Old-Time Radio Playlist: Christmas, Part 1

Starting today, I’ll be posting holiday old-time radio episodes every Tuesday and Thursday through Christmas day. I have about 600 to pick from, so let me know if you have any requests!

“The Radio-Phonograph”


The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, December 19, 1948
“Harriet, dear, there are two times when you’re not supposed to be sensible: Finding a husband and Christmas.”
About The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Ozzie Nelson first found fame as a bandleader. He hired Harriet Hilliard as his girl singer, and the two soon married. They appeared on radio’s The Red Skelton Show for three years before Ozzie developed this family comedy for them. To say it was successful is an understatement—The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on radio from 1944 to 1954 and on television from 1952 to 1966.
Story:  Having recently made the major purchase of a radio-phonograph, Ozzie and Harriet make the sensible decision to forego buying each other Christmas gifts. If you think they have no trouble sticking to that decision, you’ve clearly never watched or listened to a situation comedy.
Notable Performers: Tommy Bernard and Henry Blair play David and Ricky—the Nelson boys wouldn’t start playing themselves until April 1949. Radio stalwart Lurene Tuttle plays Harriet’s mother. Janet Waldo plays Emmy Lou, an annoying teenage character who reflects the late 1940s fascination with “bobby-soxers.”
Referencing Radio: The announcer mentions Just Plain Bill, a soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1955.
Musical Notes: Ozzie sings a bit of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” a jazz standard that dates from 1917. (It’ll always be dear to me for inspiring the punch line of Ted Baxter’s knock-knock joke.)
My Verdict: Television’s Nelsons never did much for me, but the radio show has a warmth and charm that’s won me over. You probably won’t laugh out loud over this episode, but you might enjoy its pleasant holiday feel.

“The Crosby Family,” December 20, 1950


The Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show
“I still can’t understand why parents insist on stifling their kids’ mental development at this time of the year.”
About The Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show: Perhaps the most popular performer of his era, Bing Crosby appeared on radio regularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chesterfield cigarettes sponsored a 30-minute Crosby show that aired from 1949 to 1952.
Notable Performers: It’s strictly a family affair, here—Bing appears with wife Dixie Lee and sons Gary, Dennis, Philip, and Lindsay.
Musical Notes: Bing opens the show by singing “Adeste Fideles,” first in Latin and then in English. (During the English version, the studio audience joins in.) Bing and Gary sing a jazzy “Jingle Bells and a song called “That Christmas Feeling.” Lindsay and Bing croon “I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus.” Philip and Dennis sing “The Snowman.” Bing closes the show with “Silent Night.”
My Verdict: Great music, and the family banter is more amusing than I would have expected. This program exudes so much holiday warmth that you can almost forget every negative thing you’ve heard about Bing’s family life. Almost.

“Names on the Land,” December 24, 1945


Cavalcade of America
“We hope you liked America, wrapped up in tinsel bright. To each one, Merry Christmas, and to all, a fond goodnight.”    
About Cavalcade of America
: Sponsored by Dupont, Cavalcade of America aired on radio from 1935 to 1953. It highlighted important stories, from the celebrated to the unsung, in American history.
Story: A versifying train conductor leads listeners on an alphabetical journey across America, and his passengers explain the origins of odd place names, from Animus to Zoar.
Based Upon: The book Names on the Land by George Rippey Stewart, first published in 1945 and, happily, reissued in 2008.
Notable Performers: Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself, plays the train conductor.
My Verdict: This is like H.L. Mencken meets Dr. Seuss—and I mean that in a good way. Names have always fascinated me, both personal and place names, and I’ve read and re-read the chapters on names in Mencken’s The American Language. This show is right up my alley. The verse, as performed by Morgan, sparkles. Without any flag-waving, the whole thing evokes a good feeling about the American character.  As Matt Weiland wrote about Stewart’s book, it’s a “plea for the triumph of cardinal American virtues: buoyancy and tolerance, curiosity and confidence, love of the land and faith in the future.”

“Christmas Story,” December 23, 1952


Gunsmoke
“I just want to say that this is the best dog-gone Christmas I ever had.”
About Gunsmoke: Radio’s Gunsmoke aired from 1952 to 1961, a forerunner of the popular TV show that ran from 1955 to 1975. The radio version is known for its grittier portrayal of Dodge City and its inhabitants and for the inventiveness of its sound patterns.
Story: It’s Christmas Eve and Matt is returning to Dodge City, though he has little hope of making it home for Christmas: He’s 40 miles from Dodge and has lost his horse to a broken leg. A drifter who offers him a ride wants to hear about Christmas, so Matt describes the previous year’s holiday.
My Verdict: Gunsmoke is one of my top three favorite radio programs, along with Vic and Sade and The Jack Benny Show. The show’s portrayal of the old West is so dark, though, and its typical body count is so high, that I have to experience the show in small doses. That’s why the Christmas episode is such a relief—it shines like a Christmas tree in the middle of a darkened prairie.

“The English Butler,” December 23, 1945


The Jack Benny Program
“It seems impossible that there could be any more suffering than mankind has just endured, but it is possible and it will happen, if we lose sight of the lessons so bitterly learned. Let us remember that men everywhere are our neighbors and their life and freedom is as precious them as ours is to us.”
About The Jack Benny Program: I feel inadequate to explain The Jack Benny Program, and its importance in American radio. I’ve found that the International Jack Benny Fan Club is a good source for information.
Story: Jack’s Beverly Hills neighbors the Colmans are making a reluctant appearance at his house for dinner. To impress them, Jack hires an “English” butler with an impenetrable accent.
Google-Worthy References: Ronald Colman gets a big laugh when he says, “I’ll never forget when Benny invited us to his house three years ago and we didn’t show up. It made him so angry he wrote a letter to Britain asking for his bundle back.” Bundles for Britain, launched in 1940, was an American charitable program that provided knitted goods and used clothing to British citizens enduring Germany’s bombing. (I can’t resist sharing a passage from Life’s May 19, 1942, issue, which profiled Bundles for Britain founder Natalie Wales Latham: “Energetic and precocious, New England-born Mrs. Latham has been married and divorced twice. It was she who popularized the mother-and-daughter fashion fad which Life reported three summers ago. In 1939, on a vacation after her second divorce, she began thinking about Britain’s plight, noticed that no one seemed to know how to help, said to herself, ‘This is the damndest thing,’ and forthwith started Bundles for Britain.”
Notable Performers: Ronald and Benita Colman.
Musical Notes: Jack plays, and Ronald Colman mocks, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Throughout the fall of 1945, competing versions of this Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn postwar hit were duking it out for chart pre-eminence. According to Wikipedia, a recording by Harry James with vocalist Kitty Kallen topped the Billboard charts the week this episode aired.
My Verdict: Jack harassing his Beverly Hills neighbors never fails to amuse me. The classy Colmans make the best foils of all for Jack’s pretensions. Their 20 appearances on the Benny show are delightful. This episode offers many pleasures, from “Manchester” to Ronald Colman’s moving Christmas toast. And on Christmas episodes, I don’t even feel the need to fast forward through the soloist’s performance; Larry Stevens’ Ave Maria is lovely.

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Old-Time Radio Playlist: Halloween, Part 1

Vintage Halloween Postcard from The Public Domain Review

Today, I present a selection of Halloween treats–some lighthearted old-time radio episodes that capture an interesting period in the history of Halloween.

(On Tuesday, October 30, I’ll post some Halloween”tricks”–spooky holiday offerings and classic horror stories.)

European immigrants to the United States popularized Halloween celebrations in the late 19th century.

By the turn of the century, there was a move to downplay the scarier aspects of the holiday. According to History.com, “Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.”

By the 1920s and 1930s, pranks were a big part of the holiday, “often devolving into vandalism, physical assaults and sporadic acts of violence.”

Most of these radio shows date from the 1940s, when trick-or-treating was just beginning to transition into a community-sanctioned, kid-friendly activity. I’m guessing that’s why so many of the adults in these shows seem ambivalent about Halloween–looking back fondly on their own parties and pranks, but wary of letting their children participate in trick-or-treating.

Unknown Date
Air Castle, Halloween

Air Castle was a children’s show that ran in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was entirely the work of Baron Keyes, who starred as the “Story Man” and provided voices and sound effects to represent various fanciful characters. This Halloween episode is cute!

October 19, 1933
Martha Meade Society Program, Halloween Parties

This cooking show provides a nice slice of 1930s life. From this and other radio shows, I’ve gleaned that doughnuts were a popular Halloween tradition in the early 20th century.

October 24, 1939
Fibber McGee and Molly, Halloween Party at Gildersleeve’s House

This would be a good starter episode for a new Fibber listener. It’s filled with typical wordplay and punning humor, and most of the classic supporting characters appear.

October 31, 1940
The Aldrich Family, Halloween Prank Backfires

Just about every episode of this family comedy involves a misunderstanding that snowballs out of control. These Halloween hi-jinx are typical.

November 2, 1941
Jack Benny, Halloween with Basil Rathbone

I’m in love with the Jack Benny Program. To really appreciate the series, you need to listen to a long run of consecutive episodes. Characterizations and jokes build from week to week. This is my favorite of several Halloween episodes–Jack annoying his Beverly Hills neighbors is always a win.

October 29, 1944
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Halloween

Guest star Orson Welles is quite amusing, especially when he ad-libs.

October 29, 1944
The Life of Riley, Haunted House   

Near the end, this takes a surprisingly sharp turn into patriotic messaging. You’ll have that sometimes in World-War-II-era programs.

October 31, 1944
Lum and Abner, Discuss Halloween Pranks

Lum and Abner has been growing on me lately, and this episode is a cute one.

November 1, 1946
Baby Snooks, Halloween

Fanny Brice’s mischievous Baby Snooks is a natural for Halloween pranks. This episode has a strong start, but a weak finish, in my opinion.

October 29, 1947
Philco Radio Time, Boris Karloff and Victor Moore

Boris Karloff was the go-to guest for variety-show Halloween episodes. Here, he’s the guest of Bing Crosby, and he and Bing actually sing together (along with comedian Victor Moore)!

October 31, 1948
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Haunted House       

I always found the TV version of Ozzie and Harriet bland, but the radio episodes I’ve listened to have been surprisingly chuckle-worthy.

October 31, 1948
Adventures of Sam Spade, The Fairly-Bright Caper    

I’m not a huge Sam Spade fan–ditzy Effie gets on my nerves–but this has a nice Halloween flavor.

Oct 31, 1948
Jack Benny, Trick or Treating with the Beavers

This is another good Halloween episode, with an inventive way of bringing the supporting cast into the story.

October 31, 1951
The Great Gildersleeve, Halloween and Gildy Finds a Lost Boy

I’m not the biggest Gildy fan, but this episode has great warmth.

November 7, 1951
The Halls of Ivy, Halloween

I really enjoy this series, which stars Ronald and Benita Colman. Having spent plenty of time in academia, I appreciate the college setting, and the Colmans are just charming.

Oct 29, 1953
Father Knows Best, Halloween Blues

Robert Young’s character is in preachy mode, and the end doesn’t work for me, but this is an interesting look at those changing Halloween customs.

Listen to more old-time radio!