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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.
Revisiting Radio's Distinctive Laugh Novelty
Revisiting Radio's Distinctive Laugh Novelty
"Distinctive" is an unusual word to use in describing a radio show -- but that was the word used for fifteen years in introducing one of the medium's true forgotten classics. It was never a ratings success -- and in fact was far more successful as a syndicated rerun than it ever was as a live show. Its creator may be better known as one of the leading scriptwriters of early television, as a commentator for such erudite magazines as the Saturday Review of Literature, or even as a dour-voiced essayist over National Public Radio in the 1970s. But make no bones about it -- in any medium, Goodman Ace was a brilliant writer, and "Easy Aces" is a show which, perhaps more than any other of its time, is long overdue for rediscovery.
"Easy Aces" was, for most of its run, a fifteen minute comedy serial -- and was generally overshadowed by its many other competitors in that crowded genre. But it was as unique -- as *distinctive* -- in that field as a show could possibly be. "Easy Aces" had none of the morality-play melodrama of "Amos 'n' Andy," nor the warm-hearted rural nostalgia of "Lum and Abner," nor even the baroque absurdity of "Vic and Sade." Instead, Goodman and Jane Ace gave audiences a serial that owes its style to the screwball-comedy tradition of 1930s movies, to the works of comic-strip authors like Harry J. Tuthill ("The Bungle Family") and Sol Hess ("The Nebbs"), and to whimsical novelists like Thorne Smith ("Topper.") In its acerbic take on upper-middle-class life, "Easy Aces" is the closest radio ever came to a true comedy-of-manners.
It's the story of Mr. Ace (his first name was never used), a typical 1930s white-collar type, and his gently-batty wife Jane -- who live in childless domestic harmony in a pleasant suburban bungalow. Ace is the straightest of straight men -- a serious-minded, middlebrow American who pays his bills on time, belongs to the Rotary Club, reads the newspaper from front to back every day, wears a collar and tie while mowing the lawn -- and can't, for the life of him, understand what makes his wife tick.
And that's understandable -- because Jane Ace lives in a world all her own. She's often described as an uptown version of Gracie Allen, but that's not quite right. Jane's dizziness is of a different sort than that of Gracie -- and it most often manifests itself in an almost Freudian misuse of the language.
"You can't judge a book by its lover."
"You've got to take the bitter with the better."
"Time wounds all heels."
And on and on - Jane's malapropisms were the most famous feature of the show, and she purposefully keeps them coming, episode after episode -- sometimes flitting by too quickly to grasp on the first listening. Her nasal Kansas City voice is perfectly suited to the character -- vague, but not dumb, innocent, yet often positively devious -- and a perfect complement to her husband's own midwestern drawl.
As if Jane alone wasn't bewildering enough, Mr. Ace must endure other continuing aggravations in his quest for a quiet evening. Rooming with the Aces is Jane's childhood friend Marge -- who is often a reluctant sidekick in Jane's ill- advised meddling. There is also the elderly busybody Mrs. Benton, always good for some neighborhood gossip. There is Jane's horrifying Aunt Louise -- whose hatred of Mr. Ace burns as an eternal flame. And, of course, there's Johnny - one of radio's most unjustly-forgotten characters.
Johnny Sherwood is Jane's brother -- and may be the most perfectly-delineated example of a sponging, loafing, no-good relative that you'll ever encounter. Johnny has made a career out of avoiding work. His laziness is an art, a craft -- a calling. Thrown out of his home by his long-suffering parents, Johnny boards with the Aces for two long years, smoking Mr. Ace's cigars, wearing his shirts, and failing to make any meaningful contribution to the household. And then, miraculously, Johnny strikes it rich - not by honest labor but by marriage to the wealthy local heiress Alice Everett. This event, one must imagine, shakes the very foundation of Mr. Ace's conservative world view, and his denunciations of Johnny's slothfulness are ever after tinged by an obvious note of jealousy. Johnny is brilliantly brought to life, by the way, by a very young Frank Lovejoy -- who long before his typecasting in hardboiled roles proves himself a first-rate comic actor.
The plots of "Easy Aces" owe a lot to the family-comedy comic strips of the day, and generally turn on the theme of Jane's bumbling interference in one or another of Ace's business deals or on the often-strained relationships encountered by the various members of this extended family. In one memorable sequence, Jane decides to adopt an orphan -- and comes home with a sullen twenty-year-old behemoth named "Cokie", who does nothing but sit on the couch and glare menacingly at Mr. Ace, finally rising only to knock the goading Ace unconscious with a single blow. Such were the sort of family values encountered in this strange little household, and such was the astringent, anti-sentimental outlook that set "Easy Aces" apart from any other show on the air.
For a decade and a half, the Aces quietly continued on their way, an obscure bright spot on the schedule, until a dispute with long-time sponsor Anacin led to cancellation in 1945. But Goodman Ace, in a brilliantly-executed business move, sold three years worth of transcriptions, containing episodes from 1938 thru 1941, to the Frederick W. Ziv Company of Cincinnati -- which edited the recordings and reissued selected storylines for syndication. The show proved an unlikely hit in rerun form - and the venture made the Aces, at last, a wealthy couple. It's these reruns that are available to collectors today -- often in unfortunately mediocre sound quality. In addition to the three hundred or so episodes that were released in the Ziv package, the Library of Congress holds nearly two full years of pristine original transcriptions of the network run, from February 1935 to December 1937 -- complete with Ford Bond's Anacin commercials, and the distinctive (there's that word again!) accordion version of "Manhattan Serenade" that opens and closes each episode. Perhaps someday, these episodes might be licensed and rereleased -- but I wouldn't count on it.
"Easy Aces" isn't a show likely to attract the interest of mass marketers -- because it isn't a show that lends itself to nostalgia. It's not the least bit heartwarming -- it's often abrasive, and even downright hostile -- and it reminds us, perhaps, that the world of the Old Time Radio era wasn't quite as idealized as we might like to think it was. It's a show, in short, that isn't for everyone.
But if you're willing to give it a try -- it just might be for you.
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 email@example.com