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.

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

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 – 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?

Making it Rain – Radio Sound Effects

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.”

“Aim!”

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.

“Fire!”

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: