'Each radio tells its own story': Davenport man restores antique radios with a modern twist
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'Each radio tells its own story': Davenport man restores antique radios with a modern twist

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Years ago, radios were the epicenter of everyone's home. With a little elbow grease and some help from modern technology, one Davenport man is working to rescue old radios so they may be coveted once again.

"I've always loved them and collected them," John Immesoete said of old radios. "I especially love those from the Golden Age of Radio," from about 1925 to 1942, he said.

Immesoete, 55, a copywriter and director with Northwestern Medicine, splits his time between the Quad-Cities and Chicago. In his spare time, he takes "less collectible," primarily AM, police-band and shortwave barn or garage radios and restores the cabinets, fits them with lights to mimic the warm tube lighting they once emitted, and adds a Bluetooth speaker so folks may conveniently stream music and more to them from their phones and other devices.

"These cabinets and components are extremely high quality and beautiful. I realized I could re-purpose and save some really special pieces that people would appreciate — if I could make them affordable and usable again."

Immesoete said he enjoyed being able to save pieces of history and pass them on.

“I can imagine these were once the centerpiece of a home and passed along the most incredible news story of the day, from the Great Depression to World War II, to great artists like Bix, Sinatra, Elvis,” he said. “History came through the grill cloths of every one of them.”

Once he rescues a radio, Immesoete said he disassembles and cleans them first. Many have been in a barn, garage or attic for decades and are full of bugs, mouse nests, dust — "you name it,” he said.

Then, he polishes and cleans all of the metal parts, and strips out all of the old wiring. He cleans and paints the chassis, which holds the knobs and dial. He adds lighting, strips and refinishes the cabinets, and then reassembles with a wireless speaker.

"Each one presents its own challenge," he said. "Some are in really rough shape or have about 40 coats of paint on them. Some have damaged veneer. Some are just harder to disassemble and reassemble than others.

"But it's the ones that are the biggest wrecks that turn out often to be the most beautiful finished product, and those are the ones I'm most proud of."

Then, under the business name Johnny Box World Radios, or Johnny Boxes for short, he lists a number of them for sale at his sister Mary’s Davenport shop, Crafted QC, at 221 E. 2nd St. (In light of COVID-19 closures, some are also available on the Crafted QC website, at craftedqc.com/shop/johnny-boxes/121.) Prices vary, but run around $80 to $150 or so.

Immesoete said one of his favorite radios was the one he's currently finishing: a Raymond Loewy-designed "columnaire" from 1929.

"It's quite collectible, and I picked it up as a barn find in rough shape. It's solid walnut and refinished beautifully in three different shades. That one might need to stay in my collection."

Immesoete lives in a historic home in Davenport, and he said his radios fit in well, there.

"I'm one of the people who believes old houses and objects retain a soul of their own, and it's our job to repair, restore, replace them rather than junk them and tear them down," he said. "Radios are just like old houses; they just don't make them like they used to anymore."

Restoring radios can be a little bittersweet, Immesoete said. "These all represented jobs, skills, and craftsmanship that employed many, many people, just like the farm equipment industry did in the Q-Cs," he said.

"I think about the people who made these originally as people, much like my grandparents or Dad: factory workers who were proud of what they made and relied on the plants for their families. I can't bring those things back, but hopefully, by making the radios usable again in a new and worldwide way, I at least honor them and they can smile down upon them."

Immesoete said he had researched radios through the internet, books, clubs and fellow collectors and refurbishers, and had made a lot of friends through the work. They've offered tips and tricks, recommendations and more.

"As much as anything, I did it for the radios; I wanted to see these pieces of history used and loved again rather than discarded,” he said. “Each radio tells its own story."

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