Radio Days

By Robert Lanier,

While young people today may not know that an old-time radio was once like a piece of furniture in virtually every household, I am assuming that the readers of this little essay are old geezers like me and need no further description.

Jimmie Covington’s excellent recent article regarding radio soap operas of the 1930s-50s in “Best Times” stirred many memories for me about all radio of those days. I recall lots of the “soaps” (although not their plots) because I had a number of childhood illnesses which meant that I spent a lot of days in bed with the radio on. I am sure that my mother, who was then a stay-at-home mom, selected the daytime programs. The soap opera plots, as corny as they were, would have been too sophisticated for me. But I vividly remember a lot of the commercials which sponsored the melodramatic programs. I especially liked the few bars of the song, “May” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart…”) from Sigmund Romberg’s “Maytime,” which was used to sell Sweetheart soap. There was also Luster Crème shampoo (“You owe your crowning glory to—Luster Crème shampoo,” to the tune of Victor Herbert’s “Toyland”). The shows had theme music like, “Juanita” for “The Romance of Helen Trent” (played for some reason on a ukulele!), but I forget most of the others. I refer you to Jimmie’s article for the names and more details about the daytime dramas.

The daytime programs were not all soap operas, but they were all mostly intended for housewife audiences. For a few years at the end of World War II, Tom Brenneman’s “Breakfast in Hollywood” started off my listening day when at home in bed. He broadcast from some place in Hollywood serving breakfast, and roamed through the audience, interviewing diners briefly and cracking corny jokes. After he died the slack was taken up by Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” with a similar format. It always opened with a “march around the breakfast table” to a song beginning, “Come all you breakfast clubbers…” Arthur Godfrey soon came along with his own program and was hugely successful because of his folksy manner and willingness to admit that he knew little or nothing about most of the products which sponsored his show. His show was basically a monologue. As the years went on, his supreme egotism became more apparent, and he liked to croak songs while he played the ukulele. He laughed a lot at his own jokes, but he brought obscure talents, such as the singers Julius LaRosa, the Hawaiian Haole Loke, and the once famous John Bubbles and tenor Frank Parker, to the public’s attention. Later in the day, supposedly live broadcasts of music from Hawaii came to soothe us on “Hawaiian Echoes.” Kate Smith, despite a weight problem, forged a very successful career as a singer on radio and occasionally in films from the late 1920s onward. She was later a pioneer of the television talk show format in the early 1950s. Later in the day, Art Linkletter picked up on the format of interviewing members of his audience and made a long career of it, stretching well into television, with his “House Party”.

At the stroke of noon we heard a local announcer tell us the present market prices for “spot cotton,” (“fair to middlin’”),“sow bellies” and other commodities which I no longer remember. The weather report came from a Southern-drawling man at the airport.

Some of the more amusing continuing daytime programs weren’t really soap operas at all. There was “Just Plain Bill,” (the theme of which, on harmonica, was “Polly Wolly Doodle”), “Lorenzo Jones” (theme: “Funiculi, Funcula”) and the wonderful “Lum & Abner.” The latter characters had been created by a couple of Arkansans who went on to greater fame. They inhabited “Pine Ridge” Arkansas and ran the “Jot ‘em Down Store.” They were perennially the victims of the scheming Squire Skemp (a sort of redneck Kingfish Stevens) and the town population included Cedric Wehunt and someone known only as “Mousy.” Cedric replied “yes, mum” to both men and women, and Abner liked to say, “well, I do know!” when he was flummoxed. When Lum & Abner’s 15-minute show was picked up by a national network and expanded to a half hour and assigned writers for prime-time broadcast, it lost all its authentic charm.

We also heard folksy chat from network personalities like Galen Drake and Mary Margaret McBride. (Paul Harvey came somewhat later). Late in the afternoon we got more serious talk about current events from Fulton Lewis, Jr., Gabriel Heatter and H.V. Kaltenborn, who made everything sound VERY serious, although I understood little of it. Local radio personalities included Bob Neal (Elvis’s first manager) and Olivia Browne, who did interviews for years. There was a Memphis man named W.C. Teague, who may have been very nice, but came across to me in my childhood as an old grouch. I never knew what he was talking about. I much preferred the dulcet tones of the CBS network’s Lowell Thomas, who had interesting stories to tell and signed off with, “so long until tomorrow.”

Came the afternoon, I was out of school and could listen to whatever I or my best friend could agree on. He liked “Terry and the Pirates,” but my favorite was “Captain Midnight.” The latter show, featuring a flying hero with an irritatingly dumb sidekick, was sponsored by Ovaltine, the powdered milkshake. If you have seen the wonderful film, “A Christmas Story,” about a little boy in the 1940s who wants a BB gun for Christmas, you will recall the scene in which he listens to the Ovaltine-sponsored “Little Orphan Annie” show for a secret code message. “Annie” had been replaced by Captain Midnight in my day, but all else was as shown in the film. I dutifully decoded the message with my Captain Midnight 1946 “Secret Squadron decoder badge” (with a mirror in the center of the dial to reveal attackers sneaking up from behind). The messages invariably said something disappointing like, “drink your Ovaltine.” I still have my decoder badge, just in case further and more interesting messages are received.

The afternoon also brought us “Superman,” (who looks like going on forever), sponsored by a now-defunct Kellogg’s serial called, “Pep,” and another favorite of mine, “Tom Mix,”sponsored by Shredded Ralston. Bud Collier, who later was to MC many shows on television, did the voice of Superman. He was cleverly able to make his voice sound more powerful as Superman. The Mix show was a curious phenomenon. The real Tom Mix, a very popular silent movie cowboy star, had died some 5 or 6 years before the radio show I listened to went on the air, and hadn’t made a movie for years before that. Moreover, I and my contemporaries knew little about him other than what our fathers told us. Our cowboy heroes were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, who had their own radio shows, and William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, the only hero who dressed in black. Why Mix was the subject of the show, I never learned. He was played by a folksy actor named Curley Bradley, who referred to us fans as “straight shooters” and “pardners.” He sang the theme song, based on “When it’s Roundup Time in Texas,” but the words now praised “Shredded Ralston for your breakfast,” which “starts the day off just right and gives you lots of cowboy energy.” Shredded Ralston is another one of those breakfast cereals no longer made. It is interesting in retrospect how sophisticated the theme music to many children’s shows was. As everyone knows, the “Lone Ranger” was introduced by Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” while “Yukon King,” (also known as “Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted”) I later learned carried the lesser known theme from “Donna Diana,” by von Reznicek. Were these shows on today, the theme music would presumably be “Hip Hop” or the rhythmic cursing of “Rap.”

Another afternoon flying hero for kids was “Hop Harrigan,” whose program I will always remember because I was listening to it with my best friend when it was interrupted by a report that President Roosevelt had died suddenly. Hop’s program always began with a voice imitating a control tower agent telling Hop that the “ceiling is twelve hun-dreddd,” whereupon Hop zoomed down. He also had a mentally challenged sidekick. Some days we listened to “Jack Armstrong, the all-American Boy!” but I don’t remember much about him. He didn’t seem to have much of an identity. He was not a cowboy or a military man of any kind. He was sponsored by “Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions.” My best friend preferred the comic strip-inspired “Terry and the Pirates” (who featured no pirates that I can remember).

This would bring us close to dinner time, when we invariably tuned in to the wonderful, creepy “Inner Sanctum” show. It always began with the sound of a creaking door being opened slowly and a funereal-voiced host introducing the story. Their story that terrified me the most was “Snake Doctor,” which was something about poisonous snakes. This show was usually followed by fifteen minutes of something more cheerful, such as the singers Jack Smith and Nashville’s Dinah Shore.

One of my earliest radio memories was “Bulldog Drummond,” which always opened with footsteps and an ominous foghorn. I must have been about four when I first heard that, and I recall running to my mother for reassurance when it came on. It was followed by slightly less scary “Sherlock Holmes,” with the wonderful Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who also played the characters in films at the same time. We listened to some programs so often that we unconsciously memorized the mantras which introduced each show. “Mister District Attorney” always opened with Jay Josten (who played the DA) solemnly intoning, “And, as District Attorney, it shall be my duty not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crimes perpetrated within this county, but, to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens.” Still a pretty good guideline for our local district attorneys. “Boston Blackie” (I never knew whether that was his name or nickname) was always described by the announcer as “enemy of those who make him an enemy, friend of those who have no friends.” He was not really a private detective or policeman, but he always seemed to be helping Inspector Faraday catch crooks. The same was true of Michael Waring, “The Falcon,” usually played by Les Damon.

I do not know which were my favorite mystery shows, but I liked them all. In retrospect, I am struck by the fact that most of the detective and mystery shows involved murders, rather than other types of crime. The murders became almost routine. “Suspense,” was an hour-long program which almost always featured big Hollywood stars in tales ranging from crime to the supernatural. Later imitations included “Escape” (theme: Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”) and “Pursuit.” Similar, shorter programs with lesser-known actors were “The Whistler” (themed by a spooky tune whistled) and “The Mysterious Traveler.” The anonymous host of “The Whistler” always intoned at the beginning, “I am the whistler. I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many tales of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yess…I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.” The Mysterious Traveler had no set spiel as you shared a train coach with him, but let you know something spooky was coming, or a story with an unpredictable ending. Sundays brought “The Shadow,” who was really Lamont Cranston, and who famously introduced each show by an evil laugh, asking, “who knows what evil LURKS in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” I was too young to question his relationship with his “constant friend and aide, Margo Lane.” He would sign off with the immortal line, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. The Shadow knows!” The one program which I can recall which was devoted exclusively to horror and the supernatural was “Lights Out!”. It was ushered in by a spooky voice saying, “Lights Out, EVERYBODY!” followed by the sound of a loud gong. “Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons,” had for its theme music Noël Coward’s “Some Day I’ll Find You,” and “Mr. Chameleon,” (who specialized in disguises) naturally had as his theme song, “After the Masquerade.”

Other memorable police shows were “The FBI in Peace and War,” (which had as its impressive theme music Prokofieff’s “March for the Love of Three Oranges” from his Lieutenant Kigi suite) and “Gangbusters,” which, to use a popular expression which it inspired, came on like Gangbusters. That is to say, one heard police sirens, machine guns, pistol shots, etc. as an opening theme. There were some more adult detective shows, my favorites being Howard Duff as “Sam Spade” and Gerald Mohr as “Philip Marlowe.” Only after many years, when I was able to buy these old radio programs on tape or CD did I realize that they were over my head when I listened to them as a child. The “Spade” shows were very sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek comedy-dramas, with Duff as Spade and Lureen Tuttle as his secretary, Effie, sometimes ad libbing and breaking each other up. The “Marlowe” shows, on the other hand, made a serious, but not very successful, attempt to emulate the Raymond Chandler writing style. I liked them anyway, though, because they were “private eyes.”

“Dragnet” came along in the last days before television and was an interesting new way of telling a police story. That’s why it was a hit. “David Harding, Counterspy” dealt with foreign enemies. “The Falcon” involved an amateur detective who called himself after the bird for no reason which I could detect. “The Big Story,” “Casey Crime Photographer” (starring the interestingly named Staats Cotsworth) and “Big Town,” did not feature policemen or detectives, but portrayed crusading newspapermen involved in solving mysteries. “Crime Doctor” obviously featured a crime-solving doctor, and had as its theme song the donkey music from Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” It was sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes and, as the theme played, the voice of someone called Johnny yelled out, “Call for Philip Moraisss!” This last requires some explanation for the modern reader. The actor named Johnny, (last name Rovintini) we learned from magazine and newspaper ads for Philip Morris, was a rather small man, dressed as what was called a “bellhop.” A bellhop (known as a botónes in Spain and a chasseur in France) was a hotel employee dressed in a military-style jacket with parallel lines of buttons and with a pillbox hat held to his head at a jaunty angle by a chin strap. His costume was based on turn-of-the-20th Century British military dress (the cap in turn being copied after the Nepalese Gurkha headgear in the British Indian Army). The bellhop, so named because he was to hop to duty when the registration desk rang a bell, was to carry luggage and carry messages to persons in the hotel lobby. In order to find the latter, he had to walk the lobby, calling their names. Is that clear? The actor playing Johnny made a whole career of it.

A Monday night program to which I always looked forward was “Lux Radio Theater.” It presented hour-long productions of recent or classic movies and featured either the original stars or others as famous. As the title indicates, it was sponsored by Lux soap, which the feminine star was required to praise in a commercial during the show. When I listened to it in the late 1940s, the “host” who introduced the play was director William Keighly. Many years later I learned that Cecil B. DeMille had hosted the show from its inception in 1936 until, in 1944, he refused to join a union and therefore had to leave the show.

Radio (and TV) listings and features for Sunday, June 1, 1952 in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. (courtesy the Memphis Public Libraries)

Certain nights of the week were reserved for popular shows like “Fibber Mcgee and Molly,” “The Great Gildersleeve” (a spinoff of “Fibber McGee and Molly”) and the “Fred Allen Show.” Gildersleeve was a rather silly, giggling water commissioner with a niece and nephew. He was played with great success by Harold Peary until, around 1950, Peary’s salary demands brought on his replacement by an actor named Willard Waterman, who could imitate Peary’s distinctive voice almost perfectly. Old vaudevillians George Burns and Gracie Allen soldiered on for many years, soon with equal success on television. Sunday nights were reserved for perennial favorite Jack Benny, who had honed his stingy character to perfection by the time I started listening to him. His humor could be appreciated by all ages. Not so Bob Hope. Hope was a favorite of mine in films, where he invented a persona that Woody Allen says that he has copied.

On radio, however, Hope cracked one-line jokes about topical places and events which I did not always understand. I remember that jokes about Anaheim and Cucamonga (California) were favorites of his. When I listen now to recordings of Fred Allen’s show, I realize that most of his jokes were over my head. But I did enjoy the personalities created for the “Allen’s Alley” portion of the show. They included Mrs. Nussbaum, whose Jewish accent sounded funny to my ignorant Gentile ear, Titus Moody, who had what I now know was meant to be a New England Yankee accent, and blowhard Senator Claghorn. As a Southerner, I guess I recognized his inflection. Nobody seemed to mind J.Carroll Naish’s stereotypical Italian accent as he played Luigi Bosco in “Life With Luigi.” Although Irish, Naish almost always played dark Latin types or Indians. Other comics I listened to and presumably enjoyed until I reached puberty, and my brain began to function somewhat were Red Skelton, Abbot & Costello, Judy Canova and Eddie Cantor. Listening to their shows today I find them painfully childish.

It is perhaps worth noting that I do not recall listening to “Amos and Andy,” one of the longest running and most popular shows on radio, played by white men imitating black men with dialect. I must have been aware of it, but I do not recall either my parents or I listening to it. I can claim no virtue from the fact, as we would have shared the tolerance for that show’s racial stereotyping with the large majority of Americans. Listening to some of the old shows now, I admire some of the cleverness, but I can certainly see how offensive much of it would be to African Americans. I thought the television version, played by talented veteran African American actors, was better. Another show, again played with a stereotypical accent by a white man, was about a maid, Beulah.” Until around 1948 with the advent of WDIA, there was no local radio station for African Americans. I seem to recall that, around noon on Saturdays, something called “Tan Town Sings” came on, but I was up and about outside by then. I was not musically inclined, so I did not pay much attention to the music played on WDIA, which our African American maid listened to as she ironed. My first attention to radio music, other than bandleader Kay Kyser’s “College of Musical Knowledge” and the Grand Ole Opry, came with an afternoon show around 1949, hosted by a smooth-talking local white disk jockey. His name was Bill Gordon, an early predecessor to Dewey Phillips, and I still vividly recall one black musician whose records he played: “Piano Red.” Red had two rocking hits which I loved and still remember, “Big Rock Joe from Kokomo,” and “Decatur Street, I’m comin’ Home.” As I recall, “Big Rock Joe” began thusly:

Hello, hello, Joe said,

I’m Big Rock Joe From Kokomo.

Listen to me, while I’ll tell you some mo’

I got a Cadillac car, boy she’s a sight

She’s all dressed up with neon lights

She’s got rolled wire wheels

And a little dinin’ room where we eat our meals…

“Decatur Street” started something like this:

Down in Atlanta on Decatur Street, they got some dancin’ that can’t be beat

Some say it’s right, some say it’s wrong

That’s all right, I’m goin’ back home.

Decatur Street, I’m comin’ home.

There’s Stone Mountain, the big old rock,

Sure do love it, but I jes’ can’t stop.

Decatur Street, I’m comin’ home!

Red’s most suggestive song, which I was not sophisticated enough to understand, was “She Knows How to Rock Me.” When Gordon left for much greater success in Cleveland around 1950, I heard no more about “Rock & Roll” until my high school days, some three years later.

When I was very small, one of my favorite evening programs was “Dr. Christian,” starring the fine Danish actor, Jean Hersholt, in the title role. He was ably assisted by Rosemary DeCamp, whose unforgettable voice as his nurse, Judy Price, helped me spot her at once when she appeared in movies. I was always delighted when I heard the show open with a telephone ring and DeCamp answered, “Dr. Christian’s office!” followed by nice theme music. Apart from the soothing voice of Hersholt, the show was notable for the fact that, for many years, the shows were allegedly written by listeners who sent in stories or scripts. I can’t help believing, however, that a lot of script doctoring was required before the show went on the air. Another favorite of mine (and America’s for about 15 years) was “The Aldrich Family,” featuring perpetual teen, Henry Aldrich. Usually sponsored by Jello, the show always opened with Mrs. Aldrich calling, “Henry! Henry Aldrich!” He would always reply, “Coming Mother!” in a creaky adolescent voice. I remember being disappointed when I finally saw a photo of Ezra Stone, who usually played Henry. He was short, fat and dark, and looked adult. Jimmy Lydon played Henry in the films and looked more like one’s mental image of the teen, and could even croak “Gee whiz!” like Ezra. Other teenagers were the characters in “A Date with Judy,” and “Meet Corliss Archer.” Unless I am mistaken, Richard Crenna, who later played Walter Denton on the “Our Miss Brooks” show, also played Oogie, Judy’s boyfriend. He seemed doomed to play squeaky-voiced nerds forever until he became a successful film and television actor.

I have mentioned “Fibber McGee and Molly,” a perennial radio comedy show, always sponsored by Johnson’s Wax and always announced by Harlow Wilcox. Wilcox almost became a character in the Wistful Vista fictional neighborhood of the show, interacting with Fibber and Molly during the commercials. McGhee had a closet so full of junk that it would pour out when the door was opened, as it was in each show. This tired joke was so popular that it became a part of American folklore of the time, and any overcrowded room was likened to it. I guess that I must have liked the show, as I listened to it regularly, but listening to it today does nothing for me. On the other hand, the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show on Sundays, sponsored by Chase & Sanborn’s Maxwell House coffee, was popular then and holds up very well now. I am certainly not the first person to note the irony of a ventriloquist making a hit on radio, but Bergen’s fame rested not only on his ability to “throw his voice” without much lip movement, but upon the cleverness of his jokes and characters, which included not only Charlie McCarthy but the immortal Elmer Snerd. Another long-running comedy was “It Pays to be Ignorant,” a brilliant show featuring a panel of ill-assorted nincompoops, played by old vaudevillians with perfect timing. The quiz master Tom Howard tried to supervise gravel-voiced Lulu McConnell, who was the indignant butt of countless tasteless jokes about her appearance, George Shelton, who would invariably expostulate, “I used to woik in that town!” when an audience contestant named his home town, and Harry McNaughton, a suave Englishman who always asked stupid questions and began his remarks with, “Mr. Howard, I have a poem…” “Duffy’s Tavern” was a favorite comedy-variety show, with Ed Gardner as “Archie the Manager,” who always opened the show by answering the ‘phone and reporting that “Duffy ain’t here.”

I would like to say that I listened to two excellent comedies, “Vic & Sade” and “The easy Aces,” but I did not. Both of them went off the air in the mid-1940s and may not have been broadcast in Memphis. In any event, they deserve a mention in any article about radio. Vic & Sade were Midwesterners, with a 14-year-old son named Rush, and never seemed to do anything much, except sometimes prepare for Vic’s lodge activities. When friends inquired about them, Sade would invariably say, “we’re just sittin’ here with our teeth in our mouths.” Their friends had names like Lucy Stembottom, Jim Chinbunny, Dottie Brainfeeble and Fred Razorscum. Rush spent a good deal of his time watching movies at the Bijou (pronounced Bye-Joo) or observing fat men playing handball at the YMCA. On “The Easy Aces,” Goodman Ace, who was later very successful as a television writer, played himself as a foil for the malaprops of his whiny-voiced, scatterbrained wife Jane. The shows are available and should be listened to. Another radio series which I never heard was “The Goldbergs.” This gentle comedy, involving urban Jewish people, must not have made it to Memphis. Perhaps because it was too ethnic.

It is said that quiz shows ran Fred Allen off the air. I don’t know. One of the biggest quizzers was “Truth or Consequences,” a brainchild of Ralph Edwards. Contestants were set up to fail to answer silly questions so that humiliating punishments could be visited upon them. Dumb as it was, the show was extremely popular and even had a town in New Mexico named after it! Perhaps its most famous stunt was a sort of national lottery in which people were offered great prizes if they could identify “Mrs. Hush.” It turned out she was the then-forgotten movie star, Clara Bow. A venerable quiz show featured “Doctor IQ,” who gave away miniscule prizes for the answers to fairly simple questions. The announcer would wander the audience to find contestants, thus spawning the once seemingly immortal line, “I have a lady in the balcony, Doctor.” Those who were unable to answer questions still received candy bars from the sponsor. Another quiz was “Take it or Leave it,” hosted by an undistinguished (to me) man named Phil Baker. His show was noteworthy, however, for popularizing the phrase, “the 64-dollar question.” Believe it or not, that was the top prize! More intellectual quiz shows were “Information, Please,” and “Quis Kids,” (who were obnoxiously smart). “Can you top this?” tasked old comics to tell jokes.

Saturday mornings began for me, when quite young, with “Smilin’ Ed [McConnell] and his Gang,” which included Froggy the Gremlin and was sponsored by Buster Brown shoes. Buster and his dog Tige made an appearance for a commercial, introducing himself: “I’m Buster Brown, and I live in a shoe. There’s my dog, Tige, he lives there, too.” Froggy could perform magic things if he plunked his “Magic Twanger”. I apply that appellation to the ubiquitous I-phones people carry today, which perform similar feats. Following Smilin’ Ed was “Let’s Pretend,” In which children’s fairy tales were acted out. It was sponsored by Cream of Wheat cereal and had a theme song, “Cream of Wheat is so good to eat, as we have it every day. We sing this song as it makes us strong, and makes us shout, hooray! It’s good for growing babies and grownups too, to eat. For all the family’s breakfast, you can’t beat Cream of Wheat.” (Could I better illustrate the persistence of memory of commercial jingles?).

A show which doesn’t fit into any category was a fifteen-minute monologue by a man named Bill Stern. The emphasis was on sports, and many of the strange-as-it-seems stories he told sounded unlikely even to me. But he told them with sincerity and a melodramatic flare, so that they were interesting. I seem to recall that Stern had somehow lost a leg at one time. He was sponsored by Colgate Shave Cream and had a mind-invading theme-jingle, sung a capella by a male group that began unmusically, “Bill Stern is on the air for Colgate Shave Cream…”

Late on Saturday nights, I listened to Grand Old Opry, from Nashville. I didn’t care much for the host, Red Foley, when he sang, but I had a number of favorites who appeared on the show often. These included Roy Acuff, Eddie Arnold, Hank Snow, Grandpa Jones, Ernest Tubb, Merle Travis and Little Jimmy Dickens, who invariably sang, “Take a cold ‘tater and wait.” Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl were supposed to be funny, but I just tolerated them.

I should not fail to mention the radio announcers. They had great names like, André Baruch. Harlow Wilcox, Durward Kirby and Harry von Zell. They were almost as famous as the programs they introduced.

The advent of television in the late 1940s (reaching our house in 1950) marked the beginning of the end of radio listening for me and most Americans. There were, however, a few outstanding shows in the early 1950s. There was “Gunsmoke,” a very intelligent western starring the hefty William Conrad, “Dragnet,” with Jack Webb, and the inimitable comedy of Bob (Elliott) and Ray (Goulding). Ironically, Bob & Ray were brilliantly satirizing the golden age of radio just as it breathed its last. I have heard that even after television became almost universal in America, radio programs still had millions of listeners, so that they need not have been cancelled and yielded to “top 40” record disk jockeys. Whether this is true or not, things were never the same.

Many of these old radio shows are available on CDs for nostalgia or mere curiosity satisfaction. The survival of many of the programs is largely due to the fact that network shows, which originated in New York or Los Angeles, had to be repeated for the other coast, which was in a different time zone. At first this was done by the actors repeating their performances. It was soon decided that recording them, originally on wax records and later on magnetic tape, was more convenient (and probably cheaper). Non-network shows which were “syndicated” (sold to local stations) also had to be recorded. Thus, this window into the past is still open for us.

Take a listen here to Bob McNeil’s Breakfast Club

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). He is proudest of his book The Prisoner of Durazzo (2010), about the king who postponed World War I for a year. Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

One Reply to “Radio Days”

  1. As always, when I read anything by Robert A. Lanier (Bobby to those of us who grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s in the Normal neighborhood), I am transported back to a world that no longer exists except in memory. Thank you for this wonderfully detailed account of radio programming that filled so many hours of a generation’s childhood.

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