What My Parents and Grandparents Never Told Me About the Golden Age of Radio

Over the course of doing the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I’ve been pleased and surprised to find people 40 and under discovering Old Time Radio. Of course, I began really listening to old time radio when I was 26 and discovered Dragnet on the radio. But for others, it came to them through parents and grandparents sharing old time radio tapes and records, or listening to one of those rare old time radio rerun shows.

My own personal encounter with radio growing up was limited and little of it was from my parents. He usually talked more about movies again in general terms. His favorite story was how he could go to a triple feature and eat hamburgers for less than seventy-five cents. (What can I say? The stereotype about cheap Scotsmen is true!)  I think he may have given me the image of many people gathering around the radio to listen. He did mention Abbott and Costello and who knows? He may have listened to their kids radio show, which may explain his lifelong attachment to the two characters.

The one thing I got from him was that radio was good. Of course, he was under ten years old when radio began its fade and in his teen years, had heavier things  going on in his life than catching the latest episode of Crime and Peter Chambers.  

My mom was too young to remember much at all about it, and I never talked to my grandparents about the topic. It never occurred to me. That was another time and I had no idea that there was any way to access it on any mass basis.

I do remember when I was about nine, my dad while shopping in the Salvation Army found an old set of old time radio tapes and bought it for us. We heard Duffy’s TavernBurns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and of course Abbott and Costello. We heard an old Cosby record where he talked about the  Chicken Heart.  We went to a home school convention where four kids performed as characters from Fibber McGee and Molly with one 14 year-old doing a fantastic Great Gildersleeve.  But still, I knew that old time radio was good and old time radio was gone.

Then comes the 21st Century where the proliferation of high speed internet and CD burners and have spread tens of thousands of hours of programming across the Internet where listeners can hear them. It was more than just the quaint comedy, it’s a world in which innovators such as Welles, Corwin, Webb, and countless others made magic.

The comedy is there, of course, and it’s in all varieties. There’s the biting satire of Fred Allen (who manages it with gentlemanly grace), the  perfectly executed timing of Jack Benny, the sublime silliness of Gracie Allen, and the unpredictable ad-libs of Bob Hope. Then there are guys you love even though their doing the same routines slightly rewritten show after show (Abbott and Costello) or even if some of their jokes’ whiskers have whiskers (Jimmy Durante). There’s something so wonderful about them as people and as performers that it doesn’t matter.

There are the sitcoms: Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve,  The Life of Riley, and Our Miss Brooks who worked charm in theri somewhat formulaic shows decades before it all became so tired.

But then there was drama. Yes, that includes  the ones most people recall: The Shadow, Superman, The Green Hornet, and The Lone Ranger.  However, there was more, there was Jimmy Stewart starring in a show called The Six Shooter, there was Gunsmoke, and then there were the movie adaptation shows: The Lux Radio Theater, The Screen Guild Theater, and the Screen Director’s Playhouse. You could have heard most of the great movies released from the mid-30s until the early-40s on those three programs.

Of course, on the more avante garde side were the experimental radio theater programs which tried all sorts of new and innovative things. Most notable is Welles Mercury Theater of the Air, but there was also The Columbia Workshop, Studio One, and the CBS Radio Workshop which tried so many experiments pressing the limits of radio and the drama.

Radio was also education and in a way that didn’t make education a dirty word. Calvalcade of America  spent fifteen years educating us intimately on the history of America in many chapters, telling us not only about the most famous men in history, but those people whose great deeds had faded from the public memory.

There were radio adaptations of  great short stories, great novels, and great plays.  There was the Family Theater, a show that ran for 10 years and was sponsored by the family prayer. It was as if radio wasn’t just seen as entertainment, it carried the weight of the preservation of culture.

Then there were the mystery programs including the ever-memorable Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and of course Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.   There was the realistic and  groundbreaking Dragnet and there were some other great procedurals before that such as This is Your FBI. 

Then there were the other suspense and science fiction shows. Programs like Suspense, the Whistler, and Escape featured the type of suspenseful twist storytelling that would lead programs on television like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Outer Limits. 

And don’t get me started on the music from crooners like Crosby,  to Gordon MacRae performing a musical every week on The Railroad Hour, to the great orchestrations of Meredith Willson, and the sweet Southern voice of Connie Haines, the golden of age radio had fantastic music with lyrics you could actually understand.

Radio was a whole different and amazing world, something I never got from conversation with people who lived during that era and listened to it. The reason why is that our memories fade over time. The television shows and movies we tend to remember most are those we watch over and over again.

When I think back to my childhood and shows I’ve watched once but never saw on reruns, I find similar brain freezes.   All I can remember about the show Hey Dude is that it was set on a dude ranch in New Mexico and there was a Native American  guy (I think his name was Danny) and a blonde girl, and the owner of the ranch was bald (or was it the manager?). And it wasn’t a bad show at least I don’t think.

It’s most likely that way for people who heard radio shows the first if they never heard them again. The 1950s was really the era of progress, of onward and innovation, without thinking much of what might be left behind in the march forward. It was out with radio and in with television. The programs were gone and details of what all that went on and what shows were truly amazing faded away and was left with a general feeling of nostalgia that radio had been good and fun.

Of course, may come flooding back with the sounds of an unfamiliar program. The re-emergence of radio programs in wide circulation on the internet has made it possible for my generation to rediscover and for people who heard it long ago to listen again and rediscover how great the golden age of radio really was.

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  1 comment for “What My Parents and Grandparents Never Told Me About the Golden Age of Radio”

  1. Joel Baumwoll
    September 29, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    I am also a fan of OTR news broadcasts, particularly CBS World News Today. I listen to the nightly broadcasts from 1938, 39, 40 leading up to WW2. Great journalists giving live feeds via shortwave from world capitals. Hearing the day by day events, knowing what happened but notbthevdetails, from people who reported not from hindsight, but as news is an incrediblevwaybto understand history.

    Try it sometime.


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