Over the next month, I will be honoring the premiere anniversaries of many classic TV shows. Check back frequently for episode recaps, fan magazine articles, special editions of Spin Again Sunday, and more. I will also be posting unique content on Facebook and Instagram.
The classic Western Gunsmoke launched its 20-year TV run on September 10, 1955. To observe its anniversary, I’m cheating a bit and focusing on the radio version that pre-dated it. I always enjoyed TV’s Gunsmoke, which I discovered while in my teens. (Mostly, I enjoyed watching for little shippy moments between Matt and Kitty.) The radio version, though, blows me away with its darker Western vision. Bill Conrad conveys an especially wide range of emotion as Matt Dillon.
I’m also cheating a bit in naming favorite episodes because I haven’t listened to the entire radio run. (I dread the day when I have no new episodes left to discover.) Furthermore, I love so many episodes that my “favorites” list could change from day to day. These five episodes are excellent, though, and each evokes a different mood.
1. “Home Surgery,” September 13, 1952
“I rolled a smoke and looked out across the flat distances of the prairie. And I wondered how anyone could survive in all that emptiness.”
When Matt and Chester come upon an isolated homesteader suffering from blood poisoning, Matt takes desperate measures to try to save him. Conrad’s performance is appropriately tortured, especially in the scene just following surgery.
2. “Kitty,” November 29, 1952:
“She was like a seventeen-year-old on her first date. She was like all the women you’d ever known or loved–soft and innocent.”
Matt asks Kitty to be his date at a benefit for the school. She appreciates the problems this will cause, if he doesn’t. This episode gives us a giddy and romantic side of Matt. He even sings at one point!
3. “There Never Was a Horse,” September 19, 1953:
“I sure don’t like the idea of dying…but I got over being afraid of it a long time ago.”
A gun-fighter rides into town, bent on challenging the marshal. Matt’s not sure that he can win a confrontation, so Conrad’s performance is a believable mix of vulnerability and strength.
4. “Fawn,” September 26, 1953:
“I never heard of sending a woman to Dodge, for her to be better off.”
A woman held captive by the Cheyenne for 10 years gets her freedom and travels to Dodge to wait for her husband. The daughter she had in captivity is with her, and they face hostility from many quarters. This episode has a good message, a sweet ending, and a nice supporting performance by John Dehner. It’s also a radio Gunsmoke rarity–an episode with no deaths.
You may remember Helen Kleeb, who plays the former captive, as Mamie Baldwin from The Waltons. Mamie was the darker-haired Baldwin sister who wasn’t obsessed with Ashley Longworth.
5. “Marshal Proudfoot,” July 20, 1958:
“Chester bordered on being ignorant, I think. I can’t imagine how he ever got to be a marshal.”
Chester’s father shows up looking his son, whose letters home have exaggerated his position in Dodge. This is a hilarious outing. (For personal reasons, I also like the PSA that mentions the land-grant act.)
Turning back to the the TV show, I present this article about James Arness from TV Star Parade, May 1963. As fan magazine stories go, it’s a dramatic one, and it would have sad echoes–Arness’ first wife later died of a drug overdose, as did his daughter.
This is the first installment of a two-part New Year playlist. I’ll post the second part on New Year’s Day. Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!
“The Happiest Person in the World”
Family Theater, January 8, 1948
“Everyone could be happy if they would think happiness into their lives.” Story: Time is a newspaper, and City Editor Father Time has to break in a new reporter. He gives cub reporter 1948 an assignment to find the happiest person in the world—an assignment that teaches the new year about human nature. Notable Performers: Life of Riley star William Bendix plays Father Time, while The Great Gildersleeve’s Walter Tetley plays baby 1948. Referencing Radio: Bendix mentions his own show. My Verdict: The performers make this entertaining, and the story keeps you guessing about the moral that it’s building to. Actually, it seems to me that the story fails to support the stated moral, which is quoted above. At one point, I thought they were making the point that happiness stems from giving, which made sense. For the characters in this episode, though, happiness stems from external validation, and you can’t just “think” that into being.
“Big New Year’s Eve Party”
The Great Gildersleeve, December 24, 1944 “Be a good boy if you can, but have a good time.” Story: Gildy rings in 1945 with Leila, but his Delores troubles aren’t over. Musical Notes: Harold Peary sings a love song…but it’s a good episode anyway. Interesting History: There’s a reference to 1943 as the year of penicillin and sulfonamide. Penicillin did come into widespread use around that time, but my brief research seems to indicate that sulfa was available earlier. My Verdict: The jokes seem sharper in this episode than in many Gildersleeve offerings. I like Birdie’s comment when Gildy asks her about preparing an intimate supper: “I fix the supper, Mr. Gildersleeve. The rest is up to you.”
I must be a total nerd (big surprise!) because the lawyers’ club’s mock trial of the old year sounds fun to me. Unfortunately, my New Year’s Eve will be more like Peavy’s. “Puckett’s New Year”
Gunsmoke, January 1, 1956
“A man’s gotta make a change once in a while, ain’t he?” Story: Buffalo hunter Ira Puckett heads to Dodge to kill the man who left him to die in a blizzard. Matt, who doesn’t want to see the old man hang, intervenes. My Verdict: A Gunsmoke rarity—an episode with no deaths! Puckett is an endearing character, and I like Matt’s efforts to keep him out of trouble. I feel bad for Kitty in this episode—her New Year’s reflections are sad, and Matt sure isn’t going to intervene to help her.
“Gladys Zybisco disappoints Jack on New Year’s Eve”
The Jack Benny Program, December 31, 1939
“What this world needs is a few less people who are making less people.” Story: This episode follows Jack on New Year’s Eve, as he leaves the broadcast early. He’s in a funk because Gladys cancelled their date. Interesting History: This episode tosses off many topical references. Jack mentions social security; President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, but monthly checks started going out in January 1940. “It can’t happen here” is a Phil punch line; it was also the title of a 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel about fascism. Mary mentions the movie Gone with the Wind, which had just premiered earlier in December. Celebrity Name Droppings: Mary is attending Ginger Rogers’ New Year’s Eve party. Don is planning to take in Sally Rand’s show; you can do the same through the magic of Youtube. Musical Notes: Dennis sings “All the Things You Are,” and I actually enjoy his performance, for a change. Jell-o Hell No Recipe of the Week: Strawberry Jell-o combined with pineapple juice, egg whites, and crushed ice to create pineapple snow, a “foamy rose pink” dessert. My Verdict: This episode’s unusual structure provides laughs for listeners, if not for poor Jack. Comic highlights are Gladys’ surprise appearance and Phil’s response to “In just a few hours the old year will pass right out.”
“Babysitting on New Year’s Eve”
Our Miss Brooks, January 1, 1950
“Liberty? You can take shore leave!” Story: Connie takes a job babysitting Mr. Conklin’s nephew on New Year’s Eve; she needs the money to attend a party with Mr. Boynton. Of course, things don’t work out the way she planned. Celebrity Name Droppings: Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty gets a mention. My Verdict: Connie’s attempts to woo the clueless Mr. Boynton are always a hit with me. I love the record scene, in which they express their feelings through contrasting song titles.
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 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
“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.