Amoeblog

Happy Birthday to Night Watch - radio's first reality show

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 4, 2012 10:00pm | Post a Comment
With a few, shining exceptions (Blind Date, COPS, ElimiDate, Jersey Shore, Joe Millionaire, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Shahs of Sunset, The Bachelor, The Real World seasons 1and 2 (true stor-ay!), and maybe a couple dozen others, tops) I hate reality TV. To me most reality shows are endurance-defying and totally depressing in a consumerist dystopian way. My aversion to most reality TV is not  really out of some moral disapproval of schadenfreude nor a principled dislike of unscripted entertainment. No, I usually just find them painfully boring and unpleasant. I remember first hearing about Survivor and was rather excited by the concept, hoping for naked castaways with no common language forced to fight tooth and claw just to stay alive. Imagine my disappointment upon finding out it involved little more than people unpleasant from the get go undertaking a series of challenges for prizes in a tropical setting and talking about alliances. Yawn. The good reality shows (as determined by me) offer anthropological thrills, exposing the strange mating rituals of exotic subcultures and paint portraits of people in a way rarely seen in the stylized fictions of the day. 
One of the earliest reality programs was on the radio, Night Watch. It was preceded by the hidden camera prank TV show Candid Camera which debuted in 1948 but, though both reality shows, could scarcely be more different. Night Watch debuted on CBS on April 5th, 1954, a few years after the popularity of TV exploded, threatening film and radio's dominance. To compete with TV's popularity, film offered things not available on TV like widescreen, technicolor, married couples sharing a bed, and
  black people. Old Time Radio ultimately died out in 1962 but in its last days offered other things in short supply on TV, namely adult content, intelligence and exploitation that would never pass muster on the beloved family idiot box. Radio programmers seemed to be OK with a bit of gore and tawdriness since it all took place in the mind and because it was at least packaged as a cautionary public service rather than the exploitation which it really was. The first time I heard it was an episode involving a suicide attempt (there were several) and I was hooked.

Nigh Watch was developed and hosted by Culver City police reporter Donn Reed who in each episode rode around with Sgt. Ron Perkins from 6:00 pm till 2:00 am. Reed was assuredly inspired by the greatest of all police procedurals, Dragnet, which debuted on April 5, 1954 (after two auditions in January and February) and followed the dramatized adventures of LAPD officers but was widely praised for its realism. Night Watch took realism to a new level, with Reed capturing the action with a dry-cell powered reel-to-reel recorder and a microphone concealed inside of a flashlight. It was directed, produced and supervised by Sterling Tracy, produced by Jim Hadlock and Sgt Perkins additionally worked as technical dvisor.

Donald Reed, the youngest of three sons, was born to a doctor in Los Angeles, California. After completing high school, at the beginning of World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces. After the conclusion of the war, he worked for KNX where he created Night Watch. In the program, Reed never
 conveys a sense of self-importance even though his progrma presaged the development of both Cinéma Direct and Cinéma Vérité by a few years and shared many of the same hallmarks -- the lack of non-diegetic sound and a for the most observational approach of the former as well as Reed's end-of-program interviews with the subjects characteristic of the latter. Chief W. N. Hildebrande's wonderfully robotic, stilted epilogues make Mitt Romney sound like Oscar Wilde.

My feeling has long been that the so-called "good ole days" weren't that different from the present -- crime rates today are fairly similar to those in the '50s (although crime coverage has increased dramatically). The mere fact that Night Watch titles include "The Nude Prowler," "Child Desertion, Gabby and Kicker," "Old Fashioned Suicide," "Kid Explosives," "Strippers and Pix Stash," and "Goddam Lady and Mr Peepers" should give potential listeners a sense that it's a fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. To me, it's also absolutely fascinating to hear the relaxed, natural accents, rhythms and speech patterns of regular 1950s folks and to recognize how completely is from the snappy, highly artificial and frequently corny dialogue of con
temporaneous TV and films.

Night Watch only ran for about a year, till April 22, 1955. I'm not sure why it was so short-lived -- althoughproducer Jim Hadlock's son was hit by a car whilst running an errand for his mother and suffered from a skull fracture. Reed auditioned another similar program, provisionally named, Police Recorder. Police Recorder was to have combined Donn Reed and Detective Sgt. Ron Perkins' recorded field interviews with a police psychologist. The project never progressed beyond the audition stage. Reed subsequently joined KABC-AM Radio in 1957, where he joined Captain 'Max' Schumacher on Air Watch, an early drive time traffic report show. He remained there until 1960 after which, in 1961, he moved to KMPC where he remained until 1981, receiving several Golden Mikes in the process.

Perkins went on to serve as Culver City's mayor and died in 2008. As for Reed's later partner, Captain Schumacher, he died in an air accident with his helicopter and an LAPD one over Elysian Park, in which he and to cops were killed.

You can listen to all 52 episodes for free here. Old Time Radio shows on CD are also available in the store.


Special thanks to the folks at The Digital Deli Too for their invaluable research and preservation efforts
 

*****

Happy Birthday, Gunsmoke - The Greatest Radio Western of All Time

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 26, 2011 12:24pm | Post a Comment
Gunsmoke was, without question, the greatest radio western of all. It debuted 59 years ago today, on April 26th, 1952. Having been exposed to juvenile westerns like The Lone Ranger and Red Ryder as well as the boring Gunsmoke TV series, for a long time I avoided the radio program. Besides, it was set in Kansas.
 
Then one day, I tuned in to an episode already in progress. Not knowing what it was, I didn't immediately change the station and was drawn into what sounded like a vivid, violent film noir, albeit set in 19th century Dodge City. When I realized it was Gunsmoke, I was surprised to say the least, but also hopelessly hooked.
 

Gunsmoke was created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston at the behest of CBS's programming chief, Hubell Robinson. His boss, CBS chairman William S. Paley, was a fan of another classic CBS program, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Robinson had suggested to the West Coast CBS Vice-President, Harry Ackerman, who had developed the Philip Marlowe series, to create a 
"Philip Marlowe of the Old West" in the 1940s.
 
In 1949, Ackerman and the famed scriptwriting duo of Mort Fine and David Friedkin created an audition script called "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye" based on one of their Michael Shayne radio scripts, "The Crooked Wheel." It starred Michael Rye as Matt Dillon. A second audition used Howard Culver, who employed a lighter approach. CBS OKed the latter but Ackerman's contract as the star of Straight Arrow (on the Mutual Network) interfered. Gunsmoke was thus shelved until three years later, when MacDonnell and Meston discovered it whilst working on their own adult-oriented western.
 

The new version cast the inimitable William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon, Howard McNear as Doc Charles Adams, Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell and Parley Baer as deputy Chester Proudfoot. The writers sought to create the first realistic western, one populated by sociopaths and without untarnished heroes. Stories unflinchingly depicted rape, lynchings, murder, prostitution, scalping, massacres, theft, drug addiction and more. Justice was often not served. 

What made the dark tone even darker was the unrivaled sound effects department, who created the most vivid and soundscape I've ever heard on any radio program through use of subtlety and multiple layers of rich and realistic sound.
 

Almost immediately there was discussion about adapting the hit program for TV. MacDonnell was naturally reluctant. TV was almost always sanitized, neutered and dumbed-down almost beyond recognition. CBS didn't care. The radio cast was given a token audition out of respect although they were never serious. Though an amazing actor with a great voice, William Conrad was not traditionally photogenic. The portly Kentuckian looked old for his age. His TV replacement was the square-jawed, tall James Arness... the sort of spotless archetype the radio program so successfully avoided. The pictures taken at Knotts Berry Farm, given the fact that it was all show, make the charade all the more sad.
 
The TV series went on until 1975. The radio series ended in 1961, only one year before the date generally given as the death of old time radio. Lucky for those of us too young to have caught it the first time around, Gunsmoke remains popular on internet radio stations and episodes are available for purchase on CD.
 
 
 

Broadway is My Beat

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 27, 2011 12:13pm | Post a Comment



Broadway Is My Beat
, was a dark, gritty radio drama that began airing 62 years ago today on CBS, debuting February 27, 1949. The series revolved around Times Square homicide detective Danny Clover.

NEW YORK ERA

When the program debuted, it was produced in New York City. Clover was portrayed by actor Anthony Ross, a New York native and veteran of film and stage. His greatest exposure came playing the role of the Gentleman Caller in the 1944 original run of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

The series' theme song was an instrumental rendition of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Manhattan" and it was scored by Robert Stringer, a Nebraska-born composer who primarily wrote stock music for B-films, nearly always uncredited.

It featured scripts by Wisconsin-born (and later blacklisted) Peter Lyon, production by Lester Gottlieb, direction (and later production) by direction by Casey, Crime Photographer's John Dietz. Bern Bennet was the original announcer. 

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Confession

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 8, 2009 05:55pm | Post a Comment

Confession is a crime drama anthology that originally aired on NBC from July 5 to September 14 in 1953, Sunday nights at 9:30. Each episode featured Paul Frees as Richard McGee -- then the director of California Department of Corrections. John Wald was the announcer.

                

The rest of the cast changed from episode to episode and was a veritable "who’s who" of radio talent of the era, including: Alice Reinhardt, Anthony Barrett (aka Tony Barrett), Barney Phillips, Charlotte Lawrence, Dan Rhys, Eddie Firestone, Eve McVeagh, George Peroni, Gerald Mohr, Gloria Grant, Helen Kleeb, Jack Kruschen, Jack Moyles, James Edwards, Jay Loughlin, Jester Hairston, Joel Davis, John Crawford, John McIntire, Jonathan Hole, Joyce McCluskey, Lamont Johnson, Lurene Tuttle, Les Tremayne, Maidie Norman, Marvin Miller, Sam Edwards, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Vivvie Jennis and Warren Stevens.

Each episode begins with the Wald solemnly intoning “The confession you are about to hear is an actual recording...” (followed by two loud, distinct beeps of the Canadian Beeper Phone). Then the interviewer vocally encourages the convict to begin their confession, gently prodding “alright... go ahead... make the statement please." Then the convict/protagonist reads the beginning of their confession before the program segues into a dramatization of the events of the confessor's arrest.

In the premiere episode, the interviewer suggests “if there’s comfort for the listeners it’s that you’ve [the convict] been apprehended.” The way the criminals give their accounts is distinguishable from comparable examples with fictional stories of most TV, film and radio of their era. Unlike those frequently over-the-top characterizations of criminals, on Confession, the criminals laconically tell their tales with unpretentious, unembellished language spoken with the seemingly distinct cadences, accents and slang of the era. The realism is further abetted by the subtle acting, with characters coughing, occasionally mumbling unintelligibly and sometimes interrupted by the interviewer giving instructions to speak up, lean toward the mic or sometimes even correcting the confessor's reading of their own confessions as they convincingly stumble through their written accounts. The sound effects are used sparingly and skillfully and the most memorable sound is that of the spare, haunting piano score of Michael Sumogi (or Somage in some accounts) which contributes to an uneasy disquiet.

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