Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Golden Age of Radio Drama Part I - The Mysterious Traveler

There were two places in the home of my youth where the family gathered. One, of course, was the kitchen table, where we shared not only good food, but great conversation.  The other, and second most important room was “The Den” – comparable to what might be advertised as a “Family Room” by present-day realtors. There, the center of attention was the tall, polished Philco radio receiver, filled with vacuum tubes which shone brightly enough to invite a warning knock on the door during a war-time “black out”.  Since our residence was almost within line-of-sight of such famous and powerful New York City radio “voices” as WABC, WJZ, WCBS, WNBC, WQXR and others, reception was pretty good except during storms and the attendant static.
            What I will always think of as the “theatre of the mind” – or radio drama – really grew out of a written art form known as “pulp fiction”, serialized stories in a range of genres, from “Detective Mysteries”, and “Cowboy Westerns” to “True Romance”, “Science Fiction” and everything in between. With the economy of the late 20s and early 30s in the trash heap, some very fine authors found themselves without a marketplace until the so-called pulp era publications with their lurid artwork came along.  Such famous names as Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and dozens of other gifted writers and story-tellers were able to keep bread on the table while the public, desperate for low-cost entertainment, couldn’t get enough of it.
            The magic of radio opened up another whole world for both writers and out-of-work actors, as well as musicians looking for a gig.  And of course a listening public totally in tune with this new “stay-at-home” art form became hooked.  On more than one occasion, family members with “connections” would take me with them to New York City broadcasting studios where as a very young kid I could watch through the glass as a group of people holding typed scripts in their hands gathered around and shared a single microphone, while a sound effects man (more about this later) occupied his own corner behind a table filled with objects capable of sheer aural wonder.
            Together, we laughed at “Fibber McGee & Molly”, “Baby Snooks” and “Can You Top This”, and came running when we heard the frantic call “Henry! Henry Alderich!” followed by the querulous reply “Coming Mother!”  I have to admit though that glorious shivers ran up my spine on Saturday nights as the sounds of a distant but approaching steam train came from the Philco’s speaker, followed by the clickity clack of the train pulling into the station, and the deep, creepy, sonorous voice of an actor named Maurice Tarplin inviting me aboard: “I am the mysterious traveler, and I have a story to tell; won’t you come aboard?”
            Thus a weekly tale of mystic mayhem and hair-raising malice would come into our den, and I would be mesmerized, as much by Tarplin’s sinister voice and the sound of a steam whistle as by the weird and wonderful tales he would narrate.  Originating in NYC and carried by Mutual Broadcasting stations around the country like our local WOR, the series was a national favorite from 1942 to 1945, proof that no other medium could generate the level of terror created by the listener’s own vivid imagination during the golden days of radio drama.

Realizing a life-long dream, Al Cooper can be heard hosting his own radio program each Monday at 4:00 PM on Cedar City’s 590 AM Talk Radio.

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