Monday, December 19, 2011

"Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash..."

If you recognize the source of the title of this entry, you are, as they say, “of a certain age.” It was Jimmy Durante’s traditional sign-off line, and I can still see him, at the end of his TV show, walking from one sharp white spotlight circle to another, singing “Good Night, Good Night, Good Night...”

And if you have to ask who Jimmy Durante was, you have been deprived of a wealth of a whole generation (and more) of marvelous, talented performers, and the wonders of the golden days of radio—which was every bit as integral a part of our culture as TV is today, plus having the incalculably priceless (which is probably redundant) advantage of requiring a degree of imagination no longer demanded or expected.

Fibber McGee and Molly (“‘Tain’t funny, McGee”)…Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever to win an academy award (for Gone with the Wind), played Beulah, Fibber and Molly’s maid; Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks), Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope (for whom I never really cared, though to admit it during the heyday of radio was almost sacrilege), Amos and Andy, Our Miss Brooks (with the inimitable Eve Arden), The Life of Riley (with William Bendix...remember him?), George Burns and Gracie Allen (“Say goodnight, Gracie”), Henry Aldrich (“Hen-RY! Henry Aldrich!” “Coming, Mother”...though I sadly cannot recall who played Henry). And there are an infinite number of fascinating stories behind each of these shows and each of these people.

And the great “story” shows in what is now called “prime time”: Grand Central Station (“Dive with a roar into the two-and-a-half mile tunnel that burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then…Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million private lives; a gigantic stage on which are played a million dramas daily!” Lux Radio Theater, Inner Sanctum (sound of a creaking door, with voiceover saying “Welcome to…the Inner Sanctum”), The Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows...” followed by spooky laughter).

And those were just the evening shows. During the day there was Stella Dallas, Our Gal Sunday (“The story that asks the question: can a girl from a small town in Colorado find happiness married to one of England’s handsomest, most famous lords...Lord Henry Brinthrop”), Just Plain Bill (which switched suddenly from a folksy comedy to heavy melodrama).

The precursors of today’s game shows began coming along toward the end of radio’s golden days: The $64 Question (yes...sixty-four dollars! That was the top prize, and people got just as excited over the prospect of winning as they do now over suitcases of cash.), Queen for a Day (the first of the sob-story ‘reality’ shows, wherein some poor lady with ten kids might hope to win a washing machine).

And for kids, in the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slots, there was Captain Midnight (pronounced dramatically as “CAP-tan MID-night!”), Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy and a host of others.

The entire nation was as transfixed by these shows and the actors on them as people today are with television, though again because you could not see what was going on, it all played out vividly in the listener’s mind. All the bulk of television requires is the use of your eyes. No creating of scenes and faces and actions. The words coming through the radio opened the windows of your mind.

Simpler times. More naive times. Times offset by devastating diseases which no longer exist, and by prejudices and bigotry no longer tolerated. But on looking back, one tends to see only the familiar, and feel only the comfort of friends, family, and an entire world now gone.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).

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