Old Time Radio

Inflation since the Golden Age of Radio

Belts are being tightened, pennies pinched, postage prices soar, gas prices waver, but one thing you can rely on is OTRCAT’s prices. For over 20 years (since 1999), has offered thousands of classic radio shows for just $5 per volume.

If prices for a $5.00 CDs rose with inflation, how much would OTRCAT’s CDs cost today? According to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, one OTRCAT CD would cost $8.89 with a cumulative rate of inflation since 1999 at 77.8%! Wow!

Since we have our thinking caps on we wanted to remind you how much prices have changed since the Golden Age of Radio:

New House$3,920.00$348,000.00
Average Annual Income$1,725.00$63,215.00
New Car$850.00$47,000.00
Average Monthly Rent$30.00$1,825.00
Gallon of Milk$0.52$4.00
Gallon of Gasoline$0.25$4.00
Movie Ticket$0.30$9.17

It’s no wonder we all have nostalgia for the good old days of radio! plans to continue to provide hours of entertainment for the low price of $5.00. We truly appreciate your support and business to help preserve affordable old time radio shows to future generations.

Detective Radio

Michael Shayne, A Private Detective With Adventures and New Adventures

No matter who originally created him, a great detective can survive through several creators. In some instances, the shamus gains new traction and life when he is taken from the original author’s hand, in others a beloved character moves to new adventures with little more than his name intact.

The two fisted Irish private eye Michael Shayne came from the pulps authored by Brett Halliday. Halliday himself had many different lives, or rather many different sets of fingers tapping at his typewriter. Brett Halliday was originally the nom de plume of Davis Dresser, who was the first to bring Michael Shayne to life in fifty or so novels. Dresser opened a literary agency with his second wife and farmed the writing chore of the Michael Shayne series to several other authors. The Michael Shayne mystery magazine, which included a Michael Shayne story or novella in each edition, ran for nearly three decades. There were a dozen Michael Shane movies, a TV series, and of course, the semi-hard boiled character came to life on the Radio, as well.

The radio Mike Shayne was a follow up to the success of the first movie Mike Shayne. The Red-headed Irish detective first appeared on the screen played by Lloyd Nolan in five different films released by 20th Century Fox between 1940 and 1942. In mid-October, 1944, the Mutual Network revived the franchise with The Adventures of Michael Shayne, Private Detective, starring Wally Maher. Dresser later commented that of all the portrayals of his character, both on film and on the air, Maher’s was the author’s personal favorite.

The first radio iteration of Mike Shayne featured his blond-bombshell girlfriend, Phyllis “Phyl” Knight, voiced by Cathy Lewis. Phyl certainly took the sting out of chasing crooks, the pulp version of Shayne was married to Phyllis Shayne in the earlier novels, but she was a somewhat limited character who was often out of town. Dresser “killed her off” when he sold the movie rights to the character. As a result,  the later novels were darker as Shayne was forced to deal with the death of his wife.

Producers Releasing Corporation brought Shayne back to the screen for five more films in 1945-46, starring Hugh Beaumont (yes, that Hugh Beaumont). The best thing that can be said for the later films was that they helped to promote Maher’s program on Mutual.

Maher, Lewis, and Mutual stayed with Mike Shane until 1947. In 1948, director Bill Rousseau brought The New Adventures of Michael Shayne to the airwaves, under Don W. Sharp syndication. Rousseau was good friends with Jack Webb, and the uncredited collaboration gave The New Adventures a feel similar to Pat Novak, For Hire. Although the program lost some of the lightheartedness of the original stories, it did benefit from the use of Jeff Chandler in the title role. Rosseau set The New Adventures in exotic New Orleans.

Chandler only appeared in 26 episodes, but thanks to syndication, they received the widest airplay, and was part of the AFRTS line-up into the late 1960s. In 1952, Rousseau convinced ABC to give the character one last shot at the radio on Friday nights in The Adventures of Michael Shame. The two biggest developments of the ABC incarnation were a new love interest for Shayne, Lucy Hamilton played by Dorothy Donahue, and a return to his Miami stomping grounds.

Lets Pretend

Let’s Pretend

Lets Pretend

It was simple concept, but it made for a revolutionary format in children’s radio. If the stories were for children, kids should be reading them. That was the concept for Nila Mack’s Let’s Pretend, and the show aired for two decades.

Let’s Pretend started radio life as The Adventures of Helen and Mary in 1934 when it was transformed by Nila Mack into the show that would last for two decades until 1954. Mack believed that, if the stories were for children, then children should tell the story.

Nila Mack used a core of regular children’s actor’s including Sybil Trent, Arthur Anderson, Jack Grimes, Miriam Wolfe, Gwen Davies and Michael O’Day. Anderson went on to write a book about his time on the show called Let’s Pretend and the Golden Age of Radio. Mack died in 1953 and the show lasted one more year under the direction of Jean Hight.

The Peabody award-winning show was broadcast with an audience full of children beginning with Uncle Bill Adams’ salutation, “Hello Pretenders!” followed by the response “Hello, Uncle Bill!”. After some back and forth with the kids, the show would launch into an adaptation of a classic children’s stories and fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Thumbelina and many, many more.

For other great Children’s show see also: Howdy Doody Time, Minnesota School of the Air, Cinnamon Bear, Wormwood Forest, and Children’s Collection.

Old Time Radio

Where to Buy Old Time Radio Shows

Old Time Radio shows are more than simply historical audio artifacts. They are a high entertainment value. The stories and humor are timeless. Although they come from a supposedly “more innocent time”, the plots and stories you will hear in radio drama and situation comedies are still being used on TV sitcoms and dramas today.

One of the terrific things about getting into Old Time Radio, or OTR, is that it is a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed just about anywhere without interfering with what is going on in your world. Listening to a 50 year old or earlier radio program is not as current or high tech as enjoying the latest viral video. However, it is difficult to really enjoy a video while you are cleaning the house, fixing a meal, walking the dog or taking the kids to the park. You can even enjoy your OTR programs while driving. The half-hour or 15 minute format of these old programs make them an easy fit into a commute, shopping trip or a road trip. With a portable MP3 player, you can even enjoy your OTR while standing in line at the supermarket.

What sort of programming can you find when you get into OTR? Almost any type of program that you can see on television was first tried on the radio, so the variety is nearly endless. Many OTR enthusiasts keep a collection of comedy, mystery and dramas on hand.

A great way to get some extra smiles into your day is listening to Radio Comedies. The Situation Comedy follows basically the same formula we all know from TV. It is a miniature drama driven by characters that listeners come to know and love who find themselves in a new ridiculous situation in each episode. Great Radio Sitcoms include Life of Riley, Blondie, My Favorite Husband starring Lucille Ball, and The Great Gildersleeve.

Another comedy format, which was wildly popular during the Golden Age, was the Hosted Variety Program. These programs were originally built around some of Vaudeville’s best performers. Along with the host was an orchestra, usually a singer, and a cast of supporting players. Some of their routines may have been old fashioned, but they knew how to work an audience, both in person and on the air. Two of the best were Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Bob had a gift of connecting with his audience, which made him popular with the servicemen he loved and respected. Jack created a character who was nothing like himself in real life, but with all his supposed negative qualities, audiences loved him because he allowed himself to be the butt of the jokes.

Mysteries and crime dramas are fun listening because they ask the listener to solve a puzzle, and that puzzle is often murder! Crime shows are often divided into hard and soft boiled. Soft boiled detectives are usually more cerebral, looking for the clues to find out Whodunit. The hard boiled sort are more action packed with no-nonsense heroes who always get their man, and usually the pretty girl, as well!

Radio drama takes on many forms, from the daily “cry in your dishwater” world of the Soap Operas to retelling of historical events to horror and science fiction stories to Hollywood Movie plots adapted to the radio. Some of the great anthology programs like Suspense, Escape, General Electric Theater and NBC University dramatized great works of fiction for the radio audience. Cavalcade of America profiled real people and events with remarkably high production values. Shows like Lux Radio Theater, Academy Award Theater and Hollywood Star Time allowed folks who could not get to the movie house on a regular basis a way to enjoy Hollywood productions before the days of DVD or even VHS tapes!

Batman Casey Crime Photographer Dragnet Duffy's Tavern Gunsmoke Jack Benny

When Settings Become Characters: Casey Crime Photographer and the Blue Note Cafe

The setting is one of the first elements defined in storytelling. The author will often select a certain setting for the mood it will evoke in the reader, although it is also true that a story takes place in a specific location because it is one that the author knows well enough to allow the story to flow. The time period is also an element of the story’s setting which helps the listener know what to expect from the characters.

Part of the magic of radio drama is that the writer and the actors, who are working in a studio somewhere, can take us anywhere and anytime. Most OTR fans can picture dozens of places that they have never been to but know almost as well as their own living rooms. The living room at 79 Wistful Vista; Jack Benny‘s house next door to Ronald and Benita Colman with a vault in the basement and the kitchen in back where Jack does laundry for hire; the foggy San Francisco waterfront where Pat Novak for Hire foils bad guys; The offices of Spade and Archer where Sam Spade dictates his case notes to Effie; the grimy streets of post War Los Angeles in Dragnet; the dusty prairie around Dodge City in Gunsmoke. The listener may have never been to any of these places but when he hears a few notes of the program’s theme music, he is transported there.

Batman Comics

The detective or private investigator usually has a safe place to retire between cases, or somewhere safe to contemplate the clues in the case he is working on. The most obvious example is the famous Batcave (interestingly even though Batman never had his own series during the Golden Age of Radio, he and Robin appeared in several story arc of Mutual Network’s Superman; although the Man of Steel never sees the Batcave, Clark Kent does visit Stately Wayne Manor). Sherlock Holmes‘ apartment at 221B Baker Street still receives fan mail addressed to the mythical detective. Jack Casey of Casey Crime Photographer and his girlfriend, reporter Ann Williams, could often be found whiling away the hours at the Blue Note, a jazz club in the wrong part of town.

A bar seems like a natural lair for a private eye, there is the privacy of darkness even at midday, strong drink to help the P.I. focus his thoughts, and any number of unsavory characters passing through to bring fresh clues. However, the radio networks were incredibly protective of the family-friendly atmosphere of their programs, which made the Blue Note an interesting anomaly in radio.

Crucial to any good bar scene is the trusty bartender, and the lead mixologist at the Blue Note is none other than the enigmatic Ethelbert. Although his position provides Ethelbert with more than his share of street-knowledge, he is more often employed as a sounding board for Casey and Ann than a real source of intel or even advice. With a rather affected Brooklyn accent, Ethelbert seems to be modeled after Archie the Bartender at Duffy’s Tavern and seems nearly as clueless. Although Ethelbert contributes relatively little to whatever case or story Casey and Ann are chasing, he is the beyond-the-workplace glue which holds the couple together. In this way he is even more effective than an office romance (and all the stickiness that would imply).

Jan Miner also played the role of “Ann” on Casey Crime Photographer

Although a number of actors would play Casey and Ann over the years (most notably Jan Miner and Shakespearean actor Staats Cosworth), John Gibson would voice Ethelbert for eleven years, mixing drinks and metaphors to the delight of all. In fact, because the program played during family hours, Ethelbert served far fewer drinks than the club’s owners would have preferred. The Blue Note Café was better known for its house band than its bar, and when the Teddy Wilson Trio was on the show, some critics felt that the band had a bigger following than the show.

George Burns & Gracie Allen

George and Gracie and the Loving Art of Reinvention

There is an old saw that supposes when a man marries, he wants his wife to stay the same sweet, loving girl she was when they met while the woman immediately begins to change the man into her ideal of manhood. Like so many examples of folk wisdom, this old saw seems to be true to a greater or lesser extent in every relationship, and there will always be exceptions. For an illustration, we need look no further than one of the most successful and beloved couples in show business, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

George and Gracie came from different backgrounds, even different ends of the country. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born in San Francisco on July 26, sometime between 1895 and 1906, no one is really sure, including George. Gracie famously claimed that she was born in 1906, and the records were lost in the Great Earthquake and Fire (“But the San Francisco Earthquake was in April of 1906 and your birthday is on July 27?” “It was a really big earthquake!”) Singing, dancing, and entertaining were part of the Allen household even before Gracie was born, and when she was old enough she joined her sisters as one of “The Four Colleens” dance troupe, and began making some small vaudeville engagements. She was still a teen when she hit the road with “Larry Reilly and Company”, the company being Gracie and her sisters. One by one, her other sisters dropped out of the act, and in New Jersey, Reilly changed the name of the act to just “Larry Reilly”. Gracie dropped out of the act, she hadn’t had much billing before, but no billing was insufferable.

Nathan Birnbaum was born in New York City, 1896, the ninth of twelve children born to Romanian Jews who had immigrated to America. When father Louis Birnbaum died suddenly during the influenza epidemic of 1903, little Nattie went to work at whatever he could find, shining shoes, peddling newspapers, or just running errands. When he was seven, he was hired with a team of boys to make syrup in the basement of a candy shop. Bored with stirring the syrup, the boys began harmonizing and were heard by the postman who fancied himself an agent. When he insisted that the boys sing again, a crowd gathered and Nattie realized that he had found the way he wanted to make a living.

There are different versions of how Nattie Birnbaum became George Burns, all of which were told by George himself. One is that he picked up the name because there was a George H. Burns and a George J. Burns both playing in the Major Leagues, and the name seemed lucky. Another is that his brother Izzy wanted to be called George and then he added the last name after reading it off of a Burns Bros. Coal Company wagon. He began performing wherever he could find an audience, singing on ferries, at bus stops, in front of taverns, eventually hitting the vaudeville circuit. He tried working as a song and dance man, a monologist, as part of a comedy team, as part of a dance team, even with a trained seal.

George happened to be in New Jersey when his act with Billy Lorraine was breaking up. A mutual friend was Gracie’s roommate and introduced them. George later said that as soon as he heard Gracie’s delicate voice, he knew she was a dancer. However, they found that they had enough in common to put together a new act. They started as dance partners and began adding patter, eventually evolving into what was known as a “park bench act”. The park bench act was a small drama which took place between a man and woman on a bench and was popular with theater owners because it could be performed in front of the curtain (while the scenery was being reset for the next act).

As originally conceived, the act consisted of Gracie asking a seemingly innocent question and George supplying a funny answer. After just a few performances, George realized that Gracie was getting more laughs with her questions than he got with the funny answers, so he rewrote the material reversing the roles and they became a hit. Audiences were falling in love with Gracie Allen. And so was George Burns.

The only problem was that Gracie was in love with an Irish tenor named Benny Ryan. Benny fully intended to marry Gracie, but luckily for George, Burns and Allen landed a booking on the Orpheum Circuit. Gracie was not sure she wanted to make the trip, even though her friend Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny‘s wife, pointed out that she would finally get to see her picture in the lobby of the San Francisco Orpheum Theater. Grace was finally convinced to make the tour, so long as their wages were increased by $50 a week. No wonder George was smitten.

When they returned to New York, Gracie found out that Benny was on tour again and they could not marry until he returned. George pressed his suit with little success. Finally, he was asked to play Santa at a party at the Benny’s Christmas party. Seeing his chances with Gracie slipping away, he was an incredibly surly Santa (Gracie was late because she was waiting for a phone call from Ryan). When he opened Gracie’s gift, signed “To Nattie, With all My Love”, he grumped, “All your love? Ha ha ha, you don’t even know what love means!” and left in a huff. Gracie ran into the bedroom, crying, then realized that if Nattie Birnbaum could make her cry, she must be in love. They were married on January 7, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, between performances.

As their vaudeville fame grew, Burns and Allen built a reputation as a reliable “disappointment act”. Whenever the scheduled act failed to make it to the theater, the disappointment act could be called upon at the last minute to go on. A similar thing happened at Paramount’s New York studios in 1929 when Fred Allen was scheduled to make a short talking film. Someone on the set had the idea of calling George and Gracie, who went through their “Lambchops” routine.

1929, but NBC failed to show any interest when they auditioned after returning to the US in 1930. Guy Lombardo began using them as part of his show on CBS, and when Lombardo moved to NBC, his spot was filled by The Adventures of Gracie beginning in the 1934 fall season. Their radio act was very similar to their patter routines in vaudeville, but the writing became a challenge. In vaudeville, George could create a bit which they would perfect according to audience reactions, and before the act became stale they would be moving on to another city. For a regular radio program, they needed fresh material every week so a team of writers was hired. George would select the best gags, then arrange them to fit into the show. This also gave him the opportunity to introduce the running gags which eventually ensure Burns and Allen as stars.

The first running gag was “Where is Gracie’s Brother?” routine. The gag actually began while they were still working with Guy Lombardo and soon became a cross-network phenomenon. Not only did they use the gag on their own show, Gracie would appear on other programs to ask if the characters had seen her brother. The laughs finally came to an end when Rudy Vallee let it slip that Gracie’s real brother, a mild-mannered accountant in San Francisco, was not amused by the attention and had in fact gone into hiding for a time.

The next big running gag came during the Presidential election of 1940 when Gracie jokingly announced that she was running on the “Surprise Party” ticket. The bit was expected to be a short-lived gag on the air, but eventually, a Surprise Party Convention was scheduled in Omaha, Nebraska, and George and Gracie made a whistle-stop tour along the way. Although she did not distract Roosevelt or Wilkie that much, with War Clouds gathering, she did give a troubled nation more than a little to smile about.

Although it was no secret that Burns and Allen were a married couple, their radio program was still based on a park bench routine, and George was savvy enough to realize that they were getting a little mature to keep pulling it off. He made the decision to remake the show as a situation comedy where he and Gracie would be a married couple in the entertainment industry. Perhaps not much of a stretch, but domestic bliss combined with Gracie’s illogical-logic was enough laughs for many more years.

The post-War era on radio was marked mostly by the exodus of the top performers to television, but few made the transition as gracefully as Burns and Allen. George took a few stylistic risks with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, most notably breaking the “fourth wall” and commenting on the action directly to the audience. He said that he knew it was an original idea because he originally stole it from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. The one thing that he wisely refused to do was mess with Gracie’s character, knowing full well that Gracie was the reason for his success. Gracie was less happy with the arrangement.

George had worked full time on the radio program, putting together the script, arranging guests, and the other chores required to produce a weekly program. Gracie had to show up for a couple of hours’ rehearsal each week, and the live broadcast but the rest of her time could be dedicated to being a housewife, which she relished. For TV, she had to work at learning her lines, do more complicated rehearsals, make-up sessions, as well as taping the show. She quickly tired, but continued to do it, mostly to keep George happy. Finally, she got to the point of announcing that she would retire at the end of the 1958 season. George tried to keep the show going with the same supporting cast without his wife, but, just as he knew it would, it simply did not work without Gracie.

When Gracie retired from showbiz, she really retired. There were countless offers for her to make films or appear as a guest on several TV shows, but they would have gotten in the way of her gardening, shopping, and the other things that she enjoyed. However, her work schedule, while she was in TV, had taken a toll on her health. She had a history of cardiac problems, and she died of a heart attack at her Hollywood home in 1964.

George opened his 1988 memoir by admitting, “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.” George Burns without Gracie Allen seemed like an impossibility. He immersed himself in his work as a producer and made a few tours of the nightclub circuit with various actresses playing the Gracie role, including Carol Channing, Jane Russell, and Connie Haines. His good friend, Jack Benny, had been scheduled to play a lead in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) but passed away before production began. George took the role and went on to establish himself as one of the grand old men of show business. He continued to work until his death on March 9, 1996, 49 days after his 100th birthday.

George Burns has been honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6510 Hollywood Blvd for his contributions to Television, at 1639 Vine St for Motion Pictures, and at 6672 Hollywood Blvd for Live Performance. Gracie Allen’s Star for Television is also at 6672 Hollywood Blvd

Murder By Experts

Murder By Experts: How to Become an Expert in Murder

Robert Arthur Jr. at work during 1950.
Robert Arthur, Jr

How does one become an expert on murder? According to the creators of Murder By Experts, expertise in murder is demonstrated by writing about murder in a highly entertaining fashion. No university has a recognized degree program in murder, and consulting someone with “experience in the field” is too ghastly to contemplate.

The subject itself seems too ghastly to consider, but murder mysteries make for highly entertaining fair and they are the centerpiece of the majority of the crime dramas which filled the air during the Golden Age of Radio. The average listener might drive a few miles over the speed limit on occasion or could neglect to tell Uncle Sam the whole truth on their tax returns, but by and large, they are law-abiding people who would go out of their way to help their fellow man. The psychological makeup of someone who is actually capable of murder is fascinating to behold. Remember the old joke about going to a party dressed as a homicidal maniac? They look just like you and me.

Using their own standard, Robert Arthur and Dave Kogan each qualified as experts in murder. Kogan grew up with Radio entering the Golden Age and entered Columbia University to study radio production. At a scriptwriting class in 1940, he met Robert Arthur Jr, who had a mixed bag of experiences any author would be happy to draw upon. He was born in Corregidor, Philippines, the son of a US Army lieutenant. After a life of moving from base to base around the country he won an appointment to West Point but decided against a military career and entered William and Mary College in Virginia in 1926, later transferring to the University of Michigan (Robert Arthur Sr was working there as a Professor of Military Science) where he earned a BA then an MA in English. After settling in Greenwich Village, New York City, he began writing for pulp magazines and had stories published in Wonder Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, The Illustrated Detective Magazine, Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, Detective Tales, Thrilling Detective, Double Detective, The Phantom Detective, Unknown Worlds, Black Mask, and several other magazines.

Arthur married a radio soap opera actress in 1938, but they split before he joined the scriptwriting class at Columbia in 1940. Kogan and Arthur’s friendship developed into a formidable scriptwriting team. They would work together in an intense session to hammer out a story, then Kogan would take over as director and producer. They went to work together at WOR, the flagship station of the Mutual Network, creating scripts for the short-lived Dark Destiny in 1942. With one success under their belt, the duo was allowed to put together another series, The Mysterious Traveler, which first aired in December 1943. In addition to spellbinding tales of fantasy, science fiction, and the supernatural to go along with crime drama, The Traveler featured the Traveler himself as a horror host.

The series spawned comic books and, eventually, its own pulp magazine. With a proven money-maker on their hands, Mutual gave Kogan and Arthur the greenlight for another series, Murder By Experts, which would begin airing in 1949. Experts would be just as thrilling as The Traveler, but the format took some interesting creative turns. One of the most important was that rather than original plots the show used stories selected by the weekly guest “Expert”, the stories still had to be adapted to a radio format. The “horror host” was replaced by a host expert, prolific mystery writer John Dickson Carr during the first season.

Carr was no stranger to radio. Not only had several of his stories been adapted by various anthology series, but he wrote several original scripts for Suspense. Each week Carr’s “guest expert” would select a favorite murder story, usually the work of yet a third author. After the first season, Carr left the series, presumably to concentrate on furthering his writing career. He was replaced by Brett Halliday, creator of the Michael Shayne detective series. Halliday was the pseudonym of Davis Dresser, who had been influential in founding the Mystery Writers of America. Kogan and Arthur were awarded an “Edgar” award by the Mystery Writers in 1950 for “best radio program of a mystery nature” in 1950 for Murder By Experts (The Mysterious Traveler would be so honored in 1953).

The team of Kogan and Arthur decided to give back to the radio writing profession by becoming supporters of the Radio Writers Guild. At the time, however, any collective bargaining effort was destined to be painted as a Communist front by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although they were not listed in Red Channels, HUAC attention was enough to gain notice from Mutual’s sponsors who put pressure on the network to cancel both Experts and Traveler.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ Wartime Campaign for Pan-Americanism: Hello Neighbors

Orson Welles

We have cited several examples of Hollywood and the entertainment industry doing their part to fight the Second World War. The Stars did whatever they could to boost the morale of men in uniform, and more than a few Hollywood figures actually donned their country’s uniform. More than a few made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country. In his rush to serve the nation, Orson Welles sacrificed something that, to many in Hollywood and beyond, was even more precious than his life. To serve his country, Welles sacrificed his career and reputation.

Welles was still in his mid-Twenties when he first answered the nation’s call. That call came due to his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry, and anyone who upsets the status quo as much as Welles did is bound to attract controversy. The wunderkind’s spectacular rise through the Federal Theater Project and the notoriety gained in radio where based on a stunning combination of audacity and creative genius. His infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast is thought to have been the catalyst which caused RKO to agree to what was an unprecedented contract for a new movie director. The notoriety from the “War of the Worlds” is based on the hype generated after the fact by entertainment reporters who were willing to report just about anything that seemed like a juicy story, the supposed “nationwide panic” that the broadcast caused was largely fictional, but it certainly boosted Welles’ reputation.

The deal with RKO was for Welles to write, produce, direct, and perform in two motion pictures and to have complete creative control over the projects. The studio rejected his first two film proposals before allowing him to proceed with Citizen Kane (1941). Today, the film is regarded as an artistic triumph and one of the best films ever made, but at the time of its release, it was an expensive boondoggle for RKO which drew the ire of William Randolph Hearst, one of the most influential men in the country. Hearst’s war on the film is attributed with not only ruining its chance for box office success but hurting all of RKO’s pictures.

Welles went to work on his second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which may have salvaged his reputation with RKO, but as the picture was going into post-production Welles was appointed as a goodwill ambassador to South America by Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller. The honor of such an ambassadorship had been offered to Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth John Ford, Walt Disney (resulting in The Three Caballeros), and others in the entertainment industry. Rockefeller was a big investor at RKO, and the reason for choosing Welles as a goodwill ambassador was to film a documentary about the February 1942 Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Although he had only completed a “rough cut” of Ambersons, Welles left extensive notes on how he wanted the film edited before leaving for South America. He was thoroughly briefed in Washington before the trip south (allegedly, the intelligence services conducted part of that briefing and Welles was to do some spying on as well as filming his South American friends).

Working mostly on his own dime, Welles traveled to several South American countries gathering footage for a project tentatively titled It’s All True, an “omnibus picture” with three parts, “The Story of Jazz” which was a history of Samba, “My Friend Bonito” where a Mexican boy befriends a bull, and “Jangadeiros” about four poor Brazilian fishermen sailing a raft. When he finally returned to Hollywood, Welles discovered that his editing notes for Ambersons had been ignored and the studio edited and released version was “ruined” in his opinion (all of the unused footage had been destroyed, possibly to prevent future editing). What’s more, the studio terminated any further work on It’s All True.

Despite lack of support from RKO, Welles was far from being finished with his fight in the War. Just days after returning to U.S. soil, he acted as emcee of a seven-hour coast-to-coast War Bond Drive broadcast which raised $10 million. He continued campaigning for Pan-American unity by presenting “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, a biography of Christopher Columbus, on the October 12 episode of Cavalcade of America. A month later, he began hosting Hello Americans on CBS, sponsored by the OCIAA to promote inter-American understanding. Hello Americans drew heavily on the research he had done for It’s All True. During the same period, he created Ceiling Unlimited which would also broadcast on CBS, sponsored by Lockheed and glorifying the contributions of the Aviation industry.

At the beginning of the War, Welles’ draft status was “1-B”, or “unfit for active duty by available for limited duty. This was soon upgraded to “1-A”, Fit for duty, however, Welles, the Army, and the Roosevelt administration all seemed to agree that he had more to contribute as a media personality than he would have in uniform.  Gossip columnist and long-time agent of the Heart newspapers, Louella Parsons soon began making discrete (and not so discrete) inquiries as to why Orson Welles was living the life of a Hollywood playboy while so many others were in uniform, fighting and dying for the cause of Democracy. Finally, in the spring of 1943, Welles presented himself to the induction center set up at the Pacific Electric Building in downtown Los Angeles. After his medical examination, his status was downgraded to 4-F because of “myoditis (skeletal muscle inflammation), bronchial asthma, arthritis and inverted flat feet”.

Far from being the only Hollywood figure with 4-F status, Welles was in the company of Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Errol Flynn. However, it can hardly be said that Orson Welles shirked in his duty. However, whether because of bad press, driven by the Hearst organization, bad professional choices, or simply changing public tastes, Orson Welles would never quite regain the reputation he enjoyed as a pre-War wunderkind.

Christmas Christmas Radio Shows Texaco Star Theater

Texaco Star Theater with John Barrymore

In this 1938 Christmas Variety Show, host John Barrymore shared a few hilariously funny Christmas remarks with actress Una Merkel, then introduced Kenny Baker, who reminded everyone of us to? Don’t Wait Until the Night Before Christmas to be Good? Following that, the stars of the show performed a drama based on ?The Song of Christmas? you won’t want to miss:

Christmas Fibber McGee and Molly Jack Benny Jack Webb Police Drama

Enjoying Christmas Radio Classics

Jack Benny

After the end of the Golden Age of Radio, the Christmas season simply meant that radio commercials got cheerier and more obnoxious at the same time. We were also sure to be subjected to those darned chipmunks at least once every forty-five minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Many social critics (and kindly curmudgeons) bemoan the supposed commercialism of the Holiday Season. Although it is hard to find any real personal value in a spending orgy that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers are cold, the national obsession with making the Christmas Season special that ran from the Depression years through the Post War period was more than a boon to retailers. At its deepest level, the season of “Goodwill to All Men” became an important thread in the fabric that made us Americans.

Town and country, city and village, prairie and mountain, no matter where you were during the period, radio from the four big networks helped to bind us together as a nation, and made our Holidays a common experience. Jack Benny taught us that Christmas Shopping was supposed to be frustrating, hearing Bing belt out ?Adeste Fidelis? every year reminded us of the importance of tradition, and Fibber McGee helped to teach us that we never outgrow Christmas.

Fibber McGee & Molly

Seasonal Silliness would be carried into the Television era, of course. With television, the season became less real and more retail. The reality of TV’s fantasy world was that the Christmas shows were often written in the summertime and recorded before the fall season started. Radio, with rare exceptions, was live, being performed by people who were involved in their own version of the holiday rush. This was especially true, and that much more poignant in the holiday editions of AFRS programs during WWII. Hollywood and Radio’s biggest names came together on programs like Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. Working on a volunteer basis, and more often than not led by Bob Hope, the Stars did all they could to make Christmas special for the troops.

Bob Hope

Any program that held onto a time slot as well as managing to stay on the air for more than a couple years had a pretty good chance of Christmas Eve or The Big Day falling on a broadcast night. Of course, the longer the show stayed on the air, the more likely it was to happen more than once. The long run of Fibber McGee and Molly gave us a number of terrifically festive Christmas programs (and usually more than just during the week before Christmas), but some of the best took place on Christmas Eve or Christmas and included ?Teenie? Marian Jordan’s little girl character) reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas along with the Kingsmen.

With Beulah in the kitchen and Leroy scheming for the perfect present, The Great Gildersleeve gave us a number of terrific Christmas memories. Gildy’s Christmases often involved manly voices raised in song as well as schemes to do something nice for the town’s young folks, but few Christmases were as poignant than 1948. That fall a baby had been abandoned in Gildersleeve’s car. Having an infant in his life turned the confirmed bachelor on his ear. The story arc climaxed at Christmas when Gildy must make the decision to adopt the baby girl or return her to the father who had been forced to abandon her. The was not a dry eye within earshot of the radio.

Jack Webb as Sgt Joe Friday of Dragnet

Even Radio Tough Guys softened a bit around the edges at Christmas, even of the Radio Noir world they operated in didn’t. Sgt Friday on Dragnet shocked us one year over the dangers of kids and guns with “A Rifle For Christmas”, and then in another season warmed our heart to melting in “Big Little Jesus” when an immigrant boy makes good on his promise to take the Baby Jesus for a ride if he receives a red wagon for Christmas. The great Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin discover that street corner Santa Clauses are being murdered and that one of the Santas is a millionaire. Even Sherlock Holmes has to come to the rescue when Professor Moriarty stoops so low as to try and steal kid’s Christmas gifts.

Christmas is not forgotten in the Wild West. One of the best Cowboy Christmases is shared by James Stewart’s The Six Shooter when Britt Ponset tells a very Western version of the classic Scrooge tale.

Even without Chipmunks, Christmas is a time for music, and Old Time Radio does not disappoint. On Christmas Day, 1943, NBC managed to connect every theater of the War with music and inspiration talks. Two days earlier, Dinah Shore delighted everyone with her beautiful Christmas songs while apologizing that her sponsor’s Birdseye frozen turkeys would all be going to support the War Effort. Of course,  Melody Ranch and the rest of the guitar and fiddle crowd would never forget Christmas.