27 July 2008

Rest your eyes ... exercise your imagination ...

Talk about a tangent! I originally intended to write something about a 1970's OTR (Old Time Radio) revival show, but it started out with how I first discovered these old radio shows. From there I found myself derailed onto a lot of personal memories of OTR. And this called for a post of its own.

The song title "Video Killed the Radio Star" pretty much sums up the cause of death for OTR. Throughout the 1950s, radio comedy and drama began a slow death as more cities got TV stations of their own and more families bought TVs. By 1955, many suggested out loud that radio was dead and should be put out of its misery.

Fortunately, something called "rock & roll" came into being, and radio stations realized they could print money by playing this new music, with upbeat DJs and on-the-spot news coverage (NEWS is, and always will be, radio's ace-in-the-hole ... you can't get more immediate than radio!).

Radio adapted nicely. All this coincided with the development of the transistor, enabling radios to be smaller and portable. In 1955, NBC experimented by creating a weekend show called Monitor, capitalizing on radio's new trends. It was a runaway hit, and continued until 1975.

So when did "radio's golden age" come to an end? Jack Benny's TV show was already up and running by the time the parallel radio program ceased production in 1955. By 1958, most of the "radio sitcoms" were gone. NBC was already into the next chapter, having developed Monitor and pioneering the "news on the hour" that's commonplace today. ABC and Mutual dumped their OTR load and looked to the future. Only CBS kept a candle burning, at least for now.

1960: Ma Perkins had the dubious honor of being the radio's last "soap opera" -- CBS canceled their remaining stable of daytime dramas on the same day.

All that was left of OTR were a handful of personalities (Arthur Godfrey is a good example) ... and a single two-hour Sunday night block of radio shows on CBS: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar; Gunsmoke (the radio show predated TV); Have Gun, Will Travel (oddly, the TV show came first!); and the perennial classic Suspense.

Radio primetime ended September 30, 1962, when CBS canceled all four remaining dramas. Suspense was the last in the group. When Christopher Carey and Neil Fitzgerald finished their performance of "Devilstone" and announcer George Metz gave the credits and the network ID ("This is the CBS Radio Network"), classic long-form network radio came to an end and radio's golden age was officially over.

There was no room for radio drama anymore. Why expend brain cells when TV puts it all out there and lets you sit in your brown naugahyde La-Z-Boy, all slack-jawed and taking in - without question - what's thrown at you?

If such a thing as Weight Watchers "brain activity points" existed, listening to OTR versus watching primetime TV today would be like comparing a marathon race to sitting on your ass all day without a job and downloading illegal pirated movies (Heh, sorry. Gratuitous poke at my BIL).

("Brain activity points"? Holy crap on a microphone boom, with my love of OTR I'd already be back to 190 pounds!)

Radio drama was dead.

So why the h-e-double radio towers wouldn't people freakin' BURY IT already??!!

Blame Rod Serling.

Requiem for Rebirth of a Heavyweight

Those of us who haven't lived under a rock for 50 years knows the name Rod Serling. After Twilight Zone put him on the map, he was tapped to be part of a TV show called Night Gallery. That wasn't a good experience for him (long story - hit Google and have at it), and by 1973 his passion for storytelling -- and, no doubt, a disgust with television! -- led him to an idea of trying to revive radio drama. The Mutual Broadcasting System was a receptive audience, and The Zero Hour made its debut in October 1973. Serling hosted the show, and even wrote some of the scripts.

Alas, it wasn't successful. The problem was, the series originally told stories in five-part, weeklong installments. Miss a show, and you're pretty much screwed. TZH was retooled early in '74 to a more logical single story per night. Too late. The program was gone by Summer.

Mr. Serling and his program might not have been directly responsible for rekindling OTR's flame. Indirectly, though, he did just that. The Zero Hour sparked a renaissance of radio drama elsewhere. It flushed OTR-era producer Himan Brown out of the woodwork and out of retirement. Brown's credentials were solid; he created Inner Sanctum, and its iconic "creaking door", during the height of radio's golden age.

And Himan Brown went to work for CBS, giving birth to CBS Radio Mystery Theater in January 1974 (yes, with a creaking door). With its 50-minute format and superior distribution system to Mutual, CBSRMT had a successful run of it, staying in production until 1982.

Mutual even gave it another stab in 1979-80 with Mutual Radio Theater.

Stan Freberg - one of the best satirists ever - hosted a long-running syndicated program called When Radio Was, featuring rebroadcasts of classic OTR.

Late in the '90s, yet another dramatic series called Imagination Theater was produced and syndicated to radio stations. And in the early 2000s, radio adaptations of classic Twilight Zone scripts were made, and a radio show by that name went into syndication. It can be heard today each night on Sirius 118 "Radio Classics", with a 24/7 schedule of classic OTR programming.

I don't know if my son will ever find it appealing. I've let him listen to a couple of the old dramas, but as of now he doesn't share my enthusiasm. That's fine. No hard feelings. OTR will still be around, and possibly HIS children will discover it. Then Tiger will sit off to the side, eyes rolled to the back of his head, as "Grandpa Tal" shares his OTR bounty with its newest fan.

Back to The Zero Hour for a minute. I only recently discovered this program. For years I thought Himan Brown's CBSRMT revived the genre. Of course, once I read of TZH's existence, I went straight to archive.org .... and most all of the series' short run can be found here.

It was only the unwieldy 'serial' format and lackluster enthusiasm on the part of Mutual's sales department that killed it. TZH was - IS - an excellent production. I've listened to just a handful at this point and it has the magic of classic OTR, just like CBSRMT.

There was, however, one small problem with a couple of episodes. On the May 30, 1974 installment of TZH, entitled "Skylab, Are You There?", starring William Shatner, there's a bit role played by one Casey Kasem. Now in 1974, Kasem wasn't well-known to adults, except for some bit voiceover parts on some commercials. It was the kids who mostly knew the voice ... from American Top 40, or as the iconic cartoon voices of - zoiks!!! - Shaggy from "Scooby-Doo" or for the animated Robin from Super Friends. And the kids typically didn't listen to the radio dramas.

Well, I was a kid in 1974. And the other night, listening to the episode with Casey Kasem in the cast was pretty much a wet blanket on the whole "theater of the mind" idea.

ROBIN: "Holy creaking door, Batman, here's Jack Benny's violin!"
BATMAN: "For the love of God, Robin, don't give it back to him!"

Another character actor, Alan Reed, played a small role in an installment of "But I Wouldn't Want to Die There" from January 3, 1974. If you want to listen for yourself, go here:


Once you download it, fast forward to right at 17:00 into the program. Alan Reed's voice you'll quickly remember; he was Fred Flintstone! Suddenly my OTR mellow was harshed because my mind transformed that person's character into Fred. I half expected Wilma, Betty, or even Mr. Slate to enter the room.

"Barney will get my Fruity Pebbles out of my cold, dead hands."

Ahhhh, small collateral damage in an otherwise flawless OTR experience. In the end, it was fun.

Moral: no matter how dumbed down and simple life gets, you can never destroy theater of the mind.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "The preceding blog post was transcribed" Gleck

No comments: