Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Barty the Radio Cat

It's not uncommon, at estate sales, to find that someone has spent many decades collecting animal figurines. I often go to a sale and find a table or a shelf crammed with tiny ceramic owls, elephants, dogs, or turtles. 

Or cat figurines. At a sale I attended last month, I observed the estate of Margie and Norma, two spinster sisters who, putting it mildly, were devoted to cats. Margie had died in the 1970s and Norma passed away earlier this year, leaving behind them the mother of all cat collections, carefully kept in scrapbook albums, in boxes and on shelves.  There were literally thousands of ceramic and plastic and paper and fabric cats, all over the small house. I liberated a few of the ceramic cats.

Hagen-Renaker "Madame Fluff" Persian

Hagen-Renaker "Moonbeam" Persian kitten, designed by Maureen Love

Hagen-Renaker large lying Persian, designed by Maureen Love

I also ended up buying part of Margie and Norma's collection of cat postcards and greeting cards. Some dated back to the Edwardian era.

But most were from the mid-20th century.

Norcross Cards "Topaz" the kitten.

I was interested to see that, while most of the cats on the postcards were nameless, one was a unique sort of celebrity: Barty the Radio Cat, from Long Beach, California.

Decades before cats ruled the Internet, Barty had his own radio show.

To be specific, Barty was the co-host -- along with his owner, station manager Hal Nichols -- of a program called "Memory Room" on KFOX-AM 1280 in Long Beach, California. Barty was the station mascot, and from what I've read about him, he could purr on command.

Or perhaps he just purred all the time, and all Nichols had to do was hold the cat up to the microphone (or vice versa).  (The audience never would have known.)

It would have been a good job, being a Radio Station Cat.  Barty would have been able to spend quality time with his person in the cozy environment of radio master control. No one could see if he shed hair or drubbed his claws on the furniture.  Barty's fans could collect pins with his image (above), and he sent them postcards at Christmastime.

Hal Nichols was something of a pioneer in radio broadcasting. He was born in 1885, and became a professional musician after high school.  Here's one of his compositions, the Harmony Rag:


And another, the Black and Blue Rag:


As a musician, Nichols saw the potential of radio, and by 1920 he had started a station in Denver, Colorado. By the early 1920s, Nichols and his wife Dorothy had opened a radio store and started a radio station in Long Beach. By 1930, according to the US Census, they also owned a candy store. 

But Nichols' heart was in radio. As early as 1935, he was experimenting with an all-live format of music and talk. One report that I read, said that a high school kid named Spike Jones and his band used to play jazz on Nichols' station before school.

Sources from Back in the Day tell us that Barty the Radio Cat's career started in the 1940s, and lasted until 1953, when Hal Nichols died, probably of cancer.

Nichols' obituary in the LA Times reads: 

Funeral services for Hal G. Nichols, 68, pioneer radio station founder who died Wednesday night, will be conducted in Long Beach at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the Holton & Son Chapel. Entombment will follow in Angelus Abbey Mausoleum. Mr. Nichols, who founded KFOX in March, 1924, leaves his widow Dorothy. He had been a resident of Long Beach for 31 years. At the time of his station's founding, it was one of but three in the Los Angeles area. Mr. Nichols had been ill for the last 10 years.

In old-school radio announcing classes, the instructor would tell the students to imagine not that they were speaking to thousands of people, but to one person. At its best, radio is the connection of the listener to the announcer, people who don't know each other but have something in common, something to share. In the case of Margie and Norma, and Hal and Barty, it was the love of music combined with the love of cats. 

A cat on the radio. A little unexpected, a little corny perhaps, but uplifting and kind, and something to look forward to every day.

Their listeners might not have known it at the time, but Barty the Radio Cat wasn't just purring on the radio. He was seeing Hal Nichols through his final illness.


Some sources of information on Barty and Hal:




  1. I remember Hal Nichols and the School kids very well. I still have pins with some of their names on them. Like Sassy Little, Abie, Foo Chow, Violet and even one with Hal Nichols himself.
    Great old program to grow up with.

  2. I remember Hal Nichols and the School kids very well. I still have pins with some of their names on them. Like Sassy Little, Abie, Foo Chow, Violet and even one with Hal Nichols himself.
    Great old program to grow up with.