Saturday, October 18, 2008

Radio Days

"Radio Days" is the title of a 1987 movie in which Woody Allen recalls the golden age of radio. A series of vignettes involving radio personalities of the day is intertwined with the life of a working class family in Rockaway Beach, NY circa 1942 (the year I was born). The movie is a sweet reminiscence of Allen's own childhood, and anyone who grew up during that period knows that Woody got it right. From the 1930's to the early 1950's, radio was the pre-eminent form of entertainment for most American families. Whether it was after dinner listening to well-known family favorites like Jack Benny, or up in your room under the covers in the dark listening to scary stories on Lights Out, the radio, fueled by your imagination could take you anywhere.

When I say radio, I'm talking about a serious looking piece of furniture that dominated living rooms the way your plasma TV does today. Early radio manufacturers included Crosley, Admiral, Philco, Atwater-Kent and many others. My wife recently bought me a couple of CD sets of old radio shows, and listening to them was a thrill. (I thrill easily these days.) They brought back wonderful memories of some favorites from my radio days:

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Joe DiMaggio was one of my childhood heroes. The Lone Ranger was another. He and Tonto always turned up wherever they were needed, never shot to kill, never waited around to be thanked, and left behind a silver bullet to remember him by. All together now, as he and Tonto ride into the sunset: "Who was that masked man?"

Adventure shows were plentiful. I liked The Green Lantern, Gene Autry, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and The Third Man starring Orson Welles. Welles also voiced The Shadow, whose opening line was: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Men, the Shadow". Typically these shows featured a cliff-hanging ending guaranteed to have you glued to your radio for next week's episode.

We had spooky shows too. The one that I remember best was a show called Lights Out. It began with a man saying in a deep, other-worldly voice: "L-i-i-i-ghts Out". When I think about the graphic gore in today's horror films, I smile thinking about how these two lousy words scared the crap out of me. The show later transitioned successfully to TV and scared me even worse.

Comedy shows were also popular. Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Ozzie and Harriet, and a show that eventually became a favorite of mine when it moved to television, Amos and Andy. The show was driven off the air by pressure from African-Americans who considered the show racist. I can see their point for the radio show, which starred two white men, but the TV show had an all black cast and was less racist than some of the TV shows on today that depict blacks as horrible stereotypes.

The characters on Amos and Andy represented blacks from all walks of life in truly funny situations. The show was an example of other shows of the day that depicted ethnic families in funny situations. Some examples: Luigi Bosco (Italians); The Goldbergs (Jews). Cancellation of the show not only deprived viewers, but put a lot of black actors out of work.

It's hard to convey what radio meant to us. Kids today, with their laptops, video games and cell phones would probably find it incredibly tame. For us it was a magic carpet.


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