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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Mired in Nostalgia, I'm Enjoying My Christmas Presents
Return with Me to the Golden Age of Radio

The development of broadcasting was one of the greatest advances in the 20th century.
-Walter Cronkite

Was it? No question but from the standpoint of technology that broadcasting made giant strides in the century past. But, I ask, was it an advancement for society as a whole? Methinks not necessarily so.

Teddy Roosevelt was president in January of 1908 when the first wireless message was sent - from Puerto Rico to Times Tower in New York City - and radio was born. Forget about a picture being worth a thousand words; had the technology of the airwaves thereafter been restricted to sound, in some respects society just might be better.

But technocrats are never satisfied. They push beyond the present - and with radio, they wanted visuals. So 15 years after Marconi and radio made the news, when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, along came Vladimur Zworykin and iconoscope.

Iconoscope doesn't roll off the tongue easily, but television does, so there came a name change as pictures were added to radio. What do we have today? Inhabitants of households around the globe sitting mesmerized in front of big tubes, watching as well as listening. The whole story - whether news, drama, so-called comedy, smut and everything else - played out for them. No imagination required.

Radio Lit up the Mind
" Imagination is the distinctive ability of human beings," says Harvard professor Paul Harris. Might I add that perhaps imagination is being neglected, relegated to the back seat as a boob tube shows it all in life-like color within the home.

Imagination and pretend have much to do with brain development in early life, but let's not forgot the pair play a not-insignificant role in brain/mind exercise later on. Stimulate the brain, and one stimulates life itself.

I thought of this when enjoying one of my Christmas presents: tape cassettes amounting to 30 hours of the 60 greatest old-time radio shows of the 20th century. The set was chosen by Walter Cronkite, the newscaster who gained fame not in radio but on the tube. I've listened to just about all 30 hours of the Golden Age of Radio, and I must admit being mired in nostalgia.

Of course I realize that radio of today is nothing like it was. Gone are the personalities and announcers who made it great; gone also are the grand old programs. And gone, too, is imaginative stimulation - unless one takes into account trying to decipher the words of the songs played on contemporary radio.

Look, I might be old; the year I was born, NBC was incorporated to form the first radio network. But age does not lessen the quest for, shall we say, entertaining entertainment, which is pretty much lacking today via the airwaves whether in radio or television. Allow me to remind old-timers what they enjoyed, while telling those of later generations how it was when there were no picture tubes.

The Golden Age of Radio
What radio listener can forget Fibber McGee's closet? Probably on every radio show - and it ran from 1935 to 1956 - Fibber opened the door to that closet and we heard the crash of everything tumbling out. It always brought a laugh. But when Fibber and his wife Molly went to TV, the closet and its contents weren't the same. Before, within our minds we pictured what toppled from the closet. By showing us, television robbed us of our creative imaging.

One of the most successful spin-offs of any program, radio or TV, took place when Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve departed the Fibber McGee and Molly Wistful Vista show to air the Great Gildersleeve, which also featured the pesky youngster Leroy. That show ran from 1941 through early 1957 on radio, but lasted only three years after it switched to the big tube.

Relatively few radio shows - with one big exception - made it for long once they moved to television. That big exception was I Love Lucy, which played highly successfully on the radio for years before debuting on television Oct. 15, 1951. Lucille Ball insisted her husband Desi Arnaz portray her on-screen husband, which made the show more successful than ever.

Dragnet, a real cops-and-robbers series without all the sex, was born on radio in 1949 and continued until 1957, with two long runs on television. This was the only other successful translation. Others tried, but most flopped.

Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen were comedy stars on radio. But on television their humor didn't come off as well; nothing was left to the imagination. Though they came from the vaudeville houses, their comedy situations were best listened to. Visuals couldn't match their verbals.

The Power of Imagination
One of the all-time great shows, radio or TV, was Mercury Theater's War of the Worlds. Orson Welles' 1938 production of H.G. Welles' novel frightened the nation with an invasion of the U.S. by Martians. Millions who tuned in late heard regular programming interrupted by news flashes relating the havoc as creatures of Mars wiped out New Jersey. So authentic was it that more than a million listeners fled their homes, filling churches and bus terminals. That could happen only on radio.

There was the Fred Allen Show, best remembered for visits to Allen's Alley where Mrs. Nussbaum, Sen. Claghorn and Tidus Moody resided - though I can't forget Fred's sidekick Portland. The make-believe feud between Fred and Jack Benny was the biggest since words first traveled over the airwaves.

Soaps - so named because most were sponsored by makers of laundry aids - took much of the daytime airwaves at a time when most women were home taking care of household chores. Housewives didn't have time to sit and watch television, but while dusting they could follow the gist of such radio stories as the 15-minute continuing series of Ma Perkins, Our Gal Sunday, Just Plain Bill, The Second Mrs. Burton and Helen Trent, who proved that " romance in life need not be over when a woman reaches 35."

For the kids there was Jack Armstrong the All American Boy, Don Winslow of the U.S. Navy, Little Orphan Annie, Tom Mix and the Ralston Straight Shooters and Let's Pretend, which ran from '34 to '54. How fascinating it was to sprawl on the floor in front of the radio and picture Tom Mix " and Jane and Jimmy, too," riding the range.

Adults listened to Will Rogers, FDR's fireside chats, Suspense or the Inner Sanctum, also Lum and Abner, Vic and Sade, Lux Radio Theater, Abbot and Costello, Baby Snooks, Grand Central Station, Arthur Godfrey, Walter Winchell, Superman, X-Minus One, Big Town, Johnny Dollar, the Shadow and Gunsmoke, which started on radio.

Not too long ago, someone asked me what people watched or looked at while listening to radio: What did they do? Know what? I really couldn't recall. I guess we were so mired in imagination that we never looked around. But our brains got a workout.

If you're interested in old-time radio, Cronkite's selection of the 60 greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century is available from Radio Spirits (1-800-RADIO-48). You won't be watching the tube until you've listened to them all.

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