I’ve been enthralled of late by the classic radio channel on Serius XM Radio. I grew up with television and remember my parents and grandparents reminiscing about Fibber McGee and Molly, the Shadow and the Whistler. It’s been something of a history lesson for me, listening in on these old radio shows from the thirties and forties. I try to put myself back in time and what it must have been like to gather around the old radio, with only words, sound effects and imaginations to entertain.
Television, movies and streaming video reign now, and radio is mostly for music, talking politics or giving advice. Everything is visual now. We have to see every detail to believe it’s real. Witness the living dead walking the desolate apocryphal landscape, the car rotating end over end before exploding or the liver being pulled out of the body by the medical examiner in a CSI episode.
Words, fueled by imagination, still create all of this stuff. Or I like to think so. The screenplays may give the description for the special-effects people, but the audience sees the visual part of what the words inspired.
Radio scripts described things and the narrators or leading characters had the job of bringing the action alive to listeners. Here’s a bit of narrative from a “Sam Spade” script broadcast in 1946:
I couldn’t see the bank building distinctly, but the block between Kearny and Montgomery told me enough. Ten police squad cars were piled up near the corner and the cops had been mowed down as they crawled out of the wreckage. The bandits had started the caper by knocking over the garage where the banks kept their armored trucks and they mowed down the law as fast as it could come in. A police grenade blew one of the trucks sky high and the cops moved in another few yards, but the gunsels had thrown up a barricade behind it and held their lines. Guns chattering, grenades exploding, sirens screaming, and the yells of the battling men, it was like the soundtrack of All Quiet on the Western Front. The Battle of Montgomery Street had begun.
Imagine showing this on a television crime show or in a movie. We’re talking millions of dollars, not counting actors and extras, in special effects or digital magic to make this few minutes of harrowing action come to life.
Yes, there was a time, as I learned from my elders, when you would go to bed, turn out the lights, and find the channel, fading in and out with an accompaniment of static, and let the Whistler or the Shadow frighten or captivate you.
I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.
The Whistler would then proceed with his tale of terror, not recommended for children. I don’t know if children today would find this believable. Yes, some of this stuff today comes across as derivative, even a bit silly, but 75 or 80 years ago this was fresh, even innovative.
Here’s the lead-in to an episode of “The Witch’s Tale,” which you definitely listened to under the covers. The witch character, known as Nancy, with the wind blowing in the background and her cat, Satan, meowing, would come out of the darkness with intros like this:
Hehehehe. A hundred an twenty two year old I be today. Yes sir. Hundred an twenty two. Well Satan, tell everyone to douse their lights. (meows) We want lots of darkness when we tell our bedtime stories. Hehehe. Draw up to the fire and gaze into the embers, gaze into ’em deep and soon by the light of the moon and the stars you’ll see a barren stretch of land where two roads meet in Old Massachusetts. Three policemen stand a talking there beside their motorcycle bikes and soon you’ll hear the story of the Haunted Crossroads. Hehehehe. The Haunted Crossroads. (Cat screech and cackling)
It was certainly cheaper to let the writer and actors create the scene and the action. The comedies, of course, relied heavily on your imagination to make a joke or skit work. Here’s one with Mary Livingston and Jack Benny riding to an important event in Jack’s old Maxwell car.
Just one line from Mary: “I can tell you’re nervous. You’ve been pacing on the running board.”
You couldn’t make that work visually, but imagining him doing that makes it funny. Of course, you’d have to know what a running board is… Hey, look it up.
“Fibber McGee and Molly” was one of the most popular radio shows of all, inhabited with eccentric characters we had to visualize via their voices and narrative descriptions. They were often not what you imagined. In fact, children’s voices were often done by adults. Just about everything was a product of your imagination. Here’s the script when Fibber goes outside to smoke a stogie after Molly tells him they are down to only a few cents and not enough to pay the milkman for his next delivery. (Yes, they used to deliver milk. Look it up.)
Fibber: Well, well, well, look at that – a milk bottle – (JINGLE OF COINS) with 35 cents in it! My! My! Lucky thing I’ve got a small hand and this bottle’s got a wide mouth. (GRUNTS) It’s a tight squeeze, but – There! I got it. (JINGLE OF COINS IN BOTTLE – JINGLE STOPS) Now for a — Shucks, I got that hand IN that bottle all right – (GRUNTS AGAIN) Oh! Oh! I can’t get this dad-ratted bottle off my hand – ooh – what’ll I…
This is the type of physical humor that still works visually, but it’s interesting to see how they did it with a few words and some simple sound effects.
In researching old radio scripts, I couldn’t help but notice how commercials were interwoven into the shows— even into the story lines. If you don’t think the times have changed— even our perceptions of what is good and bad for us— check out this commercial announcement in an old Abbott and Costello radio show from the 1940’s:
Announcer: The pages of American history are illumined by the names of doctors who worked unceasingly to overcome disease and to make life happier and more secure for humanity. The makers of Camels are pardonably proud of the standing of this cigarette among doctors. A nationwide survey of doctors’ cigarette preferences was recently made. Three leading independent research organizations asked this question of one hundred thirteen thousand five hundred and ninety-seven doctors — doctors in every field of medicine: “What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?” The brand named most was Camel.
Yes …according to a recent nationwide survey, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
Talk about using your imagination!