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Fans of old-time radio sign off

Hold last convention as age catches up with organizers

- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2011

NEWARK, N.J. — For one weekend a year, the ghosts and survivors of Jack Benny, Benny Goodman, Goodman Ace and hundreds of other legends of the old days of radio held court at a hotel across the road from Newark Airport.

The annual Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention met for 36 years. When it signed off Saturday night, it was for the last time. The reason was simple, said Jay Hickerson, a musician who has been running the show from the beginning: the march of time.

"Lack of OTR (old-time radio) guests. And the committee is getting older," he said.

The gathering, humble as it was, used to be able to call on a constellation of stars from the early days of radio.

Then it was down to former child stars in their 80s and 90s. Arthur Anderson, 88, who acted as a teenager with Orson Welles, was an honored guest. Grandsons of 1930s song and dance star Eddie Cantor and Brace Beemer, the voice of the Lone Ranger for most of its run on radio, were on the program.

Collecting old-time radio shows and trivia has never been a young person's game. But most of the convention-goers were too young to have firsthand recollections of the shows they're buying, re-creating and discussing on panels.

Gary Yoggy, 73, attended all 36 of the conventions.

"It's my favorite weekend of the year. It tops Christmas," he said.

Mr. Yoggy, a retired history teacher from Corning, N.Y., was part of the committee that puts on the convention. He directed a re-creation of a Tom Mix episode for a Friday afternoon program.

"It's like reliving my youth," he said. "I was a kid when the golden age of radio was beginning to die."

Simon Jones was one of the celebrity guests for the weekend. Mr. Jones doesn't exactly qualify as a Golden Age of Radio star. He played Arthur Dent in the BBC's hugely popular radio and TV adaptations of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," starting in 1978. But he'd been here before and was delighted to be asked for the final one.

"I've learned quite a lot about what went on before me," he said.

Listeners who started as children, he said, make the most loyal fans. "If you can catch them that young, maybe they'll become addicted later on."

But it was not just the radio programs that brought participants back year after year.

Stuart Weiss was part of the steering committee from the beginning. He moderated a music panel with Brian Gari, the Cantor grandson. Mr. Weiss likened the gathering to a family reunion.

"These are old friendships. But you don't keep in touch during the year. We come here, it's as if we were together yesterday," he said.

Mr. Weiss, a party supply salesman from Staten Island, was inspired by the convention to start his own radio show on the Internet. It's eight hours long.

"I can't stop," he said. The party supply business isn't doing too well these days, but "when I do my show, I forget all my problems. And for eight hours, I'm in heaven."

Sometimes the family aspect is literal. Gary Yoggy met his wife at the convention. They've been married 29 years. Jeff Muller, 45, had been coming to the convention since he was a teenager. He brings his father.

"I guess it's his second childhood, in a way," he said.

And when the curtain came down, after Jay Hickerson and his wife Karen played "I'll Be Seeing You" and a version of "Thanks for the Memories," with special lyrics written for the convention?

Mr. Weiss joked he'll come back to the Newark Airport Ramada anyway and wander around empty rooms. Mr. Yoggy said he wants to help revive radio drama, which withered away decades ago, in the United States at least.

Mr. Jones, the "Hitchhiker's Guide" star, said the form remains alive in Britain. Next year, the radio version goes on a live tour.

"Obviously, this art form hasn't quite died," he said.

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