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Radio relics preserved, then tainted

Times Staff Writer

Call it an old-time radio drama with a 21st-century plot twist.

Plans for a $35-million American Radio Archives museum and research center that will chronicle the development of broadcasting will be unveiled tonight in Thousand Oaks.

But the archives’ planned centerpiece -- a collection of hundreds of thousands of historic relics of early Los Angeles broadcasting -- sits locked up and untouchable in a Hollywood basement.

The carefully preserved original scripts, fragile transcriptions of radio shows and news broadcasts, antique microphones and rare equipment from Southern California’s first stations have been contaminated by toxic PCBs. And nobody can agree who should pay for the cleanup.

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The mementos and broadcast gear were dusted with polychlorinated biphenyls on Dec. 13, 2004 when an underground electrical transformer near the legendary corner of Sunset and Vine caught fire. Smoke laced with PCBs -- used as a cooling oil substitute in older transformers -- spewed through a subterranean conduit into a nearby bank building basement where the collection is housed.

A separate collection of illusionists’ equipment and exhibits owned by the Society of American Magicians also kept in the basement was likewise contaminated. Washington Mutual officials were forced to close the busy bank building for months while the upstairs vault and customer areas were carefully cleaned.

But when the bank, the magicians and the broadcasters asked the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to pay the decontamination costs, the city said no.

The broadcaster and magician groups say they are nonprofits that cannot afford to pay for it themselves. So now they and the bank are suing the city for the cleanup costs -- which could total more than $1 million.

Lack of access to the broadcasters’ artifacts hasn’t stopped the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation from mapping plans for its 40,000-square-foot radio archives building. It will include a large museum and a 50-seat theater, along with a radio listening room and an archival storage area.

Foundation leaders will kick off a construction fundraising effort tonight by inviting potential donors to watch the production of an original radio dramatization at the Thousand Oaks Library. Because of limited seating, the show will not be open to the public.

Written and directed by 1940s-era radio legend Norman Corwin, it will star Samantha Eggar, Carl Reiner, Nanette Fabray and 10 other veteran broadcast figures.

The show, titled “The Strange Affliction,” will be recorded for later broadcast, possibly on a public radio station, said Stephen Brogden, Thousand Oaks’ library services director.

His library’s involvement with radio began in the mid-1980s, when it acquired the late entertainer Rudy Vallee’s personal papers, notebooks and other items, Brogden said. The library has also obtained much of the 97-year-old Corwin’s personal collection.

Brogden said library officials reacted “in disbelief and horror” to the transformer fire and contamination of the radio relics.

“We had already signed a contract with Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters and were planning to bring their materials up here,” he said. “I can’t in good conscience store contaminated materials, though.”

The toxin-coated collection is irreplaceable but salvageable if properly cleaned, said Marty Halperin, vice president of Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters.

“We have a huge CBS collection, all the master recordings of ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Have Gun, Will Travel,’ ‘Suspense,’ ‘Escape’ and ‘My Favorite Husband,’ which starred Lucille Ball,” said Halperin, an 80-year-old retired sound engineer who has a large personal collection of radio memorabilia at his Woodland Hills home.

“We have a letter from a Packard dealer that suggested, ‘Why don’t we start a radio station in Los Angeles?’ We have all of the KFI scrapbook albums that go back into the ‘20s,” Halperin said. Earle C. Anthony launched the city’s first commercial broadcast station, KFI, atop his downtown Packard dealership in 1922.

The contaminated collection includes more than 100,000 discs of old-time radio shows and World War II newscasts and battlefield recordings. Among them are the first shows broadcast by Bing Crosby and Jack Benny in the 1930s. There is a 1947 recording of pilot Howard Hughes talking during the one and only flight of the Spruce Goose, a giant seaplane built of laminated wood.

It also includes a large collection of early radios and microphones, including Crosby’s personal microphone, an RCA 44 that gave his voice a deep, rich sound. Other items include the broadcast industry’s first tape recorder, an Ampex 200, production serial number “1,” which was built in 1947 so that Crosby didn’t have to perform his radio show twice for eastern and Pacific time zones.

Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters’ leaders do not know how much the decontamination procedure will cost. But their attorney, David Habib of Westlake Village, said the cost will likely be well out of the reach of the 500-member organization.

“They are a nonprofit group of elderly people who kind of put their collective knowledge and talents and resources together to create this organization. What they’ve done is awesome,” Habib said. “When you appreciate the magnitude, certainly the remedial work will be in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry said the cost of the bank’s cleanup has not been made public. Raul M. Montez, a Glendale attorney representing the magicians, said the potential price tag for decontamination of that group’s collection is unknown.

The magicians’ material includes “equipment and paraphernalia of illusionists such as Harry Blackstone Sr. and Harry Houdini,” along with costumes, photographs, books and display areas and stages, according to court papers.

The DWP has declined to discuss the transformer incident or its aftermath. “We don’t comment on pending lawsuits,” said department spokesman Joe Ramallo.

The broadcasters and magicians have used the bank basement rent-free since 1967, when Home Savings built the branch. That arrangement continued when Washington Mutual acquired Home Savings in 1998.

The site at the northeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street was the location of NBC radio network studios built in 1938. Its 350-seat auditoriums hosted production of radio shows such as “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Jack Benny Show.”

The distinctive, curve-fronted building was demolished in 1964 after NBC moved to new studios in Burbank.

Two weeks ago, NBC announced it is leaving Burbank for a new broadcast center that will be built at Universal Studios.

bob.pool@latimes.com


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