Friday, July 25, 2014

From Radio to the Big Screen

My mail box wasn't large enough for the numerous books that arrived this past month. It's amazing that I find the time to read them all. Brief reviews follow but I would like to state for the record and in full disclosure that I know all of the authors, have communicated with them via e-mail, and the reviews below are not biased.

From Radio to the Big Screen book
by Hal Erickson
I was wondering how long it would take for someone to do a book about Hollywood movies that incorporated radio broadcasting as thematic material. There was a time when "American popular entertainment" referred only to radio and motion-pictures. With the coming of talking pictures, Hollywood cashed in on the success of big-time network radio by bringing several of the public's favorite broadcast personalities and programs to the screen. The results, though occasionally successful, often proved conclusively that some things are better heard than seen. Remember the silent W.C. Fields movie where the comedian put on a set of headphones on his radio and began following the verbal instructions with his morning exercise equipment? Today's audiences may not be aware of exactly what was going on in that scene. But then again, all motion-pcitures are topical as they capture the clothing, lingo, picturesque scenery and landscapes of a time gone by. Someone once wrote that motion-pictures defined fashion trends and popular music. So did network broadcasting.

Concentrating primarily on radio's Golden Age (1926-1962), this lively history discusses the cinematic efforts of airwave stars Rudy Vallee, Amos and Andy, Fred Allen, Joe Penner, Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Lum and Abner, Edgar berg and, and many more. Also analyzed are the movie versions of such radio series as The Shadow, Dr. Christian and The Life of Riley. But taking on such a monumental task is... well, monumental. For that reason, Hal Erickson briefly explains in the introduction of his book why he chose not to including motion-pictures that derived from British radio programs. So you won't see The Man in Black (1949) or Band Wagon (1958) documented here. The author chose to focus on movies based on radio properties, not published novels. So you won't read about Ellery Queen, The Falcon, The Thin ManMr. and Mrs. North or other similar properties. Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope, capable of separating their film and radio careers, are also excluded from this tome simply because they played different characters from their radio counterpart.

The book begins with The Vagabond Lover (1929) and pretty much concludes with Pete Kelly's Blues (1955). The introduction alone is a crash course in radio celebrities and their motion-pictures, ranging from the studio's block booking policies, radio-to-movie properties, how radio killed the novelty of the talkies, and numerous efforts the studios made to use radio as an advertising medium. I, for one, was quite pleased to see a write up about Kate Smith's Hello, Everybody! (1933), the Walter Winchell-Ben Burnie feud on Wake Up and Live (1937) and The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)... the latter a murder mystery with the solution withheld from the radio listeners so they would rush out to the theaters and watch the screen version with the thrilling conclusion. (I recently read the radio scripts which is why I was excited to see Hal went to the effort to include it in his book.)

If I had any complaint about this book, which I would describe as an "entertaining read," it is that the author used a few websites for reference. Cited in his bibliography, this turned me off for a moment because I have been a stubborn mule when it comes to using the internet as reference. I prefer to use the internet as a tool for reference... not as reference. But then again, this book is not a published reference guide used to document "beyond the facts," so to speak. It is an entertaining read. The kind you would find within the pages of Classic Images and other magazines and is worth the cover price. If you are a Hollywood film fan, this is the kind of book you want on your bookshelf.

Sold on Radio by Jim Cox
by Jim Cox
How was it that America would fund its nascent national radio services? Government control and a subscription-like model were both considered. Soon an advertising system emerged, leading radio into its golden age from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Anyone who has seen AMC's Mad Men knows what an advertising agency is. If you were a major company wanting to make the most of your advertising dollars, you went to an advertising agency. There, executives created a number of proposals that would best promote the product and the sponsor would sign on the bottom line.

Sold on Radio should be considered a text book requirement in media relations and the history of radio broadcasting. Divided into two parts, the first half studies the commercialization of network radio during its golden age. This includes the general history of radio advertising. From the advertising agencies, the ratings systems, general sales, research, photographic, traffic, station relations, program development, recordings, script library and all other facets of the medium, you'll discover just how commercial copywriters worked, the selection of the commercial spokesman, and the science behind the reasoning of product placement: i.e., Singing Sam and the Barbasol Man and The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

The second part of the book examines the major radio advertisers of the period, with profiles of 24 companies who maintained a strong presence on the airwaves. General Mills, Standard Brands, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Quaker Oats. The origin of the companies, their introduction to radio, the pacts they made with the networks, the programs they sponsored, and a sample of commercial copy promoting their products.

The book also explores headliners as spokesmen, the change in format with electrical transcriptions and tape recordings, cowcatchers and hitchhikes, audience participation, contests, jingles, premiums, sound effects, testimonials, spot announcements and other factoids provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the commercials; the historical significance beyond the catchy jingles. After all, if it wasn't for the sponsors, radio broadcasting might not have been what it became. If there were five or six books to be considered essential reading if one wants to delve deeply into the history of old-time radio and understand the "whole picture," this is one of them.

The Quiz Kids by Martin A. Gardner
by Martin A. Gardner

If you never heard a recording of a typical, average episode of The Quiz Kids, you might want to seek one out. You might be surprised how smart those young folks were. Makes you wonder who provided their schooling. More than 100 episodes are known to exist in recorded form. I remember the Christmas episode of 1948 when they children were asked to say "Merry Christmas" in another language other than English. I could only name four and they quickly put me to shame.

It was more than a quiz program. The Quiz Kids was a national pop culture phenomenon. During World War II, they toured America and raised $120 million in war bonds. They were guests on Jack Benny's radio show for three consecutive weeks. Famous celebrities made guest appearances on the quiz program: Al Capp, Clifton Webb, Eddie Cantor, Lum and Abner, Walt Disney, Frankie Laine, Bing Crosby, Victor Borge, Jane Powell, Tito Guizar, Ralph Edwards, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Preston, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, several U.S. Senators, The Lone Ranger, Father Flanagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, Kay Kyser, Dinah Shore, Gabby Hayes, Roy Rogers, Virginia Mayo, Dave Garroway, James Stewart, Ted Lyons, Gene Autry, Edmund O'Brien... and that's just a small selection! Yes, screen actress Vanessa Brown was originally a Quiz Kid.

This 312 page book covers the essentials from the origin of the program, what it took to qualify as a Quiz Kid, biographies about each of the children, the film shorts, incidents when the children were... well, children... practical jokes the kids pulled on the grownups, stories that went on beyond the scenes, the selection of questions for the children, the Showcase Train, their visit to the White House, collectible premiums, and a weekly episode guide listing the episode number, broadcast date and kids that appeared on rotation that week.

I could go on and on about the content of the book, emphasizing how comprehensive it is. But honestly, that would give away too much and the author went to a lot of hard work to surprise the readers. I will make this statement (and it's the first time in five or six years that I can honestly say this)... this is the kind of book I wish everyone would extensively research and produce when it comes to documenting an individual radio program. Far too many times people slap together inferior books based on notes they made while listening to extant recordings and/or compile from a small stack of newspaper and magazine articles. While beneficial to the hobby solely because there are no other books about the subject, those tomes only inspire others to outclass the prior effort. Martin A. Gardner clearly deserves an award for "Best Book of the Year" based on the finished product.

Newspapers in Transition by Jim Cox
by Jim Cox
Yeah, we know. Newspapers are becoming a dying breed. Blazing the paperless trail, Jim Cox wrote a 218 page argument that is bound to disappoint those who still prefer the printed page over digital. Early in 2013, the Associated Press reported that, of all things, cash registers in retail emporiums were beginning to be transferred to the recycling bins and landfills. Technology's latest implementations are suddenly allowing merchants to reconsider the demand for internet commerce. The brick and mortar stores at our local mall consist primarily of clothing and food -- two things you really cannot get over the internet during a time when impulse buying is regulated by discretionary money. The new gadgets are eliminating those pesky sheets of headline news that my grandfather swore was the best insulation for keeping frozen food frozen from the food store.

Not everyone is willing to embrace new technology... but let's face it. If that many people have dropped newspaper subscription for the internet, then the rest of the country will ultimately follow the lead... or spend their remaining time complaining about how thin their newspaper is getting and the rising cost of subscription. At least, that is the debate Jim Cox makes with Newspapers in Transition. Although the transition from paper to pixels hasn't occurred everywhere, it's happened in enough places to constitute a mounting trend. The current period may be viewed as one of transition. And before the pendulum swings any further in the direction of electronic transmission and the potential displacement of newspaper altogether, the hybrid interval of both extremes seem to co-exist... but for how long?

Jim explores the possibilities of a mixed bag of keyboard-originated communications and its prospective impact on the conventional newspaper in America. As technology continues to fabricate newer methods of conveying what people want to know in the Information Age, with each passing month there are more indications that we are reaching a few lofty summits from which it will be difficult to descend. Jim explores all areas ranging from getting what you pay for, an alternating landscape, supply and demand, how certain cities across the country have ceased producing newspapers altogether, families in distress, the multimedia facet, and a possible future in a digital age.

One thing is for certain: if you were curious to know more about our changing society regarding newspapers vs. the internet, you can place your bets that this book will stimulate conversation at the next summit. Do not weigh an opinion on either side and do not place your bets until you read this book. Too many people have opinions but very little take time to read up on the facts.

The Texas Rangers book
by Ryan Ellett and Kevin Coffey
The Texas Rangers were Country and Western artists during radio's golden age who debuted in 1932, entertaining America by radio, records, tours, motion pictures and television before finally disbanding in the 1950s. They appeared in ten Western films, hundreds of transcription recordings for radio, peaked popularity before World War II and went into steady decline afterwards. With few commercially released singles, the Texas Rangers were soon forgotten after their heyday (probably overshadowed by screen legends such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry) except by the most devoted fans of the genre. This is the kind of book that geeks like me get into. Subject matter so specific and obsolete to today's mainstream audience that it leaves behind the burning question of whether or not this will be the most talked about book of the year. Will it sell a million copies? I doubt it. Will I ever need to turn to it as a major source of reference in the near future? I doubt it. Will I hear a few friends make condescending chuckles when I tell them about this book? I probably will. But their loss is our gain. And the 345 page book has something you won't find on a three-page website. Details.

The authors clearly shared a passion for the subject. And the detail level is the kind I expect in books that warrant permanent placement on my bookshelf. From the 1930s audition script, Smilin' Valley Dude Ranch, the Eb and Zeb discussions, the 1941 Kellogg transcription series, their participation with Hawk Larabee, Alan Ladd's Mayfair Productions and the 1938 Brush Creek Follies are documented as it pertains to sponsors, budgets, business dealings, radio networks for syndication, and other details that document the legacy of a once-popular country/western group that you probably heard dozens of times and never identified them as the same group.

The most important facet when describing a book of this nature is that it needed to be done. Even if College and University Libraries fail to take note of the importance of the book, or the mainstream public casually passes over the book in lieu of a recent blockbuster, The Texas Rangers has finally received their due and their legacy preserved for all time. And, after all, preserving their history is more important than any New York Times best seller.