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Radio's Captain Midnight; The Wartime Biography
Written by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr.
Reviewed by Charlie Summers
Most of the books published dealing with Old-Time Radio are basically text books; they give logs, histories, or other factual information that those of us who collect OTR can use to increase our knowledge and collections. We seem sometimes to be a pretty stogy lot, more interested in facts about the programs than the programs themselves.
But this book is different. Assuming that the adventures of Captain Midnight actually happened, "Radio's Captain Midnight; The Wartime Biography," written by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr., and published by McFarland, chronicles the life of this famed aviator. Anyone on the OTR Digest or OldRadio Mailing List is familiar with Mr. Kallis' writings; he is a frequent and welcomed contributor to both mailing lists.
This "biography" covers Captain Midnight from his origin to immediately before the end of the Second World War. Mr. Kallis is quite clear that the only "canonical" adventures of the Secret Squadron are those radio episodes sponsored by Skelly Oil (from 1938 to 1940) and Ovaltine (1940-1949), although he sticks most closely to the Ovaltine shows because of the time frame.
The story is that of Charles "Red" Albright, who returned from a dangerous secret mission during World War I at precisely the stroke of midnight, which gave him his nickname, and almost legendary status among his fellow pilots. Captain Midnight is asked to form a secret society to aid the forces of law and order in combatting international crime and intrigue, and as the dark clouds of war gather on the horizon, the Secret Squadron is used by the U.S. to battle the enemies of freedom.
Writing this book was unquestionably a difficult task; try describing the action in any radio, television, or movie serial without resorting to, "He said...she said...they did..." repetitions. Mr. Kallis does an excellent job of walking this minefield, occasionally even using "direct quotes" from the participants interviewed years later remembering their exploits, which adds an air of authenticity to the biography.
Avoiding repetition isn't the only problem the author faced, though. Consider the difficulties of having to reconcile the various plotlines of what is, protestations aside, a juvenile adventure serial. It may have been written with love and respect for the technology, but there are still the requirements for action and adventure to bring the listeners back tomorrow, and hopefully sell some Ovaltine. There are a number of places within the timeline where the radio serial completely left any groundings in reality, leaping headlong into the realm of fantasy.
And reconciling these flights of fancy is what causes a considerable problem. Mr. Kallis has opted for what I cannot help but think of as the "Johnny Dollar Dodge;" the idea that the radio program is a dramatization of real-life adventures. (So this book is the biography of a radio show character, based on the "real" character, of which the radio show was a dramatization...ooh, my head hurts.) But sometimes the explanation is by necessity a little heavy-handed and even apologetic, drawing the reader outside of the book, destroying the illusion of legitimacy, and reminding him it is a work of fiction. In a day when it appears to be permissible to insert a mythical and omnipresent fictional biographer into the biography of a former President, it seems to me there would have been nothing wrong with simply ignoring the minor differences between the radio scripts and this biography. I understand that OTR fans are a nit-picking lot, but most of these adventures are not available to collectors anyway, so there would have been little reconciliation necessary.
I also wish Mr. Kallis would have given us just a little more history of the program itself; he does in his Preface briefly run through the history as well as a short entry in the appendix, but more information early on would have helped prepare the reader (particularly one who may have heard only a few episodes of this serial) for this "history" of the famed aviator. Yes, I know that is not the purpose of the book, but would have, I believe, added to the reader's already considerable enjoyment.
It's apparent Mr. Kallis is passionate about the aviation technology, but he deftly imparts technical information about the planes (real and fictional) without sounding like a textbook. And the book is peppered with photographs of aircraft the Captain and his Squadron "flew;" I found myself looking forward to them, even though I am not an aviation buff. They add an integrity to the storyline that helps keep the period fresh in the reader's mind - fictional or not, the historical aspects are vital to the reader's acceptance of the material.
Mr. Kallis continues the "reality" of Captain Midnight into the Appendices, where he also gives the reader a primer on cryptology, and an overview of the premiums and giveaways connected to Captain Midnight.
(My only other criticism of the book is a purely personal one; Mr. Kallis says, "The names Charles and Joyce were common enough to require no change." He, he..."common," pfui.)
If you are looking for a list of available Captain Midnight episodes, or a dry dissertation on the makings of the radio program, this isn't the book you're looking for. If, on the other hand, you want to sit back on a warm Spring afternoon, and be transported to another and simpler time following the exciting adventures of a great American hero, this is the novel for you.
Charlie Summers, who since his early 20s has been practicing to be the best curmudgeon possible and by now has it down pat, is a long-time Old-Time Radio program collector who currently maintains the most popular OTR discussion mailing list on the Internet, the Internet OTR Digest, publishes The Nostalgia Pages, and takes instructions from his four year old daughter, Katherine. His reviews prove once again that those who can, do; and those who cannot, criticize those who do...his commentaries only prove that he's cranky. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.