Every radio program began with a musical theme…
Remember radio? If you or perhaps your parents were growing up in the 40’s and 50’s then an important part of your life was spent listening to countless hours of exciting and original entertainment on the radio. Almost all of my boyhood heroes appeared on radio shows. These heroes had marvelous adventures in glamorous places and did exciting things. And most of our music of the day, and the past, was heard listening to the radio.
As a young boy, growing up in what is referred to as “The Golden Age of Radio,” I could not wait to get home from school. I would turn on the radio at 5:00 to hear what “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” would encounter in today’s episode. “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” and his faithful dog, King, closely followed.
After dinner our family would go into the living room and dad would turn on the big console radio for the evening programs. Every night, families and their neighbors would come together and listen to radio broadcasts and radio drama. An astonishing 82% of Americans were radio listeners during this time, according to a research study by radiolovers.com.
Radio Drama is defined as an acoustic performance broadcast on radio with no visual component. It depends on dialog, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story line. It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension.
By the late 1930’s radio drama was widely popular in the United States. Dozens of programs: mysteries, thrillers, soap operas, comedies, adventures, westerns, dramas and romance stories, were listened to and enjoyed by millions who tuned in every day. By 1940 radio drama was the leading international popular entertainment.
Radio allowed the listeners to create their own image of characters and settings—a luxury we no longer have in the medium of television. Old time radio shows were pure fun and entertainment. You used your imagination.
The very stuff of radio was imagination, the very antithesis of television, writes Jim Harmon, in his book, The Great Radio Heroes. Radio drama required great imagination and those series that best provided it were rewarded with the greater success. Radio was willing to preserve the best of the past and constantly experiment for better, new shows. Clearly television is a different world from “Golden Age” radio, but they are a clearly different species, according to Harmon.
A most unusual and very chilling program in 1938 was Orson Well’s adaptation of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. It was so well done and realistic it literally panicked most of the entire nation as it described an impending invasion of Martians. This was undoubtedly one of the most talked about and famous radio shows ever produced—then or now.
Radio Music Themes
Every radio program began with a musical theme and a fixed dialogue guaranteed to capture the imagination and interest of the audience in the show. It was designed to create a mood and expectation for what was to come. The theme music was specific for that particular program. Some of the themes had lyrics, most did not however. Some of the themes were identified with a particular person. For example: Bob Hope; “Thanks for the Memories,” Liberace; “I’ll be Seeing You,” Bing Crosby; “Where the Blue of the Night,” and Roy Rogers; “Happy Trails to You,” among many others.
The Lone Ranger and his faithful companion, Tonto, tracked down and outsmarted even the cleverest of bandits and outlaws of the old West. The Lone Ranger’s musical themes were drawn from classical music including Rossini’s, “William Tell Overture,” Mendelssohn’s, “Fingals Cave Overture” and Liszt’s, “Les Prelude.”
Many listeners who were never exposed to music before heard great music, both classical and popular, on radio. “Your Hit Parade,” a musical show with orchestra and various singers, was broadcast every Saturday evening. The program offered the most popular and bestselling songs of the week. Many great singers sang on the show including the very young Frank Sinatra. The show was broadcast each Saturday from 1935 until 1955, then it was broadcast on television.
Some radio show themes, because of their longevity have become household fixtures. As more and more listeners heard the shows the themes became almost as well known as the programs themselves. Many radio themes were drawn from classical music, as mentioned, others from well known tunes from earlier eras. The organ was used as the instrument of choice in many of the soap operas.
After the introduction of television programming, radio drama never completely recovered its popularity in the United States. Most radio dramas were cancelled by 1960. The last shows from the “Golden Age” were; “Yours Truly Johnny Dollar,” and “Suspense.” Both were cancelled in 1962. A remaining vestige of radio drama on Public Radio today is Garrison Keillor’s, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
This writer, for one, misses the great programming of the “Golden Age.” I am so glad that a part of my youth was spent listening to memorable programs which so stretched my imagination and filled me with wonder and delight.