27 July 2008

Thank God for transcriptions!

"Return to yesterday ... and bring your imagination along!"
-intro from Beaker Theater, an "old-time radio" program on KAAY/Little Rock in the '70s.

It started one hot August afternoon in 1980 at the Cape Girardeau Public Library. As I was leaving, I noticed a stack of cassettes in the corner opposite the circulation desk. if memory serves, I'd say there were about two dozen tapes, if that many.

Ever so curious, I went over to look. And I saw some interesting titles on their spines: The Jack Benny Program, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Lux Radio Theater, Sam Spade and The Fred Allen Show. Old radio shows! Now I was really piqued. A few ads scattered in TV GUIDE popped into my mind. Ads selling cassettes of these classic shows from radio's golden age. And now I could check out some tapes and listen for myself!

Thanks to the technology of the age - big ol' honkin' "transcription discs" (tape wasn't invented yet) - thousands upon thousands of hours of old-time radio broadcasts, most done live, are preserved for future generations to enjoy. That's how we're able to hear them today. God bless each and all of those who thought enough of these performances to archive them.

We were limited to something like three tapes at one time, otherwise I would've made off with all of 'em. With a mindset of "cool listening in the hot Summer", one was a Christmas-themed cassette containing one episode each of Jack Benny and Ozzie & Harriet. With my selections in a small plastic bag draped over my handlebars, I steered onto north Clark Street and toward home as fast as my scrawny, award-winning legs could pedal. Once home, I hurried down to my basement bedroom and had a decision to make: which tape should I listen to first??

Jack Benny's Christmas episode from 12/05/1954 had the honors. Holy cow, this is intriguing. And a bit confusing at first. But I liked it, mainly the frazzled store clerk (played by Mel Blanc) who goes over the edge after Jack keeps bringing back an item - a gift for his announcer, Don Wilson. I would later find out the "Christmas shopping" episodes were a tradition each year.

Ever so curious about Jack Benny, I vowed on my next trip to the library to find any kind of book pertaining to radio's golden age. But not before listening to the other shows within reach in this retro-booty.

What developed less than two hours after getting home and first touching the PLAY button continues to afflict me today. This 15-year-old, on the verge of entering the 10th grade, found himself hooked on OTR -- the common abbreviation us geeks use for (O)ld (T)ime (R)adio.

Ozzie & Harriet was easier for this neophyte to follow. Ditto for You Bet Your Life (Groucho Marx) and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

And local AM station KGIR, which recently had affiliated with CBS, began carrying CBS Radio Mystery Theater late at night. I liked it okay, but my adolescent self much preferred the comedies.

Well, I got to the library, returning the first batch of three and checking out another OTR troika. What's more, the CGPL had an encyclopedia of sorts with capsule descriptions of the golden-age radio programs. Plus, there was a book on Jack Benny. Those two books went home with Talmadge, where he proceeded to devour every printed word.

The entry on The Jack Benny Program had a well-written capsule of the show's history, including -- best of all!! -- a bullet-pointed rundown of all the major "running gags." Now it was easy to follow. Jack Benny's radio (and later TV) show was full of these inside jokes. Benny was able to get a raging crescendo of laughter with as little as a pregnant pause.

No better example exists than the time Jack, walking home one night, was accosted by a mugger:

MUGGER: "Your money or your life!!"
(long, LONG pause ..... trickles of guffaws from the audience escalate into full laughter)
JACK (very quickly): "I'M THINKING IT OVER!!!!!!
(bringing down the house)

That might be a bit confusing at first blush. "What's so damned funny?", a casual fan might've thought. Ahhhhh, but the savvy Benny fan knows that CANON #1 of the Jack Benny character was his incredible cheapness. He still drove a Maxwell automobile (its fits, lurches and sputters all beautifully voiced by Mel Blanc). He was an excellent violinist ...... in his own mind. The violin was one of the props Benny used to comedic perfection. (truthfully, Jack Benny wasn't as bad a player as he portrayed on his program)

Violinist Isaac Stern quipped, "When Jack Benny walks on the stage in his tux and carrying his instrument, he looks like one of the world's greatest violinists. It's too bad he has to play it."

There was his "feud" with Fred Allen (in reality, both he and Jack were close pals). A sample of Allen's show was in my second batch of tapes. It was the one where Jack Benny tries to get onto a game show ("King For a Day"), to get all the prizes (cheapskate, remember). Jack "wins", and Fred - as "host" - announces that one of his prizes is a free pressing of his suit. He's being stripped down to his undershorts as the audience goes into convulsions.

JACK: "Allen, you haven't seen the end of me!!"
FRED: "It won't be long now!!"

Jack Benny's cheapness was deeply ingrained into American pop culture of the day. A fact which made for a magnificent "classic TV moment" in the mid '60s, when Benny appeared as a celebrity on Password. Allen Ludden cued the next round ... and the word was: MISER.

No sooner had that word appeared on screen did the audience lose it. Even announcer Jack Clark, who "whispered" the password, lost his composure.

Benny gave his look (you know it when you see it), and then gave his first clue to the poor contestant - whom, of course, didn't know what the laughter was all about. The clue? "ME!!!"

(several years later, when the first Back to the Future was released, I think I might've been the only one in the theater to laugh during the scene when Doc Brown first met Marty McFly and was skeptical about his really being from 1985. Responding to McFly's telling him that Ronald Reagan was president, Brown said, "Yeah, sure, and who's Secretary of the Treasury? Jack Benny??")

Virtually overnight I became a devout fan of Jack Benny. I was perhaps the only 10th grader in 1980 who knew all of the running gags backwards and forwards. Yeah, boy, that really made me such a ladykiller, eh? In any case, I kept this new hobby largely hidden from view.

Meanwhile, I went through all dozen-plus of those cassettes at the CGPL in the course of a month. And I wanted more.

Enter my good friend Wiz.

Now Wiz appreciated the classic comedians, but didn't really share my raw enthusiasm for early radio. His father, however, was key in helping me discover a real motherlode of OTR. He was a professor at the local university, and he let me in on what existed in a basement room at the college library. He went on to give me his business card and told me to give it to the circulation desk and they would fix me up with a SEMO Library Card.

I did just that. And, card in hand, I ventured into the room he was talking about. And there they were. Thousands. Literally thousands of cassette tapes. Not all of them were OTR, mind you, but at least half of them WERE. Holy. Shitzu.

But wait, there's more.

Wiz's dad, who had a side business out of his home centered on motivational speakers, had in his home office .... a professional high-speed tape duplicator.

Now folks, this was 1980. "Dubbing decks" did not exist. At all. This puppy was as big as your average microwave oven today, and would copy both sides of a C-60 tape in less than five minutes.

Mr. Wiz Dad allowed me to use it to make copies of these OTR programs.

As Jack Benny himself would've said, "Well."

The good news? By the Summer of 1981, I had more than 100 cassettes of OTR in my own personal collection.

The bad news? Due to a combination of Talmadge not having something called "a job" and blank cassettes not being something called "inexpensive", I could only afford the dreaded 3-for-$1.00 "Concertape" packs from Radio Shack. In 1980-81, a good basic "type-I" cassette (the kind you commonly see in the brick-packs at Walgreen's today) went for $3, or as high as $4. Each.

And those "Concertapes" did not stand up to repeated listening. Most of them disintegrated over time. Only one survived to the present day.

My love for OTR remained over the years and I'd sometimes stumble upon a tape here and there. After Cracker Barrel became a big chain, I started buying the OTR shows in their gift section. I'd buy one after each meal there. Eventually I bought 'em all.

As I'm sure you are surprised to know, my ex-wife didn't have much of a love for this kind of thing. She told me it was hard to focus on them while driving.

And books-on-tape (which she listens to) don't? :-p

Flash forward to January 1, 1999. Having gotten over my "Christmas cold", Seraphim and I made a day trip over to Bainbridge, Ga. to visit some of her family. On the way back to Troy, we stopped at the newly-opened Cracker Barrel in Dothan -- said to have been the first in the chain not located adjacent to an interstate highway! And to my surprise, I saw "Jack Benny - Volume 3"! I'd long since had #1 and #2 in that series, but not #3.

We walked out of the restaurant and I showed my then-girlfriend what I'd bought. As usual, I was ready to start giving a basic framework of the Jack Benny character.

But Seraphim responded with an imitation of Benny summoning Rochester, his valet. "Oh RAH-chest-errrrr...." "Yeah, boss?"

Holy double shitzu. You mean this woman at my side KNEW who Jack Benny was?

Then she made a reference to the infamous hallway closet in Fibber McGee & Molly.

Any doubts as to this woman's mythical qualities, at that moment, were permanently erased. I'd found my future wife.

Like I said, OTR was always there in my mind's backburner. Then came one night in 1999, while browsing the Wal-Mart in Eufaula, Ala. Sera and I always met in Eufaula on Wednesday nights to have our mid-week quality time. Well, on the bargain table in the electronics department was a two-episode cassette of The Shadow. At one flat buck, it most certainly went home with Talmadge.

It was 50 miles from Eufaula to Troy via two-lane roads. Exactly one hour from the Winn-Dixie parking lot (where we always met) to my driveway on Flavia Circle. Just enough time to listen to that entire tape.

And as I drove the steamy Summer asphalt of Alabama 30, then 51, 130, and finally US-29 into Troy, my passion for OTR reawakened on a grand scale. People, you cannot beat a good piece of old-time radio mystery while driving a dark highway late at night.

I started ordering some sets from Radio Spirits, and soon MP3 discs containing as many as 300-400 episodes of OTR shows were sprouting like mushrooms all over e-Bay. I bid on quite a few.

Today, finding old-time radio shows is as easy as going to this website: www.archive.org. Tons upon tons of OTR, all free for downloading. And Sirius has Channel 118 - Radio Classics - OTR 24/7.

It's a long way from a stack of tapes in a building on Clark Street in Cape. From 16-inch "electrical transcription discs" to reel-to-reel tape to cassette tape to CD/R to MP3 .... old-time radio stands ready to capture the mind, ear and heart of those willing to let it. It's called "theater of the mind" for a reason. It requires someone to actually use their brain. To let said brain conjure up the visuals. I read once, "No costume or set designer in all of Hollywood can match what the radio listeners create in their own minds."

And that's a big reason so many old-time radio shows flopped miserably when they moved to TV. Fibber McGee & Molly ran for decades on radio, but just one season on the tube. The avalanche machine that was their hall closet didn't fly ... millions of radio fans = millions of totally different conceptions of that closet door. The one viewers saw on TV couldn't measure up.

Theater of the mind. Just listen to the most popular episode in the history of the long-running mystery show Suspense, entitled "Sorry, Wrong Number." Radio drama doesn't come better.

It's one of God's great bounties. And I have a wife who enjoys it almost as much as I do.

Ciao for niao. Or, as Jack Benny used to close his radio show: "Goodnight, folks."

Talmadge Gleck speaking. This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company.



Seraphim9 said...

Wow....this is just the most excellent post you have ever made. I only wish that you were still writing a newspaper column, so more people would see this.

And I'm not just saying this because I am biased. Or because you mention me in it. :-)

Word verif: zixpy
Sounds like some type of sponsor of an OTR show. Maybe a vitamin supplement or a breakfast cereal.

Talmadge Gleck said...

ZIXPY - the super-scrumptious engine additive that makes your pancakes taste their level best - presents the super-delectable Adventures of Gilbert Gillersby, Private Fireman. Before we bring you tonight's thrilling yet boring adventure, here's Bill Norbert with some recipe ideas for Columbus Day.....

Remember the name. Zixpy, with RH-77 added for people who can't change their oil between meals.

Milton Von Hohrine speaking.