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Best of Old Time Radio

by Tony Medley

I started life in the radio era, although we got our first TV when I was 8. I still remember listening to radio. Episodic radio and shows other than news and music disappeared in the early ‘60s. Now, however, anyone with satellite radio can access vintage radio shows and it’s the channel to which I listen most often. I don’t get every show ever broadcast, so this list is culled from what’s available today on satellite radio.

 What’s surprising is what holds up and what doesn’t. What doesn’t are the comedies, like Burns & Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, The Great Gildersleeve, Duffy’s Tavern (“where the elite meet to eat”), and Fred Allen. They just aren’t funny, although the Allen’s Alley segment that includes characters like the pompous Senator Claghorne (“that’s a joke, son, a joke that is”), who said everything twice is humorous. Warner Bros. based its animated rooster, Foghorn J Leghorn, on Sen. Claghorne.  Variety shows hosted by the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby don’t hold up either, although their topical jokes and patter and references to the celebrities of the time are interesting from a historical perspective. And Martin & Lewis, whom I found hilarious as a child, are simply silly in today’s world. It’s surprising that people found these shows funny enough to listen to week after week and year after year.

 Westerns like The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and Hopalong Cassidy were for children and it’s clear why. They are simple, corny, and unchallenging in concept and execution.

 Adding to the enjoyment of these shows is the narration of Sirius/XM host Greg Bell who always tells the date the show was broadcast and gives insights into its production and bios of some of the cast. Also fascinating are interviews Bell occasionally runs with some of the people involved, actors and producers. The shows themselves are run in their entirety, including the original commercials.

 As you will see from the list below, only two comedies stand the test of time for me. The rest of the shows that are still as entertaining as they were when aired are mysteries and dramas. What radio emphasizes is  exceptional acting. A pretty face or figure isn’t going to accomplish anything when you can’t see them. So when I listen to the shows, I always marvel at how good the acting and writing are, how effectively they put you where they want you to be.

 Here’s my list from top to bottom of the best of what I hear.

 1.   Fibber McGee and Molly: One of the most popular shows in radio history, it ran from 1935-1959 starring real life husband and wife Jim and Marion Jordan,  and consisted of a cast of memorable characters who visit the McGees at their home on Wistful Vista, each of whom appeared on almost every show. Unlike most of the comedies, this one is as fresh today as when first aired well over a half century ago. Some of the best characters:

a.   The Old Timer played by Bill Thompson. His recurring line that always brought laughs was, “Ha! Pretty good, Johnny. But that ain’t the way I heerd it. The way I heerd it twas, One feller says t’other feller, Saaaaaay, he says…”

b.   Teeny (also Sis and Little Girl) played by Marion Jordan (when Molly says something like, “I’m going upstairs, Dearie,” that’s your clue that Teeny’s coming on). A little girl, who calls Fibber, “Mister,” she’s my favorite character, always hilarious, giving Fibber a hard time.

c.   Mayor La Trivia played by the inimitable Gale Gordon. Gordon had a wonderful voice, terrific timing and writers who knew how to write for him.

d.   Wallace Wimple, also played by Thompson, a Casper Milquetoast who was always complaining about his brutish wife, Sweetface, who never appeared.

e.   Harlow Wilcox, playing himself, gave the commercial for Johnson’s Wax. In a unique twist, the second commercial was part of the show as Wilcox would show up at the McGee’s and always turn the conversation around to Johnson’s Wax, causing Fibber to moan and groan.

f.    The Hall Closet: A running gag was when Fibber would sometimes say, “Oh, that’s in the hall closet. I’ll go get it,” and he’d open a door which caused a cataclysmic tumble of virtually everything in the world to cascade onto the floor, a sound effect that seemed interminable.

Among the running gags was sometimes when Fibber would tell a joke, Molly would say, “T'ain’t funny McGee,” which became part of the lexicon in the 1940s.

2.   The Whistler: This was a show that was heard only on the west coast from 1942-55 and it was told from the POV of the bad guy. It started with someone whistling the familiar theme, written by Wilbur Hatch, followed by Bill Foreman, who narrated, saying,

I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.

Foreman’s narration in a contemptuous voice was in the form of a Greek chorus, taunting the protagonist from a vantage that he knew everything that was going to happen, speaking to the protagonist in the second person (“You thought you had considered everything, didn’t you, Dennis?”).

3.   Gunsmoke: (1952-61; the TV version started in 1955) starred William Conrad, probably the best radio voice of them all (Conrad appeared in many radio shows as a character actor) as Marshall Matt Dillon of Dodge City. The stories are adult and captivating. It got its life when William Paley, head of CBS, wanted to develop an adult western based on the hit show, Philip Marlowe. That was in 1948. It took three years to get it right and get it on the air and it went unsponsored for several years because CBS didn’t want a sponsor to spoil the frankness of the show and waited until one was found who would take it as it was. It had a great cast with Howard McNear playing Doc, Georgia Ellis playing Kitty, and Parley Bear playing Chester (who was never identified as having a limp; that was added for the TV show). Like The Whistler, it had a memorable lead-in, with an announcer saying it was “...the story of the violence that moved west with young America, and the story of a man who moved with it.” Conrad would then say, “I’m that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal – the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.” The stories are as good today as they were more than a half century ago.

4.   Our Miss Brooks: (1948-57) While this had pretty simplistic stories, it worked because of a wonderful cast, highlighted by star Eve Arden as high school teacher, Connie, and her unique, wonderful voice of benign resignation, Gail Gordon, as her officious nemesis, Principal Osgood Conklin, Richard Crenna as her squeaky-voiced student, Walter Denton, and Jeff Chandler as Mr. Boynton, her shy object of affections. Arden’s voice makes the show more than worthwhile.

5.   Dragnet: (1949-57) Jack Webb’s creation is always imminently listenable even if he did steal its 4-note theme from Miklós Rózsa’s score for the movie The Killers (1946), without accreditation which resulted in a lawsuit that was settled out of court. It had two memorable openings. The first is George Fenneman saying, “The story you are about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Then another announcer would say,  “You're a Detective Sergeant. You're assigned to robbery detail.” (In one episode) “A well-organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. Your job: break it." To give it verisimilitude, Webb, as Sgt. Joe Friday, would narrate the story using specific times for specific events and real Los Angeles locations, like “4:32 p.m. we were driving east on Beverly Boulevard…”

6.   The Shadow: (1937-1954) Although 22-year old Orson Welles made the show famous, he only played the character for one year, 1937-38, replaced by Bill Johnstone for five years, and Bret Morrison for ten (two runs). This is another show with an iconic opening, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men; the Shadow knows, hahahahaha.” Welles didn’t voice that, though; Frank Readick, the first Shadow from 1931, did, using a water glass to produce an echo. While the stories are pretty ludicrous, they are well-acted and if you can accept the concept of The Shadow, they are all entertaining.

7.   Sam Spade: (1946-51) Dashiell Hammet’s detective, made famous by Humphrey Bogart in 1941’s movie of Hammet’s book, The Maltese Falcon, was equally popular on the radio when voiced by Howard Duff, who made the PI more tongue in cheek than Bogey. But when NBC took over the show from CBS in 1949, they didn’t invite Duff back because he was active in the opposition to HUAC (Hammet himself was alleged to have Communist party ties). Without Duff, the show didn’t last.

8.   Philip Marlowe: (1947-51) The first edition about Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye on NBC with Van Heflin lasted only one year but CBS picked it up and cast Gerald Mohr as Marlowe and it became a hit. Only two of the shows were based on Chandler stories. The rest were written for the show, but they were similar and entertaining. Mohr was a terrific hard-bit Marlowe.

9.   Inner Sanctum: (1941-52) When I was growing up the squeaky door that opened the show (the sound was actually made by a rusty desk chair)  was so scary I never listened to it. Now, though, it is a good mystery and the sardonic introductions by Raymond Edmond Johnson are funny and punful rather than scary.

10.        Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: (1949-62) This show about “ the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account — America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator” didn’t really become a hit until CBS revived it in 1955 from a half hour weekly to a daily 15-minute serial of five segments and placed Bob Bailey in the role of Dollar. The format is Dollar narrating his experiences as a private investigator working for insurance companies, going through his expense account, listing what each thing he did cost. Sounds strange but it works, although I don’t like the five 15-minute format because the story is too long for a radio format that is mostly accessed in an automobile in around-town driving.

11.        X-Minus One: A science fiction show, mostly stories of the future based on time and space, that ran for three years (1955-58) on NBC, many based on stories by famous writers like Robert Henlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Phillip K. Dick.

12.        Broadway is My Beat: (1949-54) Detective Danny Clover (Anthony Ross for three months; Larry Thor for the rest of the time) solves crimes "from Times Square to Columbus Circle -- the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world." Well done and entertaining with a narration by Danny.

13.        Night Beat: A high class mystery, it ran for two years (1950-52) on NBC starring Frank Lovejoy who had one of the best and most memorable voices in Hollywood. He starred as Randy Stone, a reporter for the Chicago Star, looking for human interest stories.

14.        Suspense: (1942-62): This CBS show was one of the highest quality on the air featuring A-list stars like Cary Grant. Its final broadcast in 1962 coincided with the final broadcast of “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” a day that has been called the end of the Golden Age of Radio.

15.        Box 13: Produced by and starring Alan Ladd, this series had 52 episodes that ran from 1948-49. It was based on an ad in the paper reading, "Adventure wanted, will go anywhere, do anything -- write Box 13, Star-Times,” resulting in various adventures.

16.        The Saint: (1944-51) While the stories are just OK, what makes this special is the star, Vincent Price, and his wonderful voice.

17.        Have Gun, Will Travel: (1958-60) This western was one of the few radio shows that was inspired by a TV show that started in 1957. Richard Boone was TV’s Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter who hired out of San Francisco, but John Dehner, a veteran radio actor, was the radio Paladin. The show had great writers, including Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek.

 If you subscribe to Sirius/XM radio, you can listen to all these shows on Channel 82, hosted by Bell. Radio Spirits, which owns the rights to the shows, also syndicates a show entitled “When Radio Was” and makes shows available online at http://www.radiospirits.com/onradio/wrw_past.asp.