Glowing tubes warm the heart of longtime radio collector

The compact Fada model 44 is prized by radio collectors. Having an butterscotch Bakelite housing, the set measures 5 1/2 by 9 by 4 inches. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers Archive.

The compact Fada model 44 is prized by radio collectors. Having an butterscotch Bakelite housing, the set measures 5 1/2 by 9 by 4 inches. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers Archive.

CEDARBURG, Wis. (AP) – Visitors walking into Harry Frank’s basement enter his personal museum celebrating old radios.

The time period here is mostly the 1920s to the early 1950s, when radios were the centerpiece of home entertainment and broadcast news.

Nearly 200 sets – tall consoles, hulking tabletop models and a few suitcase-sized portables, along with metal horn-style speakers standing alone – line walls and form rows in a crowded display.

Other radios rest on their sides or backs in an adjacent workshop, waiting for parts or refinishing.

Since the 1950s, Frank has been searching rummage sales, barns and flea markets for neglected radios that he can bring back to life.

“I’ve always liked to take a junker and get it fixed up,” he said.

The radios he acquired often were carried in several pieces downstairs to the basement workshop.

“Some were full of spider eggs and mouse droppings when I found them,” Frank said.

“Here’s one that serenaded cows in a barn just outside Cedarburg,” he said, pointing to a 1939 RCA model. The local farmer was convinced that cows calmed by music gave more milk, Frank said.

He has spent uncounted thousands of hours preserving a technology based on vacuum tubes. As he walks past his radios, Frank’s hand frequently rests atop his work.

One set is the restored mahogany-and-walnut cabinet of a 1930 Edison R7. “Works good,” says a white tag hanging from a small handle.

Frank describes one other as a “three-dialer.”

A person scanning the airwaves for a signal with this 1924 Atwater Kent had to twist three separate knobs, one at a time, in sequence – and then go back and twist them again for fine tuning, Frank said.

Glowing tubes powered the radios and delivered voices of variety shows and comedy or mystery series to families gathered around the sets. This was the era before transistors and microchips yielded smaller personal entertainment devices.

It’s not that he dislikes transistors. “They do a fine job,” Frank said. Even so, none are allowed in the basement.

“I’d like to have kids today know about this old stuff,” he said. He does not want future generations to lose track of this technology or its once-dominant role in everyday life.

“It would be a shame to just forget about it,” Frank said. By recalling tubes and telling the story of his collection, Frank hopes to attract the interest of young people.

Transistors came on the scene in the mid-1950s. Tubes hung on for another decade or so.

Frank’s newest tube radio is a 1964 GE that came inside a wide wood console with a record player and television in the lower compartment.

He is refinishing the mahogany cabinet of a Sparton Model 10 originally purchased at a Schuster’s store in Milwaukee sometime in the early 1930s. Sparton marketed its models as “Radio’s Richest Voice Since 1926.”

The company, based in Michigan and Canada, started just a few years after the first commercial radio broadcast in the United States. That came on Nov. 2, 1920, from KDKA in Pittsburgh, said Tom Mittelstaedt, associate director of the Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, Minn.

Station 9XM at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, later known as WHA, is credited with the earliest regularly scheduled educational broadcasts in 1919.

Frank’s interest in tube-driven radios started with his father, Joe, an electrical contractor and owner of the former Cedarburg Electric on Washington Avenue. His father sold Philco radios in the 1930s.

Frank enlisted in the Navy in 1946. After military service, Frank worked for his father before starting his own electrical contracting business. He closed H.J. Frank Electric 20 years ago.

His private radio museum has never been open to the public. But now that the basement is full, Frank is considering selling the collection at auction.

He is not certain of its value.

His wife of 60 years, LaVerne, is encouraging a sale.

“I’m running out of room here,” he said. “And I’m 81. That’s old. I’ve got to do something with all of these.”


Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

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