In 1935, while listeners to New York’s 1130 WNEW in New York were awaiting developments in the Lindbergh kidnapping, Martin Block built an audience by playing records between the Lindbergh news bulletins. This led to Block’s show, Make Believe Ballroom, which began February 3, 1935. Block borrowed the concept and the title from West Coast based disc jockey Al Jarvis. The idea was to create the illusion that the broadcast was from a ballroom with the nation’s top dance bands performing live. Block bought records from a local music shop since WNEW did not have a record library. Block purchased five Clyde McCoy records, selecting his “Sugar Blues” for the radio show’s initial theme song. In doing so, Block became the first “Disk Jockey” in the city of New York!
Block was told by the station’s sales staff that nobody would sponsor a radio show playing music, so he had to find a sponsor on his own. Block, a trained salesman, found “Retardo”, a diet pill manufacturer. Within a week, the sponsor had over 3,000 responses to the ads on Block’s radio show.
Martin Block’s style of announcing was considerably different than the usual manner of delivery at the time. Instead of speaking in a voice loud enough to be heard in a theater, Block spoke in a normal voice, as if he was having a one-on-one conversation with his listeners. Block’s personal style was a big seller of products. One of Block’s sponsors offered a sale on refrigerators during a New York snowstorm; 109 people braved the elements for the bargain refrigerators Block advertised on air. Blocks success did not go unnoticed. By 1941, potential sponsors for his show had to be put on a waiting list for availabilities. Block was famous for throwing away the sponsor’s advertising copy and then developing his own text free style.
Make Believe Ballroom was nationally syndicated in 1940. Block and Make Believe Ballroom made the cover of Billboard magazine in April, 1942. By 1947, there were two daily editions of the Make Believe Ballroom: one in the late morning and another around dinner time. In 1950, he celebrated his 15th anniversary on the air. Variety devoted an entire section to Block and his career.
Block co-wrote the Glenn Miller hit, “I Guess I’ll Have to Dream the Rest”. Miller also recorded a version of the Make Believe Ballroom theme, titled “It’s Make Believe Ballroom Time” which Block was credited with the lyrics. The theme was used for the show up until the end of terrestrial WNEW-AM in 1992.
Fannie Rose Shore auditioned for the Block’s radio show singing “Dinah”. Block declared that “Dinah Shore” had won the spot on his radio show. Block’s memory lapse mistakenly gave a very young Fannie Shore the name Dinah Shore; this name would stick with her throughout her infamous career.
Block left Make Believe Ballroom in 1954 to host The Martin Block Show for ABC Radio originating from the network’s New York flagship WABC. Martin officially retired from ABC and radio in 1960, stating his retirement merely meant not working in the medium on a regular basis. In the latter part of his career, Martin Block was heard on WOR in New York from 1962 until his death. Additionally, Block hosted a public affairs show, Guard Session, for the U. S. National Guard.
Blocks catch phrase: “For you and you and especially you.”
Listen to a 1953 Martin Block interview “That Monster Television”: