Todd wrote in with a question about lost episodes of the radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:
How many episodes of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes exist? This posting says that there maybe another 150 floating around. Is it true?
The Wikipedia article linked states that there are 150 episodes of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone/Tom Conway) in existence. Is this true? The answer is, “possibly.” On the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, we played around 90 episodes of that run. In addition to that, I found one episode, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” that was so unintelligible and at such bad sound quality I couldn’t play it. I also discovered an intact episode, however it was one part of a six part telling of Hound of the Baskervilles. And I found fragments of a few other episodes with 10-15 minutes of an episode with poor sound quality.
But saying it could be true and saying it is are two different things. Indeed, someone updated the Wikipedia article to state that there was no evidence to back the assertion up (in which case, it would probably make more sense to delete the assertion.) While its true that any number of Sherlock Holmes episodes could exist, the poor sound quality episodes and fragments I’ve found higlights a big barrier to the episodes being listenable or available.
More than half the lost episodes come during World War II with all but one of the rest being pre-World War II. During World War II, the use of aluminum transcription discs was abandoned as aluminum was a vital war material. Instead, glass was used transcription discs and glass discs are far more likely to be damaged, and there’s also a possibility that metal transcription discs were given to various metal drives during the war. Of course, there are shows that ran during World War II that survive in listenable form, so it remains possible that a large number of episodes could have survived, but the odds are against the discs.
If episodes did exist in listenable form that are not available to the public or most collectors, where might they be? They could be either inaccessible or in the hands of people who don’t know what they have.
There are a large number of OTR collectors as well as educational institutions that keep their collections under wraps for a variety of reasons. For many shows, the number of episodes outstanding is quite substantial.
For example, we played the Adventures of the Thin Man, all eight playable and complete episodes in circulation. Dennis at the Digital Deli estimates that he has 30 episodes and that there may be 200-300 episodes in circulation. There are 125 episodes of Nick Carter in circulation online, the Radio Goldindex catalogs the existence of 350. Why might some of these episodes not be available to the public?
1) They don’t that anyone other than fellow collectors care: If you can find one person out of twenty who knows who the Great Gildersleeve or Fibber McGee and Molly are, you’re doing good. The idea that anyone other than fellow collectors care about it may seem odd. In addition, some may have given up the hobby but still have their collection stored.
2) They’re collectors: A g0od collection (regardless of what you’re collecting) has what no one else has. When it comes to radio shows, having programs that no one has or few people have is what makes a collection worthwhile and as long as they’re able to hold on to their collection, they’ll keep what they have under wraps.
3) Concern about Commercialization: Many collectors have been extremely piqued at commercial exploitation of Old Time Radio by OTR MP3 companies that will often take carefully preserved high quality mp3s and downgrade the audio so that they can fit 100 episodes on a $5 CD. It leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many collectors, particularly when you consider that there are some collectors who think the only real way to listen to golden age radio is right off the transcription disc. For people who have spent decades collecting, the shoddy packaging of these recordings is a big discouragement from sharing more.
For those who aren’t collectors, it’s easy to not know what they have. Golden Age radio programs are preserved chiefly on electronic transcription discs and reel-to-reel tape recorders. While the electronic transcription discs look a lot like vinyl records, they won’t play on a normal record player, and hardly anyone has a reel-to-reel tape player.
This means that items can end up in thrift stores, estate sales, or even thrown away with no one knowning what they are. If you happen to stumble on a transcription disc or golden age of radio reel-to-reel tape, contact a local Golden Age radio group or the Old Time Radio Researchers.
Will missing episodes of Sherlock Holmes and other programs be found? Yes, but many will be lost. Dennis at the Digital Deli warns fellow collectors regarding the Thin Man warning that uncirculated episodes of the Thin Man will either be digitized and appear, “or quite frankly they risk being lost forever…Despite everyone’s best efforts, those examples that remain undigitized simply continue to disintegrate or corrode beyond satisfactory recovery.”
A dire warning indeed. So we’ll see what emerges and what will be lost. In the meanwhile, we’ll enjoy the episodes that have surved to modern day.
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If you have an Old Time Radio, Classic Television, or Classic Cinema question you’d like me to research, email me and I’ll consider it for a future article.