Years ago, a young Gwynn Oak man stretched wires through backyard trees to listen to a staticky radio broadcast.
That teen-ager was Emmett Smith, who today at 87 is the dean of Baltimore's radiophiles. He has devoted the past 70 years to the invention once known as wireless.
Most of that time was spent at Lauraville Radio Service in Northeast Baltimore, the small neighborhood repair shop he opened in 1923. It is still in business in the 4600 block of Harford Road and is operated by his son, Donald, who also caught the radio bug in a big way.
"Back then, the sets were mostly homemade and they were always breaking down. I could smell the trouble in a radio with my nose," the elder Smith said the other day in the basement of his Alden Road home in Parkville. The room is a museum for radios.
He had taken some time off from repairing a car radio to talk about seven decades' worth of fiddling with crystals, tubes, amplifier horns and condensers.
"The first radio I ever saw was in a picture pamphlet," he recalled. "Somebody brought one into Sunday school. My father had a hardware store on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore. He gave me some parts. I built the first radio I owned. Soon I got a reputation for being able to fix radios where we lived near Gwynn Oak Park. People brought them to me."
Smith completed six grades of school. As a child, he had picked up a dynamite cap that exploded, blinding him in the right eye. Nevertheless, there was not a bad tube or loose wire he could not spot.
His basement is filled with a collection of primeval radios. Most of them are so early they lack the fancy wood cabinets that they came in during the middle and late 1920s. The brand names are DeForest, Crosley, Freed Eiseman, Atwater Kent and Radiola.
On one side of the room there's a picture of orchestra leader Ben Bernie, whose musicians played the fox trots that resounded through Philcos and Spartans into the living rooms of America. Next to the photo is a watercolor advertisement of Ann Pennington, the dancer who introduced "The Black Bottom" to Broadway. She's endorsing a Manhattan brand radio speaker.
"I loved the music the orchestras played on the radio. Russ Morgan's orchestra. Ben Bernie. Lawrence Welk, too," Smith said.
Smith was a radio repair man who made a living making house calls in an era when floor model radios were so heavy they could not be moved readily. In the beginning, he shared his shop, which fronted on Grindon Avenue and has had several Harford Road locations, with a plumber.
"The plumber had the front of the shop. He put a white toilet in the window. I was in the back. When a builder failed and [the plumber] went out of business, too, I took over the space. I grew little by little. People were always needing their radios fixed, having tubes replaced, wanting better reception," he said.
Whenever their radios started giving them trouble, neighbors looked to the little shop and the man who ran it. And gathered around the shop to listen to radio.
"One day I got the idea to stretch some wires outside the store and set up a speaker," Smith said. "I tuned in a prize fight. I think I was Joe Louis. People began gathering on the sidewalk. Eventually, they spilled out on Harford Road. Soon they blocked a streetcar. The motorman got out and listened, too."
His shop was filled with repair manuals, vacuum tubes and phonograph record players. Smith's brother, John, joined the small business and specialized in 78 rpm records during the World War II years.
"One of the people I will never forget was John R. Sherwood, who lived in the big house facing Sherwood Gardens. He'd call me to his house to fix his radio or to move it to his summer house on the Severn River," Smith recalled.
"He would call me out at 8:30 in the morning and ask me to sit in the dining room. Then the maid would come out and ask me what I wanted for breakfast. I'd have an egg and sit with Mr. Sherwood while we ate and talked about radio. He had an early television, too."
Smith was never shy of television when it arrived in the 1940s.
"Baltimore didn't get a station until WMAR opened. Before that, you could tune into Washington, Channel 4, but it was difficult," he said. "Prize fights were big draws then. One day we rigged up an antenna and pulled it in. But every 90 seconds, we'd lose the picture. It was starting to roll. I spent the whole time turning the knob."
Smith retired 20 years ago and gave over the shop to his son. In the mid-1980s, the shop changed from a neighborhood-based repair shop to reconditioning antique radios for people who wanted to keep their old Philcos in good condition. Nowadays, most any vintage music appliance might wind up in this cluttered infirmary for radios.
"This is the place where the old radios go to die, but we bring them back to life," said Donald Smith.