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'The Golden Age of Radio' to bring back 1930s, 40s classics

During the 1930s and 40s, radio was the top form of home entertainment and a popular way to stay connected.

Today, in a time where television, the Internet and new media is dominating the world, it has become significantly more convenient to listen to music, watch sitcoms and receive everyday news.

"The Golden Age of Radio" is now a piece of history, but the Minnesota Historical Society is bringing it back as a part of "Minnesota's Greatest Generation in the Libraries" partnership.

The series of programs includes a performance titled "The Golden Age of Radio," where vocalist Prudence Johnson and pianist Dan Chouinard will take the stage in New York Mills Saturday.

Audience members will be able to travel back in time to sing along with popular songs of the Depression era, see photographs of popular artists of the time and hear stories about how radio was born.

Johnson, who's been a part of A Prairie Home Companion since the 1970s, along with Chouinard, is finding new passion in developing programs like The Golden Age of Radio.

"It's kind of a fun way to present history," she said. "It's mostly entertainment, but there is actually a lot of information in the show that I think people generally find interesting," she said.

Johnson will take the audience on a journey by singing songs like "Singin' in the Rain," "Minnie the Moocher" and "Pennies from Heaven."

Lyrics will occasionally appear on a large screen making it easy for the audience to participate.

"So far we haven't had any resistance to that," Johnson said. "People are always eager to sing along."

The duo has taken The Golden Age of Radio to various towns across the state -- from Moorhead and Crookston, to Fairmont and Winona.

Next week, in addition to performing in New York Mills, Johnson and Chouinard will travel to Duluth on Thursday.

The program talks about famous Minnesota radio stars whose careers blossomed during the golden age of radio. Among some of the popular names to be covered is WCCO's Cedric Adams, who was known as the "voice of the Upper Midwest."

Johnson's performance will be accompanied by photographs provided by the Minnesota Historical Society to visually describe how radio came about, how the generation embraced it and how isolated radio stations became networks.

Eighty years ago, radio was almost like an elaborate, big piece of furniture that everyone had to have. Some people struggled to pay for it during the economic downturn, Johnson said.

It didn't only provide music, it was where families gathered around to listen to sitcoms, dramas, comedies and talk shows.

"Before radio, people had to generate their own entertainment for the most part," Johnson said. "If there was music in your home, you made it yourself."

Some of the stories she will narrate will describe how everyone used radio to stay connected during World War II.

But the performance will not only attract the "greatest generation" but younger parents and their children as well; those who don't remember growing up without television or the Web.

"I think younger people would really enjoy seeing the pictures, too," Johnson said. "And if they like learning about history at all I think they're gonna love it."

The performance will be free and open to the public. The event begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 25, in the James Mann Performing Arts Auditorium, New York Mills High School.

The New York Mills Library has partnered with the Minnesota Regional Public Libraries system and the Minnesota Historical Society to bring this program using Legacy funds.

"This is the first time we've been able to offer this to our community," said library director Julie Adams. "So this is new territory for our library."