John Stanley Rummaging in Radio: Adventures in Sound An Oldtime Radio Fan Uncovers
One Treasure Trove After Another
By JOHN STANLEY
UNLIKE all the rest of you, I'm a weirdo when it comes to using my car audiocassette player. You listen to the latest music or talk radio, or drive-jive to your hottest and newest music tapes, but me, I listen to old-time radio shows. Material that has survived from what is now called "The Golden Age of Radio."
At this very instant I'm two-thirds of the way through a tape of "Dragnet" shows. The first, dated 12/7/50, is about a pornography racket and dramatizes how Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and partner Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough) track down a band of smut peddlers who are also responsible for leading two teen-age newcomers to Hollywood into their den of iniquity, one of whom commits suicide rather than face the shame. It's hard-hitting realism that rocked radio in its time and place, and it still has considerable impact.
The second episode, dated 12/14/50, describes how Friday and Romero track down and help to capture vicious crime-spree criminal George Hoffman. In one scene, Hoffman, finished with his sentence and now a U.S. soldier, comes into the squad room to ask the cops who sent him up if he can borrow a few bucks until next payday. They give him the dough, only to find out that Hoffman is AWOL and on a new crime spree. Friday and Romero bite their lips and head out to track the guy down once and for all.
Don't believe all that stuff that "Dragnet" today plays as a campy show. Webb was an innovative radio producer-personality who set new realism trends in portraying real-life L.A. cops. Both episodes are enthralling to listen to.
Other cassettes in my car, waiting to be heard, carry sequential episodes of "The Adventures of Sam Spade," "The Whistler" and "Gunsmoke." All favorites of mine.
Oh yeah, there's that third "Dragnet" show, dated 12/21/50. It's a classic which I've heard before. It's called "A .22 for Christmas," and it's the true story of how a youth accidentally shoots and kills his best friend with a new rifle his dad just gave him for the holidays. It chokes me up every time I hear it. Like I said, Webb was one hell of a producer, who fully understood drama and how it could heighten the medium of "the theater of the mind." Nothing finer than old-time radio.
I grew up on old-time radio so I'm always going back to hear the stuff I missed. I've amassed quite a collection now and so each time I head out in my car I'm listening to these "adventures in sound." Sometimes, because of my interest in dramatic radio, people will send me new material on audiocassette, thinking I'm going to groove on it. Usually it's a celebrity narrating a novel or non-fiction book, but rarely do these one-voice readings interest me much. I totally prefer the old-fashioned mix of voices, music and sound effects.
That's why I wasn't too impressed when someone sent me a new CD entitled "Little Evil Things 4." Another anthology of famous stories read by a modern horror icon, I thought, beefed up with the cover tagline "Bite Size Tales of Terror to Chill Your Bones!" But then I stopped when I read something else on the cover, a quote from Frank Darabont, the director of two of my favorite Stephen King movie adaptations, "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile." Darabond boldly proclaims: "The audio version of classic horror stories!"
The 'Little Evil Things 4' CD Really Brings Back the Spirit of Radio Horror Dramas
I started reading the back of the CD and realized that this "Little Evil Things" series was the 1997 winner of Publishers' Weekly's "Listen Up Award," but what really got my curiosity was a quote from Film Score Monthly: "An enjoyable trip back to the good old days when film scores had something to contribute." I love it when movie music evokes genre. So . . .
I started listening and was swept away into a macabre, darkly disturbing world of music, voices and sound effects, all craftily blended into eerie narratives, the kind that have taken their inspiration from such old-time radio shows as "Inner Sanctum," "Lights Out" and "The Black Mass."
The original musical piece that opens the album, "Little Evil Overture," performed by the Moscow Symphony no less, knocked me off my chair, being a wham-in-your-face homage to Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, John Williams and other great composers who hold nothing back. It was composed by San Francisco-born musician Frank Macchia, who also wrote the stories with film-TV actress Tracy London. The album, in fact, sports 40 minutes of Macchia's original, evocative music.
These stories also knocked me out, written in the old-fashioned style of H. P. Lovecraft as they luridly and graphically describe the worst horrors imaginable that can befall an earthly being. Of course, they are almost always caused by unearthly beings. The style of story-telling also reminded me of Arch Oboler, the "Lights Out" writer of the 1940s who was justifiably famous for blood-chilling horror tales that were parables on the human condition. Blood, putrescence, vomit, hideous skin growths, swirling black voids and other horrors of the cosmos, all read with driving intensity and ghoulish glee by Jim McDonnell.
"Lost" is a breathless first-person narrative of a man trapped in an elevator that is dropping out of control. Drills pop through the floor and the sharpened points pinion the hysterical guy to the floor. With a great deal of anguish, he pries himself off and escapes from the elevator. The man plunges down a corridor, with "something following me, making a slithering sound." Snake-like creatures come at him, coiling around him. He escapes into a winding maze, only to catch on fire . . . there's a twist ending to this one and you realize the man, who's going through a totally different kind of experience than you thought, is getting what he deserves. Ah, revenge is so sweet--and ghastly. Macchia's music heightens the tension and suspense throughout this piece, which is really the best of the lot.
"Hazardous to Your Health" depicts the underworld character Jiltin' Joe Botalago, a cold-blooded murderer roasting on a hot summer day in 1942. With a nasty squint in his already beady eyes, Jiltin' Joe goes into a curio shop to face proprietor I. M. Deville for not paying him protection money before opening. Trinkets from all over the world . . . old junk to Botalago, who's only thinking the first lesson of the retail world: You wanna dance, you gotta pay the piper. Deville gives Joe an ornate gold cigarette lighter. Make a wish and light the lighter, and your wish'll come true. Joe's wish is for the old man to disappear. The next day, Deville and his merchandise have vanished--right off the face of the earth. Doubting Joe finally learns the hard way that the lighter is really endowed with magic. Make that devilish properties, since we're dealing with I.M. Deville. More good eerie Macchia music backs up this graphically written underworld tale.
"Infection" is the story of John Woodman, a drab 43-year-old computer worker who's allowed his body to get flabby. He finds a "dot" on his arm and tries to scrub it away, but it won't go away. Growing to the size of a mole, the growth starts to worry John. A doctor finds a small hole in John's arms and probes it, John feeling nothing, the doctor finding no tissue in the hole. Just black emptiness. Impossible. Unimaginative John ignores the doctor's incredulity as the hole grows in size. Back to the doctors as John turns into a guinea pig nobody can help or understand. He's making medical history, baffling everyone who studies him. The black hole spreads from his arm to his shoulder. He gets weaker. Gamma rays are fired into the hole. Chemicals follow. John's condition worsens, the black hole gets bigger. How about an atomic device to implode the hole? Great idea, let's do it. Who the hell cares about the computer nerd who let himself get so flabby. The black void spreads from the body to the hospital bed, and . . . well, this bizarre, black-comedy science-fiction tale reminded me of Oboler's "Chicken Heart" story, a legendary classic of old-time radio.
"In Your Head" describes Jerry's discovery of gray hairs at 42. No matter how many hairs he gets rid of, more grow back in their place. His pupils become dilated. A brainscan reveals that dozens of thin strands of hair have drilled through his skull and engulfed his brain. Strands emerge from his nose and burrow into the doctor's eye sockets and . . . it only gets worse after that.
"The Violin's Curse" is "an ancient tale" that totally reminded me of Alonzo Deane Cole's old-radio classic "The Witch's Tale," a 1930s series that also inspired the comic book "Haunt of Fear," hosted by "The Old Witch." Out of that came the companion magazines "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror."
"The Violin's Curse," which is Alonzo Deane Cole down to the wire, is set in a small village in Russia. Boris is an ambitious dreamer nobody in the village takes seriously who meets a beautiful readhead named Esmeralda in a music shop. She's a seductive gypsy woman whose father assigns Boris to recover a lost three-centuries-old violin. Return with the violin and you can have Esmeralda as your wife. Stealing the violin, the misguided, unsuspecting Boris returns to the gypsies and Esmeraldo to discover a horrifying truth about them.
Production values are high throughout all the stories. And the background music is constant and memorable. Macchia, by the way, has orchestrated several horror films ("Halloween: H20," "The Relic," "Snow White: A Tale of Terror") and composed the scores for "Ed the Alien," "Cold Case" and "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders." You can get all four "Little Evil Things" albums by visiting website www.littleevilthings.com or writing to 1801 North Lima Street, Burbank CA 91505. Me, I'm plannin' to get the first three as quickly as I can, evil little thing that I am . . .
Another recent CD release that touched by enthusiasm for "adventures in sound" is "The Adventures of Superman," released by Varese Sarabande, a company famous for its movie soundtrack specials. While the music tracks (and cue identifications) have been taken from episodes of the George Reeves TV series that ran in TV syndication from 1952-57, there is a fascinating bit of behind-the-scenes history that is really the story of background music for early TV series, an obscure subject just now coming out of the shadows of media history.
The new 'Adventures of Superman' CD contains music cribbed from late 1940s 'poverty row' movie scores
Music used in the Superman TV tracks was actually part of a syndicated package of soundtracks that were also used in "Racket Squad," "Boston Blackie," "Sky King," "Captain Midnight," "Space Patrol," "Ramar of the Jungle" and many, many others. I grew up watching many of these half-hour shows and became aware that the same music pieces were being used over and over, and actually felt a connection to the shows whenever I heard these recurring motifs. (It's amazing what a teenage boy will notice when he has nothing better to do than watch quickie TV shows.)
I was immediately aware that these were extraordinarily good for TV, being full-bodied and fully orchestrated. Suspense, action, menace . . . it helped to bring a greater sense of value to these low-budget productions. You can imagine my surprise to discover an album highlighting my favorite TV music of the 1950s. (I was walking down upper Market Street, passing a hole-in-the-wall music shop, when I caught the title in a window display. I went in and bought the album without question.)
That background story I alluded to began in 1950 when the American Federation of Musicians had passed an edict that no canned music for television shows could be recorded in America. This forced David Chudnow, a music packager, to go overseas to record his syndicated pieces, which he had lifted out of B movies made by Monogram, PRC and Eagle-Lion Studios, roughly between 1946-1949. Chudnow, who had permission from the original composers, re-recorded the newly orchestrated pieces in Paris, with George Tzipine as his conductor. (Tzipine was music director for Gaumont Newsreel Co. in France)
Chudnow now called his new company Mutel (Music for Television) and concealed the identities of the original B-movie composers with foreign aliases, to further throw all the American music unions off the track. As deals in the U.S. were consummated for the new "canned music," Chudnow then secretly funneled residual money back to the Hollywood composers, who eagerly went along with the scheme.
For example, the cue "The Slap," a thrilling suspense piece that often occupied scenes of heroes or villains sneaking around a deserted warehouse or dock front, actually came from the 1948 "Open Secret," a film about anti-Semitism starring John Ireland. The music, which adorned numerous "Superman" episodes, was from the first score ever written by Herschel Burke Gilbert, who went on to become an expert of genre music, notably "Riot in Cell Block 11" and "Return of Jack Slade," which featured a robust use of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"-- an orchestration that was repeated in the TV series "The Gray Ghost."
Another Gilbert score was used by Chudnow--the 1948 Eagle-Lion film "Shamrock Hill," a fairy tale musical starring Peggy Ryan and Tim Ryan. The cue, "Smallville Pastoral," was used to establish rural settings or flashbacks to Superman's growing-up days.
Other cues lifted from "Open Secret" are "Quiet Tension" (used in "Superman" to depict a cat burglar rifling Clark Kent's secret closet) and "Delirium" (which accompanied the visual of Madame Selena's "ghastly exhibits" in her wax museum).
Another composer who had participated in Chudnow's scheme was Rudy Schrager, who had scored "The Guilty," a 1947 film noir with Regis Toomey and Bonita Granville that depicted the murder of the wrong twin sister. "Nightmare" is an eerie, "Twilight Zone"-like piece that worked well with psychologically disturbed characters or scenes in which half-drugged people awoke in strange places. It builds to an intense conclusion. "He Was a Good Father" is a low-key, moody piece suitable for romantic moments or mild plot twists.
A mystery remains about the tracks "Brawl," "The Skeleton," "Last Reel Fight," "Creeping Misterioso," "Murder Will Out" and "Spectral Thumps." These were rapid-fire chases or sinister lurking pieces that came from a documentary about American Indians, but the composer's name remains lost. However, it is suspected that the man who orchestrated the documentary, Jack Shaindlin, may have been the composer too. Shaindlin was mainly a musical director who scored a handful of Hollywood films, and composed only one, "Mickey One."
And finally there is "The Superman Theme," which is accredited to one Leon Klatzkin. However, Klatzkin was not a composer but a Mutel employee, a film cutter who helped fim editors select appropriate tracks for their pictures. It is believed that Shaindlin perhaps wrote the piece, but for personal reasons wanted to remain anonymous.
Whatever the truth of its main theme, and that exciting moment in our lives of "Truth, Justice and the American Way," there is no doubt that "The Adventures of Superman" reflects an important albeit esoteric piece of musical history that one critic called "video noir." Exciting stuff . . an adventure in sound.
© 2000 by John Stanley.
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