30 September 2012

The Day the Spoken Word Died

Fifty years ago tonight, the world changed forever: On this date came the end of the last two radio shows we in America consider part of the "Golden Age" of vintage radio drama and comedy. Just like vaudeville before it and silent film before that, the world saw the end of one extremely popular form of entertainment as it was replaced by another (in this case, television).

While radio broadcasts had been around for several years, commercial broadcasting did not begin until 1920. The few stations that existed during that time had little idea of what to broadcast -- music being one of the first ideas. Stations began experimenting with other subjects, broadcasting radio versions of popular plays, then original plays, finally coming up with the concept of the variety show (some music, some spoken works). Programming continued erratically for most of the decade.

With the advent of the 1930s (and the conveniently timed Depression), radio content exploded. Families unable to afford other forms of entertainment saved their scarce money and purchased a radio -- the source of otherwise free entertainment as well as much-needed news and contact with the rest of the country.

The period from roughly 1930 to roughly 1955 is considered radio's Golden Age. Literally thousands of actors from vaudeville began appearing on radio, with a not-insignificant number becoming huge stars, helping to redefine the idea of "entertainment." The power of radio was unquestionably understood the night of 30 October 1938 with the airing of the innocent (but quickly infamous) dramatization of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" by the then-scarcely-known (but quickly infamous) Orson Welles.

By then, radio was certainly ubiquitous: news, sports, weather, farm reports, music -- as well as the more famous comedies and dramas -- were everywhere. Newspapers feared for their survival owing to the reductions in revenue as advertisers moved their money to the juggernaut that was radio.

(Other countries, as well, hopped on the radio bandwagon with productions in England, France, Germany, Australia and many others.)

Radio grew up with the advent of war (Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts from war-torn Britain). Radio played two major roles in the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor: the Japanese bombers pinpointed Hawaii from far out in the ocean by latching onto the broadcasts of a Hawaii radio station; and radio brought the first news of the attack to America and the world.

Inevitably, television became the dominant entertainment medium in the home, and radio slowly faded away -- although quite a number of early television programs were versions of popular radio shows. For example, the most popular comedy on television ever, "I Love Lucy," was a variant of Lucille Ball's popular radio program "My Favorite Husband."

After the end of the Golden Age, there were attempts to bring back radio drama in America including the unsuccessful Theater Five (1964–1965), and the highly successful CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974–1982).

While such a wealth of radio drama and comedy will never be prominent in America again, we can still enjoy the richness of radio owing to transcription disks capturing performances (to be broadcast at "this more convenient time"); and many groups and clubs that occasionally produce live-versions of vintage radio or even new scripts.

For your enjoyment, here are the final episodes of "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" and "Suspense" that aired 50 years ago tonight:

20 September 2012

Happy Birthday, Maggie Cheung!

Birthday greetings go out to the most beautiful woman in the world (pictured).

15 September 2012

A Bit of Orson Welles

For many years, I've had a saying that goes something like this: "It's one thing to think you know everything, it's quite another when you actually do." I use this when referring to people who present themselves as larger-than-life know-it-alls (actors, writers, other people with talent) who come off as pompous but who really are as good as they think they are.

Probably the first time I used this phrase was in referring to the "boy wonder" of radio, theater and cinema: Orson Welles (pictured) -- one of the very few creative talents of the 1930s and 1940s who was all those things he said about himself and so much more.

It's hard to argue the perfection of his first film "Citizen Kane" (1941) -- especially once you become familiar with the history of the period, the story behind the movie (William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies) and the fury this film caused in Hollywood. You don't piss off that many people with a single movie unless you've done something pretty amazing with it. (It has since come to be considered the most perfect example of filmmaking in the 20th century.) In his later years, he began to believe too much of his own blustery puffery and started down a long path toward creative oblivion; but there was a window when he was brilliant and we are lucky so much of his creative output from that time survives.

As you know, I'm a huge fan of vintage radio comedy and drama (especially from the 1930s and 1940s); one of my favorites being (arguably the best of the lot) "The Jack Benny Show." Recently, I've been listening to a group of episodes from March and April 1943 -- a period of weeks when Benny did not appear owing to his severe illness. (On the show they refer to the illness as a cold, but it seems he actually got a very bad case of pneumonia from touring the military camps with his show.)

Welles was asked to appear on the show in place of Benny in what became one of the greatest examples of radio work in all the annals of broadcasting. In these four consecutive episodes, Welles is presented as a character who is all the things people said about him derisively: vain, perfect, multi-talented, perfectionist, know it all. I doubt Welles was really like this (just as Benny himself wasn't a penny pincher in real life); but the Welles character created in these episodes is brilliantly funny. (And all the other regulars in the cast rise to the occasion and are fantastic.)

Here are links to all four of these episodes so you can hear how the character is introduced and then how his pomposity builds and builds. It's a tribute to the talented writers (Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, in their last year with Benny) who were able to take his temporary loss and create some fantastic episodes of comedy.

13 September 2012

Color Film -- in 1901?

Any fan of early cinema will remember that there were many instances of color on film. It was a common practice to hand tint film stock to achieve the appearance of flame or a night sky. What few people know, however is that actual real-life color images had been put on film as early as 1901 or 1902, thanks to the pioneering work of Britisher Edward Turner. Film shot by Turner languished after his death in 1903, eventually being donated to the London Science Museum in 1937, where it remained in storage until a few years ago. Then, the National Media Museum got hold of the film, digitized it and made it available to be seen by the public.

The process used by Turner was clunky and unreliable, but provided vivid images of true-color life, as demonstrated by the image of the scarlet macaw, shown.

You can read more about this early work in color film here.

12 September 2012

And Now, a Word from the Designer

The very talented young man who designs the super covers to my books is featured in an online interview that you can read here. His name is Matt Hinrichs and, yes, we're married. Does that make me biased in any way? Nope. He really is that talented.

05 September 2012

"Sarah & Gerald"

Hey! Just wanted to let you know my newest novel just published! It's called "Sarah & Gerald" and is something of a love story about two Americans in Paris after the first world war. You can read more about it here.

P.S. I'm just diggin' the great cover done by my spouse Matt.

01 September 2012


We just got our advance copy of 2 Broke Girls: The Complete First Season on DVD so Matt can write a review of it. I'm stoked!