Don McNeill, 1960s

Don McNeill, at the microphone, stayed on the air until 1968, long after radio's heyday. (Tribune photo by Josef Szalay)

`Sam and Henry" were not the names that would make Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll famous, but they were the names of Gosden's and Correll's characters when their show was first broadcast on radio station WGN on this day. In the vaudeville tradition of white actors performing in blackface, Gosden, a former Virginia tobacco salesman, and Correll, a one-time Peoria bricklayer, performed comedy in a thick Negro dialect.

The daily 15-minute show was so popular that in two years Gosden and Correll were wooed away by WMAQ and its national network at the time, Columbia Broadcasting. But the Tribune-owned WGN, whose call letters reflected the paper's boast to be the "World's Greatest Newspaper," retained rights to the "Sam and Henry" name. Gosden and Correll simply renamed their characters. They became "Amos 'n' Andy.""Amos 'n' Andy" was just one of the shows that marked Chicago's golden age of radio production. "The National Barn Dance," "The Breakfast Club," "Little Orphan Annie," and "Fibber McGee and Molly" were among the other national favorites to originate from Chicago, largely because the city was home to the advertisers that sponsored the shows.

"Fibber McGee and Molly," in which Jim Jordan played the hapless, dissembling Fibber and his wife, Marian, portrayed Fibber's long-suffering wife, became the most popular show in the nation by 1941, 10 years after the show began in Chicago as "Smackout" and two years after its stars took their program to Hollywood. WLS' "National Barn Dance," a weekly, country-themed variety show, debuted in April 1924 and went strong for two decades before NBC dropped it in 1946.

"Amos 'n' Andy," which left the city for the West Coast in 1937, survived in a variety of formats until 1968, but as it became more popular it also became controversial. Defenders said its white actors' portrayals of underachieving blacks were little different from other ethnic humor. But critics, especially black groups, charged the program bolstered stereotypes among the ignorant and prejudiced.

After World War II, television took over radio's function of making entertainment programs for the nation, but by then, Chicago had already losi /t its status as a radio capital. Most shows had moved to New York or Los Angeles. Don McNeill's "The Breakfast Club," however, continued to broadcast its quintessentially Midwestern assemblage of pleasant morning banter and gentle humor from Chicago until it went off the air in 1968.