Shades of Grey: Early Radio Programs

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For those of us growing up in the rural South in the 1930s and 40s, radio was our window to the outside world. Radio transported us to any place in the world because it forced us to use our imagination. And the person mostly responsible for stimulating our minds and transporting us was the sound effects man. Most radio shows were just a bunch of actors standing around microphones in a studio. Everything else (traffic noise, horses, wind, footsteps, etc.), was the product of the sound effects man. A good sound man could take you from a dogsled in Alaska to a street in New York City in the blink of an eye. And we just knew the characters were in these locales struggling against the forces of nature or combating evil-doers.

Several programs used classical or semi-classical music as their themes. This was my first exposure to this genre. The Lone Ranger used "The William Tell Overture." For you trivia buffs, the Ranger's trusted Indian companion, Tonto, was played by a real Indian named Jay Silverheels, and his horse was named Scout. At the end of each episode after the problems of that day had been solved, the Lone Ranger and Tonto rode away into the sunset, leaving a silver bullet behind and those who'd been helped asking, "Who was that masked man?"

The Green Hornet's theme was "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," a stirring piece of music. All these heroes had to have a sidekick, and his was Kato, his Japanese houseboy. This nationality created a problem when Pearl Harbor was bombed on 7 December 1941 and everything Japanese fell out of favor. However, Kato was rescued when it was miraculously revealed that he had somehow gotten separated from his birth documents, and their rediscovery proved that he was really Hawaiian.

My friends and I loved crime programs, dramas in which various law enforcement heroes hunted down and put away the bad guys. And they were all guys. It was not an era of women criminals although a "gang moll" would show up now and then, but they were just sidebars to the main lawbreakers. "Mr. District Attorney" was a popular crime program. After a fanfare the announcer would say, "Mister District Attorney, champion of the people, guardian of our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." A pause and then Mr. DA himself repeated his oath of office. "And it shall be my duty as District Attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crimes perpetrated within this country but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens." Stirring words which made a positive impression on many young boys of that era.

Scary programs had a large following. My favorite was "The Creaking Door." Each episode began with creepy background music and the sound of a door creaking open on rusty hinges. Then, a deep, sinister voice from an echo chamber, "Welcome to The Creaking Door. This is your host, Raymond." A nasty chuckle followed. The soundman really earned his money on this program making eerie, ghostly sounds. And at the end the door creaked shut.

There was any number of weekly comedy shows. Many of these entertainers came directly from vaudeville. "Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy" was a national favorite. Critics said this show would never make it on radio because Bergen was a ventriloquist, an act one had to see to appreciate. However, Bergen was an excellent comic who was so realistic on radio that many listeners thought the dummies were real people. When television came along, everyone thought the program would be excellent for that medium since everyone would be able to see Bergen's talents. But the show bombed. It turned out that he was much better at comedy than at ventriloquism. His lips moved, and the skits with the aid of a good soundman which had stimulated the imagination of a nation of listeners fell flat on TV.

Many thought Jack Benny to be the best comedian on the air. His sense of timing was without equal. He never aged past 39, and his trait of being cheap was legendary. Just the other day I heard a joke on a TV show that I first heard in about 1940 on a Jack Benny radio skit. In those days many of the large department stores had floorwalkers to assist shoppers. Benny goes into a store and asks the floorwalker, "Can you show me to the talcum powder?" The floorwalker responds in a very effeminate voice, "Walk right this way," to which Benny replies, "If I could walk that way, I wouldn't need the talcum powder." Maybe it's really true that there are no new jokes.

Lucas G. "Luke" Boyd's career spans 48 years in the field of education, retiring after serving as principal of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin for 19 years. He has published two books, eight short stories and an article in "Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture." He may be contacted at coondogspress@bellsouth.net.

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