Cigarette Advertising in Old Time Radio

smokingLight ‘em if You’ve Got ‘em Jack Webb Fatima Ad
Many OTR fans will tell you that Jack Webb’s Dragnet is as close to a perfect Radio Drama as you can find. The show makes great use of Audio Branding. From the ominous four note theme music (titled “Danger Ahead”), to the catchphrase “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, to Jack Webb’s terse and direct narration style, there is no doubt in the listener’s mind that they are enjoying another exciting episode of the prototypical Police Procedural Drama.

This strong audio branding may be part of the reason that cigarette company Liggett & Myers was such an enthusiastic sponsor of the show from the  18th episode forward. In fact, the one complaint that many modern OTR listeners have about Dragnet is that after listening to an exciting episode, they are nearly overcome by the desire to light-up a refreshing Fatima, “the best of All Long Cigarettes”.

A strong testimony of Radio’s effectiveness as an advertising medium during the Golden Age is that modern OTR listeners can feel this desire for a cigarette brand which was beginning to be seen as “old fashioned” in the 1950’s and discontinued from the market since 1980!

Different Times, Different Values

Racist Cigarette Ad

Racist Cigarette Advertisement Example

Radio’s relationship with the tobacco industry is one of OTR’s “dirty little secrets”, not unlike the racial stereotyping which made shows like Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy not only possible but popular. Although the programs were and are comic masterpieces, their subject matter makes the skin of a modern listener crawl. Although no modern producer or sponsor would condone the material, ignoring it will deny hours of fun listening.

When the federal government first began licensing broadcasters, there was an effort to keep radio free from commercial advertisement. This sentiment was short-lived as radio’s marvelous potential for advertising was seen. The business model developed by the networks and the advertising agencies differed from print advertising. Newspapers and magazines sold “space” in their publications to the advertisers. The ad agency was responsible for filling the space while the publishers filled the rest of the page with their own content.

Commercial Radio Means CommercialsborngentleL
On radio, the advertising agency was sold a block of time, and it was the agency’s job to fill the time for their clients. Since “dead air” would have been unacceptable, blocks of airtime that could not be sold to a sponsor or ad agency were filled with programs which were “sustained” by the network.

As the networks began serving a nationwide audience, airtime blocks which would reach the greatest number of listeners became very profitable, and therefore, only affordable to the richest advertisers. During the years we call the Golden Age of Radio few businesses were as large of as profitable as the Cigarette Industry.

Smoking Through The YearsEarly Cigarette Ad During the 17th century, tobacco became the first and most important cash crop for England’s North American colonies. Cigarettes, which means “Little Cigar” were developed as an alternative smoking device to pipes or their larger cousin, the cigar. Making a cigar requires a large, high quality tobacco leaf in which the rest of the tobacco is rolled into a tube for smoking. Wrapping flakes of tobacco in a paper tube allows the use of lower quality tobacco (flavor is maintained by blending tobaccos).

Cigarettes can to the English speaking world when soldiers in the Crimean War began wrapping Turkish tobacco in scraps of old newspaper for smoking, and it was not long before finer papers for rolling came on the market. In 1865,Washington Duke of North Carolina began rolling cigarettes to sell, and 1883 James Bosnak founded the American Tobacco Company on the basis of the machine he invented which could roll thousands of cigarettes a day.tobacco_cards_gypsy_queen

By the end of the 19th century, factory made cigarettes were marketed across the US in paper packs. The packs often contained a card to protect the smokes. The card was often imprinted by the cigarette manufacturer to make their product even more attractive, and were some of the first trading cards. Cigarettes were part of soldier’s rations in both World Wars, often provided to the government at a deep discount or even free but the tobacco companies. The first World War was followed by the Jazz Age. After seeing so many dashing Veterans light up, it was natural that cigarettes became as much a part of the flapper’s image as bath-tub gin.

American Tobacco and The Jazz Singer 1928 Al Jolson Advertisement
Radio and Talking Motion Pictures grew up together and fed off one-another’s success. The American Tobacco Company, makers of Lucky Strikes, gained notoriety in the late twenties with a print and radio campaign built around The Jazz Singer himself, Al Jolson. In the ad, Jolson claimed that the toasting of Lucky Strike Tobacco eliminated the throat irritants and that a singer could maintain his shape by reaching for a Lucky rather than a fattening sweet.

American Tobacco was notorious for taking advantage of marketing psychology to find new ways to promote its product. One of the more infamous was the claim that the green print on Lucky Strike packs at the beginning of the Second World War was being changed in support of the War Effort. In actuality, the color change was part of the effort to remove the stigma of women smoking in public. The white pack had already been planned as more appealing to feminine sensibilities, and the War Effort rumor was just a happy coincidence.

Another fortunate War-time break for Lucky was the loss of Jack Benny‘s longtime sponsor, General Foods’ Jello. With Wartime sugar rationing, the company was having a hard enough time keeping its product on the shelves, let alone support a popular radio program. A switch to Grapenuts cereal was tried, but eventually it was more expedient to let the tobacco company begin writing the checks. The cast singing “J…E…L-L…Ooo” was more musical and friendly than “LS/MFT” (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”, but even with the addition of a pair of tobacco auctioneers, it was pretty much the same Jack Benny Program.

Infamy Of Other Brands Benny Goodman and his Orchestra
Camel Cigarettes came on the market in 1913 and were very popular with the doughboys of WWI. On the radio during the Thirties, they sponsored Blondie on Monday nights, The Dixieland Music Shop on Tuesday, and Tommy Dorsey, “the King of Swing” on Saturday’s Camel Caravan. The catch-phrase “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” is thought to be as old as the brand itself, but the assertion in the late 1940s that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” was easier to trace. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow supposedly smoked as many as 4 packs a day of Camels, making the cigarette a personal trademark.

Liggett & Myers, producers of the Fatima Cigarettes which sponsored the early Dragnet programs, also brought a series of music programs to the air to promote Chesterfields, at the time their flagship brand. Chesterfield Time featured “music from the movies” while The Chesterfield Supper Club took listeners to a swanky nightclub for an after dinner smoke. The Supper Club was a nightly 15 minute broadcast, hosted by Perry Como on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jo Stafford on Tuesday and Peggy Lee on Thursdays. The Chesterfield Show was a much simpler affair featuring the number one swing band, Benny Goodman’s outfit before the war, and the number one trio, the Andrews Sisters. When Fatimas began to fade, Chesterfields took over the sponsorship of Dragnet. Chesterfields also put the smoke in Gunsmoke.

The Simpler Times Conundrum
Tobacco Advertising on Television and Radio has been outlawed in the US since the early 70’s, which is part of the reason hearing the ads on OTR is surprising to new listeners. In a time when smokers are forced to walk to a “designated smoking area”, often several yards away from the activity they are a part of, it is hard to imagine a world where almost everyone carried matches or a Zippo Lighter and there was an ashtray on every workbench, desk, nightstand and dining table.

Before the health dangers of smoking were widely known, any objection to smoking was for “moral reasons”. The real genius of cigarette advertising in the Golden Age was overcoming these social stigma. This success is seen in the movies of the time- how many times do we see the romantic leads of a film making eye contact through a swirl of cigarette smoke?

When the health dangers did become known, cigarette advertising was effectively doomed. The efforts of the industry to overcome the warnings of the medical profession are documented and dramatized extensively. However, it should be noted that truth turned out to be stronger than entertainment.


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Patriotic Radio: The Founding Fathers

No study of American Patriotismwould be complete without looking at the determination and sacrifice of the Founding Fathers.From the perspective of modern times it is hard to fully appreciate the risks taken by these men who pledged to each other ?our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.?Cavalcade of America tells the story of Thomas Paine whose pamphlets gave voice to the desire for Liberty. American Portraitsintroduce us to Benjamin Franklin, ?The Doctor at Home?, and the struggles of John Adams, the patriot whose belief in justice was so strong that he had to defend the British soldiers who fired in the Boston Massacre.Cavalcade of America also gives us the? Patriot With Chestnut Curls?, the story of Sally Townsend. The Townsend home was taken as the headquarters of the Queen’s Rangers, commanded by Lt Col John Simcoe. Sally must overcome her resentment at the Redcoats, not only for the safety of her family, but so that she can do her part to further the cause of Liberty. She finds herself in a position where she can overhear the plans made by Simcoe and his visitors. Unfortunately Sally finds herself falling in love with the dashing Lt Col. Where will her loyalties lie?

The CBS Educational Drama, You Are There, takes us to the Philadelphia State House (Independence Hall) on July 4, 1776. The program’s premise was that a modern radio newsroom would be transported through time to historic events. In this episode, reporters interview Adams, Jefferson, and John Dickinson. Dickinson was a dissenting voice against the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson was a Patriot who represented Pennsylvania in the first and Second Continental Congress, but felt that Independence should not be declared until the Articles of Confederation were complete. Dickinson was forced to leave the Congress for not signing the Declaration, but took up arms as a Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania Militia. Midway through the broadcast a dispatch arrives from General George Washington that the British Fleet has arrived in New York in overwhelming numbers, led by General Howe. General Washington exhorts his troops and the nation to stand firm by their cause. The vote proceeds and the Declaration passes. The Declaration begins:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


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Top Secret, “The Admiral’s Strange Identity”

Ilona-Massey-hair-42Whether the role of lady spy Baroness Karin Geza in Top Secret was created for Ilona Massey, or if Miss Massey was created for the role is open for debate. There can be little argument that it was one of the most successful castings of early 50’s radio. Supposedly, the real-life inspiration for the Baroness Geza character was a “close friend” of Miss Massey’s who actually worked as a spy for the Allies during WWII and its aftermath. The scripts were adapted from stories the friend related to Massey.

Top Secret failed to gain sponsorship, and NBC was notorious for being unkind to sustained programs, especially when it came to scheduling. Listeners who may have wanted to follow the show would have found it difficult, because sustained programs were often bounced all over the weekly broadcast schedule.

In this second installment of Top Secret, the Allied spy masters intercept a transmission that the top Nazi Spy in New York Admiral Stroesser, has requested a female assistant with very specific height and weight requirements. Of course, it turns out that Baroness Geza meets the description, and she travels to New York in place of the German lady agent. Allied agents in New York know that Stroesser is readying his escape, and they would rather kill him than let him return to Germany with his secrets. The Baroness insists that it is too important to find out what those secrets are and takes her place as Stroesser’s assistant. She finds out that the reason for the particular size requirements are so that the Admiral can impersonate her after he is smuggled aboard a German liner in a coffin!

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Good Night Ruby Dee

ruby-dee2Actress Ruby Dee passed away quietly in her home in New Rochelle, NY, on June 11, 2014, surrounded by family. Praised for her contributions to stage, screen, radio and civil rights, Ms. Dee was 91.

Ruby was born in Cleveland in 1922, and raised in the Harlem, New York. Her father was a porter and her mother a school teacher. After graduating from Hunter College with a  degree in Romance Languages she apprenticed with the American Negro theater, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms. She gained national attention for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, and in 1965 she became the first black actress to perform in leading roles at the American Shakespearean Festival.

Ruby’s earliest existing radio appearances were on WMCA’s New World A’ Coming, in the story of the ANT and other African American stories which took place in New York City. With her acting career well established by the late 1950’s, she appeared on programs such as X Minus One and the CBS Radio Workshop. In the mid Seventies she made several appearances on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Although radio drama was thought to be a dying art form at the time, CBSRMT often showcased respected actors.

Ruby married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941 and they were divorced in 1945, although she continued to use his name on stage. She married actor Ossie Davis in 1948, and the marriage lasted until his death in 2005. The couple was well known for their work for the cause of civil rights and they were close friends to Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Ruby was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, and won in 1990 for her role in the TV movie Decoration Day.  She and Ossie were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1995 and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2007, Ruby became the second oldest Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in American Gangster.

Ruby Dee’s remains are to be cremated and her ashes will share the same urn as Ossie Davis. The urn will bear the inscription “In this thing together”.

Goodnight, Ruby Dee.


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Big Band and Swing Bands in Old Time Radio

bob crosby & margaret whiting with modernariesMusic has always been an indispensable element of radio broadcast. The station which would eventually become WHA, Wisconsin Public Radio, began its first music broadcasts as early as 1917. It is not surprising that we have a number of terrific music programs on the shelves here at OTRCat, which showcase a number of different musical styles. If we were to choose a single style of music to typify Old Time Radio, that style would have to be Big Band Jazz.

The origins of Jazz are muddied and complicated by both the passage of time and the fact that they were the result of many influences coming together. The most vital elements were the melding of the syncopated rhythms of Africa with the melodic traditions of European music.

When the slaves were freed after the Civil War it meant artistic freedom as well as economic. As more blacks sought fulfillment through artistic expression, they explored the remembered tribal rhythms, combining them with the melodicism and “square rhythms” of the European tradition. These musicians abandoned the “Oom-pah Oom-pah” styling from European courts and peasant villages.

rag timeThe newly freed musicians explored beats, melodies and harmonies that were more “ragged”. Ragtime musicians were among the first to achieve financial success from their music. Success brought imitation as well as innovation.

As troops demobilized in the port of New Orleans after the Spanish American War, several military bands dumped their instruments on the local market. Black musicians were quick to purchase these instruments, although they often had to teach themselves how to play. This self taught ethos fit well into ragtime improvisation, but the surplus brass and woodwind sounded best when played in conjunction with other instruments.

new orleans

The loose structure of Jazz needed some discipline to avoid becoming a caterwaul. Bands came together and “arranged” their music by rehearsing the pieces over and over again until they felt and sounded “right”. The membership of these bands changed regularly, sometimes weekly. Success depended upon musicians who could quickly fit in and bandleaders who could tame these disparate elements. This constant personnel change enforced the change which would become the hallmark of Jazz.

White musicians quickly became enthused about the artistic freedom and possibilities of Jazz. They also brought a measure of formality and discipline to Jazz, at least to the extent that Jazz could be formalized or disciplined. One of their greatest contributions  greater formality and structure in arrangements. This structure would be beneficial as the bands became popular through the magic of radio.

 Big Band Music popularity came in two distinct phases, both of which worked remarkably well for radio play. Beginning in the mid-twenties, Big Bands, typically 10-25 pieces, began to dominate popular music. This Sweet Jazz period was highly melodic, often quite danceable, but far too disciplined to truly be called Jazz. Some of the best surviving OTR examples from this period include, Live at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and the Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors.

paul whiteman

The disciplined approach made for some terrific music, but the enthusiasm of jazzmen for their craft is hard to contain, especially as more instrumentalists became bandleaders. The clarinets of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet stand out as examples. Improvements in electronic technology also gave vocalists a chance to come to the fore. Even the strongest human voices strain to be heard over the volume of a band, but through amplification, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby could be heard in front of a swinging band, and pretty girl singers could be appreciated for more than their looks.

From the time it began to separate from Sweet Jazz, Swing was music for youth. There was little better than attending a concert performance of a favorite band, but if that was not possible, a dance party to records or even the radio would have been a welcome substitute. Like America itself, Swing Music “grew up” during WWII.


The War had a combination of effects on popular music. It concentrated some of its most ardent fans in troop camps and gave performers, both in and outside of the service, a ready and enthusiastic audience. Many bands experienced personnel shortages as players were drafted while those who held together found their popularity soaring. Big Band Swing became the de facto sound of the USO.

The War wasn’t all good for Swing Music. One of music’s most shining lights, Glenn Miller became a casualty of the War. Many bands folded when members joined the service. For most of the War, musicians were on strike against the recording industry. This gave even more importance to individual vocalists. Finally, listener tastes changed after the War.

Fortunately, the music lives on  thanks to the great recordings of Old Time Radio!


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Lonesome for the Lonesome Gal

lonesomeheaderWe reasonably expect that music programs should focus on the music. The presenter is an essential part of the package of course, linking the songs together and injecting their own personality into the mix. “Border Blaster” radio Wolfman Jack‘s programs come to mind. Another is Martha Wilkerson, the audio pin-up girl on G.I. Jive.

G.I. Jive’s
G.I. Jill reminds us of a basic tenet of advertising: Sex Sells. AFRS may not have meant to use sex to sell with G.I. Jill, but she certainly showed that sex could attract listeners. Another personality who used this formula to considerable success was Jean King and her The Lonely Gal.

Author John Dunning called Jean King “one of radio’s best rags to riches sagas.” Ms. King was a Dallas, TX, native who followed her dreams to Hollywood. Dreamers packed Hollywood to overflowing, and King only managed to appear in small parts in a few “B” pictures, and a few episodes of radio’s I Love A Mystery.

King left Hollywood and eventually wound up in Dayton, OH, with no job and no money. About that time, local radio station WING ended their network affiliation and was desperate for content. Ms. King arrived with the idea for a show built around the character of The Lonesome Gal. The Lonesome Gal played romantic Lounge music records and laid down a sensual patter directed at the men in the listening audience. To add some mystery to the mix, the Lonesome Gal was never identified, and King wore a kittenlike mask for public appearances. One of her earliest sponsors was a restaurant filled with empty table; at the end of a 39 week run the owners found they had a busy eatery and $60,000 in the bank.

After two years of success in Dayton, King decided to try her luck on the West coast again in 1949. The Lonesome Gal was slow to launch from Hollywood, until Jean King met, fell in love with, and eventually married producer Bill Rousseau. Rousseau had more than his share of connections in radio, having produced Murder And Mrs. Malone, The New Adventures of Michael Shayne, The Amazing Mr. Malone, Pat Novak For Hire, and Dragnet.

redt01Her husband’s connection may have helped get The Lonesome Gal into syndication, but Jean King’s personality and hard work that kept the program going. The Lonesome Gal was relentless in appealing to its masculine audience. The Gal spoke directly to her listeners as individuals, calling them by intimate pet names like “Sweetie”, “Baby”, “Angel”, “Muffin” and so on. Monologues by the Gal filled the show, where where would express her appreciation for her listening lover, and all of his manly attributes. Some of the monologues would be long or short commercials for the sponsor, usually Bond Street Pipe Tobacco (imagine a pretty girl sensuously filling your pipe) or for Red Top Beer (the Red Top Brewery closed soon after The Lonely Gal went to Hollywood). Others were long soliloquies where the Gal told about some incident that reminded her how much she loves her man, and ending with the title of the song she was introducing.

The Lonesome Gal was blatantly selling sexuality, but it was a decidedly fresh-scrubbed sensuality from an era when no couple would be seen kissing without at least one foot each firmly on the ground (and on opposite sides of the bed).

“If you have love to spare
And lips to share….
Why don’t you be a pal, and
Share them…..with your lonesome gal?
………..Good-night, baby”…….

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How Hitler Helped Create Allen’s Alley

fred allen 1949The title of this should not be interpreted with any insinuation that Fred Allen may have been a Nazi. Like most Americans of his generation, the more Fred and the rest of the entertainment industry learned about Hitler and his schemes, the more dedicated they became to pledging all of their professional and personal resources in defeating Hitler’s threat to humanity. Fred Allen was one of America’s great humorists and blessed with a marvelous sense of the absurd. There were plenty of absurdities to go around in Fred’s life. First of all, his name was John Florence Sullivan, not Fred Allen. The path to becoming Fred was often an exercise in absurdity. John Florence was born into aching poverty which was the lot of many Boston Irish at the end of the nineteenth century. His father was a bookbinder. Between the competitive trade and the heart crushing loss of his wife (to pneumonia, when the boy was only three), the senior Sullivan was often in his cups, and unable to adequately provide for two young sons. Raising the boy was left to his maternal Aunt Lizzie. In addition to the Sullivans, Lizzie was in the care of a husband who had been crippled by lead poisoning, a pair of spinster sisters, and a brother. Allen would later write “Aunt Lizzie had her hands full, and not with money”. Young John Florence loved her dearly. John F. Sullivan’s path to show business (and becoming Fred Allen) is a fascinating story in its own right. What is important to this discussion, is that Fred Allen’s eventual celebrity was simply a trade to him. Like many successful tradesmen who rose from poverty, Allen had an ingrained conservatism which prevented his taking risks that might endanger his status. By the mid-1930s, Fred Allen had achieved remarkable success, and was arguably at the top of his game. He was one of the comics who successfully made the transition from vaudeville to radio, and in 1934 , his sponsor increased his presence with an hour long format, the Fred Allen “Hour of Smiles”, which was retooled as “Town Hall Tonight” the following season. The Town Hall Tonight format was a great fit for Fred, both professionally and artistically. The program was largely built around amateur talent, which was a reminder of Allen’s early vaudeville experience. He also gathered a company of regular players, the Mighty Allen Art Players. In addition to the weekly play, a regular feature of Town Hall Tonight was the weekly “Newsreel”. The Newsreel showcased a series of absurd characters who would comment on important and obscure news items. The Newsreel feature outlived the sponsor, and in the fall of 1940, Town Hall Tonight became Texaco Star Theater. A new sponsor has a right to make changes, but this chafed against Allen’s “if it works don’t fix it” attitude. The Newsreel remained in place until the 1942 season, when War related hard times caught up with Texaco. Because of Wartime shortages, there was less gasoline to sell, and therefore less profit for Texaco to make. Rather than abandon its successful radio presence, the show was cut to a half hour. This left little time for the Newsreel. Fred, whose sense of satire was the driving force of the Newsreel, created Allen’s Alley to replace it. Fred Allen’s Alley is second in Fred Allen’s legacy, only to the Benny-Allen Feud. The recurring characters who populated the Alley became landmarks in the American consciousness. Allen’s Alley was created in large part because of Wartime accommodations, but it is a good bet that the Fascists would never appreciate the underlying American-ness of the Alley’s residents. The Yiddish mannerisms of Mrs. Nussbaum (created by Minerva Pious), the drunken slowness of Socrates Mulligan (Charles Cantor), and the overenthusiastic Southernness of Senator Beauregard Claghorn (Kenny Delmar) would raise politically-correct hackles today. However, the characters were never criticized as being anti Jewish, anti Irish, or anti Southern. One of the longest lasting residents of the Alley was Allen Reed‘s Falstaff Openshaw. Falstaff was an enthusiastic if less than appreciated poet, whose often painful-to-hear rhymes were the close to a visit to Allen’s Alley. A number of factors finally doomed the Alley, including competition for TV and the NBC Sunday Night radio lineup suffering from the CBS Talent raids and ABC’s suddenly popular quiz-shows, especially Bert Parks’ Stop The Music. The ultimate end was Fred’s health; after the 1949 season he took a year off for his hypertension, and would never host another old time radio program.

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