4:49pm

Thu March 29, 2012
Arts & Culture

Tuning into the history of Aladdin Radio Repair

I used to live in the Inner Sunset, and every time I'd walk down Irving Street towards 19th Avenue, I'd pass the tiny storefront of Aladdin radio repair.

The window was usually dark, but if I peered inside I could see rows and rows of antique radios. Gently curved plastic in pearly sea-green hues, hefty knobs and ornate dials... How could I not be enchanted?

The sign on the door said the store was open by appointment only, and it gave a number. It turns out the place is officially out of business, but the owner John Wentzel still comes in the mornings to repair radios for himself and his friends.

“We took over this business in 1946, my wife and I, just out of the army service, and we've had it ever since,” says Wentel. He invites me in. The store is a treasure trove of radio history. One wall is stacked high with thousands of colored boxes containing vacuum tubes. “They're left over from the old days,” he says.

But Wentzel says those are some of only things that haven't changed in the past 60 years. “When we first moved here, there was no traffic, no parking meters, park anyplace for all day. If you wanted a Chinese dinner in those days, why, you had to go to Chinatown,” he remembers. “It was all family homes here then, and kids went to their local school.” Wentzel says the outer Sunset wasn't the residential district it is now.

Wentzel has radios from those days. He shows me one that looks like a boat, which he says used to be given out as a prize for the ski-ball games at Whitney at the beach. The he shows me how to operate an older radio. “You have to plug it into your house current, turn it on and wait about 30 seconds to a minute for it to come up to operating temperature and it'll come on,” he explains. It’s a much more physical process than we associate with radios today.

Then Wentzel brings out another radio of a black bakelite construction that looks like it could be some kind of vacuum cleaner. No letters or numbers, just a speaker projecting out from a solid body and one big dial. “And if you push down on the thumb dial it changes the station,” Wentzel explains.

Wentzel doesn't know how to fix modern solid-state radios. By the time they became standard in the seventies, he was ready to retire. So he converted his business to an antique repair shop. And he's got some unusual artifacts, like an old German radio with a Nazi symbol on it.

“It was called a people's radio,” says Wentzel, “and Hitler demanded that the entire nation listen to his speeches.”  It looks exactly like what you would expect from a Nazi radio: it's a black box, very stern, simple, with the eagle symbol and it does have a swastika in the middle. Wentzel says they were made cheaply because every German citizen had to have one. A tag attached to one of the dials reminded Germans that listening to British or American short wave radio was prohibited.

Wentzel says the Americans did something similar and forced Japanese people to have the short wave feature on their radios disabled. “I remember after the war, we used to get a lot of those in when the Japanese were released from internment camps and things, and we would restore them,” he says.

Then he shows me one last radio. It's about the size of a toaster oven, and definitely my favorite. “This radio's called a playpal,” he says. The radio has compartments, which open up to reveal liquor bottles, glasses, a deck of cards, poker chips and dice. “So you can listen to the radio, you can drink, and you can gamble all at once. I only wish we could give one of these out as a thank you for pledge drives.

This story originally aired on September 22, 2008.

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