Old Time Radio
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
my list from top to bottom of the best of what I hear.
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:
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…”
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.
Mayor La Trivia played by the inimitable Gale Gordon. Gordon had a
wonderful voice, terrific timing and writers who knew how to write for
Wallace Wimple, also played by Thompson, a Casper Milquetoast who was
always complaining about his brutish wife, Sweetface, who never
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.
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.
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
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
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
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,
(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
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.
(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…”
(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
(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.
(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
(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
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(1944-51) While the stories are just OK, what makes this special is the
star, Vincent Price, and his wonderful voice.
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.
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