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.

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 – 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.

Radio Guide Inspiration (Thanks, Henry Grimm)

radioguides1938

I scored a whole lot of 1938 Radio Guide magazines off of ebay about six years ago – all from the collection of one man, Henry Grimm (or so I assume, since his name is written in pencil on the front cover of most of them and yes, that’s Lucille Ball on the cover of the one in the middle). I’ve spent hours pouring over them, and I thought I’d share a little of the real stories that inspired characters and incidents in my first book, The Darkness Knows.

First of all, there’s a gossip section in every edition centered around Chicago radio called The Radio Tattler. You may recognize this as the gossip section Vivian’s excited about being mentioned in at the beginning of the book. (There were also gossip sections devoted to New York and Los Angeles).

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The character of Little Sammy Evans was inspired by this feature story in the March 19, 1938 edition.

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Also, Vivian mentions when talking to Charlie that there are women that specialize in crying like babies for radio programs. That came from this blurb.

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And here’s the actual listing for Thursday, October 27, 1938. The Darkness Knows would have been listed in the 8:00 time slot – if it had been real, that is. (I love that Henry Grimm put a check mark next to the programs that he planned to listen to – Rudy Vallee’s Variety Hour at 7:00, Maxwell House Coffee’s Good News of 1939 at 8:00, and the Kraft Music Hall Starring Bing Crosby at 9:00. He must have gone to bed after that. ;))

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Halloween Costumes – 1938 Style

The action in THE DARKNESS KNOWS takes place October 27 – 31, 1938. That’s prime Halloween time; so of course, I had to include a masquerade scene. It was a lot of fun to write, but it took some thought to find costumes for the characters that wouldn’t be anachronistic to the time.

Charlie and Vivian’s last minute cowboy attire was borrowed from the “costume closet” at WCHI and more specifically from the Country Cavalcade (a fictional country music program based on WLS’s popular Barn Dance). I got the idea from this photo of Jack Benny and a bunch of lovelies from a Radio Stars magazine article.

cowboy-costumes2

Vivian’s friend Imogene is dressed as Maid Marion from the 1938 movie version of Robin Hood (played by Olivia de Havilland).

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Imogene’s boyfriend George and Graham (much to George’s chagrin) are both dressed as Robin Hood himself (as played by Errol Flynn).

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Head of the radio station, Mr. Hart, is dressed as another famous Errol Flynn role – the pirate, Captain Blood.

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Speaking of movies, Frances Barrow is dressed as Snow White (the Disney film was a smash hit in 1937-38). (Frances would have also make a fabulous Scarlett O’Hara, but alas, the movie version of that didn’t come out until the end of 1939.)

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Station Engineer, Morty Nickerson, is dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White.

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Announcer, Bill Purdy, is The Lone Ranger – a radio hit since 1933 and appearing in movie serials starting in 1938.

lone-ranger

Fellow actor, Dave Chapman, is Superman. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, so he was a brand new at the time of the masquerade. Weird to think that there was a time Superman didn’t exist, isn’t it?

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Another actor, Little Sammy Evans, is a court jester. (The photo below is from the 1955 Danny Kaye movie, but imagine the same sort of costume.)

jester_danny-kaye

 

Other various and sundry characters you’ll find at the WCHI Halloween Masquerade of 1938 are Little Orphan Annie, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, and The Red Baron.

On this day in fictional history – October 27, 1938

Up and coming radio star, Vivian Witchell, finds the dead body of Marjorie Fox in the station’s lounge. And Vivian may be the killer’s next victim…

I couldn’t resist.

Other (real) things happening in October 1938:

  • Passports of German Jews are declared invalid and they are required to have the letter “J” stamped onto their passports for them to become valid again.
  • The Munich Agreement was signed Sept 30 allowing Hitler to annex the Sudetenland (part of ethnically German Czechoslovakia) and prompting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring “peace in our time”. It would be less than a year before Germany invaded Poland starting WWII.
  • Top radio shows are Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Burns and Allen, Lux Radio Theatre, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Amos & Andy.
  • Filming has just started on The Wizard of Oz and will soon start on Gone with the Wind (though the part of Scarlett O’Hara will remain uncast until December).

Finally, here are some ads pulled from the October 27, 1938 edition of The Chicago Tribune ($1 in 1938 is worth about $16 today).

1938 ads