Recommended Series For First Time OTR Listeners

There are so many facets to the world of Old Time Radio, it is hard to know where to start enjoying it. The truth is there is so much to enjoy in OTR, it is easy to imagine that almost anything you pick out will delight you.

But that still leaves you with the difficult job of choosing! Lets look at a few of the options: Most OTR fans get started by choosing a genre of shows they enjoy. There are Adventure programs for action fans, for those who enjoy a good puzzle there are a number of great Detective and Mystery shows. If your day isn’t complete without a few good laughs there are several comedy programs, ranging from sketch driven variety programs to character rich situation comedies.

The great thing about enjoying OTR today is that there are so many ways and places you can enjoy it. For many of us there is nothing that makes a commute enjoyable than following an exciting adventure serial program. At the end of the day it helps to remove the stress of the work day by trying to solve a mystery along with a hard boiled detective during the drive home. Time spent working in front of the computer goes a lot better listening to the songs and jokes of a variety show. With a good set of noise-reducing earbud speakers attached to our pocket MP3 player or cellphone, some of us are even known to enjoy listening to the cowboys in Western programs while mowing the lawn!

Many purveyors of Old Time Radio try to sell their programs on the nostalgia appeal. Sadly, most of the people who are nostalgic for these shows are no longer with us. Most of the series and shows are very enjoyable in their own right, but we feel that knowing a little bit about the actors and the programs make them even more enjoyable. Hopefully they will whet your appetite to know more about these great shows.

Some of our favorite genres and and shows include:

Mystery and Horror:

These are the late-night shows that make you want to pull the bedsheets up over your eyes! Most will agree that the most blood-curdling ghost story is even more frightening on radio!

Mystery In The Air features one of the creepiest voices and personalities ever to grace the screen, Peter Lorre.

The Whistler is a collection crime stories where the justice always comes to the villain, but not a way that he or the listeners would expect!

Suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat with nearly a thousand episodes of “Radio’s Outstanding Theater of Thrills!”

Lights Out! was one of the original late night thrillers with stories written by two of radio’s greatest talents, Wyllis Cooper and Arch Oboler.

Inner Sanctum Mysteries is like having Halloween every week with creepy stories, dark jokes, and creepy thrills.

Weird Circle brings us a collection of classic ghost stories.

Adventure:

These shows will take our imaginations to the far corners of the world.

Escape! features some of the greatest stars Hollywood, Broadway and radio in some great original and adapted stories.

Cloak and Dagger is based on true stories of the Operatives of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA.

The Adventures of Superman. Much of the legend of the original comic book hero was actually developed on the radio.

 

Comedy:

There can never be enough things for us to laugh at, and Radio brings us some of the best!

You Bet Your Life, developed as a sort of game show, the program was really a chance for Groucho Marx to simply be Groucho!

Fibber McGee and Molly is nothing but good-hearted fun featuring a well meaning schemer who seems to have never held a steady job and his long suffering but happy wife along with his friends and neighbors.

The Jack Benny Program is a collection of music and skits built around a character who was everything that the real Jack Benny wasn’t, vain, cantankerous, and cheap!

Crime and Detective:

Whether we are following the wits and bravery of hard working policemen and brave private eye, or pitting our wits against one of the great detective, everyone enjoys Crime and Detective stories.

Dragnet starring Jack Webb is a series of exciting stories based on true cases of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Tales of the Texas Rangers brings us more true crime stories from the Oldest and Most Well known law enforcement agency in North America.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is the story of an investigator for insurance companies with an “action-packed expense account”.

The Adventures of Nero Wolfe is a humorous collection of the cases of a rather eccentric but incredibly intelligent crime solver whose effectiveness isn’t hampered by his girth.

Drama:

More serious stories, but still greatly entertaining, our dramas include tales from literature, great movies, and even “serial dramas”.

Academy Award Theater, adaptations of Hollywood’s best movies, all Oscar Winners.

Dr Christian was one of the great wash-tub-weepers that kept house wives entertained with their continuing stories and weekly cliffhangers.

Lux Radio Theater brought the stories of the best movies to the radio, featuring a full orchestra, and usually the film’s original stars performing before a live audience.

 

Science Fiction:

Sometimes condemned as “kid stuff”, several radio programs treated Sci Fi as serious literature.

Dimension X and X Minus One had stories from the pages of great SciFi magazines and the best and most influential SciFi writers.

Space Patrol was meant for kids, but the space-opera was based on the best scientific knowledge of the time.

 

 

Westerns:

Some of these are kid shows, and others are serious adult drama, while others are treasures of great country music!

Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel were serious drama that never allowed the gritty reality of the rough and tumble West get in the way.

The Six Shooter featured the acting talent of the great James Stewart and some of the best written stories of any radio genre.

Melody Ranch featured the music of one of the screens great singing Cowboys, as well as a story or two of genuine ranch life.

 

Posted in Country Western Music, Detective Radio, Dragnet, Escape, Fibber McGee and Molly, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Horror Show, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Old Time Radio, Radio Detective, Suspense, X Minus One, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Singin Sam “Barbasol Man”

When we study the personalities of Old Time Radio, every once in a while we encounter the story of what appears to be a very happy man. One such person was Harry Frankel, better known as Singin’ Sam.

Harry was born in Ohio in 1888 to a men’s clothing merchant who soon took the family to Danville, Kentucky.  The family business would take them to Richmond, Indiana when Harry was nine, but by this time the “Old Kentucky Home” had a hold on the lad. For the rest of his life, Harry was a Son of the South. In 1908,  Harry joined Al G. Fields’ Minstrels and began his vaudeville apprenticeship.

In 1930,  an offer from the Great States Lawnmower Company allowed Harry to leave the hectic life of vaudeville, and he settled in Cincinnati, to sing over WLW as Singin’ Sam, The Lawnmower Man. Exposure on WLW led to an opportunity to move to New York to become Singin’ Sam, the Barbasol Man. Life in New York was not happy for the confirmed Son of the South, and he left after three years, but first he met and courted Helene “Smiles” Davis. Harry and Smiles settled in Richmond, and soon Harry was again singing for Barbasol on national broadcasts originating in Cincinnati. In 1937, Harry became a “Jet-Set entertainer in the pre-jet era, flying to New York twice a month to record a series of shows for Coca Cola, Refreshment Time With Singing Sam. The transcribed shows were distributed nationally while Harry got to spend his off time at home with his wife, Smiles.

Sadly, this happy man was cut down by a heart attack at the age of sixty. Much too young for someone who made his living happily singing “old songs”. For finding lasting success on his own terms, we have to tip our hat to Singin’ Sam.

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Old Time Radio Crime Shows

 

Die hard fans of Old Time Radio would have us believe that there is something in the OTR world for everyone, and to a great extent they are correct. Many of us find that we have favorites in every OTR genre. However, there are three types of show which Old Time Radio does exceptionally well, arguably a superior storytelling medium than Movies or TV.

These are Horror, Science Fiction and Crime Drama. The first two are actually fairly obvious. To achieve the desired response from the audience, the creators of both these genre must create indelible images for the audience. Common sense would have us believe that the visual media should be better at this, but in actual practice even the best special effects men cannot create images as intense as those created in the minds of an attentive listener. In other words, the scary monster on the screen can never be as scary as the one we can conjure in our own imagination. At least, this is true if the writer, director, and actors in the drama have any more than mediocre talent. Many of the surviving examples of both Horror and Drama were produced by the best talents in the showbiz industry.

Crime Drama is a somewhat different case. Whereas Horror and Science Fiction are image driven, fans of Crime Drama are essentially enjoying a puzzle. Whether the audience is able to solve the puzzle themselves, or they have to wait for the Dashing Detective to solve it for them, makes little difference. The complexity and intricacy of the puzzle are as important as the solution.

The Puzzle Factor is especially important for the so-called Soft Boiled Detectives. These are the guys who specialize in the Whodunit story. Their archetype in both literature and on the Radio is Sherlock Holmes, who always got his man but took the listener through some plot twists that were positively neck snapping. Nero Wolfe, The Saint, Nick and Nora of The Thin Man and Hercule Poirot are also popular Soft Boiled Detectives.

The existence of Soft Boiled Detectives implies Hard Boiled Detectives, and Old Time Radio has them in droves. The came from between the covers of pulp magazines and Noir Detective Cinema, and they flooded the post War airwaves. Part of the reason for their abundance was that they were ideal listening for the target audience of the time, largely rugged veterans who were adapting to the new affluence of of civilian life. The hard boiled detective might taken a licking once in a while, but they were rugged individuals who answered injustice whether it was perpetrated against themselves or those they had taken into their protection.

The archetype of the Hard Boiled Detective is Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was developed in pulps of the 1930s, and even though he was a tough guy, he was a character you would introduce to your grandma; he enjoyed classical music, chess, and had a strong moral code. Other Hard Boiled regulars may have been more Neanderthal, but characters like Sam Spade, Pat Novak, Michael Shayne, Mike Hammer or Johnny Dollar may have had to take their lumps, but they always got their man.

Just because imagery was not as important to crime drama as it was to Horror of Science Fiction radio, it was far from ignored. Thanks to the great writing and production values, when a listener enjoys an episode of the classic Dragnet they are transported to post-War Los Angeles. Although it is a noticeably monochromatic Los Angeles (with occasional flashes of brown from a well behaved Mexican shop owner), Dragnet‘s Los Angeles is a city of lunch counters, War Factory workers, urban sprawl just beginning to spread, and even the junkies wore coats and ties.

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Let Yours Truly, Bob Bailey, Do It!

Bob Bailey

Bob Bailey was “born in a theater trunk” in Toledo, Ohio, to traveling-performer parents. Bob first hit the stage at the age of six. As a young man he began performing on the radio in Chicago, which was a hub of network production during the pre-War years. Bailey appeared in a number of anthology productions originating from WGN and WMAQ, and worked on several of Arch Oboler’s productions.

Bailey reached the West Coast soon after the War broke out. There was a shortage of male-talent because of the War, and Bob landed a standard one year contract with Twentieth Century Fox. He would appear in seven films for Fox. Of medium height and rather skinny, as far as the movies were concerned, Bob Bailey had a face for radio.

Fortunately for his career, he also had a voice for radio. Hollywood was gaining prominence as the center of radio production, and perhaps capitalizing on his Chicago connections, Bailey found occasional work on Oboler’s Everything For The Boys, Treasury Star Parade, Lux Radio Theater, and Arch Oboler’s Plays. In 1946 the door to stardom opened for Bailey with the Don Lee/Mutual network production of Let George Do It.

George Valentine was a departure from the typical hard-boiled detectives of the time. A detailed and believable backstory was built through the first season; Valentine had been a GI during the war, and while he was overseas he had plenty of time to consider what he wanted to do (or more likely, what he DIDN’T want to do) when he got home. He took out a personal ad in the local paper:

Do You Have a Job That Needs Doing?
Let George Do It!
Danger is my stock in trade.
If the job is too tough for you to handle
You’ve got a job for me,
George Valentine
Write FULL details

Virginia Gregg and Dick Powell

Conceived as more of a professional problem solver than a detective, the program began as almost a situation comedy before it evolved into a not-quite-hard-boiled detective drama. Valentine always displayed a degree of GI ingenuity and out of the box thinking. Let George Do It had many of the trappings of the Detective genre. He always had an eye for a pretty girl, much to the consternation of his secretary and sometimes love interest Claire Brooks (Brooksie), played by Virginia Gregg. Brooksie’s kid brother was an occasional character; Sonny was none other than Eddie Firestone Jr., and often turned up just when Valentine needed a hand or an obscure piece of information.

As part of the Don Lee Network, Let George Do It was a popular program, but little known in the East for its first five seasons. By that time Bailey was ready to move on, and he found an opportunity in the reformulated version of CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Johnny Dollar had been a popular detective radio program for several years, with different actors in the lead role. Dollar was an insurance investigator with an “Action Packed Expense Account” beginning in 1949. His various cases took Johnny Dollar around the world in search of insurance fraud. By the end of the 1954 season, YTJD was little different from the rest of the detectives on the air. In order to breath new life into the show, production was turned over to Jack Johnstone, who had previously produced Buck Rogers and The Adventures of Superman. One of Johnstone’s first moves was to change the format from a weekly half hour to a five day a week 15 minute show. The new format allowed for week-long story arcs and greater character and plot development.

This was a great fit for the thinking-man detective persona Bob Bailey developed on Let George Do It. Of all the actors to handle the Johnny Dollar role, Bailey is the fan favorite. Unfortunately the daily format only lasted for thirteen months before returning to weekly episodes (Johnstone continued to contribute scripts). By this time the writing was on the wall for Radio Drama. CBS moved production to New York as a cost cutting move in 1960, but Bailey chose to remain in Hollywood.

Bailey made a few television appearances, and began writing for TV (he wrote “the Carmen Kringle Matter” Christmas episode for Johnny Dollar’s 1957 season). He would battle with alcoholism for most of his remaining years. He began to make a recovery with the help of Alcoholic’s Anonymous when he was felled by a massive heart attack. He would spend most of the remaining ten years of his life in a convalescent home, renewing his relationships with friends and family.

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Top Secret: “Unknown Mission”

Assassination for political or military reasons, unpleasant though it may be to think about, is a tool of statecraft and strategic practice. Nonetheless, assassination is murder, and it exacts a moral toll on those who practice it.

Ilona Massey

State sanctioned assassination of course occurs in real life, but certainly not with the frequency we see in espionage fiction. In fiction, the morality of assassination takes many forms, as seen in the contrast between the James Bond of Fleming’s novel, who sees his job as a distasteful if necessary task, and the License to Kill, almost casual murders of the 007 films.

Assassination, especially in fiction, is an exploration of “the greatest game”; man hunting man. The suspense is often heightened when the hunter becomes the hunted. Weighing the moral implications of assassination adds even more spice to spy drama.

In the Top Secret episode “Unknown Mission” Baroness Karin Geza receives orders to take “Action Seven” against a French Duke visiting Rome. It is known that the duke is collaborating with the Nazis through Vichy, but she is given no other reason for the assignment, but the Action needs to be accomplished as soon as possible to prevent the duke from carrying out his assignment. The audience is let in on the Duke’s mission- to assassinate the Baroness!

They meet at the nightclub where Karin works (a special treat of this episode is getting to hear Ilona Massey singing), and a rendezvous at the Duke’s stable is arranged for the next morning. The Duke’s assistant makes a device to deliver poison through the saddle. When the time comes, the Duke is so enchanted with Karin he cannot go through with the poisoning. During their ride, they spend time at the top of the cliffs near the villa. The Baroness has a perfect opportunity to complete her mission, but she hesitates because she still doesn’t know the reason for her assignment, and she is becoming enchanted with the Duke herself. There are other attempts, but finally, realizing he cannot kill her himself, the Duke’s assistant devises a bomb in the Duke’s car, and loans it to Karin for a picnic. In the end, Karin does learn that the Duke has been given the mission of killing her.

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Walter Tetley: Old Time Radio’s Beloved Actor had a Lonely Story

Walter Tetley

Walter Tetley is one of Radio’s most beloved character actors also had one of the era’s saddest, and loneliest stories.

Walter Tetley practically cornered the market as the “fresh-mouthed kid” character on radio. The precocious kid, who always managed to take the stuffing out of pretentious adult males, has always been a feature in situation comedy, from Charlie McCarthy, Henry Aldrich, and Jughead Jones, to TV’s Bart Simpson. Few actors were able to pull off the character as convincingly or as successfully as Tetley. This is because Tetley, despite the youthful voice heard on the radio, was a full grown man. (Bart Simpson is voiced by actress Nancy Cartwright.)

Chronologically, Tetley was fully grown throughout his entire radio career; physically, he had never gone through puberty. Tetley got his start in show business while still actually a child, doing imitations of Scottish comedian Harry Lauder, and appearing on a few radio children’s shows. In 1934, he took a break from radio to do a music-hall tour of England. By now Walter’s eternal youthfulness had become obvious. It is thought that Tetley had been born with a rare hormonal disorder, possibly Kallman’s Syndrome, although there is a rumor that his mother had him “fixed”, castrated, so that he could continue to work as a child actor.

When he returned from England, Tetley was a seasoned performer with expert comic timing, and he was a terrific fit with Fred Allen‘s Mighty Allen Art Players. At the age of twenty, Walter was still well suited to playing twelve year olds. Fred Allen’s urbane comedy was a great forum for the various kids Tetley played utterly to deflate whichever authority figure was available. After two years with Allen, Tetley’s mother took him to Hollywood to try his luck in pictures in 1937.

The movies weren’t friendly Walter Tetley. Although he had a young boy’s voice, his pudgy looks had a tough time finding a place in films. He was mostly relegated to uncredited roles; bellboys and elevator attendants. The timing of Tetley’s move was rewarded by radio, however; this was the time that the networks were moving a lot of their production from New York to the West Coast.

This boom in the Hollywood radio industry kept Tetley working in everything from children’s shows to Lux Radio Theater. In 1941, Fibber McGee and Molly‘s solid success was enough for one of their characters, Throckmorton Gildersleeve, to strike out on his own. Gildersleeve, played by Harold Peary, was the perfect blowhard to play against Tetley. The Great Gildersleeve program was built around confirmed bachelor Gildy taking custody of his pretty and popular niece and her smart mouthed little brother.

The Great Gildersleeve ran from 1941 through 1954. Other characters on the program saw some development through the years. Sister Marjorie went from popular high school girl to a young mother. Tetley’s Leroy pretty much stayed a precocious kid. Eventually, Leroy would enter junior high and discover girls, but only just barely.

Because of his condition, discovering girls, indeed most normal social interaction, was pretty much denied to Walter Tetley. Even though his fellow actors recognized his talent and professionalism, it was hard for them to avoid treating him like the child that he appeared to be. Tetley’s mother also continued to dominate him as though he indeed remained 12 years old. Outside of work, Tetley became withdrawn and isolated.

In 1948, Jack Benny‘s band-leader, Phil Harris, landed his own show with his movie-star wife, Alice Faye. One of the favored characters in the company of the Phil Harris-Alice Faye show was the smart-mouthed neighborhood grocery boy, Julius Abbruzio. Julius was of course able to get the best of Harris, and held a serious crush on Alice Faye. Faye’s character took him about as seriously as women took Tetley in real life.

As television dominated radio, Tetley found some work voicing cartoons. For a time in the late 1960’s, he found some solace in the solitary sport of motorcycling, but an accident in 1970 left him crippled and confined to a wheelchair. Although he still found sporadic voice over work, the accident had left him financially crippled as well.

Tetley closed out his remaining years, living alone in a trailer in Encino, CA. He passed away in 1975, at the age of 60, due to stomach cancer and complications from the motorcycle accident.

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Soap Operas in Old Time Radio

It doesn’t seem long ago that homes with multiple television sets were becoming common place. Then it became rare to find a house that didn’t have some sort of high speed connection to the Internet. Now it is common to find people who have high speed Internet access in their pockets in the form of a smartphone or tablet device. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine a time that radios were a luxury only possessed by a few households.

Like satellite TV or home WiFi transmitters, the decision to purchase a radio when the media was in its early stages was justified as “something the whole family can enjoy”. This brings to mind an image of the whole tribe gathered around a big wooden box with a glowing dial; the kids sprawled out on the living room rug, Dad in his favorite overstuffed chair with his pipe, and Mom in her smaller chair. Mom is probably still wearing her apron, perhaps knitting or shelling peas. While the rest of the household is relaxing and enjoying an evenings radio broadcast, Mom’s work, by definition, is never done.

A few wags will make the point that it is fair that Mom doesn’t really get to relax and enjoy the evening shows; after all, the entire daytime line up, mostly radio soap operas, is designed with Mom in mind! We need to remember that the purpose of the soap operas wasn’t to give Mom a daytime treat, it was to get Mom to listen to the sponsor’s message. The soap in Soap Opera didn’t get there because Mom was listening to the show while her hands were plunged in the laundry tub or standing over sink full of dirty dishes. Mothers made most of the important regular purchasing decisions for the family. The manufacturers of soap and cleaning products were among the first to realize this, and so lent their name to the daytime serial program.

Soap Opera Radio Shows were and are the target of a lot of derision for being overly dramatic, vulgar, and badly written. In actuality, even though they were often not taken seriously, the daytime serial drama is a sophisticated and complex form of storytelling that places certain demands not only on those presenting the story, but on those listening as well. Not only does the story need to be compelling and attractive, but a new episode has to be ready for presentation every day. It is little wonder that the actors in the lead roles of a 10:30 am program would be in supporting roles at noon and 1:30. For the listener’s part, she would need to keep the different characters and story-lines straight in her head, usually while dealing with the important day to day happenings and house work that needs to be accomplished in”real life”. Remember that unlike modern OTR MP3 collections, entire series were not presented back to back; after listening to an episode, Mom had to wait a whole day, and probably hear several other programs before she could hear the next installment. It is no wonder that the Soaps adopted the tactic of using a “cliffhanger” to keep audiences returning.

The soap operas from the Golden Age of Radio are still a lot of fun. Not only does the modern listener have the option to listen to several episodes in succession, but thanks to the great number of listening devices, the shows can be enjoyed anywhere, whether Mom is commuting, watching the kids in the park, of standing over the sink with suds up to her elbows!

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