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Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?
That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.
Or, His Name's Friday: An Appreciation of "Dragnet"
Or, His Name's Friday: An Appreciation of "Dragnet"
When I was five years old, one of my favorite TV programs was "Dragnet." "Dragnet -- 1968!" as it was known in those now-kinda-happenin' days -- a jerkily-directed, stiffly-acted homage to the LAPD. Every week, the NBC peacock unfolded his glorious plumage to that odd little harp gliss, and the scene would fade in on a hazy sky shot of downtown Los Angeles.
"This -- is the city."
I loved his voice. That's what really appealed to me about the show. Joe Friday's voice -- that clipped, steady monotone, so firm yet in its own way so gentle. Living as I did in a neighborhood where angry, screaming voices were the rule and not the exception, Joe Friday's laconic drone heralded an all-too-brief visit to a quieter, calmer world. When after thirty minutes that big sweaty hand with the hammer clanged down on the die and it was time for bed -- I was more relaxed than at any other time in the week. I had no idea what the show was about -- I just loved the way it sounded.
I didn't realize "Dragnet" was a cop show until I was ten years old. And by then, I didn't care.
But another decade hence, I found myself working at a small AM radio station which carried Victor Ives' syndicated "Golden Age Of Radio Theatre" series. And one of the programs in the package was the original radio version of "Dragnet." I listened -- and suddenly realized there was much more to Joe Friday than just his monotone. And there was even more to admire about his creator, Jack Webb: one of radio's few, true geniuses.
Jack Webb was born in 1920, and grew up in wrenching poverty in a particularly feculent section of Los Angeles. By one account, one of his earliest childhood memories was of his mother sending him to root thru garbage cans in search of vegetables that weren't too far rotten to eat. It was a bleak life, with few constants. One of them was the cop on the beat -- a uniformed patrol officer whose name has been lost to history. But Jack Webb remembered him.
Flash forward to 1949. Jack Webb had grown up, served in the Air Corps, and developed a fascination for jazz -- a fascination that led him, in turn, into radio as a small-time announcer/disc jockey. While in the service, he had discovered a talent for writing that led him to experiment with a number of program formats -- from red-blooded adventure to bizarre Henry Morganesque comedy. But it was his 1947 private-eye series "Pat Novak For Hire" that really got him noticed -- a series that was totally of its time. The postwar years were the heyday of Hard-Boiled-Dick shows, and Novak was the hardest-boiled of them all -- so exaggerated as to be, in the end, a caricature of the genre. It was an entertaining show, but it was hardly unique.
Then, in 1948, Webb's life hit its turning point. While acting in a bit part in an obscure crime movie, Webb met an LAPD sergeant named Marty Wynn, who was acting as technical advisor for the film. Wynn and Webb got acquainted, and when Wynn learned that Webb was involved in radio, the policeman immediately began to criticize the way cops were portrayed on the air: they were invariably boneheads, clods, ignorant oafs -- doltish incompetents who had to be rescued from their own stupidity by the smugly-superior private eyes. It was, to Wynn, a portrayal that was both inaccurate and insulting.
Webb listened. And agreed. He remembered the cop from his old neighborhood -- a stolid, dependable man who was dedicated to his job, and didn't need some smart-mouthed gumshoe to help him do it.
Out of that conversation came inspiration. And a year later, "Dragnet" hit the air for the first time -- presenting, according to its own publicity releases, police dramas of unprecedented realism. There was nothing else like it on the air.
And it very nearly flopped. Listeners accustomed to the purple prose of the private eyes didn't know what to make of this odd cop with the quiet, gravelly voice -- who spent half an hour plodding thru his workday, and who seemed obsessed with the time of day -- punctuating his narrative every few minutes with a check of his watch. "Dragnet" went on the air as a sustainer -- no sponsor -- and NBC was watching carefully to see how the public would respond.
The public didn't seem to care much for the show -- but a very influential critic did. John Crosby was the radio columnist for the New York Herald Tribune -- a bright, urbane man who wrote for bright, urbane readers. And he thought Webb's quirky new show was the most innovative new drama on the air -- "it rings with an authenticity I find absorbing," he exulted in his column. Crosby's readers knew he had reliable tastes -- and sampled the show. Word got out. And Webb's quiet little show was suddenly a major hit.
Webb's show earned its reputation for authenticity -- he was obsessed by it, he was in truth the Erich Von Stroheim of radio directors. Every phrase, every line, every sound effect had to be real. His actors had to sound like they *weren't* acting -- and thus the "Webb Monotone." Every line ended on a downbeat -- murmured from between closed lips. No emoting, no sweeping Orson Welles vocal tricks, no hamminess allowed. Just realism.
The casting of the show was as distinctive as the concept. Webb himself played Joe Friday, the archetypical plainclothes cop: just from his weary tone of voice, you could see the cheap grey suit, the run-over shoes, the frayed tie. Webb played Friday as a civil servant -- just another face on the seventeenth floor -- but one who deeply cared about his job.
Joe's partner was Ben Romero, a tangy-voiced Texan -- played by a man who was a master of that characterization, Barton "Doc Long" Yarborough. But Ben had none of Doc's ebullience -- Ben was a cop. He took life seriously - he had a wife and kids, and a dog, and a house. And all he wanted was to be able to go home to them at the end of the day.
Together, Joe and Ben worked thru exactly one hundred and thirty-two cases between 1949 and 1951 -- for sixty-six of radio drama's finest hours. They solved murders, broke up heroin rings, kept kids away from marijuana -- even investigated sex crimes, in episodes that carried some of radio's earliest content disclaimers ("This program is for you -- not for your children."). They rarely shot their guns. They never wisecracked. They always completed their paperwork. And they made it all sound completely, utterly real, with some of the most innovative, creative use of sound since the heyday of the Columbia Workshop.
And then came December 27, 1951.
Earlier that week, the "Dragnet" company had been shocked by the news that Barton Yarborough had collapsed and died in his home -- the victim of a sudden heart attack. And in a gutsy tribute to his friend, Webb ordered the death written into the series. The result was an episode entitled "The Big Sorrow" -- my nominee for one of the most honestly *moving* pieces of radio drama ever presented. Webb plays Joe Friday's grief as tight-lipped and repressed -- and yet, indisputably, Joe is truly and deeply grieving. It's not *what* he says that makes the scene -- it's what he *doesn't* say, and *how* he doesn't say it that gives the moment, and in fact, the entire episode its heart-rending impact. If you don't shed a tear by the end of "The Big Sorrow," you simply have no soul. And you'll come away from this episode with a whole new respect for Jack Webb's skill as an actor.
The series went on for four more years after Yarborough's death, and continued in reruns for a while after that. And, of course, there was television -- a black-and-white run from 1952 to 1959, and a new series in color from 1966 to 1970. Thru it all, Joe never changed. Not even his suit.
But the world around him did. Joe Friday never came to grips with the changing world of the sixties -- although there are moments of surprising compassion in many of the later TV episodes, Joe's encounters with garishly-dressed pot-smokin' hippies are difficult to take seriously. One wonders how he would have dealt with the Rodney King or O. J. cases.
In the end, we never had to find out. Jack Webb died in 1982 -- and the LAPD paid him the most honest tribute ever paid a radio performer. Badge 714 -- Joe Friday's old badge number -- was retired in his honor. Webb was -- and remains -- the only civilian ever accorded such an honor by the department.
Joe Friday lives on. As long as there are reruns -- as long as, somewhere, a tired detective in a cheap suit sips at a cold cup of coffee, Joe Friday will be remembered.
I know *I'll* never forget.
Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org