Tag: Old Time Radio

Radio Series Review: Your Hit Parade

Your Hit Parade was one of the most successful music programs of radio’s golden age, running from 1935-53 on radio and then continuing over television until 1959.

The series evolved into playing the top tunes of the week (often in no particular order) with each song sung live on the air by one of the series’ vocalists. There are more than 100 episodes in circulation, and you can hear a little of the evolution of music over two decades. However, it should be note there’s only handful of recordings from the 1930s and even fewer episodes of the 1950s. The sweet spot for circulating episodes is between 1942 and 1949, so if you love 1940s pop music, Your Hit Parade is for you.

It’s probably my favorite era in popular music with popular music being influenced by old time country western and jazz, along with some great sentimental songs for crooning, World War II patriotic hits, and love songs that were actually about love and marriage.

There were of different vocalist who sang on the series but the most famous was Frank Sinatra, who had two stints as the show’s male vocalist. One of the delights of listening to the series is hearing Sinatra sing some songs that you wouldn’t associate with him like “The San Fernando Valley.”

Of course, Sinatra and the others had to sing some of the lesser songs including the most bizarre song to make the hit parade, “The Woody Woodpecker Song. “

This song stayed on the charts for months, including weeks as the top tune in the country. You can hear Sinatra’s frustration with having to sing this song over and over again. Most bizarre is that Your Hit Parade was based in part on what people were asking the bandleader to play and I strain to imagine adults in the 1940s asking the bandleader to play, “The Woody Woodpecker Song.”  Still, while it’s bit annoying,  it’s not offensive, it’s just bizarre that this tune was this popular with adults.

However, despite a few clunkers, there are a lot of forgotten musical treasures, and some fun performances.  In addition, the series has some episodes that will surprise you such as one episode from 1938 when comic legend W.C. Fields was performing comedy with Baby Snooks “Daddy” Hanley Stafford as the announcer/straight man. In addition, there are some episodes in circulation dated after the show ceased broadcasting a radio version which I assume were the soundtracks of the TV version which were often broadcast over radio.

Overall, I enjoyed listening to the circulating episodes and I would recommend them to any listener with a taste for the pop music of this area.

Review: Sealtest Variety Theater

Doing a live radio broadcast from a Houston hotel ballroom to a rowdy crowd on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1949 seemed like a good idea to someone. That infamous 1949 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theater became one of the biggest live radio fails in history and what the series is remembered for.

The Sealtest Variety Theater had a total of 42 broadcasts between its premier in September 1948 and it going off the air in July 1949. It was hosted by Dorothy Lamour who had co-starred in most of the Road movies with the legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The show featured a dazzling array of stars including Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Boris Karloff, and Sidney Greenstreet along with legends such as Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jim and Marianne Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck and Lum ‘n Abner, Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, and Ed Gardner as Archie from Duffy’s Tavern.

Lamour’s charisma and star power was on full display. She remained likable throughout the series run and provided nice musical performances as well. She appeared to have been enjoying the series, laughing regularly and making the audience want to laugh along with her.

Additional musical entertainment was provided by Henry Russell and his orchestra and the Crew Chiefs. The music is all pleasant to listen to and on par with what you’d hear on most other radio programs.

Through the show’s first seven months on the air, the format included plenty of music, a dramatic sketch between Lamour and the guest of the week, and a comedy bit. Sometimes Lamour performed in the comedic sketches. Other times, a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would perform a typical routine or there’d be an occasional stand-up sketch.

The comedy was pretty solid for the Golden Age. The dramatic sketches were a mixed bag. Some were fairly good, but others seemed trite, silly, or simplistic. I mostly enjoyed them, but there were a few times I felt bad that a talented actor had to work with that material.

The infamous Saint Patrick’s day performance fell during this run. The wild crowd and technical difficulties led to sound quality issues and a profanity being spoken over the air by a male voice. To her credit, Lamour remained calm through it all. It was radio veteran Gardener who lost it and ignored her attempts to keep the show on script by trying to come up with something random that would make the crowd happy.

The event made headlines and Lamour didn’t run for it. In one sketch later on where she had to boast of what deeds made her character tough enough for something, she said, “Oh yeah, well I did a show at a hotel in Houston.”

In April, the show tweaked its format. The music stayed, but the dramatic sketches and individual comedy guest spots were done away with. Eddie Bracken joined the series and it became something of a sitcom like Lamour and Bracken playing fictionalized versions of themselves, with Bracken finding ways to get himself and Lamour into trouble every week.

Bracken was a fair comic talent. In many ways, his style called to mind Alan Young’s style as an exuberant born loser who often believed Hollywood actors were exactly like the people they played in the movies.

Young filled in for Bracken in an incident that illustrates the culture of the golden age of radio. Young happened to be at the studio to record his own program and did the guess spot on Sealtest on 15 minutes notice. You couldn’t even tell the script had been written for another actor.

Overall, this is a decent comedy/music program.It didn’t have mind-blowing comedy or music, but it’s a pleasant and fun listen with some great talent. It deserves remembered for more than technical difficulties and some rowdy drunks ruining its Saint Patrick’s Day program.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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My Big Finish Twenty, Part Four

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary.  Last week, we featured #10-6. Two week ago we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16.

We wrap up our Big Finish Twenty with my final five.

5) Jago and Litefoot Series 10

I love Jago and Litefoot. I wrote four long posts detailing the history of their wonderful audio drama adventures, so of course they’d go on this list. Their absolute best Series was Series 10. (See my review here.) The set features some great adventures including Jago and Litefoot sending letters to their younger selves, competing with each other for the attention of their biographer, and Jago being buried alive and waking up in a dystopian future. The individual episodes are superb with the finale serving as a capstone to the first Ten Series of Jago & Litefoot.

Other contenders for Best Jago and Litefoot Series for me would include Series 1, Series 3, Series 5, and Series 8.

4)The One Doctor

The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) arrive in what the Doctor terms as a vulgar period of history where most things are known and there’s little exploration or curiosity. The Doctor and his exploits are pretty well-known. So well-known that a con man is impersonating the Doctor with the aide of his assistant Sally. The Doctor stumbles onto his impersonator but before he can get that sorted out, an evil overlord shows up and threatens to destroy the entire star system unless the system’s greatest treasures are brought to him.

This is the best Doctor Who comedy story Big Finish has released. It has a great cast including the future Doctor Who companion actor Matt Lucas, a clever script that makes sense, while still delivering a variety of humorous situations. Overall, this is an absolute joy.

3)Hamlet

Yes, you read that right. While it’s best known for its Science Fiction and Nostalgic TV adaptations, Big Finish did two Shakespearean plays, King Lear and Hamlet. Both plays were  well-performed with stellar casts that bring these legendary stories to life. Hamlet is my favorite of the two, since I generally like Hamlet a bit more than King Lear.

Hamlet is one of the best stories ever written, but that doesn’t mean adaptations of Hamlet are all good.  There are many poorly acted and poorly executed versions of the play that involve actors giving hammy performances or droning through their lines. There was a version of Hamlet that was subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff.

This is a brilliant Hamlet. Big Finish didn’t mess around with the script but they got some very good actors to appear in it. Alexander Vlahos is a great Hamlet. His delivery is pitch perfect. He makes every line real and credible.

The big advantage of this one is the sound design. Most audio versions of Shakespeare plays tend to be either recorded versions of the play or actors just reading the lines. However, this story has a very realistic and well-done sound design done by a company that specializes in making great-sounding audio. The sound and music are never intrusive or overdone and definitely enhance the experience.

This is a tremendous production that does justice to one of the greatest stories of all time.

2) Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his companion Charlotte Pollard (India Fisher) arrive at an Edwardian Mansion on Christmas where on the stroke of midnight, a servant is killed in a bizarre way. The Doctor and Charley find themselves drawn into the story and try to solve the mystery as reality and time seem to bend in this strange and unusual place as more servants continue to die each time midnight strikes.

This is an amazing and multi-faceted story. It’s science fiction, it’s a mystery, a dark comedy, and a satire on the English class system. It has some hilarious moments, some dark moments, and ends with some sweet and emotional moments. It features great acting, superb direction, and top-notch writing. Chimes of Midnight has been consistently listed as one of Big Finish’s best releases since it came out in 2002. (In 2015, it was voted the best monthly Doctor Who release by listeners.) It’s a story that lives up to its massive hype and is a must-listen.

1) Doctor Who: The Last Adventure

All of the Doctors who appear in Big Finish Doctor Who stories were given a proper ending to their tenure on television with their regeneration, or I should say all but one.

When Colin Baker was cast to play the Sixth Doctor, he had high hopes for a long, happy tenure in the role but ended up with a short, unfortunate tenure. His character as written was unlikable (particularly in his first story) while he was given a clashing, multi-color costume universally panned. On top of that, the show’s script editor thought he wasn’t fit for the role and said so publicly. The show went on hiatus for 18 months and when the show returned, it did so with a “trial” that reminded the audience of the recent unpleasantness. Baker did a good job with what he was given, but was ultimately fired from the show and didn’t return for a regeneration story. Instead, his successor Sylvester McCoy appeared on the TARDIS set wearing Baker’s outfit and a blonde wig.

Baker’s Doctor got a second chance at Big Finish. On audio, the Sixth Doctor became a more likable character and got several new companions while starring in a host of well-written and memorable releases including the previously mentioned One Doctor. That really gave Baker a chance to show how good a Doctor he could be and gave many fans a new appreciation of his Doctor.

After so many years and so many stories, Producer David Richardson had the idea of finally giving the Sixth Doctor a proper ending. This led to the Last Adventure, which features four stories throughout the Sixth Doctor’s life that ultimately set the stage for his regeneration and a final confrontation with his enemy the Valyard. Each story is told with a different companion and the stories take different tones from an eerie story about a strange train yard to a light-hearted story about doglike people who have stay indoors to avoid becoming human to a suspenseful tale of malicious evil in Victorian London (with Jago and Litefoot) to a final confrontation in the TARDIS, this box set covers a lot of ground and each chapter is well-written and well-executed. They’re not only a solid conclusion to Baker’s era, but they also each stand up as strong stories in their own right.

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Three Old Time Radio Detective Shows That Could be Rebooted in the 21st Century

Most old time radio programs work in part because of the era they’re set in. For most programs, trying to update them to modern times would be silly. Taking Philip Marlowe, Barrie Craig, Nick Carter, or Candy Matson out of their original contexts wouldn’t make sense.

Of course, it’s always possible to do a period piece. Although modern period pieces often suffer from creators deciding they need to transport twenty-first-century sensibilities back into historical periods.

However, some old time radio detective programs could be made well set in modern times, with a few tweaks thrown in:

1) Box 13

The original concept: 1940s series starring Alan Ladd. The reporter and mystery writer Dan Holiday places an ad in the paper, “Mystery wanted, will go anywhere, do anything.” A few episodes in, Dan hired a secretary named Susie. It seems she had undiagnosed inattentive-type ADD, which unfortunately got her dismissed as ditzy at the time.

Twenty-first Century updates: He would post his ad online and receive replies to an email address with “Box 13” sneaked into it believably. He could be an adventure blogger who posts about his adventures and lives on Patreon income and Google AdSense revenue. Also, Susie could be portrayed as not being so dumb while steering clear of making her a Mary Sue.

2) The Big Guy

The original concept: 1950s radio series starring John Calvin as a widowed single father raising his two kids on his own while also being a private detective.

Twenty-First Century Update: I always thought the original concept of the show had a lot of unrealized potential. Probably the most important thing would be to pick a tone. The surviving episodes vary too much. Some try to be adult crime dramas, while others would have appealed more to kids. I would propose making it a good family show with some comedy and the kids stumbling into his cases.

3) Mr. and Mrs. North

The original concept: A publisher and his wife solve mysteries together.

Twenty-First Century update: It’s been too long since we have a loving mystery-solving couple. Tampering would be minimal. Pam and Jerry are already equal partners in the mystery- solving department.Listening to the radio programs or watching the TV episodes, it’s a coin flip as to who’ll provide the solution.

She could have a separate career which leaves plenty of time for sleuthing, such as a photo blogger. Whoever wrote it would need to be careful to avoid turning her into the  “Strong Independent Woman” stock character that has replaced the damsel in distress. Pam North’s portrayal on radio and TV is witty, resourceful, funny, and fairly well-balanced. That should be maintained in any adaptation.

Honorable Mention: Night Beat

The original concept: Reporter Randy Stone roams the night in Chicago in search of stories. He writes mostly human interest tales of the best and worst of humanity in the night. Randy has a touch of cynicism, but also a lot of compassion and morality which motivates him. He’s part philosopher, as he paints broad pictures of humanity through each encounter.

Twenty-First Century update: Wouldn’t Work.

Night Beat makes a tempting target for a Twenty-First Century reboot. However, I don’t think it can be updated successfully.

Randy Stone is at the heart of the series. Unlike Box 13, you couldn’t just have him writing for a blog. He also couldn’t still be working on a newspaper.

If there were ever reporters who were close to Randy Stone, they’ve gone extinct. In the last sixty-five years, people have become more cynical about the press, and the press has become more cynical about people.

Reporters want to bring change but through partisan reporting that brings about systemic societal change. Randy Stone’s goals were nonpartisan: to be a decent person and to call other people to be decent too, regardless of politics. His nonpartisan perspective no longer flies in modern journalism. It may have been a bit fanciful in 1950. In 2018? Totally unrealistic.

The only thing a TV or radio creator could do with a modern-day Night Beat would be to ruin it by making it partisan. This would probably happen even if it was attempted as a period piece.

However, I welcome reader comments on the programs I’ve mentioned as well as any others that you think might (or might not) work with a modern day reboot.

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EP1904s: Screen Guild Theatre: Whistling in Dixie

Red Skelton
Wally “The Fox” Benton goes down South to solve the murder of a woman’s boyfriend.

Original Air Date: May 17, 1943

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