April 19th, 2006
WVU New and information Services
April 18, 2006
During the Great Depression, the town of Wheeling gained international notoriety for weekly broadcasts of amateur musicians. Millions of Americans gathered around their radios Sunday afternoons to hear an announcer proclaim “It’s Wheeling Steel.”
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20, an audience will crowd into Capitol Music Hall to enjoy a re-creation of the popular show by the Wheeling Symphony.
“It’s Wheeling Steel” originally aired on WWVA radio and was heard nationwide on the Mutual Network stations and the NBC Blue Network from 1933 to 1944.
John Cuthbert, curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection (WVRHC) at West Virginia University , is playing a key role in introducing new generations to the phenomenon and rekindling memories of those who got to experience the show the first time around.
“It’s an amazing story how a little radio program broadcast from Wheeling, basically for a local audience, had such a charming nature to it that other radio stations found out about it and wanted to run it. And it took off and became the fifth most popular radio program in the country,” Cuthbert said. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Last year, Wheeling Symphony Executive Director Susan Hogan contacted Cuthbert about developing an event to recognize the broadcast. Rather than simply featuring music from the show and talking about it, organizers decided to re-create the program.
Charged by Hogan with writing a script for the tribute, Cuthbert turned to the WVRHC archives and shifted through scripts from original shows to draw some inspiration. His script contains many quotes from the original shows but also contains new material written in the manner of the original programming.
The lines will guide the action for the Wheeling Symphony, a group of local actors, and the singing ensemble Five by Design.
“It’s going to be extremely entertaining because the radio program was extremely entertaining,” Cuthbert said. “It’s got comedy – many funny lines and colorful characters. It has the charm that we identify with amateur hour and family entertainment programs of the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and Lawrence Welk.”
Cuthbert is quick to point out that this homegrown musical variety show was a trend setter in its field. One of its unique traits was it featured Wheeling Steel employees and their families providing the musical entertainment.
The concept sprang from the mind of John Grimes, marketing chief for Wheeling Steel. He saw the idea as simply a tool for improving relations between employees and management.
More than enhancing Wheeling Steel’s image in the community, “It’s Wheeling Steel” gained the attention of the nation. Life magazine spotlighted the program in March 1938, and soldiers on the warfront listened to broadcasts during World War II.
The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. April 20 at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling . For tickets call 1-800-395-9241.