Strolling among the six jam-packed rooms of Bowie's brand-new Radio-Television Museum, visitors have the chance to relive the days when radios were the size of small ovens and television screens were the size of, well, today's small radios. They also may be moved to ask: This stuff used to cost how much?
Take the museum's beautiful Stromberg console radio, unveiled in 1936 at an "introductory price" of $483--this during the Depression, when the cost of a new car averaged well under $1,000. The Stromberg's sticker price is not unusual, either. According to the museum's display tags, getting your hands on the latest and greatest technology was no cheaper in the '20s and '30s than it is today, relatively speaking, and that says volumes about the appeal of long-distance communication in an unwired age.
The Radio-Television Museum is a unique "public-private heritage tourism venture," according to Stephen Patrick, director of Bowie's growing museum system. (Other Bowie museums include the Belair Mansion and Stable, the Bowie Railroad Station and the Prince George's County Genealogical Library.) The newest addition is the product of a collaboration between the City of Bowie and a long-established local nonprofit group called the Radio History Society Inc. The RHS is a group of collectors and radio buffs that includes lawyers, professors, physicists, broadcasters and anyone else locally or nationwide interested in antique radios and broadcast history.
The story of the RHS's permanent residence in Bowie begins innocently enough,in the fall of 1996 at the nearby Belair Mansion. That was when Patrick decided to organize a one-day exhibition and program around the mansion's 1928 Victor-Electrola phonograph/radio, a piece he describes as "one huge, heavy, glorious, wild machine." Patrick, in need of expertise, called the RHS, which responded with enthusiasm. Members arrived bearing other antique radios, as well as a lode of information and anecdotes that made the day a "resounding success."
"That was the very beginning," according to Ken Mellgren, vice president of the RHS. The society had spent years putting up temporary displays at George Washington University and even in vacant storefronts, all the while looking for a place to call its own. That place has now materialized at Bowie's Harmel House, an impressively restored turn-of-the-century storekeeper's residence named after its second set of occupants. The stately red structure has been restored with central heat and air conditioning, new wiring and some more traditional amenities, including the whitewashed two-story front porch.
The Harmel House has a place on the Register of Historic Sites, meaning that the building and land won't become, in the words of RHS board member Charlie Rhodes, "a real estate office or espresso joint." The structure and the RHS are now part of a unique symbiosis; the building and land belong to the city, while the museum itself is run by members of the society, who also have supplied most of the pieces on display.
The exhibits fill two floors and are especially strong in pre-World War II radios: Strombergs and General Electrics and any number of Philcos, as well as a slew of beautiful art deco pieces. A 1938 Spartan model, housed in a wonderfully pointless circular ice-blue mirror, is especially striking, and it may surprise younger visitors to learn that there once was a time when radios and televisions came in colors other than black. Sturdy old brown wood (real or otherwise) dominates the Depression, but soon enough visitors find small portable plastic models in creams, reds, blues and even a see-through model: The 1955 "Marilyn," an AM/FM transistor named after Marilyn Monroe and given a place of honor on the mantle of the museum's first room.
The museum, though it seems full already, is still a work in progress. Efforts are underway to bring in volunteers and other artifacts, and Patrick's work will be directed toward what he calls "interpretive levels."
"It's one thing to say these radios are from the '20s and these over here are from the '30s," he says. "But we'd like to be able to tell boomers, and later generations, what all this really meant."
(For now, though, bring grandma and grandpa, or anyone, for that matter, who lived through the '30s and '40s. Bring them along if you want to know a little about the difference between crystal sets and heterodyne receivers, what it was like to watch television on such a darned small screen or even, yes, why people would spend such a small fortune on that little wooden box with all the funny knobs.)
Aids to interpretation will include rotating exhibits, as well as displays arranged around various themes: those dedicated to particular pieces of equipment, for example, or rooms devoted to broadcast personalities and particularly memorable national events. The presence of television, now limited to a few early sets on the ground floor, also will increase.
Perhaps most intriguing are the plans to renovate a large storage garage on the property, which eventually will become a workshop and demonstration area. Such a hands-on space is important to the RHS; after all, the story of early radio is one of craftsmanship as much as commerce. "This was the age of home workshops," says Rhodes, who recalls tinkering at his kitchen table. "You'd wind the coil, cook it in the oven, and three fire engines later . . . " He doesn't elaborate, but there's no need. The lilt in his voice manages to convey the romance, adventure and humor of early radio all at once.
The Radio-Television Museum is at Mitchellville and Mount Oak roads in Bowie and is open 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (School and community groups can arrange for mid-week tours.) Admission is free, though donations are welcome. For information weekdays, call 301-309-3088; on weekends, call 301-390-1020. Web site is at www.radiohistory.org.
CAPTION: Radio collector Charlie Rhodes shows off a 1998 magneto-operated radio that winds up a spring and plays for an hour without being plugged in to an outlet.