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.

Detective Radio Dragnet Jack Webb Old Time Radio Police Drama

21st Precinct and Dragnet, East and West Coast Cop Shows

The phenomenal success of Dragnet, premiering in 1949, was bound to have imitators. One of the Columbia network’s answers was 21st Precinct.

Comparisons between the two police procedural dramas are interesting. Both shows emphasize the human reality of police work. The sound effects are an important part of both shows, especially the background noise and chatter in the police station and the sounds of automobiles, and police jargon peppers the dialog.

The differences between the two programs are compelling. 21St Precinct takes place in Manhattan, where as Dragnet is very much a part of the 50’s west coast scene of Los Angeles. Twenty First Precinct is seen through the eyes of the precinct captain, and so gives us an overview of the entire precinct’s business. While a single case is the focus of each episode, we also hear the captain’s distractions as different cases and police business are thrown in.

Dragnet focuses on the work of a single police detective sergeant and his partner. The partners serve in the various divisions of the department, thereby giving us a glimpse of many different facets of police work. We also are allowed brief looks into the personal lives of Sgt.s Friday and Romero, which are not part of the plot, but help to make the characters more real.

Although Dragnet makes more use of dramatic devices, the very recognizable theme music and “the names have been changed” disclaimer, Jack Webb managed to create a much more realistic feeling program. This is due to the gritty feel of the program, and Webb’s portrayal of Friday as a “cops cop”, tough but not hard, conservative but fair and understanding.

21st Precinct lacks the “grab the audience by the throat” quality of Dragnet , but the stories, based on real events, are very well written and performed. In addition to being great police drama, 21st Precinct also gives us a good aural picture of Manhattan in the 50s.

Old Time Radio Police Drama

“Indictment” Old Time Radio Show (1956)

In the 1950s radio broadcasting in the United States was at its zenith, with television still just starting out. Indictment was a popular radio drama aired on the CBS network and it started on January 29, 1956, airing up to 1959. This show was based on the case files of former New York City Assistant District Attorney Eleazer Lipsky, and it foreshadowed the “procedural” dramas (on radio and television, subsequently).

The subject of the show was the step-by-step account of the handling of criminal cases leading to an indictment as the climax. The protagonist of “Indictment” — Assistant District Attorney Edward McCormick — was played by Nat Polen, better known for his role as Dr. James Craig on ABC-TV’s “One Life to Live.”

Enjoy this episode titled “The Witness Who Wasn’t”: