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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
Radio was called “theater of the mind” because the listener had to imagine everything that was happening. That meant, of course, that if was a fight, someone had to make the sound of that fight while the actors performed the dialog.
Take for example, this section from the first chapter of THE DARKNESS KNOWS.
“The well-choreographed struggle began on cue. The organ hummed. The soundman punched a fist into his open palm once, twice while he scuffled his feet through the small tray of gravel in the corner. Graham growled, “Take that!” There was the sound of a single gunshot – a blank fired into the air from a real pistol – then a beat of silence.”
And this is from HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (during a live production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).
“The head soundman opened and closed a metal door on its special stand. It clanged ominously.
Another soundman stood far off in the corner, covering his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound. “Ready!”
The head soundman and his assistant picked the prop muskets off the table and locked them.”
A pause. All was silence in the studio. Vivian looked at Graham, his eyes trained on his script, waiting for the blast. Her eyes flicked to the control room. All were rapt with attention, mouths agape, including the ad man practically on his toes in anticipation.
Then the thunderous sound of rifles firing filled the studio. Vivian flinched, even though they’d been through this scene ad nauseam in the past week.”
Depending on the size and importance of the production there were likely several people at a table off to the side in the studio behind a table full of sound props. They were responsible for anything beyond dialog that was needed for the production: rain, gunshots, doors slamming, footsteps, car engines revving, squealing tires, thunder, wind… use your imagination – the list is endless. Plungers were used to mimic the sound of horse’s hooves slogging through mud. A crackling fire might be made by crinkling cellophane in front of a microphone. Car doors were often the actual doors detached from the car itself and brought into the studio. And believe it or not, real guns were often fired in the studio (as in the excerpt above) to simulate gunshots.
Later on, after recording became popular, they started to use sound effect records for the more unusual or hard to produce sounds.
Here’s a Chevrolet-produced short from 1938 that shows the behind the scenes of how it was done:
If you’ve read The Darkness Knows you’ll know that Vivian is a daughter of privilege. You’ll see even more evidence of that in the second book in the series, Homicide for the Holidays. You’ll also learn that Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell, is the youngest daughter of a Chicago meatpacking scion (and what could be more late 19th/early 20th century Chicago than a meatpacking dynasty? (But that’s another rabbit hole topic).
Vivian’s mother had wanted her to “come out” on her 18th birthday just as she had. However, times had changed since Julia’s 18th birthday in 1907 and Vivian’s in 1932. Times had changed drastically.
WWI (or The Great War as they called it at the time) happened ushering in the flapper era of the 1920s. Women coming of age in the 1920s (like Vivian) experienced a good deal more freedom than their mothers had. It became acceptable for women to smoke and drink in public, for example, and for single women to have jobs outside the home. Then the stock market crashed in October 1929 throwing the country and world into The Great Depression. There were still wealthy families in the US (the Witchells remained well off during this period), but the vast majority were struggling. Overt expressions of wealth displayed in lavish coming out parties were viewed as more than a little tone deaf – as young Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, found out when she came out in November of 1930.
Her party was held at the Ritz Carlton, and she was skewered in the press for spending $50,000 on flowers alone. Invitees included stars Maurice Chevalier and Rudy Vallee. Other guests included society bigshots with names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Rockefeller.
Clockwise from the upper left: Groucho Marx and Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Dorothy Lamour
I’ve been asked where my interest in the 1930s comes from, and I’ve always been pressed for a concrete answer – until today when it came to me as I was browsing antiques (and agonizing over whether I really had room for that gorgeous floor model Philco radio I found). I can trace almost everything back to the Merrie Melodies cartoon called “Hollywood Steps Out”. I watched hour upon hour of Looney Tunes cartoons as a kid, and I’d probably seen this particular cartoon a dozen times by the time I was ten. I loved it even then. I don’t know why exactly… I didn’t know any of the people being spoofed yet (especially not Sally Rand). But there was something about it that led me to wanting to know who every person in this cartoon was (and if you want to know they’re all listed in this Wikipedia entry). That lead to an interest in 1930s/40s movies and then to 1930s/40s culture, radio, and on and on… ad finitum.
I also loved the cartoon starring Jack Benny, his wife Mary Livingstone, and his sidekick Rochester as mice. It’s not on Youtube, but you can watch “The Mouse that Jack Built” here.
One of the things that surprised me when I started researching Chicago in the 1930s was the ubiquity of streetcars They’ve disappeared from the city entirely since – gradually phased out by buses during the 1950s.
That’s a photo of streetcars operating on State Street at Christmastime in the late 1930s/early 1940s. You can see that the passengers waited and boarded from that island-like space in the middle of the north and southbound lanes. Seems awfully dangerous to me and judging from this silent safety film from the early 1930s… it was.
Vivian rides the streetcar several times in the first two books in the series – mostly in book two. A one-way trip cost 7 cents in 1938. Oncoming passengers entered from the back and paid cash to ride – the conductor at the back wore a change belt. The seats inside were rattan and the interior was sparsely heated and I imagine it was terribly drafty in the winter and incredibly stuffy in the summer. The driver often shoved papers between the bell and the clacker above his head to mute the constant dinging on the inside of the car (and save his sanity, I assume). I found a great first-hand account of riding a Chicago streetcar of this period in an old edition of Nostalgia Digest. You can read it here if you like: Streetcar Info.
I just found this home movie that shows Chicago in 1937 and had to share. It starts at a train station (possibly Dearborn Station?) then shows State Street. Roman Navarro was appearing in person at the State Lake Theater? What I wouldn’t give to see that. 🙂 I was especially excited to see the bustling street scene that starts at 1:50 that showcases the marquee of the Chicago Theater and the L rumbling behind it. I have a scene in Homicide for the Holidays that happens in that very spot. After that, it moves on to Michigan Avenue (at the 2:53 mark) and the camera pans down the street to the Art Institute. Charlie and Viv drive this very route in The Darkness Knows!
Here’s some home movie footage of Wrigley Field in 1938 – also mentioned in The Darkness Knows.
Winter scenes from 1937 – those kids are so darn cute.
This is a Pathé Newsreel – so not a home movie, but it’s too fun not to share. It’s the “Windy City” at its literal finest in 1938. This appears to be about the time Homicide for the Holidays is set – December 1938.
I thought I’d share with you what I pictured when writing The Darkness Knows. I had actual reference images for the major characters (below). You’ll notice they’re all actors/actresses of the late 1930s. I think because writing the book was like writing a 1930s era movie for me. It’s still difficult for me to imagine present day actors playing these parts.
Vivian is definitely Priscilla Lane for me (except with strawberry blonde hair). She has a sort of wholesome glamour. You may know Priscilla from Arsenic and Old Lace – her biggest hit co-starring opposite Cary Grant.
Charlie is a mixture of two actors for me: Randolph Scott (he had a huge career in cowboy movies well into the 1950s. Vivian even tells Charlie he looks like Randolph Scott when they’re dressed up as cowboys for the masquerade.)
and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – do I need to elaborate on this one?
Graham is Robert Taylor to me – dark and suavely handsome – almost pretty. That hair! That cleft!
Imogene is the sassy movie sidekick Una Merkel. She’s cute as a button and smart as a whip.
Mr. Hart is John Barrymore. Still handsome in his late 50s, but on the downward slide– a bit like Mr. Hart.
I do not have an actress in mind for Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell. I really just picture her as an older, more rigid Vivian.
Who did you picture when you read the book? Any present day actors?