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Tuning Thru The Great Depression  

By  Elizabeth  McLeod

 4-A-A Microphone

Mention Old Time Radio, and the sounds that leap to most memories are those of the 1940s and early 1950s -- the "Golden Age."  The OTR hobby in recent years has focused almost exclusively on that era -- to the point where many collectors seem hardly aware of what happened before this "Golden Age." Some may have heard the more popular programs of the late 1930s, but  for many the years before 1935 are a blur.

Too bad, because the Depression era provides a fascinating period for OTR research -- and some fine listening besides -- if you're willing to do some digging.


What was radio really like at the dawn of the 1930s?

As the new decade began, the medium was moving into its adolescence. The experimental years were over,  the networks were off and rolling, and the movement toward making radio a form of Wholesale Entertainment For The Masses was well underway.

The most popular program format of the late twenties was the sponsored musical feature.  It could be a large symphonic group, a dance orchestra, or a song-and-patter team -- and it would usually carry the sponsor's name. The A&P Gypsies, for example -- a large, genre-crossing orchestra conducted by Harry Horlick. The Ipana Troubadours -- a hot dance band directed by Sam Lanin. The Goodrich Zippers -- a banjo-driven orchestra conducted by Harry Reser, when he wasn't leading the same group under the name of The Cliquot Club Eskimos. Everyone remembers The Happiness Boys, Billy Jones and Ernie Hare -- but what about Scrappy Lambert and Billy Hillpot, who performed exactly the same sort of material  as  Trade and Mark, The Smith Brothers. The list is endless:  The Silvertown Cord Orchestra, featuring the Silver Masked Tenor.  The Sylvania Foresters. The Flit Soldiers -- yet another Harry Reser group. The Champion Sparkers. The Fox Fur Trappers.  The Ingram Shavers, who were the Ipana Troubadours on alternate Wednesdays. The Yeast Foamers. The Planters Pickers. And, the magnificently named Freed-Eisemann Orchestradians.  All playing pretty much the same sorts of music, all announced by Phillips Carlin  or John S. Young or Alwyn Bach or Milton Cross in pretty much the same sort of stiffly formal style.

And then came The Vagabond Lover.
Rudy Vallee rehearsing


Maine-bred saxophonist Rudy Vallee organized his eight Connecticut Yankees in 1927, and the intimate quality of this group made it a radio natural. In a series of remote broadcasts over WABC from New York's Heigh Ho Club, Vallee pioneered an informal style of broadcasting which would help to break the medium out of its white-tie straightjacket. His band got its first network shot on NBC Blue in 1928, under the sponsorship of Clopin Cod Liver Oil Capsules -- but the series faded from view as quickly as the stomach-turning product it advertised. Late in 1929, the people at Standard Brands decided to take a chance on a hour's worth of the Yankees every Thursday night -- and this time the Vallee style grabbed the national imagination.

Rudy wasn't a great singer, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor were the Yankees, musically speaking, anything but a very ordinary twenties dance band. But Rudy was also a master showman. None of his musicians were any threat to the reputation of Biederbecke, but they knew how to put fun into their playing. Rudy may have sung thru his adenoids, but he was a master of routining songs, of putting together a program that worked as a cohesive whole and not just one-number-after-another. And he knew, instinctively, what songs were right for his style.

For its first two an a half seasons, the series remained close to the traditional sponsored-dance-orchestra format, pausing only to introduce occasional guest stars. But late in 1932, with the show's popularity beginning to sag, Rudy's showmanship came to the forefront. A new policy was adopted, stressing guest stars. The Standard Brands checkbook opened wide, and the best that vaudeville and Broadway had to offer were enticed to the microphone. The Fleischmannís Yeast Hour became radio's first really Big Time variety program, and set the pattern for every one that would follow.


The success of the Vallee approach to the variety format caused the Standard Brands people to think that lightning might well strike twice, and in 1931, they added a second hour to their radio schedule for Chase and Sanborn Coffee on Sunday nights. Tapped to star was the hyperkinetic Eddie Cantor, who had convulsed the nation with several guest appearances on the Vallee program earlier that year.
Latter day listeners often think of Cantor as a rather old-fashioned performer who tended not to spare the corn. But the Cantor of 1931 wasn'tEddie Cantor the passé Cantor of 1948. Cantor at the turn of the thirties was coming off more than a decade's worth of Broadway hits and was beginning a series of ever-more-opulent musical comedy films for Samuel Goldwyn. His phonograph records were top sellers -- he was a true multimedia superstar long before the term was invented. And he was radio's first great solo comedian.

Cantor's jumping-jack personality was part of his success. He projected an infectious sense of fun right thru the loudspeaker, and it was impossible not to be caught up in the zany spirit of his broadcasts.  Several additional factors contributed to the success of his show.

The first was his early insistence on a live studio audience.  Cantor knew he worked best before a crowd, and was a master of milking laughs. And, he knew that the sound of that laughter couldn't help but be contagious over the air.

His second important contribution was his mastery of the "stooge" technique of comedy. Cantor wasn't the first radio comedian to press his announcer into service as a straight man -- Joe Cook had done so with John S. Young in 1929 -- but he was the first to thoroughly integrate that announcer-stooge into the fabric of the program. His interplay with Jimmy Wallington was fast, snappy, and sharp -- and Wallington could dish it right back as well as he could take it.

And, Cantor's third important contribution was his emphasis on running gags. From his baiting of violinist/orchestra leader David Rubinoff to his constant references to his five daughters to his 1932 "Presidential Campaign," Cantor thoroughly understood the principle of bringing the audience back for more -- a principle which would be adopted by just about every  major comic who would follow.

Among the comics who adopted these principles was a man who had been a star for an even longer time than Cantor: The Perfect Fool, Ed Wynn.

Wynn had headlined on Broadway before the first World War, and remained a top stage attraction thru the twenties, dithering and honking his Ed Wynn
way thru a series of girl-and-gag revues. He had tried radio as far back of 1922, but mike fright prevented any extended efforts on the air until 1932 -- when officials of the Texas Company offset his terror of broadcasting with a very hefty check. In April of that year, Wynn first donned his tiny felt fireman's helmet and whizzed onto the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre on a pedal-powered fire engine as Texacoís Fire Chief.

The Fire Chief programs combined the lessons learned from Cantorís broadcasts with Wynn's own unique style, and even today, they're fun to hear. Wynn clearly loved to perform, and even though some of his jokes might have made Joe Miller cringe, they're delivered with such panache that you canít help but laugh.

Invaluable too is the contribution of Graham McNamee. Probably the most important announcer of the 20s, McNamee displays a wonderful gift for stooging in this series -- he knew exactly how to draw Wynn out and to work with the comic in the timing of the gags. And, the sincere friendship and respect shared by the two men helped Wynn to control his ever-present mike fright to the point where they became an inseparable team.

Another stage veteran was Jack Pearl, a rather ordinary dialect comic who rode a brief wave of success in 1933-34 as Baron Munchausen. Getting his first radio exposure on a 1932 broadcast of the "Ziegfeld Follies of the Air," Pearl and his stooge Cliff Hall quickly found a niche on the Lucky Strike Hour, where for a brief time they were one of the most popular attractions on the air. Although Pearl tended to depend too heavily on catch-phrases in his act, his routines are not without a certain appeal. Pearl was a facile punster, and Hall an especially able straight man.

Joe Penner

But the ultimate Depression-era zany was Joe Penner.

A forgotten performer today to most, and little more than a footnote to the average OTR fan, Penner was a national craze in 1933-34.   There is no deep social meaning in his comedy, no shades of subtlety -- just utter slapstick foolishness, delivered in an endearingly simpering style that's the closest thing the 30s had to Pee Wee Herman. An added attraction was Penner's in-character singing each week of a whimsical novelty song, especially written to suit his style. Like Pearl, however, Penner was doomed to early decline by the sheer repetitiveness of his format, even though he remained very popular with children right up to the end of his radio career.


Another approach to the variety format was taken by the Maxwell House Show Boat. Premiering in 1931, this Thursday night favorite drew from two major inspirations: the Ferber/Kern/Hammerstein stage production and the "Showboat" program heard in the late 20s over WLS, Chicago. For several seasons, it was the most popular program on the networks, and inspired an almost fanatical loyalty among its predominantly female fans.

The Maxwell House Show Boat rode a river of sentimentality -- the Depression-era version of "nostalgia" for the "simpler times" of  the Old South. Even though no attempt was made to reflect a period setting for the show, the entire tone of the program was redolent of cotton blossoms and magnolia, having little to do with the grit and grime of Depression America. It also broke ground in the way in which it combined fictional characters like "Captain Henry"  and blackface deckhands "Molasses and January" with real-life cast members like Lanny Ross and Annette Hanshaw. It was an unusual combination of corn and class, and it  inspired occasional imitations. None remained afloat as long as the original, and certainly none inspired the loyalty that filled the pages of many a fan magazine.


Dramatic radio was of secondary importance during the depression years. While there were many serial programs -- of which more later -- the really memorable dramas were still in the future. But the seeds had been planted -- in Chicago.

Perhaps the first important full-scale drama to come out of Chicago was a weekly series for the Great Northern Railroad called "Empire Builders." Beginning in January of 1929, and running thru the spring of 1931, this series offered half-hour tales set on the "Empire Builder," Great Northernís crack train on the Chicago-Seattle run. The series was one of the earliest successful anthologies, tied together by a host figure referred to only as "The Old Timer," and listening to surviving episodes reveals a show which offered remarkably high production values. The acting -- featuring such stalwarts as Don Ameche and Bernadine Flynn -- was capable, and the sound effects work was extraordinary considering that no recordings of any kind were used. The programs also provide something of a surprise for modern-day nostalgics convinced that radio always kept a puritanical moral tone: "Hells" and "Damns" are heard -- and, distastefully, there are occasional ugly racial epithets, reflective of the casual bigotry of the time.
Other dramas of the depression tended to stick to an anthology format -- the True Story Hour, The Colliers Hour, Soconyland Sketches, the First Nighter Program. Continuing characters began to make inroads most notably in the form of crime shows: "Sherlock Holmes" had its first radio incarnation beginning in 1930, and Dr. Fu Manchu spun off from the Colliers Hour into his own show shortly after.


Almost always overlooked in the discussion of early radio are the many syndicated transcription shows which began to flood the air in 1929 and 1930, and which continued to proliferate thruout the decade. The most interesting of these shows was also the most widely circulated.

"The Chevrolet Chronicles" was produced by the World Broadcasting System for distribution on disc to more than a hundred and thirty stations in the fall of 1930. The centerpiece of each program was an interview with a World War Medal of Honor winner, conducted by flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The show was an unqualified success, and spurred a lot of interest in the syndication field. Unfortunately, many of the shows which followed failed to keep up that high standard -- endless parades of second-rate serials and cornball comedy skits were more typical of the material available on the transcription market.

 But the Chronicles wasn't the most important of the syndicated shows. That honor belongs to a program which achieved its greatest success on a network after initial success on the disc market -- a program which was by far the dominant radio show of the Depression, and perhaps the single most influential program in the history of broadcasting.

Amos 'n' Andy

"Amos 'n' Andy" wasnít just a radio program during the Depression -- especially during 1930-31, it was an obsession. This simple little fifteen minute serial gripped the attention of as many as forty million listeners six nights a week. Why?

Today, nearly seven decades later, itís difficult for the average OTR fan to fully understand the "Amos 'n' Andy" craze of the early 30s. Most fans have heard the half-hour "Amos 'n' Andy" shows of the forties --- and perhaps some of the fifties TV episodes, and while they're certainly funny in a broad, sitcom sort of way, there's nothing in them that would seem to justify the fanatical enthusiasm that surrounded this program in its earliest years.

The later shows, however, do not in any way represent what "Amos 'n' Andy" originally was.

As first conceived, the program was far from the exaggerated gagfest that it became in its later years. Instead, it was a masterfully written serial drama with humorous overtones -- a series that depended as much on suspense for its appeal as it did comedy.

It couldn't have worked without the men behind the characters. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were both unusually shrewd writers. They understood exactly how long a storyline should be strung out to maximize tension, and could then snap it to a climax in a single cathartic scene. And then they could start the cycle all over again.

Aside from excellent plotting, the serial episodes of "Amos 'n' Andy" display a remarkable depth of characterization. The characters are not stereotypes, not cardboard cutouts. They react in different ways to changing circumstances, and they grow and change themselves over time.

The performances which brought these characters to life were equally masterful. Gosden in particular was a brilliant radio actor, a master of inflection and vocal shading, and especially gifted in multiple roles. Correll's perfect sense of timing meshed perfectly with his partner's more intense performances, to create a program which, in its prime, had no equal.

Not that there weren't imitators.

The comedy serial was perhaps the most imitated format of the Depression, on and off the networks. Network programs like "Lum and Abner" and "Myrt and Marge", local programs like "Berl and Shmerl, the Yiddish Gentlemen," on WMCA, New York, and endless syndicated serials like "Si and Elmer" and "Black and Blue" rose up in the wake of "Amos 'n' Andy," without ever matching its appeal. Perhaps "Lum and Abner" came closest to capturing the spirit of its progenitor, but even the gifted Chet Lauck and Norris Goff couldn't top Gosden and Correll at their prime.

And perhaps no one ever will.

CODAUniversal Disc

There's little left of Depression radio, compared to what remains from the later years. It's not that programs weren't recorded -- it's that so few were saved. The uncoated aluminum discs which carried the embossed record of early-30s radio have for the most part been lost to the years. Those that survive are often incorrectly dubbed to tape,  yielding noisy, skipping recordings that are difficult to follow.

But it's worth it.

Once in a while, a pristine set of discs from Speak-O-Phone Studios or Universal Recording Labs will turn up, and a careful tape transfer will offer a rare glimpse into a vanished era

An age when "Wanna Buy A Duck?" echoed thru every schoolyard, and an entire nation wondered if Andy was going to have to marry Madame Queen.

An age that's still accessible -- if you're willing to tune it in.

Text Copyright (c) 1998 by Elizabeth McLeod
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