Washington’s long-lost ‘Magic Radio’ Santa gets new life
This is what the announcer said at 4:30 p.m. one day about a week before Christmas 1950 over the airwaves of radio station KELA in Lewis County: “Yes, stand by for Santa Claus! The Beacon Store, Santa’s headquarters for southwest Washington, presents the most important radio program of the year, Santa’s very own. Santa’s Magic Radio! We’re going to take Santa’s Magic Radio and talk to Santa at his North Pole headquarters! So, stand by for Santa Claus!”
First of all, let me be very clear: I believe in Santa Claus. Second, I’m a sucker for grownups who do things to make the lives of kids more magical. When I was a little kid in the 1970s and was in my “doubting Santa” phase, I’d hear local and national media reports about NORAD tracking Santa’s sleigh, and my doubts were instantly – and permanently – erased.
Fast-forward about 40 years, and I learned this week that there were some grownups in Lewis County who did a pretty special thing every year to help Santa and local kids.
For about three weeks before Christmas, from sometime in the 1940s to sometime in the 1980s, radio station KELA in Centralia/Chehalis would use a “Magic Radio” to connect with Santa Claus at the North Pole for 15 minutes each day. With the swirling sounds of a blizzard in the background, and with help from a fast-talking elf named Tommy Tinker, Santa would read letters from local kids about what they wanted for Christmas.
This story begins for me last week, when my friend John Jenkins, who founded the incredible SPARK Museum in Bellingham, sent me a photo of a very old, giant record in the museum collection. The disc in question is called an “Electrical Transcription.” It’s 16-inches in diameter, and was a common means for radio stations to record and play programs from the 1930s to roughly the 1960s.
The record John had photographed was from KELA, and it was marked “Santa Claus Program 1950.” When I saw the photo, I had a feeling right away that it was going to be something cool. And I wasn’t disappointed. On Friday, I made a trip to Georgetown and grabbed my special turntable that plays 16″ records from where it’s been living at MOHAI’s research facility. I called my brother, who lives up north, and he went to the SPARK Museum and picked up the record. We met halfway in Mount Vernon on Sunday morning, and I listened to and digitized the record on Sunday afternoon during that unfortunate Seahawks game.
Through 15 minutes of static and skipping and other sonic interference, a world of 68 years ago emerged from the disc as it spun on my kitchen table and magical voices traveled through the wires into my digital recorder and then into my headphones.
Santa Claus comes in over KELA’s “Magic Radio,” and he begins reading letters. From little Carol Smoots of Onalaska, we hear:
“She wants a piano for Christmas, she’s nine and a half years old,” Santa said. “Mama would like a new stove for Christmas and Daddy would like a new car because our car is falling to pieces. Well, now, isn’t that shame! My goodness, falling to pieces! We’re going to have to bring some nuts and some bolts and some haywire down there and we’ll put that car back together. And maybe, I don’t know, these new cars are awful expensive.”
Santa on the radio
I knew the recording was priceless and cool, but I didn’t know any of the backstory. Fortunately, I’d posted a photo of the record label on Facebook, and I soon heard from a wonderful retired KELA radio guy named Steve Richert who grew up in Chehalis and now lives in Beaverton, Oregon.
Richert worked at KELA for 42 years, beginning in 1971. He told me all about the long-running “letters to Santa” program that he first heard as a kid in the 1950s. Richert said a local feed & seed store owner named Jimmy Voegele played Santa on the show for about 30 years.
“He had sound effects and he had bells, and we’d start with a big wind effect with the introduction,” Richert said. “And then [we’d try] to bring him in on the ‘Magic Radio’: ‘Okay kids, we’re gonna try and bring in Santa Claus on our Magic Radio,’ and then you’d hear all that static and squealing sounds as you’re trying to tune him in, and then all of a sudden, this wind sound would come pouring in as a backdrop to his show.”
Richert says the whole thing might seem cheesy now, but at the time, and for those who still remember, it was just plain magic.
“Santa actually is reading the letter he got from you on his magic radio out of the North Pole with the wind blowing in the background,” Richert said. “And Jimmy was good at adlibbing things about the requests and throwing in little comments and endearing himself even more to the kids and, by extension the parents.”
“It was an opportunity for parents who wanted to extend the Christmas feeling that they had, back when they were youngsters, onto their children,” he said. “And vicariously wrapping themselves up in that whole feeling.”
And who played Tommy Tinker, the elf sidekick?
“[Jimmy] had a cart player [a device radio stations once used to play songs, sound effects and other audio] that had the voice of Tommy Tinker … it was like Alvin and the Chipmunks . . . it was speeded up so fast you couldn’t understand what he was saying,” Richert said.
Ultimately, Richert says he became the voice of Tommy Tinker.
“I had to redo [the Tommy Tinker tapes played by the cart machine] that either got damaged or lost,” Richer said. “So I went down there [to the studio] and I actually would say things I made up, a lot of stuff, nothing obscene or anything. That was a fun part of radio.”
Tommy Tinker makes several appearances in the recording from 1950, along with so many other great moments, so it’s definitely worth listening to the entire 15 minutes. Santa reads full names and hometowns of all the kids, and even mentions the street addresses of a few. The kids, who would all be at least in their 70s by now, are from places like Centralia, Chehalis, Napavine, and Onalaska.
Bring my brother home
In one of my favorite moments, one young letter-writer channels Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” and then poignantly mentions the whereabouts of an older brother.
“And here’s a nice letter from, let’s see, this is from Chehalis or Centralia. It’s from Jim Hudson,” Santa said. “He says he wants a sailboat, a Red Ryder BB gun, a basketball, and he says ‘bring my big brother Eugene something too. I think he might be home for Christmas. He is in Korea. And please bring something for my two big sisters Edna and Temple and maybe some perfume or hair lotion. And I know you’re busy, I hope you’ll find time to come by my house.’ He’s seven years old.”
The Korean War had just begun that summer of 1950, and big brother Eugene Hudson was, apparently, already in the thick of it. How I’d love to know how Eugene fared in that tour of duty.
Steve Richert says he’s in touch with a lot of Chehalis/Centralia old-timers via Facebook, and he says that memories of KELA’s “letters to Santa” program come up in online discussions every Christmas.
Richert also said that Jimmy Voegele hosted a weekend gardening show on KELA year-round back in the 1960s and 1970s, and that at his feed and seed shop in Centralia, he was popular with his customers.
“He was very outgoing. Very friendly guy. And just fun to talk to. Very energetic. He was fairly short [and] had kind of a ruddy complexion, wore glasses,” Richert said.
He was a “little bit of an elf,” he said, jokingly. Voegele passed away in 1979, Richert said, and a man named Ed Jeffries took over as Santa for at least a few more years until the show ended.
Richert shared one more anecdote about Jimmy Voegele from the early years of the Santa show. It seems that in 1940s and early 1950s, there wasn’t an auxiliary studio from which Santa could broadcast. So, since radio is notoriously both a cheap and inventive industry, the KELA engineer ran a microphone cable down the hall, and Santa officiated over his daily broadcast from the men’s room, while seated atop a white porcelain throne.
During one broadcast, Richert says, the inevitable happened. Did I mention that radio is also a notoriously mischievous industry?
“Someone, as a prank, went in there and pushed down the flush handle on the toilet,” in Santa’s stall while the show was on the air, Richert said.
But old Santa wasn’t too rattled by the unexpected sound effects.
“[Jimmy] adlibbed his way through it, ‘Oh, the wind is really kicking up a storm here at the North Pole!”
We’ve posted the entire recording and the list of letter-writers in hopes that this will get shared, and maybe some of the kids mentioned can be tracked down. I’d love to hear their memories of having their letters read by Santa on KELA. Please email me via [email protected]
List of KELA long-ago Santa letter-writers from December 1950
Burton “Roger” Kelsey, age 6
1006 Old Chehalis Road in Centralia
Anna Louise Berks
Route 3 in Centralia
Walter and Warren Hall, 6-year old twins
Chehalis address but attend Napavine school
Freddy Reinke (spelling?)
Nalga Zard (spelling?)
Lowell Bailey, Age 6
Donny Smoots, 4 and a half
Carol Smoots, 9 and a half
Jeff Gustafson, 5 years old
Rudy Graves, 8
Judy Graves, 7
(location not mentioned)
Margaret Basem (spelling?)
Jim Hudson, 7
Timmy Hudson, 6
Eugene Hudson (serving in Korea)
Edna Hudson (older sister)
Temple Hudson (older sister)
Chehalis or Centralia