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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.
Retro-Views Suggested Listening for the Holiday Season
Retro-Views Suggested Listening for the Holiday Season
This month, I'm going to take a bit of a different approach -- rather than analyzing a particular program in depth, I'm going to get into the spirit of the season by offering up my own personal holiday favorites. Some may be familiar -- some may not -- but all have some bearing on this Festive Season Of The Year. (And here's hoping my list inspires you to offer in a few of your own -- I'm leaving plenty out!)
So hang your stocking and say your prayers -- and here we go...
- The Cinnamon Bear (Transco syndication, 1937 and in reissue ever since).
An obvious choice for the kiddies - but this is a series that also works well for the grownup listeners, with some surprisingly subtle comedy mixed in with the sugar and sweetness. And, for broadcast history buffs, the show offers a whos-who snapshot of late-thirties LA radio talent -- you'll recognize many favorite voices. For me, Gale Gordon's just-enough-over-the-top performance as the Crazy Quilt Dragon steals the show.
- Santa's Sit Down -- from "Town Hall Tonight" (NBC, 12/22/37).
Fred Allen and the Mighty Allen Art Players offer a topical Christmas fable, as Santa becomes fed up with all the injustice in the world and goes on a sit-down strike. Allen's Santa is a bit vinegary -- but all turns out fine in the end in a tale that's both funny and thought-provoking.
- Gracie's Christmas Carol -- from the Burns and Allen Show. (CBS 12/23/36)
Everyone has a favorite satire of the Dickens chestnut, and this one's mine. George is haunted by the ghosts of Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen and Jack Benny, who rebuke him for stealing their jokes. The impersonations of Cantor, Allen, and Benny -- done by Tony Martin, Ken Niles, and Bill Goodwin -- are mediocre at best, but one could consider the piece a bit prophetic since, after all, George did outlive them all!
- The Lord's Prayer -- from "Amos 'n' Andy" (CBS, 12/24/41)
I'm frankly not a religious person, but I never fail to get teary-eyed during Freeman Gosden's line-by-line exposition of Matthew 6:9-13, perhaps because it manages to be both religious and secular at the same time, superseding any sort of sectarianism with its celebration of human brotherhood. And even more touching is the absolute sincerity in Gosden's performance -- making the piece seem less a sermon then a simple and genuine display of love by a father for his child.
- A Visit From St. Nicholas -- (CBS, 12/21/39)
A fifteen minute adaptation of Clement Moore's poem by Nila Mack, featuring Betty Garde as the matriarch of a family of house mice (as in "no one was stirring, not even a mouse!") The young mice need to settle down and stop stirring so Santa can arrive in this cute, long-lost-and-recently-rediscovered piece of children's radio.
- "Orphan Ann" -- from "Empire Builders" (NBC-Blue, 12/22/30)
The earliest surviving piece of Christmas radio, it's the story of a flinty old businessman whose cold heart is melted by an orphan girl at Christmastime. NBC had an outstanding staff of actors working out of Chicago at the turn of the thirties, and this program offers a rare chance to hear them in action -- and a rare chance to hear some of the great cliches of OTR Christmas Drama before they had become cliches. It's pure schmaltz -- but done so sincerely, you can't help but go along with it.
- "A Christmas Carol" -- from "The Campbell Playhouse" (CBS, 12/24/39).
The essential Lionel Barrymore version of the Scrooge story -- and perhaps the definitive Christmas radio drama. Barrymore is -- well, *Barrymore* in this faithful condensation of the original story, but for me what makes it outstanding is Welles' work as the narrator. The very essence of any Dickens story is in the narration, and Welles brings the master's words to life. In my house, we tend to chant out the lines along with the cast -- and if the power went out, we could probably do the show verbatim from memory without any need for the recording!
- "Red Ryder Nails The Cleveland Street Kid" -- Jean Shepherd (WOR, 12/24/74)
You've seen the movie, now hear the broadcast. Shep reads the short story that started it all, bringing Ralphie, Randy, Ma, and The Old Man vividly to life with just that magnificent voice. Maybe it isn't technically OTR -- but it's one of the most perfect forty-five-minute-periods the audio medium ever produced.
- "I Love Potato Pancakes!" -- from "The Chase and Sanborn Hour" (NBC 12/13/31)
Sad to say there are virtually no Chanukah references in mainstream OTR -- so this is a real rarity, as Eddie Cantor sings an exuberant paen to the joys of latkes!
And finally, here's one for the day after Christmas, when the kids are fighting over the last unbroken toy, when the tree is shedding brown needles all over the floor, when you're cursing the very soul of the inventor of "non dairy holiday nog" and when the mailman shows up with a fiendish smile and a fistful of bills....
- "Christmas at the Mammoth Department Store" -- from "The Linit Bath Club Revue."
(CBS 12/25/32) This is an unadulterated Fred Allen take on the holiday season -- as he plays a harried department store executive who is abuse by his staff, browbeaten by his customers, and finally stands by as Santa Claus is exposed as a fraud by a cynical New York brat (Santa and brat both hysterically played by the versatile Jack Smart). A little acid to cut the sweetness -- and the source of my all-time favorite Christmas signoff line: "No matter what other nations forget their war debts -- America certainly got even with Turkey today!"
And with that, best wishes for a joyous holiday season for one and all from Retro Views!
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