Thursday, May 26, 2016

CALLING ALL CARS: The Radio Program

Pre-dating Gang Busters, which today is considered one of the more important cops-and-robbers programs on network radio, was Calling All Cars

Never heard of Calling All Cars? You should. After listening to two or three recordings I found myself addicted to these. More importantly, there are far more Calling All Cars recordings in existence than Gang Busters and the programs are so similar in nature. If you cannot get enough of Gang Busters and heard all that you can find, give Calling All Cars a try.

Every week a dramatization based on an actual police case file was dramatized, introduced by a real life police officer. (In many cases the officers sound like they are reading the script for the first time.) Among the earliest offerings on the program was a dramatization of the famed Mae West jewel robbery; another focusing on the daring exploits and capture of John Dillinger. To emphasize a "crime does not pay" moral, a post show recap explained how justice was meted out. Sounds much like Gang Busters? Sure does. But to emphasize a cool bit of trivia: Calling All Cars established the format two years before Gang Busters premiered.

Sponsored by the Rio Grande Oil Company, the program premiered in November of 1933 over KHJ in Los Angeles. At first, no one gave much thought to the program, suspecting how popular it would quickly become in an era where cops-and-robbers radio dramas were not a dime a dozen. By mid-1934 there was evidence that the weekly detective program was the most popular originating from the West Coast facilities of CBS. For the first few years, Calling All Cars aired only along the West Coast, restricted to only the territory where the sponsor's product was distributed. Every broadcast pitched praise from police officers, emergency rescue workers and firemen, exemplifying how the radio listener could experience "police car performance" if they, too, bought gasoline from the Rio Grande Oil Company.

Even the casual listener today will observe that most of the cases dramatized took place in the Southwest with numerous refrences to Los Angeles and palm trees. Criminal capers included dope smugglers, counterfeit bonds, bank robbers, the murder of Secret Service agents, highway robbery, juvenile delinquents, the body of a murder victim found in a schoolhouse, a Russian confidence man, car theft and what else? A gas station holdup, of course. In January 1935, an episode dramatized the San Quentin prison break involving four escaped prisoners who took hostages as they headed north. The actual prison break happened that very week and was the most talked-about subject in the local papers across the West Coast. 

By 1935, Dick Stannard's KHJ promotional booklet claimed that 68 percent of all Los Angeles listeners tuned in to hear Calling All Cars. And it was in 1935 that G-Men premiered over the airwaves, which would be re-titled to Gang Busters a short time following. Since popularity polls and the unreliable rating system of the time requires a grain of salt, it can be said for certain that Gang Busters was not the first program responsible for the public's co-operation in helping with the apprehension of a real criminal who evaded police. During that year, movie producer Walter Futter released a film short adapted from a Calling All Cars radio broadcast, inviting theater audiences to cooperate with the Department of Justice in tracking down William Mahan, wanted for the kidnapping of little George Weyerheauser in Tacoma, Washington. A reward for $1,000 was offered for any clue leading to Mahan's arrest.

Beginning February 6, 1936, Calling All Cars became the first instance of a radio program going double-network on the West Coast, both CBS (station KHJ and KNX) and the Don Lee Network (KSFO). While the crime capers continued to originate over KHJ in Los Angles, under the direction of William M. Robson (the same Robson who would direct radio's long-running Suspense), Fred Shields handled the KNX and KSFO productions with a different cast from that of KHJ, with none of the actors involved with the first two years of the program. (Charles Frederick Lindsley was the narrator for both productions.) KNX was backed up with a 14-piece orchestra under the baton of Wilbur Hatch. (Keeping in mind that lower budget programs relied on a simple organ, not an orchestra, this production was far more ambitious from the original run.) 

Through the Spring of 1936, the cast of the KHJ productions went on a six-week tour performing Calling All Cars on stage before the evening's motion-picture. Dave Broekman, Judy Starr, Paul Keast, and Larry Burke were among the cast. (Fred Harrington was in the radio cast but nothing has been found to verify his participation in the stage production.) A total of 30 bookings were made and because the crew was on tour, the entire group would broadcast locally at each spot on tour for the weekly broadcasts. By late 1936, it was decided to re-broadcast prior Calling All Cars episodes over KHJ instead of producing two different renditions of the same scripts. This is one of the reasons why more than 200 Calling All Cars radio broadcasts exist today in recorded form. The other reason will be explained below.

William N. Robson was one of the many directors who was involved with Calling All Cars, even though a number of reference guides mistook director Mel Williamson as an alias for Robson. Samuel C. Pierce and Bill Lawrence were also directors at one time. Pierce won the assignment over two potential directors because he proved he was an expert on penalties attached to defying statutes. Ironically, he gained first-hand knowledge for the radio program while serving a traffic violation sentence of five days. Pierce drew sentence from Municipal Judge Call on the morning of November 10, 1936, who was found guilty of driving 44 miles an hour in a 25­ mile zone. With no other option than to serve his sentence, the sponsors took advantage of the incident to use as publicity in the trade columns. But when newspaper reporters used the publicity release as a means of downgrading Calling All Cars in a negative light -- the director of a crime program accused of a crime himself -- Pierce promptly moved on to other programs.

In May of 1937, Catholic schools adopted a censorship policy on radio programs. Sister teachers in several schools instructed their students which radio programs they should hear and which ones they should dial out. One parochial school announced that Gang BustersCalling All Cars and The Court of Human Relations be avoided. The Sisters had good cause. Criminals were depicted on Calling All Cars as smoking dope, using street slang and displaying disrespect for the law. Some concerned parents felt the program was educating their children how to crack safes, how to avoid the pitfalls criminals overlooked, and what law enforcement would be looking for at the scene of a crime.

Also in 1937, Charles Frederick Lindsley provided such an effective role as the narrator that as a result of the radio broadcasts, he was hired by Leon Schlesinger to provide commentator background for a number of Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons, including Porky's Double Trouble and My Little Buckaroo. Lindsley also supplied the March of Time voice coming over the radio in the 1937 Warner Brothers movie, Black Legion, starring Humphrey Bogart.

In January of 1938, the program was pre-maturely discontinued after the sponsor, the Rio Grande Oil Company, made a sudden decision to curtail advertising expenses. They provided four weeks' notice to the network. Within a few days the cancellation was withdrawn. The oil company decided to augment the cast and orchestra of Calling All Cars and allot the addition of guest stars for its 1938 set-up over the KNX Pacific Coast outlet. Executives at Rio Grande initially decided to increase their advertising budget for the coming year by including additional newspaper and billboard display copy, but restructuring the production costs of the radio program ensured continued sponsorship... but only on network. The re-broadcasted programs were cancelled in favor of a women's daytime program, which Rio Grande Oil believed would expand their coverage.

Actor Chester Morris
Celebrities who began making appearances on Calling All Cars beginning in 1938 included Lyle Talbot, Edmund Lowe, Charles Bickford, Chester Morris, and Grant Withers, among others. Rarely promoted, celebrity guest appearances was practically a waste of money at the price Rio Grande was paying. It was essential to promote in newspapers and other advertising copy up-coming appearances of Hollywood celebrities -- this Rio Grade did not apply. Celebrity guest appearances, along with high production values, may have been why the program was awarded a trophy in December for being the most consistently excellent program broadcast in the Western U.S. in 1938. Exactly who awarded the trophy remains unknown to this day but executives at Rio Grande and the advertising agency were pleased to receive the award.

Commercially, the program was a huge success. In 1938 Parker Brothers issued a board game based on the radio program. Even more rare is the 1934 Junior Police Kit, the 1934 Junior Detective Kit, the 1934 Junior Police Money premiums, the 1936 Junior Detective Outfit, the 1934 and 1935 "Calling All Car News" pamphlets, and the 1934 "Calling All Cars Radio Log." With the exception of the Parker Brothers game, the other premiums are almost impossible to find today. (Guest Noah Beery was enrolled as a lieutenant in the Rio Grande Junior Police Force in one episode.) CBS gained larger profits by syndicating the program in Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The program was also translated into Spanish.

The Calling All Cars game.
For these relatively few years, Calling All Cars rolled along the lanes as a business stimulator for the petrol outfit; but success bred challenges. The calendar year of 1938 provided both the network and the sponsor legal troubles. When the American Federation of Musicians upped the wage scale from $10 to $18 per hour each, for musicians, this caused a number of syndicated radio programs to apply a cost-cutting measure evidenced in the later episodes of Calling All Cars, dropping music entirely and using only sound effects such as a police whistle, siren, screeching of tires and racing motors to provide the kickoff.

In January of 1938, the sponsors of Calling All Cars were sued for $25,000 in damages by Angelo Freni, who claimed he was wrongfully and unlawfully exposed as to his past life on the broadcast of December 20. Freni's complaint stated that prior to 1931, he admitted to having criminal tendencies and a conviction on a forgery charge. Freni claimed that after 1931 he changed and led an exemplary life. CBS fought the case, claiming the details of his criminal actions were extensively documented in newspapers and thus public knowledge even before the radio broadcast. (Phillips H. Lord suffered the same challenge in courts for a number of Gang Busters radio broadcasts.) The court eventually upheld CBS's defense.

By late 1939, the U.S. Courts upheld the right of an individual to sue broadcasting companies and program sponsors for invasion of privacy, handed down in San Francisco by Federal Judge A.F. St. Sure. The decision was made in denying motion of Rio Grande Oil Company, sponsors of Calling All Cars, to dismiss the suit brought by Howard Mau for unauthorized use of his name on the show. This turned out to be the first case on record in the state of California to challenge a radio broadcast with the claim of privacy rights invasion. Mau's suit asserted Calling All Cars program of August 4, 1938, aired details of a robbery in 1937 during which complainant, a chauffeur, was held up and badly wounded by a bandit. Mau claimed that since the broadcast he was subject to acute nervous attacks at the mention of the shooting and program's authorized use of his name caused considerable mental anguish. For Lord, the courts upheld that criminals, while incarcerated, had no rights whatsoever regarding their criminal exploits being dramatized over the air and the producers of Calling All Cars began verifying the criminals were indeed incarcerated before broadcast.

Nothing has been found to verify Mau won or lost the case, or whether it was settled out of court. But the fear of future legal challenges was a risk the Rio Grande Oil Company wanted to avoid and by January 1940, withdrew from their six-year sponsorship. (According to one source, Rio Grande dropped sponsorship as a result of a merger with Richfield Oil.)

By 1939, J. Donald Wilson took over the task of producing and directing. Wilson would ultimately create another mystery program for CBS, The Whistler. Today, recordings of Calling All Cars from 1939 demonstrate some of Wilson's pre-Whistler productions and are worthy of comparison.

Calling All Cars expanded to the Midwest beginning in January of 1939, when Twenty Grand Cigarettes purchased the disc rights for use on KMOX in St. Louis and WJR in Detroit. Calling All Cars was also heard over a number of radio stations in the Midwest for Ford Motors (circa February and March 1940), but while Rio Grande was no longer involved by then, the timing was not good. In June 1940 a suit for $60,000 in damages was filed against CBS and Richfield Oil by Thelma Samson of San Pedro, who charged she was shamed and disgraced by a broadcast associating her with a criminal and assailing her character.

In desperation of competing against NBC's coast-to-coast lineup of prestigious programs, CBS revived Calling All Cars for a brief spell in December of 1940, broadcast regionally on Sunday afternoons over KNX, with Frank Graham in the lead. The cops and robbers fare went up against Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. CBS' attitude was, publicly, 'What've we got to lose?" The revival was all-too brief. This final version of Calling All Cars was directed by Charles Vanda and scripted by Harold Medford, the same two men who would have greater success in the summer of 1942 when they launched a radio program many fans of old-time radio today known as Suspense

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