The old adage that "good things come in small packages" might well apply to the 15 minute OTR shows. Most of us are familiar with the bulk of these shows, since at least 70% of them are the soap operas, news shows, and kids' adventure serials. But there are plenty of other types of shows that aired in the quarter-hour format.
Fifteen minute programs in the 1930s were quite common, and many of them were syndicated. As we might expect, they varied in quality and, to today's ears, many sound corny, slow-paced and amateurish. THE ADVENTURES OF DETECTIVES BLACK AND BLUE surely falls within that category, as does THE PHANTOM SPOILERS, which was part of MAJESTIC THEATRE OF THE AIR (a dozen in existence.)
But many others from the 30s hold up very well. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES is a fine series with good writing and acting. Of the 20 shows in circulation, several episodes, including "The Lizzie Borden Mystery" are adroitly done. AIR STORIES OF THE WORLD WAR (sometimes listed in OTR catalogs as GEORGE BRUCE'S AIR STORIES) were based upon the pulp articles that Bruce wrote about military bi-plane battles. The shows are fast-paced and full of action but also contain unseemly stereotypes. Less than a half dozen are in trading currency today.
The musical shows from the Thirties age much better than most of the comedies. THE JOHNSON FAMILY (with Jimmy Scribner struggling to do all the voices) now sounds like a poor imitation of AMOS AND ANDY. But the ANSON WEEKS ORCHESTRA SHOW (1932) is a pleasure to hear, as is THE BRUNSWICK BREVITIES. Another fine 1930s musical show of a quarter-hour is the COCONUT GROVE AMBASSADORS. However THE NATURAL BRIDGE REVIEW is not as good, possibly because it featured novelty songs from the 30s that no one has heard since.
Various forms of "talk shows" began in the Thirties and lasted through the Fifties in the quarter hour format. Most were "personality shows" in which a popular person took to the air to tell old tales and/or current events. Walter Winchell, a legend in his own mind, got to network radio in 1931, and remained there, with only brief absences, until 1957. The bulk of his 25 circulating shows bear the title of JERGEN'S JOURNAL. His widely-read news column and his radio show were nearly identical: Broadway "exposes", blasting "Un-Americans", predicting political results, and all laced with show-biz slang.
Bill Stern had his own talk show, that dealt mostly with sports, on the air for 20 years beginning in 1936, and about 125 shows are in circulation today. For most of that 20 years, his show was called COLGATE SPORTS NEWSREEL. Stern came across as an energetic, brash and knowledgeable guy that audiences couldn't help liking. Most of the stories he told on the radio were true, but many were contrived just to fill the 15 minutes of air-time. One of his most outrageous concoctions was the "true story" of a champion swimmer from Wisconsin who had neither arms nor legs!
Two ladies and one man provided their respective radio listeners with 15 minutes of Hollywood goings-on nearly every week from the 30s to the 50s. JIMMY FIDLER'S programs seemed to be a little more lively than those of HEDDA HOPPER and LOUELLA PARSONS. There are about 40 existing episodes each of Fidler and Hopper, but only about 17 of Parsons.
Fidler is bouncy and breezy while Parsons sounds like a farmer's wife, and Hopper is almost aloof. Each of this trio had their own favorite topics. Fidler provided general movie gossip, Parsons was fascinated with stars' engagements and pregnancies, while Hopper preferred to discuss divorces and "who's marrying who" next.
Unlike Fidler, the two women wielded considerable clout in Hollywood, and could demand that actors appear on the air as "guest stars". Hopper actually carried it a step farther; when she was on vacation, she would designate movie stars to do her show. Alan Ladd and Charles Laughton were among those who complied.
Other talk shows in the 15 minute format were TONY WON'S SCRAPBOOK and a similar program, CHEERIO. In the latter, which began in 1927, Charles K. Field read uplifting poetry. Won debuted his show in 1936, essentially doing the same thing. Both series went off the air about 1941. There are 36 episodes of Won's program but none of CHEERIO. Not to worry, Field published most of the poetry he aired in one large anthology. Won did the same in at least four small editions.
GALEN DRAKE started his talk show in 1944 and was on and off network radio until the 1960s. Eleven of his shows, mostly from the late 40s are in trading currency and they all sound about the same. Drake seemed to avoid any new idea or material and he would ramble on, telling stories, puzzles, and even jokes that most people had heard before.
Allen Prescott began his series with the unwieldy title of THE WIFE SAVER in which he mixed household hints with anecdotal material. None of his earlier shows (1932 to 1940) survived. Prescott changed the format of his show to one of recorded music and current events in 1941 and so it remained until it ended five years later. There are about a half dozen of the latter episodes are available and most are quite enjoyable.
An unusual combination of soft music and sexy chatter came to the airwaves aimed directly at the males in radio's audience. Jean King, who called herself and her show, LONESOME GAL, began this 15 minute series from WING, Dayton, OH in 1947. It went syndicated nationwide two years later. This show lasted until mid-1951 with King cooing sweet nothings into the microphone, playing romantic music, and urging her "honey" to drink Red Top Beer or smoke Bond Street pipe tobacco. About 30 programs of LONESOME GAL are in circulation,and for a real change of pace, each one is delightful.
Of course, there were many quarter-hour shows that were all music, including some of the early KATE SMITH ones from the 40s. Another singer who had her own program was MINDY CARSON; she had a network show from 1949 to 1950 and then from 1952 to 1953. All of the five programs that remain to this day are evidence of her excellent vocal quality. Pianists did not fare as well. PAULINE CARTER, playing short classical pieces, was on ABC for less than ten months and only one of her shows can be found today.
Comedy shows have some superb entries in the 15 minute category, with some of radio's top writers accounting for the best three shows. Goodman Ace and Peg Lynch were brilliant writers who also co-starred in their respective shows: THE EASY ACES and ETHEL AND ALBERT. Ace, and his real-life wife, Jane, played a happy but confused couple for about 13 years on the air, beginning in 1932. Over 300 episodes are still around for us to enjoy.
Peg Lynch took the scripts she wrote, and with Alan Bunce portraying her husband, delighted smiling audiences from 1944 to 1950. However only about 25 of those original episodes have survived. (None of them include Richard Widmark, who played Ethel's spouse for the first season.) In the 1970s, Peg recycled some of her scripts and using the same format in THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, brought much laughter to another generation of listeners.
The other great comedy quarter-hour was VIC AND SADE, and its zany humor, written by Paul Rhymer, tickled the imagination and funny bone of thousands of fans. Sponsored by Procter & Gamble and stuck in the middle of the afternoon with all the women's daily serials, it was somewhat of an anomaly. In "Radio Guide" surveys of the 40s, it always ranked in the top ten of the "soap operas", which it certainly was not. The Gook family of Vic, Sade, and Rush chatted on in a dead-pan style about the most outrageous and inane topics every day.This series was on network radio from 1932 to 1946 and the two hundred plus episodes that survived are all well worth listening to again.
There are even 15 minute shows developed by the government which were of fine quality. The Department of Treasury produced a series, GUEST STAR, from 1947 to 1962 to encourage the sale of Savings Bonds. Most of the shows feature two songs by David Rose's Orchestra and a short dramatic or comedy sketch with a Hollywood luminary. Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Ladd, and hundreds of others appeared in these offerings. OTR stars were included too, including Fibber McGee and Molly as well as Ozzie and Harriet. Nearly 70% of the total recorded, or 537, of these shows are still with us today.
On the other end of the numerical scale, only one episode has survived from the superb mystery show, IT'S MURDER, sponsored by the National Safety Council. This series aired for just the summer of 1944 and it starred Joan Alexander as the niece of an criminologist who solved homicide cases. The sole existing show, "The Picture Wire Murder" is so tautly written and well acted, the listener will wish for more.
Probably the best of the 15 minute dramatic shows was the little known ONE OUT OF SEVEN from ABC in 1946. In this anthology, Jack Webb played all (or at least most) of the roles with a flair for accents he didn't get to use on future series. The shows were based upon real life events and it's a shame that only four episodes from this Jack Webb series are in trading currency today.
THIS ARTICLE RE-PRINTED BY EXPRESS PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.
Jack is the author of "Private Eyelashes: Radio's Lady Detectives", published in April 2004 by Bear Manor Media, and may be ordered from http://www.bearmanormedia.com