I remember reading a few years back in a book that there’s such a thing as “the curse of knowledge.” The curse of knowledge is that when you know something, it’s very hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it.
And that can be a challenge with Old Time Radio programs. There are a lot of references, inferences, etc. that people who weren’t around at the time and haven’t immersed themselves in the culture of the era just don’t get. Having listened to some old-time radio and read a lot about the era, I catch a lot of references that might go by the casual listener. While I explain these in podcasts, I thought it would be interesting to list a few things that come up in old time radio quite a bit:
War Rationing: During World War II, many materials were rationed, leading to shortages. Sometimes, this leads to a big deal being made out of things that can seem odd to the modern listener. For example, some comedians joked about winning a woman’s favor with a pair of nylon stocking, A spare intertube might be discussed as some high end valuable. There might be episodes that focus on things like black markets in meat. Conversely, some radio programs might have their protagonists engage in support of rationing and the war effort by declaring that they’re observing “meatless Tuesday.”
Victory Gardens: Another part of the homefront war response were “victory gardens.” During the War, gardening became more than the occupation of those with green thumbs or hobbyists. Gardens were pushed as patriotic. The more people could grow their own fruits and vegetables, the more America’s farmers could supply to our troops and allies. The Victory Gardens would become important after the war, as the starving people in formerly occupied and Axis countries became a humanitarian challenge.
Travel During the War: Travelling during the War was discouraged and far more rare than before the War. There was a constant stream of troops moving throughout the country on the nation’s railways and also many areas faced a bottleneck in the availability of hotel rooms.
Housing Shortage: As the War wound down, America faced a housing shortage due to returning service members. This would lead to many new developments and the construction of new housing. But in the immediate aftermath of the war, people struggled to find a place to stay, even if they had a job. This led to all sorts of predicaments that would be be exploited by radio writers. The difficulty of being able to move easily is often a backdrop for many stories both comedic and dramatic.
The Gallup Poll and the 1948 Elections: The final Gallup Poll predicted that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman. Truman won, leading to the famous picture of Truman holding up a “Dewey Beats Truman” headline. The Gallup poll took years of ribbing from comedians as a result.
Republicans and Democrats: Republicans were the out-of-power party for much of the Golden Age of radio. They suffered landslide defeats at the hands of FDR for a total of five presidential election losses, including the 1936 landslide defeat of Governor Alf Landon, the biggest landslide in US presidential history. Democrats also captured lopsided majorities in Congress during the 1930s. In 1946, Republicans took Congress and hoped to run Washington after 1948, but were disappointed by Truman’s victory. Finally, in 1952, Eisenhower was elected, and brought Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Most political humor focused on ribbing the guys who lost the elections, so Republicans were the butt of jokes for years for being out of power, particularly after the 1948 disappointment. This reversed after 1952, when Democrats found themselves the outparty for the first time in two decades. Jokes did reference certain areas being party strongholds. For example, some lines will reference Maine and Vermont as Republican strongholds, while certain Southern states were seen as strong Democratic states.
Memes and Running Gags
We have our memes of various levels of grounding in truth in the twenty-first century. The 1940s and 50s was no different.
Harry Truman played the piano, and got ticked when people made fun of his daughter: Yes, during his brief Vice-Presidency, Harry Truman played the piano at the National Press Club with a then-unknown actress named Lauren Bacall sitting atop it. Thereafter, Truman’s very proper wife forbid him from playing the piano in public.
Musical talent ran in the family, as his daughter Margaret was a singer. One Washington Post writer gave her a negative review. Truman, the leader of the Free World, but still a father, wrote to the columnist, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Truman’s defensiveness of his daughter would occasionally be cautiously referenced thereafter.
There were so many memes and running gags around Hollywood entertainers. Here’s a sampling:
Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope had big noses.
Frank Sinatra was very thin. Comedians would play this up to the level that you imagine Sinatra wasting away, walking around with an IV. Hope had a bandleader named Skinny Ennis who he could similar jokes about.
Conversely, the girth of figures such as band leaders Paul Whiteman and John Scott Trotter were the subject of constant ribbing. Elder entertainment industry statesmen like Victor Moore and Al Jolson were old, while young up and comers like singer Kenny Baker were portrayed as childlike.
C.W. Fields was not only a drunk, but jokes focused on him as a having a perpetual red nose. Band leaders Phil Harris and Artie Shaw were also said to be hard drinkers.
Bing Crosby was known as a flashy dresser with questionable taste in colors. He was also known for having a lot of children, all of them boys. (Crosby’s daughter wasn’t born until 1959.)
Conversely, comedian Eddie Cantor was known for having high energy, big eyes, and for having five daughters.
Jack Benny was cheap, a joke that he originated on his own program. Other shows would go further and play his cheapness up to an eleven. Benny was also known for his violin playing for comedic effect, and also for insisting he was thirty-nine.
George Burns couldn’t sing and lived off the talent of Gracie.
Now, much of this was all part of the act. For example, George Burns definitely could sing, and while it broke his heart, he had a nearly four-decade-long career after the passing of his beloved wife. However, these ideas were referenced throughout the wider culture.
Obviously, you can’t make an exhaustive list of everything to understand life seventy or eighty years ago, but I thought it’d be worthwhile to cover a few basics. If there are any facts about American culture or radio that you think it’s helpful for new listeners to old-time radio to know, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.