If a man had fallen into a coma in 1989 on a busy street filled with young fashionable people, and if he woke up on the same spot today, he would likely marvel at all the tiny screens at which those young people would be staring; he would gape at how small the headphones have gotten; and he wonder why so many men had bushman-style beards. He wouldn’t, though, even blink at the clothes those young people wore.
For fashion, like so many other things, goes in cycles. You can easily see the fashion cycles easily in the width of lapels in men’s suit jackets, and the style of women’s boots, but other areas are harder to track. One of my many business ventures is in the area of vintage markets. I am forever shopping in thrift stores, travelling around small towns to see what deals I can bring back to the big city to feed the city’s hunger for vintage style. And my piece of insider’s advice? Vintage is hot.
Maybe it’s the growing wealth gap driving people to buy cheap; maybe it’s an environmentally driven desire to make use of what has already been made (likely of better quality than new, anyway…); maybe it’s a realization that personal style can be defined better with history than with IKEA, but in any case, across the province, the country, and I daresay most of North America, the prices of vintage finds are increasing. And one of the fastest-raising prices is that of vintage radios.
For decades, radios were the piece of technology to have.Just as teens swap their old iPod for the newest model, so teens of the 50s through to the invention of the Walkman switched up to the hottest new design of radios. Go to your favourite image search engine and type in “vintage radio.” I went through 3 pages looking for two pictures of the same model, and couldn’t find one. Now try “1960s radio,” and discover a whole new slew of models. They came in every colour of bakelite and plastic, or were beautifully hand-carved from any kind of wood, from teak to cherry to white oak. They came in abstract shapes, in the shape of Minnie Mouse, they could attach to your bicycle, or were in cases shaped like teapots with cookies.And they’re only getting more collectable with every passing year.Looking at some of those pictures online, I can see why.
In the stores I frequent, brightly coloured, functioning wireless models (generally 1960s) have gone from $10 five years ago, to between $50 or $70 dollars, or even (like a Studebaker Transistor Radio pictured here that I saw just last week) as bid items in silent auctions with bids over $100.You want an older model, maybe something 1940s or mid-century modern? What would have been $70 in 2009 can be over $300 now.And that’s in small towns.In the city, or online, those with their finger on the pulse sometimes have prices even higher.
What does this all mean for old radio, you ask (seeing as this is an olde tyme radio show blog…)? Well, with new independent radio stations becoming more and more popular here in Toronto, with radio stations requesting RPX shows to broadcast to interested audiences, and the huge swell of interest in poscasts, NPR and weekly radio shows, I feel that people are turning to audio entertainment to fit in better with their multi-tasking lives.Nothing disperses the drudgery of data input, or commuting, or waiting for customers to slog through the snow into your shop than immersing yourself in a story that engages your mind through something other than your eyes.
Just like those leggings and skinny jeans have come back into style after a 20 year break, I believe that entertainment also is subject to the Vintage Cycle.The Artist, a silent film, recently won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.How long will it be before radio shows takes back a place in the hearts and minds of the general public? Judging by those skyrocketing prices, not long.
February 14! St. Valentine’s Day!
“Blue night and you, alone with me
My heart has never known such ecstasy
Am I on earth, am I in heaven?”
Although famously a day of long stemmed roses and riotous romance, February 14th also (very appropriately) marks the birthday of radio Casanova, Jack Benny.
Yup. I said Casanova and I meant it. Although his on air persona was notoriously anemic and unappealing to women, in real life Jack was an extravagant romantic. In fact, a common explanation of how Jack started his habitual gesture of standing with one hand against his cheek is that he was hiding scratches his wife, Mary, had given him for flirting with vaudevillian chorus girls!
Most folks that know anything about Jack know by now that he was not the terrible boss and insufferable miser he played on his show. Im not sure if this is the case when it comes to Jacks Romantic side, so Id like to share in the spirit of Valentines Day the beautiful love story Jack Benny created off the air.
In 1921, while performing at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, Herbert Zeppo Marx Marks invited his good friend Benjamin Kubelsky (AKA Jack Benny) to a wild party, never telling him it was actually a quiet family seder. It was there Jack first met Zeppos young cousin, Sadie Marks. Although they didnt get along at first, five years later they met again and were soon married and Sadie started performing with Jack as Mary Livingstone.
Although the characters of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone were only friends on The Jack Benny Program (or perhaps ambiguously dating), the audience of the day was well aware of their marriage behind the mic. For years, Jacks signature tune on the violin (and later, his theme song) was the show tune, Love in Bloom. For us, the tune was hilarious because of the way Jack so reliably screeched it out on his violin. For Jack and Mary, I imagine it had a special, quiet, meaning because of the way he always made sure she had fresh roses to enjoy in their home. When Jack died suddenly in 1974 from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer, and her last rose was drying out, a miracle landed on the front step of the Benny home: a single long stemmed rose. I can only imagine that this delivery must have seemed to Mary to be a leftover order from before Jacks unexpected passing - an all too final sentiment and cruel reminder to Mary that Jack was gone and that her vase would soon be empty. But the following day another rose was delivered. And then another. And another. And another every day for more than 3200 days. Jack had arranged in his will that a single long stemmed rose would be delivered everyday for the rest of Marys life.
Can it be the trees,
That fill the breeze,
With rare and magic perfume?
Oh, no, it isn't the trees,
It's love in bloom!
Can it be the Spring,
That seems to bring,
The stars right into the room?
Oh, no, it isn't the Spring,
It's love in bloom.
My heart was a desert,
You planted a seed,
And this is the flower,
This hour of sweet fulfillment!
Is it all a dream,
A joy supreme,
That came to us in the gloom?
Oh, no, it isn't a dream,
It's love in bloom!
(Love In Bloom lyrics by Leo Robin)
I detest list blog posts, especially those with "you must" in the title. 5000 Records You Must Hear Before You Die! 100 Shellfish You Must Have Severe Allergic Reactions to Before You (Finally) Die! 200 Lists You Must Publish to Make Others Feel Inadequate, Anxious, and Overwhelmed… Before You Die! You get the idea. I know there's too much out there to listen to in one lifetime. This article applies to music, http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2013/11/14/245238156/the-good-listener-is-there-too-much-music, but it could easily apply to podcasts or radio drama. So, please! Don't think of this article as a guide or a checklist. It's just an appreciation of what I like, what's currently giving me joy. Most of the shows I mention here can be found on radioarchive.cc or archive.org.
Radio Project X co-founders Peter Church and Sean Wayne Doyle both love Old-Time Radio. I do too, but I can't compete with their OCD levels of knowledge. My love for audio comes more from the British tradition of sketch shows, dramas, and radio sitcoms and I'm going to discuss a few here. So grab an egg nog, pour it down the sink cuz it's disgusting, put out the yule log, and light up the cat, as I present…
A DOZEN RADIO SHOWS AND PODCASTS YOU MUST-- Oh, right, not doing that! Ahem. …as I present…
A BUNCH OF STUFF YOU MIGHT WANT TO HEAR.
1. Beautiful Dreamers (BBC). Here's how the BBC describes this series:
One of the pleasures of watching a documentary like Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers of the WorldTradeCenter, is the sense of scandalised credulity. Could this possible be true? Why hadn't I heard about it before? Beautiful Dreamers takes this pleasure to its logical extreme by recounting six gloriously improbable events.
Writers Nat Segnit and James Lever have created something special with these darkly funny, immaculately-produced radio documentaries. Best episodes: The River Europe and The Whalemen of Musungenyi.
2. The Boneyard Man. A terrific parody of, and a loving tribute to, OTR serials like The Shadow and The Avenger, this troupe of out London, Ontario, was definitely an inspiration for Radio Project X, and we're talking about doing a split show with them sometime in 2014. NBC--the Natural Broadcasting Company--may soon be your favourite fictional radio station. Find The Boneyard Man on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/36471511748/
3. And Now in Colour (BBC). A sketch show with lots of great musical numbers (thanks to cast member Tim Firth, who also wrote very successful musicals such as Our House and Calendar Girls). My favourite sketch involves a model train enthusiast vehemently opposed to his son's wedding to the daughter of a family who use a different gauge.
4. Bob and Ray. What needs to be said about the incredible work from Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding? Their many shows, spanning decades, are packed with scores of great characters, all played by Bob and Ray, characters such as fumbling newsman Wally Ballou, blustering sportscaster Biff Burns, and doing his rope tricks on the radio, cowboy Tex Blaisdell. Brought to you by made-up sponsors such as Einbinder Flypaper ("The brand you've gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations.") If you've never heard Bob and Ray using radio to deconstruct radio, you're in luck. archive.org has a large collection of their programmes available for streaming or download.
5. Another Case of Milton Jones (BBC). This is a pun-laden sort-of sketch show from the eponymous Milton Jones. I love some pun-filled shows such as I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again while I find others such as Hello Cheeky! and Round the Horne absolutely grating. Another Case… is one that works for me. Milton's puns are appallingly bad (example: a woman is counting in French. When she gets to eight, Milton goes into anaphylactic shock, because he has a--wait for it!--huit allergy.) and his comic timing is ever so slightly off, it's almost charming.
6. The Atkinson People (BBC). It's Rowan Atkinson at his snarky, pretentious best in a four-part series, each episode giving us the biography of a different character. The story of philosopher Georges Dupont is especially hilarious.
7. Atomic Tales! (BBC). A spot-on parody of OTR sci-fi shows such as Dimension X. This is a British tribute to the retro-future of 1950s America, complete with robots, lasers, and barely-passable American accents. My favourite episode: Unstoppable. Someone stop that interplanetary train before it crashes into New Manhattan!
8. Bigipedia and Bigipedia 2.0 (BBC). The internet on the radio… to say any more would spoil it.
9. The Burkiss Way (BBC). It takes awhile to find its feet, but when it does, by about the midpoint of series 2, this show could almost be considered the rightful successor to Monty Python's Flying Circus. It was hugely popular with college students who would pack the theatre during the recording sessions. It's a bit sexist, but ignore that and you'll find the clever bits very entertaining indeed.
10. Cabin Pressure (BBC). The story of MJN Air, a struggling charter airline with just one jet and a pilot who works for free. Written by John Finnemore, and starring Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch (yes that Benedict Cumberbatch, when he's not slumming it making crap TV and super-low-budget films), the always-droll Roger Allam, and Stephanie Cole. If you don't think the radio is viable medium for the sitcom format, this show will convince you. Four series so far, with a final special due soon. For a great behind-the-scenes look at how the show is written, see John's blog, Forget What Did, at http://johnfinnemore.blogspot.ca/
11. Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Willis (Resonance FM). From Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnery comes this bizarre two-hander, in which two 50-something men make it their mission to have conversation. Yep, that's it. That's the whole plot. Kevin's olde-time American radio announcer voice is very funny, and this programme shows you how much you can do with two voices and a few sound effects. I got this one by chance through a file exchange on Soul Seek. Not sure where you'd be able to find this. Email me if you're stuck.
12. iGod (BBC). In each of the six short episodes, God narrates the destruction of a parallel Earth, all destroyed by an everyman named Ian through a series of escalating comic mishaps. Great production values and a very fun bit of casting: God is played as a disinterested dickhead by David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame.
Don't forget to check this site periodically for new Radio Project X podcasts and information about our live shows/recording sessions in Toronto. Happy listening and Merry Christmas!
Neil Jones (Neil@radioprojectx.com)
If you produce or are enthusiastic about radio comedy/drama, OTR or otherwise, drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you! email@example.com
October, for me, is a great time to listen to Audio Drama. Probably because this season has always traditionally been dedicated to the Imagination, and my favourite plays are usually the macabre ones; ones that require imagination and go very well with the Decay of Autumn and the Enthusiastic Terror of Halloween.
Audio Drama lends itself to the macabre because, as a blind medium, we - the listeners - become unwitting co-creators and are complicit in the action because we supply all the images; images drawn from the banks of our own psyche. The radio broadcast merely suggests a story, but the listener conjures it. Many series did this supremely well during the Golden Age of Radio and were rewarded with a long life on the airwaves. Grisly or ghastly series like ‘Suspense’, ‘Lights Out’, and ‘Inner Sanctum Mysteries’ were on the air for more than ten years each and produced some viscerally shocking and truly horrible stories.
Recurring themes of Murder, Invasion, and Tyranny appear in show after show during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s – often linked, no doubt, to the social, technological and political upheaval that surrounded World War Two. For example, the fears that were stirred up in the 1950’s by body-snatching tales of aliens or zombies can easily be traced back to America’s growing fear of communism. That seems fairly straightforward but some of the trends I’ve discovered in radio over the years don’t have such obvious correlations, and with Halloween almost here, I thought it would be a great time to share three of these unexpected (and maybe a little weird) trends with fans of Radio Project X. Here we go!
Yup. There are a LOT of creepy “Hand” stories out there in Radioland. Some are simple, old-fashioned tales of strangling, psychopathy and serial killing. Like:
Others are stories featuring misfits with large, weak, or disfigured hands that give them deep-seated feelings of shame, impotence, and… MURDER!
Still other stories feature hands touched by supernatural powers, curses, or healing:
How a ventriloquist could make a living on Radio - where the audience could not even see his skill to appreciate it - continues to be a mystery for many people. Yet Edgar Bergen managed to keep his wooden companions on the air for twenty years. I imagine he must have kept Charlie McCarthy on his lap while broadcasting – at least to keep the illusion alive for the studio audience. A listener at home certainly couldn’t tell (and likely didn’t wonder) whether Edgar was moving his lips or not. It should have to be seen in order to be effective. Likewise, it’s easy to assume that the inherent creepiness we find in Dolls, Wax Figures, Clowns, Robots, and other facsimiles or humanoid representatives would come from being shown their “lifeless eyes” or their “stubby legs” or “shabby, chipped paint”. The following episodes, however, prove that it’s not the case at all:
Perhaps they’re just riding the psycho-erotic waves made by Val Lewton’s “Cat People”, but there seems to be an abundant number of radio plays from the Golden Age focusing on the pent up, feminine energy of fatal felines.
Hands. Dolls. Cats. Who knew?
We always hear that Public Speaking is at the top of the list of Human Fears. I want to know where Hands, Dolls, and Cats rank. Judging by the world of old-time radio, I’m guessing they’re pretty high up there!
Happy Halloween, Everyone!
Tom Jones’ version of The Green Green Grass of Home just cycled through my computer’s shuffle, and for some reason today, I really listened. This is the second verse:
The old house is still standing, though the paint is cracked and dry,
And there’s that old oak tree that I used to play on.
Down the lane I walk, with my sweet Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It’s good to touch the green green grass of home.
I bet as you read that, a very clear image conjured in your brain. In mine, the house is a tall two stories, with a porch that wraps around two sides of the main floor. The paint is cracked and dry, yes, and is also an off-white so that the pale green shutters on the windows stand out as features. That old oak tree is huge, perhaps hundreds of years old, with thick branches low enough for eager 10 year olds to jump and grab hold of and scramble up. The lane in my mind is mainly yellow dirt, with some gravel well ground in, and some green weeds are poking through between the tyre tracks. It’s on that green strip that Tom and Mary are walking, him with his charming smile and shirt with two buttons open, and her in a blue and white plaid summer dress with the pale red lips of a not-quite-ripe sour cherry. As I think about it now, I even have added that her lips have that same firm but yielding tension of a cherry, so easily broken by careless teeth.
I could keep going with simply the images I see, not even going into the story. I haven’t talked about the grass, or Mary’s hair in the sunlight, or the buildings and fields around the house… That verse is 51 words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, as is so often said, than having no picture must be worth several thousand more.
And here is where radio comes in. When you listen to a radio play, and a man walks to the window and opens it, you’re never told what kind of shoes he’s wearing, but that distinctive clunk clunk as he walks may fill in your mind a brown Oxford, or an ox-blood ankle boot, or maybe even big black cowboy boots. And that’s just the character walking, and says nothing of how he looks in your mind: how big his hands are, how square his jaw is, how he smiles at his dame, and how his dame smiles back. How does she do her hair? Does he smirk into the phone when the Police Captain calls him with instructions? Does the villain have a well-pressed suit or a dirty shirt and vest? Is the sun shining, or is it overcast and dark? All these details have nothing to do with the story, and yet your brain will fill them in. And it’s all up to you and how you want to see the story.
The last verse of The Green Green Grass of Home begins with:
Then I awake and look around me, at four grey walls that surround me,
And I realise, yes, I was only dreaming.
I can’t help but think about the grey walls of realism we surround ourselves with – super-realistic blood and gore in films, overt and obvious sex on television, the internet, and in advertising, and the firmly visual network that is the Internet. In his song, Tom’s been arrested and is sentenced to death, and will see his home when he’s buried beneath it. I have more hope for our imaginations. The next time you’re going to stream some television (and I know you do that…), why not go to your favourite search engine and find an old episode of Gunsmoke or Dick Tracy, or go to the library and take out a book on tape, or even go to our podcast page at www.radioprojectx.com, and indulge in some imaginative entertainment.
Trust me: you, too, can touch the green green grass of home.