Listening in the Dark

By Sandra Sylvester | May 24, 2010

Rockland, Maine — Listening in the Dark

I just found this wonderful site online where you can listen to just about any Old Time Radio show you can think of. I plan to make good use of it. Radio is a special interest and love of mine ever since I was a small girl listening to the radio stretched out on the floor in front of our console radio on Mcloud Street. Usually the only light my brother Harlan and I had or needed was the light from the radio dial itself. Our imaginations filled in the visuals for us even though we would sometimes stare at the radio like we do the television today. I don’t know why we did that. Maybe it was to make a closer connection with the actors and actresses as their voices came out of the speaker. In any event, the radio kept us company on those long cold winter nights in the 1940s. Many of the shows we listened to made the crossover to television later on.

I had many favorite shows. Many of them were comedy shows. Do you remember these shows: Abbot & Costello, The Aldrich Family, Amos & Andy, Archie, Baby Snooks, The Bickersons, The Life of Riley, Lum & Abner, Duffy’s Tavern, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee & Molly, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Our Miss Brooks, Ozzie & Harriet, The Great Gildersleeve, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. These shows often had stereotypical characters. The Irish cop comes to mind. They often had running gags too like Fibber McGee’s closet that you always knew would be opened on every show and you’d hear an avalanche of things falling out of it.

There were also comedians who had their own comedy/variety shows which always included guest stars who became involved in one or two skits during the show. There was the Bob Hope Show; the Jack Benny Show; the Milton Berle Show; the Eddie Cantor Show; Fred Allen Show; and the Red Skelton Show. My favorite of these was Jack Benny. What would Jack have done without the many voices of Mel Blanc. This show was the epitome of running gags. Depending on the situation and the recurring character, you always knew what was coming and yet you laughed just as hard as the first time you heard that particular gag. For instance, the train station announcer, played by Mel, when he ran off the list of stations for the train, always ending in Cookamungaaaaa. How many times did you laugh at that joke?

My brothers liked the adventure/detective/cowboy shows. I came to enjoy them too. Remember these: Adventures of Phillip Marlowe; The Adventures of Sam Spade; Boston Blackie; Calling All Cars; Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy; The Lone Ranger; Mr. District Attorney; the Green Hornet; the Cisco Kid; Flash Gordon; Dick Tracy, and Dragnet.

Then there were the mystery shows like: The Inner Sanctum; Lights Out; The Man Called X; The Shadow; Five Minute Mysteries. I did my theses at Fairfield University partly on Old Time Radio. I actually got to interview “The Shadow” or Lamont Cranston, his character name in the show, over the telephone. Several men played the leading role of the Shadow over the years it was on. Orson Welles had the job in the 30s. I believe the man I talked to on the phone was Steve Courtleigh, who had the role last. It was surreal. It was like being a part of an actual radio show to talk to him. The voice was the same as it sounded on radio. It was a big thrill for me.

I also enjoyed the special dramas presented on special theater shows like: Lux Radio Theater; Mercury Theater; the Damon Runyon Theater. These dramas usually starred famous movie actors and actresses of the day.

Producers of radio shows then had the challenge of painting a visual picture for the listener. They had to reproduce three sounds: voice, sound effects, and music. Sometimes they were heard in combination with each other. To produce the sounds needed might require microphones, special effects equipment, or a studio orchestra. A good studio had all three.

Recordings of almost every sound effect imaginable were available in the sound library of the studio. Some sound effects departments prided themselves in producing the necessary effects on the spot. They had elaborate equipment set-ups. They could reproduce simply such effects as marching feet, thunder and rain, horses’ hoofs and the many sounds a door makes.  Remember that these were live shows which sometimes included studio audiences to boot.

During the war years and the cold war that followed it, radio was often utilized as a subtle propaganda and anti-communist vehicle for the government. We had shows like: I Was a Communist for the FBI; This is Your FBI; Words at War, and Your Army Air Forces. Many shows ran contests that often included a 20 words or less format which pushed the buying of “Victory Bonds.” One I listened to was by Raleigh Cigarettes. The prize was a new Chevrolet. Shows also pushed war efforts like: “Try not to travel any more than possible.” The object was to save gas and rubber for tires needed for the war effort so we could “bring our boys home.”

Radio lasted into the 50s when I finally got a small table top radio to listen to in my room. I fell asleep many nights listening in the dark to “The Long Ranger” and other favorite shows. It was a sad day when the old shows faded away in favor of the new invention, television. So now I have the old shows on my computer. Maybe I’ll shut out all the lights and just listen by the light of the computer screen.

Thanks for listening.

SPECIAL NOTES: I noted the demise of Goodnow’s Pharmacy, the last store standing from my era in Rockland. It had a long 70 year run. I spent many an hour at that fountain downing a root beer float or a cherry coke. My best wishes to all the Goodnow family. I will always remember your good will to whoever entered your store.

I recently read Kristen Lindquist’s column, “Natural World,” in the Herald Gazette. The subject was birds who mimic other birds or other sounds not related to birds at all. As I was reading, I realized that the bird I had called a magpie in my recent bird blog, is actually a mockingbird. I have one who sits in a tree just outside my balcony here in Georgia. One day I listened to him “talk” as he sat in the very top of the tree. He didn’t shut up for at least a half hour and I must have heard 50 different sounds or songs as I listened. It was quite a performance.

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