Television was always going to be trouble for the world of radio drama and comedy. That problem grew larger as more TV sets were sold, more broadcast hours were added, and overall production quality improved.
1951 was the first year when television’s advertising revenue exceeded radio’s advertising revenue. It was a watershed and economic pressure bore down on radio. Everyone involved in scripted performances could make more money on television: writers, actors, directors. They were all drawn to television as radio programs began to cut back on budgets. Popular long-standing programs such as the Lux Radio Theater, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny began leaving the air to focus on the more lucrative opportunities in television. Networks began scaling back budgets for programs.
The decline could be seen in many ways. Great actors rarely starred in radio’s great anthology programs. Suspense had been known for its star-studded guest casts but in the latter 1950s, it featured many lead players who would have been lucky to be cast in two-line walk-on parts in the show’s heyday.
One last boom did occur in radio. Westerns took off with the success of Gunsmoke over radio and this continued until the end of the 1950s. Things didn’t go as well for the detective genre. After the glut of programs during the immediate post-war era, the herd began to thin. In addition, a lot of new programs were gone after six months when they might have lasted years had they aired in the previous decade. NBC, in particular, seemed to cancel one detective program so they could replace it with another they’d cancel six months later.
Despite its challenges, the era did provide opportunities. Character actors known for playing sidekicks now got a chance to star in their own radio detective shows. While writers like Jackson Gillis had moved on to television, there’s still some good scripts written. There’s even a case to be made that some scripts from the later 1950s show more maturity and nuance than the scripts from the height of the golden age.
This era has some solidly written and entertaining programs. However, few new detective programs were produced. In addition, many of the programs produced, such as Indictment and Treasury Agent, only left behind a handful of episodes. This may have been driven by more radio stations beginning to use tape, which had the cost-saving benefit of being able to be recorded over, much to the loss of future generations.
At any rate, here’s my top five detective programs from the declining years of the Golden Age of Radio..
5) The Adventures of the Falcon
Star: Les Damon
This series has a terrific opening. The Falcon (aka Private Investigator Michael Waring) answered the phone and on the other end was an unnamed woman he had to break a date with and he gave a slight hint of the danger ahead. The story would generally start with a sordid situation developing that the Falcon would need to be brought into to solve.
The mysteries generally had a lot of twists and surprises. The Falcon had a competent police foil and he wasn’t always right. The series utilized some of the best New York radio actors including the distinct Ralph Bell. The characters often heightened characterization but this was toned down compared to something like Boston Blackie. However you cut it, this was a solid listen.
Star: William Gargan
William Gargan had been a private investigator in real life which brought authenticity to his take on Barrie Craig. The academy-award-nominated Gargan was fun to listen to and provided versatile characterization. Craig could be friendly and easy-going, but also could get tough, or deal with sad or emotional moments. The series didn’t try to maintain a heavy atmosphere but knew how to mix in lighter moments to give its serious moments and ideas real weight.
The stories were well-written and well-directed. The first three seasons of the series were recorded in Hollywood, and the last in New York. However, throughout, the guest cast remained solid, and Gargan worked well with everyone.
3) Broadway’s My Beat
Star: Larry Thor
“From Times Square to Columbus Circle…the gaudiest, the most violent–the lonesomest mile in the world.” The opening set the stage for Lieutenant Danny Glover’s downbeat adventures in solving homicides. The writing by Morton Fine and David Friedkin is highly stylized with a lyrical quality to it. Larry Thor nails the role of a tough, world-weary cop. Thor wasn’t an obvious choice. Prior to taking on the role of Danny Clover, he was best-known for performing announcer duties on programs such as Rocky Jordan.
While Clover is a cop, he seems to fit more comfortably with the hard-boiled private eyes of the previous era but with a badge that requires a little more cooperation and respect. Even though he’s a Lieutenant, he’s often in the field alone investigating cases. While many police and detective shows were moving toward a procedural feel with more realism and scientific investigation, Broadway’s My Beat went for human drama and poetry and the result is a compelling series.
Star: Jack Webb
Dragnet became less the bold experimental show it was when it started in 1949. Particularly when Dragnet hit TV and Jack Webb was doing thirty-nine episodes of Dragnet on television in addition to more than fifty radio episodes per season, and in the midst of all that, a Dragnet movie was made. I think it’s safe to say that by the time Dragnet left radio in 1955 that Webb wasn’t feeling the same passion for the project he felt in 1949 and was eager to get on to other projects.
Even so, even with less passion, Dragnet was still better than nearly anything else on the radio and managed to tell some of its greatest stories, including the classic Christmas tale, “The Big Little Jesus.” After Barton Yarborough passed away, Ben Alexander became Friday’s new partner Frank Smith and brought a new dynamic, particularly with humor. Most episodes after Alexander joined the cast began to feature a scene with Joe and Frank talking with a fun punchline. Not only was this is an interesting new addition, it strengthened episodes that packed a dramatic punch because the earlier levity makes the big emotional twist hit like a gut punch.
Once Dragnet stopped making new episodes, NBC continued to air reruns network-wide for two more years which was unprecedented and a sign of the show’s popularity and quality.
1) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar
Star: Bob Bailey
The first fifty-eight weeks with Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar featured serialized stories that aired Monday-Friday. To me, this run of episodes ranks as the best run of radio drama of all time. While there are some amazing individual episodes and story arcs from different series, for consistent high-quality radio drama over the course of year with high quality, that run of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was never equaled. Many story arcs were based on scripts of half hour episodes that writers such as E. Jack Neumann and Les Crutchfield had written for previous runs of Johnny Dollar or other programs. The format allowed writers to expand upon ideas or to combine ideas from different stories. The format was also ideal because with two exceptions (a six-parter and a nine-parter) each story was limited to five parts. This avoided the padding and drawing out stories that could become the case on so many other serialized drama.
Bailey was supported by some of the finest radio character actors of all times, including Virginia Gregg, Herb Vigran, and Howard McNear. Bailey and Gregg had some superb scenes together and play off each other very well. The series also began to develop Johnny into a real character. Johnny Dollar had been on the air since 1949 but his backstory had been limited to what served an episode. Still, Johnny got definite back story, friends, and a favorite hobby of fishing. While previous Dollars picked up the phone and reached random insurance agents of the week, Bob Bailey’s dollar reached specific agents with their own unique personalities.
The series reverted to a half-hour form and it’s fair to say that sometime after that, the quality of stories began to drop, particularly from a mystery standpoint . Part of it came from budget cuts that had Jack Johnstone taking over as the series’ sole writer (a role he wasn’t suited to.) Due to less airtime, there are some episodes of Johnny Dollar where half the episode is spent talking about the case and its history.
However, even with its problems, the story also had its strengths, giving Johnny a rich cast of supporting and recurring characters that no detective drama had ever seen. It was years, and maybe decades ahead of its time with the sheer volume of continuity and friends that Bailey’s Dollar was given.
On the strength of the details given to Johnny and the show’s stellar start, the Bob Bailey run on Johnny Dollar is the best highlight for fans of detective radio programs in those last few years of radio.