Q: I have been telling people that the call letters of all radio stations east of the Mississippi River begin with “W” (WIBV in Belleville, WLS in Detroit, WGN in Chicago, etc.) while those west of the Mississippi begin with “K” (KMOX, KXOK, KSD, KWK, etc.) Is this correct?
Norm Geolat, of Belleville
A: I wouldn’t go broadcasting that “fact” too loudly. You might get some argument from Pittsburgh powerhouse KDKA, which historians often regard as the world’s first commercially licensed radio station. And that’s just one of dozens of stations that became exceptions to the rule in the earliest days of this wireless entertainment phenomenon.
The story actually starts in late 1912, when the federal government began licensing radio stations to prevent what might have been chaos had stations started going on the air with any call letters and at any frequency they pleased. At that time, too, the 1912 London International Radiotelegraphic Convention assigned certain letters with which various countries were asked to start their radio station call letters. The United States, for example, was told to keep using K and W. Canada generally uses C, while Mexican stations start with X.
Even in those early days, most stations in the American West were given a name starting with K while those in the East were assigned W call letters. But at that time, the K/W boundary generally ran north from the Texas-New Mexico border, which is several hundred miles west of the Mississippi. As a result, about 170 stations west of the Mississippi wound up with call letters that started with W — including WEW in St. Louis, which took to the air on March 23, 1922, according to radio historian Thomas H. White. And, of course, we can’t forget about WEB/WIL.
For reasons unknown, the government started dishing out call letters starting KU or KD to just about any new station anywhere from June 1920 to April 1921. That’s how KDKA, “The Voice of Pittsburgh,” wound up with the call letters it did. It also led to a patchwork of other eastern K stations, including KWAM in Memphis, KYW in Philadelphia and KQV in Pittsburgh.
Finally, in late January 1923, the K/W boundary was shifted to the Mississippi, but existing stations were allowed to keep their old call letters rather than confuse longtime listeners with a new identity. As a result, nearly a dozen W-stations still exist west of the Mississippi. In addition, a handful of requests to ignore the rule were granted, including WDBQ in Dubuque, WMT (Waterloo Iowa Morning Telegraph), and, of course, WACO near Waco, Texas. Some stations have even waffled over the years from K to W and then back to K. (For a detailed list, go to http://earlyradiohistory.us/kwtrivia.htm.)
So, as you can see, the K-W designation is a good general rule, but not ironclad. Mistakes continue to happen. In 1980, a Christian station in Spring Arbor, Mich., was given the call letters KTGG. Why? Some speculate that someone at the Federal Communications Commission glanced too quickly at the “MI” on the application and mistook it as the abbreviation for Missouri or, perhaps, Wisconsin.
Q: You did a good job the other day of tracing the history of the old Shoney’s restaurant in Belleville, but you failed to answer one question some of us are wondering about: Which of the many restaurants there permitted customers to throw peanut shells on the floor? None of the residents here can remember.
Gen Wehrheim, of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows Apartment Community
A: I hope I’m not bombarded with peanut shells from readers who can prove me wrong, but I’ll go out on a limb and say none of the above. Instead, your question made my mind flash back 40 years to a summer night when some friends invited me to enjoy a Dixieland concert at a crowded bar where patrons threw peanut shells on the wooden floor for people to crunch on everywhere they walked.
The place? The Sugar Mill at 5500 North Belt West. It was opened by local attorney Charles Stegmeyer and his wife, Jo Ann, who just happened to be the daughter of Wesley and Florence Bloomer, who ran the nearby BAC Cinema.
It originally was slated to be a Cotton Gin, but that national chain went belly up. So, the Stegmeyers settled on a Deep South theme with old-fashioned ceiling fans, stained glass windows and wooden beams salvaged from an authentic Arkansas sugar mill. They hired local restaurateurs Jim and Pete Reidel to oversee the daily operations. And, of course, there was that distinctive lighted “Sugar Mill” sign with decorative curlicues above and below to lure passing drivers.
For a while, it was a happening place. Shortly after it opened Aug. 2, 1976, the Reidels reported 7,000 customers a week. The following year it packed its Opry House lounge on a Tuesday night in September with a “Bong Show,” its takeoff on TV’s infamous “Gong Show.” But on Feb. 4, 1979, it shut its doors when owners said they could not reach a new lease agreement.
After that, it was a Dohack’s for a brief time before turning into a Walton’s Smorgasbord from about 1980 through August 1989. In the ’90s, it was revived briefly as both a Bubba & Coy’s and M.T. Pockets before the YMCA acquired it for its Generations teen center from 1997 to 2003. Now, Crehan’s has just treated the area’s Irish and would-be Irish to another round of St. Patty’s Day revelry
In what country was the video game Tetris developed — and how did it get its unusual name?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1971, the St. Louis baseball Cardinals signed Randy Mario Poffo, of Zanesville, Ohio, as a catcher straight out of high school. For the next four years, he bounced around the minors with the Redbirds and Cincinnati, playing in 289 games while batting an undistinguished .254. But in late 1973, just before he gave up baseball, he found his true calling: professional wrestling. His first character was “The Spider,” patterned after Spider-Man, the Marvel Comics superhero. But he is best known as Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who won 20 championships during his 32-year career. (His mom reportedly read in Reader’s Digest that the term “Macho Man” was the next hot phrase.) He died in 2011 at age 58 after suffering a massive heart attack while driving with his wife in Florida.