I’ve always enjoyed old radio shows. I think it’s because I’m a visual guy. That sounds strange on the surface, but I can close my eyes and immerse myself in the stories, picturing the action, setting and characters. I get to choose the camera angles and lighting and that sort of thing. And if the sound effects are good (as they were in shows such as Suspense, Lights Out, and especially Gunsmoke), the story becomes vivid in my mind.
However, I’ve been thinking a lot about the world in those old stories. As some people are fond of saying, “times were simpler then.” I think that this attitude arises from the rose-colored haze of selective memory. Some things were different, but I think people are pretty much the same. All the good and all the bad we find in people now were around then.
Our mass media may show us our culture, but it’s often through a warped mirror. There are the shows that present things as much more clean and squeaky, such as Leave It to Beaver, the Cosby Show and most of those new shows in which a dumpy average Joe is married to a hot woman and deals with a clutch of sassy kids who secretly know Dad knows best. There are shows that present a world in which problems are magnified beyond belief, such as 24s Jack Bauer having not one but nine days in his life where he must save the world from evil from outside our country AND within our government. Sure, there is some truth to what those shows present, but usually exaggerated for effect.
So here’s what I’ve found as an outsider delving into the world of the 40s and 50s as presented by radio of the era.
Almost everyone is white, or at least everyone with money.
You can spot the French guy, because he says “Sacre Bleu” a lot. The Italian guy says “Mama Mia” and ends most words with an ascending vowel sound. Mexicans have strong accents and use the word “señor” a lot. Asians have the lilting, eloquent speech pattern unique to white actors playing Asians (not to mention inscrutability and an ancient Confucian wisdom).
You occasionally run across gay characters, whose sexuality is only implied by their fussy natures and effeminate mannerisms.
People got blackmailed a lot. The source of the blackmailing sometimes seems quaint — often an embarrassing letter. But the innuendo in the writing often suggests (in a way the children of the time supposedly wouldn’t have gotten) that those letters contained photos of a salacious nature. Or the women were trying to recover the evidence of the “modeling” they did in their youth. Technology such as camera phones and webcams may make it easier for people to send ill-advised images to their lovers, but clearly the act itself both existed and wasn’t rare in those golden days.
Dragnet, a show often mocked for Jack Webb’s portrayal of straight-laced Joe Friday, could actually be quite gritty. The radio version is still entertaining. What do we find in those “simpler” times? Lots of drugs, especially heroin. On the streets, in the schools, with junkies going through some pretty nasty withdrawals in police custody. I was once informed by an older person that back then kids didn’t get exposed to drugs in school, that they were brought up better than that. Dragnet calls bull on that one. Sure, it might have exaggerated and moralized, but it did reflect a truth that nostalgia wants to erase.
One I just heard yesterday startled me when I thought about the truth behind the story. The detectives seek a missing woman. There is no evidence of foul play. She turns up a week later, claiming temporary amnesia and is reunited with her family just in time for Christmas. Sure, temporary amnesia. It struck me as very likely that the girl probably vanished for that time so that she could deal with finding herself in the “family way.” Am I reading too much into that? Considering the incredible rarity of temporary amnesia and the common usage of same as an excuse to cover all sorts of deeds, I’m going to stick with my conclusion.
So listening to these old shows, I realize that I’m not longing for those times. I don’t see a simpler world to escape to. I just enjoy the storytelling. I enjoy the way writers implied the things which were not spoken with clever innuendo. One favorite is when a sultry woman has been teasingly sparring with a detective. “I’m just trying to get a rise out of you,” she says. “You already have, lady,” he replies. Operating under the more censorious rules of the time, writers could still get away with some really risqué stuff if they were clever enough.
So if you’ve never experienced old-time radio, it’s easier to hear now than it was when it was broadcasting. Internet radio stations and downloads put the good stuff at your fingertips. May I recommend Gunsmoke, Dragnet, Richard Diamond, the Phil Harris/Alice Faye show (a comedy with some wicked black humor), Suspense, X Minus One (for better science fiction than you usually find on TV) and Lights Out? Maybe you’ll find them corny, but I’m hoping you’ll find something to enjoy.
You can find and listen to a ton of those shows here: http://www.archive.org/details/oldtimeradio