April 10th, 2008
In the age of iPods and YouTube, the WVU Libraries and the Wheeling Symphony are collaborating to celebrate a treasure from the golden era of radio.
Broadcast from Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling, “It’s Wheeling Steel” entered homes nationwide from 1936-1944. Millions gathered around their radios on Sunday afternoons to hear amateur musicians debut their talents in front of a live audience.
The sensation returns to Wheeling at 8 p.m. April 18 with “Remembering ‘It’s Wheeling Steel,’ Part II.” The performance at the WesBanco Arena will transport the audience back to the show’s heyday.
“When people think of West Virginia history, they don’t think of big bands and popular radio programs,” said John Cuthbert, curator of the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Collection, which houses the program’s archives. “This is a fascinating story and one of national importance.”
What began as a marketing tool to improve employee relations and to promote the factory’s products quickly became a trendsetter in the field of homegrown musical variety shows. At its peak, more than 80 radio stations aired the program, and it became the fifth most popular show in NBC’s lineup.
One could label the broadcast as the “American Idol” of its day because its chief selling point was that Wheeling Steel employees and their families provided the musical entertainment.
For some, that moment at the microphone led to careers in the entertainment business. A few later played with the Wheeling Steel Orchestra, and a number of them were hired away by major bands.
“These were people who came out of the factory. They were not professionals, and they had a chance to play their instrument in front of a national audience,” Cuthbert said.
“Remembering ‘It’s Wheeling Steel,’ Part II” will recreate the phenomena for an evening. Dialogue and music will carry viewers along the show’s timeline, from the Depression to the close of World War II.
As with the initial production two years ago, singing ensemble Five by Design will accompany the Wheeling Symphony and the action on stage will follow a script penned by Cuthbert. He, again, relied heavily on recordings and old scripts housed in the WVRHC to keep his words faithful to the spirit of the original broadcasts.
A new addition this year is West Virginia native and former Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. The veteran star will play the role of the Old Timer, who serves as narrator.
“Peter Marshall is a very talented and diverse guy who began his career as a comedian and singer,” Cuthbert said. “It should be a wonderful opportunity for people to see him doing what he does best.”
Expectations are high for “Remembering ‘It’s Wheeling Steel,’ Part II.” Two years ago, the production drew a packed house at Capitol Music Hall and broke Wheeling Symphony’s 10-year attendance record.
“The cast is on a tighter response, and the pace has quickened,” Wheeling Symphony Executive Director Susan C. Hogan said. “We learned from our first time so we’re going to make it even better.”
For tickets: www.wheelingsymphony.org