A Thousand Words: Safe, Harmless Giant Atomic Bomb!

A vintage toy from the 1950s, back when we still thought of nuclear energy as an exciting, benevolent force.  I love that the manufacturers of this toy felt it necessary to label this toy as "safe" and "harmless" - lest parents accidentally jump to the conclusion that this was a REAL giant atomic bomb! 


The Best Old Time Radio Detectives - #1, Sherlock Holmes

  1. Length of run.  For almost 2 decades (1933~1955) Sherlock Holmes adventures ran almost continuously on the air, beginning with radio adaptations of the original stories, then branching out into new stories (many penned by a woman, Edith Meiser), most of which were satisfyingly entertaining and some almost as clever as the originals.   You can also find later episodes from a series that was produced in England starting in about 1954.
  2. Number of episodes.  I've managed to download over 200 episodes from various OTR websites.  However, some of these are duplicates - primarily original stories that underwent adaptation by different screenwriters and were performed by different casts.
  3. Main character.  From season to season the essential character of Holmes as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remains relatively consistent, with a few minor modifications: for instance, one episode finds Holmes  performing Shakespeare on the stage, which I don't think Doyle would have envisioned.  Happily, none of the writers ever engage in anything truly apocryphal, like involving him in a romance or having him commit the perfect crime.  However, poor Watson is often represented as being much more of a boob than in the stories, sometimes acting as Holmes' cheerleader ("Upon my soul, Holmes, that was a brilliant deduction!"), other times making Holmes seem more brilliant by contrast ("Don't be stupid, Watson - of course it couldn't have been the butler"), sometimes serving as  a comic foil ("Holmes, get these dogs off me!"), yet other times because I suspect the writers really didn't know what else to do with him.  This is probably my greatest criticism of the radio adaptations in general.
  4. Voice actors.  The parts of Holmes and Watson were variously played by Richard Gordon/Leigh Lovel (earliest 95+ episodes), Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce (the actors who played the roles in the movies), Tom Conway/Nigel Bruce (just 1 season), John Stanley/Alfred Shirley or Ian Martin (75+ episodes), George Shelton/Ian Martin, and Ben Wright/Eric Snowden.  Even such notables as Orson Welles and John Gielgud took a stab at the role of the great detective in episodes of Mercury Theater on the Air and other dramatic radio series. 
  5. Sponsors.  Sponsors included G. Washington Coffee (you could send in labels to receive free Sherlock Holmes paperbacks), Clipper Craft Clothes (the first company to really push off-the-shelf suits for men, vs. custom tailored suits), Kreml Hair Tonic (never greasy!), and Petri Wine (for those who enjoy a little muscatel with their murder).  
  6. Intro.  Regardless of the sponsor, the stories usually kicked off with the sponsor's spokesperson calling upon Watson at his retirement home in California and chitchatting about the product before Watson announces which adventure he'll be retelling that night.   (Why California?  As far as I know this is never explained, though perhaps those London pea-soupers were having a deleterious effect on Watson's constitution.)
  7. Episodes.  Many of the newly invented stories were delightfully melodramatic, sporting names like The Knife of Vengeance, The Uddington Witch, The Mad Miners of Cardiff, and The Island of Death, while others whisked Holmes off to foreign countries - The White Elephant (India),  Murder Beyond the Mountains (Tibet) - and yet other episodes - such as The Final Problem, In Flanders Field - rather cavalierly transported him through time in order to pit him against German spies in WW1. 
  8. Interesting Info.   Illustrating that the dangers of drugs weren't yet widely recognized at this time, many of the shows make unapologetic mention of Holmes's cocaine use.   In the 1990s, BBC produced a series of rado shows called "Second Holmes," which featured the grandson of Holmes working (reluctantly) in harnass with the grandson of Watson.
In my next blog entry I'll take on Johnny Dollar, "the insurance investigator with the big expense account," as the announcer invariably intoned before each new episode.


Old Time Radio Mystery/Crime/Adventure Shows - An Overview

Proving that the 21st century's obsession with crime drama (CSI, Law & Order, etc.) isn't anything new, in excess of 50 radio shows of the '40s/'50s centered on solving crimes. 

The majority of these shows featured police or detectives solving the usual sorts of crime: murder, robbery, fraud.  However, reflecting the events of those tumultuous decades, many shows also revolve around saving the world from such period baddies as gangsters, commies, juvenile delinquents, boxing match fixers, cattle rustlers, counterfeiters, horse racing scams, foreign spies, sabautage, and black marketeers. A few shows - foreshadowing events to come - even involve saving various beloved family members from the devastation of drugs.

While the shows shared many basic similarities - hard-boiled heroes, perky female secretaries, dangerous dames, thugs with ubiquitous Jersey accents, and musical scores heavy on the organ - I've decided they fall into several fairly distinct categories.  Here's hoping the list below helps direct folks to series that will suit their particular penchant in larceny!
  1. Police Procedurals.  These shows featured realistic radio patrol car broadcasts, suspect interviews, officer small talk, and other authentic (or at least faux authentic) elements.  Examples include Dragnet, Gangbusters, Johnny Madero/Pier 23, Call the Police, Calling All Detectives, Bulldog Drummond, The Man from Homocide, and 21st Precinct
  2. Crime Procedurals. Still other shows, such as Perry Mason and Mr. District Attorney, examined crime from the perspective of the courtroom.
  3. True Crime Narratives. These shows retold authentic crime stories in the past tense, with emphasis on the clues that led to the eventual arrest of the wrongdoers.  (Recall this was back in the 1950s, the "good old days," when justice always prevailed, so the bad guys always get their come-uppance in the end.)  Examples include:  Black Museum, Adventures of Scotland Yard, and Tales of the FBI. 
  4. Spy/espionage shows. Though many shows included episodes related to spying and espionage, a few shows made this their modus operandi, to include Cloak & Dagger, FBI in Peace and War, and I Was a Communist for the FBI.
  5. Adventure dramas.  Many series involved a cast of regular characters getting into adventures, sometimes related to crime or spying but not always.  The main element was adventure - sunken treasure, voodoo curses, foreign spies - and if the writers could figure out a way to involve an exotic setting, so much the better.  Examples include: Bold Venture, Adventures of Rocky Jordan, The Man Called X/Ken Thurston, Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, Escape, Danger Dr. Danfield, Dangerous Assignment, I Love Adventure, Adventures of Frank Race, etc.
  6. Suspense dramas.  Other series involved crime and spying but their primary element was danger/suspense, often with a soupcon of the supernatural to thicken the sauce.  Examples include Adventures by Morse, The Shadow, Boris Karloff Presents, Lights Out, Suspense, The Whistler, The Whisperer, Quiet Please, etc.
  7. Crime series/anthologies. Many series specialized in crime but featured no particular detective.  The element connecting them would be that they were all by a particular author (ex: Carter Brown Mysteries), or that they all featured great detectives from fiction (ex: Crime Club), or that they all came from tomes in a fictional murder bookstore (ex: Crime Classics).  Other examples of his genre include: I Love a Mystery, Murder Clinic, and Murder by Experts.
  8. Detective dramas.  Still others series were what I'd call true "detective shows," featuring a repeating character (usually with one or more sidekicks) whose main occupation is solving crimes: examples include Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Candy Madsen, Box 13/Dan Holiday, Mathew Slade PI, Michael Shayne, Philo Vance, Richard Diamond, Rogue's Gallery/Richard Rogue, Casebook of Gregory Hood, Boston Blackie, Adventures of the Falcon, Broadway is My Beat, Let George Do It/George Valentine, and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.  Having said that, not all of these crimesolvers were PIs, police officers or investigators.  Some detective shows featured photographers (Casey, Crime Photographer), writers (Box 13/Dan Holiday),  and even magicians (Blackstone the Magic Detective)! 
Hope you'll join me as I focus on my personal favorite, detective dramas, in my next few blog entries.


Why I Love Old Radio Shows

I'm a big fan of old radio detective shows and dramatizations from the '40s and '50s.  Here's a list of some of the things that I love about these programs:
  1. Convenience.  Unlike TV, you can listen to radio without having to be tied to a TV screen - means you can do manual labor and listen at the same time.  Especially great for walking/jogging, housework, and working out at the gym.
  2. Access.  Radio is portable - you can listen to it anywhere with laptop or ipod access.  No laser/flatscreen/HDTV television or cable/fiber/DVR required.
  3. Commercials!  Rather than an annoyance, the commercials are actually part of the fun.  I especially love the commercials that are trying to persuade you to buy items that we take for granted now (canned soup vs. homemade soup; disposable glass jars vs. returnable).  And those catchy jingles ...!  ("Rinso white! Rinso white! Your happy little washday song!")
  4. History Lessons.  Many of the shows include interludes in which the announcers, sponsors or stars interrupt the show in order to discuss the ongoing war effort, bond drives, blood drives, paper drives, rationing, the need for female workers, the dangers of espionage/black markets/spying, etc.  Really makes you appreciate the effort that WWII was not just for the soldiers, but for all Americans.  (Also just how widespread was our fear of communists!)
  5. Civics Lessons.  What amazed me when I began listening is the number of commercial announcements given over to overt government propoganda: the advantages of democracy over other forms of government, the importance of state's rights, the history of each state, the roles of various government officials and offices ....  Strange to imagine a time when our government felt it necessary to convince us of the advantages of democracy.
  6. Public Service Announcements.  You have to love the announcements aimed at informing us citizens of the perils of fast driving, the necessity of supporting our farmers, and the importance of attending church every Sunday. 
  7. Stargazing.  Many of the dramatizations feature Hollywood stars that later went on to become great - it's fun to listen to them "earning their chops" on radio!
  8. Catch a Matinee. Many shows - particularly the Lux Radio Hour, Campbell Playhouse, and Academy Award Theater - specialized in adapting the most popular (and still famous) movies into radio dramatizations, often voiced by the same stars that played the roles in the movies.  Some of my favorites include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Rebecca, It Happened One Night, and The Ghost & Mrs. Muir.  (By the way, if you liked the Bogey/Bacall duo, catch them in Bold Venture, a radio show in which they sailed from port to port in search of adventure.)
  9. Read a Good Book.  Other series like the Hallmark Playhouse and NBC University Theater specialized in adapting the most popular (and still famous) books into radio dramatizations.  If you somehow never got around to plowing your way through such classics as Arrowsmith, The Last of the Mohicans, Of Mice and Men, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sons and Lovers, Don Quixote, or Treasure Island, trying listening to them in dramatized form - SO much more interesting, and done in 1hr or less!
  10. Catch a Play.  Series such as Great Plays specialized in dramatizing the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, Marlowe, O'Neill, Miller, Shaw, Wilde, Williams, and the Greek dramatists.  Let your brain invent the costumes and the sets and you'll never have to worry about budget constraints ... or tiny glasses of wine that cost $14 and have to be consumed in 4 minutes!
  11. Organ Music.  Outside of baseball games and church, organ music has pretty much vanished.  Such a shame, because there's nothing like the swell of organ music to make sure you don't sleep through the exciting parts.  Soooo dramatic!
  12. Gotta Love the Price.  Thanks to sites like The Internet Archive and Old Radio World, you can listen to literally thousands of old radio shows for free, or download them to your ipod/MP3 player for the same low price (that's free, in case you weren't paying attention the first time).
  13. I'll Take My Crime Hardboiled, Please.  Enjoy crime the way writers like Hammett and Cain intended it be enjoyed - hardboiled. Many of the shows have a noiry edge (rainy streets, cheating dames), and some episodes are as beautifully written as the classics.  Of course, sometimes they are classics: all the Sherlock Holmes stories were eventually adapted for radio, as were the exploits of other favorite literary detectives to include Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, The Falcon, and Nero Wolfe.
  14. Christmas.  Those old radio guys knew how to celebrate the season! Lux Radio Theater dramatized such holiday classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street; Campbell's Playhouse snagged the great Lionel Barrymore for their annual production of A Christmas Carol; and every serial had regular Christmas episodes, of course. But I especially enjoy the Christmas broadcasts (often called "Command Performances") intended for the troops serving overseas: it's great to listen to the masters of big band perform, interspersed with comedy by Hope & Crosby, and of course those moral-boosting patriotic messages from a parade of starlets.  Guaranteed to add some white and blue to your Christmas red!