The Nineteenth Floor
(Merchandise Mart - 1942 - NBC)
by Kermit Slobb
Right: Tommy Bartlett, host of the "Welcome Travelers" show (above) and Kermit Slobb (the show's engineer) below. The photo was taken in 1948---quite some time before Tommy Bartlett became the Tsar of Wisconsin Dells. (Tommy passed away on September 6th, 1998, at the age of 84.) Kermit and Tommy

Curator's Note: The author of the recollections below, Kermit Slobb, began his broadcast career at the Merchandise Mart in November, 1942, as an engineer for the Blue Network, then in the process of its divestiture from NBC (in 1944 The Blue Network became known as the American Broadcasting Company). During his decade at the Mart, Kermit rode gain on some of the Blue's best-known shows: The Breakfast Club, Welcome Travelers, Little Orphan Annie, Jack Armstrong and Captain Midnight. ABC leased studio space from NBC in the Merchandise Mart until it moved to its own facilities in the Civic Opera Building in 1952.

The elevator operators wore blue uniforms with gold trim, the starter used castanets to "click" the elevator operators into operation, and the sign over the elevator door read, "NBC - EXPRESS TO 19."

That ride up to the 19th floor was my "open sesame" to the world of network radio in November of 1942, even though I was joining the engineering staff of the Blue Network, the sustaining (make that "no commercials") entity just split from NBC.

What temerity prompts me to sketch the days back in the 40's on the 19th floor? Seniority - I've lived longer than most of the habitués of that hallowed floor. Consider these exceptions -I worked with two now famous TV stars, Mike Wallace of CBS's SIXTY MINUTES (back in the 40's known as "Myron Wallace") and Hugh Downs of ABC's 20/20 - when these two retire my tenuous touch with fame will evaporate into dead air. (DEAD AIR -the Nemesis of engineers, for silence was deadly in radio, just as a black screen for any length of time in TV means t-r-o-u-b-l-e!)

Breaking in on the 19th floor was a thrill, actually being in the control room and seeing programs which I had fantasized about in past years, BREAKFAST CLUB, CLUB MATINEE, FARM AND HOME HOUR, TERRY AND THE PIRATES, JACK ARMSTRONG, VIC AND SADE, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, ET CETERA. Breaking in meant accompanying regular engineers as they did their work.

The first assignments on my own were local programs which only involved one microphone for the announcer, one fader (volume control) for records, another for the incoming network - simple jobs giving me a chance to get accustomed to the studio procedure.

Added to my initial enjoyment of the studio programs was the "break-in" with nighttime dance bands. Having played with dance bands out of my home town in Fremont, Nebraska (I met Lawrence Welk that way when we played around Yankton, South Dakota), and having listened long hours to hear famous bands from the Chez Paree, Edgewater Beach Hotel, The Pump Room, College Inn of the Hotel Sherman and others, it was "cloud nine" to actually be IN these famous rooms with the orchestras.

Being new with the Blue the first working shifts were at night. For about a year I would do Paul Harvey's newscast and then go on to the dance band remotes. Paul was very nice, and being new to the Chicago scene, not the suave, mike-veteran associated with fame today.

His wife, Angel, would sit in the control room during the newscasts, and with Paul trying to make his name in Chicago radio she was his "guiding angel." Paul was so new at using personalities for the show he even used ME as a feature one night!

Another of the shows I was mixing before hitting the hotels was one starring Danny Thomas... (he was doing a stand-up comedy act in a Chicago nightclub on Broadway). Sorry to say (considering all the good work he did after becoming famous) I did not like Danny Thomas in those days. Nothing suited him, he was bitching and moaning at everyone and really nasty to the director. The show did not last very long.

My lack of knowledge of the streetcars almost made me miss a Chez Paree broadcast. One of the engineers called in sick and, having only been to the Chez once, tried to remember the routine. Down to the Mart El platform, take the El to Grand Avenue, remember the transfer, take a streetcar heading east, get off at Fairbanks Court. Go north.

The lonesome feeling, night in a strange city, darkness, swept over me as the streetcar rumbled on, and I finally got up my courage to ask the conductor when we were getting to Fairbanks Court. He said, "You're going west, young man. Take this transfer, get off at the next corner, and go back the other way!" I did, my heart pounding, and made it on time.

The main attraction at the Chez Paree at that time was Sophie Tucker, but I was more dazzled by all the beautiful showgirls and their costumes. Someone (perhaps our announcer) put out the word a "hayseed" was operating the remote equipment for the broadcast, and before I knew what was happening one of the cute showgirls was sitting on my lap pretending to make out with me.

Luckily she couldn't spend much time on my lap before the next number or the broadcast might have gone down the drain. She was a big help to me later, however, for Coca-Cola was one dollar at the bar and I didn't have money at those prices, but Bobbi (I think that was her name) showed me where a Coke machine was located near the dressing rooms and cost just a nickel.

The Chez Paree was on the second floor of an old warehouse (are they called lofts?) and seemed to be a terrible firetrap. Obviously entertainment was the big draw with prices of drinks and food reflecting the star-studded shows. This was a restaurant, too, so the garish paint-over-paint walls did not make up for the faint "garbage" smell in the back rooms.

As a great admirer of Russ Morgan's orchestra I really enjoyed my visits to the Edgewater Beach Hotel. The "modus operandi" was to arrive at the remote locations more than an hour ahead of broadcast time (the equipment and microphones were left in the hotels) and set up and check in to NBC Master Control an hour before broadcast. This left almost an hour to listen to the music and/or chat with the musicians or hotel personnel.

This was on the Blue Network, with no commercials, so riding gain on these nighttime musical shows meant a half hour of SOLID music, interrupted only by our announcer giving a bit of chit-chat and then introducing the next selection. These were "bare bones" pickups, no producer, no director, just an announcer, an engineer and the dance band.

The College Inn at the Hotel Sherman was a cozy, intimate place in the basement (later I would do Welcome Travelers from there), but with a very low ceiling so it was difficult to really get a good "mix" on the microphones and balance the singer and orchestra. Especially when bands like Woody Herman or Stan Kenton appeared it was L - 0 - U - D

Alvino Rey and the King Sisters were a pleasant contrast to the loud bands, and Alvino and I talked amateur radio between broadcasts, looking forward to the end of the war and return of ham radio. Using headphones was not the best way to monitor these dance bands and vocalists, but it was the best we would do without a control room.

The atmosphere was much more subdued at the Ambassador East and the Palmer House, and I made a super faux pas at the Empire Room of the Palmer House when I began to walk through the dining room to the spot where my equipment was located wearing my hat. Like a flash the maitre d' was all over me saying, "Sir, you cannot wear a hat in the dining room!" I was banished to entering the room in the future through the back entrance.

The daytime work was a potpourri. While I worked for the Blue Network we were renting studio facilities from NBC (the war was in full swing and it was impossible to purchase broadcast equipment), so for several years I did BLUE and NBC shows whenever needed.

While the NBC engineers did "important" work like soap operas, BLUE engineers (especially recently hired like me) were relegated to one microphone jobs like auditions in Studio F. (By the way, Studio "X" was the toilet!) All of the studios were on the 19th floor except one, Studio F, which was on the 20th floor.

Studio F was different from the other boxy, sterile studios with rather dark sound-proof insulation held to the wall by perforated metal. Studio F had been built especially for Amos and Andy, with warm, dark wood walls more like a living room. With Amos and Andy now long gone, the only regular program using Studio F was Vic and Sade, making it available daily for auditions.

Mary Hartline had her first audition here, before her Super Circus days, playing the trumpet! Others I remember doing were Art van Damme and his quintet, who became NBC staff regulars. Musical auditions were interesting, but the announcer auditions were boring. The budding announcers had to read a very tough script filled with words and phrases meant to trip them up, the old "seashells by the seashore" routine.

NBC's big daytime fare was soap operas (deja vu?), so for BLUE engineers we were usually relegated to sitting in the studio with the organist, often Irma Glenn. (Remember how important the organ was for music swells, themes, background, etc.?) Another use was operating a studio for commercial regional splits.

This was done by having a separate studio take the soap opera dramatic fare, cutting away from, say, Lux Liquid commercials, to put in Lux Soap commercials to the south. This splitting the network into separate regions was a big operation of the Traffic Department, but meant more work for the engineers. Telephone lines to carry radio programming was cheap and easy, and while this occurs now in television, too, it is rare because video circuits (much of it on a satellite) are much more costly.

One NBC soap was Vic and Sade, written by Paul Rhymer. Paul was quite a character, given to sending postcards to his friends. John Holtman, NBC announcer, showed me one of the cards he had received at home: The front of the card was an old-fashioned picture showing a girl in a costume from the 90's, but written on the other side was something like this-"Dear John, Mother wants to know what happened to the blanket we left in Grant Park last night. Please return it as soon as possible. Louise."

Business was deadly serious on the 19th floor, but there were lighter moments. The announcers were involved in many tricky moments, for it was difficult to read a script when pages are set on fire, or keep a straight face and stentorian voice when you are being undressed! Sam Cowling of Breakfast Club told of urinating into Boyce Smith's pocket while he was singing... Did I tell you the one about the goat running around the 20th floor....?

The dido above was possible because the Blue Network had apparently, in the early 40's, contracted to fill sustaining time to the net. So we had many of this type of 15 minute program: Nancy Martin sitting at the piano and singing; The Romeos or The Cadets or the Four Vagabonds singing; Marie Baldwin at the organ.

These 15 minute fillers must not have been red-hot material for local stations, for one time I lost a microphone while Nancy Martin was singing and had seven minutes of dead air. The Traffic Department checked all local stations to see who had missed the program and how much time was lost -not one station was taking the program!

The announcers' lounge was right next to the engineers', so we got to know fellows like Hugh Downs, Norm Barry, Charles Lyon, Kleve Kirby, Louie Roen and---after they came back from the war---Henry Cooke, Dave Garroway, Dick Noble and Bob Brown. Hugh Downs was curious then, as now (witness his unusual trips to Antarctica, scuba-diving, etc.), and the CHAINBREAK, NBC's Central Division house paper, July, 1947, tells of Hugh setting up a telescope in his yard to view the stars when a policeman stopped him cold.. .thought Hugh was going to fire a bazooka!

Before long I was into the BLUE's network programming, usually at first only when another engineer was sick or on vacation. The National Farm and Home Hour was enjoyable with Everett Mitchell ("It's a beeuuutiful day in Chicago!") giving me my first bout with "feedback" when switching the network to New York or Washington.

When Chicago was feeding the network New York would loop it through the "round robin" back to Chicago where it was dead-ended. When the cue was given by the announcer, "we switch you now to New York..." if the Chicago announcer pushed the button too soon before the New York announcer could break the circuit and begin feeding you would hear, "We switch you now to New York...ork...ork---and this "feedback" would continue until somebody switched correctly!

If we went to Washington the same, incorrect way, one would hear on the air, "We switch you now to Washington. ...... ton. .ton. ...... until corrected. Coming the other way, if the announcer in New York said, "We return you now to Chicago...go...go...go....." ad infinitum.

The ad infinitum was tested by the Engineering Maintenance Department early on when they had New York set up the feedback before going home one night, and when they came back the next morning and turned on the network volume it was still echoing, loud and clear, "ork...ork...ork...ork..ork..!"

Daytime radio with the Blue involved afternoon kid shows rather than NBC's soap operas, and a great comedy show, Club Matinee. Personally I was sorry to have missed Gary Moore (he moved to New York shortly before I began work) but his place was ably taken by Durwood Kirby. It was great fun to be "riding gain" on Club Matinee - everyone concerned had a great time.

The BLUE orchestra had many talented musicians, some of whom doubled as comic foils on Club M. Almost to a man these musicians had played with the finest dance bands in the country, but had opted to give up "one-night-stands" for a home and family.

James C. Petrillo had packed the network with staff musicians, so a large orchestra was always available for programming. The NBC entourage was much bigger than the Blue staff group and was used by leaders like Percy Faith and Joseph Gallichio.

Some went on to other things, like Ralph Marterie, who left the staff and started his own band. Ralph's recording of "Caravan" is still a favorite on radio. The orchestra leader names became familiar because of their work, Harry Kogen, Rex Maupin, Walter Blaufuss and others.

Rex Maupin was a ham radio operator so I got to know him and enjoyed his tales of early radio. One I remember well was about Rex taking over the THESAURUS library for NBC (a transcription service offered to other radio stations). The man whose place Rex took always had an odor of whiskey about him, and the reason became clear when Rex had all the transcription slots cleaned out. At the rear of every slot was an empty half-pint bottle!

Following Club Matinee came the kid shows, Captain Midnight, Little Orphan Annie, Sky King, and Jack Armstrong. Little Orphan Annie had a director (advertising agency, not network) who scared the pants off of me, for it was my first contact with a man who swore at me during rehearsals when I did the slightest thing wrong.

While I did work on all the above kid shows, the time spent with Jack Armstrong was the longest. And, through my own foolishness, almost got me fired.

Being "gung ho" to promote the union we engineers belonged to, I first became the Chicago correspondent for the Broadcast Engineers Journal (my column was titled, "CORN FROM A COB REPORTER") and while doing Jack Armstrong ran headlong into Jim Jewell, writer and director.

The equipment in the Mart studios was obsolete by the 40's (having been installed in 1933), with just four faders or ability to control four microphones or sound sources. This severely limited handling shows like Jack Armstrong and practically every other big show. The engineers were advised not to "hot patch" microphones, i.e., not to use cords with plugs to insert in jacks while on the air.

While rehearsing J. Armstrong Jim Jewell asked me to "hot patch" for the upcoming program and I refused (Mistake # 1). Then when we started to argue, standing up and facing each other in the control room, I began a sentence with, "You son of-a-bitch..." (Mistake # 2)!

With that Jim swung a punch at me, but being young I dodged the punch and got a bear hug on him, and we were struggling around in the control room when the J.A. cast came in from the studio and separated us. Cooled down, we did the show. But the next day I faced a meeting with the Chief Engineer and Jim Jewell.

If Jim had said the word I would have been fired, for the fracas was all my fault. But Jim Jewell dismissed the affair as inconsequential, and I went back to work. As with fiction, Jim and I became good friends and I later wrote eight episodes of Jack Armstrong with his help. Jim was a great writer and director (going back to his days at WXYZ in Detroit where he originated "The Lone Ranger") and Jack Armstrong sparkled under his aegis.

To show how quickly Jim reacted - about two weeks later we had a great laugh on the cast (who had witnessed the fight) in this way this was wartime, and occasionally Jack Armstrong would be canceled for a news broadcast. Just a minute or two before our first airing I got a call from Master Control, "Cancel."

When Jim got the news he said immediately, "Let's play a trick on the cast. We'll start the show and about two minutes after we get started we'll pretend we're fighting again!" So we did. Jim started the show, the cast was reading their script in front of the microphone, the sound effects men were making noise, and Jim and I started pretending we were shouting at each other.

We finally went out in to the studio, hamming it up like we were really fighting, the cast was aghast trying to shush us up, but finally we had to break down laughing at their discomfiture. Fred Kasper, ABC announcer (Breakfast Club and Jim Moran's Courtesy Hour) reminded me often about that episode.

Doing Jack Armstrong was an adventure in itself. There were two shows (before tape recording) done live, this to handle the difference in the time zones. We would do the first show, break for a half hour leaving everything set up for the second show, then come back and do the second show exactly like the first.

Except, as mentioned, this was wartime and often a news flash would cut out part of the program. This was where Jim Jewell showed his expertise. Many times I have seen him, after a news dispatch, go out in the studio, using a black marking pencil to cut out lines right on the script the actors were holding, using the stretch and speed up signals, even cueing individual lines to make the timing come out right. Of course, he had written the scripts, but his directorial technique was fabulous.

There is a story about Franklin MacCormack, announcer on the show. This happened before my time, but Sarajane Wells, who played Betty on Armstrong, told this so it must be true. During the half hour before the second show MacCormack went to the drugstore and bought bubble bath, and put it in the tub with oars the sound effects men were using. When the show started the S.E. men began pumping the oars, foam started bubbling up from the tub, Jewell signaled for more action (bubbles were muffling the sound of the oars), and by the time the scene ended the studio floor was covered with foam!

Tom Mix was another kid's program I worked on at times, and Curley Bradley was a gem to work with. Curley wore glasses, but didn't want to use them when making personal appearances, so he had the first pair of contact lenses I had ever seen.

These programs on the 19th floor were going on simultaneously, NBC and Blue Network, and at times different programs for the local stations, WMAQ (NBC) and WENR (Blue). When I started in 1942 WENR was still sharing time with WLS, so our announcer would sign on or sign off at the appropriate time to allow this sharing.

Norman Ross (Sr., not his son we see now on Ch. 7) had a morning show on WMAQ, and it was interesting working with him. Since I had been an announcer at KHBC, Hilo, Hawaii, before the war, and Norm had spent much time in Hawaii, knew Duke Kahanamoku, we talked a lot about the Islands.

These local shows like Norman Ross' came from very small studios, and the records had to be played by "turntable operators" who belonged to the Musicians Union. (Only St. Louis and Chicago had musicians as platter turners, in all other cities engineers or announcers spun records) James C. Petrillo wielded his power carefully and almost brought the broadcasting industry to a halt during the war with his threatened strikes.

This was wartime, and all personnel had I.D. badges. Guards were posted at the entrance to Master Control, usually senior citizens (was that phrase in use back then?), and we actually had two heart attack deaths in the nice old-timers guarding the gate.

The halls on the 19th floor were busy with program people, actors and actresses, announcers, engineers, song pluggers. Some of the busiest people were announcers like Marvin Mueller, so much in demand he had a very tight schedule going between CBS on Michigan Avenue and the Mart, so he would have taxies and elevators waiting to make his schedule. He would later go on to Hollywood as Marvin Miller, possibly most familiar as The Millionaire.

An interesting meeting place for the 19th floor gang was the drug store on the first floor, Wells Street side. A large table was set up and used exclusively for the radio people, so breakfast or a Coke at the drug store would find you surrounded by co-workers talking shop about the next AFRA Antics, reading a letter from a friend in the Armed Forces or discussing who had been fired at CBS recently by Les Atlass.

But all of the workers at the Merchandise Mart were subject to the whim of the Wells Street bridge, which would go up to allow a ship to pass at the most inopportune moment, it seemed. Engineers and announcers worked Sundays and Holidays and with the restaurants in the Mart closed, this meant going across the Wells Street bridge into the Loop for food. Pixley and Ehlers was the closest, with their pots of baked beans with hamburgers.

Actors and actresses were using the soaps on NBC and kid shows on the Blue to hone their skills, some in Hollywood and some in Chicago. Studs Terkel appeared on Jack Armstrong in his budding days as an actor but stayed in Chicago, while Willard Waterman was a regular before going to Hollywood to later become "The Great Gildersleeve." Ed Prentiss was one who successfully made the Hollywood scene, but so many names come to mind it would take pages and pages to list them.

Most of my time B.T. (before television) was spent with two ABC programs (The Blue Network changed to The American Broadcasting Company in April, 1944), the Breakfast Club with Don McNeill and Welcome Travelers with Tommy Bartlett.

The difference was like night and day in my relationship to these radio programs. To Don McNeill the engineer was just another piece of furniture, but with Tommy Bartlett I felt like I was part of the Welcome Travelers family.

After being the regular engineer on the Breakfast Club my first Christmas present from Don McNeill was $1.00 (ten ten-cent war stamps pasted in a War Bond book). Oh, it got better - the next year it was a necktie and the third year a roast guinea hen.

Tommy Bartlett, on the other hand, put me on the Welcome Travelers payroll at $25.00 a week, and I bought my first new car, a Buick, with that stipend. Filthy lucre aside, on Tommy Bartlett's program I felt a part of the show. Jim Ameche, Bob Cunningham, Les Lear, treated me as an equal, introduced me before each program, took me everywhere the Welcome Travelers group appeared.

Don McNeill, by contrast, rarely talked to me, even to answer my, "Good Morning, Don," when he came and sat next to me in the control room to look at audience cards. Just being on the show was interesting, however. Most every day a guest would appear, many from Hollywood. Kay Francis was, to me, the most beautiful of the Hollywood stars I met on B.C.

Once Marion Mann was singing before the audience when she fainted and fell forward on the platform. Being young and quick I had her microphone closed before she hit the floor, closed the audience mike so the gasps from the crowd could not be heard, and as a result the radio listeners did not know what had happened.

Here it was 1948, talk was of television (it's been "around the corner" for years) actually coming to Chicago. First step was to move Breakfast Club to the Civic Opera Building so construction could begin in changing radio Studio A to television studio A. Now I was doing Breakfast Club and Welcome Travelers away from the 19th floor. Before the year was out Welcome Travelers went to NBC and, per my request, I was taken off Breakfast Club.

Many of the soap operas had already moved to New York, many of the actors and actresses had moved to Hollywood, so NETWORK radio was fading. The radio tube was to be replaced by the boob tube.

With regret I moved to TV in the Civic Opera Building. In radio, as one engineer I felt a part of the programs. In TV, surrounded by cameramen, video men, stagehands, makeup, hair dressers, directors, producers, associate directors; I felt like a little frog (Kermit) in a big puddle.

So long, 19th floor.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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