.
Helen Jepson, one of the many opera stars who have been heard on Magic Key programs, is a native of Titusville, Pa. She spent her early years in Akron, Ohio. There, at the age of 15, when she was a high school student, she made her stage debut in the role of “Nedda” in “Pagliacci.” Later she sang in the “Bohemian Girl” and “Pinafore.”
She won five scholarships with the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She made her Grand Opera debut in 1928 with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. The following year she appeared with the Philadelphia Grand Opera as “Nedda” in “Pagliacci” with John Charles Thomas. In 1933 she took part in the Athens, Ga., Symmer Opera and in the same year with the Montreal Opera singing the title roles in “Louise” and “Thais.” She was heard for some time as special soloist; on a Paul Whiteman program.
NOLA DAY, NBC contralto, who has appeared as a Magic Key guest, is a native of Iceland but was brought to the United States when she was a baby. She grew up in Tacoma. When she was still in her teens she joined a touring organization that gave entertainments in the logging camps in the Northwest. At the end of a two-years’ tour Nola went to Portland, Oregon, and after a year’s vocal training she was selected as a soloist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Later she went to Seattle where she sang in “The Vagabond King,” and later proved her vocal versatility by singing with a dance orchestra. When KOMO, Seattle, put on its first transcontinental over NBC, Nola took part. This was her radio debut. She later became a member of the NSC staff in San Francisco. At present, she is with NBC in New York.
A Broadcast Station Directory accompanied every matched set of RCA Radiotrons
Gladys Swarthout who has been featured as a guest on the Magic Key program, is a native of Deepwater, Missouri. After graduating from the Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., she entered the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago where she remained for three years.
Miss Swarthout began her career as a church singer, after which she went into concert work. She was a member of the Chicago Civic Opera Company in 1924 and 1925. She has been with the Ravinia Company of Chicago in 1927 and 1929 and later joined the Metropolitan Opera Company.
The superlatives employed by the author of the above piece were entirely appropriate. The Magic Key of RCA was without question NBC’s most ambitious, sustained programming effort of its–then–nine-year history. From the very outset of the series, week after week demonstrated NBC’s remarkably expanding network and its technological capabilities. And of course it also quite deliberately demonstrated Radio Corporation of America’s (RCA) remarkable technical achievements over its–then–sixteen-year history.
RCA illustrated how NBC airs 35 hours of compelling Radio every day from the September 1937 edition of LISTEN magazine.
Given the fact that CBS and NBC were the two major networks of the era, comparisons between CBS’ Columbia Workshop and NBC’s The Magic Key of RCA are probably inevitable:
Both could rightfully be referred to as experimental Radio.
Both series’ showcased their latest respective technological developments.
Both expanded the sound shaping envelope in evolving Radio.
Both showcased the greatest international talent of the era.
Contrasts between the two flagship productions are also appropriate:
The Magic Key of RCA aired first (1935-1939).
Columbia Workshop ran almost twice as long in various forms (1936-1947).
The Magic Key of RCA concentrated more on showcasing its extensive, worldwide sound transmission, broadcasting hardware, and networking technologies.
Columbia Workshop concentrated more on showcasing its more innovative sound capture, shaping, and transmission engineering technologies.
The Magic Key of RCA devoted a great deal more of its air time to music performances.
Columbia Workshop devoted a great deal more of its time to innovative literary works, avant-garde music works, tone poems, sound demonstrations, and radio plays.
The Magic Key of RCA, though sustaining over its ‘Blue’ Network, remained far more commercialized throughout its run.
Columbia Workshop only occasionally touted CBS’ various commercial enterprises.
The Magic Key of RCA introduced most of the era’s most innovative and distinguished musical performers to Radio.
Columbia Workshop introduced most of the era’s most innovative and accomplished writers to Radio.
While the above comparisons are by no means exhaustive, they accurately portray the contrasts that made both productions unquestionably historic Radio for their era.
There were also several definable sub-elements throughout the evolving format of The Magic Key of RCA:
Regular messages showcasing RCA’s various technological advances throughout its seven sponsoring enterprises — The Radio Corporation of America, RCA Communications, RCA Victor, RCA Radiotron, RCA Radiomarine, RCA Institutes, and the National Broadcasting Company
NBC’s involvement in Education over Radio established a legacy spanning almost 20 years between 1935 and 1955
John B. Kennedy’s various live remote broadcasts throughout the world.
Floyd Gibbons’ live commentaries throughout the world.
Regularly featured scenes from the most popular Stage productions of the era.
Linton Wells’ remotes from Central and South America
Regular live hookups from every geographic area of the world that NBC’s network could reach.
Dr. Frank Black’s opening and closing orchestral and choral performances.
And indeed, as with Columbia Workshop, the extraordinary technical direction, timing, and network routing behind the mike were the greatest technical achievements over Radio of the era. Both flagship network productions were all hands on deck undertakings employing both networks’ greatest engineering and production talent.
During the course of The Magic Key of RCA’s run the production aired transmissions from planes, trains, and ships at sea. The series transmitted live from points across the length and breadth of the United States as well as internationally:
It goes without saying that RCA and NBC were unquestionably flexing their technological muscles with The Magic Key of RCA. The Columbia Chain’s Chairman, William S. Paley, had been making aggressive inroads into Broadcast Radio since 1928. By 1935 NBC and the Columbia Broadcasting System had become head-to-head competitors in virtually every area of the communications field.
Throughout 1937 to 1939 RCA had taken out four to eight-page advertising supplements in LIFE magazine–a mini-publication that RCA titled LISTEN Magazine. RCA also launched an accompanying five-minute LISTEN Magazine of the Air promotional series over Radio. The promotional campaign served as an adjunct to The Magic Key of RCA and celebrations marking NBC’s Tenth Anniversary and culminating in RCA’s Twentieth Anniversary by the end of the series.
Use the player on Digital Deli On-Line to hear the September 20th 1937 promotion of LISTEN magazine.
If you’re getting the impression that The Magic Key of RCA was Radio’s most ambitious and impressive regular production in the history of Radio by 1935 you’re beginning to grasp the significance of this remarkable series. There would be numerous, memorable and distinguished NBC productions to follow, to be sure:
1923-1926 NBC University of The Air Talks
1925-35 NBC University of The Air
1928 Music Lectures
1928-1954 The Voice of Firestone
1929-1942 Music Appreciation Hour
1931-1940 The Metropolitan Opera
1935 Music at The Hayden’s [Planetarium]
1936-1938 Children’s Hour
1937-1954 NBC Symphony Orchestra
1937-1949 The Passing Parade
1937 Streamlined Shakespeare
1938 Great Plays
1940-1942 Behind the Mike
1942-1946 The Lands of The Free
1942 Music of The New World
1943-1947 The Pacific Story
1944-45 The American Story
1944 Pursuit of Learning
1944-48 The Worlds Great Novels
1944-45 We Came This Way
1945 Our Foreign Policy
1945 The Story of Music
1945 Pioneers of Music
1944-1950 Orchestras of the Nation
1946 NBC Radio Institute
1946 Featuring Our Families
1946 Tales of The Foreign Service
1946 Your United Nations
1946 Home Around The World
1947 American Novels
1946 Concert of Nations
1948 Radio City Playhouse
1948-1951 NBC University Theater
1951 New Theater
1952 Best Plays
1954-1964 Biography In Sound
1955-1975 NBC Monitor
But it was The Magic Key of RCA that remains NBC’s most comprehensive and ambitious undertaking during the Golden Age of Radio.
For the comprehensive history of The Magic Key of RCA visit The Digital Deli On-Line.
For his part Nipper, RCA Victor’s mascot since 1906, celebrated his 30th Anniversary with RCA Victor during The Magic Key of RCA’s 1936 productions.