Growing Up In Waterford, PA


Old time radio
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

I feel sorry for folks under 60 years of age. You know why? Because they missed out on radio. Old time radio. Radio like it was, not like it is.

Back in the forties when I was an avid listener, the variety of programs on the air were of the same nature as those on TV today. There were cop shows and quiz shows, soap operas and dramas. Of most interest to me were the comedy shows - - - sit-coms and comedy/variety.

Of all the sit-coms (a term that hadn't been invented yet), "Fibber McGee and Molly" was probably my favorite - - - Tuesday nights at 9 o'clock, as I recall. The comedy came mostly from verbal exchanges with visitors who would drop in on the McGees at 79 Wistful Vista: Wallace Wimple, Mayor LaTrivia, and Doc Gamble, to name a few. A "running gag", (something that happened every week) was Fibber's hall closet. He would absent-mindedly open the door and what sounded like tons of stuff would come crashing out. I have a closet like that. I've kept it that way all these years as sort of a memorial to Fibber McGee. At least, that's my excuse.

The McGee show was sponsored by Johnson's Wax. Yes, there were commercials, but unlike TV, only one sponsor per program. And each program had an announcer who introduced the show and did the commercials. I may be the only person east of the Mississippi who remembers Fibber McGee's announcer's name. You don't, do you?

Other popular sit-coms were "Amos 'n' Andy", (which was always funny), "Burns and Allen", (which was sort of funny), and "Lum and Abner", (which wasn't particularly funny). Of course, I was just a little grade school kid and may not have understood the humor.

My favorite comedy/variety shows were Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Red Skelton.

Bob Hope's radio show was much like his later TV shows - - - a monologue followed by comedy sketches with a guest start and his sidekick, Jerry Colonna. About the middle of the show, comedy took a break for a song from Frances Langford.

Jack Benny followed a similar format, except that he had a "boy singer", Dennis Day. Jack's wife, Mary Livingstone, was a part of the comedy ensemble along with "Rochester", (Eddie Anderson), announcer Don Wilson, and orchestra leader Phil Harris.

Fred Allen's comedy was mostly topical humor. Unlike Fibber McGee, who stayed at home while the other comics came to him, Fred went to them, wandering down "Allen's Alley" and visiting with the various inhabitants: Titus Moody, Mrs, Mussbaum, and Senator Claghorn. Portland Hoffa, Fred's wife, traded quips with him, too.

Red Skelton's show was the same on radio as it was on TV, minus the "sight gags". All his characters, (Willie Lump Lump, Clem Kadiddlehopper, and others), were as funny to listen to as they were to watch in later years.

As I think about old time radio in my advancing years, one program stands out as something of a phenomenon. It didn't seem at all odd at the time, though. The show was "The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy".

Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist, (and also Candance Bergen's father). Charlie McCarthy was his dummy. It was one of the most popular shows ever. But when you think about it --- a ventriloquist on radio --- it almost doesn't make sense. It's akin to doing card tricks on the radio! By the way, I always thought Charlie's "country cousin", Mortimer Snerd, was the funniest one on the program.

Talk shows weren't too big on radio. "Arthur Godfrey Time", a daily morning program, was sort of a talk show, as was Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club". But they were nothing like Leno or Letterman.

Radio also featured music shows that are just plain absent from TV. There was the "Fitch Bandwagon", "Phil Spitallany and his All-Girl Orchestra", "Guy Lumbardo and the Royal Canadians", and everyone's favorite, "Your Hit Parade" at 9 o'clock every Saturday night.

Late on Saturday nights, we always tuned to the "WLS National Barn Dance" from Chicago and the "Grand Ole Opry" from Nashville. Sometimes when the weather was right, we could pick up the "Louisiana Hayride" from, uh, well, Louisiana. Saturday night just wasn't Saturday night without country music.

"The Kraft Music Hall" was a "must listen" show. It starred Bing Crosby and featured a guest star each week. Bing's orchestra leader was John Scott Trotter, and his announcer was Ken Carpenter.

There were talent shows, too. "Talent Scouts" was hosted by Arthur Godfrey and sponsored by Lipton, (tea and soup). Orchestra leader Horace Heidt also had a talent show, one of his biggest winners being accordionist Dick Contino. Of course, the grand-daddy of them all was "The Original Amateur Hour", first hosted by Major Bowes and later by Ted Mack.

Of all the quiz shows, the one we listened to regularly was the precursor to TV's "Millionaire". It was called "Take It or Leave It", and if a contestant went all the way, he could win 64 dollars! (Hence the expression, "The 64-Dollar Question"). If that doesn't illustrate inflation, I don't know what does. The quizmaster was Phil Baker.

There was a comedy/quiz show, too: "Truth or Consequences" with Ralph Edwards. The questions were pretty much impossible to answer, and the contestant ended up paying the consequences --- some silly thing he or she had to do.

This was a very popular program in its day. So popular, in fact, that a town in New Mexico changed its name to "Truth or Consequences".

There were kid programs that came on between school dismissal and suppertime; shows like "Sky King", "The Green Hornet", and (my favorite) "The Challenge of the Yukon", among others. "The Lone Ranger" waited until after supper and came on at 7:30.

"The Challenge of the Yukon" featured Sergeant Preston, of the Northwest Mounted Police, and his wonder dog, Yukon King, "in their relentless pursuit of lawbreakers!"

There were news programs: Gabriel Heatter did world news, Jimmy Fiddler did celebrity gossip and Walter Winchell did a little of everything. Winchell always opened with, "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea!" And he always sounded angry!

Most radio programs opened with an introduction from the announcer and a theme song. The theme songs became so familiar that they actually identified the program. For instance:

"Thanks for the Memory" -- Bob Hope

"Love in Bloom" -- Jack Benny

"Love Nest" -- Burns and Allen

"Seems Like Old Times" -- Arthur Godfrey

"When the Blue of the Night" -- Bing Crosby

"William Tell Overture" -- Lone Ranger

Writing about radio is difficult because there is so much to say and so many programs to tell about; such as "People are funny", "The Lux Radio Theatre", "Perry Mason", "Ozzie and Harriet", "Gangbusters", "Henry Aldrich", "Inner Sanctum", and the list goes on and on.

But perhaps the little I've written here stirred some of your own radio memories, and if it has that's good. And for the younger folks, maybe you'll have a little insight into our world of radio.

In radio production, there were no sets, no scenery, and no costumes. The actors huddled around a microphone or two and read their scripts. Nearby, sound effects men gathered around another mike and fired guns, slammed doors, or maybe just walked to provide an "audible illusion". There were no pictures for us to look at, just the ones in our imaginations. And in a way, it was so much better!

Oh! I almost forgot! Fibber McGee's announcer! His name was Harlow Wilcox.

It's that kind of thing that has earned me a reputation as a virtual storehouse of useless information. And I must say, with all humility I can spare, deservedly so!

Next Story     Story Menu     Main Menu