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RADIO ROW TOWARDS FOREVER

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I might have visited Radio Row for the first time in the spring of 1961. My father took me along with him on one of his frequent excursions there to find yet another replacement tube for our RCA television set. This set was (to me, a 7-year old) a colossus of electronic bewilderment, encased within mahogany, standing tall and imposingly in our living room like the Monolith of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The picture would take an aggravating eternity (maybe longer) to come on, if it came on at all, and its electronic appetite would gobble-up tubes like a sponge. However, the most terrible thing about this monstrosity was its uncanny ability to conk-out during my favorite shows; “Mr.Ed” in particular. Right in the middle of “Hello. My name is…” silence; no sound, no picture, and no Mr. Ed.

A tube on the outer edge of this television’s apparent jungle of tubes was at once the usual culprit and easiest to replace without calling a repairman. Even my father could replace it without risking the chance of having the set explode; hence, the visits to Radio Row. If I had thought that our set had a lot of tubes, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Along twisting and winding streets named Albany, Greenwich, Carlisle and Liberty, were piled rows of over 300 street level stores above which tottered numerous related businesses, their shelves virtual mountains stacked with vacuum tubes, transistors, condensers, and every other conceivable electronic accessory known and unknown to human civilization. This was the Garden of Eden for every ham radio enthusiast, do-it-yourselfer and maniac there ever was or ever could be, whose complexity made our formidable TV back home look like a bread box.

“EVERYTHING IN TELEVISION AND RADIO,” “IF WE DON’T HAVE IT, IT DOESN’T EXIST,” proudly proclaimed scattered signs throughout Radio Row’s tangled maze of modern and moldering marvels, stuffed with gadgets, gizmos and other electrifying curiosities. When the area haphazardly sprung-up in the 1920s, it dealt almost exclusively with radio tubes; in the post-war years it diversified to include television sets, WWII era electronic surplus, stereos, shortwave radios, all neatly marked with a unique RADIO ROW tag.

We entered what could be best described as a “crack in the wall” between two cluttered vendors’ tables, into an impossibly crammed and incredibly precise store. A small elderly man, who easily remembered the days before radio itself, greeted us. My father giving him the model/ serial numbers of the required tubes, he quickly disappeared into his inscrutable sanctum and just as quickly reappeared with those glass bubbles; there was magic in those days…or so it seemed.

When we arrived home, I watched my father insert the tubes into their respective slots within the Monolith; the power turned on, the tubes slowly glowed one, two, then five, six…and the picture tube would illuminate and sound the action on the screen. This is how “Mr. Ed,” “The Abbott and Costello Show,” “The Honeymooners” and the entire host of my favorite shows arrived in my home. All thanks to that dilapidated magic place called Radio Row which I’d thought would last forever. As I watched Mr. Ed that week, I think I heard my parents talking about Radio Row being replaced by a skyscraper complex, towering higher than the Empire State Building (which, we deemed, was impossible). But that was in the future…in my child’s world of vacuum tubes and condensers, today was the future. In the later 60s, I would remember Radio Row, as I watched two strange-looking columns rising in Lower Manhattan, against the blare of my transistor radio and a gasoline station selling gasoline at 40 cents a gallon outside the corner of my eye…thinking it would last forever, in days when forever used to be a long time.
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  1. kiz_paws's Avatar
    Thank you for painting this vivid scene of yesteryear; beautifully written as always, Michael. And glad to see ya 'round here!
  2. Virgil's Avatar
    Nice to see you back GreyFox. I hadn't seen you in a whle. Actually my wife and I are going to see Camelot tomorrow night (saturday) at the Philharmonic. You can see the cast here: http://www.theatermania.com/content/...fm/story/13668. Actually my mother-in-law said that last night it was broadcast on PBS. What did I buy tickets for if they put it on TV? Well, I'm sure it will be better live.
  3. GrayFoxDown's Avatar
    Virgil, I worked across the street from the World Trade Center and was there for the "opening act" (the'93 bombing) and for the "main event" (of course, the WTC's final attack). I'll never forget the bombings...whether from land, sea or sky. While New York City certainly isn't one mass configuration of security zones, and what I'm alluding to is somewhat exaggerated to express a point, much of it is indeed true.
  4. GrayFoxDown's Avatar
    Kizzie~Your praise is always appreciated and is always more than I deserve. I'm merely trying to "paint" it all with the paint of memory...adding some tints of color to the shadows. It's good to be back and better for the like of you being here.

    Virgil~Thanks for the welcome back. I hope you enjoy CAMELOT; it's one of my favorite musicals.
  5. Captain Pike's Avatar
    My dad worked for AT&T. He used to maintain this building way out in the Woods, up on a high hill at the foot of a huge tower. It was a microwave repeater station. Inside were rows and columns of high stacked up radio gear -- all kinds of tubes and waveguides. There was a hum in that place that I'll never forget. The place is as big as a large house. Now days, the whole function of that building can be done inside a couple of microprocessor chips! Your entry took me back to some nice days. Thanks,_P.
  6. GrayFoxDown's Avatar
    Thanks, Captain. Those tubes and related curiosities were really intriguing...so 50s sci/fi-laced; it made watching television more a science project than an entertainment.