Featured Column
Week of 4.25.2005
"Use Your Imagination"
          Maybe it couldn’t happen today, but then again, perhaps it could.
          It was 8 o’clock on the night of October 30, 1938. The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated radio stations were presenting Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air show “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. But, oddly, what followed was a weather report and then some dance music. A few moments of music and then a panicked radio announcer reported, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin. At 20 minutes before 8 o’clock Central Time, Professor Farrell of Mt. Jennings Observatory, Chicago, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.”
          After this came more dance music and further bulletins about disturbances on Mars. Then came a flash with the shocking news that a giant meteor had landed near Princeton, New Jersey, killing 1500 people.
          More dance music and then an appalling bulletin that it had not been a meteor but a huge metal cylinder containing Martians armed with death rays. There were on-the-spot reports and interviews with scientists. An official sounding voice pleaded with the nation to remain calm.
          But the nation wasn’t remaining calm. By this time even people who had been with the program from the beginning were no longer sure if what they were hearing was fact or fiction. Panic was mounting all over the country. In one block in Newark more than twenty families rushed out of their homes with wet handkerchiefs over their faces to protect themselves from the “gas.” A woman in Pittsburgh was stopped as she prepared to take poison, saying, “I’d rather die this way than that.” A high school girl in Pennsylvania interviewed later said, “I was really hysterical. My two girl friends and I were crying and holding each other, and everything seemed so unimportant in the face of death.”
          Before the program was over, CBS, its switchboards swamped with frantic calls from around the nation, began to make special announcements to the effect that it was only a play, but the damage had been done, and the announcements had to continue all evening before the nation would calm down.
          Radio is different now. Listeners now can hear rock and hip-hop music. They can tune in talk shows and radio psychologists and two or three minutes of the latest news on the hour. Before the 1950’s radio was America’s medium. Radio programs entranced listeners. Each night at movie theaters, the movie was interrupted so that the audience could listen to a popular show, “Amos ‘n’ Andy. When a radio star endorsed a product, people rushed out to buy it.
          At night, kids dashed home in order to not miss an episode of their favorite radio serial like “Superman” or “Jack Armstrong.” Mothers wept over the troubles of soap opera heroines like Helen Trent or Stella Dallas. Fathers pondered the weighty words of newsmen like Lowell Thomas or H.V. Kaltenborn.
          If you were born after about 1940 it would be difficult for you to comprehend the impact of old time radio in America.
          Most news programs of today feature news readers who give capsule summaries of local and world news, sports and weather. No longer does a listener choose a particular newsman, but rather tunes in a station and a news team. Oftentimes in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s stations presented 15-minute newscasts on the hour.
          Old-time radio was life-size-not bigger than life, like the movies, or smaller than life, like television. Radio had no dimensions except, as in novels, the limitless boundaries of fantasy – your imagination. Old-time radio compelled you to pay attention. There was no clutter to distract – the ear was grounded, as focused as the eye. The ear was all. Hearing was believing.
          Sepia photos show families grouped around a Stromberg-Carlson, gazing at the squatting console. Radio of the thirties and forties was an invited guest, unlike the pushy fifties interloper, television.  
          Old-time radio brought the world to us in fifteen, thirty minute segments. As kids we would listen to Superman, Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, Straight Arrow, The Green Hornet and The Shadow. Our imaginations took us to far off lands, to crime scenes, to outer space, to theaters and comedy shops. Our minds were filled with auto-generated pictures of the world around us. We created every picture inside our heads.
          We listened to Lux Radio Theatre, The Jack Benny Show, Fred Allen, The First Nighter Program, The Damon Runyon Theater, Screen Directors Playhouse, Charley McCarthy, The Lone Ranger and dozens of other fascinating shows.
         Old-time radio never completely died. There are hundreds of thousands of fans around the country that keep old-time radio alive. There are the older fans who remember the originals and there are the young people, like my son, Doug, who have grown to enjoy and appreciate old-time radio. Doug has become an avid collector of old-time radio shows, owning thousands of hours of recorded shows. His imagination still paints the pictures when he lowers the lights and turns up the sound and listens to “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”
          I recently checked the internet for sites devoted to old-time radio and found thousands of sites, indicating that interest in the medium still exists. Radio stations across America still play old radio dramas from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
          Here is what the announcer on “War of the Worlds,” excitedly told America about the invasion from Mars. “This is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. Someone or something is crawling…I can see peering out of the black hole two luminous disks…are they eyes?”
          “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable! I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped, with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
          So, could a mass panic from a radio drama still occur? I think the answer is “yes.”
          I doubt if old-time radio will ever completely die. There will always be people who can listen to the spoken word and create a theater in their mind
Story of old time radio drama
      Ron was born in the Bronx, New York. He was raised in Southern California and lived in Honolulu, Hawaii for three decades. He attended Inglewood High School and U.C.L.A.. His youthful goal was to become a major league baseball player. In Hawaii Ron played on a series of championship softball teams. He is an active tennis player.
      Ron’s career began at the Inglewood Daily News where as a youngster was enrolled in a publisher training program. He served as an advertising salesman, circulation manager, writer and layout and design staffer. He has been a newspaper publisher at the Oregon City Oregon Enterprise Courier, the Beloit Wisconsin Daily News, the Elizabeth, New Jersey Daily Journal and This Week Magazines (Hawaii).
      Ron lives with his wife, Marilyn, in San Diego, California. His two children, Douglas and Diane also live in the San Diego area. Ron’s interests range far and wide and are reflected in his columns diverse topics.
Ron Cruger