Category: Golden Age Article

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Four: The Legacy of the Golden Age of Radio

Continued from Part Three

On September 30, 1962, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar and Suspense aired their last episodes. This marked the end of the Golden Age of Radio. But what exactly had ended?

Many believe this marked the end of radio drama or audio drama as a whole. In truth, the U.K., South Africa, and many other countries around the world continued to make radio dramas for decades and British have never stopped. Further, thousands of hours of audio drama have also been still produced in the United States. In fact, there hasn’t been a single week since 1962 that at least one audio drama was produced in the United States.

Heartbeat Theater was produced from Hollywood by the Salvation Army. It often recruited mid-level Hollywood characters. It would continue until 1985. The Eternal Light was presented by the Hebrew Theological Seminary. In later years, it often moved towards panel discussions, but they continued to incorporate audio drama as part of their broadcasts off and on into the late 1960s.

In addition, radio drama programs aimed at children, like The Children’s Bible Hour and Your Story Hour continued to produce new material. Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago began broadcasting weekly audio dramas in 1950 and continues to this present day

Radio drama didn’t die, but that doesn’t mean nothing had changed. Two big factors had changed.

The Golden Age of Radio was marked by an embarrassment of riches in talent and glamour. Its top shows featured the best actors, musicians, and writers. It is a level of glamour and talent that radio will never see again. Imagine what a modern-day version of the Lux Radio Theater would be like. The theater would be hosted by Steven Spielberg with musical direction with Danny Elfman providing the music and actors like Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, Cate Blanchett, Robert Downey, Jr, and Dwayne Johnson would perform radio version of their own movies.

This would never happen today. There’s neither money or public interest to justify it. Nor could any radio show draw guest stars at the top of their game and height of their popularity like Suspense and several other dramatic anthology programs.

The people who make modern audio dramas aren’t big stars and have no interest in becoming such. More audio drama in recent decades has come out of places like Boston, Grand Rapids, Colorado Springs, and Seattle than from Hollywood.

The second big change is American radio drama ceased being part of America’s common culture. At the height of the golden age of radio, radio was at the center of American popular culture. It was famous. It had its own legendary unforgettable moments. A generation of Americans can’t hear “Flight of the Bumblebee Bee” without thinking of The Green Hornet. In the popular culture, it was possible to understand references to radio programs in the same way we might understand when a work is referencing The Godfather or Star Wars without ever having seen them.

When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the most enduring pop culture artifact of the period were the Looney Tunes. Those cartoons contain pop culture references that will go right over your head if you don’t know the Golden Age of Radio. For example, mother animals giving a distinctive shout to absent children of  “Henry!” and Daffy Duck’s wife saying, “I want a divorce.” are references to golden-age radio programs.

By contrast, all radio programs released since the end of the Golden Age of Radio are cult entertainment. The continuing fandom for golden age of radio is as well, but that’s always been the case with newer programs. They are loved by their devotees and completely irrelevant to every other living creature on the face of the Earth.

That being the case, it’s reasonable to wonder if the end of the Golden Age of Radio might have occurred earlier. Some cite November 1960 as the end of the golden age of radio, particularly fans of soap operas. Once Gunsmoke was canceled in June 1961, all that remained of the world of network-originated radio drama was an hour of programming featuring TV soap opera actors. I still prefer September 1962, as network radio drama had faded and withered eleven years until then..

Nonetheless, Golden Age radio programming has been kept alive in a number of ways.

Radio Rebroadcasts

Military radio services like the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and the Far East Network (FEN) continued to replay radio programs from the golden age of radio.

Also, various stations continued to dedicate a portion of their programming to replaying programs from the Golden Age of Radio, some with hosts, and others without hosts. There has been a decline in such radio rebroadcasts in recent years, particularly as radio stations seek to avoid backlash over content that doesn’t meet modern standards and sensibilities.

While it is not quite as common these day, old time radio still is rebroadcast. The longest running of these series is The Big Broadcast which originates in Washington, DC. It was originally hosted by John Hickman (1964-90), and then by radio hall of famer Ed Walker (1950-2015) and has been hosted by 2016 by Pulitzer Prize Winner Murray Hurwitz.

The most widely heard show is When Radio Was, a series syndicated by Radio Spirits. The series began in 1990 and has had numerous hosts including original Jeopardy Host Art Fleming (1990-95), comedian Stan Freberg (1995-2006), and Broadcaster/History Chuck Schaeden (2006-2007). Since 2007 Greg Bell has hosted the daily syndicated series, which also airs on the Radio Classics Satellite radio channel.

Radio Preservation and Conventions: 

Most American radio programs aired only once. Much of radio was done live and disappeared into the ether. However, transcription disks were made of many programs. Most of these were intended to be destroyed after they were played.  However, there were quite a few disks that survived in radio stations or ended up stored in various locations and were purchased by collectors and preservationists. Tapes were often made from the disks.

Fans of old-time radio began to gather. The Friends of Old Time Radio arose in the 1970s and was followed in the 1980s by The Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety And Comedy (SPERDVAC). These organizations served gathering places for fans and collectors of golden age radio. In addition to the opportunity to meet surviving cast and crew from the Golden Age of radio, fans traded tapes of programs with other collectors. It is through this process of collectors acquiring and trading radio programs with each other that so many programs survive from the golden age of radio.

Commercial Sellers:

Over the years, many companies have sold commercial radio vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. They were sold to the general market consumers at stores and record shops. These products gave fans of certain programs or types of programs a chance to listen to programs or types of programs they particularly enjoyed when they wanted to. It was a tricky business to negotiate for a wide variety of reasons, such as figuring out what type of programs people would be nostalgic for enough to buy, as well as finding the right price point for consumers that would allow the company to stay in business. Many companies entered the market but most went defunct.

The Internet:

The Internet has overall been a boon for vintage radio programs. The first old time radio programs posted on the Internet were low-quality and often barely listenable, perhaps due to the limited quality of recordings available to original posters. At the same time, it made it easier for old time radio fans and researchers to regularly connect with one another.

Thanks to advancing audio technology, increased hard drive storage capacity, the proliferation of broadband, and the work of many volunteers,  the poorer quality recordings have been replaced with better-sounding episodes. Golden age radio programs are available at hundreds of old-time radio websites and podcasts, as well as on video sites such as YouTube.

Whatever Happened To…

There’s a perception by many that after the Golden Age of Radio, that era’s performers suffered and faced their careers ending. In reality, it’s hard to say for certain about any performer, “If only had radio had remained influential, their life would not have gone downhill.”  Maybe one actor comes to mind that you could make that argument.

For most radio actors, working in radio was a blessing. They enjoyed the work and the ability to become anyone. Radio’s light rehearsal schedule and quick turn around allowed them more time with family. Some treasured being able to act before a wide audience but going about in public unrecognized. However, most pressed on with their careers.

Some found their place in TV land. Agnes Moorhead had been the original Margot Lane on The Shadow and starred in one of radio’s most iconic plays, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” To anyone who didn’t know radio, she was simply Endora on Bewitched. Howard McNear had been a versatile character adept at creating mad killers or just plain eccentric oddballs, but was known to many as Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith show. Others such as Virginia Gregg, Herb Vigran, and John Dehner had stunningly long careers and a wide variety of character roles.

Others took their voice acting experience into the world of animation. Janet Waldo had played the quintessential teen girl in the 1940s radio series Meet Corliss Archer. In animation, she starred as Judy Jetson, Penelope Pitstop, and Josie from Josie and the Pussycats. Paul Frees created the voice for Disney’s psychologist duck Ludwig Von Drake. and the role of Boris Badenov on The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Sometimes, a cartoon would feature multiple stars from Radio’s Golden era, such as the first Fantastic Four cartoon which featured Adventures of Philip Marlowe star Gerald Mohr as Mr. Fantastic and Paul Frees as The Thing. 

Many who survived long enough got to attend the first old-time radio conventions, meet the fans who loved their work, and some  performed old scripts, putting on their old radio roles like a comfortable pair of shoes.

There were radio actors who moved on to other things but recalled their radio days fondly. They’d gladly get back into radio if given the chance. These sort of actors not only were part of the golden age of radio, but would take part in the prominent efforts to bring back radio drama over the next two decades.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Three: The Decline of Network Radio Drama

Continued from Part Two

As television rose, radio drama declined. The year 1951 saw the first time television advertising revenues surpassed those of radio. This led to rising budgets for television and falling budgets for radio. On radio, the big stars’ appearances became less and less frequent. Radio’s most talented writers began writing for television, often pulling out old radio scripts, dusting them off, and rewriting them for television.

The budget cuts showed up in music. As television rose, some programs saved money by switching from orchestral scores to organ scores. NBC saved money in the early-to-mid 1950s by using the same musical bridges on nearly all of their dramatic programs. Radio appearances by big stars on programs such as Suspense became rarer as the decade went on. The quality of films getting adaptations on the Lux Radio Theater declined as well.

A vicious cycle emerged. Declining budgets led to declining quality of on-air programs which led to further declines in listenership which led to budget cuts which led to declining production quality, which led to more declines in listenership which led to more budget cuts

Radio did have one last great moment of major pop culture influence. In 1953, the series Gunsmoke appeared and began a major trend: the adult western program. Westerns had a place on radio since the 1930s. However, Gunsmoke dealt with more mature themes and featured rich, well-developed characters. The series would run for eight years and spark a revolution on radio and television that would carry over into the 1950s.

Gunsmoke would make the jump to television but not with the radio version of Marshall Matt Dillon. The character was played by William Conrad, who was viewed as too fat for the role. The role went to James Arness, who would do a superb job. However, Conrad being left in the lurch was a reminder that television was a far more shallow medium than radio.

Quite a few TV shows attempted to continue to air separate radio episodes. It was a win for the networks who saw having separate radio and television programs as an opportunity to cross-promote. For the actors, it meant more money. Yet for most shows, it began to make less sense with declines in radio listenership reduced the amount of the revenue, and the burnout that comes with doing the same thing repeatedly took a tool. Ozzie and Nelson record thirty-nine episodes on television and another thirty-nine on radio, Dragnet recorded fifty-two on radio. At some point, it began to not make sense for TV successes to hang around radio.

1955 saw some major departures: Jack Benny and Bob Hope left radio along with Dragnet and the Lux Radio Theater. Beloved programs were leaving in droves, yet radio drama would survive until the 1960s.

How Network Radio Drama Survived the 1950s

Among fans of the golden age of radio, by far, the most beloved radio programs of this era came from CBS. While the big stars became scarce on radio, CBS was buoyed by a de facto radio repertory theater where the same actors appeared over and over again in CBS various radio productions. Actors like Virginia Gregg, Parley Baer, Peggy Webber, and John Dehner were the backbone of CBS’s Hollywood radio output of the late 1950s. None would be famous, but each were talented and performed with thousands of radio appearances under their belt. That sort of talent and competence kept radio interesting.

Their work could be heard in CBS’s surviving anthology programs: Suspense and Romance. In addition, they appeared in the CBS Radio Workshop, an experimental program that harkened back to the groundbreaking Columbia workshop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Outside of this, CBS maintained many soap operas and launched a new one, The Couple Next Door, in 1957. Several Westerns also aired during this period, including Gunsmoke. In a reversal of adapting radio shows to television, CBS launched a radio version of its western TV Show Have Gun, Will Travel with Dehner as the lead.

The big surprise during this era was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. The series had run from 1949-54 with three different actors playing the lead over the course of more than 200 episodes. However, CBS wanted to bring the show back as a serialized version with stories told in 15-minute segments Monday-Friday. Bob Bailey was cast as the new Johnny Dollar. The serialized episodes often expanded upon previous half an hour stand-alone detective scripts or combined concepts from multiple scripts. In 1956, the series continued on as a half-hour program. (For more on the Johnny Dollar in this era, see my recent article on the top five detective dramas of the declining years of the golden age of radio.)

NBC also contributed to this era, starting with its Monitor series, a weekend-long block of a variety of radio programs. This included occasional bits of vintage radio, most notably five-minute episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly.

However, NBC’s greatest contribution to this era came in April 1955 when they launched a science fiction series called X Minus One. The series ran only seven weeks and advised listeners if they wanted to continue hearing the program to write in. That says a lot about the reluctance of Network radio to go into Science Fiction. However, luckily for science fiction fans, interest was high and the series returned to radio and continued to air until New Year’s 1958. It adapted the works of great science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. It would be re-aired as part of NBC’s Monitor series through the 1970s and there would be a brief attempt to revive the series with new episodes.

Another Science Fiction anthology series began to air over Mutual called Exploring Tomorrow, which aired for 55 weeks twice a week from December 1957-December 1958. It also adapted a similar high quality number of stories. It’s not as well-remembered as X Minus One. The production is hurt by the fact circulating examples of the series have much poorer sound quality than X Minus One and there are far less of them.

Mutual continued to try to be competitive in the world of radio drama into the late 1950s. It became the new home of the long-running radio hit Counterspy and also brought over Gangbusters and another Philip H. Lords program Treasury Agent. They also launched programs of their own, but few of them are in circulation among listeners.

ABC also aired a program called Police Blotter at least into 1957.

However, by 1960, except for an occasional bit of radio drama on Monitor, the sole home of mainstream network radio drama was CBS. On Yours Truly Johnny Dollar on September 25, 1960, the show featured an episode “The Five Down Matter.” The episode celebrated five years of the series revival and continuance. At the height of the golden age, anniversaries or episode milestones passed without notice, or perhaps just a comment after the episode. However, surviving five years when great programs were failing deserved celebrated. Johnny Dollar featured Bailey and all of the most memorable supporting characters from his five-year run.

Five weeks later, Bailey’s run on the show came to a sudden and unceremonious end without on-air acknowledgment. The series moved to New York without either Bailey or the supporting cast.

November 1960 would be brutal. CBS canceled nearly every remaining radio drama. It gave the remaining soap operas a month to wrap up their storylines. It canceled the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel. After that November, all that remained on the radio was Gunsmoke and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. 

The Golden Age of Radio’s Final Months

Yours Truly Johnny Dollar acclimated to New York with an entirely different feel to the series and Bob Readick in the lead. In June 1961, CBS radio line-up had one last shake-up. Gunsmoke ended and Suspense returned to the air in New York. This meant all of CBS’ radio operations would be centered in New York and would rely upon actors it worked with on its daytime soap operas. Mandel Kramer, a veteran radio actor, and a supporting character on the TV soap Edge of Night became the last actor to play Johnny Dollar.

For the next 15 months, both programs carried on as best they could. However, on September 30, 1962, both programs aired their last episode on a day that is considered the end of the Golden Age of Radio. But what exactly ended? And how has the legacy of the Golden Age of radio endured since?

We’ll talk about that in our next installment.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Two: The Rise of Television

Continued from Part One

It’s impossible to talk about the final years of the golden age of radio without talking about what brought about its decline. In the years immediately after the War, television was a joke on radio. It was said to feature little more than professional wrestling and old movies that weren’t that good when they were first shown in theaters.

Long-time radio comedian Fred Allen said in 1950, “I’ve decided why they call television a medium. It’s because nothing on it is well done.”

In the same year, on Life of Riley radio program, Chester Riley (played by William Bendix) talked about when he was planning on getting a television. He cited waiting for new models come out with improvements. When asked what improvements Riley was waiting for, he replied, “Someday, they’ll put on entertainment.”

There was truth behind the jokes. In the early days of television, home viewing audiences were smaller, the technology was experimental, and the limited audience meant limited advertising revenues and smaller budgets. TV stations didn’t have the money to license A-films to be played on television. When they made original productions, they couldn’t afford glamourous talented actors, so they often settled for those who were glamourous but with minimal talent. Actresses being hired to show skin exasperated actor William Gargan, who left his role on the successful Martin Kane, Private Eye television program with a 7 year contract to go back to radio.

Television also came with a steep learning curve. Like radio, most television programs were live. However, on radio an actor could flub a line and find his place by looking at the script. Television required working without a net. Yet, Americans wanted television to succeed. Development of the medium had been ongoing since before World War II. Now, with hard-earned savings, America wanted television. My father came at age around this time and he waxed nostalgic about actors blowing their lines on live TV. With America hungry for television, even its bugs became features.

Most radio performers suspected it would catch on and most would play a part in it. Fred Allen would spend his last days on a TV game program, and William Bendix would come to TV as Chester Riley as soon as Bendix’s studio would allow it.

Television Built on the Foundation of Radio

Television set out to give Americans the same programs they enjoyed on radio. Early TV was filled with detective shows,  dramatic anthologies, family comedies, and soap operas. The links between early television and the golden age of radio run deep.

Perhaps the greatest television hit of all time, I Love Lucy, hit radio in 1952. The series starred Lucille Ball, who had starred in another domestic comedy My Favorite Husband. Many scripts used on I Love Lucy were reworked scripts from My Favorite Husband. 

Oftentimes, the programs directly moved from radio to television. TV programs like The Life of Riley, Our Miss Brooks, My Friend Irma, Dangerous Assignment, The Line-Up, Suspense, the Adventures of Superman, The Lux Video Theater, and You Bet Your Life all had roots in radio. In some cases, cast members were changed, but in others, you got to see all the old radio favorites that you’d only heard for all these years.

Radio comedy legends like Red Skelton, Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny also made the transition to television. In addition, the Colgate Comedy Hour became a place where noted radio stars like Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis took center stage in live shows.

Many programs became so successful and so associated with television, only the most dedicated even knows there was a radio version. Dragnet aired two and a half years over radio before coming to television and would air for eight seasons in the 1950s and make four more seasons in a comeback in the 1960s. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on radio seven and a half years before the television show premiered and would last on television for fourteen seasons. Guiding Light had fifteen years on radio before its television debut and would continue on television for fifty-seven years.

Other programs crashed and burned, often hard. Radio hits like GangbustersLife with Luigi, and The Great Gildersleeve didn’t last long on television. An ill-considered version of Fibber McGee and Molly without Jim and Marion Jordan also failed to catch on on television.

Some radio shows proved to work better on television. Audience participation programs like People are Funny and Truth or Consequences are better when the audience can see the outrageous stunts the contestants are sent on and Candid Camera was far more enduring than Candid Microphone. In addition, physical comedians like Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis were limited by radio and television allows their full zaniness to show.

Other radio shows used techniques that didn’t work on television. In the finale of the Dragnet radio episode, “The Big Bar,” the audience gets to hear the police radio as police cars chase down the suspects, with occasional commentary from our heroes and people in the radio room. In the television version, we’re treated to several minutes of the cameraman trying to find interesting shots of people standing around the radio room, listening to the chase on the radio.

Baby Snooks (Fanny Brice) was a beloved seven-year old girl who bedeviled her daddy with her questions and bad behavior. A decision was made to do a television version with the 59-year-old Brice accompanied by her father, who was played by Hanley Stafford, a man eight years her junior. Her television audience didn’t appreciate an adult actress playing a child’s role on a live action show, so she didn’t repeat the appearance again.

While many of those who made the golden age of radio special moved to television, radio drama still continued. In our next article, we’ll look at the final years of the golden age of radio.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part One: The Rise of the Golden Age

Caroline Crompton, host of the Shedunnit podcast, was the guest on BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour on an episode where the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio was recommended. She noted that many people didn’t think of America as having an audio drama tradition like the British do.

The British tradition of audio drama as embodied in BBC Radio productions is a storied history of prestigious productions. The works of great authors, both past and present are reflected in the adaptations. In addition, the BBC also produces original comedies and dramas. It’s known for great sitcoms like The Navy Lark as well as bringing radio adaptations of popular television programs including Yes, Minister, Dad’s Army, and Steptoe and Son as well as the original mystery series Paul Temple. These productions feature some of the greatest radio actors of their time. Legends like Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, and Julie McKenzie have all made their appearances in BBC Radio Four productions, as well as current stars like David Tennant, Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Hayley Atwell.

In addition to BBC, there are also independent audio production companies like Big Finish which have put out a prodigious amount of high-quality audio dramas.

The American tradition is different. It’s a long, complicated story with many twists, turns, and aspects. While many British people don’t think Americans have a heritage of audio drama, there’s plenty of misunderstanding on this side of the pond, too. Some Americans don’t know about it. Others think the last day of the golden age of radio in the United States was the day the audio drama died, despite all the other countries in the world that never stopped making it. The idea America ever completely stopped putting out radio dramas is inaccurate, too.

So my next few articles will talk about that tradition. Note I’m not trying to tell an exhaustive history. Rather, our focus is going to be on the major events, programs, and milestones in American radio drama. We’ll start with the era known as the golden age of radio that effectively began in the late 1920s and carried through until 1962.

The Golden Age of Radio and It’s Milestone Programs:

Books stretching into the thousands of pages have been written on the history of the golden age of radio. My aim here is a relatively quick summary, so I’m going to limit my discussion to a few key programs and events.

In the late 1920s and early 1940s, America’s radio networks began to form. There was CBS, Mutual, and NBC Red and Blue Networks. The NBC Blue Network would later be sold off and become an Independent entity now named ABC.

The expansion of radio represented a gold rush opportunity for entertainers. Programs would appear across the four networks. In addition, several programs were sold as first-run syndications to Independent radio stations as well as network affiliates to air at times when network programming wasn’t playing.

The first programs to gain popularity were serialized programs. Cecil and Sally, Amos ‘n Andy, Lum and Abner, and Vic and Sade would become fixtures on American radio as serialized comedy. Regular soap operas like The Goldbergs, One Man’s Family, and Ma Perkins became daytime mainstays that outlasted many other programs.

Rudy Vallee’s Fleishman’s Yeast Hour began in 1929 became the first great musical variety program on radio. The series mixed music, comedy, slice of life interviews, short dramas, and comedy sketches. The show made stars of many guests, most notable ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Jack Benny had his first broadcast in 1932 and eventually became radio’s most popular comedy program, often featuring parodies. Benny and fellow Comedian Fred Allen thrived on a long-running “feud” that enriched both of their careers. Not only did Benny succeed, but Dennis Day and Phil Harris starred in it. Another co-star, Eddie Anderson, became one of the most well-known performers of the time.

Lux Radio Theater came to the air in 1934. It began as a series based in New York that provided hour-long dramatizations of Broadway plays. The series moved to Hollywood in 1936 and began adapting movies to radio, often with members of the film cast reprising their original roles. The series became a massive hit and spawned several other movie adapting series, the longest lasting of which was the Screen Guild Theater.

Fibber McGee and Molly starring real-life husband and wife Jim and Marion Jordan hit the air in 1935 and would evolve into one of radio’s most beloved and successful sitcoms, spinning off two other series: The Great Gildersleeve and Beulah. 

In January 1936, Gangbusters came to the air and became a sensation in the world of crime drama. It’s violent opening and it’s tales of notorious criminals (often told over multiple weeks) made it massively popular listening for years.

Orson Welles made his mark on radio. His career began with a 7-part adaptation of Les Misérables for CBS. Then, he became the uncredited voice of The Shadow. However, he’d make his most famous mark on radio when he took to the air with the Mercury Theater. The plays were evocatively told, often in experimental ways. The most noted of these is the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which was staged as a newscast and led to a national panic. Even though Wells would have a prolific career and make one of the greatest films of all time in Citizen Kane, that radio play is his best-known work.

As War came to the Earth, radio also focused on its greatest writers. Arch Oboler could write great plays about the typical human condition. However, he was also well-known as the writer of the horror series Lights Out. Many of his wartime plays include elements of the imaginative or supernatural, such as a woman who finds Adolf Hitler suddenly a passenger in her car. Norman Corwin was radio’s poet laureate. He was capable of writing delightful surreal stories likeThe Undecided Molecule”  and “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.” Yet at the same time, that poetic force could be turned on European fascists or used to solemnly commemorate the end of the war. These two writers were stand-out eloquent voices who told evocative stories that captured the feeling of the age in unforgettable ways.

In 1942,CBS launched a new anthology series called Suspense. Each episode was “well-calculated to keep you in suspense.” The genre of the episodes would vary. The stories could have elements of mystery, horror, the supernatural, adventure, and some could be considered Science Fiction. The series ran for twenty years and had numerous showrunners who had their own ideas of what a Suspense episode would like. The series became popular with the general public, and also with Hollywood actors. At the peak of the show’s success, Hollywood greats like Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, or Lucille Ball were often the series guest stars. Often guest stars acted against their typical type. For example, Jim and Marion Jordan appeared outside their Fibber McGee and Molly guise in a serious role. The series produced its most famous episode when Agnes Moorhead provided the principal voice performance in the classic play, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The episode was performed eight times on the series and adapted into a major motion picture.

After the War, the hard-boiled radio private eye began to proliferate. The hard-boiled private eyes tended to be involved in more violence than the traditional programs, both on the giving and receiving ends. Dick Powell’s Rogue’s Gallery was the first of the number and a key plot point involved him being knocked so senseless each week that he had a conversation with his alter ego. In addition, there was also a unique style of hard-boiled dialogue and narration that has endured as a staple of the genre. The most famous and iconic of the lot was The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff. Hard-boiled private eyes proliferated all four networks and the trend didn’t begin to taper off until the mid-1950s.

Many American police officers bristled at their portrayals in Golden Age radio in detective dramas: from comedic characters with painfully stereotyped accents to clueless simpletons who needed the help of brilliant detectives to figure out how to perform even rudimentary functions of crime detection to brutes who smacked around detective heroes and forced them to solve the crime for them on pains of being sent to the gas chamber and executed for a crime they didn’t commit. The portrayal of police departments and their operations were so unrealistic, as far as real police detectives were concerned, the stories might as well be set in another universe.

A police sergeant who was a technical adviser on the film He Walked by Night discovered Jack Webb, a supporting actor in the film, had played radio private eyes and griped at length. He asked why a radio series wasn’t made portraying how police really did their jobs. The idea came back to Webb in 1949 when his radio series was set to go on hiatus and he needed to find a way to support himself and his pregnant wife during the summer. He pitched NBC on a series of realistic police dramas, and it was greenlit as a summer replacement. Dragnet became one of radio’s iconic hit programs. Webb was not only the show’s star but it’s director and was dedicated to making it as realistic as possible. He used unheard-of sound effects men to create a sound and feel for Dragnet that was years ahead of its time. Just as the success of Sam Spade had led networks to rush out their own private detective programs, the success of Dragnet had every other network making realistic police dramas and served as a major evolution of crime dramas in the United States.

As the 1950s began, American radio was a massive force in American culture. It featured numerous dramatic anthologies that adapted movies, great works of fiction, as well as those told original tales. It boasted America’s finest comics and numerous situation comedies. It also featured a great deal of culturally significant programs about history and literature. It features programs made for men, women, and children. As America entered the 1950s, radio was king. Yet, radio was living on borrowed time and it’s reign would come to an end early in the next decade.

 

 

Audio Drama Review: Red Panda Adventures, Season Nine

The Ninth Season of the Red Panda Adventures finds the world in flux. It’s now a question of when rather than if the Allies will be victorious. But what happens afterwards is an open question.

The series is split into two parts. The bulk of the season focuses on supervillains previewing the sort of threats that will be on the ground after World War II. This is represented by an old villain returning in a new guise to take over Toronto and exact revenge on the Red Panda. In addition, we get an episode where the Red Panda battles villains known as the Rocket Men. These stories are fun, exciting, and pulpy in the way so many of the early Red Panda Adventure were.

The other part is cleaning up the war and dealing with what might come in a post-War world. Of particular concern is their old nemesis Professor Von Schlitz, who is going whole hog cooperating with the Americans. The Red Panda fears the German scientist will corrupt the Americans and use them for his evil ends. And the robotic red ensign wants revenge on Von Schlitz for the murder of the robot’s human wife at the start of the war. This leads our heroes into tight spots.

The “V E Day” episode deserves praise. It’s an anthology episode that told different stories with differing themes all structured around VE Day. The episode is great listening and points to the potential future of the show.

After nine seasons and 108 episodes, the series was still going strong, with the 100th episode airing without ceremony. Much like the Red Panda himself, the series might be past its peak, but it still packs a punch with exciting stories, fun dialogue, and a real sense of classic pulp adventure. The Ninth Season was a worthwhile and satisfying listen.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

You can listen to the entirety of Season 9 of the Red Panda Adventures online.

The Four Silliest Tropes in Detective Fiction

I’ve experienced a lot of mysteries. I’ve listened to thousands of mystery plays and watched hundreds of hours of mystery TV shows and movies, and read a lot of mystery novels and short stories. With all those mysteries under my belt, I’ve noticed some popular tropes or plot points that often are silly and don’t make sense. Most of these can be used effectively if done right, but they so rarely are.

4) The Dying Clue

You’ve been shot, poisoned, or knifed. You have seconds to live and you know who your murderer is and want to reveal who murdered you, so you leave a dying clue.

Dying clues get silly when they get complicated. The dying person may have 20-30 seconds to leave a clue. They don’t have time to develop a complex cipher based on objects on their desk or develop codes. Sometimes the writer knows they’re being absurd and will write an excuse for their overly complicated last clues. “She loved puzzles,” they write as an explanation for why the victim left behind a clue requiring knowledge of proper verb tenses in Swahili and popular Elizabethan riddles. (I exaggerate slightly.) These seem to be ways writers show their cleverness but I have yet to see a dying clue that was more clever than it was ridiculous.

Better Ways to Do It:

Keeping the dying clue simple is a good idea in theory but if it’s too simple, you don’t have much of a mystery. I like the idea of an unfinished dying clue that’s puzzling because the victim couldn’t finish it before expiring.

Another great idea is to make the dying clue a distraction. For example, sometimes the killer will fake a dying clue to implicate someone else. Or it might be possible the victim thinks they know who the killer is but don’t, or imagine someone who hates another person so much they would rather that person suffer than their actual murderer be found.

3) Witness Getting Killed Before They Can Talk to the Detective

The detective takes a phone call from a witness.

The witness cries out. “I know who did it and I’ll tell you everything.”

“Who was it?”

“Not over the phone. Meet me in an hour at the old, poorly lit warehouse with no street lights where the killer could come up from behind me, murder me, get my body out of sight, and get away with no possibility of any direct witnesses.”

The detective says, “See you then,” before hanging up the phone.

Of course, the detective finds the witness murdered but maybe a clue that will point him towards the culprit.

This should not be confused with the witness about to reveal everything right away and then they’re shot. That builds suspense. It annoys the audience but the writer has to have their fun.

The problem with the, “Meet me and I’ll tell you who did it.” trope is it makes the detective into something of a sap. I used this once in my novel Slime Incorporated, but this was my hero’s first murder mystery. However, I’ve read characters who have appeared across multiple novels and/or TV episodes who have lost a witness that way before and agree to it anyway without batting an eye, which makes them thick and foolish. Plus everyone expects it’s coming.

Better Ways to Do It:

The detective should have enough sense to try and dissuade their witness from making such an obvious mistake. Maybe they try to get them to stay where they’re at or to meet them near a public place or to tell them over the phone. If the writer needs to kill off the witness, it can be despite the detective’s best efforts, not because the detective didn’t remember the last time a witness was gunned down in a hail of bullets.

Also, misdirection can work here. One of my favorite alternatives is to have the witness survive and turn out to be the murderer deflecting suspicion by looking like a potential target.

2) Rube Goldberg Murder Methods

Murders are generally performed through a variety of very basic methods. However, for a certain type of writer, it’s often occurred to make murder methods as complex as possible, involving elaborate and impractical mechanisms. Many of these elaborate approaches are so complicated a minor mistake can foil them or can kill someone else, leaving the intended victim alive. While I think Raymond Chandler’s critique of some puzzle mystery was a bit broad in his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” he does hit the nail on the head when it comes to such overly complex schemes:

they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art. The poor writer is dishonest without knowing it, and the fairly good one can be dishonest because he doesn’t know what to be honest about. He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the e murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off.

Better Ways to Do It:

There has to be a good, believable reason for why the murder was complex. There should be a reason why the murderer chose an elaborate plot involving the shipping of Russian dolls, a hijacking, sabotaging a Toyota dealership, and the end result being a poisoned postcard sent to the intended victim when they could have just shot them. The TV series Monk usually did a good job justifying its outlandish and complicated plots. The episode Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect is a great example.

Sometimes a character can justify the elaborate murder plot. Many episodes of Columbo featured plots that were elaborate and impractical. However, the series got away with it because the over-the-top methods spoke to an overly confident, arrogant killer who believed he was smarter than anyone.

1) Night Club Photographers Must Die

In these stories, the detective discovers someone was murdered to suppress a picture taken by a night club photographer or the like. Why? To hide someone who was in the background (such as a mob boss.) This was done way too much in older TV, movies, and radio programs.

The criminal is scared of the photo being found and implicating them in a crime. So to avoid being recognized in a random photo, they leave a string of bodies about that will draw the entire police force onto their trail, as well as any heroic private operatives. It’s the silliest idea any criminal could have. In reality, 999 times out of 1000, the nightclub photo will get shoved in a purse or box for decades and looked at rarely. Any of us could have organized crime figures waltzing around in the background of pictures we had randomly taken and we’d be none the wiser.

This applies to vintage mysteries. In the modern era, many individuals (whether employed by law enforcement or freelancing) do a search through photos posted online in hopes of finding clues to crimes. So criminals would have a motive to stop someone who got them in the background, but it’s difficult to suppress digital photos. A desperate criminal might kill a photographer, grab their phone, and run over it with a car within a minute of the photo being taken and still have the incriminating photos already uploaded to the Internet, where they will garner attention from law enforcement all the more after the murder.

Whether it’s the 1940s or the 2020s, it doesn’t make sense for a criminal to kill someone for taking a random photo of them, although for slightly different reasons.

Better Ways to Do It

In stories set in the past, there are many plausible fixes. For example, the photographer might be a crime buff, realize what they have, and blackmail the criminal. Or the nightclub photographer might be a disgraced photojournalist who recognizes the person in the background. And if you substitute a news photographer for a nightclub photographer, this becomes real because a photo with the suspect in the background could be seen by millions of people.

It could also work if the writer gives them a reason for it, such as an extreme phobia or psychological compulsion. Or if the decision is being governed by someone who’s got ulterior motives.

It’s harder to make it work in a modern-day setting. Every idea that came to my mind was still half-baked. My wife’s best suggestion is a revenge killing over a nude photo posted as revenge by an angry ex, which either ditches any criminals being in the background or renders this plot point only a red herring.

What are your thoughts on the silliest mystery tropes? Do you agree? Disagree? Have you seen examples of these tropes done well? Do you have other tropes you think belong in the list. Write about it in the comments.

The Top Five Detective Programs from the Declining Years of the Golden Age of Radio

See the articles on detective programs in the World War II era and the immediate Post-War era.

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

Network: NBC

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.

4) Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator

Network: NBC

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

Network: CBS

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.

2) Dragnet

Network: NBC

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

Network: CBS

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.