grapevineRaised on Radiograpevine


Cars were larger and heavier in the late 50s. Possibly the big black Pontiac sedan my dad had then weighed as much as both my Neon and hubby's Tacoma pickup do now. The interstates had just begun wending their way through former pristine countryside and metro milieus, and travel then was done on highways like Route 1 and Route 6, two and four lanes interrupted by small towns and speed traps. Roads like Massachusetts' Route 128, with no lights, were rare unless you paid a toll, like the Mass Pike or the Garden State Parkway.

It was a good time to be a kid, because, instead of being relegated to the back seat, strapped in a car seat (the only car seats existing then were for babies, a jaunty thing with a steering wheel in front, prompting the little guy to grow up with a yen for the open road) or firmly seat-belted in, you were free to stretch out, play, or even maybe sit in that privileged place, between Mom and Dad on the big cloth-upholstered bench seat in the front. (Yes, there were car accidents back then, some pretty hideous. But mostly due to slower speeds and heavier cars, riding this way was pretty safe.)

It was there, slipping through the backroads of Rhode Island and the traffic-signal free paradise of Route 128, that I listened and loved my first radio programs. I don't remember any of them, but Mom said I listened as avidly to what was left on radio at that time as she had years before in its heyday. By the time I was born it was a dying art form, supplanted by television. In 1955, famous radio stars had already decamped or were in the process of transferring to television, leaving radio the sole domain of disk jockeys and rock'n'roll. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and all the classic soap operas had already given themselves over to the new medium.

By the time I was old enough to remember, it was all gone, save for the Bickersons' mini-comedies cum commercials and the one I recall with most affection, NBC's Monitor, an eclectic mix of music, commentary, Charles Kuralt-type human interest and travel pieces, and stalwart announcers (and, until 1959, still home to Fibber McGee and Molly in five minute increments).

But Mom and Dad remembered the radio era well and I grew up on their stories: they were born in 1917 and 1913, respectively; for them radio was the novelty of sounds through the air in the 1920s, a defense against Depression hardships of the 1930s, a bulwark of news and patriotism and relief during World War II, and entertainment afterwards, until the encroachment of television. Mom liked the crooners--Crosby, Como, Columbo-and the comedies and the Westerns. Dad liked Westerns, too, and the crime shows and the dance bands. They told funny stories about Fibber McGee's closet and Gracie Allen's brother and Jack Benny's underground vault, grew sober over tales of war reporters like Ed Murrow who brought the battlegrounds of Europe and the Pacific into everyone's living rooms, and recalled the dramatic plots of The Lone Ranger and Gangbusters, the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and a really cool-sounding fellow called Lamont Cranston.

But up through the 1960s, all I could do was hear about what I'd missed hearing.

Then one year when I was in junior high school, the programming folks at WBRU, the Brown University radio station, made a momentous announcement: they would begin broadcasting The Shadow on Sunday nights at 9:30 p.m.

The Shadow was one of those legendary radio series everyone talks about, even if critics think it high camp today. The hero was "wealthy young man about town" Lamont Cranston, who, during one of his trips abroad, had learned the "mysteries of the Orient," including the power to cloud men's minds so he was invisible to them. Many young men would have used this power to go on a crime spree. But Lamont was a Good Guy in the classic sense of the phrase: he used his new talent to help fight crimes and right wrongs, with the help of Commissioner Weston, Shrevie the cab driver, and his loyal companion, the "lovely Margo Lane." The Shadow could be a crime show or a bunking of the supernatural or a run-in with mysterious forces, all wrapped up between "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" and his classic, sinister laugh followed "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit--crime does not pay!"

Between dashing Lamont, plucky Margo, and gallons of menacing organ music, it was love at first listen. I even carried a radio with me to the heretofore beloved fireworks at the St. Mary's Church feast, determined not to miss a word. After about a year, WBRU replaced The Shadow with Gangbusters, another series I'd heard about from my parents. The charms of this were less apparent: G-Men fighting gangsters weren't my forte and I dropped my Sunday listening habit.

The radio charm persisted, however, even in a world of attractive modern electronics. Why? Primarily because of what radio was, a feast for your imagination, like reading a book with your ears instead of your eyes. From the voices on the radio you could assemble your own cast of characters. Lamont Cranston could be tall and handsome and dark haired, or fair-haired as Peter Wimsey with a hawk face. He could be dressed in evening wear or a three-piece suit. Who was your ideal Margo: a willowy redhead with stylish clothes? A sensible brunette with an ordinary wardrobe? A blonde bombshell? Maybe she smoked using a cigarette holder like the classy actresses of the 30s, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. They were whatever you made them. Lamont's lavish home could be stocked with old family heirlooms or contemporary furniture. Weston could be short and stocky, with a stogie or tall and ascetic. When you watched the movie Patton, he had to look like George C. Scott; TV's Frasier always must look like Kelsey Grammar. But you alone could envision Lamont Cranston as you wanted him, not to mention imagining what odds, ends, and bits fell out of Fibber McGee's cluttered closet, the cold walls of a crypt in Inner Sanctum, or the design of Flash Gordon's spaceship. Was there ever more fun than what you built in your own mind to picture that big ballroom where Crosby or Sinatra presented their guests (when in reality it was a closed radio set), or the secret hideout of the Green Hornet, or the size of the boulder or building Superman pushed aside to affect another rescue?

Maybe Victor Comstock stated it best in the opening episode of Remember WENN, the delightful homage to radio days that left too soon: "And therein lies the magic: tens of thousands of people out there, listening, each envisioning their own motion picture of the mind. And that is what we give our audience...[we give them dreams. We give them towers and landscapes, secrets and revelations. We give them a warm hearth in the dark--or a cold shiver up their spine."

Not many people were interested in Radio's Golden Age during the late 60s. The world seemed a funky miasma of bad color combinations, drug jokes, and Vietnam protests back then, with the Civil Rights movement the only positive progress made. Radio shows were kept alive by collectors, transcription disks and recordings hoarded, the many more destroyed mourned. Occasionally a person or a group would put out some radio tapes. When I was high-school age I found, to my great astonishment, a person selling old radio tapes one weekend at Midland Mall [now RI Mall] in Warwick, RI. There were two episodes to a cassette and I only had enough money for three, four episodes of The Shadow and two Bing Crosby variety shows I treasured for years. One of the Crosby shows was a wartime New Year's Eve [actually December 30] outing, a virtual time capsule of foreign things mixed with the familiar: What was a Watchnight party? What were these ration points you had to watch out for when making your party hors d'oeuvres? Did people really take cheese spread sandwiches to the bomber plant for lunch back then? Too, producer George Garabedian issued a series of nostalgic LPs back in the late 1970s: you could find disks of The Green Hornet, Burns and Allen, Lassie, and more.

And once in a while the television networks actually mentioned they had a radio background: NBC's and CBS's fiftieth anniversary specials both had sections on radio, however brief, acknowledging the classic comedies that kept the country afloat during the Depression and in good morale during World War II.

But mostly I thought I was a young loner in a fandom made up of older people longing for "the good ol' days" (which frankly I was longing for myself).

It was fandom--and then the Internet--that turned the tide.

The first was discovering that among the denizens of Atlanta science fiction fans there were also old-time radio fans. I was to find out that groups like this existed cross-country, and that some of them took vintage radio scripts and recreated them. But the Atlanta Radio Theatre people went them one better and wrote their own material, including the saga of Bumper's Crossroads, a little community that would have been right at home near Fibber and Molly's Wistful Vista.

Then too there was the Internet. A few people chatting on an insular newsgroup turned into the world-wide web. You could search on any radio performer and find something, however small, about him--and then came tribute websites, some to old-time radio in general, some extensive sites on one program. It wasn't a few old fogeys dimly saving old copies of Radio Mirror anymore: now it was large, lavish sites devoted to Superman, the loveable McGees, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen.

Two things also seemed to happen at once, one just a bit earlier than the other. A company called Radio Spirits started offering a few old radio shows on cassette tapes for nostalgia's sake. Maybe it was a nostalgia factor, but maybe all that wasted commute time created a need as well: so many people were craving something to keep them occupied during endless minutes of boring traffic. Talk shows and music satisfied some, but bookstores began touting audio books as the way to go--could it be while looking through the books, commuters were also attracted by these old stories, remembering their parents' and grandparents' tales of radio? Whatever it was, most bookstores and even some buying clubs now have racks of old radio series prepped in boxes, cassettes and now CDs, ready to roll. New one come out often, and more can be found on Radio Spirits' site.

I first heard about file-sharing when friends told me that older songs, not the modern "'ho and homeboy" nonsense the RIAA and record companies were fighting over, could be found there. One friend was regularly downloading music from the 1910s and the 1920s that had once been on old Edison disks. It sounded fascinating, but my ears didn't really perk up until another friend mentioned having downloaded some episodes of Our Miss Brooks. I was astounded: were these ultra-modern file-sharing virtuosos really interested in something so archaic?

Oh, my, yes they were: one could search any of the file-sharing sites and find dozens of people happily trading what was once considered "old fogey" entertainment. Sometimes a queue for one of the more obscure programs can be up to 100 users. While the television networks conveniently forget their radio roots, those roots live nevertheless. I began to dabble happily not only in my old favorite, The Shadow, but in the delightful comedies of the period. While television humor reduces itself to further vulgarity each week and "reality shows" bombard every conceivable nook and cranny, I can still be convulsed and entertained by Gracie Allen's corkscrew logic, Jack Benny's parsimony, and Connie Brooks' eternal effort to get Mr. Boynton's attention.

I find myself even amused by that most odious of television invaders, the commercial, as done for radio: the inventive ways the ads for the sponsor's product were worked in was sometimes as entertaining as the ongoing script. How could one forget the memorable ways the writers had Harlow Wilcox work all those Johnson's Wax commercials into Fibber McGee tales, including one that turned into a Halloween ghost story, or how they worked it so that Bill Goodwin once integrated a Maxwell House testimonial into a patter routine to team with Gene Kelly's tap dancing? Don Wilson's delectable Jello commercials and Ed Herlihy's Kraft recipes can still make you hungry years later after the latest screaming multicolor multimillion-dollar McDonald's puff piece quickly fades from memory.

Ironically, one of my radio obsessions actually came from...television! Back in the late 1970s, a varied cast including Ezra Stone, a veteran radio performer himself (this grizzled and grey gentleman had been the cracking adolescent voice of Henry Aldrich) and Edward Asner reproduced Norman Corwin's classic Christmas story in verse, "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas," for PBS. As good as Corwin's play was, the first half of the show left me more mesmerized than the second half: the cast was shown rehearsing and the sound effects men testing the effects equipment, as the effects were being done "live" and not from recorded media. Then of course one could see the actors and effects themselves occurring as the story unfolded on the soundtrack.

I immediately fell in love with all things to do with "The Poet Laureate of Radio"; found and bought a copy of the VE Day performance On a Note of Triumph and was gifted with the set Thirteen by Corwin, and have his biography, letters, and the book Trivializing America.

Yet there's so much I haven't even touched in the vault: still unheard are those episodes of Halls of Ivy--Ronald Colman's only radio series--and Lux Radio Theatre—"Lux presents...Hollywood!"—adaptations of the famous movies of the time. Over 45 years later after that ride in the black Chevy sedan, I remain enchanted by the art form and oh-so-willing to spread my addiction!

Just a few links (search for more!):

• Wistful Vista

• Unofficial George Burns and Gracie Allen Website

• A Tribute to Fred Allen

• Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy

• The Shadow: Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? (mostly links)

• Radio Spirits

• Lou Genco's Old Time Radio Site

• Radio Days

• Radio Lovers

The Radio365.com site also offers old radio series. Both XM and Sirius satellite radio have an old-time radio channel.

 

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