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September 17, 2013 | 01:23 PMEditor's note: Gordon Ammon, a longtime lakes area resident, has written a book entitled "Snapshots: The Cold War and Eisenhower Years in Williams Bay 1947-1961." The Regional News is publishing excerpts. "Snapshots" is available for $45 by contacting Ammon at firstname.lastname@example.org. A DVD is included. The book is reproduced on an order-by-order basis.
What evil lurks in the hearts of men?
"The Shadow knows!"
Television was a marvel, to be sure, but not everyone could afford it. And, like my father, not everyone was convinced that the technology was reliable enough to justify such a large investment.
At a time when a median income in the U.S. was about $2,400 per year, a new television set sold for between $450 and $500. Our family had no TV until I was nine years old. I was not alone.
Most of my schoolmates and I grew up with radio, following the exploits of super crime fighters like Lamont Cranston. The only "screen" we had was our imagination. Each of us was left to "see" in our mind's eye what was happening as the radio filled our ears with narrative and sound effects to match.
The master of this medium was Jack Benny. No one could use space and time the way he could. We heard the footsteps as Jack walked down a deserted street. Then a second pair of footfalls were added. The dialogue began, "Put 'em up, mister!" To which Jack replies, "But, wait, what's this?" "Never mind!" said the robber, "It's your money or your life, pal!" This was followed by a long, long pause — silence.
In frustration, the robber threatened in an even more menacing voice, "I said, your money or your life!!" To which Jack Benny finally answered, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"
We ran home from school to listen to "Tom Mix" or "The Lone Ranger," maybe "Straight Arrow" or Bobby Bensen from the "B-Bar-B Ranch." "Captain Midnight" offered a secret decoder ring if you sent in the requisite number of labels from jars of Ovaltine along with a quarter.
I remember thinking that the ring would never come. Finally, at last, the day arrived and I had my magical decoder! Now I could unscramble the clues from the Captain, given at the conclusion of each episode.
Over the next several days I carefully listened and clicked the bezel on my ring to the position that revealed the letter contained in the secret message. Gradually, ever so slowly, as the days passed, I was able to assemble the letters shared between the Captain and myself. It read: "Drink Ovaltine."
"Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane! No, it's Superman! Strange visitor from another world, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, run faster than a speeding locomotive and bend steel in his bare hands!"
I was to learn the downside of TV when we finally got our first set. "Superman" was just debuting on the flickering box and I was thrilled to have the chance to see my hero perform all the deeds my vivid imagination had conjured while listening to the radio. I recall the overwhelming disappointment I felt the first time I tuned in to watch George Reeves as the caped crusader. It began with George's wrinkly outfit and his struggle to "fly" or burst through horribly fake walls. this show could be called many things, but super was certainly not one of them.
Here are some of the top program offerings we huddled around the radio to enjoy.
Fred Allen, Bob Hope and, of course, Burns and Allen provided us with no end of laughter.
George: "Did you get your shampoo?" Gracie: "Yes, I didn't have any choice."
George: "What do you mean!" Gracie: "I asked, but they said they didn't have any real poo ..."
Fibber McGee and Molly always started the same way, with McGee opening the front hall closet, which promptly emptied itself in a crash, to Molly's always thinly veiled frustration. Amos 'n Andy came to us at a time before we knew how wrong it was, made a little the worse for two white actors playing the title characters.
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy added the hijinks of ventriloquism and occasional visits from Moritmer Snerd to our listening pleasure.
Then there was a musical potpourri of popular songs on "Your Hit Parade." "Here's Snookie Lanson, Giselle McKenzie and Dorothy Collins to sing 'If I knew You Were A'comin', I'd A'baked a Cake!"
One of the other very real virtues of radio was that you did not have to stare at it to enjoy the entertainment.
While the ladies of the day took care of hearth and home, they were free to do their chores while keeping abreast of the daytime soap operas like "The Romance of Helen Trent," "My Gal Sal," "Stella Dallas," Ma Perkins" or maybe, "Portia Faces Life." Walter Winchell gave us the latest gossip on celebrities and spicy news items: "Hello Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea ...," while Kate Smith could be counted on to deliver her inspiring rendition of "God Bless America."
Game shows like "Kay Kaiser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge" let us play along with the studio audience. Then there was "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons" and Jimmy Durante, with his oh so predictable sign-off: "Inka-dinka-do, and a good night Mrs. Calibash, wherever you are!" Our listening enjoyment continues with "Duffy's Tavern" and "Abbot and Costello," offering their timeless repartee on baseball: "Whose on first?" asks Lou. "That's right!" Bud quickly answers. In frustration, Lou blurts out, "What's the name of the guy on first?" "No, no," bud explains, "What's on second!"
We sat in darkened rooms, by the glow of the radio dial, laughing, sometimes crying and occasionally even shuddering at the voices and sounds that both fired and filled our imaginations.
The one crucial requisite of radio that the newer, more powerful technologies to come simply did not have was this: to enjoy radio you had to be a participant in order to participate.
You needed acute listening skills, a very well-developed attention span, patience and above all, you had to "fill in the blanks: between the dialogue and the sound effects. There was no visual content to hinder our mental gymnastics.