Before I get to the Shamrock, I want to bring up Preservation Houston’s ongoing History in Print series. This month, I will be giving a presentation on the Houston’s architectural past, present, and future, with a primary focus on the city’s movie theatres. The event will take place on Tuesday evening, September 17, in Fondren Hall on the second floor of the Jones Youth Building at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 5501 Main Street in the Museum District. For more details, see the Preservation Houston website.
Saturday at the Shamrock
I recently was going through my father’s closet and came across a set of nine cassette tapes. The tapes were recordings from an era gone by, from a radio series that was very nearly lost forever, and broadcast from a landmark that was lost.
The tapes were of Saturday at the Shamrock, a live radio program that was broadcast from 1949 to 1953, and aired across 450 U.S. radio stations and 39 in Canada. It was the first radio program to be aired nationally from Texas. The weekly show was recorded in the Emerald and Shamrock Rooms at Glen McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel and aired locally through KXYZ (also owned by McCarthy). During its run, it featured a steady stream of talent, such as Humphrey Bogart, Lberace, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore, along with emcee Fred Nahas.
The Shamrock Hotel is long gone — it was razed in 1987 to make way for an empty field — and is still the poster child for Houston’s illiteracy at historic preservation. As has been often noted, once a building is taken down, it is lost forever, along with its history. While the property has since been redeveloped (with the one leftover from the Shamrock era being its multi-level parking garage), the simple fact remains that no matter what it is that sits in that space — it still ain’t the Shamrock, nowhere even close.
Saturday at the Shamrock was nearly lost as well. According to an article written by Bruce Westbrook for the Houston Chronicle at the time of the cassette’s release, archive copies of the program were originally recorded by KXYZ, using an old acetate-on-aluminum disc technology. By the end of the decade, the station had changed owners, who decided that the old disc recordings were of no value. The old discs were trashed, and ended up in the hands of local scrap metal dealers.
Enter Henry J. Kjellander, a radio,enthusiast who listened to the program while serving on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. Kjellander was able to rescue many of those old discs before the scrap dealers had destroyed them. Of the 190 shows, he was able to save about 170. He eventually joined forces with Nahas, who had since formed a local advertising firm, and put together a limited-edition set of cassette tapes covering about twelve hours of the program.
While the cassette tapes represent older technology, lacking the digital refinements that are commonplace today, the recordings still offer a window to Houston’s past, and an era when radio was still king. Both Nahas and Kjellander have passed away — Nahas in 1994 and Kjellander in 2009 — but their efforts managed to preserve a moment in time when people across America could spend some time each Saturday night at the luxurious Shamrock Hotel.
Or as was said in the introduction every week, “There’s a great big Texas moon shining over Houston tonight.”