Amoeblog

Happy Birthday, The Whistler! - rated by independent research the most popular West Coast Program in radio history

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 16, 2012 12:25pm | Post a Comment
Adventures of the Lone RangerMy introduction to old time radio was listening to a 1957 Decca 12” The Adventures of the Lone Ranger that my dad presumably procured as a child. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I don’t think I ever made the connection that the album’s tracks were old radio episodes… I don’t think I even knew about radio dramas until I think I became vaguely aware of – but not interested in -- The Shadow sometime later.

It must’ve been around 2000 when I was hanging out with my friend Josh Beckman one night and he excitedly turned his radio on and dialed in to AM 1260 KNX to catch The Whistler. I’d never heard ofThe Whistler before but Josh was obviously a fan and whistled the Whistler’s theme as the program began. I listened and was entertained and surprised at how much more mature the story was – having previously assumed that all old time radio consisted of nothing but adolescent serials.

*****

The Whistler debuted on CBS on 16 May, 1942. For most its run it was sponsored by Signal Oil Company, an oil company founded in The Harbor’s Signal Hill community. Regular fans from any era feel their ears prick up when they hear the sound of clicking shoes, the haunting, whistled theme and the announcement, "That whistle is your signal for the Signal Oil program, The Whistler.”


In 1944, it was adapted into a Columbia Pictures film, The Whistler, directed by the great William Castle and launched a franchise that ultimately included The Mark of the Whistler (1944)*, The Power of the Whistler (1945), Voice of the Whistler (1945)*, Mysterious Intruder (1946)*, Secret of the Whistler (1946), The Thirteenth Hour (1947), and The Return of the Whistler (1948).


The signature whistle was provided by Dorothy Roberts, who was backed by the theme’s composer, Wilbur Hatch and his orchestra. The voice of the titular Whistler was provided variously by Bill Forman, Bill Johnstone, Everett Clark, Gale Gordon, Joseph Kearns, and Marvin Miller but regardless of the actor, the opening announcement was always the same, “I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.”


Unlike most programs, the protagonists of The Whistler were criminals and most episodes began with their having committed a serious crime. Ultimately justice is served thanks to a twist in the final act or something that was overlooked in the beginning having been overlooked. The Whistler’s shadowy narrator was undoubtedly inspired by the Shadow but was no superhero -- rather an omniscient narrator who provided ironic commentary and programs it was more in line with mystery anthology programs like NBC’s Mystery House, the Blue Network’s Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and Mutual’s The Mysterious Traveler and The Strange Dr. Weird -- but in my opinion it’s superior to all of them. 


For the shows first two seasons it was overseen by writer/producer J. Donald Wilson. He was succeeded in 1944 by director/producer George Allen. The scripts were written by Joel Malone and Harold Swanton. Directors included Sterling Tracy and Sherman Marks (who went on to direct episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.GrindlTammy and other TV series). 

  
                       Bill Johnstone                                          Cathy Lewis                                    Elliot Lewis


    
            Gerald Mohr                         Hans Conried                     Jack Webb                        Lurene Tuttle

Strangely, whereas its fellow and-not-dissimilar CBS anthology Suspense frequently featured famous Hollywood guess stars, most of the actors who appeared on The Whistler were better known as the stalwarts of Hollywood’s so-called “Radio Row,” e.g. Bill Johnstone (The Shadow, The Line-Up, Cavalcade of America, Suspense, Lux Radio Theatre, This Is Your FBI, Dragnet), Cathy Lewis(The First Nighter Program, My Friend Irma, Suspense, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen), Elliot “Mr Radio” Lewis (The Amazing Nero Wolfe, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, The Adventures of Maise, Broadway is My Beat, Suspense, Crime Classics), Gerald Mohr (The Adventures of Bill Lance, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe), Hans Conried (The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show, My Friend Irma, Suspense), Jack Webb (Dragnet, The Jack Webb Show, Pat Novak for Hire, Johnny Modero, Pier 23; Jeff Regan, Investigator; Murder and Mr. Malone, One Out of Seven), and Lurene Tuttle (The Adventures of Sam Spade, Suspense, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Great Gildersleeve, Brent House, Dr. Christian, One Man’s Family, The Red Skelton Show, Hollywood Hotel, Those We Love, Duffy’s Tavern).


Its final episode aired on 22 September, 1955 -- at a time when radio audiences were flocking to TV, where its influence can certainly be seen in anthology TV programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone (and later series like The Hitchhiker, and Night Visions). More than 200 of the 692 episodes are currently considered lost. Most of the rest are available on online, on LP, on cassette, on CD and other formats. 

*directed by William Castle 

Happy Birthday, X Minus One - radio's greatest sci-fi anthology!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 24, 2012 11:23am | Post a Comment
Today is the 57th birthday of X Minus One, a science fiction anthology that debuted on NBC radio on 24 April, 1955. 

It began as a sort-of revival of pioneering sci-fi program, Dimension X and the first fifteen episodes were remakes from that series. The remainder of the episodes were originals from staff writers Ernest
 Kinoy and George Lefferts as well as their adaptations of new works by the likes of A. A. PhelpsJr., Alan Nourse, Algis Budrys, Arthur Sellings, Clifford Simak, Donald A. Wollheim, Evelyn Smith, F. L. Wallace, Finn O'Donovan, Fletcher Pratt, Frank M. Robinson, Frank Quattrochi, Frederic Brown, Frederick Pohl, Fritz Leiber, Gordon R. Dickson, Graham Doar, H. Beam Piper, H. L. Gold, Isaac Asimov, J. T. McIntosh, Jack McKenty, James Blish, James E. Gunn, James E. Gunn, James H. Schmitz, Katherine MacLean, L. Sprague de Camp, Mark Clifton, Milton Lesser, Murray Leinster, Ned Lang, Peter Phillips, Phillip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Maples, Richard Wilson, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Robert Sheckley, Robert Silverberg, Ross Rockland, Stephen Arr, Stephen Vincent Benet, Steven Tall, Theodore sturgeon, Tom Goodwin, Vaughn Shelton, William Tenn, and Wyman Guin.

Each episode began with announcer (variously Ben Grauer, Bill Rippe, Don Pardo, Fred Collins, Jack Costello, Kenneth Banghart and Roger Tuttle) intoning:

Countdown for blastoff... X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one... Fire! From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you'll live in a 
million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds. The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Street 
and Smith, publishers of Astounding Science Fiction presents... X Minus One.

As a result of renewed interest in Old Time Radio, Robert Silverberg wrote a new episode "The Iron Chancellor" in 1973 but did not result in a revival.

NBC was infamous for not showing much interest in their radio programs -- especially as radio waned and TV waxed -- and Dimension X suffered from being bounced around between Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and barely received any promotion. However, they didn't skimp on the writing and sound effects budget and the results were frequently amazing.

Ultimately the series ran for 124 episodes (plus the audition). Its last episode aired 9 January, 1958. Almost all episodes have been preserved and most can be listened to here. They also appear on CDs and Audio DVDs, which can sometimes be found at Amoeba. NB: the ongoing popularity of X Minus One has led to some unscrupulous folks splicing together various previously existing material from different sources to create "newly discovered" episodes. Special thanks to the folks at the Digital Deli Too for their hard work in the name of preserving OTR. Consult with them before splurging.




*****

Happy Birthday, Dimension X - Radio's pioneering sci-fi series

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 8, 2012 08:57am | Post a Comment
Dimension X debuted on NBC radio on this day (April 8), 1950. The first thirteen episodes were performed live whilst the remainder were pre-recorded. It was directed by Fred Wiehe and Edward King. The narrator and announcer was Norman Rose, who began each program with the introduction, "Adventures in time and space- told in future tense..." before "Dimension X!" boomed and echoed.


Dimension X wasn't the first adult science-fiction anthology program (2000 Plus debuted a month earlier on the Mutual network) but it was, perhaps, the best - drawing from writers like Clifford D. Simak, Donald A. Wollheim, E. M. Hull, Fletcher Pratt, Frank M. Robinson, Fredric Brown, Graham Doar, H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, L. Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Nelson BondRay Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Bloch, Stephen Vincent Benet, Villiers Gerson, and William Tenn. Most episodes were adapted from pre-existing works by Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts but the two also provided original
 works.
It was first auditioned as Out of This World, which it was originally auditioned as on February 23, 1950. Though one of the best sci-fi series ever, the famously clueless folks at NBC never gave it proper promotion or care, bouncing it around to various slots on four different days of the week.


It's influence can most easily be heard in X Minus One (1955-1958), many episodes of which wereremakes of Dimension X programs. On TV, Dimension X inspired shows like Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), One Step Beyond (1959-1961), Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Way Out (1961), Outer Limits (1963-1965), The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1986), and Masters of Science Fiction (2007).


All fifty episodes (and a fifteen-minute preview, "Preview to the Future") have been preserved and most can be listened to here. They also appear on CDs and Audio DVDs, which can sometimes be found at Amoeba. Special thanks to the folks at the Digital Deli Too for their hard work in the name of preserving OTR.

*****

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, The Life of Riley! - or - What a revoltin' development this is!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 16, 2012 12:22pm | Post a Comment
On this day, in 1944, The Life of Riley premiered on the Blue network (later known as ABC).


The Life of Riley began with an audition taping on July 25, 1943 after its creation by Irving Brecher. Over the course of roughly 320 episodes, it established itself as one of the most enduringly funny sitcoms on Old Time Radio. It's final episode on ABC aired on July 8, 1945. After moving to the NBC radio network, it aired again from August 8, 1945 until its final episode aired on June 29, 1951.

The main character, Chester A. Riley, was played by William Bendix. His wife, Peg, his son, Junior, and his daughter, Babs, were all played by more than one actor. Both his co-worker/neighbor, Gillis, as well as audience favorite, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (the "friendly undertaker") were both played by John Brown. At various times it was sponsored by the American Meat Institute, Teel Dentifrice, Dreft, Prell Shampoo, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.

   

In 1949 it was adapted into a feature film that was co-written by Brecher and Groucho Marx. That same year it also debuted as a television series starring a pre-Honeymooners Jackie Gleason in the title role that ran for 26 episodes (Bendix's contract with RKO prevented him from appearing on NBC TV). It returned in 1953 with Bendix again in the title role and again with Marx as a writer. It proved much more successful and ran for six seasons until 1958, when it was also adapted into a Dell comic book.


The series followed the day-to-day doings of the working class, Irish-American Riley family, nominally headed by the bumbling Chester Riley, who supported his brood by working, like many post-War Southern Californians, at an aircraft plant, in this case as a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft. In reality, Chester Riley was the dimmest bulb in the drawer, and usually misinformed by Gillis. 

As originally developed (as The Flotsam Family), the title role was to have been played by Groucho Marx but the sponsors had difficultly envisioning Marx's brainy, unhinged comedy being reigned in for the much straighter role as the somewhat dense head-of-household. Bendix was cast after Brecher saw his appearance in 1942's McGuerins from Brooklyn and it was renamed. 

If you ask me, the humor, unlike that of a lot of radio sitcoms, still holds up today (the same thing can be said about The Great Gildersleeve). The sitcom formula of the confounded father who barely maintains even a semblance of authority over children can be seen and heard in comedies like The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family, Robin Harris's Bebe's Kids routine, Married... with Children, The Bernie Mac Show and The War at Home

You can listen to episodes online by clicking here or check in Amoeba's back room for CDs, which come through used occasionally in the Spoken Word section. 

*****

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