Famous Wethersfield Voices on the Air
Robert L. Steele
by Cynthia Lang
"This morning thing is part of my life and I love it"
Even the letters in alphabet soup must mind their P's and Q's when they float in Robert L. Steele's plate. I don't know whether or not Bob eats alphabet soup. But it is a well-known fact that the famous man and voice from Wethersfield has an intense respect for he pronunciation of letter line-ups. And it is a safe bet that he can call an impressive number of big league line-ups over a good many years in just about any sport. When it comes to boxing he can call any set of opponents and their punches. Bob Steele is a man who knows the score.
In music? An integral part of his six-day-a-week program are recordings chosen to ease listeners into the rhythm of a new day and he will tell you that an announcer must be able to pronounce names as thought he were brought up to it.
"News, an interview with a visiting Chinese dignitary, describing a fire, parade, a flood, or announcing a classical music program, you have to know the peculiarities of various languages. What happens when different letter combinations get together. I'm talking about a good announcer. The best knows English, is conscious of pronunciation, strives to be correct," said the man who started as a staff announcer in 19936.
It was a hard road that Bob traveled from 1919 to 1936. From Kansas City, Missouri to Hartford Connecticut where he commands the largest morning audience of any radio personality.
"In this business people wonder what your real name is," he said. "Mine is Steele." Born on July 13, 1911, in Kansas City he was the only child of a mother who was a missouri native of Scotch-Irish ancestry. His father was Pennsylvania Dutch.
He sometimes jokes about how it took six years for him to go through high school, "I had to quit. Dropped out three times." But it wasn't funny: "Mother and I were alone in the world. She was divorced from my father when I was five. we had kind of a tough time. I worked at age eight, from six until 11 at night delivering for a drugstore, prescriptions and the usual, and earned $5 a week, with tips maybe another $2.50." Most people thought he was 10 or 11.
"I was never without a job. I have worked hard all my life." At 13, Bob had a job in a drug store at five a.m. to get it ready for the seven o'clock opening. "I mopped the floor." This was in 1924 and he got $14 a week for that. "I'm used to getting up early. Once had a morning paper route. So this morning thing is part of my life and I love it."
Air time for the Bob Steele show is 6 a.m. Sometimes in the summer, "only under the most ideal conditions," he rides from his home in Wethersfield at 5:15 a.m. it takes 20 minute to Broadcast House coming down Franklin pr Wethersfield Avenue. He makes the return trip at 11 a.m. and if people have heard on the air that he's riding some will be out there along the route waving and calling, "He, Bob." Of such recognition he says frankly, "When it's a possibility you desire it and are eager to have it happen."
One thing he did not desire, when he was at an age not much after five, was the middle name he was christened with. Five-year-old Robert Jesse Steele hated the little kid nest door. He was mean and his name was Jesse. Even at that age Bob was aware of General Robert E. Lee of history. He told his mother that he wanted to change his middle name to Lee. "In the records in Kansas City it is still Jesse, but not to me. I just couldn't stand that kid."
As Robert Lee Steele he left Kansas City at 19, and went to Los Angeles. It was during the depression. The year was 1930. He left his mother in Kansas City and said he'd send for her as soon as he got a job. Within six weeks Bob became a motorcycle messenger for the Security First National of Los Angeles with 21 bank branches between L.A. and Beverly Hills. "I had to hit every one within one minute of the schedule." With the new job in hand he asked his mother to come out to L.A. where they lived for six years.
The shadows of the depression lengthened across the years. President Franklin D. roosevelt established the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) creating jobs for people in the U.S.A. Bob worked with the W.P.A. as a time-keeper on a sewer project earning the then top wage of $94 a month. "Just lucky to have one of those jobs."
In 1936, a friend, a motorcycle racer, had quit racing to become a promotor. George Lannom (who lives in Virginia now and is a friend of Art McGinley's) had come to hartford to promote motorcycle racing in Bulkeley Stadium: "The stadium, named after Morgan Bulkeley, first president of the National League, was where our team was in the Eastern League. Leo Durocher, Warren Spahn, Lo Gehrig ("The Iron Man" great star of the Yankees), all played in Hartford.
There was a motorcycle raceway around the outside limits of the playing field, a cinder track one-fifth of a mile long. Baseball drew capacity crowds and so, on Tuesday nights, did the motorcycle race, 6,500 people. George wrote Bob i 1936 inviting him to be an announcer on the P.A. system, and do public relations for him for the fine salary of $30 a week.
"One day to do anything I wanted"
In September, at the end of the first racing season, Bob was getting ready to go back to California. "I had one day to do nothing before going to Patterson, New Jersey, to ride with a friend to California.
"One day to do anything I wanted. I was going to a show. The show was a mystery and there was one hour before the show." He took that hour and went across to The Travelers on Central Row, knowing that there wa a radio station upstairs. Up he went: "I just wonder if you have an opening for an announcer?" They did. They'd just fired a man. Paul Morency was the Big Man at WTIC. Twelve men had been auditioned for the job, mostly from N.B.C. in New York. Paul Morency gave Bob an audition: "O.K., we'll hire you. You can start tomorrow."
"I never went to the show, to Patterson, or to California." The last 36 years plus years have been spent here in Connecticut.
Romance, in the person of Shirley Hanson, came down from the 11th floor in The Travelers where Shirley worked in the Actuarial Department, to the sixth floor where WTIC was located. It was a casual meeting for Shirley Hanson,. whose parent came from a little town near Stockholm, Sweden, and Bob Steele. That meting later became a marriage. When they were expecting their first son they moved out of their Hartford apartment where children weren't wanted, to a little new house on Buckland Road in Wethersfield.
The house cost $5,700, brand new. "There wasn't a tree on the property then and there wasn't any grass. The ad said, `4-rm Cape Cod, 2 unfinished upstairs.' A down payment of $600 and we could only raise $500. We paid the rest over a period of time." In 1959, the Steeles had four boys and needed more room. They moved to Wolcott Hill.
Today, U.S. Congressman Robert H. Steele, 34, and his wife have four children. Paul 32, and his wife have two children and live in Lexington, Massachusetts where he teaches at Lexington High. Philip, 28, married, with one child, teaches at Mt. Hermon Preparatory School. Steven, 22, is interested in modern music and lives at home.
Career-wise the father, Robert L., did staff announcing for several years until it was decided that the radio station WTIC needed a sports program. "In 1938 I started Strictly Sports, chose the title myself. It's still Strictly Sports even though I don't do it any more."
In 1957 Bob did the TV program Close-Up on Sports. "I quit that in 1968 I think it was. because it was too much work with evening and morning shows. With sports requiring so much, you have to go to them, interview all day long, then come back and develop film and edit it."
He was TV and Radio Sports Director until 1968. "I dropped it and it was taken over by George W. (for Washington) Ehrlich, Sports Director for TV and Radio."
His morning program keep him going. He takes work home with him and answers in longhand, on a post card, about half of the 400 letters he receives each week. The morning show became "The Bob Steele Show" in 1943, "When I took it it was known as `G. Fox Morning Watch.'" That show lasted for an hour, 7-8, then began to expand; 7-8:30, then 7-9, 6:45-9, 6:45-10, then 6-10.
The format has evolved over a period of years. Weather is always at the same time, sports, children's story, birthday people (80 years of age or more), wedding anniversaries (60 years or more). "We feel that the peak hour is 7-8 and like to establish little features during the later hours."
"I can't possibly point to a typical listener"
"The format has grown and developed by itself. It carries me along. I just get on for the ride. We know what is next and the listener knows what time it is by what he's hearing." Young people always listen on mornings when the weather is bad. Bob gets letters from kids 12 and under responding to what he's said at ten-after-six. "I'll write back to them"
"It's interesting to wonder why people are up early. And what their ages are. I can't possibly point to a typical listener. So I talk to our engineer, Dick French (Tuesday through Saturday) and Ben Zinkerman (Monday) and try to say something to make them laugh. They've got to sit in that studio running the thing. We have a break from 8-8:15."
Sunday is the only day to really relax. And wouldn't you know, he wakes up at 5:00.
Something special he likes to do? "I like everything. Don't really have a hobby. A little cartooning, a little golf. I like to cook but my wife is such a good cook I don't like to interfere."
He does like to take trips on his vacation: "I like to drive to Florida or California. I enjoy it. Like to get off the expressways and go through the towns. See the architecture in various parts of the country. It's just interesting to get a little closer to the States. Along the roads the changing billboards. In Missouri and Indiana, `Chew Red Man for a little better chew.' You never get it when you're in an airplane, the greenery, topography. So that's a hobby of mine, touring by car."
Of the place where he lives: "I just like Connecticut better than any place. It's my home. This is the garden spot of the United States in my opinion. Wethersfield is a favorite town. Wethersfield has a personality all its own"
How he feels about recommending his career to young people: "This business, Radio-TV, is rewarding work. I'd highly recommend it to any young man or woman interested in training for this career. They should have a good voice, a knack for speaking well, for enunciating. Know grammar, pronunciation. Such a person would be valuable to this business and ought to get into it."
A man with a tremendous personality, a lot of drive. He can punt puns with the best of them for he is the best, a pro who not only accepts criticism but believes that you must accept it in order to keep on growing. Robert L. Steele, one of the famous Wethersfield voices on the air.