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'Golden Age of Radio' a perfect fit for talented duo

Musicians Dan Chouinard and Prudence Johnson have joined to take a look at the "Golden Age of Radio" in music and song, including many sing-alongs for audience participation. (Submitted)

Back in the day when Bing Crosby began crooning, the Lone Ranger began galloping, and Whoopee John began oompahing, it was all radio.

Radio was where the stars launched their careers, and where Depression-era households tuned in for the only entertainment they could afford.

"Radio really took hold in a big way in the 1930s,'' said Prudence Johnson.

Who better to celebrate and tell the story of "The Golden Age of Radio'' in music and song than Johnson and fellow musician Dan Chouinard?

The two Twin Cities-based musicians are bringing their entertaining production --filled with the songs and music of radio's golden age -- to the stage of the Dawson-Boyd Memorial Auditorium in Dawson beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Dawson Public Library and Dawson-Boyd Arts Association have joined to offer the performance as a free admission event, thanks to Legacy funding and a partnership of the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Regional Libraries.

Modern-day radio listeners know Johnson and Chouinard for their music and roles as frequent guests of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion.'' Johnson is a vocalist known especially for her love of jazz and renditions of the 20th century's great songwriters.

Chouinard is a pianist known as well for his accordion playing and storytelling. He hosted a radio series "The Singer's Voice'' from the Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, which featured many of the state's best talent. Prudence Johnson was his first-ever guest on the show.

Johnson and Chouinard have joined many times to perform on stages across the region, and have produced their own commercial recordings.

"The Golden Age of Radio'' is their latest collaboration. It's one that involves the audience too. Their performance includes a number of sing-alongs, with Chouinard at one point pulling out his accordion for the "Beer Barrel Polka.'' Chouinard works the piano keys and Johnson the vocals for renditions of many of the big hits from radio's early days, everything from "Ain't Misbehavin''' to "Lazy River.''

The two have brought the show to about 20 different stages in the last few months, with much success. Not surprisingly, the shows have attracted many from the Greatest Generation who grew up loving the music and knowing what to expect in the show, said Johnson.

Yet some of those enjoying the show the most have been families with young children, she said.

Radio began in the early 1920s, and by 1926 four national networks had already emerged, said Johnson. The Golden Age occurred during the 1930s and 1940s, when the airwaves were filled with music, soap operas, dramas and action adventure stories along with sports and news.

Johnson was surprised to discover that radio music was always live. The 78 rpm recordings of the time were too scratchy for broadcasting. Musician unions at the time also successfully delayed the arrival of the recorded music that now fills the airwaves.

Radio shrunk the world for Americans of the time, and introduced them to a whole new world too.

It delivered the "extraordinarily exotic'' music of Cab Calloway live from the Cotton Club of Harlem right to the living rooms of Minnesota farm homes still waiting for the arrival of electricity, she noted.

Minnesota was home to many of its own stars of the airwaves as well. Perhaps the best known of the regional personalities was Cedric Adams, who helped make WCCO the "Good Neighbor of the Northwest.''

Arguably, Minnesota's biggest star of radio was New Ulm native John Anthony Wilfahrt, better known as "Whoopee John.'' He was a formidable artist of his own right, said Johnson. He was the second musician that Decca records signed, shortly after their first: Bing Crosby. Whoopee John's "Beer Barrel Polka'' was a national hit in 1939.

Johnson and Chouinard flash photographs from the era on a screen during their performance, and mix in as much information about the Golden Age as they can amidst the songs.

They also make no secret about their own passion for the era. Asked if she ever wishes that she could have been part of the early days of radio, Johnson responded: "You betcha. You bet. We both could have been born in a different era and fit right in.''

You can do the same just by showing up for the performance. For more information, call 320-769-2069 or on the web:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335