In the first grade, I had trouble understanding what this school stuff was all about. Sylvia Gardner was the star of the class. She was always the first to shoot up her hands with the right answer. Old Sylvia tried to help me, but I couldn’t quite understand how one plus one made two. Two plus two making four was really going off the deep end. With reading, our little book had a storyline that I could follow. “See Dick,” it read. “See Dick Run. Run, Dick, Run.” Okay, I got that. But what if Dick stopped running? Did that mean I had to learn a bunch of new words? This was a scary thought.
One good thing about the first grade. There was no homework, so my evenings were free to enjoy the fun of listening to the radio. At our house, we had a sacred routine to follow each evening after dinner. While Mom washed the dishes, Dad pulled shut all the window curtains and turned on our big dark-brown mahogany Philco floor radio. Then he turned the dial to run the pointer across the yellow light to the magic spot where he could find our favorite radio program.
As he did this, the rest of us pulled up chairs in a semi-circle and stared at the velvet-lined speakers behind the woodwork. Each night of the week brought a new show, usually, a new version of the same show heard the week before. Sunday night gave us “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” and Tuesday night brought “I Love A Mystery.” Thursday night was my favorite because of a radio show that always gave me chills and really goosed my imagination. The show came on with a rapid burst of machine-gun fire and cop sirens and a deep male voice announcing “Gang Busters.”
The opening theme of “The Lone Ranger” on Wednesday night set off a new adventure of the wandering cowboy and his Indian sidekick, Tonto, riding the Old West to save the innocent and punish the guilty. The actual stories from those days of yesteryear are long forgotten. But I will never forget the galloping crescendos of the William Tell Overture with the masked crusader and his cry of “Hi-Ho, Silver!”
My favorite show of all, “The Shadow,” was about a mysterious crime fighter who lived in a big city and fought the bad guys by making himself invisible. I shivered each time I heard that spooky organ music and chilling laugh and that menacing voice: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? – the Shadow knows!” The announcer said the Shadow was really “Lamont Cranston, wealthy young-man-about-town,” whose hobby was chasing crooks and bringing them to justice.
Lamont Cranston became my role model in a stupid kind of way. He aroused a sort of fantasy in me. I wanted to be just like him. It wasn’t about fighting crooks. No, leave that to the cops. My fantasy was having a name like Lamont Cranston and being a wealthy young-man-about-town. Yeah, that would be fantastic, no doubt about it.
Everybody loved a mystery, but comedy was still the king of radio. Each week, the comedy shows featured the same gags which somehow got funnier and funnier from repetition. Each week, we sat there waiting for the same routines. And each week we broke up laughing when they happened. We always laughed when Jack Benny screeched on his violin or got into a scrape involving his cheap nature. Once he was cornered by a mugger. “Your money or your life,” said the crook. The long silence that followed brought roars from the studio audience and loud laughs from those of us at home sitting by the radio. Sure we were a bunch of simple rules, but so what?
My favorite comedy show was “Fibber McGee and Molly,” with a lovable old windbag and wife, living at 79 Wistful Vista. Each week, we waited for Fibber to open his closet door, with sounds of stuff falling out – a scene going on long enough to empty a dozen closets – as we laughed our heads off. Each week, we knew he would come up with a get-rich-quick scheme which would fail miserably. Each week, we knew he would get into an argument with his next-door neighbor, the Great Gildersleeve.
Bob Hope had been a radio comedian forever, it seemed, and we tuned in each week as his theme song “Thanks For The Memory” got us pumped up for another show. Each week, he had a guest star like Bing Crosby, and he always had lots of musical numbers with singers like Peggy Lee or Rosemary Clooney.
Another great comedian was Red Skelton, whose shows had wacky characters like Freddy the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, and Willie Lump-Lump.
National radio programs brought on the idea of hit songs, the hot sellers on the sales charts. My sister Dorothy always wanted to be up-to-date on all the new hits, so she often brought sheet music home. In the living room, we had an upright piano in dark brown walnut with a matching bench full of old sheet music. Mom could play the piano, so she got drafted into trying out each new song. When she played, you could make out the melody okay. But her beat was dry and virtuous, almost like a hymn. Sometimes, Louise, my older sister, brought home the record so we could hear the music as it was meant to sound. Just thinking about those songs brings the music flooding back. Like “Lovely To Look At” and “Just One Of Those Things” and “There’s A Small Hotel” and “Goody Goody.” One Cole Porter song, called “You’re The Top,” went like this:
“You’re the top… You’re the Colosseum…
You’re the top… You’re the Louvre Museum…
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss…
You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you’re Mickey Mouse…
You’re the Nile… You’re the Tower of Pisa…
You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa…
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop…
But if baby, I’m the bottom… You’re the Top!”
Since then, times have changed and so has the language. Call a woman Mickey Mouse today and she’ll hit you where it hurts!
Excerpt from “We Didn’t Get Fat and We Did Have Fun.”
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