Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aural fixation

Vintage, space-age electronics have old-school appeal... and they're a sound investment

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MARNI Kalef would like to take this opportunity to formally thank the woman who once sold her a vintage Panasonic Toot-A-Loop AM radio for half a buck.

"It's a wrist radio, also called a bracelet radio," explains Kalef of her find, a precursor of today's portable iPods if ever there were one. "I had been looking for one for a long time -- there are very few in Winnipeg -- and I saw it at a rummage sale on a table full of junk. The woman who sold it to me had no idea what it was.

"I said, 'How much do you want for this?' She was like, 'Oh, 50 cents.' I said, 'OK, thank you,' but inside I was telling myself, 'Jeez, you just got a Toot-A-Loop for 50 CENTS!'

"For the rest of the day I just had this rush."

While serious collectors are often accused of having a one-track mind, Kalef's runs closer to eight. The CBC radio archivist has a keen interest in space-age electronics -- primarily plastic radios and portable 8-track-tape players.

As to the Toot-A-Loop find, well, you'd be gushing, too. Similar radios routinely fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay. Kalef notes that a Sanyo "Hanging Ball AM Radio" in lesser condition than her own never-listened-to unit recently garnered bids in the $250 US range.

The 200 or so contraptions on display in Kalef's Ashton Kutcher-friendly, '70s-era rec room all score high on the groovy-o-meter.

"I've had friends come over with their families -- the parents want the kids to see what a record or an 8-track looks like," she laughs.

Kalef has fond memories of that aural epoch. "Remember how 8-track tapes had four sides and how each side only had so much room? As a youth, I had a copy of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (children, ask your parents) and I distinctly remember that song always breaking off in the middle."

Kalef considers herself a natural born collector. "I knew instinctively as a kid to save the boxes. I still have a mint Lloyd's Hippy transistor radio that I received as a gift when I was 13."

Kalef's most cherished piece is one she refers to as the world's tiniest TV. "This was a good find -- I got it in Palm Springs. I have all the accessories; it was never used. It has an AM/FM radio and features an inch-and-a-half screen (which, surprisingly, still makes people look 10 pounds heavier)."

Radio collector Sarah Lowrey receives e-mails on almost a daily basis, "mostly from people who have dad's or granddad's old transistor radio and are wondering what is worth."

Lowrey has a personal stash of some 2,000 radios, most of which date to the 1960s and '70s. Lowrey credits the invention of transistors (rather than tubes) as a means to power radios for the boom in popularity.

"The transistor changed radios and eventually, television, from a capital purchase to one that could be made with just a few bucks," she says when reached at home in California's Bay Area. "Also, and perhaps as important, it allowed battery-operated portables to become a cheap and functional reality. No longer was a radio shared by a family; each member could now have their own."

Because radios were suddenly inexpensive to build, they were produced in almost every conceivable case design. "There were radios that looked like outboard motors, spark plugs, soda cans, very strange modern sculpture types -- you name it."

Lowrey says that space-age electronics have been highly collectible for a number of years and will continue to be so, adding that some transistors are worth thousands of dollars. "And if anyone ever finds the Holy Grail -- the Sony TR-52, Sony's first attempt at a transistor radio in 1955 -- I can only guess what that would go for."

Lowrey says sentimentality is what cast her as a radio collector in the first place. "When I was a child, I took radios and walkie-talkies everywhere. I was just amazed that they could pull something, a signal, out of nothing."

For more information on '60s- and '70s-era radios, check out Sarah Lowrey's website at www.transistor.org.

If you'd like to share the story of your collection with our readers -- anything from soup to lug nuts -- please contact David Sanderson at david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca.

His column appears bimonthly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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