OTR Wednesday – The Mercury Theater’s A Christmas Carol

If you’ve read HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS, then this is the rendition of A Christmas Carol that’s mentioned in the first chapter (although not by name). This version aired December 23, 1938 – the night of the Witchell’s Christmas party.

A movie version of A Christmas Carol had just come out starring Reginald Owen. That was a bit of casting blasphemy at the time since Lionel Barrymore was famous for his portrayal of Scrooge on the radio. He’d reprise the leading role (on radio at least) in 1939.

By the way, if Lionel Barrymore sounds familiar to you it’s probably because you know him as nasty old Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. (That character isn’t far off Ebenezer Scrooge – except that Mr. Potter never has an epiphany and never becomes a better person…)

OTR Wednesday – The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope

I grew up with Bob Hope Christmas shows on TV, so just hearing his voice is nostalgic for me. His show biz career spanned almost 80 years.

The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope debuted in September 1938. On this episode, aired December 20, 1938, he welcomes Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead (which I also grew up with in the Sunday comics – do they even have those anymore?).  The first movie based on the comic strip had just come out in November 1938.

And of course, the episode ends with Bob’s rendition of “Thanks for the Memory” – his trademark.

OTR Wednesday – Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon

In keeping with the theme of shows that Vivian and her friends and family may have listened to during the events of Homicide for the Holidays, today’s show is a children’s program that aired between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1938. It’s in the vein of The Cinnamon Bear (if you’ve heard of that) about two children who find a tiny bear in the attic that takes them on a fantastic adventure. That program is from 1937 so it doesn’t qualify for my 1938 series – though it was repeated every Christmas for years. As a matter of fact, my daughter and I are going to a live stage production of The Cinnamon Bear next weekend.

Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon is about a six-year-old that goes on an adventure to the moon to rescue a kidnapped Santa. It’s amazing to me that small children would sit quietly in front of the radio and listen intently to a story like this using only ::gasp:: their imaginations. It was a different time.

Santa’s always been a shill

If you’ve read The Darkness Knows or Homicide for the Holidays you know that the detective serial that Viv and Graham star on (also called “The Darkness Knows”) is sponsored by Sultan’s Gold cigarettes – “You’ll be sold on Sultan’s Gold!” Cigarette companies were huge sponsors of radio programs, and later, TV programs. Cigarettes were touted as “healthy” and often used doctors – or images of doctors – in their advertising expressing their love for a certain brand of cigarette. 

Here’s a snippet from Homicide for the Holidays (Viv and Charlie #2):

She could picture the ad already: Graham’s face in three-quarter profile, a self-assured half smile on his lips, his dark-brown eyes trained on the reader, a Sultan’s Gold cigarette balanced in fingers held below his chin. The text appearing in a balloon above him would read:

Graham Yarborough, radio’s Harvey Diamond, says, “I smoke nothing but Sultan’s Gold. The mellow taste and smooth fla¬vor of Sultan’s Gold cigarettes calm my throat and assure me of a confident vocal delivery every time.”

And one from Dig Deep My Grave (Viv and Charlie #3):

The national campaign for Sultan’s Gold cigarettes that she’d appeared in with Graham had been a success. “You’ll be sold on Sultan’s Gold,” she thought. It was a catchy slogan. The ad had featured illustrated photos of her and Graham smiling at each other from opposite sides of the page. Speech bubbles came out of each of their mouths. Vivian’s said, “Here, Graham, smoke a Sultan’s Gold. That mellow flavor and cool menthol taste will assure you of a confident vocal delivery every time.” Graham’s said, “Thanks, Viv. Harvey Diamond’s got to be on top of his game, and with Sultan’s Gold, that’s assured.”

Of course, advertisers pulled Santa into their schemes at the holidays as well. It’s weird to think there was a time when this wasn’t weird, isn’t it?

You can read more about the history of cigarette advertising at the Smithsonian blog.

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Jack’s Christmas Open House

This episode of the Jack Benny Show aired on December 25, 1938. That’s right in the middle of the events of Homicide for the Holidays, and Vivian would have certainly been listening (along with almost everyone else in the country). If you’re not familiar with Jack Benny, his schtick was that he was a cheapskate and sort of an arrogantly loveable loser. So it’s no surprise that when he invites the celebrity couples of the day (Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers and Ronald Coleman) to his Christmas open house that none of them show up.

Listening to Jack Benny is like getting a big, warm hug for me – especially his Christmas shows. So get yourself some hot chocolate (or a hot toddy), put your feet up, and escape to Christmas 1938 for 30 minutes or so.

Another kind of debut

It took much longer than anticipated to get this little guy up and running, but our little free library is now open for business! Too bad that the weather has turned colder, and we no longer have the kind of foot traffic past our house that we do in the warmer months. Still, it’s adorable, isn’t it? I saw a girl from down the street stop on her way to the bus and pick out a book yesterday morning. That made my day.

It even has motion-activated lights inside so people can browse at night.


Kate is beyond thrilled. She made invitations (with her dad’s help) for all the kids in her class to come visit and share their books. Here she is checking it at night before bed in her jammies and winter coat.

If you’re inspired to put up your own check out the resources on the Little Free Library website. You can see if there are any near you on their map.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

And I have a HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS Pinterest board! If you’d like to peruse what the holidays looked and sounded like in late 1930s Chicago – go have a look. There’s also some gorgeous 1930s fashion, Chicago locations – and some hints about some pop culture mentioned in the book (I’m lookin at you, Rudolph Valentino).

Happy Birthday, War of the Worlds!

I first heard the original War of the Worlds broadcast in Sister Barbara Jean’s 8th grade reading class. The first ten minutes or so gave me goose bumps and sparked my love of old time radio. It made such an impression on me that I set my first mystery, The Darkness Knows, in October 1938 to coincide with the original Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast on October 30, 1938 (a character is actually listening to the live broadcast near the end of the book).

Do yourself a favor and listen to the original (It’s brilliant and so far ahead of its time.):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzC3Fg_rRJM

One of my current favorite radio shows, Radiolab, did a fascinating episode around the psychology of the broadcast – why it worked so well and what happened when it was repeated (spoiler alert – bad things): Radiolab War of the Worlds Live Episode 

There’s also a PBS documentary on the subject: American Experience War of the Worlds