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home : columnists : columnists August 21, 2017

On the air (In more ways than one)

By Paula Dunn
From Time to Thyme

What do a radio station, a television station, birds and the Bible all have in common?

No, that's not the start of a joke or riddle. I'm dead serious.

The answer is Dr. Wendell Hansen.

Don't feel bad if you didn't know that. I didn't know it myself until just recently. This turned out to be one of those columns that took an unexpected left turn.

REALLY unexpected.

I was actually trying to dig up information about WHYT-AM, which was, as near as I can tell, Noblesville's first radio station. By poking around the internet I was able to learn the station went on the air in 1973 and broadcast from a studio north of town on State Road 19.

I also discovered that someone I knew worked there part-time while he was in high school. He told me that WHYT aired a mix of Top 40 songs and Christian programming, and he passed along a funny story.

It seems one day he ran across a note which said "cue past crap" attached to the 45 of Paul Simon's song, "Kodachrome." He assumed it was some kind of radio lingo, but asked his boss about it to be sure.

Nope, it wasn't radio lingo. It seems Dr. Hansen, who was the president of the station, didn't want the word "crap" aired on his station, so they had to omit the first line of the song whenever they played it. ("When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school . . .")

You see, Dr. Hansen happened to be a Quaker minister, as well as a pioneer in religious broadcasting. He established several other Christian radio and television stations besides WHYT, including WURD-TV here in Noblesville.

(WURD only lasted a few months before being sold to LeSEA Broadcasting. Today it's WHMB-TV, Channel 40.)

Long before Dr. Hansen got into broadcasting here, though, he was traveling around the country with a troupe of trained birds who helped him spread the message of his ministry.

It all began back in the 1940s when Hansen's first wife, Bertelle, was given a canary as a gift for providing music at a church wedding. The Minneapolis couple taught the canary to sing hymns, then trained two more birds and used their "canary choir" to entertain at schools and boost attendance at various churches.

Eventually, they added over two dozen varieties of birds to their act and took their show on the road around the country as "Bertelle's Bible Birds." The avian troupe included some unusual additions - cardinals, woodpeckers, and even an ostrich!

The birds performed feats like sword-swallowing, flying backwards, and eating with a fork, but were mainly used to illustrate Bible lessons (hence the "Bible Birds.") Just to name a few of their skills - a macaw sang "Jesus Loves Me," a parrot pulled two doves in a wooden chariot, and various birds would toss out a spontaneous "Praise the Lord!" or "Hallelujah!" throughout the performance.

They were so amazing, they were featured in Life Magazine, Ripley's Believe it or Not and other national media.

Bertelle Hansen died in the 1950s and some time in the early 1960s Dr. Hansen moved to Noblesville, but the show went on as "Hansen's Bible Birds," with Dr. Hansen's second wife, Eunice, providing musical accompaniment and son, Dean, assisting.

Dr. Hansen left the broadcasting business in the mid-1980s, but continued to perform with his feathered friends. He was still putting them through their paces after he turned 90, although by then the shows were confined to the area around his Noblesville home.

Dr. Hansen passed away in 2002.

Paula Dunn's From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com

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