Forty years ago my grandmother twirled the knobs of her square table radio to find out if a woman by the name of Helen Trent could find romance after 35. Today, her granddaughter is still romancing with radio after 35.
Grandma sobbed and sighed over the sad plight of Stella Dallas, the true life story of mother love and sacrifice..."in which Stella Dallas saw her own beloved daughter, Laurel, marry into wealth and society, and, realizing the difference in their tastes and worlds, went out of Laurel's life..."
But not for good of course, or Stella and grandmother's story would have been over.
On another day, it was the continuing saga of the girl from the little mining town in the west, Our Gal Sunday, who was debating whether or not she could find happiness as the wife of England's richest and most handsome Lord, Lord Henry Brinthrope of Black Swan Hall.
But the soap opera that Grandmother would give up shopping, bingo, and probably grandfather for, was Ma Perkins. From what my immature mind could gather, Ma Perkins was a widow who ran a lumberyard in Rushville Center. Her son-in-law, Willy Fitz, helped her with the lumberyard and her son and two daughters provided her with enough worry for four soap operas. Before she passed on to that big stage in the sky, I discovered that Ma Perkins had been on the air for 27 years, for a total of more than 7,000 broadcasts. I'm positive that Grandma didn't miss one of them.
I couldn't direct too many complaints at Grandmother though, because I was just as fanatical about Saturday morning radio. I remember with greater clarity than my bank balance..."A Fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty heigh ho Silver...return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early west."
Because of the Lone Ranger, I liked the William Tell Overture even after I discovered that it was classical music.
And because of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, I ate Quaker Puffed Wheat even though I hated the stuff. I had to eat it. Grandmother and Sergeant Preston said it was good for me and besides, it was "shot from guns!" Sergeant Preston made it more palatable, too. With the help of his fearless dog, Yukon King, the Sergeant responded to myriads of messages for help, rescued countless damsels in distress and fought off at least 10,000 Indians during the wild days of the Gold Rush in the Yukon. From the 1930s to the 1950s with the help of WXYZ radio in Detroit, the Sergeant and King made the Yukon safe for the Queen and her subjects. He was a consistent Mounty. He ended every broadcast with the lines, "This case is closed." And King, equally consistent, would reply, "Ruff, Ruff, Rowwww."
Wheaties I ate because of who else, Jack Armstrong! When the show opened with its cheer "Jack Armstrong...Jack Armstrong...Jack Armstrong...JACK ARMSTRONG!" I chewed and cheered and sprayed Wheaties crumbs along with the best of the fans. Besides being a vocal testimonial for Wheaties, Jack Armstrong was the Ma Perkins of the kiddie set. Jack had high ideals. When he and his friend Billy were rowing towards his Uncle Jim Fairfield's yacht during one of their adventures, all Jack could think about was the future and his part in it. He even forgot about the pirate treasure and capturing enemy agents. Jack said to Billy, "Billy, when I think of this country of ours with millions of home stretching from sea to sea and with everybody working and pulling together to have a nation where people can be free and do big, fine things, why it makes me realized what a terribly important job we've got ahead!"
Grandmother always turned up the radio when Jack got into patriotism and I wasn't ashamed of saluting our flag or getting a lump in my throat.
But I have to be honest. I have to confess that my favorite radio program wasn't the edifying Jack Armstrong, but the sinister, sibilant, SSSS-Shadow. At the ending of his adventures, he would intone like Boris Karloff, "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, crime does not pay...the SHADOW knows...hee, hee, hee, hee, hee, hee."
I looked forward to The Shadow adventures more than Captain Midnight's coding machines and the Old Ranger's adventures on Death Valley Days, complete with the sound effects from the 20-mule team. The Shadow had power. He could cloud men's minds and bend their wills to his. He could hypnotize people into believing he was invisible. But he had moxy, too. After all, he fought on the right side of the law against "sharpsters, law breakers and thieves." And he helped Commissioner Weston and his sidekick Margo Lane survive all of his escapades.
When Grandma told me the reason that the Shadow's voice changed after 1939 was because Orson Wells, who was the Shadow, had been replaced because of a certain "Martian Invasion" Broadcast on the Mercury Radio Theater, I was only slightly disillusioned. After all, the Shadow, like Santa Claus, lives on in my heart and memory even though his voice and role no longer exist.
Grandma tolerated the Shadow, mainly because I enjoyed him so much, but she felt warmer toward John Barcley. In the 1930s broadcasts of The Shadow, the sponsor was Blue Coal, an anthracite from Pennsylvania, and John Barcley was the Blue Coal spokesman who broke into the Shadow's adventures with tips on how to keep your home warmer this winter, with the help of Blue Coal, naturally. I didn't like John because he always interrupted The Shadow at the most crucial points in his clashes with "Sharpsters, lawbreakers, and thieves."
Besides John Barcley, grandmother had some other queer tastes in radio personalities. She favored Fibber McGee and Molly's messy closet, Jack Benny's bulging bank vault and Amos'N'Andy's problems with the King Fish and Saffire.
One program that Grandmother and I listened to in complete harmony was Arch Oboler's "Light's Out." We actually did turn out the lights for this and I shivered deliciously and cuddled close to her while we listened to the story of an airplane that changed its flight pattern all by itself and similar happenings. At the end of the program when Arch said, "You can turn them on now," (meaning the lights), sometimes I didn't. I just sat in the dark and imagined.
Another program we listened to in the dark was "The Inner Sanctum," with Raymond and the creaking of what I was positive was a coffin lid. That program was enough to make me devour the sponsor's product Bromoseltzer, Bromoseltzer, Bromoseltzer! I loved every minute of it!
There were some programs that Grandmother and I didn't listen to together. In the 1940s on Sunday evenings at 9:30, she had already tucked me in bed and hurried back into the living room to listen to one of her soaps. Me, I had better sense. I eased on the bedside radio and hauled it under the covers with me. I huddle there with the warm radio, warm as my bottom would be if Grandmother caught me. After the announcer had extolled the virtues of Bromo-Quinine Cold Tablets, he introduced the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone as
Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. I trod the brick cobblestones of London streets, heard Big Ben chiming the hour and Dr. Watson's voice, "This story beings in Baker Street one March morning in the early 1900s. Holmes and I were seated on each on the side of a blazing fire..."
Is it any wonder that I sneaked the radio under the covers with me and yawned through school the next day?
I remember lines from other shows that Grandmother and I listened to. "From out of the western sky comes Sky King," and there was "The Adventure of the Murdered Ship," and many others with Ellery Queen. And "The Thin Man" series with Nick and Nora Charles. After they had solved a case and reclined in domestic bliss in their own bed, Nora's famous line was always, "Goodnight, Nickeee." Then there was Bat Man and Robin, The Cisco Kid and Poncho, The Green Hornet, Charley Chan, Superman, Dragnet, Gangbusters...The list is endless and so are the memories.
Now Grandmother is a memory and so are most of the radio heros. Now when I dial I hear music, commercials, and talk shows. But I still hear the airwaves of the past. I still hear a radio program called "I Love A Mystery." It starred Jack, Doc, and Reggie who participated in adventures all over the world. Doc sums up in one line how I remember the romance of old time radio.
JACK: (Gasps) Save your breath for fighting...
DOC: You bet you! (GRANTS) Honest to...(GRUNTS) grandma... (GRUNTS) I don't know (GRUNTS) when I've had so much fun..."
Grandmother and I had a lot of fun, too, Doc!