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Presenting...Wheeling Steel

Finished Project Expected To Debut in September

July 29, 2012
By LINDA COMINS Life Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

A long-awaited book project documenting "It's Wheeling Steel," the storied national radio program that originated in the steelmaker's hometown, is nearing completion.

Wheeling resident Lee Kelvington, who has compiled the volume with fellow Wheeling resident Baird Kloss, said they expect that the book will go to the printer by early September. The authors are awaiting final copyright verification for material that they want to republish, Kelvington said.

The book, also titled "It's Wheeling Steel," tells the history of the innovative radio program that was produced in Wheeling and aired over the Mutual Broadcasting System network and later on the larger NBC Blue Network.

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The Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. is serving as the publisher for the new book. When the work is printed, it will be available for purchase at the Wheeling Artisan Center, Kelvington said.

The staff of WNHAC was "very, very helpful from day one," Kelvington said, citing the work of former executive director Hydie Friend, current executive director Jeremy Morris and staff members Chris Villamagna and Bekah Karelis.

The co-author also expressed gratitude to the Wheeling Symphony and its former executive director, Susan Hogan, and its present executive director, Bruce Wheeler, for presenting two pops concerts that re-created staged versions of "It's Wheeling Steel."

Karelis, historian for the Wheeling National Heritage Area, commented, "The 'It's Wheeling Steel' radio program has been called 'one of West Virginia's finest cultural treasures' and Wheeling National Heritage Area couldn't agree more. When we were approached by the Wheeling Big Band Society several years ago, we knew it was a project that we had to take on and help produce. As we have worked with the Big Band Society, the manuscript has grown to include many photographs, newspaper articles and ephemera that demonstrates the impact this radio program had on the local area and the country."

The large book has been researched and compiled by the Wheeling Big Band Society Inc., of which Kelvington and Kloss are president and vice president, respectively.

"The book itself took probably a year and a half to two years" to compile, Kelvington said. "We came by quite a bit of material over the years. That's what led us to the conclusion of the need to produce this book."

He explained that the premise of the study is to show that "It's Wheeling Steel" was "truly a unique program and a great cultural thing associated not only with Wheeling but also the state and the region."

Kelvington said he - and even Kloss, who played in the orchestra for the radio program - learned a great deal while putting the history together. Kelvington is impressed by what "a program of this stature" provided to the whole population. The fact that the national program originated in a small city like Wheeling "really strikes me," he added.

Karelis observed, "What was so very unique about this program, is that it was made up entirely of local talent. I think locals might find that they have a lot more in common with this radio program from around 80 years ago ... perhaps their mother or grandfather performed, or maybe their neighbor down the street was a favorite singer or band member. It's an important part of local history, a history that Wheeling should be very proud to claim."

Entertainer Peter Marshall - who lived in Wheeling for about eight years as a boy then known as Pierre LaCock - wrote the foreward for the new book. Marshall, who remembers listening to "It's Wheeling Steel" on WWVA, returned to the Friendly City to participate in the Wheeling Symphony's second re-creation of the famous radio program.

John Cuthbert, director of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at West Virginia University, wrote an overview of the program's history. The book is divided into six sections, providing background material and filled with rare photographs and reproductions of vintage newspaper and magazine articles and show programs.

The book is dedicated to John Grimes, creator of "It's Wheeling Steel," and to the former Wheeling Steel Co. and its employees. Grimes, director of advertising for the steelmaker, convinced his bosses that a radio program produced by and starring company employees would be an excellent means to promote its products.

"It's Wheeling Steel" made its debut on Nov. 8, 1936, Cuthbert noted, and continued production until June 18, 1944, when its final - and 326th -program aired. The popular show ceased production because of Grimes' declining health, Cuthbert pointed out.

"The concept of this program was very unique, and brought it a lot of national attention," Kelvington commented. "The concept being one of achieving advertising as well as a labor-employee relations tool, particularly the latter thing, which was in a very difficult environment in the depths of the Depression. It accomplished that in spades."

When "It's Wheeling Steel" began in 1936, Kelvington said, "Radio was not that old yet. The fact that it was all produced by amateurs, employees or relatives of employees of the company, that got a lot of attention. They gained the stature of real professionals among the media who could judge such things. The program was produced at considerably less expense than other radio programs were being produced at the time."

The unusual nature of the undertaking attracted the attention of many national publications, including Life magazine, which sent famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt to Wheeling to document the program; the New York Times, which published several articles, and Time magazine.

"This program got the attention of not just media but of celebrities in the industry who volunteered their help with the program," Kelvington related. "Glenn Miller was one. Paul Whiteman, Mr. Jazz of the '20s and early '30s, conducted a program once. Horace Heidt hired the Steele Sisters after hearing them."

The first section of the book covers the early years from 1936 to 1940, when "It's Wheeling Steel" grew from a local program to a "coast-to-coast" broadcast on the Mutual network of radio stations. The second section is devoted to national media coverage that the show received.

The third section of the book covers the NBC and World War II years. Particularly fascinating are several pages of photographs taken when the NBC executive group attended a Christmas party at Wheeling Country Club on Dec. 6, 1941. Little did the revelers - or the rest of America - know, that hours later, the U.S. military installation at Pearl Harbor would be attacked by the Japanese, plunging the United States into World War II.

Another fascinating segment documents the role that the "Musical Steelmakers" played in a special "London Calling" program staged at the Capitol Theatre on April 25, 1941 to support the British war relief program. The musical and variety production was organized by the Wheeling chapter of the British War Relief Society Inc.

The benefit concert was front-page news in the Wheeling News-Register, which ran a banner headline proclaiming "London Calling - Wheeling Answers." The cast of "London Calling" featured Anna Neagle, "Great Britain's greatest actress": Edna O'Dell, "singing star of the Mutual network"; Boake Carter, "distinguished radio commentator," and Jess Kirkpatrick of WGN, Chicago.

Another section of the book recounts the appearance by the cast of "It's Wheeling Steel" at the New York World's Fair in 1939. The performance drew a record outdoor audience of more than 26,000 people.

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