I still remember my first encounter with old time radio. I was barely old enough to stand in my crib, but I do remember staring across the bedroom at the big, green hypnotic eye and finding it staring right back at me.
The green eye was right above a big knob and both were located on the front of a large brown box. The green eye glowed in the dark.
Much to my delight, whenever I could get my hands on the big knob and turn it, the big green eye would open wider and then partially shut again.
Wow! I was fascinated with that old time radio before I ever even heard a show.
That memory goes back to the days when I was still in my parents’ bedroom. When I was old enough to have a room of my own, that radio went with me. When Mom or Dad tucked me in at night, I always asked them to turn on the radio.
I can remember laying in bed in the soft green glow of that radio, listening to The Lucky Lager Dance Party. They played songs by Patti Page and Perry Como, Theresa Brewer and Eddie Fisher, Rosemary Clooney and Frankie Laine.
Oh, and they played the song “Dream” by Johnny Mercer at the end of every show.
The real magic started one night when, for whatever reason, I couldn’t sleep. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I stealthily climbed out of bed and tiptoed across the room to turn the big dial that made that magical green eye flicker.
With one turn of the knob, Artie Shaw’s orchestra was suddenly transformed into the sound of horse hooves clip-clopping at a gallop.
I heard a cowboy on a galloping horse yelling to another cowboy to "stop or I’ll shoot!"
What was this?
Leaving the knob in the new position, I hurriedly scampered back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin. There in the semi-dark room, illuminated by the glow of my radio’s magical green eye, I clutched my covers to my chest and became totally mesmerized by the voice of Matt Dillon climbing down from his horse and ordering the other cowboy not to draw his gun.
The other man argued that he wasn’t going to be taken in just to be hanged.
Suddenly Matt was screaming "Don’t do it!" when the sounds of gunfire exploded into the room.
What happened? Who was shot?
Then a man named Chester started running. When he stopped, I could actually hear him looking down at the cowboy laying on the ground. “You got him, Mr. Dillon. He’s gone.”
Wow!! How great was this?!!
The very next year I saw my new friend, Matt Dillon, on television – obviously not the same Matt Dillon who was on my radio. Radio Matt was the real Marshal Matt Dillon.
As far as I’m concerned, he still is.
Some of my fondest moments growing up were in front of a radio.
At 7:00 pm during the summer evenings of 1959 I would drop my bat and glove and run into the house, rushing into my room to turn on the radio.
Time for the Dodgers game!
Each night I listened to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett call the games from the L.A. Coliseum or from some other magical ball park around the country. I kept the score of every single game.
I loved to play baseball, but when I listened to those games I didn’t dream of being Gil Hodges, or even my favorite player, Duke Snyder. I dreamed of being Vince Scully.
Another great old radio memory was KFI playing episodes of Orson Welles in The Many Lives of Harry Lime. The show started with: "Bang! ‘That was the shot that killed Harry Lime.’" I was probably in junior high by that time and would stay awake listening until the wee hours of the morning.
I also remember my parents listening to the radio in the kitchen around supper time.
The voices I heard emitting from their radio included those of Bob Crane on KNX, Elmer Davis on KFI, and Fibber McGee and Molly on “Monitor.”
My mom made dinner in the company of Ma Perkins, One Man’s Family and The Romance of Helen Trent.
My dad was cutting my hair in the kitchen the night Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. We shared that moment with him, right in the ring, live on the radio.
I was born too late to actually be raised on radio alone, but the great old time radio shows still had an influence on us back there in the 50′s. Everyone knew the phrase “T’aint so, McGee.” They knew all about Fibber McGee’s closet. And we all had heard of the Quiz Kids, Henry Aldrich, The Bickersons, Captain Midnight, Inner Sanctum, The Great Gildersleeve, and Lum and Abner, even though none of them were big hits on TV.
Some of the great old radio shows did manage to make the transition to television — and they were very popular. I still associate such shows as Our Miss Brooks, Ozzie and Harriet, My Friend Irma, and My Little Margie with television. But they all had their genesis on radio.
Even some of the longest running old time radio shows like The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen and The Lone Ranger are generally thought of as TV shows to people born in the late 40s and 50s. In recent years digital sound has made these great old radio shows available once again and I discovered I prefer their radio versions.
What is my all time favorite show?
Well, there are about 20 on my top 10 list.
That being said, I have to admit that whenever I listen to Gunsmoke I am instantly transported back to 1954… I am once again that kid bathed in green light, clutching his covers up around his chin and staring across the room at that big hypnotic eye, listening to the stories of Matt and Chester, Kitty and Doc. Marveling at the wonderfully realistic sounds of Dodge City, Kansas, circa 1874.
What’s your favorite old time radio show?
Whatever it is, if it has a similar affect on you, then you are in the right place. You are home.
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And they mined them like gold.
Just a few of the ongoing jokes were:
- Benny’s vault
- Jack the miser
- Jack’s old Maxwell automobile
- Now boarding on Track 9 for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga
- Mel Blanc’s famous Si. Sy. So. Sue.
- Phil Harris’ love affair with the bottle
And of course there were many more.
One of Jack’s favorite bits, and I dare say mine, was the ongoing relationship between Jack and his “next door neighbors,” Ronald Colman and Benita Hume (the real life Mrs. Colman).
The Colmans first guest starred on the show in 1945. They played Jack’s neighbors, a prop that had been mentioned on prior shows but never actually dramatized. The episode was so popular (you can hear it below) that the Colmans were called back several times that season and for the next several seasons after that.
The gag, of course, was that Ronald and Benita Colman were a proper British couple: Very refined and very reserved in their manners and social graces.
Benny was — well, Benny. He constantly borrowed items from his neighbors and Mr. Colman quietly seethed at the audacity of Benny’s miserly ways.
Looking out the front window, Colman regularly observed not only the spectacle next door, but also Jack’s antics in the neighborhood.
He was constantly bewildered by the way Benny was followed around by his group of “dimwitted” friends, especially “that Phil Harris fellow.”
Mr. Colman, much too much the proper English gentleman, could never actually be rude and tell Benny what he thought. Instead, he dumped all his frustrations on his his poor, long suffering wife Benita — who constantly got an ear full.
And as the third person in the room, so did we.
Jack, of course, was completely oblivious to Colman’s attitude. Benny considered himself equal to, or superior, to the Colman’s on every level: as an actor, as a star, in his social life . . . well, you get the picture.
The results were hilarious.
We will write more on The Jack Benny Show in the near future. In the meantime, here are some great episodes that featured Ronald Colman and Benita Hume. They are classics, each and every one!
This is my YUSA Radio Show 3/23/2009: It featured two episodes of the Benny Show featuring Ronald and Benita Colman.
The first episode is titled: Jack Loses Ronald Colman’s Oscar and originally aired in March, 1948.
The second episode is titled: Last Week’s Mistakes and originally aired November, 1949. In this episode Jack visits Colman on the working set of his film Champagne for Caesar.
Here is the first Benny episode that featured the Colman’s:
Here are some of the other Benny Shows that featured the Colmans. I chose only the episodes with good sound quality:
This episode of the Benny Show revealed what happened to the Ronald Colman Oscar. (This had been an ongoing subject of the show for several weeks, including an episode that found Jack trying to borrow Bing Crosby’s Oscar.)
This Benny episode, titled At the Races, has some extremely funny bits. Listen for Sheldon Leonard as the handicapper — it is hilarious!
Here is a radio adaptation of Champagne for Caesar, the movie Coleman was filming when Benny visited the set on the 11/49 episode of The Jack Benny Show.
This presentation, which appeared on The Screen Guild Players, features Ronald Coleman, Vincent Price, Audrey Totter, Barbara Britten and Art Linkletter. It is 60 minutes in length and the recording quality is excellent.
I recall my dad made a puppet theater for me in our garage. He took the long seat from a porch swing and somehow propped it up so it was secure. This was to hide me. He then hung a curtain from the ceiling about two feet in front this. It hung about one inch lower than the top of the sofa seat. I then stood “backstage” and worked my marionettes which were seen on the ground, below the curtain.
I probably didn’t explain that very well, but it was pretty cool. I played there day in and day out putting on puppet shows for family and friends. My marionettes were any number of stuffed toys that I attached strings to.
Looking back on it, it was a pretty great thing for my dad to do. I’m sure mom coaxed him a bit because she always encouraged my interests and those of my sister.
When it came to ventriloquism, I had an old Danny O’Day dummy and also, later, a Jerry Mahoney model. Danny O’Day was dressed in a Texaco uniform. I would love to put on ventriloquism shows for the family. They must have been pretty tolerant, because I never recall any one discouraging me.
When our own boys were young (9 months to a year, or so), I loved to sit them on my knee and pretend they were dummies and do a ventriloquist act. I would sort of bounce them and turn their head with the hand I was using to support their neck. It’s a pretty funny effect. Next time you hold a baby, try it. It will crack people up.
And then I remember him as the original host on Do You Trust Your Wife? which later became Who Do You Trust? Johnny Carson then took over the hosting job.
As a kid I didn’t think Bergen was all that great a ventriloquist because you could see his mouth moving all the time. I guess he was a great ventriloquist for radio, which, by the way, was pretty ground breaking in the 1930s. Think about it – putting a ventriloquist on the radio?
But as the years passed, I took on a whole new appreciation for Edgar Bergen’s genius.
His was not a kid’s act. His routines were not designed for a child’s birthday party or a Saturday morning show. His bits were smart and sophisticated, sassy and, at times, even a bit … shall we say, risqué?
He had great chemistry with his characters. Bergen appeared as the mild, almost timid father figure to Charlie’s witty, sarcastic, rebellious “son.” Their exchanges would fire past you at like lasers with Bergen going in and out of Charlie’s voice at an amazing clip.
It’s no wonder many in the radio audience thought Charlie was a real boy.
And who can forget Mortimer Snerd? What a great alter-ego to Charlie.
Mortimer was gracious and funny and completely innocent. He knew he was stupid, but because he was stupid, he didn’t care. Unlike the sarcastic Charlie, he never said an unkind word to anyone.
As a kid, of course, Mortimer was my favorite. Mortimer was more of a cartoon character. I still love it when I play the radio shows and his theme music comes on.
If you go to the Bergen and McCarthy page, I have included several great clips from their shows, including the infamous Mae West appearance in 1939 that got her banned from radio and almost cost Bergen his job with Chase and Sanborn.
Every long journey ever taken began with a first step. And every old time radio show began with a theme song and unique dialogue designed to instantly identify the show.
That formula was true for all genres. Take westerns for instance. How did the famous old time radio westerns begin? Do you remember the theme song? The announcers opening words?
You say your memory is pretty good? Let’s see — here’s one for you:
- This first show was considered a juvenile western.
- It aired between 1942 and 1945 from New York City.
- The show was based on a character created by O’Henry.
- The two main stars were Jackson Beck and Louis Sorin.
- The main character was a romantic leading man, who, with his fat comedic partner, wandered around the west.
- The title character was a ladies man and always got the girl at the end.
Figure it out? Click the blue arrow to see if you are right!
If you are ready for another one?
When George Burns and Gracie Allen first appeared as a vaudeville team they were paid $5 per show.
George was the comedian and Gracie was the straight man, but when Gracie had a live audience she was hilarious.
George said in his book Gracie: A Love Story: “Gracie was transformed in front of a live audience. She said the lines differently on stage than in a rehearsal.” Her straight lines got more laughs than his punchlines.
Burns and Allen played the whistle stop circuits of vaudeville for three long years, appearing in one small town after another, with separate berths on the trains and separate rooms in the hotels. George wanted more.
George and Gracie were married on January 27, 1926, and the following year hit the big time with a long contract on the Keith circuit which payed them a whopping $750.00 a week.
But that was a pittance compared to the fortunes they would earn just a few years later on the radio.
Here is a clip from an appearance by Burns and Allen on the Kraft Music Hall starring Al Jolson. Gracie wants George to sing, but George is intimidated by singing in front of the great Jolson. In this clip Gracie is talking to Oscar Levant, a regular on the show —
Click the blue arrow to listen and continue reading. Click the link to pause, fast forward or reverse.
I intended to give this subject more space and time, and I will in the future.
However, in writing about Burns and Allen during the first week our blog was up, I found myself already mentioning three outstanding resources.
Whenever possible, we will call on Bill Bragg, Walden Hughes, and Frank Bresee.
Bill Bragg founded Yesterday USA over 25 years ago and, with the help of his wife Kim, still operates it today. All old time radio lovers owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bill.
Walden Hughes is a nationally recognized old time radio expert. He hosts three week-end shows on Yesterday USA and is responsible for organizing many old time radio conventions.
Frank Bresee has spent over 60 years directly involved in old time radio, either on the air or behind the scenes. His career began when he played the role as Little Beaver on The Red Ryder Radio Show in the 1940s.
I look forward to preparing feature articles on each of these individuals in the very near future.