A Fiery Horse
By Geoff Dobson
“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty hi-yo Silver! The Lone Ranger! With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early West. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the Lone Ranger rides Again!”
To that opening following Elmer Davis and the News, three nights a week, children and adults across the nation tuned in to the American Broadcasting Company.
Return with us again to the early days of radio in St. Augustine. St. Augustine did not have a radio station of its own until 1936 when Walter B. Fraser opened WFOY (Wonderful Fountain of Youth Radio) at No. 1. Radio Road; behind the Fountain of Youth on the bayfront.
The station, located in a tabby building, was at first, day-time only and had only 250 watts power. The location on the water, however, permitted because of the grounding a better range up and down the coast. The station was fully equipped to originate programming. In the studio was, as an example, a baby grand piano for accompaniment to live broadcasts. Now days, radio studios are the proverbial “broom closets.”
In St. Augustine, The Lone Ranger was received on Jacksonville station WPDQ or on a big city “clear channel” station whose signal could be picked up at night in St. Augustine such as WJZ, New York, or Miami Beach’s WIOD owned by the Carl Fisher Company. At first, home radios used external antennas. Fisher was one of the early promoters of the Dixie Highway, now US Highway No. 1. Relying on clear channel stations for programs was important. Until 1940, there were only two radio stations in Jacksonville.
The Lone Ranger was, of course, one of the most popular radio programs and lasted from January 1933 until 1954. At its peak was heard by as many as 20,000,000 listeners in the United States, Canada, Australia and Hawaii.
In 1940, the BBC requested permission to broadcast transcriptions of the program to Commonwealth troops fighting in France. Until 1941 the program was carried on the Mutual Broadcasting System and on independent stations. It then switched to National Broadcasting Company’s “Blue Network,” which later became American. From 1933 until 1941, the identity of the Lone Ranger was a secret. So secret, that the actor who played the Lone Ranger one time entered a contest to see who could call out “Hi-Yo, Silver” most like the Lone Ranger. He lost.
The program was broadcast live from Detroit’s WXYZ, with the live broadcasts being repeated for each time zone. The writer recalls staring at the grillwork of the Atwater-Kent radio while listening to the program.
On April 8, 1941, the actor who played the part of the Lone Ranger was killed in an automobile accident in Detroit. From April 9th to April 18th, the Lone Ranger was supposedly recovering from a gunshot wound. For those nine days, the Lone Ranger spoke only in a low whispering voice in which he gave instructions to Tonto who was told that he had to ride for both of them. After the 18th, the Lone Ranger recovered his voice. It was, however, deeper.
Other popular programs for children included the Adventures of Superman and the Shadow broadcast over Jacksonville’s WJHP affiliated with the Mutual. The call letters for WJHP stood for John H. Perry, the owner of Perry Newspapers which owned the Jacksonville Journal.
In 1940, WFOY became affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting System, at one time known as the “Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System.” Thus, in St. Augustine, on Sunday night it was a ritual to listen to Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Nobody thought about the anomaly of a ventriloquist on the radio.
Others who were on Columbia included Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Amos ‘n’ Andy, the Johnson Wax Program, and Jack Benny. In the mornings, one could listen to Arthur Godfrey. For those listening on WJAX, one could listen to Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club broadcast live from Chicago. Every quarter-hour there was the march around the Breakfast Table.
In 1949, WMBR-TV, Channel 4, Jacksonville came on the air. It was the second television station in the state. As far away as Tampa and Tallahassee, people put very tall and large antennas on their roof tops to watch the new miracle. For four years the only programming available in St. Augustine was from Channel 4. The station initially carried a potpourri of programs from all four networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont.
It was not until December 1953, that Jacksonville got a second television station, WJHP-TV, Channel 36. Channel 36, however, always ran a distant second. The television sets only had channels 2 through 13. Channel 36 carried ABC and DuMont. Thus, in order to get Channel 36, it was necessary to buy a converter or have a “strip” installed in one’s television. It was also necessary to install a new antenna. The old antennas were not designed to get Channel 36. When Channel 12 came on the air, Channel 36 went dark, still leaving St. Augustine receiving only two television stations unless a big antenna with a rotor was purchased in order to get the Orlando channels.
The impact of the new medium was dramatic. Both the Jefferson and the Matanzas Theatres closed. The drive-in theatres are now gone. The site of the one north of town, now occupied by apartments. One by one, the big radio programs went off the air. The last live broadcast of the Lone Ranger was on Sept. 3, 1954. The FCC gradually put more of an emphasis on local radio and the 50,000 watt stations lost their clear channel status. At one time, in the evening and early morning, one could receive throughout Florida WWL, New Orleans, “with studios in the Roosevelt Hotel.” At one time, the writer awoke every morning to listen on WWL to “The Story Lady.’ Slowly the format for radio such as WFOY changed.
Many in St. Augustine will recall Fred “Pappy” Schilling who hosted the wake up time on WFOY. Pappy at one time before coming to St. Augustine broadcast from New York’s WWNY. Pappy’s style can best be described as “unique.” The commercials were adlibbed and would often be mixed up. Bozard Ford would advertise on Pappy’s morning show. Almost invariably Pappy would make some horrible error in the commercials. At the height of the Pinto gas tank scare, Pappy told his audience that Bozard had installed a new electronic connection with Ford in Detroit so that if there was a recall or your car needed a new gas tank, they could tell you immediately. But Bozard didn’t mind. Persons mentioning the goof ups gave proof of listenership. He was absolutely honest.
One time he was extolling the virtues of a restaurant’s shrimp telling the audience that it was the best shrimp he ever had, when he recalled that he had shrimp that were better elsewhere. He ended up telling the audience that the shrimp were the second best shrimp. A local boat builder company would not tolerate lateness by employees. The gates were locked when the employees were due; so that they could not get in if they were late.
Allegedly one morning, Pappy got the time off by an hour – he announced the time an hour earlier than it really was. Supposedly, quite a number of employees arrived at the boat works an hour early that day.
In 1954, a second radio station opened in St. Augustine, a predecessor of today’s WAOC. Long-time manager of the station was Wayne Sims. Sims was a Gator through and through and also promoted everything St. Augustinian. The station plugged the local Gator Club, carried the games, and otherwise promoted Gators. The station’s corporate name was even “Gatorland Broadcasting.” The station was, unfortunately, daytime only and, thus, night Gator games could not be carried. Notwithstanding the support shown the Gators by Gatorland, the Gators switched the games to WFOY even though any game that conflicted with the ‘Noles would not be carried. Wayne one time participated in the chartering of a new chamber of commerce in one of St. Augustine’s numerous sister cities, Georgetown, Exuma. While in Exuma, the St. Augustine delegation took two boats to an adjacent island. Unfortunately, the one the writer was driving ran out of petrol and had to be towed back to Georgetown. Wayne has a photo taken from the towing boat of the writer sitting in the pilot’s seat of the writer’s boat with the tow line fastened to the bow He kids the writer about it. What Wayne never mentions is that the writer is drinking a bottle of Beck’s while being towed. In Wayne’s boat, they forgot a bottle opener. Which is more important, petrol when one has the ability to be towed, or a bottle opener so that one does not die of thirst?
The Lone Ranger is gone now. It was revived for a movie. The movie played at the Plaza Theatre. When, the Lone Ranger first put on his mask after being nursed back to health by Tonto and they played the William Tell Overture, it still gave me a thrill. The old-time radio programs which played in the theatre of the mind, did not translate well to television. I miss them. The Story Lady is gone. Pappy is gone now. I miss them all.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org