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.):
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
I started noticing them a few years ago – one at a petting farm last summer and one in Mt. Horeb, WI (the troll capital of the US). I thought they were cute, but there weren’t any near my house or any that I passed on a daily basis. Then I realized I had 2 boxes of leftover ARCs of The Darkness Knows (and a new book coming out in less than a month), so I pulled up the old little free library map. I started to go hunt out LFLs I could visit on my lunch break at work, but there are only so many of those.
Then this past Saturday I found myself with a whole day of not much to do and some beautiful weather, so my 8-year-old and I went on a little free library scavenger hunt in southern Wisconsin. It was a blast – and truly a hunt, since we had to find most of them by GPS coordinates. I left a signed TDK in each and picked up many middle grade books for Kate (along with a few books for myself). I think we’ll do it again next weekend. I’m also seriously considering getting a little free library of my own. Now I just have to convince the husband that it’s a good idea to have strangers stop by our yard…
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:
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?
Well, it’s my debut if you don’t count the kids news show in the 6th grade or the time I was interviewed at the airport for the Philadelphia news (long story). Anyway, I had the pleasure of appearing on Chicago PBS station WYCC‘s Fall Mystery Marathon in November. I had a lot of fun talking about The Darkness Knows, old time radio, Chicago, my writing process, and how my daughter thinks I’m famous. All six parts are below (each are only 2-3 minutes long).
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.
Vivian’s friend Imogene is dressed as Maid Marion from the 1938 movie version of Robin Hood (played by Olivia de Havilland).
Imogene’s boyfriend George and Graham (much to George’s chagrin) are both dressed as Robin Hood himself (as played by Errol Flynn).
Head of the radio station, Mr. Hart, is dressed as another famous Errol Flynn role – the pirate, Captain Blood.
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.)
Station Engineer, Morty Nickerson, is dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White.
Announcer, Bill Purdy, is The Lone Ranger – a radio hit since 1933 and appearing in movie serials starting in 1938.
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?
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.)
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.