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History of Old Time Radio Serials


The earliest popular serialized Story is thought to be The Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. It is easy to imagine that the story form had been around for centuries before Scheherazade came up with the idea of using cliffhangers, embedded narrative, foreshadowing, story arcs and bawdy humor to keep King Shahryar from strangling her in the morning.

Charles Dickens at Table

It seems likely that cavemen listening to the "Old One" around the campfire used similar techniques, and probably for similar motives. The little band of hunters would be more likely to share their small portion of mastodon jerky with the Old One if they wanted to hear the end of "Ogg Meets The Sabertoothed Tiger."

By the time that 1001 Nights was translated into European Languages, the development of movable type publishing had made serialized literature a significant money maker for publishers. As literacy rates in the middle classes rose during the Victorian Age, most popular novels originally appeared in serial form in magazine format. Charles Dickens had notable success with magazine serials, including The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol.

Of decidedly lower literary weight, Movie Serials are a more direct ancestor of Radio Serials. The Movie Serials may not have been high-cinematic art, but they served their commercial purpose. This was to give moviegoers another reason to make a visit to the movie house every week.

Interesting and sympathetic protagonists and villains that audiences love to hate are only a small part of a successful serial. Or a serial to sell, it needs to make the audience want to return for the next installment. This was Scheherazade's key to keeping her head. There are instances of the hero of a Victorian magazine serial literally hanging on for his life while dangling from a cliff at the end of an installment.

Hummert Radio FactoryThe term "Cliffhanger" was brought into popular usage by the producers of early silent film serials. The Perils of Pauline (1914, General Film Company) was a twenty-episode serial filmed at facilities in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. The series' bad guy, who was intent upon stealing Pauline's inheritance, came up with ever more elaborate method of eliminating the heroine, including trapping her on a sinking ship, in a burning house, or dangling from one of the clifs surrounding the Ft. Lee studios.

The Hummert Radio Factory is best remembered for their Soap Operas, but they had success in other radio endeavors, including Children's Serials like Little Orphan Annie and Chandu The Magician. The formula that the Hummerts applied to get their mother's interested in cleaning products worked just as well in interesting kids in products directed at them; often breakfast cereal or snack products.

Interesting exceptions to the 'Kid Shows advertising Kid Products' concept were The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen and its eventual replacement, Captain Midnight, both sponsored by Skelly Oil. The popularity of Jimmie Allen and aviation in general during the 1930s helped the show 's success. Young listeners were encouraged to become part of The Jimmie Allen Flying Club. The only way to join was to get Dad to stop at a Skelly Oil Service Station. Other exciting Aviation Adventure Serials include Hop Harrigan, Anne of the Airlines, Speed Gibson, and Terry and the Pirates.

Capt MidnightMost of the Network Kids Serials became associated with their sponsors, and their prize give-away premiums. Not all Kids Serials had national sponsorship; syndicators produced some of the best loved serials, with sound cues for local sponsors to insert their message. Usually these were "Closed Serials" where the entire series contained a single story with a beginning, middle, and end. This is in contrast to the Open Serial format preferred in the Soaps. In an Open Serial, the characters and plot continues from episode to episode, but as one story arc winds down, the characters become involved with another. Characters from earlier story arcs also have a way of turning up in later episodes.

Many of the long running Syndicated Serials were packaged so that local sponsors could purchase the shows in smaller, more affordable sets. An example of this is the 130 episode long Magic Island. In order for listeners who may have missed an episode or two to keep up, it was necessary for the first few minutes of each episode to be dedicated to reviewing. By the time a show was nearing the end of its run, the review could eat up a significant portion of the exposition.

Little Orphan AnnieOther notable syndicated Kid's Serials include Jerry of the Circus and its sequel serial, Jerry of Fair Oaks, and Cruise of the Poll Parrot. Holiday based shows for kids seem to have been tremendously successful in the lead up to the Christmas Holidays, and include Jump Jump and the Ice Queen, Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas On The Moon, and the much loved Cinnamon Bear.

There are a number of marvelous advantages to enjoying Radio Serials in the age of MP3s. The most obvious is that you are able to enjoy the episodes any time you like, instead of rushing home from school before Little Orphan Annie comes on the air. Listening to find out whether Old Doctor Jim is able to cure his patient makes the daily commute go that much faster.

Many serials have a 12-15 minute format, so they are easy to fit into holes in your busy schedule. You can even listen to several episodes of a Serial in one sitting. We recommend you avoid listening to an entire series at one time, OTRCat's Serial collection is fun and should be savored.

Show Title Dates Program Type Show Premise
Abroad with the Lockharts 1932 Couple/Travel Serial A slightly jaded couple board an ocean liner for London and Paris.
Adventures by Morse 1944-
1945
Adventure Drama Carlton J. Morse steps away from family comedies with a series of extended Adventure Stories.
The Adventures of Champion 1949 Juvenile Western Adventure Gene Autry's horse, Champion, "King of the Wild Horses" stars in this exciting program with his young friend, Ricky West.
Afloat with Henry Morgan 1932 Seagoing Pirate Adventure The adventurous stories of 17th century English seaman Henry Morgan and his adventures against the Spanish in the Caribbean.
The Air Adventures Jimmie Allen 1933-
1947
Aviation Adventure for Kids Jimmie Allen and his pals fly around the globe, finding adventure and foiling bad guys.
The Air Mail Mystery (1932 Serial) 1932 Aviation Adventure for Kids Sending letters and packages by airplane was still a new and exotic idea in 1932 with danger at every turn.
Batman's Appearances in Old Time Radio 1945-
1950
Comic Book Hero Although the Caped Crusader never had his own Radio Program, he appeared in several story arcs on The Adventures of Superman.
Big John and Sparky (Big Jon and Sparkie): No School Today 1950-
1958
Kiddie Program Jon Arthur's pal Sparkie sounds as though he could be a Real Boy.
Black Flame of the Amazon 1938 Jungle Adventure A pair of American kids, their pilot, and their native guide face wild animals and gun totting rebels in the South American jungle.
Buck Rogers 1932-
1947
Sci Fi Fantasy for Kids Blast Off to the 25th Century with, Buck, Wilma, and Dr. Huer to defend against space-faring evil-doers.
Captain Midnight 1939-
1949
Aviation Adventure for Kids Skelley Oil's follow up to the Air Adventures of Jimmy Allen, international bad guys have good reason to fear leader of the Secret Squadron, Captain Midnight.
Challenge of the Yukon' also known as 'Sgt Preston of the Yukon' 1938-
1955
Juvenile Western Adventure Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounties and his canine companion, King defend the downtrodden and foil bad guys in and around the Yukon Gold country.
Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon 1938 Holiday Serial Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, Jonathon Thomas and his friends manage to rescue Santa Claus and save Christmas.
Cinnamon Bear 1930s Holiday Serial Paddy O'Cinnamon leads a brother and sister in their adventures in Maybeland to save the Most Special Day of the Year every afternoon between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
The Cisco Kid 1942-
1958
Juvenile Western Adventure As 'The Mexican Robin Hood', The Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho (played by Mel Blanc) ride through the Southwest, righting wrongs and defending the downtrodden.
The Clutching Hand 1936 Crime Fighting Serial Professor Craig Kennedy was the creation of Arthur Reeve who made the ingenious Dr. K as the American Sherlock Holmes who used all the latest scientific means to catch crooks.
Dan Dunn, Secret Operative #48 1937 Crime Fighting Serial The Secret Operative is in the business of foiling the nogoodniks who spy on the Defense Industry.
Dick Cole 1942 School Boy Serial Even more of an All-American Boy than Jack Armstrong, Military Academy Cadet Dick Cole plays hard on the gridiron and still has time to foil bad guys.
Dick Tracy 1934-
1948
Crime Fighting Serial The cliff-hangers at the end of the episodes kept the kids coming back each afternoon to see what happens to Dick Gould's famous detective, Dick Tracy
Flash Gordon 1935 Sci Fi Fantasy for Kids All-American Athlete Flash Gordon travels to the future to foil the evil plots of Ming the Merciless.
Frankenstein in Old Time Radio Horror This collection includes the Universal Horror Film monster as well as a serialized version of Mary Shelley's novel.
The Shadow of Fu Manchu 1939-
1940
Crime Fighting Serial Colonial Commissioner Denis Nayland Smith trots the globe in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu.
Gasoline Alley 1941-
1949
Situation Comedy Serial Walt Wallet get to watch Skeezix grow up in Gasoline Alley.
The Green Valley Line 1934 Soap Opera A small, backcountry rail line unites the communities it serves.
Hop Harrigan 1942-
1948
Aviation Adventure for Kids "America's Ace of the Airwaves" learns about flying and serving his country along with his pals.
I Love a Mystery (ILAM) 1939-
1953
Crime Fighting Serial Jack, Doc, and Reggie travel the world combatting evil nogoodniks for the A-1 Detective Agency.
I Love Adventure 1948 Crime Fighting Serial Jack, Doc, and Reggie from ILAM are back together to fight more evildoers.
Jerry at Fair Oaks 1938 School Boy Serial After growing up in the Circus, stout-hearted Jerry enters Fair Oaks Military Academy.
Jerry of the Circus 1937 School Boy Serial The circus is not the most wholesome place to grow up, but orphan Jerry Dugan manages to find a home under the big top.
Jump Jump and the Ice Queen 1947 Holiday Serial The evil Ice Queen has kidnapped Santa's reindeer, but between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, the brave elf Jump Jump will do his best to save the day.
Jungle Jim 1935-
1954
Jungle Adventure Big game hunter Jungle Jim Bradley finds and foils all sorts of nogoodniks in darkest Africa along with his worldly girlfriend, Shanghai Lil.
True Adventures of the Junior G-Men 1936 Crime Fighting Serial Created with real FBI Agent Melvin Purvis to steer youngsters away from crime with a series of multi-episode stories.
Leatherstocking Tales 1932 Literary Adaptation Serial Based on the writings of James Fenimore Cooper whose stories take place among the Indians and early settlers in North America.
Les Miserables 1937 Literary Adaptation Serial Orson Welles adapted Victor Hugo's epic novel of the French Revolution into a seven-part radio serial.
Little Orphan Annie 1930-
1942
Kiddie Program Curly-topped Annie showed up evert day to settle yesterday's cliffhanger and remind everyone to drink their Ovaltine.
The Lone Ranger 1933-
1954
Juvenile Western Adventure Closer to being a costumed superhero, The Lone Ranger dispenses justice on the Western Frontier while maintaining the highest standards of truth and justice.
Magic Island 1936 Sci Fi Fantasy for Kids Wealthy Mrs. Gregory boards her yacht to the South Pacific to find her missing daughter and discovers the lair of a mad scientist.
Mama Bloom's Brood 1934 Situation Comedy Serial Mama Bloom joins her family on a cross-country car trip in 1934 with comic results that go beyond the Yiddish community.
The Man in the Iron Mask 1930s Literary Adaptation Serial Did you know that the novel by Alexandre dumas was baed on an actual unknown prisoner in France whose face was never seen?
Mandrake the Magician 1940-
1942
Crime Fighting Serial Mandrake uses his Superhero-like powers to foil Nazis, Facixtx, and other assorted baddies.
Moon Over Africa 1935-
1938
Jungle Adventure Professor Anton Edwards finds adventure while searching for the lost city of Atlantis.
Nemesis Inc. 1938 Crime Fighting Serial Pretty girls and a touch of the supernatural! We find all this and more in the office of Nemesis Inc., a private investigation service on the twenty-first floor of a modern building on Chicago's Loop.
Omar Wizard Persia 1931 Supernatural Serial The Mysterious Near East, stolen exotic gems, and more than a little Bazaar Magicianship are the basis of this rare but intriguing serial.
Orbiter X 1959 Sci Fi Fantasy for Kids A science-fiction serial based on the work of NASA pioneer Werner von Braun about a future space station above the Earth.
Perry Mason Radio Show 1945-
1953
Crime Fighting Serial The Radio version of Perry Mason is truer to Erle Stanley Gardner's original vision, making him grittier and more violent than the TV character.
Red Horse Ranch B-Western Serial The plots on this Western Serial seem as contrived as a B-Grade movie, but the characters and music are worth the listen.
Sonny and Buddy 1935-
1936
Kiddie Program A pair of good boys who sometimes find trouble with their hijinks as they romp through the kiddie-world of the 1930s.
Speed Gibson 1937-
1938
Aviation Adventure for Kids After learning to fly and joining the International Secret Police, Speed Gibson becomes a major thorn in the side of the major crook, the Octopus.
The Adventures of Superman 1940-
1951
Crime Fighting Serial From 1939 right up into the atomic 1950's, Superman was on call in Metropolis. He fought the good fight through WWII, facing Nazi spies and Japan-based spies and saboteurs, he uncovered run-of-the-lab evil-genius types with their latest beta-tests, he faced beings from other planets both humanoid and robotic as well as the common criminal and the Klu Klux Klan.
Tarzan Radio Show 1932-1936,
1951-
1952
Jungle Adventure Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs helped to bring his famous King of the Jungle character to the Radio.
Tennessee Jed 1945-
1947
Juvenile Western Adventure Sharpshooter Tennessee Jed went to work directly for the Whitehouse to foil evildoers one the Western Frontier.
Terry and the Pirates 1937- Aviation Adventure for Kids Milt Caniff's comic strip and the radio show it inspired follows young flier Terry around the world foiling bad guys before and during the War.
Tom Mix Ralston and Straight Shooters Club 1939-
1949
Juvenile Western Adventure Inspired by the life of a real Hollywood Cowboy, the Straight Shooter Club blended Frontier lessons in living with cereal company promotions.
The Tottering Van Teeters 1935 Situation Comedy Serial A very tongue-in-cheek look at the Rich from the perspective of The Great Depression.
The Adventures of Uncle Jimmy 1940s Dramatic Serial The wisdom that Uncle Jimmy has gained over the years put him in a terrific position to help guide his family.

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