Charlottesville self-consciously was a special place in the 30s, but in the midst of this singularity there was an undercurrent of a national culture in which Charlottesville was carried along. New technology like radio and movies became readily accessible to almost the entire population in some way, shape, or form. The people of Charlottesville heard many of the same programs over the airwaves and watched the same movies as people in New York City or Wisconsin or California. They began to buy and rely on the same national name brands as people across the nation. People also became increasingly interested in national events given the new immediacy made possible by radio. With radio, people of Charlottesville and the rest of the nation could hear events of national importance and interest as they happened, from sporting events to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The crowd in the picture at right is gathered at Pence and Sterling on E. Main Street c. 1930 to here a man visible in the upper window shouting the play by play of the World Series as he hears it on the radio. Residents could also listen to things like President Roosevelt giving his "fireside chats," and as war drew closer and closer, national and world events became an increasingly high priority.
As early as April of 1922, the Board of Visitors at the University approved the creation of radio transmitting equipment facilities, but Charlottesville did not get its own radio station until July 1, 1933 when WCHV first went on the air. The Daily Progress began printing broadcast schedules for stations out of Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington in 1925, and in May of 1927, they sponsored an entire week of local radio broadcast from the stage of the Jefferson Theater on Richmond's WRVA. But when WCHV finally started broadcasting from their studios at the Monticello hotel, the Daily Progress "would not print [their] program notes or allow their advertisers to give [them] mention" according to one of the stations first announcers, Edward Hase. (1) Hase continued, "They hoped we would be a passing fancy." (1) The station was originally founded by W. Byron Brown and Walter Grey at Emory and Henry College as WEHC before they decided to make the move to Charlottesville. Programming in the early days had to all be done live, as efficient recording devices did not yet exist. Much of what came over the airwaves was local. Anyone with talent only needed to fill out a coupon and explain exactly what they could do, and they could get on the air. Charlottesville residents could also get network programing, and hear shows like "Amos 'n' Andy" and national celebrities like George Burns and Jack Benny. As the advertisement at the right states, the radio provided people with "unparalled entertainment" and brought into their living rooms a set of nationally shared experiences that had before been impossible with such immediacy.
National name brands were many times sponsors of radio programs, like Chesterfield (see above advertisement) tobaccos, and their show Chesterfield Time, featuring George Burns. Name brands were another new way that American culture was becoming more standardized from locality to locality. People of Charlottesville could buy Frigidaire refrigerators, Ford automobiles, RCA radios, Sunoco gasoline, Maytag appliances, drink Dr. Pepper and the list goes on. At the same time they were drinking their Dr. Pepper, for a reasonably affordable they could go to the new 1300 seat Paramount movie palace that opened in 1931. During the worst years of the Depression the Paramount offered special stage shows for free just to stay in business. But as for the movies themselves, folks in Charlottesville were entertained by the same national stars as people everywhere else, like the Marx Brothers and Clark Gable. The movies then were even made by some of the same production companies we have today, like Universal and Warner Brothers.
The people of Charlottesville, even the University students, were serious about keeping their entertainment at a democratic price. A group of students in April of 1930 stormed the Jefferson Theater in protest of the theater raising ticket prices to 75 cents. After several people were injured, President Alderman and the police were able to calm the disturbance, but the students were ultimately successful in getting the ticket prices back to 50 cents.
Overall, Charlottesville / Albemarle was an undoubtedly fortunate and singular exception to the general rule of extreme poverty during the 30s. Yet for all of its distinctiveness, Charlottesville was still taking part in the set of shared experiences that was becoming a truly national American culture.
1. Jonothan Fox, "WCHV: Charlottesville's Oldest" C-Ville Weekly. July 23-29, 1996.