I apologize for the recent drought here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, but I had to curtail posting activity in order to finish a liner notes project for the good people at Radio Spirits. If you look to the right (under “Now Available at Radio Spirits”), you’ll notice that I’ve added a pair of new RS collections that contain notes scribbled down by your humble blogmeister: a four-CD set of Rogue’s Gallery broadcasts starring tough-guy crooner Dick Powell, and an eight-CD collection spotlighting the Clown Master himself, Red Skelton. Naturally, I wouldn’t be much of a salesman if I didn’t recommend you buy both sets but if you have to choose one over the other, you can’t go wrong with the Skelton set…particularly since many of the broadcasts are in circulation for the first time in years (obtained, natch, from the Skelton estate).
In working on this weekend’s project, I was suddenly transported back to an earlier, simpler time—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience Radio’s Golden Age at the peak of its powers. I was, however, lucky to have experienced the “nostalgia boom” during the 1970s when many of the classic broadcasts were repeated for the enjoyment of both new audiences and old-timers who never forgot. My first experience with old-time radio, as I’ve noted before, was listening to Lum & Abner as a tadpole on WCAW-AM in Charleston, WV…and as I got older, I continued to seek out these old shows wherever I could find them.
I used to listen to Ohio University’s station WOUB (Athens, OH) as a high school student in Ravenswood, WV…and it was a big influence on my life, even to the point of inspiring me to seek out a career in broadcasting. (I had wanted to attend Ohio U. upon graduation…but the cost of out-of-state tuition put the kibosh on that, and I hadn’t applied myself enough to earn a scholarship.) In 1977, WOUB used to present a program on Monday nights called Monday Night at the Radio, and it was on this show that I was first introduced…to The Shadow.
Unfortunately at that time, the “Shad” didn’t come on until 10:30pm; the first half-hour was devoted to a BBC quiz show called My Word, and to this very day, I still have a deep-seated animosity toward that program. I’ve listened to repeats via the Internets on many occasions, and while it’s a charming show (the kind the Brits do so well), back in 1977 it would cause me to break out in hives because my bedtime was 9:30am and I was in complete agony, waiting for it to end. I was flaunting serious violations of bedtime protocol because any minute The Old Man could walk by and hear me chuckling at Frank Muir or Denis Norden. Actually, my father rarely walked by, he would just burst in suddenly like Parental Police (“Up against the wall, you little !@#$%!”) and I would then be allowed to request an attorney (and a complete change of underwear), a part usually played (and rather ineffectually, I should add) by my mother. (“Christ, I don’t know why he’s still up at twenty-past-ten…I’ve been telling you for years the kid’s not right!”)
The first Shadow broadcast I remember listening to was “The Man Who Lived Twice,” which I recently hunted down online and played just to see if the show held up…and I’m sorry to report it does not. The plot, what little there is of it, regales listeners with the saga of “Slasher” Evans, an escaped convict who’s meaner than a junkyard dog and has an unpleasant habit of “slashing” the faces of his robbery victims if they give him too much static during holdups. (Hey…what are you going to do—those prisons are overrun with criminals!) A man named John Carlton, who’s Evans’ brother, gives Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man-about-town, and his “friend and companion” Margo Lane a tip that Evans might be hiding out somewhere in the Bayou…and quicker than you can say filet gumbo, our heroes track Evans down and witness his last-minute attempt to escape punishment for his nefarious deeds. The two of them return to inform Carlton of his brother’s demise, only Lamont is running a tad late—but the reason for this is he’s gone into Shadow-mode and reveals to Commissioner Weston that Carlton is the man he wants…the clever fiend was posing as his own brother! (Choice line from Ms. Lane: “Yes…yes, that could have been his plan.”) I will admit, though—no other program could pull off such a far-fetched story; it was good ole fashioned blood-and-thunder melodrama done to a turn.
As a tad, I thought the whole concept of The Shadow was cool beyond measure. Imagine being able to cloak yourself in invisibility through hypnosis and doing heroic things like fighting crime and sneaking into the girls’ locker room. As I would listen to subsequent broadcasts, I literally listened with my head on top of my clock radio—one ear on the program, the other serving as sentry for the eventual arrival of Dad Cop—and be fascinated by “the theater of the mind.” (Eventually I went and purchased some headphones so that my father couldn’t hear it…but it just wasn’t the same after that.)
WOUB even had a “Shadow Club” you could join, whereupon you would receive a membership card with a code printed on it so you could decipher secret messages announced after each broadcast. As you might expect, the content of these secret missives consisted of the same lame pronouncements found in that memorable scene in A Christmas Story (“A crummy commercial! Son of a bitch!”) but since this was public radio it was more like “Don’t forget to tune into the Boston Pops next week” or something like that. The station even gave away Shadow T-shirts, and I was the button-busting proud owner of one even though I could only wear it one time (when it emerged from the dryer the only one who could wear it afterward was the family cat). Sadly, neither the shirt nor membership card exist in the dusty TDOY archives…a casualty of the moves to Huntington, then Savannah, then Morgantown, then back to Savannah again.