Friday, September 26, 2008

Tanned, rested and ready

First of all, I want to apologize for being away from the blog for so long. That old trouble of mine has been kicking up again—that’s right, pure ol’ bone-natural laziness. I ceased blogging about ten days ago because I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say and by the time I did have something to say, I was busy finishing up liner notes for the October Premier Collection from First Generation Radio Archives. (I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone, but I can tell you that the release is going to be a real pip.) So I’d also like to thank devoted TDOY followers like Jeff, Ron and the ubiquitous Pam (who scolded me properly, saying that the least I could do was post a brief message saying all was well and I’d get back to normal posting once the brouhaha died down) for being concerned enough to e-mail me or leave a comment asking if everything was all right.

With the completion of projects for both FGRA and Radio Spirits, I’m pleased to report that the old-time radio bug has bitten me again. Most of the vast TDOY OTR holdings were offered up for sale during Operation Clutter, a situation that I knew I would come to regret later but still had to be done (since I had precious little room for the stuff to begin with). I did manage to keep some old-time radio CDs, and every now and then I’ll find some of them stashed away in some boxes that are in a semi-unpacked status in the closets here at Rancho Yesteryear—but the majority of the collection is currently making itself at home at my father’s newly-rented storage area here in Athens (my Britcom collection, sad to say, lives right next to it).

So, when you get a hankering to listen to OTR, there are several avenues available. There’s the WRVO Playhouse, which is carried online but currently broadcasts around 10pm (a time when I’m usually finishing up watching my news shows of choice) and there are several Shoutcast stations who dip into Radio’s Golden Age as well. But seeing as how I prefer to program my own preferences, I decided to download some mp3’s from various and sundry sites (thanks to Jeff Kallman for the suggestions), particularly http://www.archive.org/, which maintains that their OTR material is in the public domain even though I know that some of it is not.

Among the goodies I found were the complete radio run (1974-76) of Dad’s Army, the venerable Britcom about the misadventures of members of Britain’s Home Guard during World War II. Those of you who have read the blog over the years probably know that I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to comedy, and I’d honestly have to say that Army is my favorite Britcom of all time. The radio series is every bit as good as the TV version, and when the first and second series was released on Region 2 DVD (as Dad’s Army: The Complete First Series Plus the “Lost” Episodes of Series Two) the radio versions of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker,” “A Stripe for Frazer” and “Under Fire” were released on the disc to replace the missing (presumed wiped) TV episodes. (Archive.org also has the complete radio run of All Gas and Gaiters—based on the 1966-71 ecclesiastical comedy which, sad to report, only exists in eleven televised installments—and some selected episodes of Steptoe and Son.)

On the American side of radio, I downloaded some interesting shows including the full run of The Mel Blanc Show—a 1946-47 sitcom featuring the famed second banana (Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, etc.) as the proprietor of a fix-it shop who usually created more chaos than repairs. I’ve written about Blanc’s program in the past and while I’ve warmed up to it a little more than previously stated; I still have to agree with Harlan “The Voice” Zinck, who opined that “with the cast that show had, it should have been much better.” I’ve been enjoying listening to the antics of Jim Backus on the series—he played a Beau Brummel-type named “Hartley Benson” whose purpose on the program was to beat Mel’s time with Mel’s fiancée Betty Colby (Mary Jane Croft). Backus’s take on the character is sort of a Ronald Colman-type, and I have to admit laughing out loud at it even though his material isn’t particularly strong. (I also like the shows in which Mel’s future Flintstones compadre, Alan Reed, played the Russian piano teacher, Mr. Potchnik.)

The biggest surprise in all these downloads is a series that I was aware of but had honestly never given a listen to—The Magnificent Montague, a wet-your-pants-funny sitcom starring character great Monty Woolley as a ham Shakespearean actor (Edwin “The Magnificent” Montague) who’s been out of work for so long that he’s forced to take a job on an afternoon radio program playing a distaff Ma Perkins dubbed “Uncle Goodheart.” This series is positively hysterical; it was created and written (with an assist from Billy Friedburg) by Nat Hiken, who of course went on to greater glories in television with The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You? I don’t see Montague mentioned much in articles that deal with Hiken, and it’s a damn shame—Woolley is dead solid perfect as Montague (channeling Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner) and is aided and abetted by a fabulous supporting cast in Anne Seymour (who plays his wife), Pert Kelton (as their maid Agnes—who appears to be the twin sister of Thelma Ritter), John “Ethelbert” Gibson (“Don’t hit me!”), John Griggs, Gavin Gordon, Art Carney, Bob Hastings and many more. Kelton, Gibson and Griggs had previously worked with Hiken on The Milton Berle Show and Texaco Star Theater (the 1948-49 incarnation with Berle), and one episode (December 22, 1950) features an appearance from Berle Show alumnus Arnold Stang as a bratty little monster Montague takes home on Christmas by mistake. (I also thought a January 19, 1951 episode featuring Montague in Hollywood was riotous—particularly the performance of Alan Reed, who plays an unctuous studio head: “Whatever you want—you’re my boy!”) Plus, if you ever wondered what Don Pardo did before Saturday Night Live—well, you can add Montague to his resume.

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