Siam has been only marginally impacted in terms of health and personal freedom by the pandemic. We haven’t had a first wave yet, let alone a second. This may change, of course, all bets are off, but thus far I consider myself doubly lucky to live here, and follow the news from the other side of the world with horror. But then I wander out onto the deck, possibly with a cold beer and a hot dog, watch the birds flying about and the river flowing, and the horror curve flattens into an enjoyably smug complacency.
And yet, I still get the three a.m. stress sweats, as regular as, well, clockwork. If I’m worrying about money, I know it’s three a.m. A milky drink and a look at the stars can help, but I’ve found the best escape is back – BACK! – into ‘forties and ‘fifties radio shows. Being an Afterworder, you’ll probably think of the dear old BBC, and that’s why I’m here, to introduce you (if introduction be necessary) to the rich world of vintage US radio shows.
I listen on a couple of web sites, dumb.com (simplest interface and search) and archive.org (annoying interface, but downloadable to your device of choice). Oops – three sites – add oldradioworld.com to the list. I started with Jack Benny, whose shows go back to the early ‘thirties, and worked my way through what’s available to the ‘fifties. TV sitcoms found their genesis here – Jack Benny’s show was the original “show about nothing” – a meta-show about being a radio show. And it established the familiar banter with the bandleader. Benny’s greatest bandleader partner was Phil Harris (yup – Baloo) who established himself as an integral character, and led a dynamite swing band. Much of the humour – especially in the early shows – is past its sell-by date, but at its best there’s a timeless brilliance at work at its peak. There’s possibly the most brilliant gag ever broadcast on radio buried here, involving a tin cup on a walk to Ronald Coleman’s house. But no spoilers. The spontaneous eruption of the studio audience is well deserved.
The other comedy show I’ve binged through is Duffy’s Tavern, which got off to a good start but ended in a typical “not as good as it used to be” series. The setting is a seedy, down heel bar on Third Avenue, which bizarrely attracts A-list Hollywood celebs (hearing Vincent Price ham it up is a delight). You’ll hear where Cheers got a lot of its format ideas from. The Simpsons referenced it with Moe changing Archie’s introductory line “where the elite meet to eat” to “where the elite meet to drink”. The scripts were whip-smart – this was the NY intellectual’s comedy show, in spite of its apparent dumbness, with some pretty nifty wordplay.
Other comedies popular at the time can fall totally flat for me, but your mileage may differ.
My favourite genre is cop/detective, such a rich vein to mine. Start with the obvious, Dragnet, and maybe the Phillip Marlowe shows, and dig deeper. Broadway Is My Beat, Gangbusters, and individual sleuths like Barrie Craig. The absolute jewel in the crown is 21st Precinct. Downbeat, concise, brilliantly plotted, it’s an audio-verité mic-on-the-wall at a NY police station which set the pace for all following slice-of-life TV shows, like Hill Street Blues. With a magisterial central performance from Everett Sloan. Click the link below and save yourself a search.
Caveat – you have to learn to ignore some common conventions of the time, such as intrusive footsteps and Wurlitzer mood music – aaargh! 21st Precinct is unusual in having no music, but creating a complete (“immersive”) soundscape with effects. Sponsored shows could afford orchestras and big bands, vocal groups etc. Low-budgets usually involved some old guy on a mighty Wurlitzer.
I’ve also enjoyed westerns and “scary mystery” shows. Every genre is out there. And the period ads can be enjoyable in their own right – did you know that back then they made cigarettes that were actually beneficial for your health? Why don’t they still make those?
If you haven’t yet put a toe into this particular ocean of entertainment – give it a try. Dragnet and 21st Precinct beat out the new HBO/Netflix series, every time, and in under thirty minutes. Binge movies for your ears!