by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the development of radio in Los Angeles in the early 1920s, one of the pioneering figures was John Stewart Daggett (1878-1945), a figure known for years in the region as “Uncle John,” manager and a principal personality of KHJ, launched by the Los Angeles Times in spring 1922. Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is a press photo with the date of 1 August 1927 and featuring Daggett and who appears to be his second wife, Marguerite, surrounded by a group of his greatest fans, young folks who were fans of his children’s hour program.
Daggett was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Mary Stewart, a writer of published novels and short stories and Charles D. Daggett, a lawyer, and was the third child and only son of the couple, with one of his sisters, Maud, becoming a well-known sculptor in greater Los Angeles. The family was one of the hordes of homeseekers (and, perhaps, healthseekers) who came to the region during the great Boom of the 1880s and were among the early settlers of South Pasadena, buying 4 1/2 acres of Columbia Hill where Sierra Madre College, which never opened, was established.
Charles Daggett was not only an attorney, but became a successful insurance and real estate broker in the area. As for John, he attended Stanford University and Throop Institute (which became the California Institute of Technology) and became a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. In 1904, he married Martha Behr, the daughter of a prominent South Pasadena chemist, but later in the year, she and the couple’s infant daughter died.
Daggett continued working with the Times for about another decade, but, almost certainly due to his father’s deep connections and friendship with Jared S. Torrance, who lived in Pasadena. When Torrance and a syndicate of investors bought a large property in the South Bay, they developed the city named after him and, in 1913, Daggett was hired to be the sales manager for Thomas D. Campbell and Company, the tract’s agents.
He appears to have worked in Torrance for about four years, but, during the First World War, Daggett was in Detroit where he worked for an airplane production company, manufacturing craft for the war effort. By 1920, however, he was back in this area and joined the real estate business if Rufus P. Spalding, a former Hawaii territorial legislator who was married to a sister of Daggett’s late wife and lived in Pasadena.
In June 1921, however, Daggett began his second stint with the Times and wrote articles on art and entertainment, among other subjects, but when the paper embarked on its radio venture with KHJ the following spring and appointed him as its manager. In the 2 April 1922 edition of the paper, Daggett wrote about the recent formation of the Times Radio Department and its immediate success with nearly 1,700 members signing up in just a week:
The club s going over big, and as soon as the Times radio broadcasting station is “on the air” we will hold our first meeting, elect officers, formulate plans for the future and get acquainted.
The call numbers of The Times Radio Station are KHJ—a call which it is hoped will stand for Knowledge, Happiness and Judgment.
Radio is one of the biggest developments of the age. We were fortunate to be able to play a part in its beginnings, and must progress with it. Knowledge is the key to success, Happiness the lock to co-operative effort, and Judgment the open door of progress.
In short order, however, Daggett was not just directing the operation of KHJ, but became its, and local radio’s, first celebrity and personality, taking on the moniker of “Uncle John” not long after his first broadcast on 13 April 1922. The centerpiece was the station’s children’s hour, hosted by him at 6:30 p.m., and featuring such figures as Queen Titania, the Fairy of the Microphone, played by 7-year old Helene Pirie when she debuted in fall 1923. The Homestead has a 1924 book based on the show and the character. In 1925, Daggett was featured briefly in an Our Gang comedy in his “Uncle John” guise at the station broadcasting the reading of a children’s story.
His “Uncle John’s Column” in the Times was also very popular with children for a few years and his success spawned the inevitable imitators on other local stations. This prompted columnist E.D. Frayne of the Los Angeles Record to write, in his column of 2 March 1926, “I don’t know if it is playful mimicry, jealous satire, bitter ridicule or savage irony, but I do wish that rival radio announcers would please relinquish the practice of imitating Uncle John Daggett’s stuff. It bores me to tears.”
Frayne continued that “Uncle John is more than a friend. He is an institution.” and went on to suggest that “more than that, Uncle John is an idol to the children of the city and many other cities. The kiddies venerate him. He does what many a mother and father would not have the patience to do—he spends an hour of his life every day amusing other people’s children.”
The columnist asked who had not seen children “listening with rapt attention to every word of this wonderful man?” adding “who is there among you who has not conceived a vast respect for this kindly, lovable character whois moulding the minds of thousands of tiny hearers in a way that all right-thinking persons want them moulded?” This description might make those of us of a certain age think of local television’s Miss Mary Ann of Romper Room or the national influence of Mr. Rogers.
Targeting those who thoughtlessly mocked Uncle John, Frayne further inquired, “Why wantonly kill a beautiful thing? Illusions go fast enough; for heaven’s sake let’s not take them away in babyhood.” Yet, there was an “on the other hand,” as the columnist took Daggett to task for injecting his political views, specifically about his disdain for unions (a topic of great interest to his employer, the notoriously “open shop” and anti-union Times) while saying that “I can still his fine qualities” despite this unncessary intrusion.
In September 1926, after over two decades as a widower, Daggett, who was pushing fifty, married 18-year old Marguerite Bunton, a neighbor in a community at the south side of the Elysian Hills next to where Dodger Stadium now is and who performed on his show, singing and playing the ukulele or celeste as “Pal ‘o Mine.” The ceremony was held at the station’s studio, with some three dozen of the “wonder children of KHJ” present along with family members and a few close friends, and, of course, “the ceremony will take place before the microphone which Uncle John has served so faithfully through the years, so the vast radio family will in reality be the wedding guests.”
The Times, naturally, lauded its star by proclaiming:
There is probably no one in Southern California who is loved by more people than is Uncle John. His voice has gladdened countless homes with his messages of cheer and friendliness. His magnetic radio personality has projected itself out over the air winning the hearts of hs listeners. Thoughts are things, and the good wishes of this great unseen audience will go out to the happy couple, carrying their blessing.
The featured photo appears to be of the Daggetts returning home from Hawaii, where it was reported they spent part of each summer, but was also dated just after the fifth anniversary celebration of KHJ, for which Uncle John “gave his fans a fifteen hour non-stop program presenting an array of KHJ talent new and old.” An article commemorating the milestone included a photo of Daggett with his three “studio canaries,” named, unsurprisingly, Kindness [replacing Knowledge], Happiness, and Joy [substituted for Judgment].
Despite the celebration and the testimonials of Daggett and his work, the Times decided in November 1927 to sell KHJ to the prominent Cadillac dealer Don Lee. In its article on the deal, which led to Daggett leaving the station and returning to the paper’s staff of reporters, it was stated that he had to build the station without precedent or experience and it lauded “his personal and tireless efforts.”
Moreover, the account continued, “KHJ was the first station in the West to feature regular music, educational and entertainment programs . . . [and] was the first station to use sponsored programs, a plan devised by Uncle John and now common to all stations.” It also asserted that KHJ “has been a training school for radio-station men of Southern California.” In addition, “Uncle John himself has set a record which is likely to stand for some time to come, that of the longest consecutive period of service with one station of any station manager in the United States.” Proclaimed the Times, “A host of friends of Radioland will miss his cheery voice, his uniform optimism and kindliness, embodied in his slogan for KHJ and for which he named the famous studio canaries.”
While Daggett continued writing articles for the paper through the end of 1931, he returned to the airwaves in late November 1928, as the Los Angeles Express reported “the radio audience of Southern California is to hear an old friend over station KNX, ‘The Voice of Hollywood,’ from 6:30 to 7 o’clock, when ‘Uncle John’ Daggett, one of America’s leading radio announcers, returns to the air after an absence of more than a year.” The piece noted that “‘Uncle John’ has been called ‘the greatest radio personality in the history of broadcast,’ and his hundreds of thousands of friends in the radio industry and in the vast radio audience will welcome the news of his decision to ‘come on the air’ again.”
Not quite a year later, in September 1929, Daggett, a popular speaker and master of ceremonies, addressed the Altadena Kiwanis Club. Notably, he decried that commercialism was ruining the “human element in radio” and led to his decision to step back from radio work before signing with KNX. He expressed the hope and belief that a pendulum swing was turning the situation back to one in which the power and spirit of radio was such “that within a short period of years, thoughts will be transmitted from one person to another, or from one person to thousands, perhaps even from thousands to one, by ether waves.”
The reality was, though, that Daggett’s spotlight in radio was long past. Through the 1930s and the Great Depression years, he hosted programs on such stations as KEFJ, KFAC (with Uncle John’s Opportunity Hour), KNX, and KFWB. He and his young wife, however, went through a very bitter and public divorce in 1933 with Daggett claming she cheated on him with Michael Cudahy of the well-known meat packing firm and she filed on grounds of cruelty, with her securing a decree and custody of their sole child, John, Jr. (later well-known for purportedly being the first person to swim across the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon—though one wonders if an indigenous person achieved that feat millenia ago.) While he occasionally served as a master of ceremonies at Camp Baldy, served as Santa Claus for holiday broadcasts, and emceed at the opening of Union Station in 1939, his career was basically over at the end of the decade.
On 14 March 1945, just as World War II was coming to a close, the 66 year-old Daggett died of a cerebral hemorrhage and the Times, after reviewing his career, noted he’d lived quietly in recent years in his Craftsman-style bungalow next to the Cal Tech campus, which he’d attended over four decades prior. An editorial in that paper stated, “radio owes much to John S. Daggett who, in the decade of the ‘twenties, was one of its creative and popular personalities and whose passing will be noted with sincere regret by his onetime wide audience of the airwaves.” It lauded his introduction of innovative programming and multifaceted role in managing KHJ, concluding that “‘Uncle John’ was truly a pioneer in what has now become one of the greatest of all cultural, educational and entertainment mediums.”
A memorial in verse was penned by Dr. Alice M. Reinhold, which, in part, reads
You missed the children! Those bright, artless ones
Of years gone by: your pupils, well-beloved
Who, gently trained, produced “The Children’s Hour.”
Now come those children’s children—adult grown
To honor, and to tell “Dear Uncle John,”
That of the bright-eyed children, some have gone
Before him through the singing, shining way,
And wait with outstretched hands to welcome him.
With them are countless happy children, who
Will merge in “Uncle John’s New Children’s Hour.”
God’s Music of the Spheres swells forth to greet
Our erstwhile friend. Farewell—until we meet.
“Uncle John” Daggett is a mostly forgotten figure, but deserves remembrance as a pivotal pioneer in the development of radio in Los Angeles from its inception in 1922 and developing programming, especially for children, through the Roaring Twenties.