Dick Tracy: Remember enjoying ‘the theater of the mind’?
So, picture this: It’s the early 1940s and the only light in my Brooklyn grandparent’s darkened living room is a green glow from the dial on their console radio.
Surrounded by family, we’ve all got goosebumps waiting for the sound of a creaking door and the voice of Ramon, our host, welcoming us to another episode of, “The Inner Sanctum.” And the story that ensued was just about as scary as your imagination would allow.
A whole bunch of senior citizens are laughing now, asking “Did you do that, too?”
There were similar programs offering scary radio drama, including “The Whistler,” “Escape” and “The Mysterious Traveler” but none quite as chilling to me as “Inner Sanctum.”
Ah, radio. I loved it then and still do. If I had to choose between radio and television as my main source of entertainment, radio would win.
Thinking back to my youth, I recall some pretty inane offerings on the air, too. One program (I’m not making this up) was simply a cage full of canaries chirping along with recorded instrumental music! Then there was a half-hour dedicated to vocals by Vaughan Monroe, a nasal baritone who made “Mule Train”a big hit. And, to me, everything he sang sounded the same.
“Gunsmoke,” on radio, with the deep voice of William Conrad as Sheriff Matt Dillon, was far more entertaining than the James Arness version on TV. (Conrad was short and fat, and couldn’t fill the TV role.)
Comedy was king on radio, with programs like “The Jack Benny Show” that revolved upon airing a mythical radio program featuring people like “Rochester,” his butler, trips to an underground vault where notoriously tight Benny kept his money, vocals by tenor Dennis Day and visits to a non-existent railway station where an announcer got roars of laughter with the line: “Train now leaving on Track Nine for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc (long pause) amunga!”
(When I finally saw Benny on TV, it was a bit of a shock. I’d imagined someone younger.)
And then there was Edgar Bergan and Charley McCarthy. Bergan was a ventriloquist and McCarthy (who wore a monocle and silk top hat) was his dummy. Wait! A ventriloquist on radio? Did you see his lips move? But the humor between the two was engaging.
We were easily entertained in those days.
Another popular show then brings some embarrassment today. It was, “Amos and Andy” in which two white comedians portrayed black friends, supported by characters such as “Sapphire” and “The Kingfish.” But the scripts were hilarious. Like Amos telling Andy: “My doctor is so poor, that when he takes an X-ray, it has to be group picture!”
In my teens I knew exactly when science-ficition thrillers like “Dimension X,” “X Minus One” and “2,000 Plus” would air, and planned my day on being next to the radio at the proper time.
I vaguely remember my aunt Eunice taking me to swim at the St. Francis Hotel’s large indoor pool in New York City, where they had a black-and-white TV mounted in one corner. It was playing cartoons, and I was fascinated. “Someday there’ll be one of those in every home,” she said.
Her prediction came true … and all of those magical green radio dials would disappear.
Dick Tracy, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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