Old Time Radio Wednesday – Little Orphan Annie

Little Orphan Annie started out as a newspaper comic strip in the 1920s and jumped into radio in 1930 in Chicago. It was one of the few programs aimed at children in radio’s early days and was wildly popular.

You may be familiar with the program from its inclusion in a pivotal scene in that “A Christmas Story”. The main character, Ralphie, feverishly decodes the secret message at the end of the program to find… well, I won’t spoil it for those of you that haven’t seen the movie.

The episode of Little Orphan Annie in the above scene is a recreation, but below is an original from 1936 in two parts. The secret message part is at the end of part two.

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Murder at Midnight “The Creeper”

Back to my favorite genre… suspense.

I picked this episode of Murder at Midnight because it’s seemingly based on a real series of murders in 1940s Chicago committed by The Lipstick Killer. The name comes from the message written in lipstick on a victim’s wall:

For heavens

Sake catch me

Before I kill more

I cannot control myself

 

Got the chills yet?

 

 

 

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Against the Storm

My mom watched all the CBS soaps while I was growing up – Young & The Restless, Bold & The Beautiful, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light. (I think Search for Tomorrow was also in the lineup briefly.) That meant I watched them all too. Don’t get me started on Ridge and Brooke or Victor and Nikki

Like most television genres, soaps actually got their start on the radio in the early 1930s. Florence Gill- Davison, the daytime drama grand dame that puts Vivian and Frances into a tizzy in The Darkness Knows, was based on a combination of real soap grand dames Irna Phillips and Anne Hummert.

Love & Glory, the soap in The Darkness Knows, is an amalgamation of all radio soaps I’ve ever heard, but I think this episode of “Against the Storm” from 1940 really nails what I was after – from the heavy organ throughout to the Ivory Flakes commercial (and contest to win a Pontiac!).

Daytime dramas* were usually about 15 minutes long including sponsor spiels. The overtaxed writers, writing multiple shows a week, could stretch out a scene for days or even weeks. That way a woman listening could miss a day or two and jump right back in without becoming hopelessly lost in the plot. (Something that’s been carried over to present day soaps.) I think you’ll get a taste of that when you listen to this episode.  I don’t mean to spoil it, but despite the title of the episode (Pascal Tyler rescues Lucretia), nothing much happens except a man talking soothingly to a horse.

*The term “soap opera” began being used in 1939 because of the heavy soap company endorsements on these programs.

Old Time Radio Wednesday – The Shadow

Some of you may have already guessed the inspiration for the title of Vivian’s radio show and Book #1 – THE DARKNESS KNOWS. It comes from the intro to The Shadow radio show:

Who knows what evils lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

The Shadow is the crime-fighting alter ego of Lamont Cranston who has the ability to “cloud men’s minds so they can not see him”. Orson Welles played title role at the show’s inception in 1937, but he left the show in 1938. The radio version ran until 1954 with four more actors portraying Lamont during the run.

Listening to this now, I can see that this show influenced the fictional The Darkness Knows radio show in my series more than any other actual radio show – even though it’s not a “detective show” per se. This is also always the show people bring up when I talk old time radio with them. Everyone seems to know The Shadow…

Here’s an early episode starring Orson Welles.

High Priestess of Whoopee – Texas Guinan

Texas Guinan (pronounced Guy-nan) came to fame during the roaring 20s in New York City. She was a mistress of ceremonies, singer, and all around entertainer who held court in various speakeasies. Movie stars Ruby Keeler and George Raft were discovered as members of her dance entourage and Walter Winchell credited her with opening the insider Broadway scene and cafe society to him when he was starting as a gossip columnist (Walter Winchell pops up in Viv and Charlie #3).

Texas had some trouble with the government over violating the Volstead Act (aka Prohibition), so she brought her talents to Chicago’s infamous Green Mill in the winter of 1929/30, booming her trademark “Hello, Suckers!” from the stage of the cabaret. (The Green Mill still exists, of course, but I believe what was the cabaret on the second floor is now either office space or part of a Mexican restaurant.) As fate would have it, a very young Vivian Witchell snuck out of her bedroom one evening and attended a Guinan performance at the Green Mill.* You can read about it in HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

Click here to read a first-hand account from a Tribune journalist who knew Texas and attended her run at the Mill. He also mentions Ted Newberry (who also briefly plays into Vivian’s memories of Mill, but you’ll have to read HFTH to find out how).

Unfortunately, Texas got into even more trouble with the law when her manager/boyfriend was involved in a shooting at the Mill in March 1930 that shut down her show. 

According to the article in the Tribune she was quite the sass-mouthed dame: After the shooting, she showed up at the police station and said, “I’ve brought the Rolls who’s got the coffee?” (referring to her Rolls Royce). She is also quoted as saying, “This is my first record at this police station. I usually make them for the talking machine people.” She offered to type up her own statement (they declined), then she offered to take the policemen to dinner (they declined), and she finally left them with, “You can always reach me at any court in New York.” (referring to all of her legal troubles in that city).

She left the US for Europe with her troupe after that. Here’s a newsreel clip of her upon her return to the US where she recalls her infamous greeting by calling herself “the biggest sucker in the world…”

Sadly, Guinan died in 1933 of amoebic dysentery that she contracted at Chicago’s Congress Hotel. Here’s a clip of her appearance in a movie called Broadway Through a Keyhole that was released three days before her death (and written by Walter Winchell).

Here’s further reading on Texas if you’re interested.

*The dates don’t quite line up, historically speaking, but I took some license and fudged it a year to get such a colorful character into the book. Hey, it’s fiction, right?

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Ray Bradbury (The Ravine and Zero Hour)

Ray Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, IL and there’s a storytelling festival each year around Halloween that honors him. I went to it a few times, and it’s excellent. I think Bradbury’s short stories are particularly well-suited to radio and that’s where I first heard most of them. I’m sharing two of my favorites today (because I couldn’t pick just one).

“The Ravine” is the first episode of the show Bradbury 13 from the early 1980s. The fictionalized ravine is based on a very real one in Waukegan. Waukegan itself was fictionalized often as “Green Town” in Bradbury’s stories. This story is chilling. There are 13 episodes in this series and all are fabulous.

“Zero Hour” is a Suspense episode from April 5, 1955 is chilling in an entirely different way. I don’t want to give anything away except that it’s very 1950s, and the main character is a seemingly sweet little girl named “Mink” (which I love).

Old Time Radio Wednesday – It Happened (Lights Out)

Lights Out is one of my favorite shows. It was a pioneer of horror/sci-fi and was originally produced in Chicago (and Harold Peary of Great Gildersleeve fame, star of last week’s post, guested on it a few times). Lights Out began in 1934 to as “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” True to that aim it aired at midnight and soon switched to an anthology format with new stories presented for each program. Lights Out almost certainly inspired The Twilight Zone.

I have so many favorite episodes, but this one stands out as especially creepy. “It Happened” aired May 11, 1938. It’s the story of a girl trapped in the catacombs under Paris – and that’s all I’m going to tell you. (Despite the name of the show, you might want to listen to this one with the lights on.)

 

Old Time Radio Wednesday – The Great Gildersleeve

In honor of summer being in full swing I’ve chosen a summery episode of one of my favorite radio comedies, The Great Gildersleeve. “Vacation at Grass Lake” aired on August 29, 1943 and is a pretty typical episode for poor, put-upon, mildly bumbling, lovelorn Gildy. Harold Peary plays Gildy (and if you’re a child of the 70s or early 80s you may recognize his distinctive voice as that of Big Ben, the clockwork whale, in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year). The episode also starts with a stellar wartime Parkay Margarine commercial.

Peary originated the character of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly in Chicago. (He also worked on another fabulous Chicago show, Lights Out, which will be featured in a future OTR Wednesday on this blog). The Great Gildersleeve is considered one of the first spin off shows… and probably one of the first modern sit-coms style shows.

I was introduced to the show through a strange coincidence (or perhaps a sign from the universe?). We moved to a new town in the fall of 2009, two months before I started writing THE DARKNESS KNOWS. It just so happened that the local radio station – actually the radio station of a local Lutheran church –  broadcast old time radio shows from 6:30 to 9:00 every evening and the 7:00 hour was dedicated to comedy – often The Great Gildersleeve. I listened while I did the dishes. The station has about a 5 mile radius, tops, and our house received the station perfectly.

The show is really well done and holds up (unlike Fibber McGee, in my opinion. Fibber is based in that corny vaudeville comedy that the stars excelled in – the kind that seems old fashioned now). Anyway, give Gildy a listen. I think you’ll like him.