Remembering Big John and Sparky Radio Show

confused-science-readerWhen computers came along, “multitasking” became an influential buzzword. It came as a shock to many of us that even simple early computers could do more than one thing at once. What was an even bigger shock was seeing how many things a kid operating a computer could do. You just haven’t been around kids lately if you haven’t seen one sitting in front of his computer, supposedly doing his homework. The homework is getting done, but at the same time he is video-chatting with his classmates, slaying alien monster zombies in a video game, downloading music (which fortunately he’ll be listening to over headphones), watching YouTube and updating his FaceBook page.

Multitasking is nothing new for kids. There was a time when kids’ favorite “media experience” was to rush home turn on the radio for the terrific kid’s programming on the air. One of the great things about the radio is that it can be enjoyed while other things are going happening. It is easy to imagine after-school chores might be done quicker while Hop Harrigan or Flash Gordon were keeping the kids company. Imagine how many rounds of the Go-Fish or Chinese Checkers got played while Little Orphan Annie did her best to get in and out of danger. Thousands of kids played catch while the Adventures of Superman came through the open living room window, and it would be a fib to say that some didn’t expect Space Patrol, Planet Man, Mark Trail and the Junior G-Men to help with their homework.

Television was not as conducive to this type of multitasking. Some kids tried to convince their parents and teachers they could get their homework done in front of the TV. Even while in a semi-darkened room, with their attention on the pictures on the box. Their claims didn’t convince parents and teachers.

Big John and Sparky
The ability to multi task was valuable on the other side of the speaker, as well. One of the best examples of this was Jon Arthur’s Big Jon and Sparkie. Arthur was an On-Air personality on Cincinnati’s WSAI, and he invented the Sparkie character as a scamp who would interrupt him while he was on the air. Sparkie’s voice, which could be irritating to anyone over the age of twelve. By recording his own speech on a reel-to-reel tape, then replaying it at a higher speed, Arthur created Sparkie’s distinctive voice. Thus, Big Jon and Sparkie would have conversations on the air. WSAI station managers liked the concept and teamed Arthur with Don Kortenkamp as a scriptwriter. The Big Jon and Sparkie Show was picked-up as a daily half hour program by ABC, along with a Saturday morning two hour long show titled No School Today.

Although Kortenkamp provided the scripts, which were a delightful combination of reality and fantasy, Arthur did most of the on-air voices and created the assortment of characters. Arthur based many of the characters on personalities from his childhood in Ohio. They included Mayor Plumpfront, Clyde Pillroller, “fabulously wealthy” widow Daffodil Dilly, taxi-driver Eukie Betcha, and Rabbit Ears McKester. Sparkie and Rabbit Ears were members of The Grand Order Of The Mysterious Secret Circle, as well as great fans of movie hero Captain Jupiter.

Big Jon and Sparkie left ABC in 1958. The program never quite made it on television. It found new life on Harold Camping’s (the same guy who predicted the Rapture on four occasions) Family Radio Network. Arthur was an announcer for the Christian network, and also kept Big Jon and Sparkie alive in syndication from 1960 until his death in 1982.

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Country Music and Patriotism Created a Party

Cecil Daniels hosted “Country Style USA” and did it make the country hoot and holler with excitement over the radio airwaves. The show did one and it did it very well. It played the top country music of the day, and the guest stars that performed were Nashville proud. if you pulled on your boots and plunked your 10 gallon head covering on when the radio started playing the “Country Style USA” program, you could not help but galavant around your living room as if you had just gotten of your caloose.

But why? Why was this program,and others like it, such a game changer with the multitudes that preferred it over other radio programs of its day? One word…patriotism! People had gotten out of a couple of major world conflicts and people wanted to remember the greatness of this country. People found the simplicity of “Country Style USA”, Red Foley and Roy Rogers comforting and rewarding. Much of the music of the day was either heady and sophisticated or hard to understand. But country music paid attention to the greatness of this country. It made people remember what God meant and what family meant and how it all added up to “red,white and blue”.

“It’s time for Country Style USA…

stay all night, stay a little longer,

dance all night, dance a little longer,

pull off your coat and go a little longer,

don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer.”

Patriotism, Country Style USA and the radio added up to a party and America was ready to kick up its heels. Hank Snow might make the romantics get into the mood with “Hello Love” and Gene Autry brought the holiday cheer with “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. But whatever the theme and whatever the season, country music made people aware of how fortunate they were living in this land and celebrating that fact was always a good thing.

Country music is timeless and it resonates to the memories of so many. Radio allowed the memories to be stirred and to be thrilled. It encouraged people  to want to “stay a lil longer”.

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Cornell Woolrich Stories in Old Time Radio

Cornell-Woolrich-Typewriter1The appeal of hard boiled detective fiction is a little like the attraction of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Scholars will point out that, in both cases, the audience is sympathetic to the suffering of the Hero and that the ultimate payoff is a cathartic release as we paradoxically take pleasure in the very human pain he endures.

No matter what the scholars say, those of us in the audience know that we like to see the other guy get his, especially when it is safely confined to the world of fiction.

The best writers of tragedy are able to play on our sympathies. This is why the protagonist in most dramatic tragedies is a hero. The main character in hard boiled fiction is often far from Heroic, in fact, he is very often a sleaze ball. In this case, the emotional payoff is the thrilling tension that the author creates. What the audience may not realize is that, in some cases, the author is able to create sympathy for his less than heroic characters because the author himself is far from being a heroic figure.

Cornell Woolrich is called the fourth greatest crime novelist of his time, after Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler. More film noir screenplays have been adapted from his writing than from any other crime novelist. Woolrich is little known outside of hard core noir fans, in part because he published much of his work under pseudonyms like William Irish or George Hopley.

Woolrich’s success as a hard boiled novelist is in part due to his own dark existence. His parents split when he was very young. While living in Mexico with his civil engineer father, one of his pastimes was to collect spent bullet casings from the street. Later. he returned to New York to live with his mother.

His first novels were Jazz Age romances, one of which was selected to be adapted for a movie. While in Hollywood, Woolrich found himself in a short lived marriage to a movie moguls’ daughter. He considered it a cruel joke on the young lady. The marriage ended when the secret of his homosexuality was discovered.

Woolrich came from a time when homosexuality was considered an abnormality, usually connected with a great deal of shame. Some characters from old time radio may seem “light in the loafers”, but cute from a modern perspective. Candy Matson’s side kick, Rembrandt Watson, can be seen in this light, even if never acknowledged as being gay.

Woolrich practiced his homosexuality with as much shame and degradation as possible. To hide his predilections he kept a sailor’s uniform in a suitcase so that he could cruise the docks to find partners. After his short marriage, he returned to New York to live in a squalid Harlem hotel room with his mother for the rest of her life. It is reported that he did his writing in a corner of the hotel room with his mother watching him while he worked.

robinson-edward-gFilm Noir directors flocked to Woolrich’s stories. Edward G. Robinson‘s Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948), The Window (1949), Barbara Stanwyk‘s No Man Of Her Own (1950), Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1954 film Rear Window starring James Stewart, Nightmare (1956) with Edward G. Robinson, and the 2001 film Original Sin starring Angelica Jolie and Antonio Banderas make up a small portion of the films based on Woolrich’s writings.

The Mark Of The Whistler (1944) and The Return Of The Whistler (1948) were part of a Columbia Pictures series built on the popularity of The Whistler radio program and used plots from Woolrich stories.

Although his prose failed to gain the praise of Hammett or Chandler, his plotting and characterization were second to none. Woolrich never relied on recurring characters through his works. Although suspense is an essential element of many stories, his principle delight is heaping ever increasing anguish upon his characters.

Woolrich stories are seldom formulaic but do fall into a number of noir plot types. There is the noir cop story, where a plainclothes detective solves the crime, but depends upon an uncommonly sadistic police technique. There is the clock race stories, where suspense builds as the protagonist must find the deadly secret before it kills them. The oscillation story has the protagonist’s love or trust eaten away as their partner’s deadly secret is slowly revealed. The final hours plot shows the terrifying last moments of someone facing an inevitable death.

These are stories of deception, shame, and personal claustrophobia. One chance encounter leads to another until the characters have no choice but to follow the path to doom. The anguish that Woolrich’s characters are forced to endure is more than any human being should be made to deserve, but on some level, it is what each character deserves.

The stories all provide the cathartic release that we look for in great tragedy. Although the author lived in a personal darkness that most ofCornell-Woolrich us could not imagine, his stories make our own world brighter if only by contrast.

Cornell Woolrich‘s mother passed away in 1957, occasioning his move to the Hotel Franconia.  He rarely socialized, but when he did he was rudely dismissive of those who praised his work. Because of his alcoholism and an amputated foot (the result of an infection that was the result of a too-tight shoe), Woolrich died a recluse. The bulk of his estate went to endow journalism scholarships at Columbia University. The endowment bears his mother’s name.

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May 31: Happy Birthday Fred Allen

Fred Allen had no idea when he was growing up that he would become one of the most popular entertainers of his time. In fact, as a poor Irish kid on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he would have been shocked to find out he was going to grow up to be Fred Allen!

Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan brought her first son, John Florence Sullivan, into the world on May 31, 1894, then sadly left the world herself three years later. A family council was convened, and it was decided that Cecilia’s sister, Lizzie, would take in little John, his infant brother and their father. John/Fred would say of his Aunt “another dilemma to Aunt Lizzie was like another raindrop to an umbrella”. The loss of Cecilia took a lot of the life out of the senior Sullivan, which he replaced with drink for many years. When he finally remarried several years later, the boys were given the choice to live with their father or stay with Aunt Lizzie. There was never any doubt that Johnny would stay with his Aunt.

Spending money was at a premium in Aunt Lizzie’s house, so Johnny got a job as a book runner at the Boston Public Library. In those days before Internet search engines, a patron would approach the librarian at the desk and request a book. The book runner was dispatched to find the volume required and bring it to the patron’s table. The rest of the time the boys pretty much had the run of the institution, and young Sullivan began studying books on the history of comedy. His library income gave him enough to see the occasional Vaudeville show. He became entranced with the jugglers and set out to learn their art. When the library staff held a talent show, he “wowed” the audience with his skills and patter, and one young lady told him that his talents were wasted in the library.

A few years later he took that advice and began appearing in local talent shows. These shows were amateur mostly in name, which is not to say they were not amateurish. Supposedly the contestants were competing to be chosen the “winner”, but the real challenge was to be entertaining, and each act was paid for their services. The Amateur’s were placed in the Vaudeville halls by semi-formal booking agents who also worked as Masters of Ceremonies. Johnny Sullivan’s agent soon had enough acts that he began using Johnny as an alternate M.C. Thanks to a booking error Johnny Sullivan became Freddy James, the Worlds Worst Juggler.

Performing was first and foremost a way to make a living, and young Sullivan realized that remaining a local performer would never take him to the big time. So armed with a new stage name and a modicum of confidence, Freddy James hit the vaudeville circuit. Not only did he follow the circuit around the northeast, he ranged out West and even spent 1916 and 1917 touring Australia.

He returned to America a seasoned professional performer. However, theater owners would only pay him the rate he given before leaving the country. The solution was another name change, and he became Fred Allen for the rest of his career. Headlining in Vaudeville led to an opportunity as a monologist in Broadway Reviews. The shows were less than successful, fortunately Fred’s relationship with chorus girl Portland Hoffa was more so.

After they were married in 1927, Fred followed the Vaudeville tradition of writing his wife into the act, and they enjoyed an extended honeymoon following the Western Circuit. They returned to New York to a Broadway engagement which was effectively dead before it opened. Fred used the period of unemployment to give radio work a try. Other vaudevillians were finding success on the air, notably Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor and Jack Pearl. The fact that they had brought their Vaudeville acts to radio never quite sat right with Fred. His idea was that a radio show should be designed for a radio audience and not depend upon slapstick. The show he developed had everything it needed, except a sponsor. The Corn Products Company was enthusiastic about using radio to promote its products, and felt that Fred’s show would be a good fit for their Linit Bath Powder. The Linit Bath Club Review premiered on Oct 23, 1932 and received good ratings. However, Fred continually butted heads with the ad company hired to oversee the show. After a single season Fred found himself unemployed again.

However, there was another advertising agency in town whose client, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, was in trouble. They prevailed upon Fred to create The Salad Bowl Review from the ashes of The Bath Club Review in August of 1933. Again, the ratings were good, but the show was still canceled in December. The sponsor realized that no one was interested in salads in the winter, but Bristol Myers was standing by to give a green light to the Sal Hepatica Review in January.

Bristol Myers owned an hour of airtime on Wednesday nights, half of which was the Sal Hepatica Review and the other pushing Ipana Toothpaste. In March of 1934, the decision was made to combine the two shows into The Hour of Smiles, better remembered as Town Hall Tonight. Fred used reports from his fictional small town to comment on larger issues. The other popular feature of Town Hall Tonight was “People You Don’t Expect To Meet”. This portion the program allowed Fred to introduce some very entertaining amateurs, which worked very well with his ability to ad-lib.

One of the most notorious ad-libs came when Fred featured a ten year old violinist Stuart Canin played Schubert’s “The Bee”. Although there are no surviving recordings of Fred’s actual comment, it is known that he disparaged the violin talents of another radio vaudevillian, Jack Benny. Jack did hear the comment, and thought it was very funny. However, his writing team saw it as great fodder for a supposed feud. The Jack Benny- Fred Allen Feud was the stuff of comedy legend, but the fact was that Benny and Allen were great fans of each other’s work and had been friends since their days together in Vaudeville. The feud went on for more than a decade, becoming a part of both comedian’s programs, several AFRS and War Bond Galas and the movies.

In 1940, Allen moved to CBS and The Texaco Star Theater for the promise of greater creative freedom (away from the NBC censors) and more money (Fred claimed that the oil giant was in financial trouble since people were not driving their cars on Sunday nights, and he was just the guy to push them away from their radios). The feature that Texaco Star Theater is best remembered for was “Allen’s Alley“. The Alley served the same function as the earlier Town Hall reports, a way for Fred the writer to poke fun at current events. The real fun of Allen’s Alley was its population of unique and well known characters. Each week, Fred and Portland would take a stroll down the Alley with a question in mind, knocking on the doors of Mrs Pansy Nussbaum, Senator Beauregard Claghorn, poet Falstaff Openshaw, and New England farmer Titus Moody. Although these characters were outrageously stereotyped, they were never criticized as being anti-Semitic, anti-Southern, anti-Intellectual or anti-New England.

In 1945, NBC managed to woo Fred back as part of a powerful Sunday night line-up featuring Fred, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen. The line-up was broken when Benny became the first defector in the CBS talent raids. However, what really knocked Fred and NBC off the Sunday night throne was the upstart new network, ABC, and the give-away game show, Stop The Music hosted by Bert Parks. Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen bid a graceful retreat, withdrawing from radio until the Stop The Music craze ran its course. Fred chose to attack the upstart as directly as possible. In addition to parodying the game show, he offered a cash prize to any listener who was called by Stop The Music if they told them they were listening to Fred’s show. He may have actually been winning the war, but on his doctor’s advice he left radio for a year after the 1949 season due to hypertension. He never hosted a radio program again.

Fred was a regular guest on Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show from 1950 through 1952. Never a fan of television, Fred was a popular panelist on TV’s What’s My Line from 1954 until his death in 1956. Two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor Fred’s contributions to Television, at 7001 Hollywood Blvd, and Radio at 6713 Hollywood Blvd. There is a pedestrian walkway in the Boston theater district named Allen’s Alley.

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Remembering Classic Old Time Radio Westerns

Westerns have always been a part of American popular mythology and entertainment. Westerns were an important genre of the early pulp novels. They became a staple of movies from the time of the earliest silent films, and their relatively low production cost kept them a favorite of the studios. When TV advanced enough to take advantage of outdoor shots, Westerns became a favorite of the small screen, as well.

Westerns on the radio were mostly Radio Cereal Serials, on going after school sagas for the youth audience. Westerns for grown ups took off during the 1950s. There had been Westerns on the radio that were more serious than the kiddie Westerns, but Gunsmoke, premiering in 1952, was the first Western specifically for a grown-up audience.

The audiences for these grown-up Westerns were the younger brothers and sisters of the Greatest Generation who had fought the Second World War. The Hard Boiled, noirish detectives had been immensely popular immediately after the war, but audiences were ready for something new. Gunsmoke was inspired when CBS chief, William Paley, called for a Hardboiled Western series; a Philip Marlowe with horses.

Gunsmoke was created by the writing and directing team of John Meston and Norman MacDonnell. The pair created a rather gritty adult portrayal of the frontier where traditional black and white notions of right and wrong were often blurry. The popularity of Gunsmoke made the the program incredibly attractive to CBS’s Television division, and director MacDonnell held reservations, feeling the show was “perfect for radio” and would lose its authenticity to the constraints of Television. In the end, TV Gunsmoke was “taken away” from MacDonnell (Meston stayed on as head writer), first airing in 1955. Meston and MacDonnell kept Gunsmoke on the radio until 1961, making it one of the most enduring radio dramas (and arguably one of the best of the entire Golden Age of Radio).

After Gunsmoke started on TV, MacDonnell and Meston followed up on the radio with Fort Laramie. Where Gunsmoke was a story about a single lawman facing questions of right and wrong with his interpretation of the law, the hero of Fort Laramie, Captain Lee Quince, had to reconcile right and wrong with his duty. In his own way, Quince was as tormented and tortured as Marshal Matt Dillon.

Quince was convincingly played by an up and coming young actor, Raymond Burr. Burr was a hard working movie player, chiefly in Noir roles. He appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (1951) and played the suspected murderer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Just before taking the role of Lee Quince, Burr was edited into the seminal Japanese monster film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Fort Laramie was a military drama along the lines of John Ford’s “Calvary Trilogy”,  Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Burr was by no means John Wayne, but he did a very creditable job of playing an officer on the frontier, struggling to maintain his sense of right and wrong while answering his call to duty.

Captain Lee Quince faced the demands of settlers moving into the Western Frontier while striving to respect the culture and honor of the Red man. He recognized that he had a mission to carry out the orders of his superiors, but was fiercely loyal to the troopers under his command. It is a tribute to the talents of Meston, MacDonnell, and the CBS Radio production team to realize that it is difficult to listen to Fort Laramie without seeing visions of the troops, riding through Monument Valley, ala John Ford.

Fort Laramie only lasted a single season. There were 41 episodes broadcast from January to October 1956, and the show continued to be popular over AFRTS for many years. For the 1957 season, Burr moved on to the role for which he would be most closely identified, the TV version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason.

See also: Where Did All the Radio Westerns Go?

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March 31: Happy Birthday, Les Damon!


Working actor Les Damon is best known for his work on The Thin Man, The Right To Happiness, and especially as detective Mike Waring on The Falcon. Damon had a successful career on daytime TV soap operas and character roles on the small screen in the fifties and early sixties. He would have been 107 on March 31, 2015.

les-damon-on-the-radioThe Golden Age of Hollywood was built on the studio Star system, but relatively few serious actors got into the business hoping for the glamor that comes with the Hollywood lifestyle. Most actors got into the business out of a love of performing (“the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd”). Many actors spent their days in stock companies, performing in a different city every few days, and lending a hand in every task to put on a show, from setting the scenery to selling tickets to comic character roles to romantic leads. They may have juggled a day job while hustling from audition to audition, always hoping for their big break. Or any break, for that matter.
Part of the magic of radio was that in addition to bringing the world closer together, it was a way for countless actors to make a living. Some were part of the Hollywood Star system, trying to put a few extra dollars in the kitty until they got that big starring role. For many, appearing on the radio was a job, just like going to the office or the aircraft plant.
Les Damon was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1908. He got his acting start with the Albee Stock Company in Providence, and traveled to England to apprentice with the Old Vic Company.
Returning to America, Damon began to pick up lead roles in a number of radio dramas in the late 1930s and 40s. Versatility was a watchword for a successful radio actor, and Les Damon had it in spades. He was radio’s original Nick Jones in The Adventures of the Thin Man, and he appeared regularly on Words At War. He was also a regular player for the Hummert Radio Factory, with recurring roles in everything from The Adventures of Helen Trent to Houseboat Hanna to The Right To Happiness.
An actor’s soul is often a romantic one. In 1943, Damon married radio actress Ginger Jones, whom he had met in various broadcast studios. When Ginger went to work on the serial Brave Tomorrow, she wore a beautiful ring set with an African turquoise and diamonds. Hidden is a secret compartment in the ring were two grains of rice which Damon had found in the cuff of his trousers after their wedding.
les-damon-in-the-falconDamon answered his country’s call, and he flew “over the hump” in the China-Burma Theater of WWII, delivering supplies to Chiang Kai Shek’s Army. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
After the War, Damon took up where he left off, reclaiming his role on The Thin Man, as well as several appearances on The Cavalcade of America and Gang Busters. In 1950, he began his most famous radio role as The Falcon. Damon was not the first to play the suave detective on the radio, but he did move the role from chasing crooks to the slippery world of espionage.
Through the fifties and early sixties, Damon began getting work in television with recurring but not major roles on The Guiding Light and As The World Turns. He also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Honeymooners and Have Gun, Will Travel.
Les Damon checked into the UCLA Medical Center complaining of chest pains. He passed away on July 21, 1962 at the age of 53. Damon was survived by his wife Ginger Jones and their daughter Lisa.

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C.P. MacGregor and the Transcribers

1956-C-P-MacGregor-ObsessionOne of the great debates of the Radio Era was “Live” versus “Transcribed” broadcast. This seems like a curiosity today in the Cable TV era, when about the only live shows are sports and local news, and even those are subject to a short delay to keep anything from “slipping” On the Air.

Transcription, the practice of recording a program for later broadcast, has some pretty obvious advantages, but the policy of the big networks for most of the Radio Era was to broadcast live. Some famous proponents of transcription were Freeman Gosden and Charles Cornell of Amos ‘n’ Andy fame. They realized that there were unrealized profits to be had by recording their live broadcasts and allowing local broadcasters to use the material at a later time.

Cecil-and-Sally-15-tbOn of the most prolific transcribers was C.P. “Chip” MacGregor. MacGregor first appears in the records as the West coast distributor of Brunswick Records. The Brunswick Company is better known today as a manufacturer of billiard tables and bowling alley equipment, but in the early decades of the twentieth century they dabbled in phonograph equipment before being selling the division to Columbia.

In 1924 MacGregor operated from a store San Francisco, and opened a recording studio nearby, presumably to produce material to play on the phonographs. One of MacGregor’s first transcription efforts was the popular Cecil and Sally show. Starring Helen Troy and Johnny Patrick, Cecil and Sally was initially based on the banter between the switchboard operator and the staff organist at San Francisco’s KYA. KYA was part of Adolph Linden’s early ABC network which folded in August 1929 under a cloud of scandal.

Forced off the air from August until December of ’29, when they opened on KPO San Francisco, Troy and Patrick made the decision to build their fan-base using electrical transcriptions recorded at the MacGregor Studios. MacGregor transcription discs were made under a few different business partnerships, beginning with MacGregor & Ingram Co, and MacGregor and Sollie in 1932. In 1945 the C.P. MacGregor Studios began operating from Hollywood.

There was a common complaint that transcribed programs lacked the excitement of live broadcasts. MacGregor was quick to point out that he was willing to forgo the “excitement” to create flawless shows. Performing in a recording studio was certainly more pleasant and less stressful for the On Air talent. It would have been much simpler for the broadcasting technician to start and stop a phonograph on cue than to deal with actors in the broadcast studio.

Contrary to popular belief, until the advent of magnetic recording tape after WWII, there was very little editing of transcribed programs. The recording was made by cutting a groove in the recording media, so the entire program had to be recorded in a single cut.

MacGregor Transcriptions include Lux Radio Theater, Skippy Hollywood Theater, Obsession, Proudly We Hail, Heartbeat Theater, and Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon.

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