When WINK-TV went on air for the first time in 1954, the face that appeared on the small screens of the few television sets in Fort Myers was that of WINK’s first announcer, Frank Nodine. Nodine would remain at WINK for the next 19 years, as sports announcer, live-show host, program director, administrative assistant, and ultimately as station manager and vice president. Then, after an absence of 4 years, he would return, first as an evening, weekend sport announcer on WINK-TV and then as the early morning deejay for WINK AM. In other words, there is little, if anything, that Frank Nodine did not do over the roughly 30 years of his career in radio and television in Fort Myers. (Including some things in the early days that ought to be in a goofball comedy film script.) Frank Nodine was the voice of Fort Myers.
Frank and Helen Jean (aka, H. J.) came to Fort Myers in 1947, and the story of their early life here is a flashback to life in mid-century Fort Myers.
He Heard Her Singing
They were high-school sweethearts from Ravenna, OH. Before 16-year-old Frank Nodine ever met Helen Jean, he fell in love with her voice. He heard her singing in a choir and said to a friend, “There’s somebody in that choir with a high, high voice. Do you know who it is?” “I sure do,” the friend replied, and following her direction, he traced the voice to 15-year-old Helen Jean Bisher out in Ravenna Township.
They went roller skating on their first date and on the way home, stopped in at the dog track. “I always said that on my first date with Frank, we went to the dogs,” laughs H. J. At the time, big bands played during the intermission between races and underage kids were allowed in to dance.
When the U.S. entered WWII, Frank joined the Army, but before he shipped overseas, he gave Helen Jean an engagement ring. Through all the turbulence and uncertainty of the war years, their commitment to each other held fast. Frank returned in October of ’45, and 16 days later, they were married.
Frank enrolled in Kent State to study journalism, but, says H. J., “the arthritis in his knees was so bad from being in Germany, that my folks said we should come to Florida.” H.J.’s father had retired from farming and moved first to Punta Gorda and then to Fort Myers. Mr. Bisher urged the young couple to move down, promising he’d find a job for Frank.
They came down in late ’47 by bus with $300 and two suitcases. Frank went to work as a printer for the News-Press for $24 a week. Helen Jean worked in the juice stand in the Patio de Leon for $16 a week, but soon was hired on by the News-Press as a linotype operator.
H. J.’s father owned the bowling alley next to the bus station on Monroe Street. Her comments about the business reveal a generally unremarked and overlooked way of life in Fort Myers back then. “That was the days before automatic pin setters,” says H. J., “so he’d go out to colored town and pick up some little darkies [sic] to do the work. He fixed up a place for them in the back with magazines and a Coke machine and peanuts. They liked to drop the peanuts in the [bottles of] Coke,” she grinned. “He’d have to take them home at night because in those days they couldn’t be on this side of town after 10 o’clock.”
Frank and Helen Jean moved into their first home, one of the renovated barracks out at Page Field, for $1 down and $65 a month. “It had a kitchen and bath, paneled walls, a 20 x 30 living room, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a big white fireplace,” H. J. recalls with pleasure. Conveniently, at the back of the field were gladiolus company buildings and H.J. soon got a job packing glads.
The young Nodines joined the Methodist church on First Street and sang in the choir. For fun, they also joined the Fort Myers Little Theater and sang in the minstrel shows staged in the Arcade Theater downtown. Young Connie Mack, Jr., says H.J., was the interlocuter in the plays. She smiles, remembering that they once sang “Rock-a-bye Your Baby,” together, a song made famous by Al Jolson, the king of blackface.
Rock-a-bye your baby to a Dixie melody
When you croon, croon a tune from the heart of Dixie
Just place that cradle, mammy mine
Right on that Mason-Dixon Line
And swing it from Virginia to Tennessee
With all the love that’s in ya…
In 1950, Frank was named vice president of the theater group, whose plays were staged in the Ritz theater in the Patio de Leon. In February of ’51, he was applauded by a local theater critic for his performance as the lead in Harvey. “Nodine, who will be remembered in his role of a drunk in “Light Up the Sky” and the sergeant in “Command Decision,” did the best acting of his career. He played the difficult role with a subtlety and genuine feeling that rivalled Jimmy Stewart’s characterization on the screen here a few weeks ago.”
In November of that year, he received more accolades. “Frank Nodine’s gay philosophy spilled over the footlights in last night’s Little Theater production of “The Silver Whistle” and sparked an emphatic response from first nighters. In the sort of whimsical and emphatic role he handles best, Nodine projected his recipe for rejuvenation into the hearts of his audience.”
In December of ’52, he again had the lead role and was again warmly praised for his performance. “Frank Nodine swept earthward last night as a cowboy angel from God’s country lassoing the hearts of a first night Little Theater audience…”
Two years past, in 1950, says H. J., “Somebody from WINK—it was just a radio station then—had seen Frank in action and they had an opening out at WINK and he said to Frank, ‘Why don’t you try out for announcer?’” They had him tape a sports program. About an hour before it was supposed to air, the station called Nodine and said something had happened to the tape and would he do it live. “I sat out in the car to listened to it on radio. When it was over, I hoped he wouldn’t ask me how it went. His diction was beautiful, but his voice was high.”
Nevertheless, at a raise of $4 above his weekly $48 salary with the News-Press, Frank Nodine went to work for WINK Radio.
Four years later, in 1954, WINK RADIO became WINK-TV— “…and if that wasn’t a riot,” laughed H.J. “They made their own sets with wallpaper and what have you. They’d have a blank screen up while they changed the sets for the programs. Frank was the program director so he was coming up with the shows.” Most of it was canned. “We had English movies late at night and people couldn’t understand them so they’d call us at home and ask me what was going on. We had to get an unlisted number.”
Children’s programing included Vernon Lundquist’s “Cousin Vern on the Lazy Bar 11 Ranch,” and Nodine as “Commander Frank” who, with a magical contraption called a “gizintoscope,” magically opened the door to Buck Rogers and other outer space shows in “Adventureland.” “One of the gals at the station made him a blue tunic and a cap to match, and he took our son, Kenny, on one time dressed up like his dad.
In her September 18, 1983, News-Press story, Prudy Taylor Board quotes Nodine on the subject of making commercials.
“We would shoot pictures with a polaroid, paste them onto a heavy aluminum board and these slid onto a machine. Then these were projected onto the screen, and you would tick them off like you would a regular slide machine. A staff person would be in the studio each time the commercial ran to read the copy.”
Nodine had a “Farmer Frank” show and a popular fishing show called “Hook, Line and Sinker.” “One time,” recalls H. J., “there were some people in town feuding over something. Frank was interviewing one of them when another one came into studio and, on camera, dumped a big dead snake on the table in front of Frank. People said it was the first time they ever saw Frank Nodine at a loss for words.”
A frequent speaker at local clubs and the master of ceremonies at local events, Nodine became something of a celebrity in the small town he had made so thoroughly his home.
He retired in 1984 and died 12 years later at the age of 71. Though they had divorced in the mid- ‘70s, “I still love him,” says H.J.
“Weep No More, My Lady” – sing that song again, for me
Sing “Old Black Joe” just as though you had me on your knee
A million baby kisses, I’ll deliver
If you will only sing that “Suwanee River”
Rock-a-bye your rock-a-bye baby to a Dixie melody.