Yes, kids, there was a time before the advent of television when people stayed glued to a box that that had only sound — no sight. Those days were the apex of radio entertainment — the 1940s and into the 1950s. As a youngster I was addicted to listening, morning (when not in school), evenings and weekends. Reading a list of programs from that era, I am struck by how many were tuned to my dial. From them, however, I have winnowed a list of just four for which I have a special fondness.
The first is The Shadow, a character adapted from a pulp magazine that first aired with a half hour on CBS in 1937. It was my favorite show and still is. The Shadow was characterized as having traveled through East Asia and learned "the power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him." As in the magazine stories, The Shadow was not given the literal ability to become invisible. The introduction to the program sent chills through me — and still does as the character intones: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” It was followed by haunting laugh.
On the radio The Shadow assumed the visual identity of Lamont Cranston, described as “a wealthy young man-about-town” who every week found himself emeshed in a crime, one often imperiling his girlfriend, “the lovely and talented” Margo Lane.” She was the only person to know the crime-fighter’s real identity. What the pair and The Shadow actually looked like was meant for our imaginations. As depicted in the pulps The Shadow wore a wide-brimmed black hat and a black, crimson-lined cloak with an upturned collar over a standard black business suit. Later a crimson scarf was added.
At the outset, The Shadow was played by Orson Welles, one of the most famous actors and directors of American history, shown here in a radio spot promo. Although another actor intoned the introduction, Wells provided the stirring conclusion. At the end of each episode The Shadow reminded listeners that, "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay...The Shadow knows!" That message got across to a young mind forcefully. Welles left the program in 1838 and a succession of Shadow voices followed until December 26, 1854, when the program left the air.
My second choice, something completely different, was “Fibber McGee and Molly,” a situation comedy that ran from 1935 to 1936 on NBC. It followed the adventures of a working-class couple, the habitual storyteller Fibber McGee and his sometimes exasperated but always loving wife Molly, living among their numerous neighbors and acquaintances in the community of Wistful Vista. The program as I recall aired on Tuesday nights after my bedtime on a school night. But my parents thoughtfully allowed a radio in the bedroom with instructions to turn it off as soon as the program ended.
The characters were created and portrayed by Jim and Marian Jordan, a real-life husband and wife team that had been working in radio since the 1920s. Because of a clamor from fans to be able to see the personalities behind the disembodied radio voices, Fibber McGee and Mollie portrayed their characters in four motion pictures, often starring another favorite, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Athough the films were somewhat creaky by today’s standards, I eagerly await each of them.
Looking back, it may have been the fact that the McGees were Irish and my family was Irish. More likely, however, it were the running gags. For example, when Fibber tells a bad joke, Molly often answers, “Tain’t funny, McGee,” which became a catch-phrase of the times. Perhaps the show’s most enduring stroke was Fibber’s closet. It involved someone, usually McGee opening a hall closet with the contents clattering down and out and, often enough, over McGee's or Molly's heads. "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days" was the usual McGee observation once the racket subsided. It never failed to get a laugh from the studio audience (no laugh track in those days) and those of us at home.
Among the many after-school radio programs aimed a young crowd — “Jack Armstrong,” “Dick Tracy,” “Green Hornet” — my favorite was “The Lone Ranger.” It aired for a half hour on ABC at 7:30 p.m., after dinner but before homework and bedtime. I always thrilled to the opening: “In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”
The Lone Ranger was named so because the character was the only survivor of a group of six Texas Rangers. A posse of six rangers while pursuing a band of outlaws, is betrayed by a civilian guide and ambushed in a canyon. Later, an Indian named Tonto stumbles onto the scene and discovers one ranger is barely alive, and he nurses the man back to health. To disguise his identity, the ranger — dubbed The Lone Ranger by Tonto — dons a black mask. The Lone Ranger’s horse was named Silver; Tonto rode Scout. According to the program introduction, the two men “led the fight for law and order in the early western United States! Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice!”
In reality, the program was a well-scrubbed Old West. The Lone Ranger always spoke with perfect grammar and without any slang. When forced to use guns, he never shot to kill but tried to disarm his antagonists. No scene ever occurred inside a saloon only "restaurants." Nonetheless, this youngster thrilled each night to hear “Hi Ho Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides Again.”
My last selection may seem odd for a youngster, but it is “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club,” a morning variety show out of Chicago on ABC radio for more than 35 years. While later it would have some personal ties, when I was a kid it was entertainment when I was home sick. It was my fate to come down with virtually every childhood disease known to medicine including measles, mumps, chicken pox and scarlet fever. Top it off with viral pneumonia as an eighth grader and I spent a lot of time with morning radio.
McNeill, shown here, presented a program that combined music with informal talk and jokes often based on topical events, usually ad-libbed. In addition to recurring comedy performers, vocal groups and soloists, listeners heard sentimental verse and a musical “March Around the Breakfast Table.” He is credited with being the first performer to make morning talk and variety — now a staple of TV — a viable format. I was an avid listener. Perhaps too avid. Asked to prepare the eighth grade graduation skit, I came up with the dialogue modeled on the show that the nuns thought too “adult” and nixed it.
To the personal. For a long time McNeill was the most famous graduate of the Marquette University College of Journalism, where I went to school, and a friend of its longtime Dean Jeremiah O’Sullivan. Later in life the O’Sullivan introduced us and I could tell McNeill that while he had married one of the Dean’s early secretaries, I had married his last. The final Breakfast Club was taped in December 1968. McNeill retired from broadcasting and public life, dying seven years later.
There are a number of other radio shows of that era that I might have mentioned — “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Jack Benny,” “Lorenzo Jones and His Wife Belle,” “Bob and Ray,” and the list could go on. But these four shows mark for me the “crucial corners” of that talking box we called radio. Those, indeed, were the days.