From the Archives: WBOB
A street in downtown Hartford will be named after the late Bob Steele this week. For those wondering why, here's a story from the Connecticut Magazine archives - March 1978.
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This profile, written by Charles Monagan, originally appeared in the March 1978 issue of Connecticut Magazine. It is being resurrected now for the naming on Jan. 4, 2013, of Bob Steele Street in downtown Hartford.
This particular legend first took root in a field of carrots in Southern California in April 1936. It is an odd place for a story to begin, I know, but it was there that Bob Steele stood toiling one bright morning when the telegram came. Steele was not expecting the telegram. He was 24 years old, and he had no reason to believe that anyone would spend that kind of money on him. His life to that point had not been a story of success; it had been remarkably full, but it had not been filled with good things. Indeed, it had been a succession of lumps and small comforts, of minor, hustling triumphs played out against the bolder disappointments of the Depression. Six years earlier, he had come with the flood of others to California to share in its promise of sudden good fortune, only to lose his footing in a string of misplayed opportunities and slip down into, well, finally into, this carrot field.
His job in the field was simple. He was a timekeeper. He stood in the sunshine and kept an eye on the other workers to make sure they put in their hours. It was a federal Works Progress Administration job, as were the jobs of everyone else in the carrot field, and it paid $96 a month. The WPA work kept you fed, but it didn’t make you feel very proud. Bob Steele was not the only worker in that field who wanted to get out, but he was the one who got the telegram.
It was from a friend, a sort of Horace Greeley in reverse. “Come east,” the wire read, “to Hartford, Connecticut.” It spoke of a job at Bulkeley Stadium. Steele was to announce motorcycle races over the PA system and do a little publicity work on the side. He’d then follow the biker circuit around the Northeast. The job would last through the summer. The pay was $30 a week. Hurry.
Steele made his decision in less time that it took to put the telegram back into the envelope. He would go. He arranged a ride and checked his bankroll. Twenty-five dollars.
“I had a habit of gambling in those days,” Steele remembers now. “I used to love to shoot craps and play cards, and I was always broke, as any gambler is. I knew that $25 was what I needed for the trip east, but I decided I ought to double it. On the night before I was supposed to leave, I got into a craps game. I lost it all. I felt like committing suicide. I’d been all set to go and I didn’t know what to do. I needed this chance in Hartford like I needed air to breathe.”
What Steele did was borrow the money from a friend. He made the trip east, and he ably handled the motorcycle action. He did his job well because he was an experienced motorcyclist himself, and he had announced some races in California. But eventually the summer drew to a close, the circuit went into winter retreat and Steele found himself back in Hartford with a suitcase in his hand.
“I was in Hartford and I had one day before I was supposed to head back to California,” Steele recalls. “I had nothing to do that day, and I started to go to a movie across the green from the Travelers building, which was where the WTIC studios were. I remember that the movie was a mystery, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name. I asked the girl in the ticket booth how much time I had before the show began again. I didn’t want to walk in during the middle and ruin the mystery, you see. She said about 50 minutes. So I looked around and saw WTIC and decided I’d go in. I’d always aspired to be a radio announcer, a regular staff announcer, you know. I thought that would be the greatest thing in the world. So I went in and asked them if they needed anyone, knowing that in those days, no one ever needed anyone. Jobs were hard to get in any line, especially radio. But Fred Wade, who was the chief announcer, said they did. They were looking for someone.”
Steele had prepared himself for such a chance. Not only had he announced the motorcycle events, he’d even done a few live broadcasts for California radio stations. He had a rich, resonant voice and considerable native wit. He also had some experience as a closet announcer; that is, it had been his practice to shut himself up in a clothes closet with a flashlight and a copy of the Saturday Evening Post and submit the magazine’s advertisements to his own readings. Such was his schooling. The main thing he brought before the microphone was his desperate need of the job. He’d been around to several stations out west, but he’d been turned down without so much as an audition. Now he finally had a shot.
“Wade handed me some stuff to read, and it was a tough test,” Steele says. “There were a lot of big words that you’d hardly ever have to use, and a list of classical composers and the names of their works. I had no idea how to pronounce any of this, so I started kidding around a little, saying things like, ‘Haven’t you got anything in English I can read?’ Unbeknownst to me, the big boss, Paul Morency, was listening in and he was amused at the sort of stuff I was doing.
“Next, they told me to describe something like a parade or a ball game. I chose a fight at the Polo Grounds. I had a few gags in my description that I’d done before. I was broadcasting a fight in which I also managed one of the fighters, so naturally I was biased. It turned out that my fighter got knocked out. I said we’d been robbed, that it was the 14th time we’d been robbed that year. The whole routine was a bunch of set gags, but the people at WTIC thought it was all extemporaneous. They gave me the job. It started the next day, Oct. 1, 1936.