Category: Golden Age Article

The Immortal Detectives

Listening to vintage radio, you get a sense of how fleeting fame and popularity can be. There was a time when names such as Michael Shayne, John J. Malone, Philo Vance, Nick Carter, and Mr. and Mrs. North held a spot in the public imagination. Yet, today these names would be mostly unknown except to diehard fans of old mysteries.

On the other hand, if you mention Sherlock Holmes the recognition is universal. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, ditto. So which detectives have been with us a long time and have come out from beneath the rubbles of historyfor their stories and characters to find new generations on a mass level.

The list of “immortal detectives” is short:

Sherlock Holmes

Father Brown

Nero Wolfe

The Hardy Boys

Nancy Drew

Poirot

 Miss Marple

Sam Spade

Philip Marlowe

Mike Hammer

Sherlock Holmes has survived so long because he’s definitively iconic reperesentative of what a detective is. He captures the imagination of writers who come up with new plots for him long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stopped. And let’s not forget that the original stories were solid entertainment in their own right with no requirement of updating.

Father Brown survives because of the intellectual strength  of the puzzles, as well as the many devotees of Chesterton among Catholics and other traditionalists.

Nero Wolfe survives through the fact that Stout, like Agatha Christie wrote his books over the course of several decades, allowing them to seep into the culture. Both the character of Wolfe and Archie, as well as the original mysteries written by Stout arrest the public’s imagination. The most recent Nero Wolfe TV series ended in 2002, and I don’t expect we’ve seen the last of Wolfe. Of course, Wolfe may inspire writers andproducers more than it does a mass popularity.  There’ve been five Nero Wolfe radio shows, two movies, and two TV series, and the most successful version was the latest TV series.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew continue to be introduced to boys and girls at a young age. While the characters have changed quite a bit since they were introduced in 1927 and 1930 respectively,  the never-ending supply of new books assures them a long life, and that movies and TV shows will emerge from time to time.

Poirot and Marple are the most enduring characters of the late Agatha Christie, and that has translated into numerous television adaptations that have been shown on PBS. Though, there have been other adaptations as well. Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple was a Manga and Anime adaption of the two characters’ adventures.

As to Sam Spade, he lives on as the prototype of hard boiled fiction. While there haven’t been any Spade movies since the Maltese Falcon and only one novel and a collection of short stories written by Dashiel Hammett, the character continues to live on through that film, a recent BBC radio production, and an even an authorized prequel novel, Spade and Archer. One big reason for Spade’s survival is that the Maltese Falcon is often read for its literary value in events such as The Big Read where a library group will read through the same book.

Philip Marlowe has inspired numerous film and television productions, the latest occurring in 1998 when James Caan took the role for Poodle Springs. The movies, the influence of Chandler, and the nature of Philip Marlowe as a “knight in tarnished armor” helps to keep him in circulation.

Mike Hammer’s survival is due to a combination of books, movies, TV shows, and the 1980s Television version which updated and iconisized Hammer for a new generation of fans. The success of doing that was in the longevity of Mickey Spillane, who was able to keep the character fresh through many years of change.

These ten have made it through at least 50 years of existence. Of course, it’s an open question as to how many of these will remain popular in 2060, and whether such detectives as Columbo, The Rockford Files, and Monk will still be remembered by the general public, or like so many other once-popular sleuths, be only remembered by the mystery superfans.

Better Living Through Radio

How effective can radio advertising be? Could a radio ad sell a product 75 years after it aired? The answer is a surprising yes.

Vintage radio ads often vary between enduring brands that exist to this day and continue to be brand name staples  such as Chevron Gasoline, Wrigley Gum, Camel Cigarettes, or Pepsodent to the brands you can’t find anywhere. There’s nowhere you can buy Petri Wine (at least not the Petri Wine by the original Petri family) and good luck finding a Clipper Craft suit anywhere.

Most radio ads are of value only for a nostalgic value, a recapturing of the values of the era in which it was produced, the music, the phrases, the culture. No one listening to an episode of Richard Diamond today is going to be more likely to find their way to a Rexhall Drugs. And of course, it should be noted that its quite easy for some radio ads to wear on listeners. Hearing about how its wise to smoke Fatimas week after week can be irritating and repetitive.

However, one radio ad was so effective, it sold me on trying on the product.

As I’ve written before, I’ve become quite the fan of Lum and Abner. One of the show’s early sponsors was Horlicks, a maker of malted milk. They sponsored Lum and Abner five days a week, and they did radio sponsorship right. Unlike other shows that would repeat the same messages, they included original ads in each episode, so no two ads were the same.

The announcer, Carlton Brickert would read an a testimonial, or occasionally, there’d be a little drama performed to illustrate the point. Some of the more powerful segments included testimonials from parents with sickly children who had given their children Horlicks.

In some ways, there seemed to be some contadictory claims in Horlicks in ads. The sponsors said that Horlicks could help the obese lose weight, while helping sickly babies gain weight, and sickly adults gain it. It said it could increase your energy in the daytime, while helping you sleep better at night.

While, Petri Wines may merit a passing curiosity, I had to learn more about Horlicks, and what I learned about it was that Horlicks is no longer sold in mass quantities in the United States. It was acquired by a British company and it was more popular in the developing world than anywhere else. However, I actually went to the trouble to find a bottle of Horlicks for sale on Amazon and I bought a copy.

I did find that Horlicks had changed since its radio days. They’d boasted that Horlicks was made from whole milk, not skim milk as other “inferior brands” were. But 21st Century Horlicks is made with skim milk.

Beyond that, I tried Horlicks and found it to be good tasting. The one claim I can confirm is that it will help you get to sleep. The first night I had some Horlicks before bed and I was out like a light and I’m not usually the sound-sleeping sort. Of course, I’m told there’s not a scientific basis for the conclusion, however I think perhaps science hasn’t explained it.

I finished my experiment with Horlicks and found I’d learned a little, but not a whole lot. It’s really hard to tell from a 300 mg container. I’d need to order more, but was reluctant. My wife asked if we were going to get more. She enjoyed the malted milk. I didn’t tell her about the Horlicks Order I’d put in and she picked up some Nesquick brand. Following the advice of the Horlicks ads, I teased my wife about having bought a lesser brand.

Of course, whether we contine the Horlicks experiment really depends. Even if it’s good, it’s still expensive to ship and to buy. I could be getting “inferior brands” for some time. Still, I have to tip my hats to the folks who made the Horlicks commercials. It takes talent to come up with an ad that makes your listeners curious enough to buy…seventy-five years  after the fact.

And Now, Let’s See What’s Happening Down in Pine Ridge…

Imagine an old time radio show that spawns an annual festival, led to the renaming of a town, and 55 years after its first airdate, keeps a small town grocery store in business.

You needn’t imagine. The show is called Lum and Abner, radio’s two-man show featuring Chester Lauck and Lum Edwards and Norris Goff played Abner Peabody. The two managed the Jot ’em Down Store.  The town had several other residents such as Dick Huddleston, who owned a competing general store, Squire Skimp, an unscrupulous lawyer, Cedric Weehunt, their hired hand, and Grandpappy Spears. All of these parts, plus a few others were played by Lauck and Goff, showing great flexibility as actors.  The show’s 24-year run with a variety of networks and sponsors was impressive, but what makes its so impressive is how well its endured.

A 2-day festival is held every June in Mena, Arkansas in their honor, and the show is still run in reruns over radio stations in Mena and Chicago. Two proprietors run the Jot-Em-Down Store and the Lum ‘N Abner Museum in the unincorporated community of Pine Ridge, where the stories were based. The store draws visitors from around the U.S. and even around the World.

What got me interested in the show was a series of high quality audio downloads posted at the archive.org known as the Pine Ridge Project. They amounted to a series of 34 seperate entries in the Archive, each featuring a whole MP3 CD’s worth of Lum and Abner in High Quality Audio, as well as one with some extra Lum and Abner clips.  I was curious about why the show would have such devoted fans and began listening.

Lum and Abner’s strength comes in its simple conversational nature. Unlike many radio shows of the era such as Burns and Allen, Lum and Abner weren’t doing radio vaudeville. It was an easy going style of comedy that still got into some amazingly zany places. (Ex: When Lum receives a chain letter asking everyone to send a dime to the person at the top of the list, they have the idea to write a chainletter that has everyone send hogs rather than dimes.)

The show’s serial format also gives the show a continuity lacking in other old time radio comedy shows with their sketch mentality. Actions have consequences for Lum and Abner. 

The comedy was well done with Lum, Abner, and friends coming up with some of the most fascinating dialogues in old time radio.  (For an example, see the family tree discussion on this page.)

The show  did have some heart.  Lum and Abner’s friendship was often tested and tried made their way through business, but they invariably made up after each row. The show also did a good job of teaching good rules of business and financial conduct through negative examples.

The show gives a peak into the world of Rural America of the 1930s.  And it has an air of authenticity from the fact that it was based on a real life town in West Arkansas that was called Waters, and many of its citizens. For example,  Dick Huddleston was not only a character on the show, but the real life owner of the only general store in town.

As the town was unincorporated, Huddleston got permission from the Post Office to rename the community to Pine Ridge in1936.  The one unrealistic thing about the fictional Pine Ridge was there there were too many people. Currently, Pine Ridge has 21 inhabitants, only slightly less than it had back in the age of Lum and Abner, so the cast of hundreds that showed up as Pine Ridge residents wasn’t realistic. However, then again, a community the size of the real Pine Ridge couldn’t support two grocery stores either.

While, I’ve only been listening to Lum and Abner for a few weeks, they’re already like old friends. Their 15 minute length makes them perfect for short little pick me ups or can leave a smile on my face before bed.  Nealry 80 years  after they started, the laughter continues.

Further Reading:

The Pine Ridge Project (All 35 Parts)

The Road to Pine Ridge

The National Lum and Abner Society

Remaking Jim Rockford and Pat Novak

There are some things you don’t do.  Some forces you don’t mess with. Earlier this year, NBC had the idea to re-make  The Rockford Files. John Nolte at Big Hollywood had a simple message. “Forget about it.”

Here’s the message: You can’t remake “The Rockford Files.” You can call a television show “The Rockford Files…” you can call your parakeet “The Rockford Files,” but that doesn’t mean it’s “The Rockford Files.”

That show was James Garner, and if you’ve recently watched any of the episodes you know that the thirty-years that have passed since the program went off the air in 1980 have only served to cement its timelessness and status as a true classic. Sure, the sports coats might be a little loud and the sideburns too long, but Mike Post’s iconic theme, that awesome gold Pontiac Firebird and some of the best writing ever seen on television have kept the series as entertaining, compelling and fresh as anything produced today. 

Someone at NBC agreed and the remake was shelved. What’s another tough act to follow? How about Pat Novak, Jack Webb’s pre-Dragnet cult Classic? A theatre in Seattle will try just that. On July 6, Pat Novak opened for a four week run of four of the original episodes every Tuesday in the month of July. Instead of Webb, actor Matt Fulbright will be taking on the lead role of our favorite waterfront patsy.

The plans by the folks at Stage Right theater is for local writers to create new chapters in the Pat Novak story. Can they really pick up right where Webb and writer Richard Breen left off sixty-one years ago? It’ll be interesting to see them  try and the effort takes some guts.

Of course, the last time someone tried to play Novak on a regular basis, it was 1947. Jack Webb had played in the local transcriptions in San Francisco of Pat Novak, but he and Richard Breen they ran quick, like a politician trying to get away from the press outside a grand jury.

Ben Morris became the new Pat Novak and the show remained on the air. But as Michael Hayde reports in his book, My Name’s Friday, letters poured into KGO disapproving the change and demanding the return of Webb. Webb started his copycat show, Johnny Madero and Pat Novak left the air at the end of 1947 until it was resurrected for its national run, with the only man who could play the role in the lead-Jack Webb

What time and experience suggests is that when a lead character is created on television or the radio, it’s very hard to replace them with someone else. This isn’t the case with characters whose origins trace back to literature. Countless men have played Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown, etc. A character whose origin lies in literature gives the audience a basis for the image of the character that doesn’t depend on the actor. On the other hand, if a character is created on television or in Novak’s case, on the radio, the actor’s unique characterization of the character becomes definitive and its hard to shake. That’s not to say it hasn’t been tried, but from the 2005 remake of Kojak to a variety of Classic TV made into crummy movies, audiences aren’t interested.

 Of course, the Stage Right theater has an advantage on those remaking more recent works. Characters like Jim Rockford, Kojak, Adrian Monk, and Lieutenant Columbo have a gigantic body of work that’s got a wide-range of availability. However, with the exception of Old Time radio stations, and a few albums, and websites, Pat Novak has been little heard of in the past sixty-one years. If you find one person in 200 who knows who Pat Novak is, you’re doing good. Rather than trying to remake the widely  known, they’re introducing a new generation to a character they’ve never heard of before. So,  they don’t have a ton of expectations or preconceived notions to battle with.

I’ve not been to the show, as I don’t live in Seattle.  But if Ilved in Seattle, I would check it out and I’d also be there for when they start to do new episodes. Can they capture the magic of Academy Award Winner Richard Breen and create memorable adventures that ring true to the character? If they can, then Pat Novak could be running for quite a while. One thing I’ve learned from doing this show is that if people like Pat Novak, they will want more of it. I wish them all the best.

Nostalgic for Art

I don’t view myself as a Nostalgia show host. I love old radio detective shows because of their quality, rarely touched in modern attempts, either in the fiber of the characters, or in the quality of the stories. They don’t make them like that anymore.

However, there are some shows that fill me with a nostalgic sense, and a great example of this is the radio and later TV hit, People are Funny. After the recent death of Mr. Art Linkletter, who I’d only seen from archive footage from his House Party days, I put five episodes of his game show where he gave out cash and prizes while challenging his audience to do stunts. People went along with the gag for the fun of it, more than for the prizes.

The show had something very gentle about its humor. While the idea of paying people money to do stunts isn’t unusual, today such stunts often involve doing things that are immoral or dangerous (see Temptation Island), and creating artificial hatreds and tensions with greed as a fuel for treachery (Survivor), as well as exploiting people’s real emotions, dreams, and feelings for high ratings (too many shows to list.)

Art Linkletter’s game show thought people were funny, but it also showed a respect for people. The stunts might cause some temporary embarassment like when Linkletter dispatached a man to sell Goat’s Milk door to door in a ritzy hotel, but they weren’t really going to hurt people in the long run. There was no attempt to gain ratings by exploiting people. There was a sense that the show was all in good fun, and audience, host, and guests were laughing together.

Of course, this isn’t to say that all was perfect in America during the 1950s. I’ll be the first to admit that the country was far from perfect back then (as the world always was), and these shows will have reminders of things we were better off leaving behind.

However,one part of the 1950s I am nostalgic about is the grace and class of Art Linkletter. Sadly, they don’t make many like that anymore.

TV Detectives Locked in Copyright Jail

Recently, I got the Best of TV Detectives (affiliate link), a 150 episode collection of TV Detective shows. Despite the fact that not all of them were detective shows. (Two public domain episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and a few crime dramas) it’s been quite a treat to catch some of these shows for the first time.

There was Front Page Detective with David Chase which called to mind some of the great radio detectives in its characterization. Racket Squad, Public Defender, Code 3, and the Court of Last Resort played off of Dragnet in their mix of entertainment and education about various aspects of law enforcement and crime. The set has further spurred my interest in other TV Detective shows, long forgotten to see what can be found.

The shows can be divided into the following categories:

1) Mostly/Completely in the Public Domain: TV shows made before 1964 were given a 28 year copyright term, renewable for another 28 years.  Those shows that didn’t renew entered the public domain. Each episode had to be renewed individually. That’s why you’ll find episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show (an otherwise copyrighted show) in dollar DVD bins. However, some shows simply didn’t renew at all. Some had a very good reason. Their network had gone belly up. The DuMont TV network produced several early television shows, but within 28 years, they were out of business, and whoever had been assigned Dumont’s Copyrights let them lapse. Other shows just lapsed for whatever reasons, perhaps official inattention as the shows weren’t being syndicated.

Just because a show has lapsed into the public domain doesn’t mean the public can actually see it. If there’s no film left, it might as well not exist.

Shows that have lapsed completely or mostly into the public domain tend to have a variable nature about the number of shows available, usually a sparse few episodes claimed from a TV station that had paid to syndicate the show one at point. The economics is simple. There’s no one with an economic incentive to care for the show or care if its episodes survive. The results: spotty prints, few prints, and many adventures lost.

2) Shows with few episodes in the Public Domain:

This category of shows was mostly renewed, but a few episodes slipped into the public domain. Examples of this include one episode of the 1960s TV show Burke’s Law that lapsed into the public domain, as well as two episodes of the very cool Peter Gunn. Next to actually being released commercially on to DVD, this could be the best possible situation for a TV Detective. An episode or two in the public domain. Fans are teased by the cheap public domain episode and made curious about other episodes, which can lead to the release of a full box set. Those who knew 1960s Detective Series Checkmate has only been available on bootleg DVDs, but the popularity of public domain episodes spurred a release of the Best of Season One and the The Best of Seasons Two. Now a complete set of all 70 episodes is set for release this year.

Copryighted And Actively Available: This is a good state for the show be in. Those shows that have been fully copyrighted and are fully available are available to watch. Shows like Perry Mason and the Rockford Files are easily accessible to mystery fans on TV and DVD, and in many cases online. Copyright preservation helps to ensure quality condition (usually) of prints, while some public domain shows can be of variable quality.

However, there is a downside to continued copyright protection when a series remains under protection but is completely unavailable.  Unlike, the public domain series, no third party can come in and make episodes available. I found quite a few interesting sounding detective serials that I’d love to see, if only they would release a DVD. Here are a few detective shows from the 1950s I’d love to see, if the respective owners would release them:

1) Johnny Midnight:

In Copyright Jail until: 2056

Edmond O’Brien, eight years after leaving Yours Truly Johnny Dollar returned to the serial gumshoe role as Broadway Star turned private detective named Johnny Midnight.  You can’t really go wrong with Edmond O’Brien as a detective. (see DOA and the Killers for more proof.) So this sounds like an interesting series.

2) Johnny Staccato:

In Copyright Jail until 2055

John Cassavetes stars as Johnny Staccato, a Jazz musician who is a private detective. It makes me think of a  mix of Pete Kelly’s Blues and Man with a Camera. I haven’t seen much with Cassevettes. He was a television pioneer who spent much of his career behind the camera, but he was very good in a 1972 Columbo movie, Etude in Black. Rated 8.7 out of 10 by IMDB users.

3) The Line Up

In Copyright Jail: Until 2055

The Line-up was based on an old time radio show of the same name and was one of the string of police procedurals that came out after Dragnet. It was set in San Francisco and ran in syndication for many years as San Francisco Beat.  Doing a copyright search, some episodes of this show have fallen into the public domain but the public domain shows haven’t come into any type of circulation. IMBD.com user rating: 6.9

4) Felony Squad:

In Copyright Jail: Until 2064 

This is a show that’s a fascinating must for fans of Old Time Radio.  It stars Sam Spade’s Howard Duff  as Detective Sam Stone, who works in a major crimes unit in a Western City. The show also featured Ben Alexander of Dragnet as Desk Seargent Dan Briggs. Rated an 8.7 on IMDB. It should be noted that this show at one point, had a few episodes released on VHS, but not released on DVD.

It’s interesting to read about the show, however it would be even more interesting to watch it.  Hopefully, copyright owners will take note and begin to release legal authorized versions of these shows on websites like Hulu or DVD, so that a new generation of fans will enjoy them.

It should be noted that Hollywood can make some bizarre decisions with these DVD releases. (There are more official seasons of Bonanza available to watch in Germany than in the United States.) If you think these shows belong on DVD, or there are other shows not currently on DVD that you’d like to see, you can go to TVshowsonDVD.com and let your voice be heard by voting for your favorites.

Bill Cosby’s Detective Show

One of the Google searches that hit the site recently was for “Bill Cosby Detective Show.” People remember Bill Cosby for his Comedy, particularly the ratings sensation, The Cosby Show. But, Bill Cosby did try his hand as a TV detective.

 

It was 1994 and Cosby’s first project after the end of the Cosby Show and his choice was the Cosby Mysteries which followed recently retired police officer, Guy Hanks as he found himself retired after a heart attack and winning the lottery on the same day, but still drawn back to serve as criminologist solving cases for the NYPD or occasionally private clients.

The mysteries were well-written with surprising twist and turns, and plenty of tension. The character of Guy Hanks was typical Cosby. There was always the light touches that are in most Cosby Characters (going back to Kelly Robinson in I Spy.)  He and Police Detective Adam Sully (played by James Naughton) had good chemistry. He also had a good sidekick in aspiring young criminologist, Dante (Mos Def.) Cosby as an elder mentor always make for good entertainment.

The show had some fantastic episodes. My favorite featured Douglas Adams (writer of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as a husband who runs into Hanks at the Party and has a discussion about the art of murder because he’s about to murder his own wife, and Hanks has to stop him without leaving the party.  In another, his Cosby show wife, Phylicia Rashad played an old flame and competing criminologist.

It was a fun show that sadly lasted only for 19 episodes. There are a number of reasons why. Cosby pointed to the timeslot quipping that with the Cosby Mysteries, “The biggest mystery was when it was on.”

The show may simply have come too late. Cosby chose to make the show a character-driven detective story rather than using violence and sensationalism to gain ratings.  The PG Detective shows that had been popular through much of the 1970s and 1980s with TV shows like the Rockford Files, Quincy, and Magnum PI, were passing from the scene.

Matlock had been forced to jump networks from NBC to ABC in 1992. The 1990s saw CBS fail with a revival of Burke’s Law and later in the 1990s drew a blank with Buddy Faro. Angela Lansbury continued to have success with Murder She Wrote, though that would also disappear in 1996.

The TV mystery and cop series that would take to the air in the 1990s and since have tended to be more lurid and violent, and to really sell the show based on that. Of course, there are exceptions, but the PG detective show may be the hardest one to make today.

The Cosby Mysteries’ biggest problem may not have been that there was something wrong with the series but not enough right. Two truly sucessful PG Detective shows that each managed eight seasons on the air were Diagnosis Murder. (1993-2001) and Monk (2001-2009). Both shows succeeded by being more than detective shows. The quirky Mark Sloan and the Neurotic Adrian Monk made for shows that you didn’t have to be a mystery fan to enjoy, with plenty of comedy. In Diagnosis Murder’s case, they also made use of guest stars, bringing several old TV detectives back to television such as Mannix, Adam 12 co-stars Martin Milner and Kent McCord, and Andy Griffith as Matlock, after Matlock was cancelled by a second network.

The biggest problem with the Cosby Mysteries was that its creators didn’t understand that a good mystery wasn’t enough to hold an audience. Still, fans of good mysteries would do well to give the Cosby Mysteries a look if they see it on reruns. Unfortunately, the show has not been released on DVD.