Old-time radio buffs celebrate its heyday
“Enter the theater of your own imagination,” beckons Murray Horwitz every Sunday evening. Listeners tune into shows like “Gunsmoke,” “Superman” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” on WAMU/88.5 FM’s “The Big Broadcast.”
Rapt listeners can ride along in a patrol car with detective Joe Friday as he tracks down a murder suspect on “Dragnet,” or follow U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon’s confrontation with a stagecoach robber in Dodge City, Kansas, on “Gunsmoke.”
“All you need are ears, and your mind will conjure up the locations, the faces and the situations exactly as you think they should be,” said Michael Hayde, president of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.
The 120 members of the club are perhaps the most ardent devotees of the local station’s longest-running program. The club was founded in 1984 to collect, preserve, promote and exchange radio-related materials from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — radio’s Golden Age.
“[Radio] brought us entertainers that remained vital well into the television era, and the best of their radio work can still entertain,” Hayde said.
Radio’s role in history
From comedies to dramas, radio shows were “instrumental in bringing our nation through a Depression and at least two wars,” Hayde added.
“During the Depression, even in the poorest areas, people still bought radios, usually on an installment plan, so that they could have some form of escape from harsh reality.”
Throughout World War II, when the federal government required rationing and restricted people’s travel, free radio shows brought relief from life’s troubles.
The airwaves were filled with news, dramas, quiz shows, mystery serials, variety shows, talent shows, live music, situation comedies and more. Programs like “The Lone Ranger,” “The Jack Benny Program,” “Our Miss Brooks” and “The Kraft Music Hall” captivated listeners for hours as families gathered around the radio.
Such radio programming also spawned many future television stars, including Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Arthur Godfrey and Bing Crosby.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is credited as the first U.S. president to capitalize on the full potential of radio, communicating directly to the people without the filter of an editor or reporter.
In his “fireside chats,” aired from the White House between 1933 and 1944, he used a calm voice and down-to-earth vocabulary to comfort and inform Americans right in their living rooms.
In 1958, 96% of American homes had radios — more than those with cars, telephones or bathtubs, according to the World Book Encyclopedia that year. At the same time, from the mid-50s on, television gradually displaced radio as the dominant broadcasting medium in homes, thus ending the Golden Age of Broadcasting.
Recreations and performances
Today, Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club members, whose average age is in the mid-60s, pay $20 in annual dues. They meet monthly in Arlington, Virginia (during coronavirus times, they meet online via Zoom), to listen to talks about vintage shows, performers and related topics, such as the history of radio in automobiles or the personal lives of favorite actors.
At some meetings, they do live recreations, acting out old scripts or using new dramas that members write based on old shows. They are adept at finding original scripts in various archives, for example, from the NBC Network collection now at the Library of Congress.
Some members have closets full of sound effects equipment, such as blocks to simulate footsteps and a portable door that creaks when opened.
Until the recent pandemic, they would perform at retirement centers and other venues, including the Library of Congress’s National Audio-Visual Center in Culpeper, Virginia, which has a 205-seat theater that resembles a 1930s movie house, with ornate chandeliers, cloth wall covers and red velvet curtains.
The club maintains a lending library for members with more than 2,000 audio tapes, CDs, CD-ROMS, books, periodicals and scripts, all housed in a member’s Alexandria home.
As hobbyists, members collect vintage radio shows, which is relatively easy today with the Internet, Hayde said. At archive.org, for instance, they can download some old shows for free. For the best sound quality, Hayde recommends Radio Spirits, a company he calls “the pre-eminent dealer of ‘old time’ on compact disc.”
The club publishes a bimonthly journal titled Radio Recall, which carries articles like “The Day Lou Costello Cried on the Radio” (his son had drowned in a swimming pool) or juicy news about a former radio star.
The club also sends out a newsletter, “Gather ’round the Radio,” vie email. It always begins with “Hello, fine listeners” and reports on miscellaneous trivia. One example: “Scriptwriter Howard Koch…was given six days to complete the adaptation of the H.G. Wells story ‘War of the Worlds’ for the Oct. 30, 1938 broadcast.”
Members are regulars at the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, which will be a virtual event this year on Sept. 25 and 26. The event will have videos of celebrities from past conventions and live interviews with some notables, not yet finalized.
Their passion may be “old time radio,” but to Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club members, it never gets old.
For more information, visit mwotrc.com.