In 1932, Ronald Reagan was suffering the same fate as nearly a quarter of the United States working people: he was unemployed. Fresh out of college, his prospects were bleak, but he had enjoyed entertaining people ever since his early teen years. He had hoped one day to act before large audiences but didn’t voice that ambition to anyone at school. So Reagan decided to try broadcasting and headed to Chicago.
After visiting many radio stations and getting the same denials, he was frustrated. A receptionist told him he didn’t have the experience to get started in a big city. He needed to try a smaller city. So Reagan went to Davenport, near his hometown of Dixie, Illinois. The local stations gave him the same response he had received in Chicago. Finally at the WOC station, when he learned he wouldn’t even receive an audition. Reagan’s frustration led him to yell as he was leaving, “How can you get to be a sports announcer if you can’t even get a job at a radio station?”
Peter MacArthur, the program director, apparently heard him and followed him out. MacArthur asked if Reagan knew anything about football. When Reagan said he did, MacArthur led him back inside to an empty sound studio and sat him down in front of a microphone. MacArthur explained that he would be listening in another room, and Reagan should describe a football game to him. “Make me see it,” MacArthur said.
So Reagan finally got a chance to audition, and he told a story about a game he had played in the year before. Though unexpected, he quickly decided to describe the game in as much detail as he could remember. When he was finished, the director told him he did great. He could try broadcasting a live game the following Saturday between Iowa and Minnesota. He would get $5 and bus fare.
Reagan took the opportunity and it turned into $10 a game for the remaining three home games of Iowa’s season. Reagan was excited and it looked like he was going to start building a career. Once the season was over, however, so was Reagan’s job. They said they would let him know if another opportunity came up, but there was no guarantee.
After going home for a few months to see the depression in full effect for Dixon and many other places, Reagan was called back early in 1933 to take over for an announcer that had quit. Reagan accepted and was back in Davenport the next day.
Reagan found out that regular programming was not the same as reporting on a game. He had to fill time and develop stories and create stories. He nearly got fired because he wasn’t very good at it initially. He asked for coaching and eventually learned to be more comfortable in this role.
It was around this time that the station was being consolidated with WHO, a bigger station in Des Moines. WHO provided Reagan new opportunities. He got to cover more events: football games, baseball games, racing, track meets and swimming championships. He didn’t get to attend all the events, though. Some of the reporting was done via telegraph message to Reagan in a station. When complications arose from disruption in the telegrams, Reagan had to improvise.
Radio was good, but Reagan wanted to try the movie screen. He would have to get to Hollywood though, and jobs were still scarce, so he couldn’t sacrifice his paying job for a chance.
Reagan found a way in 1935 to get to Hollywood when he petitioned the station for the chance to cover the Chicago Cubs’ training camp in Southern California. He would even use the assignment as his annual vacation. He secretly hoped he would get to audition while in California. The distance between the training camp on Catalina Island and Hollywood proved a difficult obstacle the first year he made the trip. Even the second year of covering the cubs training camp failed to yield an opportunity to meet anyone in Hollywood.
Finally, in 1937, a storm system canceled baseball for a few days and gave Reagan the time to make some contacts. He met up with a former radio station employee that had left Des Moines to try to get in the movies. She told him about her agent, whom she called later and set up an appointment for Reagan to meet. At the appointment, Reagan shared his experience with acting and broadcasting. Whether by his credentials or his tall, dark and handsome figure, the agent called Warner Brothers and got Reagan a meeting with the casting director.
After a short meeting, the director gave Reagan a few pages of script and told him to memorize them and wait for a call. This was Reagan’s opportunity and he found it hard to concentrate on his day job of reporting on baseball. But a few days later he was back in Hollywood exchanging a few lines with an actress. Reagan’s audition was less than 10 minutes and he was headed back to his hotel. His agent let him know that they liked what they saw and would show it to Jack Warner, and he should stay in town to hear back.
Reagan was realistic, though. He told his agent that the Cubs were breaking camp and he had to be on the train headed east with the team. His audition and unique response to opportunity seemed to have worked in his favor. Two days later, Reagan received word that they wanted to offer Reagan a job as an actor at $200 a week. He jumped at the opportunity and within a few years had worked his way up into bigger roles and much higher pay. His fame and future roles in patriotic films during World War II helped to endear him as an icon for American freedom and patriotism. These characteristics helped him to achieve political offices in decades to come when he would become the 40th President of the United States.
It’s easy to look at people that are successful and tell yourself they were always successful, or they were more gifted and so they were naturally successful. I imagine that’s probably the exception more than the rule. Reagan enjoyed performing, but he asked for and received training. He had a photographic memory but struggled in school. He started his career early in the depression but continued to look for opportunities to realize his dreams.
“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to,” Alan Keightley once said.
Look for new ways to experience the world. Look for opportunities within your discouraging moments. When something doesn’t come easy, ask yourself if it’s important. If it is, don’t give up. Keep going and look for the opportunity you need to succeed.