Although the world may not have realized it at the time, the world got a lot smaller on Mar 10, 1876. On that day, Alexander Graham Bell spoke the words “Watson come here! I want to see you!” into his invention, the telephone.
Phone lines and the voices that they carry bring people together from incredible distances. Yes, the dot-and-dash telegraph spanned the continent years before, but that did not carry the intimacy or immediacy of an actual human voice. What is even more significant is that the technology developed to make the telephone system dependable and universal was also the basis for the electronics revolution we take for granted today, including radio, TV, Cable TV, computers and the Internet. OTR fans should know that the very first “broadcast dramas” came into Paris homes in the 1890s over a device called the Theatrophone, basically a telephone line connecting the parlor to the local playhouse.
Although the voice on the line may be from a stranger trying to sell you something, or it could be the welcome voice of a lost loved one. However, there is always the possibility that the disembodied voice could be full of menace. This is a common device on Horror programs. One of the all time great radio plays is “Sorry, Wrong Number”. Agnes Moorehead shares her fright like no one else can in a story that could only take place with the old-fashioned party line telephones. On Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Raymond shares the tale of a disembodied voice calls a young woman and tells her that she will be dead within four hours.
On television's police procedural dramas, audiences cannot help but marvel at the way the cops are able to take advantage of the latest in cellular phone and GPS technology to get the bad guys. During the Golden Age of Radio, things were more difficult. Kids today may never never seen a phone booth, let alone understand how it could be used in police work. Sgt Joe Friday on Dragnet did have a radio in his car, but he also had to call into the station several times during each episode. Sometimes a crime is committed over the phone, like the night that Detective Danny Clover on Broadway is My Beat gets a call from a woman who is afraid that her husband will kill her, then hears him commit the foul deed and then takes his own life.
There is no reason to think that the telephone is always an instrument of bad news and despair. In the right hands, it can be a lot of fun. Jack Benny and the gang have their own version of “Sorry, Wrong Number”, not to mention his regularly featured switchboard operators. Back to the law enforcement angle, when Jack lands in jail, his only hope is his one phone call, if only Jack will part with the dime!
Our man at 79 Wistful Vista may have said best when he proclaimed “I'm paying the use of that telephone, it ain't paying for me!” The phone was one of Fibber's favorite running gags when we got to hear one side of the conversation that began “Hello? Oh, it's you Mert...” Talking to the operator is a foreign concept in the day of speed dialers and cell phones, but she was pretty important to The Great Gildersleeve when he was expecting an important call after he was replaced as the water commissioner. Actually, there would have been no problem if The Great Man had not torn the wire from the wall in frustration over all the water commissioner calls he was receiving.
The telephone collection includes old time radio shows from all genres that will be sure to ring a bell.