Atomic Radio

The last years of the Golden Age of Radio were also the beginning years of the Cold War. Thanks to the improved broadcast technology developed during WWII and the growing sophistication of writers and producers, some of Radio’s best programming was developed during this time. Although a time of great prosperity in America, fears of Soviet atomic attack pervaded the culture. Were these two factors meet is a world we will call Atomic Radio. Fears of The Bomb were and are very real. Early in the Atomic Age the average American was still coming to grips with this fear, and Radio was helpfully in both relieving and intensifying the paranoia.

The Fifth Horseman was a short series of dramatized documentaries that began in the days immediately after the first post-war atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. The program did discuss some of the hopeful aspects of Atomic Power and Nuclear Medicine, but most of the program detailed the horrors of The Bomb and Atomic Combat. This is both prophetic and paranoid, as the series aired three years before the first Soviet Atomic tests.

Post war competition with the Soviets generated a Red Scare in the middle of the 20th century. This Scare is most fervently illustrated by the excesses of Sen. Joe McCarthy as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of the many who would testify before the HUAC was Matt Cvetic, who spent nine years as an FBI informant buried deep in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of the United States. Cvetic’s story was dramatized in I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., played on the radio by Dana Andrews. A fine example of the Radio Noir sub-genre, the show always included Andrew’s tagline: “I walk alone.”

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Save the World!

Edgar Bergen is best remembered for his ventriloquism and his diverse cast of comedic wooden dummy co-performers. Bergen was born February 16, 1903 in Decatur, Michigan. Self-taught, Bergen caught the attention of Harry Lester, a master ventriloquist who schooled Bergen in the art. Bergen mastered the art of ventriloquism before he finished high school. Before he graduated, Charlie McCarthy was born. Charlie’s life first began as a drawing made by Bergen, who later had the puppet carved by some accounts by the local butcher and in others the local bartender, who in any case, also happened to be a woodworker. Charlie’s character and physical appearance came from Bergen’s observation of a local newsboy, named Charlie. Bergen later revealed that the Mc in McCarthy came from Mack, the last name of the man who carved Charlie into life.

The Bergen-McCarthy act quickly grew in popularity. Audiences were enthralled with the sassy and snappy Charlie McCarthy. The act made their radio debut in 1936, on the Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour. The following year, the Chase and Sanborn Coffee company offered Bergen the opportunity to star in his own radio show. The Edgar Bergen Charlie McCarthy show was playfully credited with saving the nation from panic and chaos. It was estimated that at least half of the October 30, 1938 nightly listeners were tuned into the Bergen show, while Orson Welles broadcast his famous, War of the Worlds.

Bergen continued to delight and entertain radio audiences for nearly twenty years. Guest on his show included Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, Sonja Henie, Hoagie Carmichael, Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and many others. The last broadcast was heard on July 1, 1956. After his radio show ended, Bergen kept busy with a number of television appearances. During his lifetime, he also enjoyed a film career. His film performances include the 1938 production of The Goldwyn Follies and the 1948 film, I Remember Mama. His last film appearance, at the insistence of his actress daughter, Candice Bergen was in the 1979 release of The Muppet Movie. Edgar Bergen died on September 28, 1978. Charlie McCarthy and his companions, Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker currently reside at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Enjoy this episode of the Edgar Bergen show from Feb 16, 1947 starring Billie Burke and Nelson Eddy:

The Shadow of Fu Manchu

A gong sounds and Gerald Mohr ominously intones “The Shadow…of Fooo ManChoo.”

There is a long period of eerie organ music at the beginning and end of each episode; this is because the show was recorded for Syndication. The long organ music is space for the local announcer to make his plug.

During the period following the Boxer Rebellion, the West was filled with fears of “the Yellow Peril.” The Rebellion had been pushed by a Secret Society, and there was a dread of these Societies gaining influence in the Chinatowns of American and European cities.

Author Sax Rohmer became familiar with the reputation of “Mr. King” in London’s Asian districts. Supposedly, Mr. King had a piece of the action in most illegal activities in the district; at the mention of King’s name, Chinese merchants became visibly terrified. Rohmer used Mr. King as the inspiration for his master villain, Fu Manchu.

Dr. Fu Manchu had an incredible intellect, and an incredible invisible empire. Dr. Fu had “all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources… of a wealthy government, which… has denied all knowledge of his existence… Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Fu Manchu would become the model for many arch villains: Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Lo-Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, Dr. Yen-Lo in The Manchurian Candidate, and James Bond’s adversary, Dr. No.

The Fu Manchu stories would be serialized in Collier’s Magazine in 1913. The first of several radio incarnations of the stories would be on The Collier Hour over the Blue Network starting in 1927. Probably the most popular incarnation was the syndicated The Shadow of Fu Manchu, recorded in the winter of 1938-39. Lou Marcelle, the uncredited narrator of the film Casablanca, played the evil Doctor. The actor’s identity was hidden for many years, until identified by radio historian Elizabeth McLeod in 2002. Two well known character actors took the roles of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie: Hanley Stanford of Blondie and Baby Snooks; and Gale Gordon, Mayor LaTrivia of Fibber McGee and Molly and Principal Osgood in Our Miss Brooks. Paula Winslow played the lovely and seductive Karamaneh (one of Fu’s most dangerous agents, Karamaneh was sold as a slave to the Dr. as a child. She falls in love with Dr. Petrie and saves our heroes many times.) Gerald Mohr (The Adventures of Philip Marlowe) narrated and played several small roles.

Much of Fu Manchu seems less than politically correct, especially as China is becoming an important trading partner, and given the great contributions of Chinese-Americans. But the Fu Manchu stories are a product of their times.

In the end, The Shadow of Dr. Fu Manchu is diabolical fun in a grand criminal manner.

Big Band Radio Shows

Listening to classic big band radio broadcasts is a great past-time.  Hearing some live music old time radio shows broadcasts from the greats never gets old!

Some favorites include:

What are some of your favorite music old time radio shows?

Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons: Quicksand Murder Case

Although primarily known for their work in Musicals and Soap Operas, Frank and Anne Hummert had a degree of success with Detective/Mystery radio programs. The mystery shows had many of the elements that the couple used in their Soap Opera Factory. Indeed the shows were often criticized by hard-core mystery fans for being overly melodramatic, but they were and are entertaining, and some enjoyed long term commercial success.

Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons first broadcast over the Blue Network on Oct 12, 1937. Through the years the program would change networks (but usually remaining on CBS), sponsors, timeslots, and even formats; originally a 30 minute weekly, late in the run it became a 15 minute nightly broadcast. Very few recordings of the original 1690 nationwide broadcasts are known to exist. For that reason it is happy news that Old Time Radio has recently added to the episodes in their collection.

For nearly 20 years Mr. Keen, described as a “kind, elderly, boring sleuth” fought crime along with his assistant, Mike Clancy. Clancy carries much of the Immigrant stereotyping (“Saints preserve us, Mr. Keen!”) that was so prevalent in Vaudeville and the early days of radio. Keen’s private detective agency had little animosity with Official Law Enforcement (“We usually work with the Police, Ma’am.”) that is common with later Private Eyes. Early in the run the “Missing Persons” part of the show was somewhat forgotten, and most of Mr. Keen’s cases revolved around murder. Audiences didn’t seem to mind; The program lasted until Apr 19, 1955.

Enjoy this episode from June 1950 “The Quicksand Murder Case”:

Happy 39th Birthday, Jack Benny!

The “stuck on 39” running gag got started the year after Jack Benny celebrated his “first” 39th birthday on the air. It was so much fun he decided to do the same thing the next year, because “There’s nothing funny about 40.” Jack would celebrate his 39th birthday 41 times. Headlines just after Christmas, 1974, reported “Jack Benny Dies- At Age 39?”

It seems appropriate that such a well loved entertainer would be born on Valentine’s Day, 1894. Meyer and Emma Kubelsky’s boy was born in Chicago and grew up in nearby Waukegan. He began his lifelong affair with the violin at the age of six. He loved the instrument, but hated to practice. He did get good enough to play with local dance bands and his school orchestra by 14, and by 17 began playing in local Vaudeville theaters. In 1911 he shared billing with the young Marx Brothers. The Marx mother, Minnie, though Jack would be a good fit as permanent accompanist for her boy’s act, but the elder Kubelsky’s wouldn’t allow their 17 year old boy to go on the road. The next year he did go on the road with 45 year old pianist Cora Salisbury. Responding to pressure from another violinist with a similar name, Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny.

Joining the Navy during WWI, he often played to entertain his shipmates. One night his violin playing was booed by the sailors, but he managed to ad-lib his way out of the jam, and thereafter the violin became a prop to his comedy. After the war he started a Single act- “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology,” but ran afoul of another name problem.  He adopted the sailor’s nick name “Jack” (short for Jack Tar) and went on developing his comic talents.

In 1922 Jack was invited to a Passover dinner by Zeppo Marx, where he met cousin Sadye Marks, whom he married in 1927. In Vaudeville tradition Jack Benny worked his new bride into the act, and she adopted the stage name of Mary Livingstone.

Jack Bennycame to the radio on May 2, 1932, sponsored by Canada Dry. The Jack Benny Program became a staple of family entertainment. Jack Benny was one of William Paley’s main targets in the famous CBS Talent Raids of 1948-49.

On the Radio, Jack was everything that he was not in real life. Benny’s character was cheap, vain, petty, and self congratulatory. Part of Benny’s genius was that he didn’t hog the laughs for himself. His assumed personality drew fire from his supporting cast, and Benny took the role of straight man. By allowing himself to become vulnerable, what could have been a despicable character was well loved.

One long lasting highlight of Benny’s comedy was the long lasting mock feud with Fred Allen, who, along with Benny, was part of NBCs powerful Sunday night line-up. The feud began when Allen made a disparaging remark about Benny’s violin playing in an ad-lib. Though the feud would run for years, Benny and Allen were great friends.

In later years Jack Benny rediscovered his love of classic violin playing. More due to his fame than talent, he played as a guest with several prominent orchestras, which resulted in considerable fund raising for these important institutions.

Further proof that Jack Benny had been born on Valentine’s Day: Arrangements had been made in his will so that after his death, Mary Livingstone received a single long stemmed red rose every day. This went on until Mary’s own death nine years later.

Enjoy this episode from his Jack Benny’s 39th Birthday in 1937:
http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Jack-Benny-370214-820-Jacks-Birth-OTRCAT.com.mp3

Irna Phillips: Mother of the Soap Opera

The Soap Opera is considered a “Woman’s Genre”, not only because housewives are the primary audience, but because the form was invented and perfected by women in the man’s world of network broadcasting. These women included Anne Hummert, who teamed with her husband Frank to become one of the most prolific producers of Soaps; Elaine Sterne Carrington, who penned Pepper Young’s Family, When a  Girl Marries, and Rosemary; and Sandra Michael, of Against the Storm and Lone Journey. Perhaps the most important and influential of these “Mother’s of the Soap Opera” is Irna Phillips.

Phillips’ own life had many of the elements that would later make her Soap Operas so popular. She was the youngest of ten children, her father passed away when she was 8, leaving her mother alone to raise the children. She claimed to have been a lonely and sickly child, stuck in hand-me-down clothes and making up long and involved stories for her dolls to live out. At the tender age of 19 she found herself pregnant, abandoned by her boyfriend, and eventually the mother of a still-born baby. She sought training as an actress, but was told by her teachers that she was too plain to have any real success. She taught for a time, and found herself working for WGN, Chicago. In addition to voice-over work, she did some acting and writing for daytime talk shows.

A station executive tasked Phillips with writing a story “about a family.” The result was Painted Dreams, thought to be the first daytime serial drama (Soap Opera.) Phillips was the head writer and actress on the program, which featured Mother Moynihan, widowed matriarch of a large Irish-American family. Mother Moynihan was based on Phillips’ own mother’s struggles. When she wanted to try to take Painted Dreams to a national audience a dispute over ownership of the program arose.

While the dispute was being settled (Painted Dreams eventually became property of CBS) Phillips approached cross-town rival station with Today’s Children, which was mostly a repackaging of Painted Dreams, (Mother Moynihan became Mother Moran.) The series ran from 1933 through the end of 1937. When Phillips’ mother passed away, Irna felt she had lost the inspiration to go on with the series. However by this time she had another project ready to begin. Woman in White would be the first serial drama that dealt with the internal workings of a major hospital. Phillips’ protégé, Agnes Nixon, has suggested that her mentor’s fascination with hospitals had to do with her hypochondria.

Perhaps Phillips’ greatest legacy is The Guiding Light, which began on radio in 1937. The program would last through the transition to television, and when it was finally cancelled in 2009, it was the longest running program in broadcasting history. The story and characters were again inspired from Phillips’ own life. During troubled times, she received spiritual comfort from the broadcast sermons of Preston Bradley, founder of the People’s Church in Chicago. The beginnings of The Guiding Light centered on the work of Rev John Ruthledge, who kept a lamp burning in his study so his flock knew he would be available to help with their many problems.

Irna Phillips is said to have had a unique writing process. In contrast to the high level of control and formulaic technique used by Anne Hummert, Phillips would “act out” her stories in front of a secretary, who would make notes and generate the scripts.

Irna Phillips other Soap Operas include The Road of Life, Young Doctor Malone, The Brighter Day, and long running television Soaps As the World Turns and Another World.



Love is in the Air: More Rare Soaps… more sobbing and organ music…

That brings us to our big collection of Rare Soap Operas. Old Time Radio Catalog has scoured the collection to find the best Tear Jerkers from the era of Dish-Pan Romance. A lot of the profit that the Networks made during the Golden Age of Radio came from the Day Time Serials, and listening to them demonstrates that they are probably better entertainment than you would like to think they are. Here are some prime examples:

Bachelor’s Children, began on WGN-Chicago in 1935 and ran through 1946. When Dr. Bob was serving in the military his Sergeant had taken care of him through a difficult time. Later the Sergeant’s dying request is that Dr Bob become guardian of his two young daughters. Eventually Dr Bob falls in love with Ruth Ann, and his good friend Sam Ryder falls for twin sister, Janet. The show was originally sponsored by Old Dutch Cleanser, then on NBC by Colgate and eventually Wonder Bread.

David Harum (1936-1951) was a radio serial based on an 1898 novel by Edward Noyes Westcott. The novel inspired a movie starring Will Rogers in 1934 which lead to the radio program. Harum was a “horse trader” who developed some rather lose business ethics. Harum followed his own version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto the other feller the way he’d like to do to you, an’ do it fust.”

The Guiding Light was a well loved program created by “the Mother of the Radio Soap Opera”, Irna Phillips. Running for more than 70 years on Radio and Television, the program is easily the longest running drama in broadcast history. The series was originally inspired by the radio sermons of Preston Bradley, which brought Phillips spiritual comfort during a difficult time in her life. The Guiding Light referred to a lamp that the Rev John Rutledge left burning in his study as a signal that he was available to help members of his flock.

The Marriage ran from 1953 through 1954, and featured the talents of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, the great Broadway actors who were married in real life. The show brought to life the marriage of the Marriots. Liz had been a buyer for a popular New York department store and now must come to grips with being a house wife, and Ben is an up and coming hotshot New York lawyer.

Portia Faces Life told the story of a lady lawyer in a small town that fights crime, injustice, and civic corruption. Along with crusading journalist Walter Manning, Portia Blake tries to find the criminals that murdered her husband. Eventually we find out that her beloved husband isn’t really dead! The series ran from April 1940 until June 1951. General Mills remained the sponsor for the entire run.

Rosemary was created by Elaine Carrington, who also penned Pepper Young’s Family. Rosemary Dawson works to support her mother and younger sister. In time she falls in love and marries journalist Bill Roberts. But Bill has amnesia from the war. Who knows what will come up from his past? Could there have been another wife and daughter?

Vicks’ Romantic Bachelor tried a slightly different approach to reaching the housewife. Rather than centering the show on a contrived drama, The Romantic Bachelor would woo the housewife songs and romance. The Bachelor would tell stories of the beautiful women that became the object of his affection, and manage to remind Mothers of the wonders of Vick’s Vapor-Rub.

Rare Old Time Radio Soap Operas

Love is in the air over in old time radio! They’ve been hanging Paper Cupids everywhere and have been busy listening to some old Rare Soap Operas. If anything can  get you in a Romantic Mood it’s the Sob-fest after listening to the Heartaches and Treachery of Soaps from the Golden Age of Radio all afternoon. (Do you hear the organ music AGAIN?!)

Of course nothing would make OTRCAT happier than sharing a big chunk of his collection with some of his friends. It will give him something to email his friends about (What will Mindy Lou  do when she finds out that her lover is really the long lost son of old Doctor Young?)  While I  go through another box of tissues, please take a look at some of the shows now available:

The Road of Life is another creation of the “Mother of the Soap Opera”, Irna Phillips. It is the story of handsome Dr Jim Brent and his pretty wife Jocelyn. Also figuring prominently is Jocelyn’s wealthy but dysfunctional family, the Overton’s of Merrimac.

Bright Horizon was only the second successful Soap Opera spinoff.  It came from the Lillian Laugerty created Big Sister.  Beginning in 1941, actress Alice Frost, who also had the title role of Ruth Evans Wayne on Big Sister appeared for a short while on Bright Horizon to help insure the series successful launch. The show was sponsored by Swan Soap.

The Career of Alice Blair (1939-1940) was a short running Soap sponsored by a cold crème manufacturer. Alice left her small town home to seek her career with handsome publisher Richard Newman. Alice’s life becomes filled with intrigue and scandal, but she dedicates herself to paying off the family debt back home and her devotion to her boss.

Doctor Paul (1940-1945) “radio’s wonderful story of adult love” sponsored by Dutch Mill American Cheese. The show would be briefly revived in syndication in 1953. Dr. Paul was a small town doctor who is dedicated to his patients, but becomes embroiled in the scheme and loves that swirl around him. The show is full of the schemes of the Dr.’s wife and a woman who loves the Dr. from afar.

The Life of Mary Southern (1934-1938) Mary struggles to raise her children and keep her husband living on the straight and narrow.

Pepper Young’s Family (1932-1959) was the first radio soap from creator Elaine Stern Carrington. The show starred young Burgess Meredith as a high school athlete whose family went through many trials. The show went through several title changes with the demands of sponsors. Sponsorship went from Beechnut Gum to Proctor and Gamble’s Camay Soap.

The radio version of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason was a much more action packed show than the TV version starring Raymond Burr. Airing from 1943 through 1955, the show was set to make the transition to TV when creative disagreements between Gardner (no relation to Ava Gardner radio) and CBS arose. CBS went forward witht the project, which became the long running TV soap, The Edge of Night.CBS and Gardner eventually patched up their differences, and Perry Masoncame to TV, with a recurring plot every week- Perry would defend an innocent person of murder charges, but Perry dramatically proves the guilt of another character.

The Right to Happinesswas created by Irna Phillips as a spinoff of The Guiding Light. The show ran from 1939 until it was cancelled on “The day the Radio Soap Opera Died,” Nov 25, 1960. The Past was a recurring character on the show, reminding heroine Carolyn Allen of the mistakes and tragedies in her life. Carolyn would go through 4 marriages and a jail sentence inorder to find her Right to Happiness.

This Life Is Mine tells the story of teacher Eden Channing and her family on the home front during WWII. Her family faces the uncertainty of Modern times with differing points of view, but always Eden stands up for good and virtue and the love of her man.

When a Girl Marries came from the creator of Pepper Young’s Family, Elaine Carrington. The series premiered on May 29, 1939 and ran into 1951, playing over CBS, NBC, and finally ABC. The show was promoted as “a tender, human story of young married life.” The plot followed the lives of Harry Davis and his lovely bride, Joan Field Davis. There would be numerous conflicts between Harry’s impoverished background and the high society family that Joan grew up in.

The Hummert Radio Factory

Frank HummertHalf of all the advertising revenue generated by daytime programming in the 30s and 40s came from programs created by Anne and Frank Hummert.

Anne’s father believed that it was a waste of money to educate a girl, so she finances her own education as a College Correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. After her graduation her journalistic career took her to Paris where she married John Ashenhurst, who would at one time be the youngest editor of a major US daily newspaper. When the couple returned to the US and settled in Chicago Anne was unable to find work in journalism, so she took a position as assistant to advertising executive Frank Hummert. Anne quickly rose through the ranks of the ad agency and was made a vice president, with a salary of nearly $100,000 at the age of 28. Together Frank and Anne would make their mark in the new genre being developed by pioneer Irna Phillips, the Soap Opera.

Their first success would be Just Plain Bill, the continuing story of a barber who marries well above his station. Other successes quickly followed, many of which had very long runs. Mary Noble,Backstage Wife told the story of a small town girl who moves to the big city, falls in love and marries a prominent actor who is “the matinee idol of a million other women.” Deceit, jealousy, avarice and amnesia all become part of Mary’s life as she is forced to compete with the jezebels and hussies that have designs on her husband. Beginning in 1933, Ma Perkins would have a run of 27 years. Ma lived in the small town of Rushville Center. There her family owned a small lumber yard, which supported Ma’s family, but was also the center of many deceits as relatives and towns people tried to take advantage of Ma’s simple kindness. Early in the drama Ma was combative and spiteful, but through the years she became a kind hearted sage and the conscience of the community.
Ma PerkinsAfter working with Frank for five years, Anne’s marriage ended in divorce about the time Frank’s wife passed away. In 1935 they were married, apparently happily for their many years together, although Frank was two decades her senior. After marrying the moved to New York and began Air Features Inc, which would become a kind of factory for radio drama. Anne would write the concepts for their many shows, then the ideas would be turned over to “dialoguers” who would fill out the scripts. Frank had a talent for finding and keeping happy clients for their shows. Anne maintained an incredible work load, outlining all of the plot developments for their various programs. Through the McCarthy years it was noted that Air Features Inc refused to fire good writers who had been blacklisted.

In addition to their Daytime Soap Operas, the Hummerts produced a number of musical programs and Crime/Mystery shows. At one point their output had 18 separate serials on the air, 90 episodes a week.

The Hummert shows include Amanda of Honeymoon Hill, Judy and Jane, Little Orphan Annie, The American Album of Familiar Music, Young Widder Brown, Stella Dallas, Manhattan Merry Go Round, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, Frontpage Farrell, Inspector Thorne, The Romance of Helen Trent, Hearthstone of the Death Squad, and The American Melody Hour.