A century after the first commercial radio station began broadcasting, 83% of Americans ages 12 or older listen to the radio in a given week. It’s a technology that we may take for granted now, but the rapid development of radio technology and programming in the early 1920s led to significant changes in American culture and communication.
According to Professor Tom Lewis of Skidmore College, “radio became the first modern mass medium, one that knew no geographic boundary, and excited the imagination and minds as well as the ears of listeners.”
The act of tuning in to hear the latest news, the weekly antics of beloved characters, the current sports game, and the most popular music quickly became a standard ritual in the daily lives of Americans across every age, class, and race.
It exposed millions to new entertainment, politics, culture, and information. General Electric, as a leader in technology and invention, was one of the companies pushing the envelope of what radio could and should do. The creation of the WGY Players, GE’s in-house radio acting troupe, was one such innovation.
In February of 1922, General Electric received its first broadcasting license for a new radio station to be located in Schenectady, NY. The debut broadcast took place on February 20th of that year. It began at 7:47pm with announcer and Program Director, Kolin Hager, welcoming listeners to station WGY, and explaining that the call letters signified W for wireless, G for General Electric, and Y for the last letter of Schenectady. The broadcast, “furnished by some of the city’s best talent,” consisted of live music with announcements of song titles and lasted about an hour. The next broadcast was two days later and featured a speech about George Washington, delivered by W.W. Tranch, the commander of Schenectady’s American Legion post. WGY then broadcast a live concert.
With one of the strongest signals in the state—more than three times the power of other stations—WGY covered an area with at least a 500-mile radius. The broadcasts quickly became more sophisticated and innovative. Just three days after signing on, they presented a speech by Governor Nathan L. Miller from the Union College gymnasium followed by a short concert, becoming a pioneer in remote broadcasting.
They also aired the Harvard-Yale football game live from New Haven, CT, the WGY String Orchestra live from the State Theater in Schenectady, and the first live broadcast of a World Series game, as well as many other remote presentations from GE scientists, explorers, and politicians during their first year.
Edward H. Smith, the director of “The Masque,” a community theater group from Troy, NY, suggested to Kolin Hager that the station carry weekly adaptations of plays. On August 3, 1922, “The Wolf,” directed by Smith and mainly using actors from his theater group, became the first full length melodrama ever produced for radio. Since there was no rigid schedule to follow, listeners heard the play in its entirety, about 2 ½ hours, with the WGY orchestra performing between acts.
The response was overwhelming; the station received over 2,000 letters asking for more radio dramas. One letter, from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, claimed that the screams of the character “Hilda” were so real that a policeman on foot patrol hearing the program through an open window burst into the writer’s home to stop the “assault.”
By September, the WGY Players were formed, becoming the first dramatic radio troupe for radio, ultimately presenting 43 plays during the initial 1922-23 season. After the production of “The Wolf,” forty minutes were allotted for these plays, as it was thought unwise to dedicate an entire evening’s programming to a single play. Director Edward H. Smith worked to carefully edit full length plays to the required forty minutes. They became such a popular feature that, after the first eight plays, the time limit was abandoned, and many were performed in their original length. As more regular programming was introduced, the Schenectady GE Works News included the WGY weekly broadcast schedule in each issue. Detailed information, including the names of the actors playing each character, was included in the schedule.
Most of the WGY Players had professional theater backgrounds, but performing on radio was a new experience for everyone. When “microphone fright” was discovered, the microphone was covered by a lampshade. The actors initially wore costumes and stage make-up, thinking it would help them get into character, but that was soon abandoned as unnecessary. They became pioneers of radio sound effects, experimenting with many found objects to get the desired effect for radio. The actors carefully rehearsed their roles, but read from scripts during broadcasts to avoid missed cues and forgotten lines.
The WGY Players served as a springboard for talented actors in the early stages of their careers. Lola Sommers, an orphan from Hoosick Falls, started her career as a Vaudeville dancer and stage actress, and supplemented her acting income by working as a maid in Schenectady. She became a household name and a Capital District celebrity as one of WGY’s first leading ladies. Several successful and celebrity radio performers and personalities started their careers with The WGY Players. Rosaline Greene, for example, started her career in radio when she auditioned for The WGY Players during her sophomore year of college. After three years with WGY, Greene went on to win a ‘perfect voice’ competition at the 1926 Radio World’s Fair, perform in numerous radio plays, and host regular programs for CBS during the Golden Age of Radio. Stars of stage, opera, and concert halls, intrigued by the novelty of radio, considered it an adventure to come to Schenectady to be part of a broadcast.
By December of 1922, WGY became part of the first radio “network,” linking it to stations in New York City and Washington, DC, who were able to listen in to The WGY Players. Eventually that network expanded, and one night each week listeners across the country tuned in to hear Kolin Hager announce: “Station WGY, General Electric Company, Schenectady, New York. Our program for this evening will consist of the drama/comedy ____,” followed by the title.
The WGY Players staged both dramas and comedies. Some of their early broadcasts, in addition to “The Wolf,” included such plays as: “The Garden of Allah,” “Way Down East,” “Are You a Mason?” “Within the Law,” “Under Cover,” “Bought and Paid For,” “The Witching Hour,” “The Man from Home,” “The Sign of the Cross,” and “Miss Lulu Bett.” The light operas, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Mikado,” and others were also performed with the WGY orchestra and singers joining the productions. Actors in leading roles were paid, usually $5.00 to $7.50 a week.
Actors in lesser roles received no pay, although they may have experienced the thrill of stardom when a limousine and chauffeur brought them to the station.
On November 6, 1922, The WGY players presented their twelfth play of the first season, “The Sign of the Four,” a Sherlock Holmes mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Edward W. Smith performed the role of Holmes, and F.H. Oliver, who usually did sound effects, played Dr. Watson. What makes this particular performance interesting is that the famous Sherlock Holmes actor, William Gillette, has often been cited as the first actor to portray Holmes on the radio (in “The Speckled Band” on October 20, 1930). However, the distinction actually goes to Edward H. Smith for his 1922 performance, although Gillette can still be credited as the first to perform Holmes in a radio network series.
Since many of the actors came from the professional ranks, they usually left Schenectady to perform in summer stock theaters from July through September. In order to continue the radio dramas, the Schenectady GE Works News encouraged workers to try out for the “WGY Student Players.”
Many applicants, eager to make their radio debut, came forward, and Edward W. Smith was kept busy interviewing prospective thespians. A group was selected, most employees of General Electric, and they gave “some very credible performances during the summer season… which was demonstrated by the many complimentary letters received by WGY during their run,” according to the Works News. Several of these players were also selected to augment the regular player group when they returned.
The WGY Players performed many of the popular dramas and comedies of the day. By their second season, they were looking for new material. An article in the October 1923 GE Monogram, a nationwide GE publication, advertised a contest to be held “for the best play written for the specific purpose of being broadcast in Schenectady by The WGY Players.” The first-place prize was $500 (over $7,700 in today’s dollars) and having the play produced over the WGY airwaves. According to the rules for the contest, the plays should be 1.5 hours in lengths and “plots must be clean with no attempt at questionable situations… No ‘sex dramas’ will be considered.” Over one hundred plays were submitted and, according to Kolin Hager, only one produced, with disappointing results.
Radio dramas were soon being broadcast by many stations around the country. The WGY Players, as well as groups in other cities, could be heard through radio networks from coast to coast. In the late 1920s, WGY added the WGY Matinee Players, who performed a weekly daytime radio drama. Later, WGY introduced plays for children. By the 1930s, daily radio dramas, eventually referred to as soap operas, were being broadcast from New York City. These quickly became very popular. Network shows for children such as “Little Orphan Annie” and weekly scripted comedy and drama programs written specifically for radio were mainstays in American households.
The WGY Players were also were responsible for the earliest known attempt at a television drama in the country. A production of “The Queen’s Messenger” was presented with the Baird/Jenkins mechanical TV process in 1928. As television gained popularity, radio dramas slowly declined. The WGY Players performed into the 1940s with a weekly show called “The FBI in Action” and continued to provide radio dramas on a limited basis as late as 1956.
In their early years, no other actors had as large an audience as The WGY Players. It was estimated up to a million people tuned in around the country to listen to their productions. Thanks to the vision of Edward H. Smith and Kolin Hager, WGY in Schenectady became the true birthplace of the radio drama as well as the first “network” for dramatic programs.
This article was written by Gail Denisoff and first appeared in Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 65. Become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org.
Photos, from above: Early performers on WGY.; WGY players perform the sound effects for the radio play “Danger” during the early days of radio before they had prerecorded sound effects c 1923 courtesy of miSci; Early performers on WGY; and Kolin Hager, Station Manager of G-E Radio Broadcasting Station WGY, at Schenectady, c. 1941 courtesy of miSci.