It was 4:15 on a rainy April afternoon in Minneapolis. Like so many boys my age, I was sprawled with my kid brother Butz on the living room floor glued to our family’s big Philco radio-phonograph console. Yesterday our favorite radio hero, Jack Armstrong, and his cousins Betty and Billy were in the wilds of the Amazon jungle surrounded by headhunters. Their frightened guide had deserted them.
Will Uncle Jim and his native friends come to their rescue?
“Tune in at the same time tomorrow,” promised the announcer. “Don’t miss the next episode of ‘Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy’ brought to you by Wheaties, the breakfast of champions.”
“Have you tried Wheaties? They’re whole wheat with all of the bran. Won’t you try Wheaties? For wheat is the best food of man… etc. etc.” went the jingle.
“Wave the flag for the Hudson High Boys… Show them how we stand… Ever shall our team be champion… etc. etc. etc.”
“The Tom Mix Ralston straight shooters are on the air! And here comes Tom Mix, America’s favorite cowboy!”
“When it’s Ralston for your breakfast, start the day off shining bright, gives you lots of cowboy energy, with a flavor that’s just right… It’s delicious and nutritious. Bite size and ready to eat. Take a tip from Tom go and tell you mom Shredded Ralston can’t be beat.”
“The Tom Mix Ralston straight shooters bring you another episode in the “Mystery of the Hurricane Horse!”
“Jack Armstrong” and “Tom Mix” were just for starters. Those 15 minute cliffhangers were followed by more exciting weekday afternoon radio adaptations of popular comic strip heros such as “Captain Midnight,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Sergeant Preston of the Canadian Mounted Police,” and of course “Superman” and the “Lone Ranger.” Every episode ended with a “tune in tomorrow” teaser.
The medium’s popularity exploded in the 1920s and 30s. At the time, there were a dozen or more companies manufacturing radios for the home. The big hitters were Zenith, Philco, Emerson and Motorola. As I remember, our big Philco rested prominently in a corner of our living room.
Later in the early 1940s Dad brought home a little plastic table top Emerson for the kitchen so the housekeeper could listen to the soap operas.
Preteens weren’t the only radio junkies. The housewife was targeted by the daytime programs such as “The Guiding Light,” “Kitty Keene,” “Portia Faces Life,” “Aunt Jenny,” “Just Plain Bill,” and “One Man’s Family,” all easy listening while mothers did their housework.
The superstars of daytime radio were Frank and Anne Hummert, who from their Chicago studios, produced some of the era’s most popular soaps including “Ma Perkins,” “Young Widder Brown,” “David Harum,” “John’s Other Wife,” “Just Plain Bill,” “The Romance of Helen Trent,” “Easy Aces,” “Our Gal Sunday,” and one of my favorites, “Mary Nobel, Back Stage Wife.”
“Mary Noble” was a long-suffering country girl married to a philandering Broadway star. The show was sponsored by “Haley’s M-O Mineral Oil.” Today you can listen to ALL 185 fifteen-minute episodes online for only $5.
The soaps were there for the tuning while the housewife cleaned up the kitchen, made the beds, ironed shirts and linens, and labored happily through the rest of her household chores, thanks to daytime radio.
Serial sponsors included such breakfast table favorites as Quaker Oats, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Cream of Wheat, Folgers Coffee, and of course those laundry room essentials; Rinso, Tide, Lava, Palmolive and of course Ivory Soap.
Actually, sponsors were all over the place. As long as you kept your product and your sales message clean, no one challenged your claims. Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, a drink-it or rub-it-on liniment for sore muscles, sponsored a show called “Bluegrass Roy.” “Inner Sanctum,” a scary late-evening mystery, was sponsored (not coincidentally, I’m sure) by Carter’s Little Liver Pills, a laxative that had nothing to do with the liver.
When Mom kept me home from school with a cold, the measles, mumps, whooping cough, or one of my other childhood maladies, there was no TV, of course. So after the “funnies” (the daily newspaper comic strips) I listened to the soaps until my favorite action serials came on later in the afternoon.
Our mother, on the other hand, had no interest in the soaps. Her diversion of choice was the telephone. I was a fan, however, and looked for every opportunity to follow my suffering heroines whenever relegated to a sick bed. The “Our Gal Sunday” announcer asked, “Can a poor orphan girl from a little mining town in Colorado find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” Obviously it wasn’t easy, because the show ran for years.
Whereas daytime radio’s fifteen-minute installment dramas and children’s action serials almost always ended with a “tune in tomorrow” teaser, the half-hour soaps and mysteries were usually short, self-contained radio plays with happy outcomes.
It’s difficult to believe that my three children, now in their 50s, have never known life without television. Unlike TV, radio challenged the imagination. Though some of the kids’ serials in those days were lifted from the comic strips; I nevertheless formed my own virtual images of the characters and the locales where my heroes were facing life and death challenges. I assumed that Ma Perkins’s kitchen was somewhat like our own, but my imagination was certainly challenged when I was immersed in the Lone Ranger’s peril while searching for Tonto in the “Cave of No Return.”
The Evening Dramas
After dinner the adults in our household usually enjoyed first priority when it came to program selection. Original one-hour and half-hour anthologies were popular with our family. Lux Radio Theatre was one of our favorites. It usually featured movie stars in original plays scaled down to accommodate 12 minutes of commercials in a 58-minute network time slot. The half-hour evening mysteries were most often action adventures. Some of the best included “Inner Sanctum,” “The Shadow,” “Gang Busters,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Bulldog Drummond,” “The Whistler,” “Suspense,” and “Lights Out.” The latter was a scary drama broadcast in the late evening after most of us kids should have been in bed.
Heavy as the news was during the thirties and forties, what with the wars in Europe and Asia, the American family could always find light escape by tuning into the half hour comedies broadcast weeknights on network radio. My favorite comedians were Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. Other programs included “The Aldrich Family,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Baby Snooks,” “Burns and Allen,” “Duffy’s Tavern” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” to name a few.
Many of those half-hour comedies featured regular casts of supporting characters who appeared in short sketches each week. On Fred Allen’s weekly stroll through “Allen’s Alley” one might expect Fred to encounter the likes of “Titus Moody,” “Pansy Nussbaum,” “Ajax Cassidy,” and “Senator Beauregard Claghorn”; The latter, played by Kenny Delmar, was a winner. [click Play below]
Fast-forward 15 Years
On my first job in California in 1953, I was given the responsibility of representing our advertising agency’s client, the Toni Home Permanent Company. Toni sponsored three half-hour evening radio shows originating here in Los Angeles. My first assignment was “One Man’s Family,” a classic soap on NBC that employed a large revolving cast which included many of Hollywood’s talented character actors.
The program’s loyal listeners virtually fell in love with the characters to the point that when actor Barton Yarborough, who played Mother and Father Barbor’s son Clifford, died from a heart attack, Carlton E. Morse, the show’s producer, managed to keep him ‘alive’ through periodic one-way telephone conversations.
I was charged with two other Toni-sponsored family programs, “Our Miss Brooks” and “Meet Corliss Archer,” both of which were produced and broadcast from the CBS radio studios in Hollywood.
The Game Shows
Game shows were very popular in the 1940s and 50s. I represented our client on such audience participation radio and later TV programs as “Take It or Leave It,” “Queen For a Day,” “Truth or Consequences,” “People Are Funny,” and “You Bet Your Life”… big responsibilities for a $50-a-week would-be “Mad Man” of the era. Fortunately, we were not involved in two big scandal-plagued TV quiz shows, “$64,000 Question” and “Twenty One,” both of which were caught feeding answers to their contestants.
My brother and I were serious sports fans even back in the thirties and forties. We, like so many others at home, depended on radio for live up-to-the-minute broadcasts. Though newspapers and sports magazines covered the games and matches, they were at least a day or two late, so radio was, for us, the closest thing to actually being spectators in the ballpark, arena or stadium. The family had regular seats at University of Minnesota football’s home games. However, radio was our only means of cheering on the “Golden Gophers,” (often title contenders) when they were playing away at one of the other Big Ten schools.
Unlike the daily papers, radio sports announcers delivered live play-by-play commentary of the events as they were happening. Baseball sportscasters such as Mel Allen (New York Yankees) and Red Barber (Brooklyn Dodgers) brought the famous “crosstown” rivalry into our Minneapolis living room.
No sporting events at the time drew larger radio audiences than the era’s championship prize fights. American boxing fans remembered well the evening in June of 1936 when Hitler’s ‘favorite,’ German-born Max Schmeling, knocked out our heavyweight contender, Joe Lewis, in the 12th round of their first fight at Yankee Stadium. How we suffered, only to celebrate their return bout when Louis got his and our revenge by disposing of Hitler’s “champion” in the first round of their rematch two years later.
Graham McNamee, Ted Husing and Don Dumphy provided blow-by-blow coverage of the championship prize fights. They were very good. It was as if we were actually there at ringside in Madison Square Garden. If a title changed hands we didn’t have to wait to read about it in the morning papers.
Though I had no interest in American radio gossip, the rest of the country must have enjoyed the scuttlebutt. Walter Winchell, the dean of controversy, attracted an audience every bit as large as Ed Murrow’s international news dispatches. Winchell had competition however.
Hollywood showbiz flacks like Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Sheila Graham and Jimmy Fidler, all “dished the dirt” to their gossip-hungry radio fans. As for Winchell, his biased and often unsupported opinions coupled with his hard-hitting irritating delivery made for difficult listening. I usually turned to another station after his opening teaser. Judge for yourself- [click Play below]
As a journalism major I tried my hand as a newscaster and disc jockey on KUOM, the University of Minnesota campus radio station. Big mistake. My irritating nasal twang prompted abusive so-called “anonymous” phone-in calls that drove me off the air after at most a week or two. By switching jobs to radio engineer, I was able to fulfill the necessary credit requirement.
I tried something similar ten years later as a high school football play-by-play announcer on KLFM, our little radio station in Long Beach. The “reviews” I received from friends and family were equally unfavorable, so I quietly retired after one game.
Network Radio News and Commentary
Whereas the nation’s metropolitan daily papers sourced their own local news, they subscribed, as did most radio stations, to the Wire Services; Associated Press (AP), United Press (UP) and Reuters for national and international news coverage.
Though most Americans read the daily papers, radio was their only means of following news and commentary as it was virtually happening. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in March of 1932 and the Hindenburg exploded in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, radio provided the American people with shocking on-the-spot coverage. It was all too vivid.
[click Play below for the Hindenburg newsreel version]
War of the Worlds
The first major testament to the power of broadcast media was a drama aired back on October 30, 1938 that shook up the nation’s radio audience.
Many American families were in their living rooms that evening with their radios tuned to “The Mercury Theatre,” an hour-long weekly anthology that usually featured such classic family fare as, for example, “Treasure Island” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
It was carried in Minneapolis on station WCCO, our local CBS affiliate in prime time. As a child of 10, I was probably outside in costume knocking on doors in hopes of filling my little goody bag with Halloween candy.
If you tuned into the Mercury Theatre a bit late that evening and missed the program’s introduction, you, like thousands of American listeners, would have heard the host, played by actor Orson Welles, “interrupting” the “regularly scheduled program” to report an invasion that was supposedly occurring at that moment someplace in New Jersey by creatures from the planet Mars, complete with on the spot sound effects (gun shots, sirens, screams, etc.) They say Welles and his group of actors were inspired by radio’s live coverage of the crash of the Hindenburg which had occurred a year earlier.
Welles’ frightening yet all-too-realistic production was beamed to an audience that was used to listening during that hour to traditional network programs and their usual formats of music, sports and light comedies. To say it created a panic would underplay its impact on the unsophisticated radio listener.
Welles, a talented producer as well as actor, added reality to that dramatized Mercury Theatre radio play as though he was “interrupting” the “regularly scheduled program” with a series of bulletins from reporters, describing frightening events as they were alleged to be happening in the New York-New Jersey area. Some listeners were actually convinced that interstellar monsters were invading the civilized world. The drama, couched as a newscast, panicked thousands of American radio families.
It was only at the show’s end that the announcer reminded the audience that the program was simply a dramatized production of the 1898 H.G. Wells (no relative) novel “War of the Worlds” by the “Mercury Theatre on the Air.”
Be our guests: We have included a short 8 minute excerpt from this classic program [Click play below]
(Note: This excerpt can also be accessed in our Begged and Borrowed segment.)
It’s very unlikely that a radio play such as War of the Worlds would shake up today’s sophisticated movie, TV and internet audience. Thanks to “Star Wars,” “Planet of the Apes,” numerous zombie flicks and a host of horror films, we have been overly saturated with fictional fright.
Back in the 1930s however, my space explorer radio heroes were comic book characters, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. On the other hand, radio news was serious business; especially when it was supposedly being delivered live by “reporters” alleged to be “on the spot.” Dramatic shows were usually introduced as ‘theatre.’ Obviously a lot of people took Welles’ drama for the real thing. Little did Americans know that in three years our country would be immersed in an all too real World War II.