Category: Golden Age Article

Radio That Teaches American History

A recent study shows that Americans don’t know their history. According to the NAEP report card, 22% of American students are proficient at grade level in American History, dropping to 13% for High School graduates.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like the case. During the golden age of radio,  the radio not just the theater of the mind, it told the story of America’s heritage, passing it on like an ancient storyteller around a campfire.

And those who told these stories of America were some of the best at it. Thankfully, many of these great shows are preserved so that we can find those unique and exciting stories that are part of American history.

We cannot hope to cover every single series that was about some portion of American History. The field of radio programs is far too vast. Rather, in this piece we’ll highlight four shows that represent a good jumping off point. Nor does this list included the almost never-ending list of programs that because of their age, give us an insight into history.

1) Cavalcade of America: 1935-53:

The term “Cavalcade” is one that was used often during the golden age of radio and television but not commonly today. A Cavalcade is a procession, a noteworthy series. The theme of Cavalcade of America’s early years was that as Americans we were part of a cavalcade that kept moving on.  Early episodes would take a look at a theme. In the first episode, “No Turning Back,” the program began with the pilgrims electing to stay through the hard winter at Plymouth Rock and then turned to farmers who had been hit by the dust bowl who found the courage to keep on. Both, according to the program’s creators were part of  that same procession. Future episodes focused on virtues of self-reliance, industry, and the will to rebuild. Each took vignettes from American history and tied them together through this Cavalcade theme.

And the stories that were told were magnificient. There were, of course, the ones you’d expect such as the Wright Brothers flight. However, there were many marvelous little known gems from American history.  Examples include:

  • A steamboat race from St. Louis to New Orleans that captured the imagination of the world.
  • The settlement of Oklahoma and why the state was called the Sooner State.
  • The man who struggled to make a business of exporting ice from the United States and selling it overseas in tropical climates in the 19th Century.

The program did evolve and the Cavalcade theme became less prominent, particularly during the War years. If you listened to other radio programs during the war you’d hear about the work done by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, but the Cavalcade of America took pains to portray  the Merchant Marines, ambulance drivers in Africa, and those who brought supplies to the front.

Cavalcade of America featured some of the finest talent in radio. Among those who appeared were: Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell, Bob Bailey, and a host of others.

Cavalcade continued to tell remarkable true stories, along with a few fictionalized plays that were popular in the era. While occassional bias in the selection of material or the portrayal of controversial figures was on occassion, apparent, the series remains a marvel.

The show was sponsored by the Dupont Corporation and here Dupont deserves some plaudits. Unlike other sponsors who threw old transcription discs out like old rubbish, Dupont has held on to most of these discs, and they deserve some credit for the series being so well-catalogued and with more than 700 episodes in circulation. Dupont’s ads themselves are great history as they describe how the company is working for “better living through Chemistry” and some of Dupont’s latest advances, many of which we take for granted in the 21st Century.

The Old Time Radio Researchers set of this series remains one of the best collections, providing a good look at the breadth of this series.  Click here to sample some of the single episodes.

2) Inheritance: 1954-55

This program, filled the void of Cavalcade of America. It was sponsored by the American Legion and aired over NBC. It featured stories from American History, both well-known figures such as Davy Crocket and George Washington Carver, as well as lesser known figures such as the first female American physician, Elizabeth Blackwell.

49 of 57 episodes of “Inheritance” are available for download at the Internet Archive.

3) You Are There: 1947-50

It was Orson Welles with his, “War of the Worlds” broadcast that first highlighted the dramatic storytelling power of a fictional newscast. In 1947, CBS News used the power of radio to teach history in its radio programs (and later television version), You Are There.

CBS is There/You Are There showed how historical events would have been covered by a modern news organization. In this Case, CBS, brought to life such events as the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  It should be noted that not every episode of You Are There focused on American History, with CBS covering global events such as the last days of Pompeii and deaths of Joan of Arc and Socrates.  CBS offered a great product and episodes are available at the Internet Archive. The Digital Deli has put together a wonderful log that arranges the episodes of You Are There in historical order.

4) Mr. President: 1947-53

Each episode of Mr. President tell a real story from the life of the President of United States.  Often the stories are exciting or little known chapters in the lives of the men who have filled the office. Mr. President in all of his persons is played by Edward Arnold.

The series was noted for not telling listeners what President was being profiled until the end with listeners guessing who it was. Sadly, many OTR collectors have ruined that aspect of the series by labeling the shows with the name of the President.

However, there’s still much to enjoy. You can download 126 episodes of Mr. President at the Internet Archive.

5) Other shows:

As stated at the start of this article, we’re only scratching the surface of historical old time radio.There were plenty of other shows that profiled American History. The OTRR, a few years back assembled a collection of radio shows on American History with excerpts from programs such as American Trail,  Destination: Freedom, and Frontier Fighters.

You can listen to these miscellaneous  programs at the Internet Archive which also contains many other great radio treasures that provide an insight into America’s great history.

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The Family Doctor: A Wholesome Radio Prescription

If you’re looking for a wholesome Old Time Radio  for the whole family, Family Doctor could be just what the doctor ordered.

Over the years, many television series, books, and movies  have taken a longing look at the past in programs such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons which served as  a reminder of old fashioned values and a time when a sense of community was a reality. The quest for this sort of world continues in the 21st Century with the rise of Amish fiction stories.

Family Doctor is not taking a look back, but is set in the then-present which is widely believed to be 1932 when the shows were produced.  Like the other syndicated 15 minute shows we examined the last two weeks, Family Doctor’s 39 episodes were syndicated to various radio stations and sold as a package. Unlike the other shows, Family Doctor had regular character and story archs.

The show follows the adventures of Grant Adams, the longtime physician of the small town of Cedarton. Cedarton is a three-dimensional town brimming with wonderful characters who Doc Adams tries to help and encourage including Pete who runs the drugstore and Griff, the workaholic boat renter who works too hard and always promises that he’ll find a younger man to do his hard work.  Then there are two teenage girls who compete for the hear of a clerk at the drug store and then when he leaves, they fight for the next clerk hired.

The 39 episodes of Family Doctor range from the humorous to the exciting  , the heartbreaking and the inspirational:

“Pete May, the Ambulance Driver”

With Dr. Adams’ car is in the shop so he asks Pete to drive him out on a house call)

“The Fire Alarm”

After talking about how nothing happens in Cedarton, Doc and the other volunteer firemen go to the scene of a fire where Doc risks his life to save a child.

“Enjoyment”

The town drunk is injured saving the life of a little girl and Doctor Adams works feverishly to save him.

Episodes 37-39

The 3-part series finale which requires Doc to make a difficult choice about his future and that of the town.

Doc Adams calls to mind generations of country doctors who were revered for their selfless giving of their lives for their patients.  Yes, this doctor does make house calls. He dispensed more common sense, wisdom, and kindness than any other prescription in the series.

Cedarton feels like a real place with real flaws: the program portrays Cedarton having incidents surrounding gossip, foolish competitions, suspicion of strangers, and even uncivil politics. At the same time,  Cedarton is also a  community where people are watching out for others. When Chic, who works at the drug store wants to rent a boat for a date, Griff makes it clear that he doesn’t rent boats to unmarried young couples without parental consent. Family Doctor presents small town life at its best and its worse. The exact location of the fictional town is never disclosed, but based on clues from the show, it was probably in upstate New York or New England.

The show remains a little known treasure:. It captures a time and place in American history with well-written and well-performed stories. The actors remain anonymous, although some take guesses. David Goldin suggests Jane Morgan and John Gibson (“Ethelbert”) appeared in the show, and I think I heard Agnes Moorhead, but identifying voice without credits s is always iffy.

The program pre-dates the similarly themed Dr. Christian radio series by five years and stands up well after nearly eighty years despite the lack of a named cast.

Click here to download episodes of the Family Doctor from the Internet Archive.

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A Review of the Columbo Collection

[This was originally slated to be posted on July 9th but was moved to today due to the passing of the great Peter Falk. You may also enjoy our look at the top 10 1970s Columbo episodes in parts one, two, and three ]

It’s been nearly eight and a half years since the last Columbo movie and with star Peter Falk’s health issues assured there would be no sequel. Now Falk’s death may have some folks wanting a little bit more Columbo.

Creator William Link, has returned to working on Columbo sans Peter Falk, writing a play, Columbo Takes the Rap. Last year, Link released The Columbo Collection, the first ever compilation of Columbo short stories, featuring twelve Columbo adventures.

The Columbo Collection is a must for any fan of the series. Usually, writing these sort of volumes falls to people who are not really associated with the series or whose affiliation is loose, and they can’t get the character accurate. Link brings credibility to the stories and gets Columbo pretty close to right.

To truly enjoy the book, your expectations have to be properly set.  Reading the stories is not going to come close to replaciating the fun of watching Columbo on television or the depth of the stories.  Each story is between 15-26 pages long. Some of the preludes to the murder in TV episodes would take longer than that to tell.

Columbo’s unique structure doesn’t lend itself well to these sort of limitations, so it’s no surprise that the book is a mixed bag.

On the positive side, as a master of mystery, Link created several memorable gems, some of which approached the level of being lik e a mini-Columbo episode (imagine Columbo as a half hour TV show):

“The Criminal Criminal Defense Attorney”- A lawyer gets his client acquitted of  rape and then kills him. This story does a good job portraying the mental duel between Columbo and the attorney, and the final clue is classic Columbo. Also, a high powered defense attorney is perhaps the closest any of the stories come to Columbo’s usual battle against an elitest.  The only weak spot of this story is that the motive is hard to believe.

“The Blackest Mail”-The longest story in the book  and well-worth the read. An actress murders a man who is trying to blackmail her by trying to make it look like self-defense. Now she has to evade Columbo. This one did a great job with the cat and mouse chase.

“Trance”-In several stories, Link doesn’t show us the murder, but it’s clear from the beginning who Columbo thinks is “the guy” (to quote Monk.) Such as is the case with “Trance” as we know from the beginning that Columbo’s suspicion lies firmly on a hypnotist that has an airtight alibi. The way that Columbo breaks the alibi is classic. Unfortunately, the way Columbo puts the murderer at the scene of the crime is not credible.

“Murder Allegro”-Another where we don’t see the murder, but are relying on Columbo who is sure that a musician murdered his wife, who was also part of the band. This one is not only a howcatchem but a howdidit. On both points, this story works.

“Photo Finish”-This story was unique in staying in the viewpoint of the murderer from start to finish as she plots the murder of her philandering husband. This character has a very distinct voice as a woman scorned out for revenge at all costs and annoyed by her amateur mistakes in the murder game. Unfortunatley for her, Columbo basically walks into the solution.

Opposite the table of contents, The Columbo Collection also features a very nice sketch of Columbo drawn by Peter Falk.  Link also writes an introduction to his piece that contains much the same information as he’s posted on his website but had a couple interesting added details.

One was about Bert Freed, who was the first actor to play Columbo as the first Columbo telepay was an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show. Link ran into Freed and found out that Freed had forgotten he’d ever played Columbo. Freed had want Link called actor’s amnesia, and it’s easy to forget one role on a forgotten TV show dcades before.  I found it amusing that if Freed had somehow landed on Celebrity Jeopardy, he would missed the question, “The first actor to play Columbo.”

On the negative side,  the story Grief was the weakest of the lot. Everything about the story was tedious. And the story was made worse when Columbo tried to mitigate one elderly man running over another, because the driver thought the pedestrian had committed a hit and run on his dog.

Most of the other stories that aren’t listed above are forgettable, with weak plots, weak conclusions, or weak characters. They don’t possess all of these problems, but they’re seriously handicapped by the short story format and trying to have Columbo have a battle of wits and solve a case in 20 pages.

Also, in many of these stories, Link does a poor job choosing his villains. Part of the appeal of Columbo is the every man again battling the rich, famous, and powerful. Putting Columbo up against other everymen as Link does when he puts Columbo against a Gardener-War Veteran, another cop of about equal rank, a retiree, and a man who lost his girlfriend to a would-be-assassn’s ricochet does just that. Of course, that would be realistic, but Columbo has never been about realism.

The first five stories contain motives buried in psychobabble that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thankfully, Link proceeds to a pattern of using more traditional motives like jealousy, greed, and revenge which work  far better in short story form.

One hopeful sign is that these stories do appear to be published in the order  in which Link wrote them and the last few attempts are far more refined, with the last three stories all making my list of the gems in the book., which means if he opts to do another Columbo collection, he may be in better form.

Personally, I would probably have much preferred a collection of three or four Columbo novellas which would have provided more time for the format to work.  Still, it was a worthy read, particularly for fans that miss that rumpled rain coat.

Rating:Three Stars out of Five.

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The Redbook Dramas: A Review

Redbook Dramas

Redbook Magazine has evolved over the years. The modern Redbook is a woman’s magazine, commonly sold in the checkout aisle with relationship and household stories featured prominently. In the early 30s, the magazine was a well-known publisher of short stories, and published a large number of female authors in what was a male-dominated field.

In 1932, Redbook’s short stories came to the radio under the title  of The Redbook Dramas. Redbook was an early example of the magazine to radio format. Reader’s Digest and others would eventually follow suit.

While more of a mixed bag than the Diamond Dramas, the Redbook Dramas still offer a decent quarter hour of entertainment. The stories feature range from adventures to romance, and even two fair detective stories make the cut.

Some of the better episodes:

A Pass to Peking:

A kindly school teacher smuggles a rickshaw driver on a train in a coffin, never knowing that he’s a well-educated military officer trying to escape from his enemies.

Under the Midnight Sun:

A whodunit featuring an Eskimo amateur detective.

You Have to Have Something:

A story of a woman in vaudeville who wants to make her partnership more than just a professional arrangement, but is frustrated by her partner’s interest in another woman.

Minister Wanted:

A good comedy-romance about an unlikely couple drawn together by being held by two desperate criminals.

There were lesser entries of course, “The Kid” was a little too unbelievable and the characters were not very relatable and “Lazy Bones” seemed just a little bit silly.  “England Will Stand” was not a favorite either and I felt more sympathy for the character they made out to be a buffoon than for the one who was supposed to be the hero, an advertising genius who stood firmly on the side of sex in advertising.

Beyond that, I should note that the ending of, “Anything You Want is Yours” was surprisingly suggestive for an OTR show, so parental discretion is advised.

Overall, there are far worse things that could be done with 15 minutes than sampling Redbooks Dramas.  19 episodes of the Redbook Dramas were collected by the Old TIme Radio Researchers and are available for download at the Internet Archive.

Photo courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers.

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Book Review: The Rubber Band

The great thing about reading Nero Wolfe novels is you never quite know what to expect. The Nero Wolfe stories are a blend of hard-boiled stories as well as the genius/gentleman detective stories. The exact composition of the blend varies from book to book.

The Rubber Band is definitely closer to the cozy side of mysteries rather than the hardboiled detective story.  Published in 1936, it was the the third of the Nero Wolfe novels and came on the heels of much darker stories in Fer-de-lance and The League of Frightened Men.

The book begins with a corporate executive trying to engage Wolfe to investigate a theft of $30,000 in Cash. The person who has been fingered for the theft by the company’s vice-president is the beautiful Miss Clara Fox.

However, Miss Fox also wants to engage Wolfe to help her claim money owed to her father and his partner. An English nobleman in America in the Old West faced hanging by vigilantes. A band of men led by a Mr. Rubber Coleman formed “the Rubber Band” which helped the nobleman escape the vigilantes in exchange for 1/2 of his fortune. Clara recognizes the nobleman who is now quite wealth,  and she calls for  all of her father’s partners (except for Mr. Coleman who she can’t find)  and their heirs to claim their share of the fortune from the nobleman who is now staying in New York. She offers Wolfe a cut to help her collect.

One of  her father’s partners is killed after leaving the Brownstone to meet someone and the police want to question Clara Fox. Wolfe is determined to protect his client and hides her from the police.

This features the first appearance of Lieutenant Rowcliff, everyone’s least favorite police detective who gets a search warrant to find Ms. Fox, but Wolfe manages to foil him in a classic set up. This book is full of fantastic characters: A British lord, corporate robber-barons, and an old cowboy among others.

Fox is the first woman to successfully charm Wolfe in the series, with Wolfe even reading Hungarian poetry to her. By the standard of future stories, Wolfe’s reaction to her may be a bit bunch, but Stout was still getting a feel for the character when he wrote the Rubber Band.

The somewhat disappointing part of this story was Inspector Cramer. He was almost subserviant to Wolfe, and volunteered the fact that he liked Wolfe.  Clearly, it would take a few more books for Cramer to develop into the hardnosed belligerant cop that we all know and love.

However, for all the early hiccups in the series, The Rubber Band remains an enjoyable and well-paced mystery. In some points, its reminiscent of Agatha Christie stories as well as The Sign of Four. The mystery works out to a clever and satisfying conclusion.

It’s a shame that this one wasn’t made into a film like the first two books were. Both Fer-de-Lance and League of Frightened Men seemed like much more unlikely adaptations with their very convoluted plots. This one would have made a perfect 1930s mystery movie with the right cast.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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