Radio Days

Jack Armstrong, Jack Armstrong, The all American boy.


Well King, it looks like this case is closed.


Hi Yo Silver, away.

Or (a personal favorite)

Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!

The magic of radio poured out of the Philco console which stood against the wall. The tall, oak-stained case could best be described as faux Art Deco, a style that was in vogue in the years following WW II. A large central dial was flanked by a gazillion buttons with various labels. Some, marked treble or base, could be pushed with no appreciable effect. Others, which gave access to short wave signals, occasionally yielded a speaker talking in a language that no one had any hope of understanding. Other times, scanning the short wave bands yielded interesting signals which the more imaginative of us liked to associate with radio broadcasts from outer space. It was only much later that the truth was learned, that these were data signals carrying radio printer information, not alien communications. There was even a button labeled Television; an optimistic button that, when selected, yielded silence.

The aforementioned buttons were generally pushed and the dial scanned as one waited for a favorite program to come on. Weekdays after school while waiting for dinner, one could hear the announcer call out: Jack Armstrong, Jack Armstrong, the all-American Boy. Strangely, although I used to listen to it regularly, I can’t recall any more about the program other than that announcer. Now the Lone Ranger, that was another matter. Every week was another riveting adventure as the masked crime fighter and Tonto battled crime and injustice wherever they found it; saving the ranch from unscrupulous characters and rescuing the occasional maiden in distress. You were satisfied when Tonto was heard to say “Get em up Scout” followed by “Hi Yo Silver, Away” as the two rode off into the sunset.

Two programs on Saturday morning were particular favorites; Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and The Smilin’ Ed McConnell Show. Thinking back on it, it is quite possible that the writers for the Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston were one in the same. Somehow the Lone Range and Tonto had the same types of adventures as Sergeant Preston and his Yukon husky, King. A simple change of venue from desert to tundra. It didn’t matter, good always triumphed over evil, usually within the last 5 minutes.

The Smilin’ Ed McConnell Show was of a different type, a variety show for children and was sponsored by Buster Brown shoes; “Arf Arf,” “That’s my dog, Tige. He lives in a shoe. I’m Buster Brown, look for me in there too.” The show had a live audience and an amiable host, Smilin’ Ed. There was always a story which was read by Smilin’ Ed and then an appearance by Midnight the Cat, a cat of very limited vocabulary, saying only “Ni-i-i-ce”. Midnight the Cat played the violin, accompanied on the drum by another regular on the show, Squeaky the Mouse. But the high point of the show was the appearance of Froggy the Gremlin. Smilin’ Ed would evoke the gremlin, who lived in a clock, with the words (beginning as a bass and ending as a soprano) “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” There was an appropriate twang of metal and you would hear a throaty “Hi ya kids, hi ya, hi ya, hi ya.” Froggy was a trickster who always got the better of Smilin’ Ed, to the vast enjoyment of the kids in the audience. We never learned what a twanger was or why it was magic and it probably was best that we didn’t ask.

These shows my parents let me listen to without complaint, as well as some evening shows: Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, The Fred Allen Show, to name a few. But other shows I was able to hear only if my parents were not at home: Suspense, Inner Sanctum and, the scariest of all, Lights Out. Suspense was really just an adult drama, interesting but occasionally slow. But Inner Sanctum and Lights Out could be truly unnerving. Inner Sanctum always opened to the sound of a creaking door accompanied by an equally creepy announcer. Lights Out always had great sound effects and an announcer who whispered as if afraid he might be discovered by whatever was lurking out there. Both occasionally left me wishing I had listened to something else, like the alien space transmissions, as moving shadows reminded me that I was alone in the house. (An aside here: My parents often went to the neighbors for coffee of an evening. Just 5 minutes down the street, it normally was not a problem. Yet on nights when some fiend loitered just on the edge of my vision, it was an impossible distance. The fiend inside aside, did I abandon the relative safety of the house for the uncertainty of the outdoors where, it was well known, vampires and werewolves dwelt. And how to explain my sudden appearance at the neighbor’s door. To explain that I had the bejeesus scared out of me by some radio program was to court disaster and I couldn’t very well say “well, hi, I was just in the neighborhood and thought I would drop in.” It was then, searching the dial for something to dispel the ghosts, that I discovered classical music. But that is the subject of another tale.)

Although some of these shows later made the transition to television, sadly, most disappeared. Fibber McGee and Molly, for example, demanded that you use your imagination. The program?s long success (it ran for over 10 years) depended on it. Television brought a different type of entertainment, one that demanded that you watch as well as listen. Imagination was largely sidelined. We lost something with that transition, the freedom to pursue one activity while listening to another.