Friday, January 12, 2018

WIXIE WONDERLAND: An Essential Read

Journalist Dan Rather was once quoted of saying, "An intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger." For scholars and historians of old-time radio, it is difficult not to be reminded of radio station WXYZ, in Detroit, whenever a recording is played of the William Tell Overture, also known as "The March of the Swiss Soldiers." While the masked man and his faithful Indian companion rode the plains across all 50 states courtesy of line feeds and transcription discs, few across the nation knew the western dramas originated from Motor City.

Simplistically, the radio broadcasting industry worked like this: Radio stations across the country worked independently and produced their own local programming including music and news. Throughout the early 1930s, almost every large radio station across the nation formed its own repertory company to produce radio drama for evening entertainment. Some conceived and wrote original dramas. Others licensed radio scripts from other production companies. As "networks" were formed, including NBC and CBS, independent stations signed contracts to join the network and sacrifice prime time for national coverage of such luminaries as Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee and Edgar Bergen - the network paid the station for their coverage, thus eliminating hours of original programming sorely needed at the local station employing a minimum of staff. Most of the national network feeds originated from Los Angeles or New York City, with Chicago the third (but minor-league) hub of prime time entertainment. 

WYXIE WONDERLAND painted a portrait of a radio station responsible for such programs as Bob Barclay, American Agent, Ned Jordan, Warner Lester -- Manhunter, The Lone Ranger, Challenge of the Yukon, The Green Hornet and Ann Worth, Housewife. At the same time, author Dick Osgood painted a disheartening portrait of George W. Trendle, a lawyer, theater owner and businessman who, multiple times, attempted to pay his employees less than scale. Through historical hindsight, Trendle was not responsible for single-handedly creating syndication through transcription but the idea did germinate from station manager H. Allen Campbell, considered the business genius behind the station's profits. The Lone Ranger quickly syndicated across the nation in 1938, helping to pull WXYZ out of the red and became Trendle's cash cow. 

By 1954, when Trendle sold The Lone Ranger property to Jack Wrather for a historic $3 million, an inventory of the finances revealed Trendle made more than $300 million in the course of 20 years -- and that was only counting money garnered from The Lone Ranger!

Dick Osgood's book, WYXIE WONDERLAND, was published when many of the radio staff, writers, directors and actors, were still around to provide testimony to an industry each of them shrugged off on their day of retirement as merely a nine-to-five job. Historian Osgood benefited from this immense advantage, while research today is restricted to audio interview recordings that survive and circulate among old-time radio collectors. He had unfettered access to photographs, copies of employment contracts and other materials that would make the mouth water of any historian today. WYXIE WONDERLAND was a romantic look at a by-gone era -- the "Golden Age of Radio" -- when radio was the dominant form of entertainment. Not until a decade-and-a-half later was any serious scholarly research published in the form of reference guides. Osgood beat those to the punch.

Over the years, as historians continue to dig deep into the archives, the published reference guides tend to become obsolete. What was considered a fact at the time of publication becomes outdated with new information uncovered two decades later. Books like Tune in Yesterday, The Big Broadcast and On the Air have practically become obsolete as a result of thousands of errors discovered after the fact. With this introduction of new evidence and factual discoveries, as is not uncommon in historiography, a re-interpretation of record occurs, changing professional scholars' orthodox views about the historic aspect of radio broadcasting. This is no fault to any author who, at the time their book was published, assumed their information to be accurate.

Through the past decade, a great deal of archeological digging in public and private archives has unearthed tens of thousands of documents, providing indisputable facts behind the formation of numerous radio programs, including The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Careful review of these documents provided a perspective that is practically impossible to say about almost any other reference book written prior: Osgood got the facts straight. Perhaps there is no other book that has been so accurately written about old-time radio prior to 1990, even though Osgood relied mostly on memories from cast and crew without any paperwork to substantiate the stories. A rare feat indeed.

This is not to say the book is without error. Osgood relied on a story told by Al Hodge regarding the origin of the Detroit Local of AFRS, and the story of The Green Hornet overheard over a Canadian radio station, including a remark by H. Allen Campbell about recently losing sponsorship of the United Shirt Distributors. The Union was formed in 1937. United Shirt Distributors sponsored the program beginning in 1944. Osgood fact-checked the exact date of the Union formation as September 26, 1937, but was unable to verify sponsorship and therefore, reference to the United Shirt Distributors is incorrect.

Osgood relied on testimony from one actor regarding the whereabouts of Tokatoro Hayashi, the Japanese actor who played the role of Kato on The Green Hornet, following the U.S. entry in the war. According to Osgood in chapter 24, sometime in 1942 the U.S. Government sent official notice to the actor that he be sent back to Japan. The actor was promptly replace day actor Rollon Parker and, according to Osgood, Hayashi "disappeared, presumably to a concentration camp in the west." The truth about Hayashi became known only a few years ago. He went to the West Coast and became a gardener for a wealthy family who took him in. Hayashi lived to a ripe old age and was blessed with a large and loving family. 

The two examples above are the most significant blunders. Others are minor. In the grand scheme of historical revisionism, debate among scholars is not warranted, especially over controversial points-of-view. Osgood set out to document the history of the George W. Trendle empire, the formation of the Michigan Radio Network, the famous programs synonymous with radio station WXYZ (which employees referred to as "wyxie"), and the legendary icons who would have normally faded into the sunset without such acknowledgement. (John Lund, Martha Scott, Betty Hutton, James Lipton, Casey Kasem, Mike Wallace and many others got their start at WXYZ.)

The book was first published in 1981 through a University Press and over time became highly sought after by fans of The Lone Ranger. In many cases, especially through Amazon.com's marketplace and Abe Books, the average ransom price of the book was $85 -- more if the original hardcover contained a dust jacket. Thankfully, Rich Harvey of Bold Venture Press went to get expense to license the book and reprint Dick Osgood's book in paperback format. Formatted with an updated font and graphic layout, along with scanned photographs to ensure better replication of the same photos in the 1981 original, along with additional photographs, this improved version is now available for a retail of $29.95. 

If you are a fan of The Green Hornet, Sergeant Preston or The Lone Ranger, this is a must-have book. Whether you are a fan of The Lone Ranger or old-time radio in general, this is one of the dozen essentials for your bookshelf. A direct link for you to purchase a copy on Amazon.com is provided below.




Friday, January 5, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017) Movie Review

Let me start off by saying I have never been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro, his directing style or his choice of material. The Shape of Water, written, produced and directed by Del Toro, dramatizing the story of a mute janitor who falls in love with an aquatic creature housed at a Government lab in the 1960s, will probably be regarded as one of his best films. A bizarre love story, this whimsical fantasy has a little of something for everyone and provides us with the best acting performance of 2017.

Sally Hawkins plays the role of Elisa, a mute woman working for a government agency in Baltimore, Maryland. Single and lonely, she found friendship among the oppressed -- a black woman who also works as a janitor at the same employment, and her next-door neighbor, a closeted gay man who tries to take back his job as an artist for an advertising agency in an era where photographs are replacing custom art. During her daily routine as a janitor, she sneaks off during lunch time to find solitude and companionship with an amphibious creature, brought to the lab under special guard. But when the military insists dissecting the gill man may provide the key to beating the Russians in the space race, Elisa, with assistance from her friends, sets out to free the creature and return him to his native habitat.

Everyone playing leads in this movie delivered fine performances but the Oscar-worthy contender here is Sally Hawkins, best known for Godzilla (2014) and the two Paddington movies. After watching numerous silent films featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, she mimics the best of a silent screen actress by communicating through the use of facial expressions and emotion. For the benefit of the audience who did not understand sign language, subtitles were provided at times; actors reading her hand signals verbally communicated on screen as well. But no one needed either of these to read her thoughts as projected on celluloid. This was how Hawkins delivered what might be the best performance of the year. The actress will receive numerous nominations come awards season -- and deservingly so.

Many who saw the movie trailer promoting The Shape of Water might have suspected this was an updated rendition of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The costume of the gill man was clearly inspired by the 1954 classic. Michael Shannon's character says early in the movie that the creature was picked up in a river in South America, the same setting for the 1954 horror classic. But this creature has heart in a world where everyone privileged is being mean to everyone else. This may be why the relationship between Elisa and the gill man stands out through the movie.

Do not mistake this as a horror film. This is clearly a love story, inspired by the 1940s studio musicals (Betty Hutton, Alice Faye, etc.) so it comes as no surprise that the director initially wanted to shoot the entire film in black and white. Believe-it-or-not, it costs more to shoot a film in black and white these days and due to budgetary concerns, the film was shot in color with green motif. Watch carefully for numerous tip-of-the-hat references such as Jenkins' sketch of Audrey Hepburn on his drafting board in one scene -- Sally Hawkins' character was named Elisa, the character Audrey Hepburn played in My Fair Lady. Hawkins even mimics Audrey Hepburn early in the movie.

To enjoy this offbeat underwater love story, director Guillermo Del Toro set out to accomplish  suspension of disbelief -- an essential element to watching a fantasy similar to Mr. Peabody and the MermaidLost Horizon and King Kong. Even if the movie does not win a ton of awards in the coming months, it can be regarded among one of the best fantasy movies made.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year!

The way I look at it, if Sports Illustrated can have their own swimsuit issue, we can have one of our own to ring in the New Year!

Ann Rutherford
Clara Bow
Jane Greer
Olga San Juan
Cyd Charisse
Jennifer Jones still opening packages for Christmas.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings, 1954-56


Fans of Bing Crosby can rejoice! Over 160 unreleased tracks are now available on a seven-CD box set, complete with liner notes and booklet. Following a weekly radio program over NBC, ABC and CBS, for almost two decades, Bing Crosby realized the medium of television was sucking up advertising revenue. By 1954, big-budget radio could no longer compete with the video tube and he began a downsized daily series. Five days a week, fifteen minutes a day, Crosby could be heard over the air in a series of pre-recorded musical programs, sans celebrity guests. The singer recorded an enormous "pool" of songs in a number of recording sessions, which would be used in hundreds of broadcasts on CBS. Derived from these are the treasures in this collection, made possible by a visionary's gamble, an engineer's wizardry and a transformative substance called "tape."

Like buried treasure reclaimed from the past, this remarkable set is like no other Bing Crosby collection ever released. With longtime accompanist Buddy Cole, fifteen recording sessions were remastered and released on this impressive box set through Mosaic Records. While Crosby felt at the time that his voice was not what it used to be, fans of the crooner would never tell when listening to these gems. They were not initially intended to be issued on records, through several tracks were instantly pressed into service for two popular Decca albums. But the majority of the tracks in this set have never been released or heard in decades. 

The set contains a large 16-page book with two informative essays (well-written and accurately researched) by music historian Martin McQuade, and author/historian Gary Giddins. This set is limited to a print run of 20,000, retails $120, is absolutely remarkable, and while the price tag might be a bit steep, less than $20 per CD is not bad when you consider all the music licensing and digital restoration involved. Which leaves me with a thought to ponder: how many vocal legends have un-released tracks still sitting in the vaults, ready to be discovered?