I’m pretty excited to feature another Twitter acquaintance on the blog this week, as this podcaster (whose real name and location have been withheld upon request) has so deviously snuck an all new, almost completely unexplored, hobby into my life.
Until I began to chat with @MeanStsOTRPod on Twitter, old-time radio dramas were something that I’d always heard about, but never really explored. Having spent a few years as a standup comedian, I’d always loved Jack Benny, so I’d heard a number of his old recordings. I also had a wonderful 8 cassette collection of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life radio game show until I literally wore it out.
Then I took a listen to @MeanStsOTRPod‘s post of an old episode of Nero Wolfe starring Bogie Film Blog favorite, Sydney Greenstreet. I knew that big time Hollywood actors from the classic era had done a lot of radio, but I’d never known that it could be this good.
@MeanStsOTRPod‘s influence eventually led to me checking out Bogart’s work in radio, and the subsequent posts on this blog that followed. So without further ado, let me introduce you to the podcaster behind Down These Mean Streets: An Old Time Radio Detective Podcast!
Bogie Film Blog: I have to admit, I really didn’t listen to much classic radio until I found you on Twitter, but now I’m slowly making my way through Bogart’s radio library. How did you start listening to old shows?
Down These Mean Streets: In elementary school, I read a book by Avi called Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? about a boy growing up in the 1940s. I can’t tell you much about the plot today, but what I remember vividly are the recreations of the old time radio shows the main character listened to each night: The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet…and The Shadow. I could not get that idea of an invisible crime fighter out of my head. The timing was perfect because it was the spring of 1994 and the movie version of The Shadow with Alec Baldwin was coming out that summer. I was too young to see it, but my parents bought me the novelization. (Remember those? With eight full pages of color photos from the movie!) I loved it and read it, and read it, and read it. I was the only fifth-grader who longed for the days of fedoras and gun molls.
My parents (thank God for them indulging a very nerdy son) found two collections of Shadow broadcasts (eight episodes each) and gave them to me for my birthday the next year. I remember popping the first cassette into my player and being immediately drawn into the world of the show. The episode was about a serial killer (keep in mind, The Shadow was a kids’ show!) who targeted celebrities and their most famous attributes (scalping a blonde actress, stabbing an opera singer in the throat). This was crazy stuff, but I devoured it, and I listened to those tapes over and over. I could close my eyes and watch the scenes play out; I could see Lamont Cranston fade away into nothing and watch as he terrified crooks with his menacing laugh.
A few years later, for another birthday gift, I received a twenty cassette/sixty show collection of “Old Time Radio’s Greatest Shows.” That was when my eyes (and ears) were truly opened. I heard Jack Benny, Johnny Dollar, Richard Diamond, The Saint, and dozens of others for the first time. At that point, I was off to the races. Today, I’ve built up a collection of a few thousand shows; my main interest is in detective shows, but I’m a big fan of comedies, Westerns, and adventure shows too.
BFB: That’s a pretty amazing collection for a kid to take in. What was it that pushed you from super-fan to podcaster?
DTMS: Two years ago, my best friend and I started a comedy podcast, and he did the heavy lifting in terms of editing the shows. I really wanted to learn how to edit and polish recordings, so I picked up a guidebook for Audacity (free editing tool available online). I wanted to record a demo to work on editing and adding in music cues, and I thought I’d play around with recording some intros to an old time radio show. I knew I could talk about them (if I’m not listening to one of these shows, chances are I’m reading about them), and I could try to match my commentary with the audio of the recording. It didn’t take long for my test to turn into the project itself. I loved researching and learning more about the shows and thought it would be a great way to share this interest of mine that I’ve cherished for most of my life. Once a few episodes went online and I started getting some comments and feedback, I realized I had an opportunity to connect with other old time radio fans and talk about our favorite shows. What started as a test to see if I could use Audacity has turned into a show that has been downloaded in 48 different countries.
I’m having a blast, and it looks like some folks have used the shows to get into old time radio, or at least to explore more of what’s out there. As someone who got into this hobby in the pre-Internet/podcast era, it’s so cool to see how many old time radio fans are out there and it’s encouraging to see people starting to get their feet wet in the world.
BFB: Speaking from my own personal (and often nerdy) experience, it’s an easy world to jump into and enjoy considering how many mainstream actors were participating in it at the time during the Classic Hollywood age. But I’m continually surprised by how many casual fans I’m bumping into on Twitter and in real life. What do you think is the real draw behind the shows?
DTMS: It’s a great question, since old time radio continues to attract new fans of all ages. For most people (myself included), I think radio is that rare dramatic medium where you as the audience member get to build your own casts and sets as you experience the story. Philip Marlowe looks the way you want him to look; you build the shot of his car tooling through the Hollywood hills. Even though it’s only audio, it engages more of you as an audience member because you’re building the visual. It truly is “theater of the mind” and you’re the casting and artistic director for the plays on your stage.
On the technical side, it’s amazing to hear how sound effects artists brought stories to vivid life; on the performance side, the versatility of these actors is unbelievable. Actors like Joseph Kearns and Paul Frees could serve as announcers in the same episodes they appeared in as guest stars. Some actresses, like Peggy Webber and Lurene Tuttle, played multiple supporting roles in a single episode. The talent pool in these shows is amazing, and while some went on to appearances in films and TV, radio is where many of them did their finest work and it’s a showcase of their talents.
BFB: What impresses me so much about the actors in these shows is that they seem to hold nothing back for radio. Bogart specifically continues to impress me with his passionate radio acting, as does Greenstreet. While reading Peter Lorre’s bio, I found it interesting that he made enormous amounts of time for radio, and seemed to love it almost as much as film. What do you think the appeal was for these bigger stars to work so hard for radio?
DTMS: You brought up Peter Lorre, and I think he’s a great example of an actor who enjoyed screen success but who still loved to come back to radio. One week he could be plotting his wife’s murder on Suspense, and the next he could be clowning around with Abbott and Costello. Radio gave actors a freedom they couldn’t always find on screen. Lorre usually had – well, the “Peter Lorre” part in movies, but he headlined on the air (including a 1947 anthology series called Mystery in the Air, where he starred in a different play each week). Radio afforded an opportunity for an actor to stretch and try something outside of their (or their audience’s) comfort zone. The public might not have wanted to see Jimmy Stewart as a smarmy SOB for a ninety minute feature, but he could play one on Suspense.
Radio was also a great promotion for the work actors were doing on the screen. Today, an actor may make the rounds on the late-night shows to promote a new movie. In the 40s, they could pop up on Jack Benny or Suspense, and there would always be a chance to plug their latest movie. In the late 1940s and 1950s, a number of detective shows cropped up featuring some A-list movie actors (Vincent Price, Dick Powell, Edmond O’Brien, Alan Ladd), and each show would close with a reminder for audiences to catch them in their latest film release.
BFB: Where do you find all the shows that you’ve been podcasting?
DTMS: Most of the shows I pick are from my own collection and are favorites of mine. In other cases, if I’m trying to find a specific episode, the Internet Archive is an incredible resource. Thousands of old time radio shows and public domain movies and TV episodes are available there for free (that’s just the tip of the iceberg…there are historical texts, there’s music; it’s definitely worth a visit to poke around). Some shows are off limits due to copyright (if I could, I’d love to do a retrospective of The Shadow), but most are in the public domain.
BFB: With so much to choose from, how do you go about making your selections about what to expose your audience to?
DTMS: One of the great things about doing this podcast has been hearing from folks on Twitter that they’re discovering a show after hearing it on “Down These Mean Streets.” That’s really cool, and it’s why I think carefully about which shows I’m going to feature. If I’m using a show for the first time, I try to find a good representative example of the series. For example, while it may be an interesting listen to a fan, an episode with a guest star subbing for the lead actor wouldn’t be the best introduction to that series. Sound quality comes into play; it’s great when the shows sound old, but sometimes there can be too much surface noise which, while authentic, robs the listener of the story and the performances.
My goal is to present a cross section of detectives. Most of the characters I’ve featured have been hard-boiled private eyes (my personal favorites), but there were so many great types of detectives and shows. On the show so far, we’ve had amateur sleuths, newspaper reporters, policemen, Texas Rangers, lawyers, and Sherlock Holmes. Generally, the feedback I’ve received about the variety has been good. Folks seem to like a mix of detectives. There are some who have made (and will make) multiple appearances, but I’m always looking for more examples of different kinds of shows. Next year, I’m hoping to have some radio versions of classic detective films to mix in with the regular shows.
In a few cases, folks have contacted me and asked for specific detectives (one of my listeners in Scotland wanted to hear a show called Casey, Crime Photographer). I love getting requests and encourage the listeners to drop me a note with an ask for a particular detective they’d like to hear.
BFB: Do you ever fear that there’ll come a day when the well runs dry and you’ve used up all the shows?
DTMS: Fortunately, the well isn’t anywhere close to running dry. I have the rest of 2013 scheduled and a preliminary schedule for the first six months of 2014 (again, that’s subject to change with listener requests). Even if I reached a point where I had run out of “new” shows to introduce, I have so many favorite episodes from other shows that I don’t think I could run out in this lifetime.
Also, believe it or not, “lost” shows from this period are being discovered and released. Recently, a few more episodes of Van Heflin’s single season as Philip Marlowe that were thought to be lost were uncovered. I’m hoping to get those on the podcast in the not too distant future. The list of shows to play on the podcast is long and (thanks to finds like this one) keeps getting longer!
BFB: It was an episode you posted of Sydney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe that specifically sucked me into old time radio. If someone wanted to listen who’s never listened before, is there a specific show you’d recommend?
DTMS: If there are no objections, I’m going to cheat and recommend a show each for comedies, dramas, thrillers, Westerns, and detective shows. Each one is great; listening to all of them should give you a pretty good overview of the Golden Age of Radio.
Comedy: The Jack Benny Program. Some of his material can be topical (Truman jokes don’t play in 2013 like they did in ’48!), but most of the humor is character and situation-driven. Plus, he had without a doubt the strongest supporting cast in radio. You can’t really go wrong if you fire up a Jack Benny episode, but a good intro might be the December 9, 1945 episode where Jack invites himself to dinner at Ronald Colman’s house.
Drama: Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater On the Air. It’s from the late 1930s and it offers some of the best examples of innovative writing, directing, and use of sound effects in radio. Of course, “The War of the Worlds” is the most famous of those shows, but there are some other great episodes. Welles opened the series with a wonderful adaptation of Dracula (July 11, 1938), in which he plays both Arthur Seward and Dracula himself.
Thriller: Suspense (I played two episodes on the podcast for a Halloween show). “Sorry, Wrong Number” was its most famous show, but spoilers over the years may have robbed it of its impact. I’m going to go with Orson Welles again and recommend “The Hitch-Hiker” from Suspense (September 2, 1942): spooky atmosphere, great sound effects, wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann, and a script so great Rod Serling used it for a first season episode of The Twilight Zone.
Western: Gunsmoke is the most well-known, but I’d recommend a short-lived show called Frontier Gentleman. It tells the story of a British newspaper correspondent as he travels the west and wires stories back to London. It’s a fantastically written series, and it has a great lead performance from actor John Dehner (a mainstay on TV from the 50s to the 70s). I’d go with “Aces and Eights” (April 20, 1958), where the main character meets (and plays a final game of cards) with Wild Bill Hickock.
Detective: If you had to pick just one, I’d say The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff. The dialogue is fast-paced, the mysteries are clever, and the film noir clichés are gently spoofed. There’s a lot in Duff’s wry performance and the weird characters he meets that reminds me of my favorite detective TV show of all time, The Rockford Files. It’s just a bit off-kilter but it still works in the genre of a hard-boiled detective show. (Fortunately, you don’t have to pick just one!)
BFB: Being a Bogart fan site, I have to ask, out of all the radio broadcasts that Bogart was a part of, do you have a favorite?
DTMS: A lot of Bogart’s old time radio appearances were recreations of his movies on Lux Radio Theater and other shows. I’ve really enjoyed the write-ups you’ve done for those shows on the blog. My favorite of the Bogart film recreations is a version of The Maltese Falcon from Academy Award Theater. Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet are back in their film roles, and it’s a very taut, well done condensed version of the movie. The writers throw Bogart some great first person narration (“a slick chick got sent up for life”). My favorite non-movie adaptation (and favorite Bogart radio appearance) is a Jack Benny episode (January 5, 1947) where Jack has Lauren Bacall over to his house for a rehearsal. Bogie drops by unexpectedly and sits in on practice:
Jack: Lauren, oh, what should I call you…Lauren, or Ms. Bacall?
Bogie: Mrs. Bogart.
BFB: Where can we keep up with you on web and keep tabs on the podcast?
DTMS: If you want to check out the show and learn more, you can head to our Tumblr where I blog about the shows featured on the podcast. You can subscribe to the show in the iTunes Store and on the Stitcher app for your iPhone or Android (reviews are definitely appreciated if you like what you hear). And if you want to see what’s coming up on the show, I’m on Twitter @MeanStsOTRPod and on Facebook. Feedback and questions are great. I’ve connected with so many great people who love old time radio through Twitter and it’s always good to find more!
BFB: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! I’m WAAAAAAYYYY behind on my episodes, but I try to get at least one or two in every road trip!
– What are you waiting for?!? There’s so much crossover behind Classic Film and Classic Radio that I can’t imagine fans from each wouldn’t find a lot in common! Go give the Down These Mean Streets Podcast a listen, a good review, and little extra love on Twitter!