Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, just as we were sitting down to dinner, out of the past with thundering hoofbeats and a hearty "Hi-yo, Silver!" the Lone Ranger rode into our dining room.
I welcomed him. He was my friend, and the days he was not on I missed him. In fact, to this day I consider Tuesdays and Thursdays to be "down days.".
The Masked Man was only one of a number of radio acquaintances I made in my youth, adventurers with whom I shared scores of hair-raising escapes.
And because I could hear but not see them, I used my imagination to picture the Masked Man and his faithful guide, Tonto. I never felt particularly deprived in not being able to see them. I already knew what they, and all the other people I listened to, looked like.
With each program, I gave the characters faces, dressed them and provided them with settings and atmos- phere. If I didn't like the heroine as a blond, I could make her a redhead--no problem.
But when I saw the Lone Ranger on television for the first time, I was disappointed; the actor (the real Lone Ranger, I knew, was still on radio) picked for the part was wrong. Disappointing, too, was the lack of imagination of the people who constructed the sets. Where I pictured vast landscapes, they settled for tacky sound stages. I envisioned mansions; they provided what looked like prefabricated housing.
One other thing: radio somehow afforded an intimacy that television never permits. With television, the basic fact is that you're looking at a picture of something. With radio, though, you were in the action and could believe that the person on the other end was really talking just to you.
In those days, though, other kids were beginning to turn to television. Programming began then at 4 p.m. with "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." From watching TV at friends' houses, I knew there were other actors--Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Buffalo Bob with Howdy Doody and Clarabelle and Mr. Bluster (Phineas T.). But mostly I knew about them because we didn't get a television until 1955. My mother, who distrusted television, thought it would be a disruptive force, that it would ruin our meals and turn us into a family of vegetables.
With radio, no one worried about brain rot or disrupting the family. It was possible to listen quietly to radio and do something else--play checkers, clean house, bake a cake, fix a broken bike or whatever. Radio did not insist on being watched. It was enough if you listened with one ear while doing something else. Radio was a gentle companion, not the demanding overseer that television is.
In the '40s and '50s, staying home from school when I was sick meant a succession of programs, starting with "Don McNeil and the Breakfast Club," followed by "Arthur Godfrey" in the morning-- and then the soap operas. If some soap operas moved at a glacial pace, at least they were not the perverted, twisted, demonic fare on television now. Those soap operas had character. You knew who the good folks were and who was bad. You knew that the good folks had traditional values and were square with their fellow human beings, spoke the truth and never dealt underhandedly. That was a different era, when America had confidence in itself and a deeply ingrained sense of its own goodness. Sex had not been invented.
I'm talking about "Oxydol's Own Ma Perkins"; "Aunt Jennie" and her "real life stories"; "Just Plain Bill," barber of Hartville; "Our Gal Sunday" ("The story that asks the question: Can this girl from the little mining town of Silver Creek, Colorado, find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?").
And, "Stella Dallas"; "The Second Mrs. Burton"; "The Romance of Helen Trent" (Cue announcer, Fielden Farrington, while chorus hums (!) "Juanita": "Time now for the 'Romance of Helen Trent,' the real-life drama of Helen Trent, who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely, successfully to prove what so many women long to prove in their own lives: That because a woman is 35, and more, romance in life need not be over; that the romance of youth can extend into middle life, and even beyond." (Humming reaches crescendo).
And "Mary Noble, Backstage Wife"; "The Guiding Light" (yes, it was on radio); "Young Widder Brown," and "Lorenzo Jones and his Wife, Belle." Belle dropped out somewhere along the way while I was healthy and in school and Lorenzo, who had been something of a ne'er-do- well, suddenly became an overnight success as an inventor and acquired a younger, sexier-sounding spouse. That was the first warning that life might be a little more complicated than I thought.
For kids, there were programs like "Let's Pretend," "Sky King" (and his niece, Penny), "Jack Armstrong, All American Boy," "Frank Merriwell," "Tom Mix" and "Captain-n-n-n MIDnight" (brought to you by Ovaltine. Every week Captain Midnight gave the kids a secret message, decipherable only by using the Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring.)
Depending on what night of the week it was, I had a rich choice of fantasy. "The Fat Man": ("His name, Brad Runyan. There he goes now into that drugstore. He's stepping on the scale. Weight? Two hundred thirty-nine pounds. Fortune? Danger! Who is it? The Fat Man!"); "Johnny Dollar," the hard-boiled insurance investigator, ("the man with the action-packed expense account"); "Sam Spade", played by Howard Duff; "The FBI in Peace and War," sponsored by Lava soap, "L- A-V-A, L-A-V-A)"; "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons."
And "The Green Hornet" (and his faithful Japanese-- later Filipino--servant, Cato); "The Big Story" ("the story behind the story" and the weekly presentation of the Pall Mall Award, which included something like $200); and, for light entertainment, "Fibber McGee and Molly" and Willard Waterman as "The Great Gildersleeve."
When I was growing up in the Midwest, my attitude toward the East was indelibly shaped by one Saturday morning program--"Grand Central Station"--that always started like this: "As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern block for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-half- mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue and then . . . (sound of steam escaping with a rush) GRAND CEN--TRAL STATION! Crossroads of a million private lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily."
On Sunday afternoons there was Lamont Cranston, who, while on a trip to the Orient had learned the secret of clouding men's minds so that he became invisible to them. He was "The Shadow" ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." Diabolical laughter sends chills down your spine.)
Sunday nights brought Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Amos 'n' Andy.
These were all real people for me and to this day, when I see shots of actors standing in front of a microphone reading scripts and when I learn how the sound effects man simulated the sound of hoofbeats and fists making contacts with jaws and doors slamming, I refuse to believe that that had anything to do with the world that I entered in those programs.
By the time I listened, radio had grown sophisticated enough to tolerate the likes of Henry Morgan (whose sponsor dropped him forelden Farrington, whil two weeks for mocking it on the air, only to discover that the audience was wild for that kind of irreverence) and the inspired zaniness of Bob and Ray.
In the '50s, one by one a lot of these shows started drifting off. I felt as though friends were abandoning me --that was the way I thought about them, as friends. Jack Benny was one of the first to go. I never thought television improved his product. He was successful on television, but he was still a creature of radio. And I felt sorry for people who knew him and all the others only from television. They enjoyed the shows, to be sure, but aside from a few--Steve Allen, Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs--television didn't add anything to what they did. What the audience saw on television was a smaller-than-life re-creation of a world that earlier was bounded only by the limits of imagination.
And, it seemed to me, that when some of my friends from radio got to television, they changed somehow, became remote stars rather than the simpler folks that I had known. My peers may have been impressed by all those glittering "new" television stars, but I wasn't. I knew them back when.