Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ralphie, Annie and Pierre

My post about favorite old time kid radio shows failed to mention that I was a pretty big fan of Little Orphan Annie. How many of the hundreds of thousands who have watched A Christmas Story since it appeared in the '80s know why young Ralphie was thrilled to see Pierre Andre's signature on the letter welcoming him to the Orphan Annie Secret Society, qualifying him to decode the secret message at the end of the program. I am among that elite half dozen or so, either old enough or sufficiently into things that stopped being important long, long ago. (If they ever were.) Any decent, died-in-the-wool old time radio nut knows that network radio announcers were stars in those days. One of the great ones in Chicago was Pierre Andre. He worked at WGN for 30 years. With a name like that, as he read those secret code numbers, how could he help but have a voice and delivery well calculated to make you send your parents out for a can of Ovaltine. A letter with his signature would probably bring a good figure on eBay these days.

Friday, December 26, 2008

No Leg Lamp this Time

I asked Santa to bring me a leg lamp. He did not deliver the goods. Mrs. Santa probably intervened. You would think the old lady would have developed a decent sense of humor after a lifetime of living with old Jelly-belly.
Oh boy, a lamp in the form of a shapely female leg like the one young
Ralphie’s old man won in the “ A Christmas Story” movie is just what I need to complete my nostalgic toy room. I could set it between the 1941 Zenith Radio and the big picture of a 1930 Packard. Or maybe it would look good shining its light on my Hammond Organ from the 60’s. No, the only appropriate place for a leg lamp is near the four pictures of 50’s pin-up girl Bettie Page. She died last week at age 85 and keeping her images illuminated by the leg lamp would be just right. My nostalgia den would be the envy of every old boy who dreams of his own playroom.
It’s probably not fair that guys get away with being little boys with their toys forever while girls are supposed to grow up and become responsible, nurturing citizens. But hey, life is not fair. Never was, never will be. Marriage counselors should warn starry eyed young things about what guys are really like and how it gets worse as we age, so the girls can opt out before it’s too late.
Young Ralphie’s old man and his prized leg lamp are just one of the hilarious and charming scenes from Jean Shepherd’s Christmas tale. It started out as one of his late night radio monologues back in the 40’s, often about growing up in Hammond Indiana. The story eventually found its way into Shepherd’s book, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.” It became a holiday tradition 25 years ago, when he narrated the movie version. I just watched it again and I agree with those who say it's just as funny as before, even if you see it every year.

They made a big thing of the film’s 25th anniversary back in November, but Hammond, Indiana got short changed. It was celebrated in Cleveland, where most of the outdoor scenes were filmed. You could tour the family home where Ralphie lived, take a shot with his BB gun, meet some of the original cast members, and even ride in the fire truck that rescued Ralphie’s nutty friend Flick when he got his tongue stuck on the cold flagpole.
Some of the indoor scenes were shot in Canada. I know about that because of a discussion on the antique radio internet group that I check into. The big console radio that Ralphie listened to so he could decode the secret messages with his decoder ring was a 1940 Canadian Westinghouse model 780. Only an old boy who loves his toys could possibly care about a detail like that. Several of the guys in my online group have that same model in their antique radio collections. Remind me to look for one of those. But let us not tell my wife about it, eh?
The best part of the month long celebration and convention in Cleveland would have made me head South in a hurry if I had known about it in time. I could have come home with my own 45 inch full size Christmas Story leg lamp from the gift shop for a hundred bucks. Some of our local stores advertised a 20 inch, table lamp version for 40 bucks, a pretty poor substitute for the long, luscious one that Ralphie’s old man loved. I guess I should have bought myself one of those anyway, and just told Santa to forget it so he could restore domestic harmony at the North Pole with a “Yes, dear. You’re right, dear. No leg lamps this year, dear,”

Bugs's Greatest Hits

My best Christmas gift: Bugs Bunny drawn by my 9 year old grandson, Alex Lynn. The kid has talent. The printing on the music says Bugs Bunny's Greatest Hits.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Billy, Rick and Barack

The media pundits have already named Pastor Rick Warren the next Billy Graham. There's a funny story going around that when someone asked Billy Graham about Rick Warren he said, "Who?" I like that. I hope it's true.
Billy got burned by his involvement in presidential politics and he vowed never to do it again. Rick Warren is up to his armpits in presidential politics. The Reverend Mr. Graham is older and a whole lot wiser.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Changing times, racing chimes

NBC Television has started using the old NBC chimes, but those three notes that were so much a part of American life in radio's better days are now speeded up to keep up with our breakneck pace of living. I don't have an accurate stopwatch, but I'd say the original chimes took almost four seconds to play, while the current, souped-up TV version races by in just over one second. I spent far too much time trying to find a recording of Three Chimes of Silver, the song that Meredith Willson wrote for the NBC Network's 25th anniversary in 1951. I recall hearing it at that time. It appears that ASCAP or the Willson estate has the song locked up tight, making it unavailable. I hoped I might find a bootleg You Tube of it, but no luck. Surely there must be recordings of the NBC anniversary program that featured the song. Can you help me with this one, Harry? The chimes used in 1932 and thereafter were produced by an electro-mechanical device that was something like a glorified music box. It had rotating drums with little projections that plucked tuned reeds. You can hear those chimes along with earlier ones and the history of one of radio's most memorable sounds here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Henry and Fanny

Harry Heuser has asked me to talk more about favorite radio listening when I was growing up in the '30s and '40s. I wonder if it will be a surprise when I reveal that the most important program for my family, including me at a pretty young age, might well have been One Man's Family. It was a family drama, too good to be called a soap opera. Maybe we loved it because the Barbour clan of Seacliff San Francisco, with their conservative stock broker patriarch, liberal philosopher son Paul and his troublesome siblings were so vastly different from our life in rural Michigan. Whatever it was, it captivated us and a good part of the nation's listeners for 27 years.
The program was written by the very prolific Carlton E. Morse, who also turned out an adventure series, I Love a Mystery. That one seems to get more press from collectors and historians than the family drama. But all I remember about it is the theme song, Valse Triste, and the characters' names, Jack, Doc and Reggie. On the other hand, I can still become transported to California and find myself thinking about the Barbours as if they were real. That could indicate that I'm weird or that Morse was a great radio writer. Take your choice.
Some years ago I acquired a tape of Chicago radio historian Chuck Schaden's interview with Carlton E. Morse. He said that when he sat down at the typewriter to write the program he went into trance-like state and when he came out of it, an entire episode had virtually written itself.
Morse was so good at little things like names for his characters, maybe not so little after all. Even though it was radio and we could not hear the "U" in "Barbour," we saw it when we read about the program. We knew they were no ordinary Barbers. I became quite enchanted with Paul. If I could change my name, my persona and become a different person I would be about 45, handsome and wise. I would be Paul Barbour with a "U" in my last name. Paul's elusive love interest, his wife of a very short time having died, was Beth Holly. She was referred to but seldom appeared on the program by the time I started listening. There was something mysterious there. I thought "Beth Holly" was the prettiest name any woman could ever be given. Was she a girl-next-door, Doris Day type? No, Paul would choose a more exotic, Rita Hayworth look alike. One of the Barbour daughters, I don't remember if it was Hazel or Claudia, married a Brit, Nicholas Lacey. Another perfect name. Paul had a daughter, or maybe she was adopted, called Teddy. Oh, the teen age traces that she kicked over. I could look up all these details but it's more fun to speculate about it.
The program was introduced with, "One Man's Family is dedicated to the Mothers and Fathers of the Younger Generation and to their Bewildering Offspring." I don't know how staid old Father Barbour managed to avoid a heart attack over the things his bewildering offspring threw at him.
Morse had a gift for hiring the right actors, too. I never quite recovered when Michael Rafetto had to give up his role of Paul when his voice became too hoarse.
Russell Thorsen was alright in the role. But he was not Paul Barbour.
Let us assume that this is being read by persons much younger than I, as just slightly less than one hundred percent of bloggers are. They are now thinking, has this guy gone senile? Did my grandparents get that caught up in radio shows? First of all, we didn't call them shows. They were programs. There was "The Jack Benny Program." and "The Johnson's Wax Program with Fibber McGee and Molly." That's the way they were introduced on the air. If your doddering old grandparents speak of a favorite TV program, you can be pretty sure it comes from their radio listening days. There was a TV version of One Man's Family. If I ever saw it, it must have been forgettable.
I must get away from all this nostalgic wallowing and rejoin the real world. But I still like the Barbour's world better. California, here I come.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Old Time Kid Radio

Reviewing my youthful radio listening preferences forces me to admit that I was a weird kid. The Lone Ranger, touted by historians as the greatest of all the kid shows, didn't do much for me. Of the WXYZ shows, I liked the Ranger's great nephew, Britt Reid of the Daily Sentinel lots better. As The Green Hornet, he beat the cops at catching the bad guys with his Black Beauty vehicle that sounded like an overgrown bumble bee. I found crime fighting through investigative journalism far more appealing than catching bad guys with guns and horses in the Old West. Mike Axford's phony Irish accent when he spoke of "The Green Hairnut" was pretty funny. And there was Miss Case. Did she and Reid have a thing going? There was Kato, the Hornet's Japanese valet. Like some other radio characters, he had to change his ethnicity or disappear from the show, so he became a Filipino. Those were strange times. I'm glad I was there to experience it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Clifton Mercer's Daughter

I just found this comment from Cliff Mercer's daughter on my post about his work at WGN radio.

Sarah Mercer said...
This is Clifton Mercer's Daughter.My Father passed away peacefully he was a great man and loved his music and his carrer. Thank you for remembering

Sarah left no way for me to contact her personally so I do it here with the hope that she will see it. Thank you, Sarah. Your dad and I were both named Clifton, going through life with those two "F's" in the abbreviation, everyone assuming we are Cliffords. When I was a deejay and we got actual fan mail, I made a big thing on the air about spelling it with one "F." Which resulted in tons of mail addressed to Cliffffff Martin. I guess the post office wondered what that was all about.

Friday, December 12, 2008

R. I. P. Bettie Page

The greatest of all the pin-up girls has gone to that great, under the counter mens magazine in the sky. It's the end of an era. A sad day for us old guys and for Bettie's huge cult following of youthful fans, including lots of young women who want to look like her. Here is the Nurse Bettie get-well card drawn for me by Grand Rapids, Michigan artist Jack Snider when I was in the hospital. It was the start of what became my antique room/Bettie Page Shrine. I was saying so long to my troubled esophagus. Yes, it's possible to live without one. But I don't recommend it.
And here's a post imported from one of my other blogs, the "religious" one. More accurately, the one about religion.

Patsy and Bettie
Patsy and Bettie?? Now there's as unlikely a combination as you will find. Let me explain.I think I'm in love with Patsy Cline and I have the notorious Bettie Page, legendary pin-up girl to thank for it. I always liked Patsy's "I fall to pieces, " "Crazy" and some other songs but never paid a whole lot of attention her music. Then her most unusual treatment of the old gospel song, "Life's Railway to Heaven" showed up on the soundtrack of the Bettie Page film. I didn't recognize the voice but I had to know who that was. So I ran through the credits at the end again, and there it was. Patsy Cline. That song took me back to my Methodist Sunday School days. Usually sung quite fast in country gospel style, Patsy did it slow, plaintive, almost ballad-like with a backup vocal group making chugging train sounds.Gives me major goosebumps. Turns out that the Grand Canyon Railroad used her recording on their commercial. Thanks for the memory and the music, Patsy. And thanks to Bodacious Bettie.
Perhaps even more unlikely than a pairing of Ms. Page and Ms. Cline is the fact (I swear it's true) that I came home from church with several pages of Bettie Page tattoes that are available, given to me by our resident tatooed lady. Her name is not Lydia. I said to my poor old wife, "I think I will go under the needle." She said "I think you will sleep on the couch."

Monday, December 08, 2008

On The Media

I am a media freak. "Freak" being defined as a low class afficiando. A weekend "must hear" is NPR's On the Media. So much fascinating stuff that it makes my brain overload and swell up. Hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield offer an ingsightful and good humored look and listen into the wacky world of reportage and general media madness. Sometimes they resort to satire that is so bad it's good, leaving me laughing out loud. Last week's show ended with a badly sung but hilarious parody of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" all about the terrible things media is doing to our brains. It had me cackling so hard that it brought tears. I can hardly wait for next week's show to hear listener comments about it. The song is here.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Kate and Ted Show

I believe I have ATD. Associative Thinking Disorder. Everything reminds me of something else, often something that happened a great many years ago. I am at risk of becoming one of those boring speakers who says "that reminds me of a funny story" and then launches into an anecdote designed to wake up those in the audience who have been nodding off. Such stories are seldom memorable.
My funny story is inspired by Harry Heuser's mention of Kate Smith right here.
My mother and I listened to Kate Smith's mid-day talk program in the late thirties or early forties. Kate's announcer/co-host/mentor, who played a major role in making her America's beloved songbird, was Ted Collins. My mother, a pretty straight laced and proper woman of that era, was uncomfortable with all the happy talk between those two. She thought Kate was inappropriately giddy and giggly with that married man. Land sakes, land o'goshen and my stars and garters! Were Kate and Ted "carrying on?"

Monday, December 01, 2008

WGN's Cliff Mercer has died. The romance of radio.

I was doing my Saturday night show in Muskegon, Michigan in 1971, listening to WGN's legendary broadcaster, Franklyn MacCormack (that's the correct spelling) on the earphones. The "L" word is used too much, but he earned it. One of the great, golden voiced network announcers on "Jack Armstrong, the all American Boy" and many other shows, he became very successful after network radio went away, with his all night Meisterbrau Showcase on WGN. More than a few romances, marriages and probably some pregnancies were attributed to MacCormak's reading of song lyrics and poetry. I was not above stealing some of his knowledge of the big bands and immediately passing it off as my own on my show. He had worked with many of the great bands, announcing remote shows from the Chicago ballrooms. He became ill while doing his show that night and went home. Another old time "booth announcer" WGN staffer Cliff Mercer, came on the show and announced that Mac had died. He played tapes of Mac's big band remotes and continued to host the night show for several years.
I have wondered whatever happened to Mercer and couldn't find much about him. But WGN has now put an article about him and a link to what's listed as an interview on their website but it contains just a few words. It's here.
I did a shamelessly copied, poor man's version of Mac's late night schmaltzy music and poetry show, sponsored by a high class local jewlery store. I listen to the tapes sometimes and become reminded all over again that radio was, in every sense of the word, both broad and specific, a most romantic medium.