Schenectady is home to quite a number of “firsts.” The latest exhibit to open at the Museum of Innovation and Science pays homage to some of them.
“WGY: Radio’s Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial” delves into the history of the long-running radio station, which started in Schenectady in 1922. It was the first station to host broadcast drama and was ahead of its time in terms of creating sound effects.
Through an impressive collection of more than 50 photographs, along with a few recordings and period radio devices, the exhibit gives viewers a glimpse into what the early years at the station were like.
There were visits from the likes of Amelia Earhart, who visited the station on March 23, 1929, to deliver a speech and read letters to Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expedition. A sizable photograph of her next to a WGY microphone is featured in the exhibit; the famed aviator, wearing a velvet coat, gives the camera a small smile as she looks up from a paper she’s just been reading from.
Next to that photograph is a portrait of the illusionist Harry Houdini. Pictured sitting at the mic with furrowed brow, Houdini visited the station on Oct. 14, 1926, just weeks before he died, to promote a show at Schenectady’s Van Curler Opera House.
Franklin Roosevelt is also pictured in a photo dated from 1932 when he was governor of New York, delivering one of his fireside chats; the microphones he’s speaking into declaring “NBC” and “WGY.”
Elsewhere, the exhibit shows the development of sound effects and radio dramas.
The latter started in August of 1922 with “The Wolf.” According to the exhibit, the production was so convincing that a policeman in Pittsfield, Massachusetts mistook a fight scene in the show for a real fight and entered a home to break it up.
The WGY Players, who performed the productions, were led by Edward H. Smith, and in the first year alone they performed 40 plays, including a mix of comedy, drama and adventure.
In the earliest years, each actor was responsible for creating their own sound effects for their character. They used everything from pots and pans to drums and barrels to create suspenseful sounds. Later on, sound effects specialists, known as Foley artists, were responsible for the performing sounds.
Another “first” featured in the exhibit is seen in a portrait of Skip, the WGY dog who started the first international dog and cat fight in 1934 when he started barking at a cat in Australia during a short-wave broadcast. The tiny dog Skip is pictured panting before a WGY mic.
The station also brought in a wide range of musicians, including Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys, which was the first nationally famous western music band. The original members worked as cowboys before forming the band. The group performed at WGY on July 16, 1930.
In one photo in the exhibit, the band is shown posing around a piano with cowboy hats and a large dog.
The exhibit also includes photos of the Southern Jubilee Quartet performing at the station in 1933 and Woody Guthrie performing a decade later.
During World War II, WGY also helped to deliver news of what was happening overseas and local announcers also covered what was happening at home. Longtime WGY announcer Howard Tupper is shown in one photo from the 1940s, interviewing a family on a tank during a war bond parade in Schenectady.
Visitors can also listen to some of the early broadcasts and see what the studio’s 1938 home on Erie Boulevard looked like.
“WGY: Radio’s Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial” will be up through May 8. For more information visit misci.org.