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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brave Old Radio World

From the Vault Dept.: An unpublished review, probably intended for Metroland, that betrays my love for old-time radio. Copies of this set are still available, but there are plenty of places online where you can find these shows.


IT SHOULDN’T BE FAR-FETCHED to anyone in this TV-addicted society that radio, back in its own day, exerted a pull so powerful that everything else stopped when the most popular programs aired. Without television’s images, however, radio played more powerfully upon the imagination. Could television have prompted the hysteria provoked by Orson Welles’s 1938 Hallowe’en broadcast of “War of the Worlds”? I doubt it. Even today’s crisp actualities can’t top your mind’s own pictures of those creatures emerging from that spacecraft.

But you decide. “War of the Worlds” leads off the collection of 60 programs chosen and (collectively) introduced by Walter Cronkite. It’s probably not worth quibbling over the selections – I’d have included more Bing Crosby and Fred Allen, and Amos ’n Andy are missing completely. This is a bargain-priced 30-CD set crammed with programs, some of them spanning an entire CD, like the notorious Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy program in which guest Mae West offended bluenoses in a funny sketch about the Garden of Eden, most presenting two half-hour episodes of popular shows like “Suspense,” “Gunsmoke,” “Let’s Pretend,” “Escape” and others.

The single “Shadow” episode is one of the few voiced by Orson Welles, who’s also represented with a Mercury Theatre broadcast (“The Hitchhiker”) and an appearance on Norman Corwin’s “Fourteen August.”

Corwin has been justifiably lauded as radio’s greatest writer, and he’s also here with 1945's “On a Note of Triumph” and the amusing, written-in-verse “Undecided Molecule,” starring Groucho Marx.

A good balance between comedy and drama is struck. In the former category, there’s plenty of Jack Benny, and an appearance each by Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Fanny Brice (in her annoying Baby Snooks persona). If you can take the corn and schmaltz, the teams of Lum and Abner and Fibber McGee and Molly get a program apiece.

“Brave New World” constitutes an hour-long CBS Radio Workshop; “Inner Sanctum,” “Lights Out” and “Suspense” prove that radio can be as scary as ever – and the “Suspense” episode puts “Fibber McGee and Molly” stars Jim and Marian Jordan through backseat-driver hell.

I’ve been working my way through this set while driving, which has become my favorite (and, given the demands of the day, only) radio-show listening venue. I find that I’m planning trips to take at least half an hour, because you can’t just walk away from one of these shows once it kicks into gear. For a certain generation, this will be a nostalgia trip, but for the rest of us, the shows may sound old (although they’ve undergone some splendid improvement) but the fun and intensity of the listening experience will never grow dated.

The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century
Selected by Walter Cronkite
Radio Spirits

– 29 October 2002

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