A Salute to David Sarnoff

Just the briefest of acknowledgements of the 20th century broadcasting giant David Sarnoff (1891-1971). He’s top of mind at the moment as I’m in the middle of working on my book Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety. The book is time for the centennial of the very first radiovariety show transmissions, and the 75th anniversary of the debuts of The Ed Sullivan Show (Toast of the Town) and Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Sarnoff is more central to that story that any mere performer.

Sarnoff was an immigrant from Minsk who began his working life as an office boy for a telegraphy concern. He joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in 1906. He worked his way from being a wireless operator into management, where he lobbied endlessly to expand the company’s services from two-way communication, to mass broadcasting. The company became the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. A couple of years later, the company began to tip its toes into the untried waters of broadcast, and it was a success with the public. Its network of radio stations, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was founded in 1926. Radio was an immediate success with the public.

Even if Sarnoff stopped there, he’d rate a place in the history books, but he went on to accomplish much more. With the connivance of Joe Kennedy in 1927 he acquired the minor film studio Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) and the Keith-Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, and created Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) which became one of the top Hollywood movie studios practically overnight, putting the kibosh to vaudeville.

In 1929 the company purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, forming RCA Victor, the nation’s largest record company.

Meanwhile back at NBC he led the race to beat Philo T. Farnsworth on the creation of television. The first demonstration was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (pictured above). It didn’t really take off until a decade later, but take off it did.

Radio, TV, movies, records — from a clerk to the captain of a 20th century media empire. Dizzying.

Stay tuned for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming your way from Bear Manor Media!