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Collector, Old-Time Radios on Same Wavelength : Commercial Designer Stays in Tune With 500 Antique Sets

September 12, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

As the late Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once said, we must be nostalgic about the future.

But as far as Alfred Bauman is concerned, the old-fashioned nostalgia is the best kind, especially if it pertains to a little box that changed the habits of this nation in the '20s.

In 1920 a station called KDKA in Pittsburgh (although some claim it was preceded by WWJ in Detroit) began regular broadcasts of radio programs. When KDKA announced the incoming results of the presidential election that fall, won by Warren Harding over James Cox, about 5,000 to 10,000 receivers were tuned in.

Extensive Collection

Americans today own more than 450 million radios. The fact, therefore, that about 500 of them happen to be in the possession of one individual wouldn't on the face of it appear especially noteworthy.

Except that this man, if ever there was one, is a dial-hard. Within the confines of his house--as if sprouting like weeds in a garden--are radios. Bauman always has a choice. But unlike most listeners, if he doesn't like what he happens to be hearing, he doesn't switch stations; he switches sets.

"Thirteen years ago I was living in St. Paul, Minn., and I stopped in at a garage sale," the 36-year-old Bauman recalled. "I had an antique store and I was scouting wicker tables. But an old Sparton radio caught my eye, and I parted with a $10 bill for it.

"I made the mistake of later selling it for $45. They go for $1,500 now, except I have never been able to find one again."

What happened is that Bauman became a collector, and like all members of that breed--be they enamored of barbed wire, doorknobs, eggbeaters, whatever--he cherishes his collection. "The only time I sell one of these things is to someone who will give it the same tender loving care I do."

He also parts with them as part of his current business, commercial designing, often of restaurants. But never unless he has a duplicate somewhere in his house, in which he lives alone.

Elegant Cabinet Styles

"You can't imagine how something like the design of an antique radio complements the decor of a restaurant," he said.

He doesn't accumulate the early and simple crystal sets of the '20s, but rather concentrates on the louvered and elegant cabinet styles that became popular in the '30s. More than 90% of the mechanisms are still in working order.

Friends, Romans, Angelenos, lend an ear. Adorning the classics inside the Hollywood house are faded brand names such as Lyric, Sonora, Radiola, Skychief, Fada (Fada knows best), Woodlaroc.

"Whenever people take a tour of my place for the first time, I can predict what will happen. They will look for the radio they had as a child."

A visitor may come upon a Zenith, circa 1950. At the push of a button, three panels fly open. Two of them expose the dial, and the third becomes the antenna.

On a different shelf is another Zenith, birth date about 1930. Removal of its back cover reveals a horseshoe-shaped wand with suction cups that can be attached to a wall for antenna purposes. The radio contains 10 pounds of batteries.

An elderly model manufactured by Motorola looks like a suitcase. Its handle was called a magic wand and was, in fact, the antenna.

In the collection is one of those many-splendored radio floor cabinets that came to be found in the more elegant homes. This one is a Stromberg-Carlson with a mirrored top containing controls by which one could tune in the world.

When Bauman wearies of contemplating his radios, he can turn to his growing accumulation of vintage television sets.

"See this beauty?" he said, pointing to what looked like simply a 19-inch free-standing tube. "I grabbed it for $300 in Olympia Fields, Ill., at an estate sale (which is where, in addition to swap meets, he comes across a lot of his finds).

Smooth Channel Changing

"The main equipment was in the bedroom. A 20-foot cable ran underneath the carpet to the tube in another room."

Another TV set, with a tiny screen, two by three inches, came on the market in 1946 and doesn't click from channel to channel. Its knob moves the band smoothly and silently as one station after another appears on the screen.

Then there are toasters, more than 75 of them, rapidly helping crowd out what living space remains in the residence.

"Take a peek at this Toast-O-Lator," Bauman boasted, demonstrating a model he said flourished in the World War II years. "It was entertainment at breakfast. You put the bread on a conveyor belt at one end, watched it through a little window as it traveled along, becoming toast by the end of its journey."

And let us not overlook the vintage fans, more than 50 of which he already has on hand. "I once put all of them on simultaneously," he said. "Sounded like a jet taking off."

But the radios are his first love, despite their uselessness in cooling the air. And they leave no crumbs.

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