Early Radio And Tv Was Sometimes Unintentionally Funny

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The name of the program I don’t remember. The name of the actor who played the hard boiled detective I do — Richard Gargan.

The year 1950. The time of day, just after the late night news. My brother Charlie and I sat watching a small black and white screen set in a very large wooden console, our eyes riveted to the action of a live program.

Gargan, the tough detective, was trapped, his face grim, his end clearly in sight. The bad guy had the drop on him. We saw the bad guy’s face in the full length mirror behind Gargan. We watched the bad guy’s hand as he slowly pulled the trigger.

The gun went off. BANG!

We expected Gargan to go down, but he didn’t. Nor did he move. Or say a word. Or do anything. Instead, as Charlie and I frowned, a new sound met our ears. An odd one. One that didn’t fit. The sound of a hammer repeatedly hitting plate glass.

Clunk.

Clunk!

CLUNK!

CALUNK!!

The mirror behind Gargan finally broke.

Charlie and I broke too — up, that is. Charlie looked at me. “Slowest bullet ever fired. Took 10 seconds to travel five feet.”

I don’t remember too much about the rest of that program. Charlie and I spent the rest of it rolling around on the living room floor.

I’ll give poor Richard Gargan credit though. He was a real pro. He never missed a line, but until a commercial rescued him, he had this odd strained look on his face that told you that he was so close to laughing he might wet his pants.

I’ve often wondered what they said to the stagehand hidden in back of that mirror with his ball peen hammer. “For God’s sake, Pete! Next time get a bigger hammer will you?”

That was early television. It was live. Things happened. Sometimes all that saved some dud of a program was a screwup. Hey! If it couldn’t be good, it could at least be funny.

Radio, which came before television and was always live, was even more of a crap shoot. You never knew what was coming.

I remember sitting in the kitchen of our apartment in New York in — I think — 1943. Bob Hope was on, doing his usual string of wisecracks. On and on he went as Mom, and Pop, and I chuckled.

Then something new happened. Hope had been talking about the skimpy new women’s styles, shorter dresses to save scarce wartime materials. “If women’s skirts get any shorter,” he said, “they’re going to have more cheeks to powder and more hair to comb.”

Instant dead silence. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A minute or so went by.

Music began playing. It played ’till the end of the hour. Then the next program came on.

Hope, you see, had run into the censor. That was the way they handled it back then. If you goofed, they just shut you off. Click!

During World War II, an American newsman named Edward R. Murrow became popular because of his radio broadcasts from England. Nearly every day we listened to him talking to us from London. The fading and static only added to the realism.

Murrow was always dead serious. Listening to him was a solemn event, something like a funeral. At times his voice alone was enough to convince us that the war was lost, even as it was rolling to a victorious end.

Except once. Murrow was going to interview Sir Stafford Cripps, an English bigwig. “Today,” he said in his usual solemn tones, “we will be talking with Sir Stifford Crapps.”

For a moment there was dead silence.

Then we heard something that sounded like a bull choking on a dishrag. That went on for 10 or 15 seconds. Then, on the air, live, and broadcast all the way across the broad Atlantic, Edward R. Murrow broke up. Bigtime!

I’d give a million bucks to hear that again. Trouble is, if they had prerecorded their programs back in those days, we would never have heard it in the first place.

When Murrow came home and began appearing on the new medium — television — he was never quite the same to us. We could not put that “Sir Stifford Crapps” thing out of our minds. Try as he might, Murrow never looked as serious as he wanted to look.

We knew better. We knew how hard he could laugh.

There was a newsman named Walter Winchell who was very popular during the war. He came on each night with, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.”

Winchell’s crisp voice had great immediacy. And behind it as he spoke came the exciting dit-dah-dit of a high speed telegraph key, adding even more to the sense of immediacy. Night after night during the war, people sat plastered to their radios listening to Winchell and hanging on his every word.

Television killed him.

All the time we’d been listening to him on radio we had no idea he was the one punching the silly telegraph key. There he sat each night on TV — while he lasted — felt hat pulled down, script in hand, chewing on a fist-sized mike and dit-dah-ditting away.

It kind’ve lost a little something when you could see it.

Another program that needed revising for early television was Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke had a very large radio audience. I can remember listening to Gunsmoke while I was in Iceland from the fall of 1952 to the summer of 1953. No one said a word in our quonset hut while the big, BIG voice of Matt Dillon rolled out of those speakers.

But you didn’t see radio actors. You just heard them. When Gunsmoke moved to television James Arness played the part of Matt Dillon, and looked every bit the part of the tall, muscular, deep-voiced sheriff we had imagined on the radio.

On radio the part was played by William Conrad. Remember him in Cannon?

He was big all right. His girth exceeded his height.

Picture him jumping on some poor horse.

Kind’ve gives new meaning to the old saying, “Get off my back!”

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