The golden age of radio—from the 1920s through the 40s—had its own pantheon of gods and heroes, stars and luminaries who ruled the airwaves to move the hearts and shape the lives of everyone in America.
They are all long gone now and washed away in the streaming current of ever-new media, but if you could pick up the radio waves from back then—if you could point your antenna back into the past—you would hear lovely voices coming from those decades, and discover how in various ways our town gave voice to the soundtrack of the 40s.
Back before the middle of the 20th century Mansfield loaned some of its talented children to the USA to brighten the lives of an entire nation. One of these Mansfield girls was Jane Wilson.
Loved Around the World
Jane Wilson lived on Blymyer Avenue right across the street from John Black, so naturally to him she was just the girl next door. When he was stationed in Ireland during WWII, her distinctive voice came over Armed Forces Radio one day, and he casually mentioned to the soldiers around him that he knew her. None of the Irish boys would believe him. Nothing he could say would convince them.
They were all in love with her, and they thought she was just too big a star to have any connection to a common grunt. They assumed John Black was trying to fool them. That is a small case in point about how powerful and touching Jane Wilson could be over the radio.
So why were all those Irish boys in love with Jane? Listen to this:
Jane Wilson went to Brinkerhoff School, graduated from Senior High in 1935, studied for a year at Northwestern University. When she was only 6 years old she performed a solo at the First Congregational Church and afterward announced, “Mama, I’ve dethided to be a thinger.”
During the summer break from college in 1937 she was back in Mansfield doing a short stint as a reporter for the News-Journal, so she had possession of a legitimate Press Pass with her name on it. When she heard Fred Waring was going to be in Cleveland she raced up there and presented her Pass to gain access into his presence as a reporter. As soon as he turned and gave her his undivided attention she started singing Brahms’ Lullaby. She figured it was the only way she would ever get an audition with someone so famous in show business.
Within a week she was a member of the group, and within a couple years she was Fred Waring’s biggest star.
By the standards of today it is not easy to imagine what it meant in 1937 to be recognized as a featured performer with a big-name ensemble on the radio—we have nothing to compare it with except perhaps a leading role in a hit television series. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians was one of the biggest orchestra acts in dance hall performance and live radio broadcasting dating back to 1923. After making a success as a bandleader in the 20s he added a chorus in the 1930s, and by the 40s he led the field of vocal/instrumental music, sometimes referred to as ‘The man who taught America how to sing.’
After the American audience shifted its attention to television in 1948, The Fred Waring Show set the standard for prime time musical variety programming that every one else followed for the next two decades.
A Voice to Remember
Once Jane had become established as a recognizable sensation on the radio in the 40s, she quite naturally developed a parallel career recording musical soundtracks with Decca Records. She was at her peak of popularity when television came along, and everyone finally got to see those huge soft eyes that showed so clearly the kindness in her soul, and that smile so real and warm it could melt your heart.
She dreamed of being an opera star—and certainly had the talent for it—and even after she was earning a good living as a singer of popular songs she studied Italian, French, German and ballet in preparation for her opera career. Ultimately, however, her role in American musical history was cast as soon as she took the stage with Fred Waring, so her operatic aspirations, and her Hollywood movie dreams, never took flight.
With Decca Records she gave voice to a number of popular light-opera Broadway musicals that, even today, are favored classic renditions sold on ITunes and electronic music media.
As much as she excelled in her radio, television and LP presence, Jane always found her greatest fulfillment performing on stage to a live audience. In the 50s she toured the country with a small ensemble called ‘The Carolers,’ playing venues of all sizes from big cities to small towns.
In 1954 she took her group to the White House at the request of the Eisenhowers, and that night she impressed Queen Elizabeth so much she was invited to the private royal chambers afterward for a personal recital.
With an astounding talent that ranked her up in the higher octaves of society, Jane never forgot the view from the ground. When she flew to Mansfield to help raise money for holiday baskets in the annual Christmas show at the Coliseum, she sent a note to the promoters that said, “Look, I’ll do anything you want me to, whether it’s singing Flat Foot Floozie or Ave Maria, but don’t build me up in the publicity for the show. You know me, Pal, just a shrinking violet trying to get along.”