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.
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:
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…
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).
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.)
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 Margarinecommercial.
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.
I mentioned this episode of the popular adventure/fantasy radio program Escapein my last author newsletter, and I thought I’d share it here as well. In fact, I’m going to make sharing my favorite radio episodes a regular feature here on the blog.
“Evening Primrose” (aired November 5, 1947) is the creepy story of a writer who lives among the mannequins at a department store. It was adapted from a John Collier story (and later made into a TV musical by Stephen Sondheim (really?)) If you have a spare half an hour give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that Mrs. Vanderpant just might be the best character name of all time.
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:
I had a fabulous time talking Old Time Radio with Steve Darnall of Nostalgia Digest (and I’m excited to be part of the Fifth Anniversary Podcast!). We talk about my “gateway drug” into old time radio, historical Chicago, and my inspiration for the characters in The Darkness Knows – among other things. I come in around the 36 minute mark.