Sutherlin’s radio museum provides a fascinating look back to the days before Internet streaming, cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle.
Story by Jim Hays, Photos by Thomas Boyd
The Radio Days Theaterof the Mind Museum in downtown Sutherlin isn’t a large space. It occupies a modest storefront, next door to the historic Sutherlin Bank Building. Once inside, a visitor can easily see the exit from just about anywhere.
But it’s easy to get lost in there.
That’s because Dennis Wright, the museum’s executive director, has filled the place with a vast collection of photos, posters, recordings, buttons, badges, pinsbooks — both comic and hard-bound — show- themed board games and other collectibles and memorabilia that reflect his passion for radio’s Golden Age — a relatively short two decades of the mid-20th century when an entirely new medium revolutionized the way millions of Americans were informed and entertained.
Wright’s free museum includes many examples and artifacts of radio’s growth into the media colossus that bound the nation in kilocycles. From westerns to comedies, adventure to soap opera, the Radio Days museum has exhibits of it all, including a photo gallery of the people behind the microphones — many of whom became major stars.
For a generation weaned on television, the museum offers a place to see where and how it all began — with actors reading scripts into studio microphones while listeners at home gathered around bulky wooden boxes of wires and vacuum tubes in countless living rooms and used their imaginations to visualize the action they were hearing.
Radio also let listeners hear newscasters in distant countries providing on-the-spot reporting of world events, which in the 1930s and 1940s included events leading up to and including World War II.
For the first time, millions of people could experience at the same time news reports or entertainment programs from far away without leaving their homes. And unlike newspapers or movies, radio had a unique immediacy. Listeners heard events as they happened instead of reading about them a day later. Most entertainment shows were performed live, because recording techniques that later became common were still largely experimental.
As an advertising vehicle, radio offered the unprecedented chance to reach millions of potential customers with a single commercial. The medium created stars literally overnight.
And, because of the immediacy of the programming — much of it live — radio became the first interactive medium, actively reaching out to members of its vast audience.
Fans of popular programs, especially those aimed at young listeners, were encouraged to mail in proof-of-purchase of the sponsor’s product and a nominal fee — a couple of box tops and 10 cents, for example — to receive a “secret code” booklet or an autographed photo of the show’s star or some other merchandise advertised only to listeners of the show.
Wright, 61, started the Radio Days Museum in 2016, first as a place to display his collection acquired during his career in radio, both as an on-air personality and in sales. And since the museum opened, he has successfully searched for and acquired additional exhibits when he isn’t working his day job as a medical technician at a Roseburg retirement home.
An avid fan of The Lone Ranger, a staple of radio with a decades-long run on air, Wright has one corner of the museum dedicated to the masked man and his faithful companion Tonto, who appeared in nearly 3,000 episodes of the program. Included are large posters, action figures, pins, booklets, facsimile badges and other Ranger-related relics that show the wide scope of offerings from what was then an emerging pop culture surrounding the show and radio generally.
Along another wall are promotions related to the Buck Rogers space adventure series. Wright shows a “ray gun” offered to listeners during one season of the show, and also has an “improved” model offered during a subsequent season.
Museum visitors can also see examples of the big, vintage radio sets that were major purchases for many families at the time and were proudly displayed as part of the living room furniture. Wright has also collected pieces from the technical side of
broadcasting — vintage microphones, mixing boards and tape players.
But the most valuable exhibit in the whole place is Wright himself. A man with an encyclopedic knowledge of his museum’s collection, Wright can supply a detailed backstory for nearly everything in the museum and a trove of fascinating tidbits and insights about classic radio programs and the actors who became stars because of them.
Wright and his wife, Rhonda, a former Sutherlin school employee who now helps run the museum, are constantly looking to improve and expand their collection of radio exhibits through purchases, donations or permanent loans.
“I want to be a repository for anything having to do with radio,” Wright says.
Five Worth Hearing
Of the thousands of radio programs produced, many sound outdated in both style and storyline. But here are five series that have held up, decades after their first airing. All are available as CDs online, or check with Dennis Wright at the Radio Days Museum in Sutherlin.
Pat Novak, For Hire: Crackling dialog and a noir atmosphere are the attractions of this private-eye mystery set in San Francisco in the late 1940s. A young Jack Webb (Dragnet) and a younger Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) are featured in a show written by Academy Award-winner Richard Breen.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: “The Man with the Action-Packed Expense Account,” Dollar was a freelance insurance investigator who was played by six different actors over a 14-year run. During one season, the series junked the usual30-minuteformatforfive15-minute episodes running Monday through Friday of a given week. The resulting 75-minute story arc allowed for more character development, but was also deemed too expensive by CBS, its network, and the show returned to a single 30-minute weekly episode.
Suspense: Just what it implies, this 30-minute anthology featured many major movie stars performing in unusual but engrossing stories “well-calculated to keep you in suspense,” as its announcer, the mysterious Man in Black, intoned.
The Whistler: Another noir anthology with all the stories involving greed, blackmail and/or murder. The title characterwasasortof Greekchoruswho narrated and sometimes commented directly to the lead character. The show was also noted for its surprise endings, in which the culprit was done in by his/ her own malfeasance.
Jack Benny: Benny was perhaps the only radio comic who didn’t rely on cornball humor, topical themes or ethnic stereotypes. Benny played himself as a miserly, self-important radio star, who was the butt of most of the jokes made by his supporting cast. The show ran nearly 20 years on radio and such was its popularity that when Jell-O brand gelatin became its sponsor, the product within weeks became General Foods’ biggest seller.