Broadcasting History - Various Articles

Catalina Channel Swim Contest

From: Jim Hilliker []
Sent: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 8:16 PM
To: Jim Hilliker
Subject: 85th anniversary of KNX broadcast of Catalina Channel Swim contest

Hi, everyone. I’ve been looking through my files for 1927, and see that besides the first nationwide network broadcast of the Rose Bowl on NBC, there were other big events on radio 85 years ago, though some are long forgotten about today. In June, there was an incident in Los Angeles where the signal of Hollywood radio station KMTR (KLAC since 1946) was heterodyned or blocked for at least 30 minutes, to prevent the station owner from making a controversial speech. The KMTR owner blamed KHJ. But, just who was responsible for this action has never been determined, with any hard facts or proof.

Also, November will mark the 85th anniversary of KGFJ (now KYPA-1230) becoming the first 24 hour-a-day radio station in the USA, on a regular daily schedule.

Only two weeks following the 1927 Rose Bowl broadcast, on January 15th and into the 16th of 1927, a special type of sporting event was heard on radio in Southern California over KNX-Hollywood, KFWO-Catalina Island, and re-broadcast by some 18 other radio stations in the United States.

The unusual winter event promoted to boost off-season tourism on Catalina was the Wrigley Ocean Marathon. Dozens of men and women attempted for the first time to swim 22 miles from Catalina Island to Point Vicente, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, north of Los Angeles Harbor. This is one mile longer than the famous English Channel. The contest was sponsored by William Wrigley, Jr. who owned the Wrigley chewing gum empire and the Chicago Cubs National League baseball team. Wrigley also owned Catalina Island. Mr. Wrigley put up a prize of $25,000 (which would be equal to about $310,000 today) to the first man who successfully swam the 22-mile Catalina Channel and $15,000 (About $186,000 today) to the first woman to finish the swim. Wrigley was intrigued by the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926, and thought it would be a good idea to promote a swim from Catalina to the mainland.

Roughly 100 men and women entered the competition on the morning of January 15th. But, with water temperatures in the 50s, over two-thirds of the contestants dropped out of the event. But, just after 3 a.m. on the morning of the 16th, a 17-year-old Canadian from Toronto named George Young waded to the shore as the winner. He made the swim from Catalina to near San Pedro in 15 hours and 44 minutes. It turned out that Young was the only person to finish the race. A woman from Long Beach, CA and another woman from Portland, OR were given $2,500 (About $31,000 today) each by Wrigley for their efforts, despite not finishing the race.

The story of the radio coverage of the Catalina Channel Swim is told in the January 15, 1927 issue of Radio Doings magazine and by Lawrence Mott, the owner of KFWO (Katalina For Wonderful Outings) in the January 29, 1927 edition of the same magazine. Apparently, silent movie comedian Harry Langdon was the ‘sponsor’ who put up the money to make the broadcast possible. (A photo of Langdon in front of a KNX microphone is included with the magazine article).

KNX at 890-AM, the Los Angeles Evening Express radio station, put its shortwave transmitter aboard the official boat of the race, the Avalon. A speedboat with a KNX representative continually checked on the three groups of swimmers and relayed race information back to the Avalon. KFWO-1420-AM in Avalon replayed the signal from the KNX portable transmitter 6XA and was to broadcast the entire contest. KNX and KNRC-Santa Monica were scheduled to re-broadcast details of the marathon swim from KFWO every half-hour. During the overnight hours of darkness, radio stations such as KGO-Oakland, KOA-Denver and KMOX in St. Louis were to re-broadcast the signal of KFWO and give race bulletins to listeners.

KNX supplied announcers Eddie Albright, John Swallow, Glen Rice and Loyal Underwood to give their viewpoints of the swim race. The technical work was in the hands of KNX engineers Dean Garver and Les Hewitt. Major Lawrence Mott and his engineer Martin Paggi handled the announcing and engineering for KFWO.

KHJ at the Los Angeles Times and KFON in Long Beach also gave updates on the races during the night, but the broadcast of KNX and KFWO seemed to get the most attention from radio fans at the time.

The poor 17-year-old-boy from Canada was an instant celebrity who got his “15 minutes of fame,” but sadly fell into debt and eventually obscurity. A couple of days after the race, George Young accepted his $25,000 prize money during a ceremony at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. KFWB’s Bill Ray was there to broadcast that ceremony. I’ve attached a photo of that event, which was featured on the cover of Radio Doings magazine for the week of January 29, 1927.

Winning the Wrigley Ocean Marathon earned George Young the name “The Catalina Kid.” He was signed to appear at a Los Angeles vaudeville theater for a week, seen in a large glass tank on stage, demonstrating his swimming technique that took him from Catalina to the mainland. He was given a $250,000 movie contract, which his manager turned down, thinking he could get more money for Young. But, there were no more offers, and his fame soon came to an end. He entered and won a few other swimming races, but by the early-1930s, nobody cared. George Young later worked as a park ranger at Niagara Falls. After his retirement, he died in 1972 at the age of 62. Young was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

George Young’s time for crossing the Catalina Channel in 1927 dropped from 15 hours and 44 minutes to 7 hours and 15 minutes set by International Swimming Hall of fame Honor Swimmer Penny Lee Dean in 1976. Since 1927, more than 80 other swimmers have made it across the treacherous Channel.

Some of my facts for this story came from my own collection of Radio Doings magazines from 1927 and the Los Angeles Times.

Another helpful source was an excellent paper by Dr. Penny Lee Dean, titled A History of the Catalina Channel Swims since 1927.

Jim Hilliker

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