Spirit of radio lives on in collector's 'time machines'

HUGHSON -- Jim Silva owns more than 100 "time machines." He simply adjusts the mechanical dials and steps into history.

The familiar tones of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Doris Day on a valley oldies station can carry anyone back in time where you can swim in memories of yore.

Especially if the music is coming from one of Silva's vintage radios.

One of the oldest is a rare 1926 Atwater Kent. But it needs a 1926 battery or facsimile thereof before it can operate.

The real prize of Silva's collection is a floor console model that's about 3 feet tall. It's the radio that once belonged to his grandparents and the one he listened to when he was a lad in the 1950s.

The only program he can remember for sure from those days is "The Lone Ranger."

It's the 1937 working Philco that his grandparents bought new and had when news came about Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is, Silva vows, the one radio he would never sell.

His love affair with radios was sparked when he received one of the small transistor variety at age 11. Whether it was Christmas or his birthday he can't say, but Silva, 58, remembers tucking the radio under his pillow and listening with an earphone until he fell asleep.

He also has a Victrola. It's circa 1910 and predates commercial radios by a decade. It was called a "talking machine."

Silva has gathered many of his prizes from swap meets with other radio enthusiasts. Sometimes he gets lucky at antique stores or yard sales or magazine ads.

Silva and fellow California Historical Radio Society members will help create new enthusiasts with a swap meet in Merced on Saturday at 9 a.m.

Silva is Mr. Outside at the club and his friend Larry Gonsalves is Mr. Inside. Whatever is wrong with electronics, Larry's the man.

If it's appearance, Silva can make it look like new. Using old pictures or advertisements from newspapers and magazines, Silva's magic touch puts the right cabinet and look around the radio. His attention to detail is exquisite. Once he precisely fabricated a dial cover that cost him twice as much as the radio.

The best tone comes from his 1938 Zenith. Silva keeps it tuned to 920 AM, The Vine, naturally. Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" sounds as clear as a CD, along with the rest of the station's "Adult Standards" music pegged for the 50-and-over set.

His children bought him a retro-style radio that has a CD player.

Speaking of which, does Silva collect old-time radio CDs and listen to them on the new model?

The time traveler shakes his head. He prefers his old friends, even though there is only one station to choose from.

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.