Images from the Golden Age of Radio

Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, and Frances Langford.

Before iPhones, before top 40 or talk radio, before television transformed the look and dynamic of mid-20th century America’s dens and living rooms, radio dominated the entertainment landscape. It was a completely different animal then than it is today.

Radio, in its “Golden Age,” had the impact HDTV and the internet would in the early 21st century. Its stars were featured on the covers of magazines and were household names. In fact, there were magazines completely dedicated to the medium and its stars. 

Before radio, home entertainment consisted of gathering ‘round the piano for a family sing—sheet music sales were the measuring stick of a song’s popularity—or, if you owned one, listening to the Victrola. Radio, for the first time in history, brought drama, adventure, comedy, musical variety, and live news reports into people’s homes—for free! 

But radio of the 1930s, '40s and '50s was truly unique in that it mined human imagination in a way that no other medium has, before or since. The playwright Jerome Lawrence, who began his career as a radio writer, put it best: 

      Radio has wings. It has no stage to keep it within the limits of a proscenium arch, 
      no camera to confine to things that may be seen. The imagination of the listener is 
      our most ardent and helpful collaborator.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when airwaves ruled the earth! 

NBC's West Coast Radio City, which opened in 1938 in Los Angeles, served as headquarters to the National Broadcasting Company's Red and Blue Radio Networks' West Coast operations. 

CBS Columbia Square, home of the Columbia Broadcasting System Radio Network's West Coast facilities beginning in 1938.

Brittingham's Radio City Restaurant, CBS Columbia Square, Hollywood, CA

The American Broadcasting Company was created in 1943 from the former NBC Blue radio network.

1940 Zenith model 6S439 tabletop radio.

*   *   *

By 1932 radio posed a real threat to the motion picture industry. Depression-era consumers now had the option of being entertained in their living rooms for no charge, rather than spending their hard-earned dollars at the the movies. Adopting an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach, Paramount gathered together a half dozen of radio's biggest stars and offered audiences the opportunity to see them on the big screen in The Big Broadcast. The gamble paid off, and three sequels followed.

*   *   *

Pencil portrait of Jack Benny in the Waukegan History Museum, Waukegan, IL

Jack Benny

If the word superstar had been in use in the 1930s and ‘40s, it no doubt would have been frequently employed to describe erstwhile vaudevillian Benjamin Kubelsky from Waukegan, Illinois—better known to the world as Jack Benny. His weekly comedy program was nearly always at or near the top of Hooper’s, and later Nielson’s ratings, and in it he popularized the concept of character based comedy. Playing a vain, penny-pinching radio personality who was a lousy violinist to boot (in reality he was a modest, generous man who played the violin quite well), Benny was willing to be the butt of the jokes while others got the laughs. The colorful cast of characters with whom he surrounded himself was more than up to the task: Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and real-life wife Mary Livingstone became almost as well known as Jack himself, and Harris and Day would eventually have programs of their own. Benny would make a successful transition to television in 1950. 

Jack with fellow radio star Edgar Bergen (and Bergen's "co-star," Charlie McCarthy),  movie star/executive Mary Pickford, and the imperial potentate of the Shriners (1938).

Jack arrives in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois with Dennis Day en route to the world premier of his new picture, Buck Benny Rides Again, 1939.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, an integral and popular member of Benny's cast.

Jack and "the gang."

From a set of 1947 NBC radio promos, illustrated by Sam Berman.

Joseph Kearns, a frequent extra on the Jack Benny program.

An LP by The Sportsmen, who, coaxed by announcer Don Wilson, would show up in the middle of Jack's program to harmonize on some variation of sponsor Lucky Strike's jingle . . . to Jack's slow-burn chagrin.

*   *   *

Ruth Etting

*   *   *

Fred Allen

Benny’s supposed archrival (an ongoing faux feud played out on their respective programs) and fellow vaudeville alumnus, Fred Allen was one of the medium’s greatest wits. In his popular Town Hall Tonight and later Texaco Star Theater programs, he featured his own uniquely flamboyant coterie of characters, populating the fictional “Allen’s Alley”: Mrs. Nussbaum, Titus Moody, thespian Falstaff Openshaw (played by Alan Reed, later the voice of TV’s Fred Flintstone), Senator Claghorn (the model for Warner Brothers cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn), and Allen’s own wife, Portland Hoffa. His “Town Hall News” segment was a forerunner to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In's "Laugh-In Looks at the News" and Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update.” The Fred Allen Show was the #1 radio program of the 1947-48 season according to the Hooper ratings, but within two years he was off the air for good. He died of a heart attack in 1956 at the age of 61.

Illustrator Sam Berman's depiction of Allen and his alley, from a set of 1947 NBC radio promos.

*   *   *

Rudy Vallée

*   *   *

Burns & Allen

George and Gracie with pal Jack Benny.

*   *   *

Above: The front cover and first page of a booklet expounding the necessity of radio in wartime, circa 1943. Below: WDZ's inner workings and personnel, from a 1938 booklet. Located in Tuscola, Illinois, WDZ was one of the first radio stations in the United States.

*   *   *

Bob Hope

Bob Hope's 1941 autobiography, with an introduction by Bing Crosby. 

Bob poses with his brother/producer Jack, and Jack Benny, prior to a Hope TV special in April of 1954.

A circa 1940s Bob Hope ceramic figurine.

A Bob Hope collector card from the 1950s.

With Frances Langford and Bing Crosby, 1940s.

*   *   *

Kate Smith

*   *   *

The Great Gildersleeve

A spinoff of the popular Fibber McGee and Molly program, The Great Gildersleeve was a warm and humorous idyll of small town life in mid-1900s America, and possibly the very first sitcom. A slightly pompous but big-hearted bachelor and would-be Lothario, portly Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (played by Harold Peary from 1941-50, Willard Waterman from 1950-57) was thrust into guardianship of his orphaned teenage niece Marjorie and ‘tween nephew Leroy, assisted only by his housekeeper, Birdie. He attempted to balance work (water commissioner of the fictional Midwestern town of Summerfield), love life (frequent suitor of several eligible women), and child rearing. "Gildy's" circle of friends, who from 1944 comprised the "Jolly Boys" club, included his rival in romance and best friend Judge Horace Hooker, pharmacist Mr. Peavey, Police Chief Gates, and barber Floyd Munson (played by Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Warners cartoon character Elmer Fudd). Often ending up in amusingly compromising and embarrassing situations by his own hand, Gildy’s antics and mishaps bear a striking resemblance to those of later TV sitcom characters such as Frazier

A bust of the great manthreatened by the ominous figure of nephew LeRoyas envisioned by artist Sam Berman, from a set of 1947 NBC radio promos.

Gildersleeve ads on lids of sponsor Kraft's products.

*   *   *

Eddie Cantor

*   *   *

1946 Philco model 1201 combination radio-record player. 

*   *   *

Bing Crosby

Multi-media star Bing Crosby’s various radio programs were among the most popular of the musical-variety format for nearly 30 years—longer than any other radio personality's. His relaxed banter with announcer Ken Carpenter and bandleader/musical arranger John Scott Trotter—not to mention his mellifluous voice and way with a melody—compelled nearly one third of the U.S. population to tune in regularly. All the major stars of the day appeared on Bing's shows—his many guests over the years included Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Errol Flynn, Ella Fitzgerald, Cecil B. DeMille, Bette Davis, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Frank Sinatra, John Garfield, Maureen O'Hara, Nat "King" Cole, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Fred Allen, Louis Armstrong, Betty Grable, Les Paul, Groucho Marx, and Bing's own long-time “rival,” Bob Hope. 

Crosby also pioneered the pre-recording of radio programs, something which was met with plenty of resistance from the powers that were. As Fortune magazine put it in its January 1947 issue: By common consent [Crosby] is the head man of American entertainment in just about every branch but sidewalk magic. But none of the other achievements measures up to the magnitude of his assault on the established framework of radio. For two decades the tycoons of the ether have snuffed out rebellions like so many cigarettes; it took Crosby to bring them to heel [ . . . ] That he had his way is the clearest testimony that he is the No. 1 man in entertainment -- certainly, as Variety called him, 'Mr. Radio himself.' Radio is a tough business, and characteristically merciless to nonconformists. That the whole roster of radio stars is planning to follow Crosby's lead next year [in transcribing their programs for broadcast on later dates] is plain enough tribute to his leadership.

Bing with bandleader Jimmy Grier in the early 1930s.

Bing (at mic) rehearses a number for his Kraft Music Hall radio program with Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra in 1936 or '37.

The Crooner and the Swooner: Crosby and Sinatra harmonize in 1943.

Bing with Gary Cooper in 1947.

With Bob Hope, circa 1950.

*   *   *

 Admiral model 6S12 N combination radio-record player, circa 1950. 

All items are from the collection of Jon Oye, excepting the following: the photo of Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and Mary Pickford; the photo of Benny deplaning; the photo of Eddie Anderson; the Sam Berman caricature of Benny; the Movie and Radio Guide cover featuring Rudy Vallée; the Great Gildersleeve lobby card and movie poster.
Original photos remain the property of their respective copyright owners.

No comments: