Monday, June 7, 2010

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ...

A few years ago, I got my first MP3 player at a Black Friday sale at the local hardware store. More accurately, my mom and I were shopping for the rest of the family and she impulse-bought the player, striking me “blind” so I’d have to act surprised on Christmas morning. It was sort of weird because my mom does not impulse-buy electronics. (She impulse-buys fruit, a trait I have inherited and the reason that no house I live in is ever without apples.) But there she was, picking up a 5GB player and dropping it into the cart and waving her hand in front of my eyes in a manner reminiscent of Alec Guinness telling you these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Just then, a sales associate or whatever they’re called walked up to these two obviously techno-illiterate females (there are not a lot of women who shop at that Ace Hardware) and asked if we had any questions about the player. Since he was about 70 and normally sold garden hoses, I wasn’t sure he’d know any more about it than I would, so I decided to mess with him a little.

And I said, “Yeah. It says on the box it’ll hold X songs. Do you know how many that is when the songs are half an hour long?”

He frowned at me. “What kind of music are you listening to?”

And I said, “The Green Hornet, mostly.”

The look on his face was priceless. I could all but hear the gears grinding as he tried to work out whether someone my age could possibly mean that Green Hornet or whether it was some kind of punk band whose songs were all half an hour long. Eventually, I put him out of his misery and admitted that it was that Green Hornet. He didn’t seem any less puzzled.

In all my life, I have met exactly one other OTR (old-time radio) buff. It is not a common hobby, at least for those below retirement age. But I discovered old radio shows young, and got addicted fast. I saw an article in the paper one Halloween announcing that the local news station was going to re-run Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds, and I tuned in to hear what had once made people panic. I wasn’t terribly impressed (what was with all the musical interludes?), but when the announcer came on during a break and explained that the station normally played old radio shows during its nightly “Drama Hour”, I was intrigued enough to tune in again. I listened to comedy from Jack Benny (though I preferred Burns and Allen), drama from Suspense, and cops-and-robbers from Tales of the Texas Rangers (no cowboys, just a ‘50s cop drama set in Texas) and the original Dragnet. I discovered a whole universe of Westerns, and quickly figured out that my favorites were The Six Shooter (James Stewart!) and Have Gun, Will Travel, which I only later discovered was also a TV show. I discovered Isaac Asimov when I heard X Minus One adapt his “Nightfall” for something called the “theater of the mind.” I got to know the Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger and the Shadow in their natural habitats, and liked them enough to track down the Hornet in NOW Comics, the Ranger on videotape, and the Shadow in the Alec Baldwin movie (which did not do the show justice, of course).

I taped episodes off the air and listened to them on my walkman (yes, it was that long ago). I haunted Talking Book World and jealously guarded whatever I could getGreen Hornet episodes were the best, but I also got my hands on recordings of Laurence Olivier acting out stories by Herman Melville and Nikolai Gogol, which was pretty cool, too. My grandparents’ friends would hear about my interest and give me their bootleg tapes of Sir John Gielgud playing Sherlock Holmes. I listened to my recording of “The Final Problem”—Orson Welles as Moriarty, and the entire Reichenbach Fall fight done as a violin solo!—until it was no longer intelligible.

I was fascinated by the old radio shows for several reasons. For one, this was the same age where I was concerned about going blind, but radio depended on the mind’s eye—and mine was always quite sharp. For another, little anachronisms in the shows’ writing fascinated me. I remember the first time I heard the Lone Ranger pray that he wouldn’t die—a double oddity, since good 1990s action heroes never showed fear and never prayed to any god about anything unless it was a Very Special Episode. I was so surprised that I rewound the tape four times and turned the volume up to max to make sure I hadn’t misheard.

It was also fascinating to hear the pieces of franchise characters that had been edited out over the years. How many people who watched the old Lone Ranger TV show knew that, before he was retconned into being a Boy Scout on horseback, he spent part of every radio episode ducking the town sheriff, who naturally was always trying to arrest the masked gunman running loose in his city? No wonder his descendant put on a mask to become the Green Hornet, supposed 1930s gangster and secret scourge of the underworld! The Green Hornet was always a shady character, but who knew the Lone Ranger was originally a glorified owlhoot? It was unbearably cool.

And then the news station was bought out, and the Drama Hour was canceled (the new head of the station later told me that he got more hate mail about cancelling the OTR hour than any other change he made). I had only my old tapes, in an era where even CDs were rapidly becoming passé.

God bless the internet.

There are now websites out there that offer radio episodes for download or for sale, since many of the recordings are now in the public domain. Thanks to and the like, I’ve discovered that Frank Lovejoy, star of my noir favorite Nightbeat, also played the hilariously hyperviolent Blue Beetle. (I can’t stop giggling whenever I imagine the hard-bitten reporter of Nightbeat putting on blue spandex and chainmail and jumping out of windows.) I found the 11-episode series of Superman where Batman gets kidnapped by anti-Marshall Plan wackos and Robin tracks down Clark Kent for help (Dick Grayson crying in the Daily Planet newsroom—weird).

Most of these sites promote the shows on the basis that they’re “clean entertainment for the whole family.” Don’t believe it. Anybody who says that has never listened to the nastier episodes of The Shadow or pretty much any of Nightbeat. No, I keep coming back to my crackly old treasures for their unique combination of ingenuity and imagination. It takes a certain kind of mind to write for an audience that can never see what is being described—and to understand the differences between writing for the ear and writing for the eye. (If you don’t believe me, read a newspaper article and then read a transcript of a radio news story—even the sentence constructions are different.) And it takes a certain kind of mind to view those limitations as advantages. I’ve lost count of the number of stories improved by the fact that writers could withhold certain details from “blind” audiences until a critical moment, and the moments when a single word or sound conjured an entire scene for listeners. Listen to a few episodes of Nightbeat if you’re ever having trouble with voice or scene-setting. Frank Lovejoy’s voice and a clarinet are all you need to build a world.

Someday soon I plan to start getting into podcasts with an OTR sensibility—I’ve been impressed with The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd and I’ve heard some promising ads for a podcast drama called Second Shift. And maybe someday I’ll stop getting weird looks at the gym when I gasp or break up laughing in the middle of a session on the stationary bike.

Well, that last one’s not too likely. But hey, I can dream.


  1. Well, the musical interludes in War of the Worlds was to give the appearance of an actual readio broadcast being constantly interrupted. It caused a panic because the people of New Jersey.... live in Jersey [I'm a New Yorker, if NJ's the punchline, you don't need the rest of the joke]

    The Shadow film didn't do the show justice.... Orson Wells, vs Alec Baldwin... no contest.

    You might want to look up Jeffery Deaver-- an author who has taken great advantages of the audience being as blind as a bat. He's sort of screwed up overall, really....

  2. Max (as in Max & Ruby) loves radio dramas too. ~ Supper Bunny Saves The World!

  3. The New Jersey panic does not explain the massive freakout that was Concrete, Washington, though.

    Supper Bunny. Sounds delish ...