Sunday, November 15, 2009

Old Time Radio, Part 2

My interest in old-time radio and radio dramas waned in my college years. There just wasn't anything going on in my world. But when the Batman craze of 1989 came along, a couple of different items came to my attention and sparked my imagination. First, there were some cassette tapes adapting comic book stories that came out. The associated comic books came with them, and the tapes served to add an audio soundtrack. The first one I bought was an adaptation of the Untold Legends of the Batman. It was like the old Power Records, but there was no album cover.

As the next decade progressed, DC, Marvel, and even Disney kept putting out audio dramas. Stories like "Superman Lives!" as well as the "Complete Knightfall Saga," along with the Rocketeer were all adapted to audio dramas. Later on, we would even see one for "Kingdom Come." But the real fun came in 1994, when the theatrical version of "The Shadow" was released.

As I wrote about here and here, I loved the Shadow, on radio, in the movies, and in the pulps. But when the Alec Baldwin version came out, the radio shows made a huge comeback. A company called Radio Spirits started releasing audio cassettes and CDs of the old radio shows and I bought several sets of them. Then with the advent of the mp3 file format and the Internet, old-time radio was everywhere. Streaming sites popped up, and suddenly the world of old-time radio was no longer restricted to small gatherings with tape exchanges. Suddenly you could buy hundreds of episodes of long-forgotten shows on CD for pennies and listen to them on a computer.

When the deluge began, I started doing research on this. My limited exposure to War of the Worlds, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, and Superman, suddenly expanded. I started listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, The Saint, The Whistler, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, The Green Hornet, and more. I found books on the subject, and read the history. The more I learned, the more I loved it. I started making connections

One of Jack Benny's supporting cast was lecherous bandleader Phil Harris, a bawdy southerner who constantly kept Benny, whom he called "Jackson," on his toes. The first time I heard the voice, I just about jumped out of my chair. It was Baloo the Bear from Disney's "The Jungle Book!" Not only was the voice the same, but the character was very much the same, a jazzy, hedonistic fun-loving guy who could sing scat. Amazing! Then, when listening to another episode, the unmistakable tones of Mel Blanc appeared in a voice similar to Speedy Gonzales. Then it hit me. The mice in "The Mouse that Jack Built," a 1959 Warner Brothers cartoon, were the characters from this same Jack Benny radio program! When I saw the cartoon as a kid, I had no idea that Jack Benny was a radio star! On the Fred Allen show, I caught Foghorn Leghorn in the form of Senator Claghorn. Then the floodgates came open. Many cartoons, whether on television or feature films, featured radio performers of old, many doing the same characters or voices that they were famous for decades before.

It wasn't only voices and characters that were brought back for cartoons. When Mr. Whoopee's closet would open on Tennessee Tuxedo and everything would fall out, I thought it was hilarious. Imagine my surprise when I was listening to Fibber McGee and Molly from decades before and heard the same thing happen!

Just this past year I was rummaging through stuff in my basement and found cassette recordings of a role-playing game session from 1988. As I thought more about it this past week, I realized just what we were doing. The gamemaster describes the action and plays the part of the characters not portrayed by the players. The players describe their action verbally and act out their characters' roles, often using voices not their own. We're not dressing up and acting things out (like LARPers do), but we are doing radio drama. There are a few static images and figures on a map to keep track of where everyone is, but otherwise everything is done by voice and description. They called radio "The Theater of the Mind." I think it's still alive and well. It's just taken a new form.

1 comment:

KC Ryan said...

Amen, Jim! I love the old-time radio shows, absolutly love them. Better than TV (of course, we usually only hear the best episodes- kind of pre-edited for the modern listener. I'm sure there were bombs back in the day, too.)
Yes, I knew of Phil Harris and Senator Claghorn's predating the cartoons - especially with Warner Brothers you can tell where their "inspiration" lies. And the Jack Benny cartoon mouse I got immediately, thanks to either Maggie Thompson or Jim Sternako pointing it out in one of their books.
Great read!