Monday, December 28, 2009

I’ve been a big fan of Old Time Radio since before it was “old time” and was what we listened to, night after night. Lacking television in our tiny North Dakota town – you could buy a TV set if you wanted to, but nobody was broadcasting close enough to receive the signal – so radio was our thing.

Radio’s popularity decreased for a time, but now the radio programs from the 1930’s –1950’s have become interesting and popular again. Today, one company advertises their CD’s of Old Time Radio programs as “the theater of the mind”. You have to make up the sets and “see” the actors yourself, via your imagination. That’s a pretty good advertising – and pretty true, even though I would never have thought of it that way, back in the days when the only thing we had was radio.

Back in the States, I bought CD’s with OTR programs, lots of them. But now, here, I really don’t have to. Today there are exhaustive lists of internet websites that offer OTR streaming – either endless programs, a total mix of genres, played one after the other – or else allowing you to select what you want to listen to at any given time.

Copyright isn’t a problem, they say. The vast majority of OTR programs that were broadcast during those years have been lost entirely. No one bothered to keep the tapes – no one believed they had any value. Others, which were recorded and which recordings still exist, were never copyrighted in the first place. Again, no one thought they had any value. In any event, even for those that were copyrighted, in most cases, they’re now in the public domain, so a plethora of websites invite you to tune in and listen.

I like the stories themselves – again I lack television, so the radio programs offer a bit of easy entertainment when I don’t feel like reading. But almost as much as I like the theater aspect, I like watching the cultural values that existed in times past, seeing how much things have changed. I don’t mean just the endless and ubiquitous cigarette ads, nor do I mean the occasional reference to “negroes”. It’s the bigger picture I get a kick out of.

“Dragnet”, the Jack Webb police procedural, played on radio from 1949 – 1957, and is an endless source for measuring cultural change. In one episode -- “Big Plant”—Sgt. Joe Friday was faced with a huge dilemma. The man they believed responsible for the crime had hired a lawyer, and no matter what they did, every time they tried to question the man, his lawyer would show up and advise him to not answer. So Friday and Ben, his partner, set about trying to outwit the lawyer, to keep him away from his client. They devised a whole complicated plan, going so far as to arrive at the man’s home before dawn, with piece of horse meat to distract the man’s guard dogs, thinking they’d be able to catch the man unawares, and get him to answer before he could summon the lawyer. Needless to say, trying to trick the suspect into talking without his lawyer present these days would get Sgt. Friday fired. But good.

Dragnet is set in Los Angeles, and in Dragnet’s day, a nine year old boy who’s an hour late coming home from playing with a friend, is enough to justify an all-out police search for the child after the mother called the police. I don’t think an hour’s delay for a kid coming home from play would inspire that kind of police action today.

Then too, in Dragnet’s world, when there was a burglary, however minor, both detectives and police not only showed up at the burgled house, but they sent fingerprint experts to take prints in their major effort to find the miscreant and bring him to justice. See if you get that kind of attention today.

The world of Old Time Radio is one in which husbands work all day, then come home for dinner. When they walk in the door, a hot meal is ready, and the whole family sits down to eat. That didn’t happen even in my own home, when I grew up -- but back then, the fact that wives cooked and served a family meal at the end of the day seemed normal to me, even if that wasn’t how we lived.

In one episode of “My Friend Irma”, a comedy series that ran in the 1940’s and 50’s, Irma’s lazy, ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Al, is trying to impress Irma with how much he loves her. “After we’re married,” he tells her, “I’ll even buy you your own car so you can drive to work!” The audience roars – to them, that’s hilarious. “Al” obviously expects Irma to keep working after they get married – an idea that strikes the audience as absurd. Married women stay home. They don’t work at jobs for which they’d need a car.

“Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons” was one of radio’s longest running shows, played weekly for 18 years beginning in 1937. The antics of Mr. Keen” – the “famous private investigator!” some character will say, every episode, as they recognize him – haven’t aged well. So rapacious are Mr. Keen and his sidekick, Mike Clancy, in their violations of contemporary standards that it’s sometimes painful to listen. A common antic is to have Mr. Keen and Mike breaking down the door into someone’s home in search of evidence. Mike will usually offer token resistance, “Do you think we should do this?” to which Mr. Keen will lustily reply, “Of course! If we find the evidence, we’ve found our culprit!” So they break in – all in the interests of justice, of course.

All of the programs run in serious violation of today’s rules of search and seizure. Virtually all police detectives and private eyes occasionally find themselves trying to convince a landlord to let them in to search a tenant’s apartment. Usually, the landlord offers little resistance – let alone demanding a search warrant. In one Philo Vance episode – a classic whodunit series that came on the air in 1926, based on books written by mystery writer S.S. Van Dine – Vance wants into a tenant’s rented rooms. The landlord does object, saying, “I don’t know about this, letting you peek into his room.” To which Vance replies, “You don’t have any choice! The charge is murder!” -- as if the seriousness of the crime had anything to do with it.

“Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209” one of the more obnoxious programs, first came on the air in 1949. Candy was a sexy, wealthy, excessively egotistic private investigator who operated out of her apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. What’s most notable about that series – other than that we were all supposed to feel envious of the high-spending, name-dropping Candy, I guess – was her erstwhile sidekick, named “Rembrandt Watson” who must have been one of the first homosexual characters to appear on mainstream radio. Not that it ever said he was homosexual – but if you took every stereotype ever applied to homosexuals, “Rembrandt” met and exceeded every standard. Whether that was intentional or not, I don’t know. Maybe the San Francisco locale had something to do with it.

The world has come a long way in this half-century-plus. It’s much harder to catch crooks now, the rules about search and seizure today would have been thought insane, back in those days. Every accused gets a lawyer now, no one bothers much about missing kids until much more time has passed, if someone breaks into your house, you’re lucky if you can get the police to answer the phone to give you a report number for your insurance company, let alone actually try to find the burglar. Father doesn’t know best anymore – in fact, in contemporary fiction, father doesn’t know much of anything. Instead, the idea is to make him, old fuddy-duddy that he is, the butt of all jokes.

I’m not sure the world is a better place now, even though cigarette ads disappeared.

The photo, above, is a stock photo and not personal, although it could have been. Our radio looked just like that, we had a floor lamp like the one pictured, and floral draperies, too. I suspect that picture could have come from millions of homes, back then, when the world seemed so much less complicated.

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