Jim Coleman, LaVerneOnline Friend and the Merry Maven of Radio Restoration, Was Always Tuned In

July 20, 2009
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Jim Coleman was always tuned into antique, tube-style radios.

Jim Coleman was always tuned in to antique, tube-style radios.

You may know Brad Eastland as The Sports Philosopher for LaVerneOnline, but he was also a dear friend to Jim Coleman, who died unexpectedly on May 11. Through Brad, I also had the pleasure to meet Jim several times over the years, but it was only through Brad’s article, published before Jim’s sudden passing, in the 2009 summer issue of California Historical Radio Society, that I was able to truly appreciate the full measure of this extraordinary man and avid collector of antique “tube-style” radios.







Well done Jim, and well done Brad for sharing another side of Jim I never really knew, and agreeing to share your story with LaVerneOnline’s growing community of readers.

By Brad Eastland

You would never know it to look at him …

You would never know that James O. Coleman, age 60, a quintessentially normal-looking man and conservative hotel executive, is a raving eccentric (some would say lunatic) who has – over the course of the last 35 years – managed to collect over 1,000 antique radios.

But he is and he has. And he pursues this passion with a pure heart and a desire to preserve the best of what has come before him.

“The antique radio, for me, is a form of industrial art,” says Coleman, whom I interviewed recently at his Executive Inn & Suites hotel in Oakland, where he is the General Manager. (He is also director of Operations for his ownership’s sister hotel, the Best Western Executive Inn in Rowland Heights, which is a stone’s throw from La Verne.)

As he answered questions regarding the great passion of his life, surrounding us – on the floor, shelved on walls and stacked on tables – were exactly 173 of the over-1,000 radios he has assiduously and lovingly hunted down and procured since the early ‘70s. “Radios are unique in that a radio from the 1930s can work and sound as good and in many cases better than the newest radio,” he says. “And my favorite radios, the ones with tube sets powered by a transformer, have a richness and warmth to their sound that is so comfortable and reassuring in our modern world.”

It is a “modern world” that in many ways he has no use for. This reporter has known Jim Coleman since the mid-‘70s, when I was but a callow youth going to college up in Berkeley. From the first, I perceived Jim to be a true throwback, old-fashioned right down to his core and dedicated to all things offbeat, past-tense and nostalgic. His favorite singer is still Nancy Wilson. She’s 71. His favorite TV show is still the Mike Connors detective yarn “Mannix,” which went off the air in ’75. An accomplished rider, he still reads English “hunter seat” equitation magazines. And among the many old VHS tapes he has collected over the years (yes, I said VHS; no DVDs for this old-timer!) are reruns of dusty old shows like “Mr. and Mrs. North” and “The Avengers,” shows so old that I doubt most readers of LaVerneOnline.com have even heard of them.

And in an effort to preserve his roots and attach a tangibility to his passions, Jim has always collected things. Old things. Case in point, he owns 83 antique “Emeralite” desk lamps. Those are the cool old lamps with the green shades. An old car freak, he once owned as many as seven classic Buicks and Pontiacs from the ’50s and ‘60s. (Come to think of it, I still have a couple of his broken Pontiac axles stuffed under the crawlspace of my house in Sierra Madre.) But of all the ancient subjects of his various collection manias, the antique radio has always maintained the strongest grip on his heart.

So how did Coleman get into radio collecting?

“I started collecting when I was 11-years-old. Because that’s how old I was when I was given my first radio. It was a Zenith.”

Like most good collectors, Coleman is quite particular when it comes to epoch and style. He specializes exclusively in radios built between 1931 and 1962, and only collects “tube” -powered radios you plug into a wall, rather than cord-free transistors. “It was the early ‘30s when tube radios switched from battery power to plugging a cord into an A/C outlet, and it was in the ‘60s when the tube style died out in favor of the transistor radio,” explains Coleman, though he clearly is anything but in favor of this evolution.

Since Coleman’s job requires him to shuttle back and forth between Northern and Southern California, he maintains a two-region support network for his radios: “I bought my first radio in 1972 from John Wentzel of the Aladdin Antique Radio Shop in San Francisco. John is still alive, he’s 86, and he still makes repairs for me and helps me with my restorations.” When he’s in L.A., Jim employs Jerry’s Vintage Radio in Canyon Country for his repair and restoration needs.

And I can tell you it’s absolutely true that Jim has collected and currently owns over 1,000 antique radios.

Because I’ve seen them all. In addition to the 173 aforementioned plug-in tube-style radios that adorn his Oakland office, he also has close to 200 radios awaiting restoration in his Rowland Heights apartment, as well as about 680 fully restored pieces crammed into his live-in apartment at the Oakland hotel he manages. Some are wood, some are plastic. All are beautiful. To stand in his apartment amidst 700 beautiful, meticulously restored antique radios occupying every wall, nook, and cranny of his living quarters – including the bathroom — is nothing short of breathtaking…

The financial aspects of radio collection can be equally breathtaking. “You remember my big RCA model 816K floor console? It’s worth about $1,300. It’s one of only two floor consoles I own, all the rest are table radios about the size of a breadbasket,” says Coleman, walking over and then leaning on the gorgeous, waist-high, Roosevelt Era radio in question. Of course, I remembered it. Jim allowed me to display this remarkable piece of Americana in my own home for over 15 years, before repossessing it so that he could restore it properly.

“This baby was built in 1937,” he adds proudly. “Anyway, I bought it from a guy in Silverlake in the mid-‘80s for only $150. Not a bad investment!”

So then I finally asked him what the average value of his radios is. He told me about $100. That’s $100 times 1,000. “Yeah, I guess I own over $100,000 worth of radios,” he concluded sheepishly, perhaps a little embarrassed by the math.

Coleman obviously considers radio collecting a rewarding and social hobby, and believes that Southern California is as good a place as any for the aspiring collector to get started. “You can meet wonderful radio people all over L.A., at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, the Pasadena College Swap Meet, and the Long Beach Swap Meet,” he says. “Great people, great sellers and collectors. It’s a little fraternity in and of itself. And there is also a good website you can use to learn about this stuff, namely www.antiqueradio.com, the website of the Antique Radio Classified magazine. It’s a good magazine, a great place to peruse ads for service and repair, get flea market and swap meet schedules, read articles, check out photos, absorb radio history, everything.”

And to top it all off, Jim is an active, participating member of a local radio club, the Southern California Antique Radio Society. Or SCARS for short. This is a man who knows his business. Any wonder I call him “The Merry Maven of Radio Restoration?”

Ironically, considering all the beautiful, expensive table radios Coleman owns and has restored over the years, his most prized possession from the radio world is only six inches tall and is not even of the tube style. “That Zenith I told you about that I got when I was 11? It was given to me by mother. But like any dumb kid, I managed to lose it,” he reveals with a high, cackling laugh. Coleman’s beloved mother, Ginny Coleman, a sweet, sassy spitfire of a woman with a ready laugh to match her son’s, passed away in 2007: “It was a Zenith Royal 500 mode. Several years ago, I picked up another Royal 500, exactly like the one mom gave me, the one I lost when I was a kid. It’s a transistor. It’s the only transistor radio I own. And it’s the only radio I’m sure I’ll never part with.”

That’s Jim Coleman for you. Like all true collectors, sentimental to the end.

Jim was the consummate restorer and left behind a fabulous radio collection. The CHRS was grateful to Jim’s brother and sister, Bill Coleman and Louise Coleman-Brown, for their donation of 60 beautiful radios to the CHRS Museum collection. The Coleman family also donated 175 boxes of “project radios” and all of Jim’s restoration materials. They also consigned over 650 radios to CHRS for sale. CHRS held an auction featuring 125 of them on July 18.

For more information, readers should contact the California Historical Radio Society at PO Box 31659, San Francisco, CA 94131-0659, (415) 821-9800.


Author Brad Eastland

Author Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, and sports nut, in no particular order.







Brad’s recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of Brad’s fiction work can be discovered within the links below :

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