Antique radios give collectors something to tune into

08/05/2013 9:31 AM

08/05/2013 9:31 AM

Vacuum tubes and lacquered wooden cases may seem to be out of style, but they’re still in vogue at the Mid America Antique Radio Club of Kansas City. Its swap meet Sunday morning at Leawood Park drew members from all over the area, from Topeka to Lenexa to Independence.

Members all have their favorite spots to hunt for unused radios from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Some scour the Internet, while others prefer garage sales or antique shops.

Many in the club spend their free time restoring these old radios, inside and out. Fixing up an old RCA Victor or Zenith radio might involve hunting down the correct type of vacuum tube, replacing other mechanical parts and refinishing the wooden case around it.

“You have to read a voltmeter and know what you’re looking at and compare values of capacitors and make sure you’re putting the right type of radio tubes in the radio chassis,” said Claude Chafin of Independence, the club’s newsletter editor.

Robert Lutz of Lenexa, the club’s president, likened finding the right radio to a treasure hunt. Although he acknowledges that radio collectors are their own subculture, he relishes the chance to meet up with “kooky people.”

Radios have been a lifelong pastime for Lutz, who likes the friendly competitions among club members to see who can best restore a radio.

“When I was a kid, I was a Cub Scout, and I built a crystal radio set,” Lutz said. “(After that), I would fish radios out of the trash.”

The club has four major gatherings annually. Two are auctions, and two are swap meets. Members pay $20 a year for a quarterly newsletter and to contribute to rental costs for the events.

Teresa Miles of Bethany, Mo., doesn’t mind her husband Dave’s hobby — she’s just glad he’s not collecting something pricier, like cars.

“When he got into this, I thought, ‘Not many people do this.’ Then I came (to the club),” she said.

For Mark and Frank Behrens, fixing radios is a family affair. Mark, a retired TV repairman from Independence, got involved with the club in 1988.

“You won’t find anything like that nowadays — the American-made craftsmanship,” Mark Behrens said. “These were made when people didn’t throw things away when they didn’t work anymore.”

His son, Frank Behrens of Mission, said he’s interested in many old things — cars, watches, movies — but radios are the only thing he collects.

Both men said they enjoyed the camaraderie and common interests at club meetings.

John Lyle of Topeka recalled the painstaking work of his late friend Robert Stableford in restoring an intricate design of flowers and a faun on a rare 1920s model.

“He scratched out the pattern with a needle, and he didn’t make any mistakes,” said Lyle, who noted that it took Stableford a whole day to fix each square inch of the pattern.

Lyle got into collecting and restoring antique radios when he was in college, and his wife kept taking him to garage sales.

“I was miserable, then I happened onto a 1938 radio, and I thought it was the coolest thing. It was $20, and that was a lot of money to us then,” Lyle said.

He learned restoration tricks from a professor at Kansas State University and soon found himself getting up early to scout sales for more radios.

“(Club members) are like a bunch of kids collecting baseball cards,” Chafin said. “That’s the best way I can equate it. I’m the same way. They might not buy anything (at meetings), but they like coming out and visiting. A lot of them have full collections, and they don’t have any more room.”

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