Orson Welles during a taping of The Shadow

Nights on the weekend with OTR

Reading Time: 6 minutes

How I learned about Old Time Radio1

While driving in the car one Sunday night in the late 1990s, I switched on the radio and caught a show that permanently changed my routine. The radio was tuned to 91.3, a Wisconsin Public Radio station, and that’s when I heard this: “Bob Bailey, in the exciting adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account; America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

I’m pretty sure I yelled, “WHAT?!”, and laughed maniacally while repeating “action-packed expense account!” and “Freelance Insurance Investigator!!” as I drove home. On top of that was the name of the character: Johnny Dollar.

(As someone said to him in the Johnny Dollar episode, “The Alvin Summers Matter“: “You can think up a better one than that…”. To which the fictional character in question replied, “Wise up, buster: it sounds so phony, it’s gotta be legitimate.”)

And there was the “action-packed expense account”. It was, really, an expense account rattled off by Dollar throughout the episode: “Item number 1: Cost of a cab across town, 1 dollar 10 cents. Item number 2: Steak dinner, 1 dollar 25 cents….”  

That’s how I learned

that Sunday evenings on that station, from 8:30-11 p.m., was time for Old Time Radio Drama. Two-and-a-half hours of old radio programs. The station later  expanded the time to three hours. Then they added a three-hour block on Saturday nights.*

But all I knew at that moment was that I seemed to have stumbled into some surreal landscape. Some of which I knew, like Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny. Most of which I didn’t (like Dollar and comedians “Bob and Ray”). From then until decades afterward, I spent Sunday (then Saturday) evenings attached to the radio, listening to old radio plays. I tuned in to hear: Westerns, comedies, mysteries, the dramas of the programs “Suspense” and “Escape”, and many others.

The start of a dear habit:

I was obsessive about listening after first coming across “OTR”. At that time, 91.3 only had the show on Sunday nights. Because those Sunday evenings were my one shot for the week, I turned down invitations to do things. And, on going out, I’d try to get home as the time inched up to 8:15.

So, yes:

with OTR as my consistent source of entertainment (and because I remember my complete addiction to television when I grew up), I’ve missed classic shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad.

But, really, why old radio plays?

I’m devoted in part because of their oddness. The shows include, among other things, casual sexism, characters instantly falling in love, offers of cigarettes and booze (oh, yes: booze; never wine or beer), and people—most often, detectives—getting knocked unconscious. These situations in the old shows are so humorous because they’re so absurd.

I also discovered through OTR the intelligence of the writing and of the audiences.

Here’s the thing: these people of the 1930s to 1950s understood what was being asked and expected of them. They weren’t patsies blithely accepting the objects that were put up for sale. They seemed to understand the falsity of whatever the purveyors put out there. Like an episode I listened to early on from Fibber McGee and Molly: the actors are approached by Harlow Wilcox who—as he always did—worked in an ad for “Johnson’s Wax“, with Molly McGee adding humor in her voice as everyone in the audience knew what Wilcox was doing—paying the bills for the show through advertising.

OTR also had a comforting formula:

the problem presented and most often resolved in a half-an-hour, or hour, whether it be in comedy, drama, or mystery. Although there are science fiction stories (like those from Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and others) that continue to disturb me (see Dimension X and X-Minus One, below).

And there are also the memorable lines, only a few of which I’ll introduce you to:

  • The ad for Quaker Oats Puffed Rice: “the only cereal that’s shot from guns!”
  • A line from Let George Do It: “A drink should be like a woman: stimulating, but easy to see through.”
  • And my all-time favorite: Jack Webb, in the series Pat Novak, For Hire saying that someone “looked more badly used than a dictionary from a family of stupid people.”

My surprise in finding depth in these programs comes from a portrait created for me when I was little. One perhaps, made by those who grew up with these programs themselves & later thought that “oh, that was so naïve.” An adult coming across an ad for the “cereal shot from guns” would see the consumers as childish because children were the main audience. But I also suppose, as we come further into popular culture (and where our culture can now be broadcast from our Smartphones), we have to learn, again, that our ideas are not new.

Some Old Time Radio programs to explore

So, knowing there are things I don’t have space to write about, some of my favorites are below. These are in no particular order. Most of them are about a half-hour long and you can find them by using a search engine:

  • Gunsmoke. (I’m not usually interested in Westerns, but I like its moral complexity.)
  • The Lives of Harry Lime. (This is the network-palatable version of Lime from the movie The Third Man. It’s offered in ½ hour segments with the entrancing narrative by Orson Welles.)
  • Escape and Suspense. This can go up to an hour, and be thoughtful and/or disturbing (Case in point: “Three Skeleton Key“.)
  • Comedy:
    • The Jack Benny Show. (It took me a couple of weeks to realize this radio program was a “show-within-a-show”. The cast, in front of an audience, continuously prepares to perform the show, to be in front of an audience, which they never actually perform.)
    • The Burns and Allen Show. (Allen’s work was genius and those two – George Burns and Gracie Allen – were smart for realizing that. In 1940, she runs for President of the United States on the show. Her party? The Surprise Party – I mean, come on!)
    • The Bob and Ray Show. (The comedy duo of Bob Eliot – comedian Chris Eliot’s father – and Ray Goulding. Their 15-minute shows took a surreal path that at times was completely hilarious. I turn your attention to, for example, The Great Lakes Paper Clip Factory, which makes me laugh out loud thinking about.)
  • Detective shows:
    • Nero Wolfe. (Orchid- and beer-loving Wolfe fortunately has Archie Goodwin go out and gather information and murder suspects; except in the unfortunate moments in which Wolfe has to leave his house.)
    • Boston Blackie. (“Enemy to those who make him an enemy; friend to those who have no friend”)
    • Sam Spade. (A detective, like Philip Marlowe, with a secretary and a snappy recitation of the case.)
    • Richard Diamond. (The singing detective who, while he’s figuring out the crime, frequently gets hit in the head, which renders him unconscious.)
    • Rocky Jordan. (This takes place in Cairo. As the blog Mystery File puts it: “Effort is put in using authentic music and locations, respect is paid to the different culture, and because of that Cairo comes alive to the listener.”)
    • The Adventures of Frank Race. (Which often seems to involve some unbelievably sexy woman that Race has to comment on, and kiss. As he put it in The Shanghai Incident, “The kiss created a pull in my chest. Like the feeling my chest had during my first pull on a cigarette.”)
    • Bold Venture. (A radio series with Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall that lasted two seasons. The two could record a score of shows then go on vacation for months; in addition to the two characters, there was a Calypso singer that gave synopses of the plot throughout the show – after commercials for hard liquor and cigarettes I’m guessing.)
    • The Adventures of the Thin Man. (The same characters from the movie, in which you happily follow along with a rich couple that drinks too much.)
    • The Saint. (Vincent Price as charming and sly, not the man I saw in the schlocky horror movies aired on Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons in the ’70s.)
  • Very odd history/culture series (I’d love to write about all of them, but I’ve gone on long enough):
    • Crime Classics
    • Damon Runyon Theater
    • You Are There
  • The “extreme formula” series, where you know that the same characters will show up in each episode: Our Miss Brooks, Fibber McGee and Molly (with, occasionally, an opening of the hall closet <–look it up), The Great Gildersleeve, and others.
  • The Science Fiction shows of Dimension X and X-Minus One. Some of their episodes are haunting (“With Folded Hands“, “The Veldt“, and “Colony“, among others).

This changed in 2020:

*The local radio stations stopped airing Old Time Radio after June 14 of that year.
Their sexism noted above, but also their racism, prejudice against different ethnicities, their frequent (PG-rated) violence (lots of killing with guns but very little blood), and other things I’m sure I’ve missed, were in large part the reason that WPR stopped the program, effective two days after the announcement on June 12. The decision to end the program came about 7 weeks after the murder of George Floyd and the United States was having a lot of conversations and protests about racism. Because of this, it was dumbfuckingly obvious that the shows needed to go off the air. But for another “obvious” statement: one of the reasons I miss the shows is that I won’t listen to episodes unless someone else makes the decision and picks what I’m apprehensive about.

What makes this all odd is that I, personally, can listen to this stuff whenever I want, but others may not because they don’t have computers or smartphones. Although, given what I’ve written, I can only assume that my serendipity will happen to someone else in the future.

First published 11/17/2020.
The photograph at the top of this post is Orson Welles during a taping of “The Shadow”. Public domain image. From Wikimedia Commons.

Link to another post of mine:

I wrote about an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright’s in my post, “Gene Masselink“. Gene wrote about the listening to the radio in 1937. Of course, when he wrote about Old Time Radio, it was just. . . radio.


1 I have childhood memories of hearing Old Time Radio programs in the car when dad would drive us home at night from some evenings out. But I didn’t really remember them until my reintroduction to it as an adult.