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Broadcaster Chuck Schaden signing off after 39 years
By Laura Stewart | Daily Herald Staff

Radio's Chuck Schaden broadcasts from the College of DuPage. After 39 years, Schaden will retire from broadcasting on June 27.

 

Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Chuck Schaden, 1973

 

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden

Chuck Schaden, right, interviews radio great and Waukegan native Jack Benny at the old Mill Run Theatre in Niles in 1970.

 

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden

Chuck Schaden, left, and Shirley Bell Cole appear together in 1970. As a child actress in the 1930s, Cole starred as "Little Orphan Annie" on the radio.

 

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden

Chuck Schaden, left, and Shirley Bell Cole meet again in 1993 when Cole inducted Schaden into the Radio Hall of Fame.

 

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden

The love of radio began in childhood for old-time radio historian and broadcaster Chuck Schaden. Pictured, 4-year-old Schaden sits by his family's Zenith radio in the 1930s.

 

Courtesy of Chuck Schaden

Chuck Schaden broadcasts from the College of DuPage. After 39 years, Schaden will retire from broadcasting on June 27.

 

Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/5/2009 3:12 PM

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When he retires in June, after nearly four decades of producing and broadcasting his "Those Were The Days" old-time radio show, Chuck Schaden may find himself with a new challenge.

Figuring out a way to avoid cutting his lawn.

"I haven't cut the lawn on a Saturday in 39 years," Schaden laughed. "Now I'll have to find another excuse."

After more than 2,000 Saturdays, radio broadcaster, historian and Radio Hall of Fame member Schaden will leave the broadcasting booth at WDCB 90.9-FM 90.9, the public radio station at the College of DuPage.

His final show - on June 27, two days before his 75th birthday - will be broadcast from the Morton Grove Civic Center at 6140 Dempster St., Morton Grove. Schaden considers the event to be an open house for fans to come and listen and say goodbye to a broadcaster who has become a friend to many over the airwaves.

With just a quick spin of the radio dial to "Those Were the Days" on Saturdays, listeners can step away from the often hectic pace of today's world into the Golden Age of Radio, from 1930 to 1955.

The years slip away, and there's Jack Benny in his old, broken-down Maxwell car, driven by his gravel-voiced chauffeur and valet, Rochester. Listeners can hear the dishes clinking at the breakfast table of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their boys, Ricky and David. And they can experience a young Frank Sinatra onstage, crooning to swooning female fans in the 1940s.

"Ah, those were the days," Schaden says, as he guides his listeners through four weekly hours of nostalgia.

Schaden has amassed a digital collection of more than 50,000 radio programs that he uses to prepare the weekly show. He plans to donate the collection to the College of DuPage upon his retirement. Schaden's reel-to-reel collection of the same radio programs has been donated to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Schaden recalls that his love of radio began when he was a boy, growing up in Norridge. He and his family enjoyed radio programs and gathered together nightly to listen.

"I would be sprawled on the floor, under the warm glow of the flickering green eye of the Zenith radio we had," Schaden said. "My dad liked Walter Winchell. We all liked the 'Lux Radio Theater.' And we listened to all the sitcoms - 'The Aldrich Family,' 'The Life of Riley,' 'Blondie' and 'Fibber McGee and Molly,' of course."

Schaden was also a big fan of "The Jack Benny Program" weekly radio show, running from 1932 to 1955.

Being a lifelong fan of Benny, Schaden has deemed each February on "Those Were The Days" as "Jack Benny Month" in honor of Benny's Feb. 14, 1894, birth date. Throughout the month, listeners can hear classic episodes of "The Jack Benny Program," plus taped interviews with Benny and cast members and other features. It's an annual celebration many listeners ask Schaden about months in advance.

And it was the Benny legend that played a bit of a role in Schaden's decision to retire at this point in time.

A running Benny comedy gag in radio and on television was that the legendary star was perpetually 39 years old - even as a senior citizen.

"Thirty-nine is a big number for radio fans because of Jack Benny and his age routine through the years," Schaden said. "I had been thinking about retiring. It's been 39 years for my show - and with my 75th birthday at the end of June, well, the planets are all in alignment."

Schaden and his wife of 52 years, Ellen, now plan to travel and spend time with their two daughters and their families, which include six grandchildren.

But Schaden will miss his radio "family."

"It is a family - the listeners out there," Schaden said, with his blue eyes misting over. "People say to me, 'I can't tell you what you have meant to me' or 'You've helped me through some tough times.' A woodworker once told me, 'It's a boring job, but Saturdays with you make it more interesting.' I've done baking with people. I've painted with people - and I've never done any of the work!"

Now with the Internet, Schaden has listeners who can access "Those Were The Days" online, all over the world. He receives letters from listeners in England and soldiers in Iraq.

It's a long way from the first "Those Were the Days" broadcast on May 2, 1970 from the WNMP AM radio station in Evanston. Ironically, Jack Benny's first radio program was also broadcast on May 2 - but in 1932.

Schaden was working as a newspaper editor on Chicago's northwest side in 1970, and he bought time on the radio station for his fledgling broadcast.

"I started going uphill," Schaden recalled. "Every week I would ask listeners, 'What would you like to hear?' I might get one note that said, 'I'd like to hear 'The Bickersons.'"

But it wasn't long before "Those Were The Days" had a following.

"We got feedback from listeners. We found that people loved westerns, they loved hearing the old bands play," Schaden said.

Because of his broadcasting role, Schaden soon found himself with access to some of radio's biggest stars. Armed with his portable tape recorder, he marched out to meet them at their hotels, their homes or in theaters where they performed.

In September of 1970, Schaden met his idol Jack Benny when Benny was starring at the Mill Run Theatre in Niles.

"There I was talking with Jack Benny!" Schaden said. "We sat there for 20 minutes. He was very nice. I'm sure my hands were shaking."

Schaden began compiling his interviews - or "conversations," as he likes to call them - over the years and published his book "Speaking of Radio" in 2003 with 46 interviews with radio stars. Schaden has played virtually all of the conversations on "Those Were the Days."

Although Schaden will be leaving the broadcast studio on June 27, "Those Were The Days" will continue on with host Steve Darnall, who currently serves as editor and publisher of the Nostalgia Digest Magazine that Schaden created. Darnall has been a fan of "Those Were The Days" since he was a boy, Schaden said.

"Steve is going to add something special to the show," Schaden said of his successor. "He'll do just fine."

Schaden's co-host since 2001, Ken Alexander (who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary in radio), will stay on board as well.

And so, as Schaden looks ahead to his final eight broadcasts, he has mixed emotions about saying goodbye.

"I'm looking forward to retirement. I've done a good job for 39 years," Schaden said. "But I'm going to miss it - I know. But I'll be listening out there in 'Radioland,' with everyone else. I'll be listening."

"Those Were The Days"

Chuck Schaden's old-time radio show broadcasts for the last time Saturday, June 27. Here's how you can catch it before it's too late:

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays

Where: WDCB 90.9-FM. It's broadcast from the College of DuPage studios in Glen Ellyn.

For information: Visit www.nostalgiadigest.com.