Museum Artifact: Admiral Deluxe Table Radio, 1955
Made by: Admiral Corp., 3800 West Cortland Street, Chicago, IL [Hermosa]
"Here's a radio you'll get a tremendous thrill out of owning! So smart, with its golden-mesh metal grille and dial . . . so contrasting in choice of Ivory, Beige, Green or Mahogany cabinet colors. So low-priced for the performance it gives! This is the new radio you have been looking for!" —Newspaper ad for the $24.95 Admiral Deluxe Table Radio, 1955
Looking like the electronics equivalent of a Buick Super Convertible, this mint-colored 1955/56 bakelite radio includes a 6-inch Alnico speaker, "printed circuit" chassis, five tubes for "long range performance," and a few ghostly echoes of Fats Domino and Buddy Holly.
Its manufacturer, the Admiral Corporation, was a rock star in its own right by this point in time, employing more than 6,000 workers in the greater Chicagoland area, and producing a wide range of electric appliances, from record players and refrigerators to some of the earliest color television sets.
Radios, which had once been the company's bread and butter in the pre-war years, had been a bit rudely kicked to the backseat as TV sales soared. Nonetheless, this particular model—serial number 5T38N—has a certain charm that suggests Admiral hadn’t started phoning in the audio end of its business just yet.
History of Admiral Corp, Part I. Ross the Boss
Admiral Corp’s fearless leader was its founder and president Ross D. Siragusa (1906-1996)—an Italian immigrant and son of a cobbler—who harnessed his own boundless curiosity to become one of the original, fresh-faced tech moguls of the radio age.
From early on, Siragusa was one of those kids who just enjoyed taking machines apart and putting them back together again—perpetually intrigued by the bones and marrow of good engineering. As a teenager, he had a summer job testing bell-ringing transformers at the Chicago plant of the Jefferson Electric Company. According to legend, though, young Ross soon got bored with his daily tasks, and started using the equipment for his own nerdy experiments, eventually leading to his dismissal. No worries! When you’re a budding teenage tech savant and you want to play with transformers (and we're not talking Optimus Prime here), you might as well just start your own business. And that's what an 18 year-old Ross Siragusa did.
Right after graduating from Loyola Academy High School in the summer of 1924, he launched the Transformer Corporation of America, using the back of his dad's shoe shop as a "headquarters."
[Transformer Corp. of America ads, featuring the Clarion receiver, 1930]
By 1929, as a testament to the kid's ridiculous talents, the Transformer Corp. of America (by now located on the fourth floor of a factory at 2309 S. Keeler Ave. in North Lawndale) was already one of the biggest suppliers of radio parts in the world, and was starting to get into receiver production, as well, with its growing "Clarion" line. If not for the stock market collapse later that year, the company might well have maintained its course. Instead, the legs were cut out from under it, leading to slowing sales and bankruptcy by 1934. Siragusa—still just 28 years old—had to dig his way back to a new starting point.
“Ross tried to pay off all his creditors,” his cousin and eventual business partner Vincent Barreca remembered in a 2001 retrospective. “These were people who later became his suppliers in his future business. They were willing to sell to him again because of his honesty and efforts to pay them back.”
Showing an incredible degree of business savvy for a guy who’d never really worked his way up the ranks nor spent a day in college, Siragusa quickly got his ducks in a row for a second crack at the big time. This time, instead of focusing on parts for traditional radio cabinets, he'd take aim at the affordable, portable radio market—while also keeping an eye on that wondrous new technology he’d seen at the 1933 World’s Fair. . . the television.
[Admiral / Continental Radio ads from 1939, as the company began using it's famous slogan: "America's Smart Set"]
II. Continental Drift
Selling off most of his own possessions, Siragusa scrounged together $3,400 in capital, $5,000 in equipment, and the use of a friend's garage, thus beginning his new venture, the Continental Radio & Television Corporation. Admittedly, there wasn't much fanfare. It was 1934, and nobody had the scratch to buy big ticket electronic appliances. Rather than seeing that as an impediment, however, Siragusa shot for the working and middle class markets, developing products that could be made cheaply and sold at lower prices than those made by RCA or fellow Chicago-based suppliers like Zenith and Motorola.
In 1936, he also bought the “Admiral” trademark for a song ($200), and made it his first flagship brand. The name earned such a stellar rep that it eventually became the official identity of the company after World War II.
“Product development was my father’s strongest suit,” his son and successor Ross Siragusa, Jr., recalled in 2001. “He excelled at conceiving products with the proper appeal and offering them at the right price points. His business philosophy was: ‘sell a lot at low profit margins and low overhead. Make your profit on volume. This approach worked fairly well for awhile, until our competitors began to catch up.”
From 1937 to 1974, the primary Chicago plant for Continental/Admiral was located at 3800 West Cortland Street—one of the many factories strategically positioned along the old Bloomingdale train line (including Schwinn Bicycles, Ludwig Drum Co., and Playskool). The factory was dramatically expanded in 1964, but ultimately left behind a decade later. It was leveled in the 2000s, and the Marine Leadership Academy at Ames stands in its place.
[This 1964 artist's conception of the expanded Admiral Corp headquarters, which stretched along Hamlin Avenue between Cortland St. and Armitage Avenue, is frustratingly the only "image" of the plant I've managed to unearth thus far]
III. Meeting Change
The Continental Radio and Television Corp., despite its name, didn't sell TV sets in the years before the war. Video technology still demanded an enormous cost in parts, and it simply wasn't practical to roll out to the public en masse, particularly with the Depression carrying on. Even so, the business did well enough in the radio trade to position itself for some profitable government contracts during the WWII, building related communications technology for the military. This boost gave Siragusa the flexibility to expand his overall production with an eye to peacetime, and eventually, the TV revolution.
"When the war ended," according to a 1949 company profile in the Des Moines Register, "Admiral started a massive advertising campaign long before it had reconverted to civilian production, to have a market ready for its products. The company cashed in, along with others, on the pent-up demand for radios. It did not enter television until February, 1948, but had spent 2 million dollars getting ready and came in with a splash."
Within just a year and a half of entering the TV fray, Admiral was producing 15,000 sets a day (at multiple facilities across the country) and claiming nearly a quarter share of the entire industry's production. According to Siragusa, they were also paying for 25% of the TV related advertising in the country, mostly in newspapers. But good marketing wasn't the sole explanation for Admiral's big breakout.
"We have," Siragusa said at the time, "the most efficient factory and plant organization in the country, giving our sales department the lowest cost in the industry. . . . If we see signs of price cutting, we move right in. If we feel a model is laying an egg, we cut it right off. Like other companies, we set up production schedules for our various models. But if we find one is going over better than expected and another is backing up on us, we revise our schedules—and fast."
Having started his career in the early days of radio, Siragusa was uniquely qualified to guide a business through the land mines of an unpredictable new technology. Quick pivot points and confident decision making, clearly, were vital within an "ever changing situation," but he also knew that trend chasing could lead to dead ends without a consistent emphasis on quality.
"We go overboard," Siragusa said, "on the extent to which sets are peaked for maximum performance on all channels. The tolerances are a little narrower—more sets probably are rejected at the end of our assembly line than any other in the industry."
[Workers at an Admiral factory in Bloomington, IL, 1956]
As the TV era exploded in the 1950s, workers at the Cortland Street plant—and an ever increasing network of satellite facilities—literally couldn’t keep up with the demand, particularly as the sets became more affordable, better functioning, and increasingly rich in programming content. Radios were useful and all, but the television was the new centerpiece of the home.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune, Admiral’s first quarter sales in 1950 increased by 97% compared to 1949. Siragusa, still a young buck at 44 years of age, was now a millionaire and one of the true bigwigs of American industry (the families of future Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both called him a friend). In the same Tribune story, he stated that production of TVs alone would increase from 400,000 to more than a million in 1950. A reporter asked him if he had any concerns about that wave slowing down a bit.
“Last Friday night our distributors across the country had a total of 5,000 sets on hand,” Siragusa replied, “and we are shipping at a rate of 80,000 a month. Figure it out for yourself.”
Learning a lesson that the Notorious B.I.G. would so eloquently re-iterate some 50 years later, Siragusa—despite all the success—was in a bit of a “mo money, mo problems” bind in the early 1950s. To keep up with public demand, he had a second plant in Chicago at 4150 N. Knox Avenue, and gobbled up additional factory spaces in the nearby Illinois towns of Galesburg, Bloomington, and Harvard (the latter of which was the birthplace of our 1955 radio), employing over 6,000 workers in the region by 1953. There was an international push, too, with plants in Toronto and other markets.
The company that was scrounged together with just over $3,000 now had assets in the multi millions. All along the way, however, Siragusa's ambition was still outpacing his means.
[Our museum radio was made at this former Admiral plant in Harvard, IL, at 320 S. Division Street. It was Admiral's from 1947 to 1978, and is now a True Value distribution center. Photo: 2014]
IV. Hail Caesar
Beyond standard TV and radio, Admiral was stretching into new combination record player / radio cabinets and even refrigerators, electric stoves, and other kitchen appliances.
The company also jumped inside the world of television by sponsoring and producing programming, including some of the earliest televised Notre Dame football games (Siragusa was a proud Catholic) and an hour-long comedy hosted by Sid Caesar called the Admiral Broadway Revue—the precursor to the hugely influential Your Show of Shows.
With the latter program, Siragusa was going straight into enemy territory, paying for a show on the NBC network, which was owned at the time by one of Admiral’s biggest rivals, RCA. That’s not the reason the show was short lived, though. Not according to Sid Caesar anyway.
“The show ran on Friday nights, for nineteen weeks, from February to June 1949,” Caesar recalled in his memoir Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy. “I thought we were doing well, both critically and with the audience, and suddenly Admiral withdrew its sponsorship. I couldn’t believe it.
". . . It was only after the season that I learned the truth. That summer I had a two-week engagement at the Chicago Theater, where I was held over for eight weeks. I got a phone call from Ross Siragusa, the president of Admiral. He invited me to come over and have lunch with him. ‘I think I owe you an explanation as to why the Admiral Broadway Revue was canceled.’ [Photo Below: Sid Caesar, 1950s]
"I will never forget him telling me that the show was so popular that Admiral could not keep up with the demand for television sets that the program generated. When the show first began, Admiral had been producing 50 to 100 sets a week, and selling the same number. The popularity of the show caused business to pick up, and within months orders skyrocketed to 5,000 sets a day! He was beyond what he could produce” [Sid’s numbers might be exaggerated just a tad, but he was a comedian, not an accountant].
“The company was faced with a choice: it could continue to sponsor the show, or it could take that money and build a new factory. Siragusa told me that they had decided to build a new factory, and that’s why the show was killed. ‘You mean the show was too good?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was a little too rich for our blood.’ The Admiral Broadway Revue was and is probably the only show in history to be canceled because it was too successful.”
In the early 1950s, a 20-inch black-and-white Admiral TV with a cabinet would sell for around $150—a lowball price at the time, but not exactly “cheap” (it’s equivalent to about $1350 in modern money). The company’s earliest forays into color TV in the late ‘50s, meanwhile, cost closer to $1,000 a pop (or $8,000 with inflation), which gives you a good idea what a crazy magical box people perceived such a thing to be at the time.
[Admiral magazine ad for a TV combo set from 1951]
V. "Get to the Bottom Line"
Ross Siragusa was often on the front lines as television manufacturers repeatedly battled with industry regulators in the '50s and '60s. Rapidly changing norms in the medium—from UHF compatibility to colorization—could render huge inventories obsolete overnight, so even small decisions by the FCC and other organizations could demand a challenge. The admiral of Admiral was certainly capable of being a fiery customer when he needed to be, but by most accounts, he was also a charmer; more likely to wine and dine someone or entertain them with impromptu piano concerts. He was famously charitable, as well, creating the Siragusa Foundation in 1950 (before it was trendy). It’s still in operation today.
In the boardroom, meanwhile, Siragusa was described as stern but fair—and always interested in new ideas.
“Ross had a very quick mind and would get impatient with rambling statements,” his former accountant Melvyn Schneider recalled. “He always said, ‘Get to the bottom line.’ You also learned to say what you meant within the first couple of lines of a letter or you would lose him. He was extremely honest, extremely reputable. He also was a tough businessman and never gave anything away, but the distributors and dealers all liked and admired him.”
When Siragusa retired in 1969, he’d built Admiral Corp. into an international giant with $400 million in sales and 14,000 employees globally. His son, Ross Jr., was installed in the role of president, but not surprisingly, retirement never quite suited Papa Siragusa. He butted heads with his son over the direction of the company in the 1970s, and by 1973, it was decided that the best move was to look for a buyer. Rockwell International Corp stepped up and acquired Admiral in 1974, but the deal didn’t prove particularly fruitful for either side, and most original traces of the Admiral empire were dispersed or liquidated by the 1980s.
The Admiral brand name, after some loop-de-loops, has survived, however, and is currently owned by Whirlpool, with some appliances sold exclusively at Home Depot.
Epilogue: Ross Siragusa's Message to "Young America"
Ross Siragusa died in 1996 at 93. He had proved that a young kid could succeed by thinking like a grownup, and that an old man could stay sharp and successful by thinking a bit like a kid.
Back in 1953, Siragusa was interviewed at the height of his powers by an 18 year-old Chicago student for a small featurette in the Saturday Evening Post. He was essentially just asked one question: “Will a growing America limit youth’s opportunities?”
And this is how the self-made electronics giant—the Italian-American kid from Chicago, Ross D. Siragusa—responded:
“There will always be countless opportunities for ambitious youth in practically every industry in our nation. The size of America will never limit its opportunities.
“But young blood and fresh new ideas are a must for every phase of American business. Without these, opportunities will cease to exist and industries will cease to grow. A slow withering of our economy will follow.
“A fine example of American initiative is the electronics industry. It zoomed to importance during World War II with military applications. Then the postwar civilian introduction of television gave spectacular impetus to the growth and importance of this field.
“In less than seven years, television has absorbed thousands of young men and women in the manufacture of electronics equipment, in the operation of stations and the production of television programs. Hundreds of new stations will require additional operating and programming staffs. The electronics field alone will offer many opportunities for years to come.
“Youth should not be concerned because America is growing. On the contrary, youth should look to the future with enthusiasm . . . should prepare itself to take advantage of all the opportunities that will be extended in the great years ahead.”
For any tech-inclined readers, here is a wee bit more about the 5T38N tube radio from our collection, from a 1955 Admiral manual referring to that model, among others:
“This receiver employs the latest radio circuitry and a ‘printed’ circuit wiring technique. The ‘printed’ circuit wiring used in this receiver replaces the hookup wire used in earlier receivers. The ‘printed’ circuit wiring is permanently bonded to the underside of the plastic chassis base. This results in uniformity of chassis wiring, fewer wiring troubles and simplified circuit tracing and trouble shooting. All circuit components are of standard size and design and are mounted on the top side of the chassis; see figure 2. Audio circuit components are contained in a couplate.”
[The Admiral Broadway Revue, 1949]
Ross D. Siragusa Monograph, by the Siragusa Foundation, 2001
"Siragusa's Success Story Behind Admiral's Growth" - Des Moines Register, Oct 16, 1949
Caesar's Hours: My Life In Comedy, With Love and Laughter, by Sid Caesar, Eddy W. Friedfeld
Cases in Competitive Strategy, by Michael E. Porter
Ross David Siragusa Obituary, New York Times, 1996
"Admiral Corp Net Earnings Soar" - Chicago Tribune, 1950