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As Long as We Remember...

August 15, 2003

Radio Days: Golden Voices from Yesteryear

Joe Volz

As the music of the William Tell Overture blared out of the radio, the announcer intoned, "Return with us now to those trilling days of yesteryear."

And so we kids did every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as the Lone Ranger and his great horse, Silver, thundered into our living rooms a half century ago.

It was the golden age of radio, also starring The Shadow, Marshal Dillon, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Fibber McGee and Molly.

And then those invisible voices were dispatched into the ether by a new marvel, television.

But those radio voices are back. Public radio stations across the country are, once again, broadcasting the old shows - even including commercials from products that have long since disappeared. WAMU, in Washington, for example, broadcasts three hours of the old shows every Sunday.

The Lone Ranger was my favorite. The deep-voiced masked man, accompanied by his faithful Indian sidekick, Tonto, invariably rounded up the bad guys without firing a shot. If the Lone Ranger had to shoot, he never killed the perpetrator. He just shot the gun out of his hand.

You might call the Lone Ranger, the original Old West social worker. He made a specialty of helping widows and orphans.

After he had righted the wrong of the week, he rode off into the sunset while two bystanders tried to figure out who he was. One would ask, "Who was that masked man?" The reply was always, "I don't know. He just left a silver bullet."

Another battler against injustice was a wealthy New Yorker, Lamont Cranston, who, while on a trip to the Orient, learned how to cloud men's minds. Make himself invisible.

The Shadow was quite a philosopher, informing us each week that "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

Kids lucky enough to miss a day of school because they were sick were treated to a different type of radio fare. The heroes were not strong men but powerful women who had survived every known indignity, from philandering husbands, to sick kids, to abject poverty. But they never surrendered to self pity.

Those daytime soap operas always asked a question which, of course, was never answered.

There was Our Gal Sunday, the story that asked the question, "Can a girl from a small mining town in Colorado find happiness as the wife of a wealthy English nobleman?" The answer was maybe, but not without a lot of trauma.

And how about Helen Trent, the spinster wardrobe mistress who was trying to figure out if there was any joy, even in Hollywood, for a single woman over 35.

Mary Noble had a different problem. She had found a husband, but he was a matinee idol constantly besieged by groupies. Her show, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, later lampooned by the comic team, Bob and Ray, who ran their own program called Mary Backstage, noble wife.

My own soap opera favorite was Ma Perkins, a middle-aged woman, who ran a lumberyard. Now there was a real pioneer.

Radio, of course, left a lot to the imagination. All the actors needed were good voices. Sometimes, the shift to TV didn't work so well.

There was the famous Gunsmoke show on radio, starring gravel-voiced William Conrad as Marshal Dillon, patrolling the lonely prairie west of Dodge City, Kansas. When TV arrived, some long since forgotten executive decided that Conrad was too old and paunchy to play the role.

So, they replaced him with a hunk--Jim Arness. Arness was no Matt Dillon. The show lost its edge.

Some of the great comedians on radio, baggy-eyed Fred Allen, for example, didn't translate so well on TV.

TV killed a lot of the great old radio shows.

But, now, they are back. It's about time.

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