NEWARK, N.J. — For one weekend a year, the ghosts and survivors of Jack Benny, Benny Goodman, Goodman Ace and hundreds of other legends of the old days of radio hold court at a hotel across the road from Newark Airport.
The annual Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention has been meeting for 36 years. But when it signs off Saturday night, it will be for the last time. The reason is simple, says Jay Hickerson, a musician who has been running the show from the beginning: the march of time.
“Lack of OTR (old-time radio) guests. And the committee is getting older,” he said.
The gathering, humble as it is, used to be able to call on a constellation of stars from the early days of radio.
Now it’s down to former child stars in their 80s and 90s. Arthur Anderson, 88, who acted as a teenager with Orson Welles, is an honored guest. Grandsons of 1930s song and dance star Eddie Cantor and Brace Beemer, the voice of the Lone Ranger for most of its run on radio, are on the program.
Collecting old-time radio shows and trivia has never been a young person’s game. But most of the convention-goers are too young to have firsthand recollections of the shows they’re buying, recreating and discussing on panels.
Gary Yoggy, 73, has been to all 36 of the conventions.
“It’s my favorite weekend of the year. It tops Christmas,” he said.
Yoggy, a retired history teacher from Corning, N.Y., is part of the committee that puts on the convention. He directed a re-creation of a Tom Mix episode for a Friday afternoon program.
“It’s like reliving my youth,” he said. “I was a kid when the golden age of radio was beginning to die.”
Simon Jones is one of the celebrity guests for the weekend. Jones doesn’t exactly qualify as a Golden Age of Radio star. He played Arthur Dent in the BBC’s hugely popular radio and TV adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting in 1978. But he’s been here before and is delighted to be asked.
“I’ve learned quite a lot about what went on before me,” he said.
Listeners who started as children, he said, make the most loyal fans. “If you can catch them that young, maybe they’ll become addicted later on.”
But it’s not just the radio programs that bring participants back year after year.
Stuart Weiss has been part of the steering committee from the beginning. He moderates a music panel with Brian Gari, the Cantor grandson. Weiss likens the gathering to a family reunion.
“These are old friendships. But you don’t keep in touch during the year. We come here, it’s as if we were together yesterday,” he said.
Weiss, a party supply salesman from Staten Island, was inspired by the convention to start his own radio show on the Internet. It’s eight hours long.
“I can’t stop,” he said. The party supply business isn’t doing too well these days, but “when I do my show, I forget all my problems. And for eight hours, I’m in heaven.”
Sometimes the family aspect is literal. Gary Yoggy met his wife at the convention. They’ve been married 29 years. Jeff Muller, 45, has been coming since he was a teenager. He brings his father.
“I guess it’s his second childhood, in a way,” he said.
And when the curtain comes down, after Jay Hickerson and his wife Karen play “I’ll Be Seeing You” and a version of “Thanks for the Memories,” with special lyrics written for the convention?
Weiss joked he’ll come back to the Newark Airport Ramada anyway and wander around empty rooms. Yoggy said he wants to help revive radio drama, which withered away decades ago, in the United States at least.
Jones, the Hitchhiker’s Guide star, said the form remains alive in Britain. Next year, the radio version goes on a live tour.
“Obviously, this art form hasn’t quite died,” he said.