Thursday, January 01, 2015

THE THEATER OF THE MIND

I'VE HAD AN ALMOST LIFE-LONG LOVE AFFAIR WITH "OLD-TIME RADIO SHOWS". 
Like probably most kids who grew up in the 70s-80s, I think my very first encounter with old radio drama would've been when a teacher played the famous Orson Welles "WAR OF THE WORLDS" broadcast from his MERCURY THEATER OF THE AIR episode of October 30, 1938. 
While this was cool, it didn't ignite an "old radio show" mania in me yet.  And in fact, come to think of it, even Orson wasn't my very first encounter with radio drama; even if it WAS my first hearing of "old time" radio.  No, when I was VERY little, I used to listen to the (at that time) brand new production of radio drama called "THE CBS  RADIO MYSTERY THEATER" which aired, I believe, late every Sunday night on WCAU-AM radio. 
Always a fan of the horror genre, I would listen to it on my portable radio (which had a built in flashlight and a clock with actual minute hands) under my pillow after bedtime.  THE CBS MYSTERY THEATER was hosted by E.G. Marshall and was an early-70's update of classic old radio horror shows like INNER SANCTUM.  However, I didn't know that yet.

It was probably around 1977 when my friend Ed Jacoby told me that the local PBS radio station WUHY-FM (what is now WHYY) was airing old radio shows every weeknight and I should check them out. 
I happened to be over his house at the time and we tuned in.  I still know exactly what the first show I heard was because, in the waning final minutes I quickly grabbed my Radio Shack tape recorder, held it up to the speaker and recorded the last 3 minutes of the show.  It was FIBBER McGEE & MOLLY and the episode was "FIBBER FIXES DOC'S CAR" originally broadcast on April 6, 1948.  And I enjoyed it so much I was hooked.  The old radio shows didn't hang around PBS Radio very long but soon I'd be able to listen to RADIO CLASSICS on WCAU-AM every night from 8-10pm hosted for most of it's run by Gary Hodgson.  I even managed to discover through judicious hunting through the bins of WEE THREE RECORDS or SAM GOODY at the Mall an occasional old radio show LP.  The first record I ever bought was JACK BENNY AND FRED ALLEN (THE RADIO FEUD CONTINUES) on Radiola Records. 
Not only did I spin this on the turntable endlessly but I also found inside a card to mail away and received a mail order catalogue from Radiola.  Soon I was ordering vinyl records from David Goldin at Radiola and would amass quite a vinyl collection.  These Radiola Records sported superb cover artwork which are all suitable for framing and I still own all of them (as well as other LPs from Nostalgia Lane or Murray Hill).  And then, wonder of wonders, when my mother worked as a checker at ACME, she called me up and told me the supermarket had a spinner rack filled with old radio shows on cassette tape and did I want her to buy me some.  You've gotta be kidding!  These tapes were put out by Metacom on the Radio Reruns label and I would get scads of them over the years.  The very first one she brought home, I also still do remember:  it was THE JACK BENNY SHOW episode entitled "THE IRS PAYS JACK A VISIT".  Immediately following that was a tape of the classic horror show INNER SANCTUM entitled "MURDER COMES AT MIDNIGHT"; it starred Mercedes McCambridge who was held hostage by an escaped murderer and it's still probably my favourite episode of INNER SANCTUM ever!  McCambridge as Mrs. Canning was properly terrified but she also proved to be resourceful and had a surprise or two in store for her tormenter. 
Also in this initial batch of RADIO RERUNS was the classic SUSPENSE episode "SORRY, WRONG NUMBER" starring Agnes Moorehead in a performance so riveting that the radio station had to continually rerun the show due to listener requests!  In the 1990s, Radio Reruns seemed to fade away and Radiola disappeared; Goldin apparently sold his master tapes to a company called Radio Spirits whom I then bought a ton from in those years. 

But before all that, in my early radio days, I had to search the school library and they actually had several old radio show LPs which I could take out.  The first two I checked out were this 3 LP box set of THE SHADOW on Murray Hill records as well as a comedy compilation of radio comedians called THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (click the links in red to see my write-ups on both these seminal albums). 
The comedy LP was filled with major radio comedians like Jack Benny and Fred Allen as well as little-known but hilarious comics like "The Mad Russian" (Bert Gordon) and "Baron Munchausen" (Jack Pearl).  I would play this record to death, as well as the Shadow box set.  Can you imagine?!?!?  Three vinyl records with six episodes of THE SHADOW!!! 
My favourite of all of them was the episode entitled "THE CREEPER" which featured a creepy-voiced troglodyte of a kidnapper who travelled beneath the city in a forgotten maze of underground tunnels; he would take advantage of a power outage and, when beautiful (and rich) young socialites would go down to the darkened basement to change the fuse, the Creeper would abduct them and take them down down down to his dark catacombs.  I particularly remember listening to these SHADOW records in the late autumn/early winter evenings when I'd drop the needle on the vinyl, settle down with my bowl of chocolate chip mint ice cream and immerse myself in the fantastical night world of the Shadow.  Even the commercial were a joy!  THE SHADOW was famously sponsored by Blue Coal on the east coast but the episodes in this SHADOW box set were sponsored by Goodrich Safety Silvertown tires ("with the life-saver tread"); even these ads were so evocative as the announcer described the rain-slicked roads -- they were the perfect atmospheric accompaniment to the autumnal, dark night world of THE SHADOW! 

Here is where we get into the true aspects of radio as "the theater of the mind" and all those clichéd comments from old codgers about how radio was better than television.  I'm not one of them -- I grew up with television -- but it's true that you cannot really compare the two -- they're two different beasts, actually.  Listening to an old time radio show really gets your synapses firing on all cylinders.  It's got less in common with television and more in common with storytelling.  When you listen to a great storyteller spinning a yarn (hopefully a spooky one around a campfire, natch) your imagination is unleashed and you feel yourself conjuring up every detail as if  you're in the story yourself.  The same happens when you listen to one of these old radio shows -- particularly the spooky or suspenseful ones but even the radio comedies -- you experience being in those darkened catacombs alongside the Shadow
or ringing the doorbell of that pleasant little house with the overstuffed closet at 79 Wistful Vista,

you're really walking door-to-door along with Fred Allen on Allen's Alley and asking Senator Claghorn, Titus Moody, Mrs. Nussbaum and Ajax Cassidy for their views,
and visiting that house halfway up on the next block where Sade apologises that the beef punkles aren't quite done so dinner will be a little late. 
When you listen to old time radio, the sounds connect to something deep inside your brain and unlock the fantasy life which seems to have faded away as we become "grown-ups"; it unlocks a sense of wonder when you hear the infamous squeaking door open as Raymond invites you into his INNER SANCTUM
or when you hit the rain-slicked streets of Chicago and pound the NIGHT BEAT along with reporter Randy Stone of the Chicago Star. 
You're actually riding along with THE GREEN HORNET as he careens in his souped-up car "the Black Beauty" to his next adventure fighting racketeers and you're strapped in to blast off in that rocket to the far reaches of the unknown as the countdown reaches X MINUS ONE. 
You will travel all around the globe as ESCAPE frees you from the four walls of today into a half hour of high adventure or else you'll be quaking  in your boots as that chilling moment occurs when Arch Oboler encourages you to turn your LIGHTS OUT, everybody!  You can be sitting right in the cockpit with Captain Midnight as he soars his airplane overhead  and tries to outwit Ivan the Shark or you can tag along for the fun and excitement as amateur adventurers-for-hire Jack, Doc & Reggie
(yes, that IS Tony Randall in that photo) tiptoe into the temple of the vampires or hear the terrifying scream of "the thing that cries in the night" on the brilliant I LOVE A MYSTERY serial.  There are even still some surprises left to someone who has been listening to old radio shows since the late 1970s; it was only in the last five years that I first heard about an old radio show called "THE COMIC WEEKLY MAN"
which featured said man reading the Sunday funnies, doing voices and featuring organ music and sound effects -- the kiddies (including Little Miss Honey) could read along to the funnies they had a home!  How great would this have been to a kid back in 1950?!?!?!  What a charming, charming show!  And need it be said finally that every visit to THE JACK BENNY SHOW is like you're hanging out with a group of your best friends and having the time of your life. 
That's what old time radio does for me.  Every so often I need to get my ticket and revisit the "theater of the mind" that is old time radio in order to reconnect with that sense of wonder and imagination which we all hunger for.  Oh, here's Mr. First-Nighter now to show me to my box...return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!

As an extra special bonus:  inside every Radiola Record was a sheet like the one pictured below which contained a card to mail for a free catalogue.  Here is the paper that is still in my very first Radiola record:

 



I'd also like to thank the sparkling Ms. Star whose post about Jack Benny on her blog inspired me to write this little paean to the golden age of radio.  As always, Ms. Star, you are an inspiration!

AND THIS WEEK ON OUR SISTER AUDIO BLOG "BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA" YOU CAN LISTEN TO SEVERAL OF THE RADIO SHOWS MENTIONED IN THIS POST!

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