By Steve Atlas
Like most of you, I am a lover of Old Time Radio (OTR). I want to thank OTRCAT for making these collections available at such an affordable price. In one year, I have built a collection of over 100 Instant Download MP3s.
My problem is there are so many OTR programs that even if I buy a collection, I am not sure which individual programs I would enjoy most. What collections are good choices if you can only pick a few? Do any of you have similar dilemmas?
Then this article is for you. Here, I recommend some of my favorite OTR collections, and a few of my favorite programs, as well as tips and suggestions from other OTR fans. I hope you too will share some of your favorites with other OTR listeners.
Al Anderson recommends the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show. "One show that might be off the radar that I recommend is The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. If you like Phil on the Jack Benny Program (the ultimate in Old Time Radio comedy) you will especially enjoy an extra dose of Phil on his own show, supported by two great Radio actors, Elliot Lewis (as Frank Remley, later revealed to be just a stage name--his true name turns out to be…Elliot Lewis!), and Walter Tetley as bombastic grocery delivery boy Julius Abruzzio. Alice can't quite match these three as radio performers, but each episode typically has both her and Phil singing (sometimes just one of them) and she is a great singer. Highly recommended"
Al advises you to start with Volume 2 in the OTRCAT MP3 series. "The reason you might want to start with Volume 2 is that if you start with later episodes you might have a hard time catching all the running gags. For example, in classic episodes Phil gets into some big trouble and goes to his friend Frankie for help, and Frankie will say he can help because "I know a guy." The audience will always laugh, because they know Frankie's "guy" is sure to be a sleazeball who will make the problem worse. Then the bombastic grocery boy Julius (who loves Alice but can't stand Phil and Frankie) will somehow get involved to make the problem even worse. Alice is a very long-suffering wife. If you just want to sample an episode, I think any one or two chosen at random from the 1948-1953 seasons will give you a good taste."
One of my favorite Phil Harris/Alice Faye episodes is the tender and moving Annual Christmas program in which the children are waiting for the "Real" Santa Claus. You will probably want to hear this gem every year.
Do you enjoy comedies about school?
Our Miss Brooks is a great choice. The characters of Miss Brooks (Eve Arden) who is a high school English teacher, her romantic crush—biology teacher Philip Boynton (Jeff Chandler until 1951 and Robert Rockwell from 1951 on), principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon) are delightful to hear. If you are a fan of The Real McCoys, enjoy Richard Crenna (star of that show) as high school student Walter Denton with a whiny voice. I love the first show which introduces the lead characters and sets the stage for future episodes. Another of my favorites is "Baseball Game" (March 26, 1950) which vividly shows how bureaucracy and simple idiocy gets in the way of attending a school baseball game.
I am also a baseball fan (I confess that my interest decreased a lot when the Dodgers and Giants moved from New York City to California in 1957). If you share my interest in school, comedy, and baseball, consider the Baseball in Old Time Radio collection. There are a lot of gems here . Three of my favorites are:
Our Miss Brooks "Baseball Game" episode I just recommended in the last paragraph:
and my special favorite: Screen Director's Playhouse production of "It Happens Every Spring:"
Do any of you remember Fred McMurray in The Absent-Minded Professor film in which the professor invents a chemical called "Flubber" which allows people to fly—and eventually enables his college to win an important sports game? The OTR equivalent is "It Happens Every Spring," in which Ray Milland plays a college professor who invents a new chemical that allows him to strike out any batter to whom he pitches. (If you are like me, you will want to see the complete movie after hearing this half hour production.) Unfortunately for him, nobody believes that he can win baseball games with his discovery. (Well, would YOU believe someone who said that?)
If you are a sports lover, I recommend: All American Sports Show, and Bill Stern Sports Reel. I was thrilled to hear the story of famed boxer Rocky Marciano on All American Sports Show. (Before buying that series, listen to this episode also available on OTR Sampler 11.)
Bill Stern Sports Reel is one of my favorite OTR programs. Each 15-minute program includes at least one legend or true story about a famous or not-so-famous athlete, short interviews with stars, and commercials for Colgate brushless shaving cream. His fantastic yarns, dramatic pauses, and guest interviews make this my favorite sports news show. Hear the show spotlighting Red Grange on OTR Sampler 3: Track 11. If you are ordering this from OTRCat.com, start with Volume 1 and follow up with Volume 2. (Volume 3 is recommended only for strong Bill Stern fans.)
Science Fiction and Lawyer Dramas
Dimension X was followed by the better-known X minus One. It only lasted for one and a half seasons with 50 programs, but the quality of its programs make it a great introduction to sci-fi. Its writers include great authors such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Issac Asimov. At just $5 for one MP3, this would be a great first choice for OTR science fiction fans. Three of my favorites include:
"The Roads Must Roll" a vivid exploration of how technology affects us.
"Mars is Heaven"—a scary description of what could happen when people find and try to explore other planets (the ending still scares me today), and
"Courtesy"—a vivid description showing that the way we treat others can be a life-saver, or life-terminator for us. "Courtesy" has a valuable lesson for all of us today.
I first heard Defense Attorney on my favorite OTR radio program: The Big Broadcast Host Murray Horowitz gives great commentary and plays a wealth of programs. It has become one of my favorite defense lawyer programs with its star being attorney Martha Ellis Bryant (played by Mercedes MacCambridge) and her love interest reporter Jud Barnes (played by Chandu the Magician announcer Howard Culver). This hard-hitting drama with a feminine touch reminds me of Jimmy Stewart's movie Call Northside 777 with its unfolding of what really happened and why the suspect (who Ms. Bryant defends) is not guilty. For the cost of one MP3 ($5), this is a series I highly recommend.
Burl Ives—songs by the legendary folk singer. Many of you may remember The Blue Tail Fly, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, Lavender Blue, and many other traditional folk songs that Ives brought to life so vividly. (My wife and I were privileged to see Burl Ives live at the Library of Congress.) My advice: listen to the episodes of The Burl Ives Show (tracks 10-16), and an interview about his book The Wayfaring Stranger, still available from Amazon (track 2). This gets my highest recommendation for any lover of traditional folk songs.
Do you remember The Bell Telephone Hour? That half hour radio program (later transferred to television) spotlighted great classical singers and instrumentalists such as Fritz Kreisler, Eileen Farrell, John Charles Thomas, and Joseph Hoffman. With its tasteful low-key approach, Telephone Hour (Music from America) and Bell Telephone Encores offer a series of delightful 30 minute mini-concerts. I would suggest starting with the 2 MP3 set: Bell Telephone Encores. The series' conductor Donald Vorhees recalls many of the great stars who appeared on the program and selects some of their outstanding performances from The Bell Telephone Hour. Here are some of my favorites:
From Volume 1: Track 1—Jose Iturbi (includes a live interview), Track 9—John Charles Thomas, Track 10—Lily Pons (includes a live interview), Track 15—Mildred Miller with a great selection of Christmas carols and highlights from Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel, Track 19—Fritz Kreisler (includes live interview), Track 22—Fred Allen reads Peter and the Wolf, and Track 26-Josef Hoffman.
For me, Volume 2's outstanding program is Track 23: Martha Scott in a special one-hour show: An Old-Fashioned Christmas. Every year, my wife and I enjoy listening to this unique (and probably not completely realistic) re-creation of Christmas as it used to be.
What are your favorite Old Time Radio programs?
Do you have a few favorite episodes that you would enjoy sharing with other OTR listeners? If you would like to include some of your favorites and why you like them in "Tips from a Fellow OTR" fan, leave a comment below.