Saturday, April 23, 2011

What's in a picture?

The tall man wearing the suit and hat and smoking a pipe was once one of the most popular men in Columbus, Ohio. His name was Walter Furness and although I know very little about him I do know that his was a household name and that he probably was heard on the radio by more people than any other announcer in the city on this day in 1951 when this picture was taken.

Walter was regarded as the city's most popular radio newsman in an era when there were more radios in people's homes than there were televisions. But this story isn't about this WCOL newsman it speaks to the photo itself and of some thoughts I have about it.

My guess is that Mr. Furness is counting the change for the purchase of a copy of the Columbus Citizen Newspaper visible in his coat pocket. This was in the days before it merged with the Ohio State Journal to become the Columbus Citizen Journal, a morning newspaper owned by the Scripps-Howard Publishing Company. The man smiling and wearing the ball cap is Dale Geddes who was a colorful vendor at the corner of Broad and High for many years.

Not visible in this picture is the State House grounds across the street from this transaction where then Governor Frank J. Laushe may have been conducting some important business for Ohio. If a photographer would station himself on this spot today something else that wouldn't likely be seen is the number of pedestrians on that sidewalk. In the sixty years since this day there aren't as many reasons for people to be in this area because there isn't nearly as much commerce nearby as there was then and probably not as many downtown workers.

The radio station Walter worked for isn't there anymore either, WCOL was located just a few blocks east of those trolley buses at the corner of Broad and South Young Street then and just one block down from this location is where WBNS radio broadcasted at 62 East Broad Street.

Back then almost all of Columbus' radio stations were within walking distance of this spot. Also gone from within sight of it is the Neil House Hotel (across from the State House) that Walter could have eyeballed if he turned around and the Deshler Hotel if he were to look to his left.

But back to what we can see. I find it interesting that here is a radio guy making a purchase from something else that seems to have vanished from the streets of downtown Columbus, a newsstand watched over by a vendor. A simple one that looks to be made of wood like so many others that dotted the busier corners or that stood in front of stores before those self-serve metal boxes with see-thru plastic windows that line them now. And clearly visible on this rack are copies of Billboard Magazine and Variety...both of them entertainment publications that could be found lying around in every radio station I worked for throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Walt wouldn't have needed a copy of either because I am guessing that he read those editions at work. The contents of both would have been something that WCOL listeners would have been interested in because at that time the station was one of the main sources of entertainment for Columbus and besides the news that Walter delivered everyday it carried music as well as drama programs that starred some of the most famous names coming out of Hollywood and New York.

The contents of the newspaper in his pocket might have had the box scores of the Columbus Red Birds (now known as the Columbus Clippers) and a team at that time whose radio voice was Jack Buck another employee of WCOL who did the play-by-play for their games and was a man who would later become one of the most famous sports announcers in the country.

Old black and white photos like this one are priceless to anyone like myself who loves history, especially that of my hometown, and this one in particular is made even more special because the most popular guy in it is someone whose footsteps I walked in for nearly ten years when I worked at WCOL, some twenty five years later.

I never met Walter Furness but I worked with some who did and who knew him well and although there is probably no one connected to that station now who has a clue about him or his impact on the profession they count on to make a living, he was a pioneer of sorts.

When you consider that commercial radio stations didn't begin broadcasting until 1922 and that by the time this picture was taken in '51, old Walter's stock and trade had been in broadcasting for a number of years.

This photo could have been staged, perhaps planned by some promotions person at WCOL but I doubt it. I am guessing that the photographer worked for the old Citizen and was there for another reason. The picture appeared in that paper but I don't have enough information about it to explain why or to even speculate.

It is possible that they staged it as part of some expose written by their entertainment writer on the daily activities of Walter Furness, or maybe even for a story about Dale Geddes and Walt just happened to be there. As I mentioned, Dale was very well known among the daily downtown crowd. I wish I knew more about him aside from hearing a few stories others have shared about his colorful banter about the politics and other headlines of the day.

The man standing behind him with the cigarette hanging from his lip appears impatient to me. Maybe he is in a hurry or has something else on his mind, but to me he looks annoyed that the transaction going on before it is his turn is taking too long. The little guy sitting on the stoop of the rack just looks happy to be there, or maybe one of the other gents just said something funny.

And if that is the case I'm guessing it was Walter. Dale is smiling, as if reacting to something that was said and from what I have heard about Walter Furness he was pretty colorful himself, a man with a dry wit on and away from the microphone. A lot like nearly every radio newsman I ever met.

Click on the photo to enlarge it and fully appreciate it.

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